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.