The Coen brothers’ iconic thriller Fargo is a good antidote to Minnesota winter at its direst: The cold and snow may suck, but at least your down coat is free of bullet holes, and you’re not using your ice scraper to mark buried ransom money (for now). Local ensemble Sandbox Theatre is paying tribute to the film and staving off seasonal boredom by bringing Fargo to the stage at the Bryant-Lake Bowl for a four-week run that starts tonight. Project lead and Sandbox ensemble member Matthew Glover spoke to The A.V. Club about the show’s “variations on a theme,” the “you betcha” dialogue, and what the Coens would think.
The A.V. Club: Whose idea was it to do Fargo, and why that movie?
Matthew Glover: We were just having a brainstorm session that was very informal. We wanted to do something that would be recognizable to Minnesotans, and maybe having a little goof at winter. It’s a very cold time right now, so we thought about playing off of that. It had to be something that was well-known, that people had seen and were really familiar with. Years ago, someone did a stage show of Point Break. You know, everybody’s seen Point Break, but you couldn’t do The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. But Fargo is just the backbone of the inspiration. It’s not necessarily an adaptation of the film. It’s variations on a theme.
AVC: What was the process of bringing the film to the stage?
MG: Sandbox, in our normal process, doesn’t work with scripted works. We start with ideas and themes, then we build through the ensemble. Everyone in the cast—and the director and the assistant director and the stage manager—everybody has responsibilities where at any time they could be responsible for building scenes, creating scenes. It’s extremely collaborative.
There are four stage segments that we’re creating independently. I don’t know exactly what the others are doing. We each have our own casts. We’re each telling our own part of the story. We thought about just segmenting the film, but if anyone wanted to do that, they should just watch the movie—it’s brilliant. Peter Heeringa’s piece is all on film, and he’s producing it in Colorado. Ryan Hill, our artistic director, and Derek Miller both have segments that are combined live performance and film. Mine is the only one that’s just live onstage. We’ll also have commercials for Fargo-inspired products in between the scenes.
AVC: Fargo is known for some pretty iconic performances, including those by Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand. Were those actors in your mind when you were casting for the show?
MG: Not really knowing what the other people were doing, we left that very open. I have a cast of people who are very talented, and they have backgrounds in improv and comedy, so they’re very quick to learn. But, for instance, the Steve Buscemi character is played by a woman. It wasn’t something we had hard and fast rules for.
AVC: As you mentioned, the Minnesota winter is a big part of the movie’s setting and atmosphere. How did you translate that to the stage?
MG: This is also a test for us in living lean. We have decided as a group not to submit for any grants this year. We are working on a razor-thin budget. For the show, we thought about just opening the black curtains at the Bryant-Lake Bowl to reveal the street, but it will be dark by the time of the show, so it would have been kind of pointless. I think it’s much more built in tone and stagings. We have four very different pieces that are going to be put up. We didn’t all get together to say, “This is what we’re doing.” It’s very individual, leaving it on all of us to create that aesthetic within our pieces.
AVC: I know you can’t necessarily speak for the other directors, but what one element of Fargo did you want to focus on or bring out in your segment?
MG: Mine is about the language, the dialogue. When the movie was first out, now 15 years ago, there were a lot of people locally who were turned off by it because they thought they were being made fun of. But the cartoonish dialect, the caricatures of what people from here would be like—that masks a very tragic story. There were people in the company who hadn’t seen it who thought it was a comedy, because everyone makes fun of it, but it’s really a horrible tragedy. Basically, everything that can go wrong does—there’s a mountain of dead people, and nothing good comes from it. Not much redemption. The language was this hump, this hurdle, that people didn’t want to look past.
On the other hand, before this movie, if you asked someone from Birmingham, Alabama what people in Minnesota sound like, they’d probably say, “Where’s Minnesota?” The people who have a problem with Fargo don’t have a problem with assuming that everyone in Boston sounds like Good Will Hunting. It’s a very icy two-way street with the language. Our piece is looking at how the colloquialisms can affect what is essentially a tragic tale.
Peter’s section is looking at the aftereffects on the boy, Jerry and Jean’s son. He’s kind of the forgotten one. His mother is dead, his grandfather’s dead, his father’s in jail. So it’s exploring the forgotten universe of the Lundegaard family.
Derek’s piece explores the folklore of it. The beauty of the film is that it’s “based on true events,” which it’s actually not. So he’s looking at the folklore of Fargo.
Ryan is a huge driving force in our company as far as holding true to certain aspects. His piece, without really knowing what the theme is, will no doubt be very Sandbox-y.
AVC: What do you mean by Sandbox-y?
MG: It’s the idea that aesthetic and tempo and shape are every bit as important as story—that is, they’re all cogs in the wheel that tell a story. As a mission, we’re not looking to sell tickets. We want to build something new and wholeheartedly ours. We’re a collective that wants to foster thought and art and artists. If people love it or hate it, that’s the best thing sometimes, to have that 50-50 split. Maybe not hate, but to leave at least scratching your head a little bit.
AVC: Would you want the Coen brothers to see the stage show of Fargo? How do you think they would react?
MG: I think it would be fantastic if they did. I really think they would appreciate it. From the start, we weren’t trying to retell or take something they had done and co-opt it into our theater. I think they would kind of dig on the abstraction and, I don’t know, I hope they’d be flattered. It’s not just Fargo—recently in the news, Tara Reid was talking about doing a Big Lebowski 2. They get a charge out of that goof. It’s like, “By all means, have a crack at it.” They’re so deliberate and confident in their filmmaking, but when they’re done, it’s like it belongs to the world.