Todd Melby Q&A

April 5, 2021
Todd Melby is cooperating with you here.

“My favorite prop note: Prepare ‘blood and dead look.’ I asked everyone I talked to: Did you keep the daily call sheets? Most had trashed them years ago. The line producer, John Cameron, had his tucked away on an old computer and emailed them. I am forever grateful.”

The book came from an episode you did with William H. Macy and others for your podcast “The Drunk Projectionist.” As you point out the dialects were everything. Is there any other actors you could have seen being Jerry?

I can’t think of anyone, really. That’s because Macy nailed it. He’s so good at playing insecure losers like Little Bill in Boogie Nights and Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Magnolia. He allows himself to be exposed and is ego-less in service of the character. I’m sure the Coens mulled over the choice, considering Minnesota actors like Bill Schoppert, and other actors in New York as well. In the end, watching Macy’s uptight twitching and jaw-clenching and general nervousness worked exceedingly well.

The audition tapes you share on social are amazing. You wrote about how you nagged the local casting director for them until she rifled through boxes in a barn to find them. What was that moment like when you got them in the mail?

Yes! I was incredibly happy to receive the tapes, which allowed me to describe interactions between Jane Brody, who led local casting efforts, and Minnesota actors who won roles and some who didn’t. I also got to see the truly lifeless room where many of the auditions occurred, which dovetailed nicely with William H. Macy’s description of how dehumanizing auditions can be.

You made a trip to LA to do research at UCLA and the Writers Guild Foundation. I loved reading your analysis of how the script evolved, and your description of how the brothers write, speaking in bursts to each other, which Ethan writes down. Do you think the Coens get enough credit as writers? 

The Coens don’t get enough credit. Their sentences pop and sizzle. And their screenplays are not only visual, making it easy for cast and crew to image what the movie should look like, but they also offer multiple sound cues. A telephone “jangle,” an elevator “screams into overdrive,” and Norm Gunderson in Fargo snores “like the great American buzzsaw.” Of course, actors bring characters to life, adding significant details. During his audition, John Carroll Lynch, who played Norm, hocked up a bunch of phlegm from the back of his throat while rising from  the bed. That added a nice touch of realism.

When did you decide you wanted to go deep and write a book on the film?

As a reporter with a limited word count or a documentarian with a limited amount of time to tell a story, often my job is to trim a story to its most essential elements. With a book, the writing should be crisp and deep. I wanted to see if I could expand a story, through research, to a 65,000 word book. At the beginning, I was thrilled when early drafts of chapters landed at 5,000 or 6,000 words. Then I’d think, wait, there’s more to say. Let’s add details. And yes, let’s rewrite what is already there to make it more precise or beautiful.

In the launch you brought such folks as Stephen Park (Mike Yanigata) and Larissa Kokernot (Hooker 1) back to the forefront. Did you get a sense that the Coens found these local actors for these secondary parts pretty easily?

I’d argue that these parts weren’t secondary. Fargo is really an ensemble film. Frances McDormand doesn’t even appear on screen until 33 minutes into the movie. And the local actors hired to play Hooker #1, Hooker #2, Escort, or the guy with the broom telling the cop about Steve Buscemi’s visit to the bar, add essential color to the movie’s palette. Their lines are among the most quotable because these actors were chosen to play locals and show us how locals really act.

You present so many wonderful artifacts from the film, like the hotel room reservations at the Marquette Hotel and the open audition advertisement for Scotty. Do you have a favorite item?

The daily call sheets. It may not seem like much, but these industrial-looking spreadsheets are filled with relevant details for each day’s shooting schedule, including times actors involved in each day’s shoot and when they are scheduled to be in make-up and on set. There are also little notes about props, special effect notes, extras, set location, weather, all kinds of details a writer cares about. My favorite prop note: prepare “blood and dead look.” I asked everyone I talked to: Did you keep the daily call sheets? Most had trashed them years ago. The line producer, John Cameron, had his tucked away on an old computer and emailed them. I am forever grateful.

You’ve interviewed so many great filmmakers on your podcast, from Charles Burnett to Frederick Wiseman. Could you see yourself writing another film book?

Absolutely. I just produced a radio story about the 50th anniversary of Shaft. I interviewed one of the actors from the movie and accessed an archived interview with Gordon Parks, but couldn’t connect with Richard Roundtree before my deadline. Now I’m desperately trying to get Roundtree to email me so I could turn it into a story for another outlet. The challenge with writing a book about a movie or director from the distant past is obvious: many cast and crew members are likely to have died. Which is why, for me, the sweet spot is likely the 1990s or later. I’m currently in love with the idea of a book about Paul Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Robocop and Showgirls.

— Photo by Evan Frost