‘Legion’ Creator Noah Hawley Breaks Down That Trippy Premiere

When I interviewed the producers of the Battlestar Galactica remake for The Revolution Was Televised, David Eick told me their ultimate goal was “To make a space opera that would be appealing for people that hated f–king space operas.” I thought about that line a lot while watching Legion, FX’s new superhero show, which Fargo creator Noah Hawley seemed to have designed specifically to be appealing for people that hated f–king superhero shows. (And for those who love them, too.) So it felt right that in one of Hawley’s first answers during an interview I conducted with him last month at press tour, he brought up BSG on his own.

Below, Hawley and I discuss the look of the series premiere (I reviewed it here), getting to play in a remote corner of the X-Men sandbox, ensuring that people watch Legion as a story and not a puzzle box, and more, all coming up just as soon as I enter the body of a woman and escape from a mental hospital…

When you first got the material, what was going in your head in terms of how you wanted this to look?

When I sat down to write it, there was nothing specifically contemporary about it, but I don’t think I assumed it wasn’t a contemporary story. Then, I guess we talked about, since the movies jump from decade to decade, should we be in there somewhere? Then it just seemed to me like the subjectivity of the show gave us this opportunity to create a reality and I don’t know why, I just found myself drawn to these ’60s movies, British ’60s movies; Terence Stamp movies and Quadrophenia. There was a sense of the young punks and these are a band of outsiders and there is that sense of teenage rebellion that exists in this thing. In a modern day sense I think we’re over that and yet there’s something about that period in us that makes something familiar unfamiliar.

It started with just thinking like, “Well, let’s embrace the brutalist architecture and let’s not have any cars, because cars date something, so then if you’re in a reality without cars, where are you when you’re outdoors?” We shot on this University of British Columbia campus where there were no cars allowed. Then the hair and the costumes, this idea of the track suits that they’re in and all of that was a process of figuring out what it was and then the music plays into that as well. This idea, as I said to our composer Jeff Russo, that the show should sound like Dark Side of the Moon, so he went out and he bought the patch cord synthesizer they use in the show.

It is this mixture of visuals and the sound and music of it that’s trying to create something that’s not about information but that’s about experience.

Yeah. It’s almost a ‘60s vision of what the future would look like.

Right. Some of the elements seem futuristic and some of them seem dated, but I wanted there to be a certain whimsy to it as well, and a playfulness. I always loved about that genre and genre in general was the pure inventiveness of it and the way like a science fiction story. The example I give is Battlestar Galactica, the remake. It’s the Cylons who have God. It takes God and it takes robots and it creates something completely new. It’s not something that you would do in a drama. It’s something you would only do in a genre and so what are the genre elements that will allow us to take a show that would work as a dramatic story, two people in love, trying to define themselves rather than being defined by society and it turns it into something that I hope every week there’s something that blows your mind a little.

There’s obviously a lot going on in terms of visual and sound and everything else. The opening sequence alone with just the series of tableaux to “Happy Jack,” that’s like a whole hour’s worth of stuff in about three minutes right there.

I thought the tragedy of mental illness is that there was a time in these people’s lives where they didn’t have it. It hadn’t manifested yet and everyone was a baby at one point, and a toddler with nothing but potential and there’s a three minute opening montage that when you meet a character as a baby and you walk yourself through their lives and then you end up with him putting his head in a noose. You’re emotionally invested in this guy, in this story, and it feels real and grounded and it’s visual. It’s visual story telling and that was really appealing to me.

Obviously David’s mental illness gives you a lot of leeway, and the busyness of it captures that. Was there a point at which you ever found yourself worrying or asking your DP, “Is this too much? Is there a certain point at which we’re just calling attention to ourselves?

I think those conversations were probably had. There’s a Bollywood dance number we put in there, you know. The network was very patient with me because it’s not like that dance number was in the script. It was just a love story montage. I ended up using it somewhere else in the story, but it was about defining the world for the audience and that’s what the first hour has to do, and to say there is whimsy to it and music is a part of it. It’s not a musical but you should expect the unexpected, I guess.

David alone has, in theory, an infinite number of powers. You get a bunch of these other characters with their own abilities that seem to, for the most part, be your own creations, so you can give them the powers to do whatever you want. What was that process like of figuring out, for instance, what Syd can do?

For me it was about creating characters and saying, what makes a tragic love story? A tragic love story is about people who want to be together but can’t be together for one reason. If they physically can’t touch then that creates this seemingly unleapable obstacle. Then it became about her having a power where she couldn’t be touched, and obviously I think there are characters in comic book lore who have different versions of, “If you touch me, something happens.” I took the creative license to say, “Well this is my version of that.” The danger with a character with a hundred issues of mythology is you’re always turning around and realizing you can’t do something because someone’s going to get mad or it’s going to conflict with what they know and it’s going to be confusing.

It just seemed more and more that I could take David and take this multiple personality disorder that he has in the comic and I could create a sort of metaphorical version of that, which is not to say we won’t ultimately realize that’s what he has, but it’s to say that that’s not what he’s diagnosed with in the show. Then to surround him with characters of my own invention so that I’m not hamstrung about what stories I can tell.

There has been a recent TV trend of unreliable narrators. How do you keep the audience from looking at the show as a puzzle to solve?

