Pulling strings: Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop takes centre stage in seventh episode of Fargo

Article content

WARNING: The following contains spoilers from the Dec. 26 episode of Fargo.

When a group of puppeteers prepared to shoot a sequence for the seventh episode of Fargo, producers came to the cast and crew about how the scenes could be traumatic for those involved.

Article content

The scenes involved marionette versions of the characters of Season 5: Jon Hamm’s Sheriff Roy Tilmman, Juno Temple’s Dot/Nadine and Joe Keery’s Gator Tillman. There is also a new character introduced. The episode is called Linda, which is also the name of Tillman’s first wife (played, at least in human form, by Lethbridge expat Kari Matchett.) Dot seeks her out at a remote, new-age shelter for abused women in hopes of bringing her back to testify against Tillman. Dot blames Linda for abandoning her with the abusive sheriff when she was only 15, pushing her towards him as a would-be replacement “wife” so she could escape.

Advertisement 2

Article content

The women at the shelter insist Dot tell her story in the form of a puppet show. So, for a very haunting five minutes, audiences get to see the unsettling backstory of Roy and Dot for the first time. The segment shows how Linda found Dot alone at a grocery store and brought her home for Tillman. She was then known as Nadine, a teenage runaway with no place to go. Linda, who is being horribly abused by her husband, takes her home and convinces Tillman to tutor her in math and science on his homestead. Eventually, Tillman begins to sexually abuse Nadine/Dot. Linda disappears and Nadine takes her place. The puppet show ends with Hillman beating Dot with a stick. “I was his puppet,” Dot says in voice-over narration.

It’s a harrowing segment that is full of domestic abuse. A phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is included in the end credits.

The fact that this harrowing backstory is acted out by expressionless marionettes somehow makes it even more disturbing.

“They were very careful,” says Judd Palmer, who designed and built the puppets used in the episode and is co-founder of the Calgary-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop. “They had producers who would come and speak to everybody and say, ‘If this is going to trigger anybody, take your time. If you want to exit the set. It’s OK.’ It’s dark material.”

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Fargo puppets
Puppets designed by members of Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, at the Calgary Film Centre. The puppets were part of Fargo’s fifth season. Photo by Trevor Smith cal

Dark … and undeniably strange. Fans of Fargo know that creator Noah Hawley often takes surreal side trips on his series. In Season 4, there was that black-and-white episode that paid unhinged homage to The Wizard of Oz. In the eighth episode of Season 3, there was that trippy, metaphysical segment where characters meet up with Twin Peaks actor Ray Wise and a reincarnated kitten in a bowling alley in the middle of the woods.

So the puppet segment in Tuesday’s episode, while certainly surprising, does not stray that far from Hawley’s modus operandi. While perhaps unbeknownst to Hawley, Alberta is a hotspot for puppeteering. That reputation stems not only from The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, which has built international acclaim over the past 25 years by presenting a wide variety of ambitious puppet shows for adults but also because of luminaries such as Ronnie Burkett, a Medicine Hat native who also has a global reputation for making marionette puppet shows for adults. Recently, the province’s reputation got even a bigger boost when Calgary became the home for the first two seasons of the Fraggle Rock reboot.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Fargo sets
Behind the scenes as the Old Tout Puppet Workshop created characters and a local production crew built miniature sets used in the latest Fargo series, Courtesy, Michelle Faye / FX cal

The puppet show concept may have sprung from the wild imagination of Hawley, but it was up to his Calgary crew to make it a reality. Specifically, it was up to Calgary-based production designer Trevor Smith and his art directors Marie Massolin and Amanda Nicholson to make contact with local puppeteering talent and to create the miniature backdrops for the episode. Smith contacted Burkett for advice and Palmer at Old Trout, who led his theatre collective in designing the heads, hands and feet of the puppet versions of the people characters and a pack of wolves that also figure into the segment.

“He had seen our shows and he approached us and said ‘Guys, this is not the kind of a thing that we can just bang out in our prop show, we need people who make their strange little livings thinking about puppetry and learning about that craft and refining it. We need people like you to build these puppets to work on this segment,’” Palmer says.

At the time of this interview, Palmer had not seen the episode. But he is a fan of the series and the many Coen brothers’ films that inspire it. He saw some definite overlap in Fargo’s sensibilities and those of The Old Trout. Past puppet productions have included everything from Ghost Opera, a collaboration with Calgary Opera with a libretto written by Giller Prize-winning Toronto novelist Andre Alexis; to a darkly comic flagship Famous Puppet Death Scenes, which has toured the world; to a 2008 Calgary-shot video for Feist’s Honey Honey.

Advertisement 5

Article content

A local production crew headed by Trevor Smith and associates built miniature sets for Old Tout Puppets used in the latest Fargo series, Courtesy, Michelle Faye / FX cal

“I really loved the concept,” Palmer says. “They had to grapple with some difficult subject matter. I’ve always loved that show and I always loved the spiritual predecessor from the Coen brothers. One of the things they do so beautifully, that is very puppet-like, is portray horrific things in a way that is delightful if not funny. They are always walking that amazing line, which is what makes the show electric, makes it exciting. So it seems like a natural choice for a show like Fargo to employ the weird magic of puppetry for its narrative ends.”

Toronto’s Frank Meschukuleit, who played Junior Gorg in the original Fraggle Rock and worked on the reboot in Calgary, led the six-person marionette team for the segment. 

“We, at first thought, logistically, how are we going to manage this?” he says. “In concert with the traditional shooting – the actors and the actresses and the main unit – how are we going to embrace and succeed with an entirely different style in an activity that many of us didn’t have any experience with? For us, it was new ground and exciting and terrifying all at the same time.”

Advertisement 6

Article content

Smith, Massolin and  Nicholson began creating what would be a unique look for the segment, figuring out where it would sit on the spectrum between “reality versus the artifice of it.”

Fargo puppet set
One of the sets in the ‘puppet show’ segment of Episode 7 of Fargo’s fifth season. The set was designed by production designer Trevor Smith and art directors Marie Massolin and Amanda Nicholson. Photo by Trevor Smith cal

There were roughly six backdrops or sets created for the puppets at the Calgary Film Centre and Smith said they were inspired by German expressionism, including the 1920 classic silent horror flick The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

“We took liberties, from a psychological standpoint, to make things more expressive,” says Smith. “The doorways are all quite wonky and everything is at a strange angle and the perspective doesn’t quite work. As the level of abuse grows, the angles of the house start to get a little bit expressive and off-kilter.”

The segment goes a long way in finally establishing the dark depths of Hamm’s Sheriff Roy Tillman. If any viewers had lingering admiration for him as a charming villain, it was likely gone by the time the episode ended.

“Like many things in Fargo, especially from Noah Hawley’s brain, it’s a tightrope to walk of absurdity versus emotionally impactful and thematically resonant,” Smith says. “I think it works but we all had some nerves about this deep dive into this completely wild dream space, this therapeutic state of mind that Juno Temple and Dot Lyons go through. It was weird and exciting.”

Fargo airs Tuesdays on FX.

A local production crew headed by Trevor Smith and associates built miniature sets for Old Tout Puppets used in the latest Fargo series, Courtesy, Michelle Faye / FX cal

Article content