Exclusive Interview: Jeff Russo on the Music of ‘Fargo’

The composer for “Fargo” corrects me on a very common false assumption, and tells us why the score, available on a soundtrack album July 1, is like a 10 hour movie score.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The soundtrack to FX’s miniseries “Fargo” is out July 1 with music by Jeff Russo, the founding member, lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the band Tonic.
 
The “Fargo” TV series  made such an impression, with such memorable use of music, that I wanted to talk to Russo before the soundtrack is available. Spoilers for “Fargo” follow, so be sure to catch up to the season finale. If you want to hear more Jeff Russo music, Tonic is on tour this summer through August. For tour dates visit their website.
 
CraveOnline: When you got the job on “Fargo,” did you inherit the great theme from the movie?
 
Jeff Russo: Actually, no. I didn’t inherit it because we decided to write a brand new theme. One of the things about the movie that may or may not be known is that the movie theme, which was done by Carter Burwell, is based on a Norwegian folk song called “The Lost Sheep.” We thought the best way to proceed with music for the show was to try to stay inside this world that was created in terms of vibe of the score, but to create our own identity by writing all new themes, all new music. 
 
Oh, it’s been so long since I’ve seen the movie, I was mistaken and thought it was the theme from the movie. 
 
Nope. We did, as a narrative tool, play the theme from the movie one time which is the very last scene in episode 10, as a way to connect the movie and the show definitively and illustrate the fact that the show and the movie sort of end in the same place emotionally. We decided it was a good idea to use the main theme from the film as a way to end the series. But all the rest of the music is all original. 
 
Certainly the theme that opens most episodes as the title “Fargo” comes up, if I made that mistake it’s because you created something so aesthetically, thematically correct that we could make that mistake. 
 
Well, certainly my job was to create our own identity while staying in that world. So yeah, I employed a big sweeping string section, a section that crescendos as the title appears. The sort of working ethic was to make the score and the theme sound cold and lonesome. So in that way, yeah, I wanted to use the same sort of group, so we needed a big orchestra. I employed a big string section, some horns and some percussion and woodwinds. In that way, yeah, I tried to stay in that same world definitely.
 
Well, I apologize for my mistake.
 
Oh, by the way, certainly not the first person to say that which I take as a big compliment. I’m a huge Carter Burwell fan. What we were trying to do was be in that world but don’t copy. Don’t use the characters, don’t use the music. Let’s make it all new but make everybody feel like they’re in the movie. That’s a tall order. 
 
Not every episode opened with that theme. How did you decide when not to use it?
 
It was really just based on how the narrative was in the show. We opened more than half of the shows with the theme. At the same time, more than half we end with the theme because we do our main titles at the front and at the end. Like episode two, we wanted to open the show with something totally unexpected because we introduce these two brand new characters at the beginning of episode two. So we decided to open it with just a big drum solo, which I found to be very fun to do and unexpected in terms of what you see on the screen.
 
One of them opened with “Ode to Joy,” right?
 
It was funny. It was one of those things where I have a really great, collaborative relationship with our show runner, Noah [Hawley], who is also a musician. So we sort of speak the same language. One day he called me and he was like, “What about ‘Ode to Joy’ on those Jamaican steel drums?’ And I was like, ‘Let me get on that.’” I called a steel drum player to come play and it just worked out so beautifully for that scene where Lester’s cleaning up the bedroom. 
 
Did you also have freedom to leave some scenes unscored?
 
Well, one of the things that we really talked about also was to really up the impact of music, there has to be enough silence. We did, deliberately, go dry and silent in a lot of places to draw out tension and to make you feel like it feels very real, in terms of the tension that’s happening. So yeah, we did deliberately not score scenes that might have been scored under a normal circumstance.
 
When the story jumps a year ahead, does the music change also?
 
Interestingly, what we did there is at the moment of the transition from 2006 to 2007, we play the full version of the main title. I think we wanted to do that in order to keep the audience grounded in the show and illustrate the fact that life really does continue to go on. In reality, things happen and then things don’t happen. 
 
So all this time has passed but the world just keeps going and people may or may not be in the same place that they were or they may have changed. To illustrate that, we use our world’s theme which is that main title for the show. That really illustrated that part of it. Once we’re into the show later, I tried to adjust our themes subtly over time in order to really illustrate the change of the characters. 
 
All of our characters really do progress a lot in the show from the beginning to the end. With the sole exception of I think Molly who really stays the course the whole time. Lester descends into this evil thing that he goes through. Malvo changes, especially across that year where he’s now moved on from Bemidji to this other place where he’s become a dentist. So in order to illustrate that I had to subtly change the themes and the way they were played over the entire course of the show, and it really sort of becomes way more apparent as we jump forward a year. 
 
So we’re more likely to notice if we go from 1 to 10 than if we watch them all in order?
 
The trick was to try to write the score as if I’m writing a 10 hour movie that you can sit and watch from beginning to end. You don’t want these major changes to happen from episode to episode, so the change in the music which coincides with the progression of the characters needs to be subtle as you go. But if you were to watch episode one and then watch episode 10, it would be a really dynamic change.