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Book Excerpt: A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo by Todd Melby

We are pleased to offer a wood chipper-centric excerpt from Todd Melby's new book, A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo. Below is an introduction from the publisher, followed by an extended passage from the book. To order your copy, click here.

Go behind the scenes of this classic nineties film from cinematic masters Joel and Ethan Coen. Yah, you betcha, you’re gonna discover some fascinating tidbits to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary.

The 1996 movie "Fargo" stirred widespread curiosity about snowy winters, funny accents, and bloody mayhem on the frozen tundra of Minnesota and North Dakota. The film won two Academy Awards and inspired a popular, award-winning television series. It is also a quintessentially Minnesota film—or is it?

A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere presents the untold stories behind the making of Joel and Ethan Coen’s most memorable film. It explores the behind-the-scenes creative moments that made Fargo a critical and cultural success, including casting struggles, the battles over dialect, production challenges (a lack of snow), and insights from the screenplay and deleted scenes. Author Todd Melby examines to what extent the story was inspired by true events (as the film claims), and whether the Coens are trustworthy narrators of their own story. In addition to biographical details about the Coen Brothers, the book reveals what Fargo says about Minnesota and the Midwest.

Chapter 6: Fran Used to Have a Car Like This: Shooting Continues, But Inside

February 15–19, 1995 

Carving up a corpse with a wood chipper is a bloody mess. Which is why Paul Murphy began with the idea of cutting raw chicken and pork into tiny pieces. The special effects coordinator figured the flying meat would look like human flesh when thrust out the side of the chipper. 

It didn’t work. 

“If you would have seen all that meat flying out of the chipper, it would have been too much,” he told me. 

Besides, Joel Coen was more focused on color than chunkiness. He wanted a sea of red in the snow at the cabin by the lake. “I want a good portion of this hill covered with blood,” Joel told Murphy. 

Murphy’s explanation for Joel’s request: “The leg was probably the last thing that was shoved through the chipper. The whole body would have went through before that. So that’s why he wanted that big wide swath of red.” 

But to the St. Paul native and former marine, this wasn’t very Coensian. In earlier films, mayhem flashed by quickly, typically requiring just a smattering of fake blood to sell a scene. This time, the Coens wanted the camera to linger on the horror of the moment. They wanted viewers to see what happens when a corpse is shoved through a machine designed to devour tree limbs. To achieve the pool of blood in the pristine white snow, Murphy turned to propylene glycol, a reddish-orange coolant. He added a little black dye to the liquid to give it a more blood-like richness. Then his crew added the mixture to six fifty-five-gallon drums. 

“We ran a hose to the out spout of the chipper, and then we pressured the tank and all of that came flying out as the leg went in,” Murphy said. “We had to cover quite a bit of area. We went through three of [the drums], which was quite a bit.” 

Murphy remembers being stressed out throughout the shooting of the climactic scene. “We had to make a huge amount of snow every day,” he said. “We were making snow at night, then shooting the next day. We were burned out up there.” 

The wood chipper itself was purchased at a store, its dangerous guts ripped out so cast and crew wouldn’t lose a limb during filming. It was also given a new name and a paint job. 

“Joel and Ethan wanted the machine to feel both utilitarian and familiar,” said Rick Heinrichs, the movie’s production designer, who won an Academy Award on Sleepy Hollow in 2000. “We researched various wood chippers based on what size would frame up well for Peter Stormare. We had to hide the brand name because, after all, what company would give permission to have their potentially deadly yard implement put to apparent deadly use? There was a chipper brand called the Wood/Chuck on the market, so I called ours the Eager Beaver, painted it caution yellow, and put logos and hazard stickers all over it.” 

The Brothers tossed around other names for the chipper. “At one point it was called the Eager Sphincter,” Ethan recalled. “Or the Iron Sphincter.” 

Cast and crew spent three working days inside and outside the tiny, yellow cabin on Square Lake in Washington County, not far from the Wisconsin border (there was a two-day break wedged between the second and third day). Among the many tasks was recording Marge inside the prowler, an establishing shot of the cabin, a hooded Jean bounding blindly through the snow, Carl slamming the television, and Grimsrud axing Carl, which led to Carl’s insertion into the chipper. The daily call sheet included this instruction for the grisly scene: “Carl’s Wardrobe from Sc. 107 for dummy, Pant dbls for Grimsrud.” Accounts differ on how smooth the chipper scene went. 

In a 2016 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stormare claims it was his idea to grab a log to push the leg into the chipper, then toss the log at Chief Gunderson when she confronts him. “I remember this vividly because I’m a country boy. I said, ‘I can’t push it down with my hand, unless I’m a moron.’ So I took a piece of firewood. Then I said, ‘I can use this as a weapon when she draws her gun. Maybe I can knock her out with it.’” 

In truth, the Coens outlined Stormare’s actions clearly in the script: “Grimsrud works on, eyes watering. With a grunt he bends down out of frame and then re-enters holding a thick log. He uses it to force the leg deeper into the machine.” After Chief Gunderson makes her presence known and, with her gun pointing at him, yells for Grimsrud to put his hands up, the script reads: “Grimsrud stares. With a quick twist, he reaches back for the log, hurls it at Marge and then starts running away.” 

In the end, the directors got their climax. Marge confronts Grimsrud—and his heinous, murderous secret—shoots him in the leg, then drives off with the perp handcuffed in the back of her prowler, wondering how anyone could be that evil. “And it’s a beautiful day,” she says to the passive and impenetrable killer as she glances in the rearview mirror.

Reprinted with permission from A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo by Todd Melby, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. To order your copy of the book, click here

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