Yesterday was a big day for Noah Hawley. Before the Fall, his fifth book – and his first since becoming the award-winning creator and showrunner of FX’s Fargo – debuted to rave reviews(*) and a spot at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. And FX chose Hawley’s publication date to officially order Legion – an X-Men spin-off of sorts (in the comics, the character is Professor X’s son, but the show won’t be connected to the films at all) starring Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, and Rachel Keller – to series.
(*) I raced through my copy of the book – which cuts back and forth between the story of a man who survived a plane crash and the backstories of the passengers who died – then went back and reread large chunks of it again and again. It’s fantastic.
Part of Hawley’s day involved an appearance at Word Bookstore in Jersey City, where we talked about the book and his TV shows. Before we took the stage, I asked him a bit about Legion – and how much, if at all, it’s meant to tie into the universe of the various X-Men films – plans for Fargo season 3 (which will feature Ewan McGregor in a dual role as twin brothers), and the novel.
How much, if anything, did you know about Legion as a character before you got involved with this?
I was an X-Men fan in my teens, the Chris Claremont, Dark Phoenix, Days of Future Passed run, and then I went into a Sandman/Alan Moore phase. I didn’t pay attention to X-Men for a while, so I wasn’t really familiar with the character. Then after the first year of Fargo was made, Loren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, and Simon Kinberg approached Peter Rice at Fox, and FX asked me, “Is there an X-Men-y TV thing?” They were talking about the Hellfire Club, but that didn’t sound interesting to me. I wanted to see, first, is there an interesting show in this genre, and is there a character in that show? I reverse-engineered it in a way to ask, “What else can you do in the genre that isn’t being done?” This was two years ago, so none of the Netflix shows had come out. So I didn’t know there was this avalanche of Marvel shows and Preacher about to descend on the world. So I called Simon Kinberg and said, “Well, let’s think about this?” He writes those movies, and “when in doubt, call the writer” is my feeling. And as we talked about the character of David Haller, who is Legion, there was this possibility for not knowing what’s real. Which is what I found interesting. This was pre-Mr. Robot, even. At this stage, I liked the idea that he was either mentally ill, or had these abilities, or both. I always believe that the structure of a show should reflect the content of a show. So if you have a show about a guy who doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not, the audience should experience that themselves.
In the comics, they’ve shifted over the years exactly what David’s mental condition is. Are they treating him as schizophrenic in your version? Multiple personalities?
The diagnosis that he has when we meet him is schizophrenic. he hears voices, and he sees things that are maybe real or aren’t real, and he’s not sure. I want to explore, on some level, the reality of what it’s like to have those abilities in a more existential way. So it’s not, “You have these powers; now run!” More in the idea that you go through your life with this identity as a crazy person, and then someone comes along and says, “No, actually, you’re perfectly sane, and have the abilities you have,” which sounds like what a crazy person’s thoughts would be. I love the idea that even when you’re in it on the journey, there is this Alice in Wonderland quality to it, of a story within a story.
You mentioned talking with Simon. Does this show take place in continuity with the X-Men movies? Is this a world where mutants have been public with powers?
No, it’s not. It’s a little more of a fable in my mind. If you were to say, “Where is it, and when is it?,” it’s not exactly clear, I think. And a lot of it is because he’s not exactly clear. It’s the world as perceived subjectively on some level. The recent X-Men movies, starting with First Class, are rooted in a time period and a world and playing with history in interesting ways. This isn’t doing that.
So it’s not like people need to go see the recent films to follow what you’re doing.
No. It’s a standalone kind of thing.
It’s funny to me to imagine Jean Smart in a comic book show, even one you’re doing.
I know. On some level, making a series of Coen brothers movies gave me leeway to explore genre and play around with voice in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to get away with on my own. And with this, this is the story we’re telling ourselves now, with all these superhero franchises and movies and TV shows. That’s interesting to me. There’s so many of these characters who are actually invulnerable, and there tends to be a black-and-white morality in some. And with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, you have these tortured anti-heroes, which I find interesting to a degree, but this show is a more whimsical and more surreal kind of look at these characters. I feel like where one can get into trouble is to take these stories from the comics, to take the Dark Phoenix Story and change it. You’re bound to offend somebody, no matter what you do. So instead, I’m taking this character and set-up, and just playing with it.
And you have an advantage: Legion has some history with comic book readers, but he’s not iconic in that way.
Yeah, it’s none of the iconic characters from the movie franchise. I think that’s a strength on some level, because those characters come with rules. It’s hard. You don’t want to be handcuffed, when you’re trying to explore something. The power of making something unpredictable is really an important thing to preserve.
Am I correct in assuming that David is not related to Charles Xavier in this version? Or he could be, and it’s just a different one from the guy in the movies?
He could be. It’s a different story, but I’m not ruling that out.
What is the plan for Fargo season 3?
I’ve got a script. Obviously, I’ve got an actor in Ewan, who’s phenomenal. The writers and i have been breaking story, we have the whole thing worked out, and we’re just crossing the T’s on outlines. We’ll start shooting in the end of November and make 10 more.
Ewan’s at a point in his career where I’m guessing he doesn’t have to audition, but did you at least ask to hear his accent?
