Nominated for an Oscar in 2015 for X-Men: Days of Future Past, Visual Effects Supervisor Lou Pecora brought his talents to the small screen for his latest project, Fargo Season 4. His work on the anthology series marks Pecora’s third project with show creator Noah Hawley. Pecora also worked with Hawley on the final two seasons of Legion and on Hawley’s film Lucy in the Sky starring Natalie Portman.
In our conversation, we discuss his bond with Hawley, the subtle use of FX through most of the season, his remarkable work on the 9th episode, “East/West,” and how that episode brings the season 4’s homage to The Wizard of Oz to its fruition.
Awards Daily: By my count, this is the 4th time you and Noah have worked together after two seasons of Legion and on Lucy in the Sky. How did the two of you first come together?
Lou Pecora: We came together on Legion Season Two. They were just about finished shooting it, there was a kite change-up in digital effects and they brought me in on it. I kind of felt like I parachuted onto a bullet train. They were just about to shoot the season finale, which involved six minutes of cartoon animation in the clouds and we were shooting in a bright, sunny desert (laughs), and nine minutes of a CG bubble prison on top of all the other effects that were in Legion. That overlapped with Lucy in the Sky, and Lucy in the Sky overlapped with Season Three of Legion, and then there was a month between Legion three and Fargo. I guess I didn’t screw up, so I got brought along on the next project and then the next project.
AD: I assume working with Noah again is part of what appealed to you in regard to working on Fargo, but what intrigued you from a visual effects perspective about working on the show?
LP: I liked the time period. I also liked the ’50s Italian vibe. I’m the first-generation Italian American in my family, and I love that period. Of course, I wanted to work with Noah, but equally as much as working with Noah, it’s the people he surrounds himself with. From the camera operators, the DPs, the directors – the people that Noah brings together as a team is a huge draw. I always know I’m going to be working with creative, collaborative people who are at the top of their field. I’ve learned so much from people like (DPs) Dana Gonzales, Pete Konczal, and Eric Messerschmidt over the last few years of working with them that I feel like I’ve had a paid film school education in cinematography by getting to watch those guys work. That are a huge part of the process. Noah trusts them to do what they are so good at. That’s the number one draw of working on a show like this.
AD: I remember when I heard that Fargo was going to become a series. My first thought was, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea.’ And then I saw it, and quickly came to understand that I don’t know everything. The show does a great job of building its own world while connecting itself to the world of the film at the same time.
LP: [Laughs] Absolutely. I have a minor in English Lit, so story is very important to me. Even though you might not think that visual effects has a lot to do with story, it actually does. The more information I have informs all the little decisions I have to make about my work on the show. Having that world clear in my head helps me make decisions I think Noah will like based on what he’s doing. I too felt like ‘I’m not going to watch this show. I loved the movie, but how are they going to pull this off?’ But it was brilliant. The tie-in (to the movie) in the fourth episode (of Season 1) where they find the money was a work of genius. I think now, the show almost feels like Fargo more than the movie does.
AD: Almost like M*A*S*H, where the show went well beyond the film and became what people associated with the title. After awhile, the thing that you know best is actually the newer thing.
LP: Totally! That’s a great comparison!
AD: A lot of the work you’ve done before is in the realm of more obvious effects. Whereas Fargo, aside from episode nine which I’ll get to in a minute, aims for more subtlety. How is doing effects for a show like this different than the projects you’ve worked on before?
LP: I have found that volume-wise you always end up with more shots of things you didn’t expect on a show. You go into a show thinking we have 50 VFX shots in this episode and you come out with 250. It’s because of some of the crazy camera work these guys do. There might be a light in the way or something and in the interest of time, we may not be able to move whatever is affecting the shot, meaning we’ll have to paint it out later. The shot in the last episode where Joe Bulo is walking through the field after they shot Josto and Oraetta in the hole, we had the perfect lighting and Dana said we had to shot this now and I pointed out this giant condor that was in the way. Dana said, I’m sorry bro, you’re just going to have to paint it out. And that became an effects shot.
