Noah Hawley on crafting a completely different superhero series with Legion

It's no hyperbole that writer and executive producer Noah Hawley's take on the Marvel world in FX's Legion is the most unique television take on a superhero story out there. Netflix may have a lock on the gritty Hell's Kitchen corner of the universe, but Legion is a surreal, existential approach to the burden of being different.

It's no surprise that Hawley has found a defiantly different way to approach a genre that's certainly on the precipice of fatigue with a dozen current or in-development superhero series on the tube. With The Unusuals, three seasons of Fargo and now Legion, Hawley's askance approach to typical series tropes is what makes his shows stand out in the "Peak TV" crowd.

With Legion, Hawley directed and wrote the eye-popping pilot [that we here at Syfy Wire love] that takes the relatively obscure eponymous Marvel comic character David Haller (Dan Stevens) and creates a trippy Gondry-esque exploration of mental illness and perception.

In a recent conference call interview, Hawley says FX's John Landgraf was all-in with approaching the show from left field. "The only reason to take on the genre on FX is if we felt we could make a FX show out of it," Hawley details. "They are hardwired to look for a different way to tell a story. I think the love story [between David and Syd (Rachel Keller)] is also very grounding. When you have a character who doesn't know what is real or not real, and the audience is on the journey with him, if you give them something positive to root for, they will make you a trade. As long as the girl is real and the love is real, we'll go where you want to go."

At the Television Critic's Association Winter tour, we talked more with Hawley about how closely he hewed to the Marvel X-Men universe when crafting the series, the aesthetic of the series and how he narratively framed the eight-hour first season.

Legion has a very distinct, retro, out-of-place vibe to it. Why go with a vague visual setting for the series?

These latest X-Men movies take place in the '60s, '70s and '80s, so there is a period-ness to the movies. By hiding the period [in the series], the question is more open-ended and it allows us to prove ourselves and stand on our own two feet. With the first year of Fargo, for the first three hours there was no connection to the movie at all so the audience felt it was working on its own. Then in the fourth hour, we introduced the money from the movie and suddenly it was connected. But by that point we had earned the right to be judged on our own merits.

Was there any burden to look to Marvel comic or even recent X-Men film mythology to construct this series around?

I suppose I have. There's nothing on a white board with a lot of squiggly lines. For me, the show isn't an information delivery device, right? It's an experience delivery device. There is information in there that can often be separated from its meaning. You're seeing things that are important because [David] is seeing them, but you don't necessarily understand what they mean yet. It creates something that is a little surreal, which isn't something that TV normally does, since Twin Peaks or Hannibal. There's information that you will understand down the line, but right now what's important is the experience of being in his mind.

Like experiencing David turning a huge volume knob in the pilot?

What's funny about that is that it was written in, and then he did the scene and I saw the episode, and we needed the giant volume knob. I wrote to the production designer and he created that great effect and we shot it on the last day of production and put it into the show.

Do you apply any of the 'rules' of the universe?

We obviously had a conversation based on the movies, where in the second-to-last movie mutants became public knowledge. Our idea is that they are not public knowledge. So it was a lot about where are we and how do we play with those rules. The other thing X-Men has is a lot of alternate universes. I'm not saying [the show is] one of those. I'm saying the rules are flexible enough that I can place the show and say, "Just watch it. Experience it and then we'll talk."

What's been freeing about writing a genre show?

What I always got from the genre is a sense of wonder, and the inventiveness. If you look at the remake of Battlestar Galactica, there was the idea that the robots were religious, which was a such a fascinating idea. To say on an existential level, what is it really like to be these people [in Legion]? This idea that David, in the comics, has a multiple personality disorder, which is not something we are literally doing this year, but you are seeing facets of things that make you wonder, as in The Wizard of Oz, like a little bit of you were there, and you were there, and you were there, and they are all parts of him in some level.

Did you see Dan Stevens in The Guest to clue you in that he could play a world away from Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey?

I did! He was very commanding and competent with none of the melodrama that was required on [Downton Abbey]. The other thing about Dan is that he really embraced the genre. A lot of times when you are forced to act against a tennis ball [for green screen effects], it can be really off-putting for an actor. But I think he implicitly accepted that was part of the role and he threw himself into it in a way that felt very grounded and real and emotional.

David is so powerful in the comics, yet you start him so vulnerable and unaware of who he is.

I think it's a goal to reach. If you start there with a character, he becomes a lot less relatable off the bat. I needed you to root for David, and empathize with David, and feel like he's an everyman on some level. He could be you. You need to pull people into the show in order to work toward something that heightened.

How did you construct the series, as in will there be a cliffhanger to end the season like the comics or films might do, or is this self-contained storytelling?

It ends a chapter. Even though it's a recurring series, and not a limited series, there is a beginning, middle and end to the first season, and there would be to the second season as well. I think it's important to think of them in that way.

If Legion is a success, would you be called to craft a FX TV universe like Netflix or ABC?

I'm so tired right now. (Laughs)

Legion premieres tonight on FX.

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