I didn’t. That’s probably dangerous. But we’ve had good luck so far. I remember showing Jeffrey Donovan the first episode (of season 2), and it’s him and Kieran (Culkin) and Angus (Sampson) playing brothers, and Jeffrey said, “So, am I the only one who’s doing the accent?” Angus was just this guttural thing, and Kieran wasn’t even trying the accent, but Donovan is doing the hardcore northern Midwestern accent. I don’t want to focus too much on it, accent-wise. We have a dialect coach. So we’ll find something that feels organic.
How’d you come up with the idea of him doing a dual role like this?
To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to do for the third year. And then I took a nap, and I had the story. And part of the story about these two brothers was that they should be played by the same actor. I didn’t overthink it. I just thought that was interesting, and would be exciting for an actor, and it’s great to work with actors of a certain caliber in the film world, and this is a great hook for an actor to want to play with.
With season 2, you knew certain things. We knew Lou, and Hanzee tied in with Moses Tripoli. This is going to be almost entirely a new thing. Is that easier or harder so far?
On a certain level, it’s easier, because you don’t have one of your hands tied behind your back. With the second season, we knew at some point Lou had to be sitting on a front porch with a shotgun, and then the house we got didn’t have a front porch, so, “Alright, fine, he’s sitting on the lawn.” But when in the episode did that happen? There were all these things that we said out loud that we then had to work our way around in the story. Now, we’re not tied to any historical moment or fact or connection, so the fun is, “How is it similar or different? How is it a totally different story, but Fargo?”
With it taking place after the events of the first season, have you given much thought to how much, if at all, you might want to incorporate the survivors of that season?
I have given that a lot of thought, yes.
Would you like to tell me anything about that?
No. It’s fun to find connections, both literal and tangential, either between the movie, or the different years of the show, but the fun of it is to maintain that surprise.
Last year, you had not only the Fargo movie, but Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Have you figured out yet what other Coen touchstones, if any, you might be drawing on with this one?
No, nobody’s starting a dry cleaning business. I don’t want to say it out loud too much. For the second season, the Miller’s Crossing parallel was pretty obvious. But this tends to go back to Fargo. It’s a more intimate story. It’s not as much of an epic, doesn’t have as many moving pieces. But it still needs to have enough moving pieces to allow a certain level of randomness. You know all these things are on a collision course, but you don’t know which of them are going to collide.
Could one of those moving parts be a hula hoop, by chance?
Maybe. That was one thing I think people missed in the second year was my homage to (Hudsucker Proxy). In the Waffle Hut diner, they have a placemat with a circle in the center that says, “You know, for kids!”
I can’t believe I missed that.
Well, it was bloody, and we pan across it, but it’s there.
Is there a Coen movie that you’ve thought over this time, “It’s going to be really hard for me to work in a reference to that,” or are you determined over time to fold them all in in some way?
No, I don’t have an active determination. So I don’t know. And some of them are kind of open to interpretation. Certainly, there’s that moment at the end of season 1 where he’s gotten Billy in the bear trap and is pointing the gun at the door that has a feeling like (Blood Simple). But they’re still making movies, so it’s hard to know where the line is. What I like is, when you make these homages or tell variations on these stories – when you bring three people to a cabin in a kidnapping story, and yet the dynamic is completely different – it creates this weird tension between a story that you know and a story that you don’t know. Is it going to unfold in the same way as the one you know, or not? You’re both reliving a story and watching a new story at the same time.
One of the things I like in common between Fargo and this book is that they can both encompass multiple genres, and jump among them unexpectedly. So suddenly one of your episodes is a documentary about Hanzee, and in this, there are these sudden jumps to a story about Jack LaLanne, or to the different kinds of lives the passengers had before the plane crashed. What pleasure do you take out of mixing these disparate elements in that way?
I think that structural playfulness takes readers out of an expected flow. You realize, “Okay, this book’s going to do something different.” Everything I’m telling you is important; it’s just not being told in a linear fashion. Playing with that idea, again, of truth and fiction. This idea of a guy who survived this plane crash and wound up in the middle of the Atlantic, it just so happens that when he was a kid, he saw Jack LaLanne doing a stunt with boats, and he became a swimmer. The specificity of the details of it adds to the truthiness. Same thing in Fargo. Like, I don’t know if the audience is going to go with me for a UFO story, but it feels grounded, as much as those things can ever be grounded, in the time period, and that level of paranoia, and after Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out. It was in the zeitgeist.
I love the parable sequence we did in the first year of Fargo, and the Goy’s teeth sequence from A Serious Man. There’s the plot – this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened – and then there are all the things you need to know to understand the story. And sometimes, the small details are really important, so you should take that as a departure.
Do you feel like if people are fans of Fargoand come to this book, they’ll feel like they’re in the hands of the same writer?
I think so, but I don’t know for sure. It is a different medium and a different genre. When you take the crime story aspect out of it – they want to call it a thriller, but I think of it more as an emotional thriller. I had this motto for my show The Unusuals, which was “the cases solve the characters, not the other way around.” I think I’ve found a way to have a mystery that is solved by getting to know these people, where the last 100 pages of it aren’t characters reacting to the plot mechanisms, or “Now we have to run from the big bad.” Everyone is on a collision course on some level, which is similar. It’s dramatic, and comedic, and a little magical, I would hope.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org