I always approach the effects job as trying to solve a Rubik’s cube with a shotgun in your face. (Laughs). When those moments arrive, you have to move quickly to save the moment. The bulk of the work ends up being stuff you couldn’t predict. It may not seem like the hardest stuff, but sometimes it is. With COVID, we couldn’t have predicted that we were going to have to come back and shoot the end of a show that was supposed to take place in the winter and shoot it in the summer. They had gone through all this trouble to dress curb and gutter snow for when Odis looks out the window and sees the two gangs waiting for him outside and he needs the police escort to get him home, and then the whole conversation with Josto and Gaetano also had curb and gutter snow, all which we shot before we broke after the virus hit. So, we ended up having to remove all of that snow from the shots. That’s not something we could have planned for.
AD: We often think of visual effects as adding something, but we don’t think of it as taking things away.
LP: That happened a lot on this season because the weather was incredibly uncooperative. One of the famous sayings about Chicago is ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.’ So, we ended up adding snow where there was none, removing it where there was, adding cloudy skies where we had clear ones, and clear skies where we had cloudy ones. It was very clear what was needed in the script, especially episode nine, where the weather played a very important part in the storytelling, and it almost never cooperated with us. It was almost always the opposite of what we needed. We had to factor that in on the day and then after the fact.
AD: Episode nine, “East/West” is really something. It does move the story along, but it’s also a sort of stand alone episode. From the black and white photography to the almost magical realism of the storm. When the tornado comes, it presents itself as almost a monster and one with intention. When you were getting ready to create the tornado, what was the intention behind how it arrives?
LP: I think the idea is the tornado was supposed to be a character in and of itself. When Noah first explained to me that he wanted to have shots from the POV of the tornado, I thought what a brilliant idea – I had never seen that before. There are two shots where you are looking through the tornado as it’s whipping by as it’s tearing up the gas station. It’s the executioner for Camalitas’ sins, the angel of death. It’s the Oraetta for Ben Whishaw’s character. I love that when he gets taken away by the tornado he finds some peace in it. That brilliant shot where his face changes mid-shot and we accept his fate into the tornado – that was such an incredible thing to be a part of and to watch it evolve over the course of the planning, the shooting, and the post.
The shot where we pick Ben up off the ground and we see the horizon in the distance, that was not the original intention of the shot. The intent was to approach him and then we see him get lifted up from the side and then in a wide shot. Then Noah thought, what if we pick him up in the shot we ended up using? And I thought, oh my god, we can’t go wider on him than he is, we can’t remove the background, but then I remembered that I had captured all that I would need to recreate that backdrop through existing CG, so, we just extracted him from the original shot and placed him in the new one. I stayed up until midnight working on a mock up of it myself and then showed it to Noah the next day. I was real skeptical at first, but Noah Raif he thought it would work. Then I presented it to Regis, our brilliant editor who is such an incredible part of telling the stories on these shows. I like to say that Dana is Noah’s secret weapon on set and Regis is his secret weapon in post. He helped me refine this camera movement before we sprung it on Noah and Noah bought it right away. I was so excited I did a lap around my own home (Laughs).
AD: Best laid plans [Laughs].
LP: You’d like to think that these things are all planned from the beginning, but the great thing about working with Noah and Regis (Kimble), is while there is always a plan, because Regis is a little removed from the shooting process, he comes at the material with a fresh set of eyes. Noah told me on Lucy in the Sky that I was going to be a part of three shows on this project: the one that we plan to shoot, the show that we actually shoot, and then the show that we edit. Those are three different shows and you have to be ready to ready to let go of things that you really loved and you have to be ready to welcome in things you might be a little scared of. I thought that was some of the most brilliant advice I’d ever been given.
Of course, it makes sense when you hear it, but then when you live through it, you really see it and feel it. There were moments when I had to let go of things that we had planned at different stages. When that happened, Noah would kind of look at me like ‘Remember, I told you this.’ And I had to trust him – which is easy to do because the work speaks for itself, but it taught me a lot about being able to let things go and be ready to embrace new things. We had a different ending for the season that we’d already shot. Then Noah came up with a whole new ending after the fact, that in my opinion – having seen both – was so much better. It ended the only way it could have and we didn’t find that until we were in the editing room.
AD: You don’t want to turn away from good ideas when they arrive.