You have to solve the mystery. The narrator has to become reliable. It’s a lot to ask an audience to take a perpetually unsatisfying journey where it’s like you’re never going to know for sure. It’s another thing to say, “We’re going to take a character out of confusion into clarity and an audience out of mystery into clarity.” That’s the goal of it which is to say, there’s a contract and you watch that first hour and you like, “I don’t know. There’s a devil with yellow eyes and there are these other elements that I’m not sure what they mean, but I trust the filmmaker and I know that I’m going to understand it eventually.” You do. It becomes clear by the end of the first year what’s going on.

This is a very different kind of show for you. What was the adjustment period like? How much more confident did you feel in this world by the end of the season than you did when you were making the pilot?

It’s a different language, a visual language and any time you’re creating a show that exists only in your head, it becomes very difficult with writers and directors to communicate that vision and to have them channel it in some real way. We’re trained as storytellers that conflict is drama, all these sorts of things are a way that a story is supposed to be told, and if you’re telling them you’re not going to do it that way, you can say it ’til the cows come home but can they do it? Can they understand it? I think that was the learning curve of the first year is, “Oh, I’m going to have to do this myself.” Not in the way that Sam [Esmail] is doing it. I’m not going to direct all of them or anything like that. Hopefully the first eight creates a visual language and a set of rules that are then channelable.

I’ve seen the first two episodes. Yours has a very different energy than the second one and you had 21 days and Michael [Uppendahl] had eight days.

He had 16, because he shot two [episodes] together. Those were the only ones we cross boarded. Then some of them we just needed more time. We would have to go to the network and say, “This is 10 days.” Or, “This is 11 days.” They’re not good calls to have but what are you going to do? It’s a huge show.

One of the things I remember about Fargo last season was some of the more visually adventurous episodes were coming right in the middle when you would have been in the weeds production-wise.

Yeah. It’s what I love to do is not make something that feels like a TV show. In other words, you’re not writing standing sets. The story is moving. Every week the story is moving, either physically or, in this case, conceptually moving and therefore where you end and where you begin are so different that it’s really hard to say, “Okay, well, we leave the hospital and go to Summerland,” and then we’re just at Summerland for seven hours. It’s like, no it’s not that. It’s like all these other things. You end up building a lot and you’re out a lot and it’s a different animal.

There are plenty of shows that fill the box and I don’t know that I’m interested in — not in a pretentious way, it’s just this is where the story’s going for me.

Jeph [Loeb] and Lauren [Shuler Donner] both seem very enthusiastic with everything you’ve done, but this is different from anything else Marvel or Fox has done so far. Were you running up against any “convince me” moments?

There were moments where I thought that there would be a notes call with Marvel and their note would just be, “Uhhh,” but that never happened. They embraced the fact that they weren’t responsible for this show in the same way, and it didn’t fit into the big picture of the other work they’re doing and in the best way I think they felt like, “We trust this guy and we want to see what he does and we like what he does and our role is to protect the franchise and make sure that you’re not breaking the rules of the sort of universe that we have created and et cetera,” but they were really supportive.

With Rachel [Keller], I got the sense that her part was not going to be as big in Fargo season two, and you found yourself liking her?

I did like her. She had a very critical story to tell, which was that she was involved with Mike Milligan’s character. And that, of course, required servicing, and I’d written the first six I think before we started. Definitely seeing what she could do and the episode that she goes out in was written knowing that she could do those things. For this show, I didn’t write it for her. She auditioned for it and she took it. There was no one else who came close. It’s hard to find actors who are both comedic and dramatic and vulnerable and strong and just have this quality to them and she does, as Dan does, and Bill Irwin and all of them. You’re like, “Oh I want more about this person.”

I just want to hear Bill Irwin talk about anything.

The first dailies I saw of him, he just made me so happy because, as I said at the panel, he had no scripted lines. I said to FX, “We need to hire him now while we’re making the pilot,” and, “Here’s how I see the role,” and, “I see it as having the sort of physical comedy identity and this short of vaudevillian thing.” I had seen Bill’s first one man show when I was a teenager, The Invention of Flight, and he is an astonishing American artist and a great dramatic actor and it was so fun to give him a role that allowed him to be both sides of his range. You know what I mean? In the same role, which I think he was thrilled about.

I was surprised that Aubrey Plaza was doing another series, and then you get to two-thirds of the way through the pilot, and I thought, “Oh, okay that’s how she’s doing it.” But she’s a continuing presence on the show.

She was asked in the TCA panel, “How did you approach this role if you die?,” and she said, “I just try to play each scene the best I could.” I think that’s the truth. It might sound funny but it’s the truth. I was always clear with her about the role and what it was and where it went, but it’s not clear in the story until you’re a few hours in, and there are elements that she had to play that would really just involve, “I’m just going to be in this moment and do what’s called for in this moment and I’m not going to worry about, oh, what’s my backstory?” She was great. She’s a revelation. She’s the most spontaneous and kinetic actor and she’s funny and she’s controversial. You know what I mean? She’s perfectly excited to just break all the rules and that was great for us.

She says Lenny was written as a man. What kind of actor did you have in mind before she came?

No. I don’t know that I had a specific actor in mind. I had this sidekick kind of character in the hospital and it went somewhere else. I had met with her at some point and it just seemed really interesting to me. I’m always open to that and once it’s time to like, “You wrote it but now you have to make it [something else].” Is it Jeffrey Donovan in that role, which he’s never done before, so unexpected from him? I just had a sense from her of what she could do and I really love taking comedic performers and using them in unexpected ways.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com