Warning: The following contains spoilers for Wednesday’s Legion series premiere.
It’s understandable if you came out of Legion‘s total mind-warp of a series premiere with lots of questions. Heck, by the end, even the main character wants to know: “Is this real?!”
Wednesday’s premiere of the FX superhero drama (based on the Marvel comic) introduces us to David Haller, a troubled patient at a psychiatric hospital. When new patient Syd arrives, David falls in love — and gets zapped by a supernatural force when he tries to kiss her. Suddenly, he’s switched bodies with Syd, a nefarious government organization is interrogating him, we learn David is a mutant with telekinetic powers, he’s rescued by a team of outcasts… and oh yeah, there’s a massive war going on outside. So you can see why even David is confused.
Luckily, we have Legion creator Noah Hawley, who wrote and directed the pilot, to help explain all of this for us. TVLine sat down with Hawley to make sense of David’s surreal journey, explore the cinematic influences behind Legion‘s distinctive look and get a preview of what’s next for David and his merry band of mutants.
TVLINE | First of all, I can really relate to David when he asks Syd at the end: “Is this real? Are you real?”
[Laughs] Yeah, every time you walk out a door, you’re like, “Where am I?” You’ve been in this hospital, and suddenly you’re in this interview room, and then you’re in a pool… and then when you run out of the pool, you’re in this crazy cliffside. So there is this sense of “Is this real?” I think that’s interesting: this idea of “If something feels real, maybe that’s as important as if it is real.”
But the love story [between David and Syd], as long as that’s real, we’ll go anywhere. You’ve got to give an audience something to root for. The minute you get into more dystopian shows, where everything’s really dark, and no one has any hope, and there’s no positive goal we’re working toward, it’s a bummer. You run out of gas with them. Because you need to know, “What am I in this for? What am I rooting for?” And it can’t just be about a negative. It can’t just be about the destruction of something. It has to be about the creation of something.
TVLINE | David’s mental illness is a big theme in the pilot. So is his biggest battle the one he has within his own mind?
The most dangerous thing, when you have a serious mental illness, is convincing yourself that you don’t have it. And you see it all the time. People get on medication, and they feel better, and they stop taking it. And some flirt with unreality on some levels. But it feels so convincing to them that it feels real. So I think that part of the story is important. I think this idea of fighting the enemy within is sort of more interesting than fighting an external enemy. This is a guy who, for twenty years, has been trained to think one way, and is trying to think another way, but his own mind is sort of fighting back.
You know the X-Men [comic book] is called The Uncanny X-Men, right? And that word “uncanny”… Sigmund Freud has an essay about the uncanny, and what it talks about is: When familiar things operate in unfamiliar ways, it’s really unsettling. Which is why haunted-house stories are so scary. Because a house isn’t supposed to do that. So we really steered into that idea of the uncanniness of this story.
TVLINE | OK, some quick practical questions: Was the mental hospital connected to the government agency interrogating David?
No, they’re separate. It’s not until he uses his powers in a big way — or Syd does, when she’s transferred over — that he does something loud enough for them to hear. And then they come to get him, and they end up with her.
TVLINE | Will we see Aubrey Plaza again, even though Lenny was killed in the pilot?
There’s a story, yeah. There’s an identity, a mystery to it. We are exploring memory, and the reliability of memory. And if your whole life, you thought you were mentally ill and you have all those memories, then that’s the reality. But what if some of those memories aren’t real? What are you, really, and how do you figure that out? But she plays a character that evolves. And it was a challenge for [Aubrey], I’m sure, to say, “Wait, I thought I was this person Lenny, but now who am I?” It’s not clear, necessarily, over the first few hours, and then it becomes clear.
TVLINE | What about that grotesque creature that David sees, the Devil With the Yellow Eyes? Do we learn more about that in future episodes?
We do. Again, it’s sort of detached from information in the first couple of hours. It’s compelling because it’s such a horrifying image, and we know that it means something, but we don’t know what it means. In the way, in Twin Peaks, that those first images of Bob… you would see things. I talked a lot about how, in Mulholland Drive, that scene in the [diner] is one of the scariest scenes ever committed to film. It’s daylight, it’s a conversation, there’s nothing frightening in it. But there’s something about the oddness, the uncanniness of the scene. So we always looked at that as an opportunity.
TVLINE | That epic final battle scene: Was that all filmed in one long tracking shot?
It was. It’s certainly ambitious on a TV schedule. A lot of moving pieces, a lot of rehearsal, a lot of luck… some visual effects, but not a crazy amount. Because my feeling was: The more you can do these things practically, the more believable they’ll be. Even if everything’s flying around in the kitchen. We shot that with a repeatable camera arm, high-speed, high-frame. So we blew everything out of those drawers and cabinets, and we filmed it, and then we put David in the now-clean room and we filmed it. And then we composited the two together. And the same with the table in the interrogation room. Your eye knows when something is practical. But it’s a challenge on a TV schedule.
TVLINE | I see all kind of film-geek influences in the look of Legion: Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson. What were some of your visual influences?
Well, I wanted it to have a distinctive visual style, and a humor to it. But not in the sort of quippy way that some of the [comic-book] stories are told. More just: Smart people are funny, and these are smart people. And also, there’s a playfulness to the genre that I feel should be in there. Which there is, obviously, in Wes’s work. And Kubrick was playing in a different way… there’s an air of menace in the way that Kubrick uses the camera, or [David] Fincher uses the camera, in a sense of framing and just ambience and atmosphere.
Kubrick has this quote, which I’ll butcher, but he talks about how filmmaking should be more like music. The meaning and the information of it is not your first experience. It’s experienced emotionally, and it’s experienced visually. So I wanted to create something that was more of an experience-delivery device, and not necessarily an information-delivery device.
TVLINE | And the music seems very British Invasion, with the Who and the Rolling Stones.
It’s a very distinctive musical sound. I told the composer a couple years ago that it should sound like Dark Side of the Moon. And he went out and got those patch-cord synthesizers from that album. So much is created in that mix of sound and image, and the mood that it creates.
FX knows how important music is, and they saw the power of it. We spent an ungodly sum on the second year [of Fargo], and I kept waiting for them to stop me. But I think they understand it enhances the experience geometrically, when you feel like there’s this soundtrack to it… which you also kind of need if you’re going to say, “Is this period? Or is this modern?” So yeah, it’s part of the fun of it.
TVLINE | What can we expect to see in the weeks to come?
There is a sense that there is a war going on between the sort of government agency and these people with abilities who are just being discovered. There’s a sense, on Jean [Smart]’s character’s part, of “We have to get to them before they get to them.” But hers is a more mothering role, to say, “I don’t want to weaponize you. I want to help you understand who you really are.” That’s something she’s done with all the people there. But when she starts to do it with David, weird things start to happen. And she realizes that the enemy within might be more powerful than the enemy without.
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