LP: That happens so often. People get so stuck on what they initially planned that that they miss the opportunity to welcome something new. I have that tendency myself. I have a ‘begin with the end in mind’ philosophy. I do everything with the end in mind. That first step forward is all thought out, and I think that’s a little too rigid. Working on these shows with Noah has helped me drop that mentality a little. That may be my nature, but it’s been an interesting journey with these guys learning that the plan isn’t always what you end up doing. The journey itself is made up of discovery and you’ll find things along the way that you hadn’t anticipated and you need to be open to that. It’s been a great thing to learn.
AD: Most of episode nine is in black and white. How does that impact your use of effects?
LP: We shot it all in color while looking through a black and white lens. One of the great joys of working on this episode was not only getting to do bigger effects, but also working with the brilliant (director) Mike Uppendahl. I’ve admired him for a long time. It’s great when you meet your heroes and they exceed your expectations. We had that moment when Big Willie’s feet were sitting out the gas station door, which was an homage to The Wizard of Oz – the whole episode is an homage to The Wizard of Oz, in fact. Mike had him wear these socks that were red and black striped. When you go in black and white, red reads as black. You can barely tell the socks are striped. That’s one thing we didn’t account for. And that whole gas station is painted this really rich red. Also, the paining of the boarding house in the episode – we made some really distinct choices for the color of that set piece, and it comes out a lot more subtle in black and white.
AD: It’s funny, I was talking to my wife about East/West and I described it to her as a pulp version of The Wizard of OZ, but mostly focused on the black and white portion that leads up to the tornado. And then I threw in, ‘imagine it being directed by David Lynch.’ [Laughs] But anyway, talk to me more about the Oz influences.
LP: The influence is evident from the very beginning of the season. If you look at the outfits that Ethelrida is wearing, and the styling of her hair, there’s definitely a Dorothy-esque aspect to her look. When Thurman has her on the porch, he offers to read her a story, and it’s The Wizard of Oz. Later, when the kids are plating, there’s a Wizard of Oz puzzle in the playroom. There’s hints of it throughout. At the time when i was reading it and knowing that it was leading up to the tornado, it felt a little obvious. But, when you watch it and it’s spread out over so many episodes it’s not nearly so. It’s only the second time through that you pick it up. We were planting those seeds as we went along. You know, I was thinking of the Dark Side of the Moon connection, when you watch the movie with the Pink Floyd album playing (Laughs) like they tell you to do in college.
Everything stops at the moment the tornado picks you up, you have that moment of quiet and then you go into the color scene. I think there’s a deliberate storytelling device there – Satchel is now on his own. He’s no longer a little kid. He comes back home with his eyes open to the world. There’s a few times in the series where we do that. Like with Lemuel’s character. He wears glasses for the first part of the season, but after he gets in the brawl with the cops at the jazz club, you no longer see him in glasses anymore, because now his eyes are open. Matthew (Elam) sprung that on Noah as an idea – which was brilliant. That’s how much Noah gets actors involved in their character. Corey (Hendrix) had this whole backstory for Omie where he was a boxer. Noah laid the seeds of it, but Corey took it to a whole other level by referencing it into the dialogue.
AD: Getting back to the boarding house. That was one incredible set piece.
LP: Nick Rafferty and the locations team found this incredible historical building – it’s on the registry of historical buildings. The owners were in the process of restoring it and they let us shoot there. Some of the improvements made by our arts department and construction crew did became part of their restoration. Which was great, because everybody won. That was another Wizard of Oz homage with the house divided in half by the two sisters. One of the sisters was a little more free-wheeling and kinder, and the other one was a lot more rigid and more of a knuckle-rapper. I was really glad that we got to see the house in color. One of the things I really loved about the house that you wouldn’t notice from watching the show was how far off the beat and path it was. The whole crew and cast had to move out into that area of Illinois for two weeks.
When a whole crew is off together like that in such a small area, you really end up coming together – going out to dinner every night and hanging out together. The friends that I made with the group are people I still keep in close touch with because we really went through some moments together. And then when we came back, the pandemic had hit. So, that episode is special to me because I got totally immersed with a director I always admired, I got to do some of the most high-profile effects work of my whole tenure with Noah, and I got to be so close with this small cast and crew. It was like summer camp for gypsies. You’re all embedded making an art project together and the process itself is its own reward. I don’t care if I get accolades or awards for this, the reward for getting to do it is getting to do it. The thrill of living in the moment and getting through those shooting days…I would do it for free. The fact that I get paid for it is a bonus.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.