Three Great Things: Noah Hawley

The creator of Fargo and Legion marks the release of his first movie, Lucy in the Sky, by sharing what he loves most in life.

Three Great Things is our series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To celebrate the release of his feature directorial debut, the all-star ensemble drama Lucy in the Sky (in theaters from October 4), the multitalented Noah Hawley – also a showrunner and novelist – gives us a glimpse into what brings him joy. — N.D.

Listening to Stories on the Radio
My father studied in England in the ’50s and brought back all these records of The Goon Show, a BBC radio comedy show starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. Growing up in New York City, a lot of my formative years were spent listening to these records, which were very British, very quick and very absurd. He also had a couple of books of Goon Show scripts, so when my brother and I were 9 or 10 years old, we used to act them out. When I was 13 or 14, that gave way to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which was broadcast on NPR one summer. The world created by Douglas Adams and the sound design and the smartness and humor of his writing was really unparalleled. Nothing will formulate your imagination better than the things you see in your mind when you’re listening to amazing ideas. Because the shows I was listening to were British and were centered around the Second World War and post war era, they took my brain into geography and history as well and were truly transportive.

The Goons: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe.

I remember reading an interview with Douglas Adams about when he was trying to write that first or second radio series; whenever he needed an idea, he would get in the tub and take a long bath, and out of that bath came so many amazing conceptual ideas. From him, the idea that you can tell a story that mixes genres, that is playful and inventive and funny, definitely found its way into my work.

I often find that I can get distracted when I’m reading, but when I’m listening, I really focus on what I’m hearing. I’m using my imagination. We often talk about a book and the use of the imagination – in a novel, the author has written a story, but the reader does half of the work by seeing it in their head. I always wanted to apply that idea to filmmaking as well. Film is often perceived as a passive medium in which you’re just watching, but I what I loved about Fargo or Legion or Lucy in the Sky is if you detach an image from information, you force an audience to use their imagination to figure out what something is or means. If you watch a David Lynch movie, the one thing you don’t have is clarity, so your mind rushes in to fill in the connections, to find the clarity and the meaning. I find that really fascinating.

Story as Empathy Delivery Device
The older I get, the more I find myself focused on human dignity, as a storyteller and as a citizen of this world. A big reason I wanted to make Lucy in the Sky, which is based on a tabloid story, was to remind people that a tabloid story is about human beings with dignity who have ruined everything and ended up a punchline. I knew if I made a film and gave those people their dignity back, I could remind audiences that you can’t judge someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. That felt very important to me, especially as our culture gets snarkier and colder. In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut drew a picture of a headstone and on it he wrote, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” That’s such a beautiful idea about what life should be, but that’s not what life is. Life is hard and messy and we’re learning as we go – we start as children and to become adults we have to make mistakes. We have to hurt people’s feelings. There is no redemption without the fall.

Zazie Beetz and Natalie Portman in Lucy in the Sky.

I love stories and moments where human beings prove themselves capable of great empathy, where people come back from astonishing hardship and trauma. I’ve always felt a story is an empathy delivery device. One of the reasons I’m attracted to writing ensemble pieces for large casts is the more points of view you have in a story, the more empathy you have on all sides and the harder it gets to create heroes and villains. The world is evolving into such a binary, us-against-them place, and the best way to fight against that is to try to make audiences feel something positive for people who aren’t them.

There’s a great moment in Stripes where Bill Murray gives the famous “American mutt” speech. He’s got this group of criminals and halfwits surrounding him and delivers this amazing inspirational speech about America and the mutts, and all these people who have been punchlines in the movie so far suddenly feel this enormous sense of pride in themselves and each other. It makes the audience go, “Yeah, well, I don’t really fit in anywhere either, but I’m part of this great American experiment.” There’s something thrilling about underdog stories and underdog characters that we all need to be reminded of, that the gang that couldn’t shoot straight is the most interesting gang to be part of.

Because I grew up in New York City, I didn’t learn to swim until I was 10 or 12. I lived in the West Village and was separated from the Hudson River by the Westside Highway, so the only time I remember going over to the waterfront was on the Bicentennial, when my parents took me to see all the big ships. Otherwise, I tended to forget we were surrounded by water. At a certain point, my family started to go every summer to a place in Maine called Bailey Island. I learned to swim there and ended up in my early teens getting a summer job working for the local lobster wholesaler, who would buy the lobsters from the fisherman and sell them to the restaurants. The boats would come into the cove and I’d help unload the boats, put the lobsters in the crates and tie the crates off. At 14, I was getting up at four in the morning to go unload the bait trucks. Bait for lobster is just a lot of fish heads, so I’d be standing in my hip waders at 4:30 in the morning in a trough that was filled with fish heads, with a pitchfork in my hand. It was amazing as a kid to have that coastal experience.

Barton Springs pool in Austin, Texas.

I live in Austin, Texas, now with my wife and children and I really notice how much of my life there is spent in streams and rivers, and therefore in nature. In Austin, there’s a place called Barton Springs, an enormous naturally spring-fed pool which has been turned into a community swimming pool with blind salamanders swimming around in there. It’s open year-round and every year on New Year’s Day, they do a Polar Bear Plunge where the water temperature – which is 68 degrees every day of the year – is 20 or 30 degrees warmer than the air temperature. Your body adjusts over time; it’s shocking, but you get used to it. We always go down on New Year’s morning and jump in, and I try to spend a few minutes just floating there thinking about the year that I have ahead of me and everything I need to accomplish, and really taking that moment for myself in anticipation. I say goodbye to the year that was and prepare myself emotionally and spiritually for the year to come. The place has now taken on an additional meaning; it’s not just a swimming hole, it’s a place where I find my sense of center, so that’s very meaningful to me.

Austin is often 95 degrees for five months of the year, so swimming has to be a huge part of how you manage the heat. I’ll get into a Wednesday heat rage, but then my wife and I will go swimming and the moment I get into the water, my entire outlook on life just changes – it reverses. It’s amazing that water has that power to change everything. In a way, it goes back to Douglas Adams who, when he had a nice bath with his rubber duck and a hot cup of tea, could solve any problem.

Noah Hawley is one of the most accomplished auteurs and versatile storytellers working in television, film and literature. Lucy in the Sky, his feature film directorial debut starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Pearl Amanda Dickson and Ellen Burstyn, is in theaters through Fox Searchlight from October 4. Over the course of his more than 20-year career, Hawley’s work as a novelist, screenwriter, series creator, showrunner and director has garnered acclaim – winning an Emmy®, Golden Globe®, PEN, Critics’ Choice, and Peabody Award – and passionate response from audiences. Also a best-selling author, Hawley has published five novels: A Conspiracy of Tall Men, Other People’s Weddings, The Punch, The Good Father and most recently the bestseller Before the Fall. He currently serves as executive producer, writer, director and showrunner on the award-winning anthology series, Fargo, and also the creator and executive producer on Legion, which just concluded its third and final season. Production on the fourth installment of Fargo, starring Chris Rock, begins this fall. Fargo: This is a True Story, a companion book to the first three seasons of the series and authored by Hawley, which will be released by Grand Central Publishing in October.