Discover the Canadian setting of Fargo

Producer Warren Littlefield guides us around the Calgary backdrop of Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton's hit Channel 4 drama

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Discover the Canadian setting of Fargo
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The 10-part TV adaptation of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit Trilogy, Sherlock) offers up a dose of chilly dark comedy drama that mixes “golly-gees” with snowy vistas and moments of extreme violence. Producer Warren Littlefield explains how he managed to achieve that gritty and unforgiving, yet somehow innocent, feel of the show, and how fans of the drama can visit the setting for real…

“We needed snow,” explains Littlefield, when we asked why he decided to use Calgary instead of Minnesota (where the show is actually set) to film the series. “We were guaranteed a more consistent wintery weather up in Calgary… the terrain really spoke to being in that chilly, cold, winter Fargo world.”

And snow they got, although the shoot didn’t happen without a few weather-induced glitches – including a day with -40 degree temperatures. “On that day an orange traffic cone shattered when the wind came up,” explained Littlefield, “it just shattered into pieces”. Additionally, the crew’s buses wouldn’t start and their bathrooms had frozen. “We made a rather quick assessment and we decided – we’re not shooting today.”

Despite the brain-freezing conditions, stars of the series Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman stayed in good spirits. No matter how bad it got, Thornton always had “a wonderful story about how he’s suffered more. He’s just not a complainer,” explained Littlefield, who recalls one incident on set. “It was 2am and snow was coming down, that night was about -15 degrees. [Instead of moaning, Billy Bob Thornton] was telling me about riding in a very small boat, which was slightly wider than his shoulders, up the river from Cambodia into Laos. He said there was a moment when he stopped swatting the mosquitoes because ‘what was the point?’”

Meanwhile, Freeman absolutely loved being in the beautiful Canadian surroundings until he did long shoots on Spray Lakes. He was looking forward to going back to ‘warm’ London. “Martin said, ‘I’ve never been to the Rockies, this is an absolutely spectacular place to be. But I’m ready for it to be over, I’m going back to the warmth of London, ‘I’d never thought I’d say that,’” Littlefield recalls.

With Littlefield’s guide to the series, you too can experience the setting from Channel 4’s Fargo first hand (although we’d recommend you do it in summer)…

Ghost Lake

“In late November and early December, we shot three miles north of Calgary,” says Littlefield. “We were told the ice was nine inches thick on the lake and we were safe to go out there with our actors and crew and work the lake – that was only about –25 degrees, but the wind whipped across the lake. It was actually quite exhilarating. We achieved everything we wanted on that lake. Literally, it was a blast.”


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Canmore

“It’s further west than Calgary, and up in the mountains,” explains Littlefield. “There is a big sequence near the end of the series, where we’re in the Rockies, yet again, on a frozen lake. This was early April and there was 28 inches of ice, covered by two feet of snow – that was a rather majestic day.”

Drumheller

“Drumheller gave us some wonderful visuals,” says Littlefield, “from the first episode there are the shots of these rooftops. There’s lots of snow in Drumheller; it sits in a little valley and it just fills up with snow. We were able to get up quite high and park our cameras across the rooftops of the city. It was really effective and gives us a sense of place.”

Lou’s Diner

“Lou’s is featured in most of the episodes,” says Littlefield. “This is Lou Solverson (played by retired cop Keith Carradine)'s place of business. The real location is Smokehouse Diner (on 6805 Ogden Rd in SW) Calgary. There specialty is pressure-cooked fried chicken.”

Ghost Lake

“In the Bow Valley, west of Cochrane, about 30 miles west of Calgary, Ghost Lake is featured at the end of episode one when Lou (Keith Carradine) and Minnesota deputy Molly Solverson (played by Allison Tolman) go to ice fish,” recalls Littlefield. “It’s also in episode two when contract killers Wrench (played by Russell Harvard) and Numbers (played by (played by Adam Goldberg) go to dispose of Lenny – a suspect in the killing of Sam Hess. It is featured again in episode four with Lester.”

Swig & Swine Bar & Grill

“The sign out front says Swig & Swine – Pork in the Rear,” says Littlefield. “The French fries are excellent. It’s featured in episode four, when Wrench and Numbers get into a fight. Find it at 619 36 Ave in NE Calgary.”

MRT Family Foods, Mayland Heights

“Phoenix Farms is the supermarket and office of businessman Stavros Milos (played by Oliver Platt) – the Super Market king of the mid-west,” says Littlefield. “This location is used in numerous episodes. MRT Family Foods is the actual supermarket used in filming, find it at 116-817 19 St NE.”

The Border Crossing Restaurant and Bar

“This is The Lucky Penny strip club where Sam Hess is murdered by Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in episode one and where Wrench and Numbers abduct Lenny in episode two,” says Littlefield. “Sadly, in reality, it is not a strip bar, it’s The Border Crossing Restaurant and Bar 1814 36 St NE in the Forest Lawn section of Calgary.”

Spray Lakes

“It does not have a name in our Fargo series, but is prominently featured with Lester (Martin Freeman) in the episode 10 finale,” says Littlefield. “It is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, approximately 15 miles from Canmore in Alberta.”

Watch Fargo at 9pm, April 20 on Channel 4.


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