Showrunner Noah Hawley, who had such a compelling and original take on Fargo for FX that it’s become one of the must-see shows on that (or any) network, is now taking on Legion, based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. In the trippy series, David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a troubled young man who was diagnosed as schizophrenic as a child, leading to him being in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years, but he may not actually be sick, at all. When David meets a troubled new patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), the two are inexplicably drawn to one another and David must confront the shocking possibility that what is happening to and around him is a result of him being more than human.
During a recent conference call to promote the series debut, executive producer/writer/pilot director Noah Hawley spoke to members of the media about developing this unique take on a superhero story, collaborating with the network throughout the development, bringing a sense of inventiveness and whimsy to the material, having such a high-stakes lead character, finding the look of the show, what this genre allows you to explore, how much inspiration he draws from the comics, portraying mental illness, giving his actors extensive music playlists, and how he’s juggling everything that he’s got going on now.
Question: Because there is such a unique approach to the storytelling on this show, was it a tough sell, at all, to tell this narrative from the mental interior of a seemingly schizophrenic mind, and what are the biggest challenges in setting up and telling the story and taking audiences on the journey of a guy who’s one of the most powerful people alive, but who also doesn’t really know what he can do or how to do it?
NOAH HAWLEY: It helped that Fox and FX were interested in taking on this universe, and they came to me. It wasn’t that I was trying to sell them, necessarily. But I also had conversations with John Landgraf about the genre, itself. His feeling, like mine, was that the only reason to take on this genre on FX was if we thought we could make an FX show out of it and do something different than other people were doing. I think they’re hard-wired to look for a different way to tell a story. I think the love story of it is very grounding. When you have a character that doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not real, and the audience is on that journey with him, if you give them something positive to root for, they’ll make you a trade. They’ll say, “As long as this girl is real and this love is real, we’ll go with you, wherever you want to go.” Even though the script and the episode that you watch are the same, they’re very different. Nowhere in the scripts do you feel like the reality looks the way the show looks. It wasn’t scripted to be this hybrid A Clockwork Orange/Quadrophrenia world. That was just part of the development process, once I took it on as a director and started thinking about what the physical laws of the world were and how the powers worked. I wanted to bring a sense of inventiveness and whimsy to the material, as well. As with anything, it exists in your mind, and then you have to execute it and put down on film what you saw in your mind. In the best world, you have a partner that trusts you and goes with you. That said, I created a look-book and had a couple of very specific reference points, and we led them through every step. I put a lot into hair and make-up tests and the music that I use. Every opportunity that the network has to interact with the show should feel like the show. I want them to see how the characters look, how the music goes, and how I’m filming it, so they have a sense of what the show is going to be. There’s a lot of trust, but I also am very collaborative.
Do you see this as the next generation of superheroes on TV?
HAWLEY: My goal was to write a character where the abilities that he has are just a part of who he is. I can’t speak for any kind of movement or sense that this is the next generation. This is just the story that was interesting to me to say, even if you strip the genre out of it, would it still be a great show? Is there something interesting there? This idea of a subjective reality and the down-the-rabbit-hole quality to the story played nicely into his own issues and the fact that he’s spent the last 15 years or so not knowing what’s real. His biggest struggle is to accept that what’s happening to him is real. The danger is, if it’s not and if it’s a psychotic break or a symptom of his illness and he accepts it as real, he may never recover from that. The stakes for him, as a character, are really high, which is what made it so interesting.