Noah Hawley and Dan Stevens explain 'Legion's' trippy visuals and comic book origins
FX's foray into comic book-inspired shows premiered last night, marking the small screen debut of the lesser-known Marvel mutant, Legion.
Legion can be hard to take in at first. Watching is like stepping into main character David Haller's mind, which is a drug-addled patchwork of pain and confusion due to his schizophrenia. The show follows David's journey through the mundane routine of yet another mental hospital to the slow realization that the voices in his head may be a result of immense power, not illness.
During recent conference calls, creator Noah Hawley and star Dan Stevens explained some of the more complex concepts in Legion and revealed influences behind its surrealism.
Review: Legion is a hypnotic journey into the mind of a lesser-known Marvel mutant
On Legion's X-Men roots
The show is inspired by the titular Marvel comics character, but doesn't directly adapt the lesser-known mutants storylines.
"My goal was to write the man, and to write a character with abilities that are just a part of who is he," Hawley said. "His issues are driven as much on a human scale as on a comic book scale."
Hawley injects some original flavor into David's story, essentially stripping out the traditional comic book genre and giving a "down the rabbit hole" quality to the show.
"His perception of the world may not feel like anything we recognize, some things may feel retro or even futuristic."
When it came to the show's traditional X-Men influences Hawley said he liked the idea that the "X-Men universe is one with a lot of moral grayness."
"The idea that a character is on a journey that could end heroically or tyrannically, I find that really fascinating," he said. "All these characters (in Legion) are struggling with that."
A heady mix of pop culture influences
Both Hawley and Stevens gave some insight into how the actors and producers got into Legion's hypnotic headspace.
Hawley said he created extensive playlists for the actors heavy on early electronic music and even Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to establish a "sonic identity for the show."
Stevens said Hawley also had him watch a 2014 video of CNN's Anderson Cooper doing a schizophrenia simulator test. He said Hawley gave him the simulator sample and said "go shopping, let this tape play in your head for a while."
While the simulator is just a sample of what it can sound like to constantly hear voices in your head, it's a harsh reminder of the some of the terrifying things roughly one percent of the population suffers from.
Whimsical storytelling style
There's a certain level of playfulness that goes into creating a comic book-inspired show, Hawley said.
"The genre allowed you a dynamic place to explore big concepts," he said, citing Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore as some of his literary inspirations.
"(Legion) wasn't scripted to be this Quadrophenia-A Clockwork Orange feel, but I wanted to do something more experimental," he said.
An innovative portrayal of mental illness
Legion depicts mental illness in ways most shows would steer clear of. Steven's David isn't a reliable narrator and neither is Hawley. Instead of telling the story from an outsider looking in on David's mental state, viewers get to step inside his mind to figure out what's really going on.
"I didn't want to turn mental illness into a cartoon or use it as a gimmick," Hawley said. "But it's a serious part of the story."
FX's series doesn't adapt Legion's comic book stories like, say, Netflix's Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It's definitely not your typical superhero show.
Stevens said he was big into reading X-Men comics when he was younger and loved the idea of mutations and how they're dealt with.
"The sense of wonder and awe, the cosmic ideas at play," he said. "Those always appealed to me."
He said he did consult with some of the original Marvel material to get an idea of who Legion is as a character and what he becomes, but he didn't get too invested.
"(I am) not quite going for the full Legion hair yet," he said.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @chelseatatham.