Facts & SubtextCentral Facts: Fargo

In order for a fact to be central, it must be pertinent to the emotional identity of a character.  In Fargo, we can attribute two central facts to the character of Marge: she is pregnant with her first child and she is the chief of police.  Her husband, Norm, works as a stamp illustrator for the U.S. Post Office, a fact that is central to his character.  These facts are true for each character before the real action of the film ever begins, although they are not revealed to the audience until much later in the film.

The existence of these facts, even before they are revealed, creates a series of questions that draws viewers into the action of the film.  For example, we are compelled to ask whether Norm actually has a job, because we initially observe him fishing, making breakfast for Marge, calling her from the road, and watching television with her in bed. These subtle questions pique the viewer’s interest in the film and its characters.

Let the Facts Lead You to a Story

A script’s excellence relies heavily upon its treatment of these central facts.   Are we given a series of relevant factual details?  Are we inspired to ask questions?  Do these questions compel us to pay attention to the action of the film?  Regarding the relationship between Marge and Norm, a weak script would make declarative, transparent generalizations about their marriage.  When actors praise a script, saying that the story is “all on the page,” they are referring to this kind of writing, where factual details are plentiful but it the act of connecting these details is left to the audience.  The writing is clear because it is loaded with subtext, not because the emotional life has been explained to death.

Presented with these certain facts the audience now plays a role in the narrative of the film. The audience builds the narrative subtext by taking the facts and creating a story surrounding them.  For example, we might choose to look at Marge and interpret her character as being the primary wage earner in her household.  If we have personally experienced a relationship where one person becomes the primary wage earner in order to help the other pursue their dreams, then we assume that the situation with Norm and Marge reflects elements of that very experience.

We must then take responsibility for this choice; in other words, we must “own” our interpretation because it is informed by our own anecdotal experiences.  Whether our life experience leads us to conclude that this scenario was a painful transition or a brusque and matter-of-fact milestone, the act of imagining how the characters negotiated this lifestyle choice makes them  seem real and creates a feeling of intimacy between the characters and the audience.

Subtext is Everything

The next question that we should ask while analyzing the script concerns the subtext of each conversation between the characters. Simply put, we must consider the subtext beneath each conversation in the film.  Considering that there is a baby on the way for Marge and Norm, it is safe to assume that they are concerned with their financial security, and that major lifestyle changes such as the one described above could unsettle that feeling of security.  It would not be uncommon for individuals in similar marriages to mask their concerns, creating a subtext of resentment and guilt in their interactions.

So the question that we must answer is whether this is true of Marge and Norm.  Are they a close and honest couple, or are they masking their unhappiness?  The story that I choose to tell about their situation is the subtext—my vision of the film and its characters.  The imagined aspects of this vision become as important to the story as the facts included in the script.

This sense of vision and storytelling is not limited to the audience.  Before  casting takes place, the directors engage in the storytelling process in order to develop their interpretation of the script and shape the story’s direction.  Creating subtext for each character as a part of the script analysis is one of the best ways to bring the actors on board with your vision.  Not only does it encourage the actors to create their own subtext for their character, but it creates the foundation for a dialogue between the actor and the director regarding the character’s representation.

Sometimes the actor’s story about their character is so compelling that it becomes the dominant narrative, persuading the director and shaping the overall subtext of the eventual film.  In the case of Fargo, the director chose to cast his own wife as the character of Marge; accordingly, their collaborative relationship may have played a sizable role in shaping the subtext of Marge and Norm’s marriage.

The Big, Fat Fact

Although it seems that the big, fat fact would be easy to recognize, this is not always the case.  Often, it is an element so obvious as to be overlooked.

There is a scene in Being John Malkovitch illustrating this point.  In this scene,  Craig has succeeded in getting Maxine to meet him at a bar by guessing her name; at the bar, she winds up insulting him and abruptly leaves.

Actress Catherine Keener and director Spike Jonze were vigilant in their efforts to prevent the character of Maxine from becoming one-dimensional and abrasive.  According to Keener, “I struggled.  I really struggled.  It was easy to fall into the trap of just being hard and mean.”  Both knew, however, that if Maxine were played this way, none of her scenes would work.

Although it might be easy to reduce Maxine to this flat assessment, it is important to refocus our attention on the facts.  Interestingly enough, while we are quick to judge Maxine, we can only do so if we overlook a big, fat fact about Craig: his marriage.  Very early in the first scene, Maxine asks Craig if he is married; of course, he is.  After calling attention to this fact, we must consider our personal opinion regarding married men who hit on women and trick them into dating. What sort of treatment do we feel that such men deserve?

At that point, it becomes difficult not to make a simple, even primal, connection to Maxine’s desire to punish and humiliate Craig, making her much more sympathetic and difficult to judge.  Even if Maxine generally hates men, it is more playable and sympathetic when we recognize that she punishes each particular man based on his specific crimes.