The Fargo creator on his next big FX series.
Noah Hawley, who’s received a ton of acclaim for his other FX series, Fargo.Coming to FX in early 2017, Legion is a notable inclusion amongst the many comic book adaptations on TV these days thanks to the talent involved. Centered on the Marvel Comics character David Haller (that’s Professor X’s son for those not familiar), Legion marks the first true co-production between Marvel TV and Fox, who hold the X-Men film rights. Marvel’s Jeph Loeb and Jim Chory and X-Men movie producers Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and Bryan Singer are among the executive producers, in a show being guided by
I spoke to Hawley about what drew him to the challenges inherent in Legion, in which David (Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey, The Guest and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast film) claims he’s a mutant, while those around him believe he’s suffering from mental issues. Hawley discussed the show’s 1960s, British-inspired visual style, what appealed to him about Stevens for the lead role and more.
IGN: It’s very easy to be cynical when you see how many TV shows are coming that are based on familiar properties. But then people go, “But Hannibal was great! And Fargo is great!” You’re doing Fargo and now you’re doing a TV show based on a comic book – albeit one that doesn’t have a hugely recognizable name. But still, do you embrace the challenge of overcoming fan cynicism going in, whether it’s Coen Bros. fans or Marvel Comics fans?
Noah Hawley: Yeah, I mean, it was such a bad idea to do Fargo as a show that it was sort of liberating! I look at the challenge with Legion as the same challenge, which was here’s this iconic world – the Marvel world, the comics, and the X-Men world. And as with Fargo, my job was not to remake the movie, to sort of retell a story that had already been told, but to try to tell a different story with the same effect, the same impact. So, you know what was important to me was to treat the material with the utmost respect, and yet at a certain point as a writer, you have to tell your own story. So my approach to the Legion material is similar, which is it’s about a respect for the world, but it’s not about telling stories in that world that the reader is familiar with. It’s about taking that character and really exploring, almost on an existential level, what it’s like… What a television show can do that a movie can’t do is it’s not just a plot delivery device. It’s not about action, it’s about character and theme and as we see in Fargo, you can really play with structure and you can deconstruct the story in a big way. Whereas in a two-hour movie, it’s ‘What’s the problem? Where’s the bad guy? Let’s go get him!’
So, I would be remiss, I feel like, if I didn’t deconstruct this, if I didn’t really try to do something for the genre that feels personal and interesting to me and to really explore if you have a character who for his whole life has believed that he’s schizophrenic, and is now starting to think that he may have these powers, but he doesn’t know and he doesn’t know what’s real – well, that’s the experience the audience should have. To be put into his world is to enter something that’s by definition surreal, because he’s hearing things, he’s seeing things… Are these things real or not real? What can you trust that you’re seeing? And he’s stuck in this moment until he meets a girl [Syd, played by Fargo’s Rachel Keller] and he falls in love and now he’s got something to hope for and that’s the catalyst that pushes everything forward. And, you know, I can never predict the reaction to the work. With Fargo, I could have done my best work and the reaction could have been the complete opposite. I have no control over that, all I can do is tell the best story that I can tell.
IGN: You’ve mentioned that Legion is not set in the X-Men movie universe, where the world at large knows about mutants. Does David have any inkling that there’s other people out there that might have abilities? Or to him is it just, “I don’t know of anything like this, so there’s no reason for me to believe that this is genuine?”
Hawley: Yeah, part of the discovery is that he’s not alone – assuming that this is real and that he’s not alone. But again, there’s the mental illness factor of it. That sense that you can never be completely sure. But because the love story is so tied into this discovery – that he’s not sick, he’s got powers – we the audience really find ourselves hoping that that’s true. Because the other aspect of this which is important, I think, to explore is that mental illness is not… It’s a tragic condition that people have, and so I don’t want to use it for entertainment purposes. There really is a sense, and you’ll see when you see it, that once upon a time he was a little boy who had his whole life ahead of him, and then he began to hear voices and to see things, and ended up institutionalized, and there’s a tragedy, a tragic nature to that. So if we can ground that for the audience, then the idea that he’s fallen in love and that he’s not ill, there’s a hope to that that the audience is gonna grab onto. But never forgetting we feel that hope, because the alternative is loss.
IGN: I’m one of those comic book fans saying, “Wow, this is the Fox/Marvel collaboration people thought would never happen.” Just to see Simon Kinberg and Bryan Singer and Jeph Loeb’s name on one project is notable. Are there obstacles there with so many people involved?
Hawley: No, you know, it’s all new to me, and everyone has gotten along so well that I’m not really familiar with what the underlying issues were. But I think that what’s been very rewarding for me is that because everyone has come together because they are passionate about the material and so if there is a prior conflict, I don’t know about them. I just find that everyone is together and they’re very excited about what we’re doing. And Simon and I have spent a lot of time together. Very early on when I first was flirting with the idea of doing this, I just called Simon because when you can talk to another writer that’s usually the better way to go. And he and I had a few phone calls early on where I said, “For the fun of it, let’s just start brainstorming.” I had a sense of what I wanted to do, and I wanted to get his input because obviously he’s on many levels the creative brain that’s defining what the movies are and what this world is. So, in an abstract way, it began to be clear to me what the show wanted to be, and it’s great to have that sounding board and then to have Marvel as well as a resource. There’s obviously a rich history to this world and these characters, and they have a business model that works very well for them.
IGN: What’s your visual inspiration with Legion? Bill Sienkiewicz’s art for New Mutants [the comic that introduced Legion] was so amazing and distinctive, but it seems unlikely you could do literal translation of that.
Hawley: It has its own visual aesthetic to it, and part of that is being a story kind of out of time and out of place. And the design of a show has to have its own internal logic. You know, you mentioned Hannibal earlier and that show is a great example of something that had this almost fetishistic beauty to everything that you saw, whether it was food or violence. Once we started going down a path of a sort of, for whatever reason, mid-60s British design aesthetic, you have to follow that down the rabbit hole. But those visuals are really powerful. I think that’s why the comics resonate so much, and why those characters are so easy to reinvent by new artists, because suddenly it looks different – it looks completely different. When Frank Miller comes in, that’s a different Batman, you know?
IGN: I’ve seen some Downton Abbey, but I really know Dan from The Guest, which I loved. When he was cast, I was surprised but excited by the idea of him playing this role. What was it that drew Dan to you here?
Hawley: Dan is really accessible. He’s one of those people that is transparent in the best way to an audience. And yet he’s got the ability to close off, and as you saw in The Guest, he can be a very enigmatic character at the same time. But I think what you need in a leading man is their real skill is that you’re able to see what goes on behind their eyes. I’m not a big fan of having characters say their truths out loud, so you have to show them. But still, the audience has to know what’s going on in his head, and Dan is great for that. He’s also a great romantic lead, which I think we’ve seen, and he has a sense of humor, which is important to me. I did ask him, “Are you like a clumsy guy?” Because any version of this show, there’s gonna be some action, there’s gonna be some of that stuff. And I knew from The Guest that he was a physically capable guy but we definitely put him through his paces and he’s great.