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Meet the Man Behind ‘Fargo’s Haunting Musical Score, Jeff Russo

Where to Stream

Fargo

Even when you consider the high bar of peak TV, there are few shows that use music better than Fargo. From beautiful cinematic swells that nod to the original Coen brothers film to the ominous otherworldly synths of Season 2, Fargo’s music has always been something more than just another well-polished aspect of a well-polished show. It means something, and that’s especially true of the show’s third season.

“The Narrow Escape Problem” opens with a slight narrative shift with a very important cameo. Much like Martin Freeman’s surprise narration in Season 2’s “The Castle,” the fourth episode of the season starts with a chilling voiceover from none other than the man behind Lorne Malvo, Billy Bob Thornton. Calmly, Thornton reintroduces us to the Season 3 characters we’ve already grown to love, assigning each of them both an animal and a musical accompaniment. Though music has always been an essential thread of Fargo’s rich tapestry of storytelling, “The Narrow Escape Problem” is the first time it’s been directly addressed by the series.

To see what went into developing one of the most iconic elements of FX’s critically-acclaimed anthology series, Decider had the chance to talk to Fargo’s longtime composer, Jeff Russo. Russo has composed the music for all three seasons of Fargo as well as the music for Noah Hawley’s other project Legion, HBO’s The Night Of, and STARZ’s Power. Basically, if a show has a score you love, there’s a good chance Russo is involved. When Decider spoke to Russo, he was still working on the music for Fargo’s Stussy brothers saga.

“There’s a Russian element to the characters of the story, so I sort of looked to a more Russian style of music for this season over the more Germanic of Season 2 and more Northern European for Season 1,” he said. “In terms of the actual inspiration, I take inspiration for the characters that Noah writes and the situations he put the characters in. It’s really the main thing that makes me go in what direction I go in.”

Part of what makes Fargo such a compelling show is how intensely character-driven it is. That focus translates to its music composition, Russo explained. As the scripts for the series are being written, Hawley sends them to Russo. The composer mentioned that a lot of his inspiration comes from the characters on the page. Once inspiration has hit, Russo starts writing and recording the music, and when the episode’s picture is ready, he sculpts the music for the picture.

However, what sets Season 3 apart from other Fargo seasons is how clearly music correlates to the season’s different characters.”It does sort of move around within the season but, generally speaking there are some instruments that are used specifically for certain characters,” he said.

Photo: Impact24 PR

Russo explained what went into creating each character’s unique musical accompaniment. “Nikki [Mary Elizabeth Winstead] has a piano. Ray and Emmett [Ewan McGregor] sort of share instruments being brothers but then also being sort of, I want to say enemies. They’re not enemies but they are on opposite sides of the coin so they sort of share instrumentation mainly in the flutes and high woodwind. Gloria Burgle [Carrie Coon] has a big string accompaniment. The Russians, like V.M. Varga [David Thewlis], a lot more brass and horns, for our Russian contingency,” Russo said. “Then there’s a lot of the same orchestration or same instrumentation has held over from Season 1 and Season 2.”

When asked what the musical differences for Ewan McGregor’s Emmit and Ray Stussy were, Russo pointed to melody. “If each one has a different melody played in a different way it definitely does delineate the two. It really isn’t about needing to be a different instrument, but it needs to be a different thematic element.”

Russo also talked about what it was like working on Hawley’s other series, the critically-acclaimed Legion. The freshman series marked the first time Russo has worked on a Marvel property. “I approached it from the same perspective of the narrative is king, the story is king and the characters are king. We weren’t trying to play music just to evoke an emotion that wasn’t earned. We sort of play Fargo in the same way,” he said. “I tried to make a mix and a hybrid of this orchestral dramatic high drama vibe and this very psychedelic synthesized vibe. There’s emotional content from Legion that I don’t necessarily show in Fargo because we’re trying to tell this love story between David [Dan Stevens] and Syd [Rachel Keller]. I think that it was really a big mix of a lot of different things.”

For both Fargo and Legion, Russo worked closely with music supervisor Marguerite Phillips. Their working relationship is a big reason why the music of Noah Hawley’s shows feels so cohesive. “It’s funny, Maggie and I have become quite good friends in working on Fargo and on Legion together, and we’ve done a couple of other projects together as well.”

“We definitely talk to one another about what we’re doing. I send her music that I’m writing for the show, and she sends me songs or ideas that she’s having for the show. We compare notes. More times than the other way around, I’ll have to adjust what I’m doing to accommodate a piece of song that’s being used. A lot of times I’m either transitioning from score into a song or from the song into score so, depending on what key it’s in I might have to make an adjustment based on that kind of a thing,” he said. “But, then there’s also this big swath of time where I’m just doing my thing and she’s doing her thing. The two departments definitely work in tandem and discretely.”

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When asked if he has a favorite piece of music he composed for Fargo Season 3, Russo had a hard time narrowing his choice down. However, he highlighted a character who is quickly becoming a fan favorite — Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango. “I wrote a piece of music called “Piano for Nikki” and also an adapted version called “Orchestra for Nikki,” and I wrote a piece called “The Russians.” Both of those pieces sort of encapsulate my idea for the music tonality of this season. I would say those three pieces in general I think encapsulate my feeling about it,” he said. “There’s so much music so far, it’s hard to pick a favorite. They’re all my babies.”

If the latest season of Fargo feels darker to you than ever before, that was very much intentional according to Russo. “There’s still the fun and adventure that Fargo is, but there has been a touch more melancholy, a touch more darkness. But, with that we definitely bring it all full circle,” he said. “It’s definitely all the same pieces, tonally speaking, as before.”

New episodes of Fargo premiere on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX and FXNOW.

Stream Fargo, “The Narrow Escape Problem” on FXNOW

Stream Fargo Season 3 on FXNOW

Stream Fargo Season 1 and 1 on Hulu

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