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How embracing the uncanny led to the unique look and feel of 'Legion'

Rachel Keller and Dan Stevens star in
Rachel Keller and Dan Stevens star in "Legion" as Syd Barrett and David Haller, two mutants whose powers aren't understood by those around them.
Chris Large/FX
Rachel Keller and Dan Stevens star in
"Legion" creator/showrunner Noah Hawley (holding cup) works behind the scenes on FX's new superhero series.
Chris Large/FX

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There are plenty of superheroes in movies and on TV these days, but "Legion" makes it clear that there's still room for more.

The show exists within the "X-Men" universe and centers on the character David Haller, who's been told he's schizophrenic. But others try to convince David that his reality is altered, instead, by his superpowers, which include telekinesis and telepathy.

“Legion” airs on FX on Wednesday nights, and it debuted last week to rave reviews and huge ratings. In many ways, the series feels more like a psychedelic immersion in the landscape of Haller’s mind instead of a comic book show. And that subversive approach can be credited to the series’ creator and showrunner, Noah Hawley, who previously adapted the Coen Brothers’ cult classic, “Fargo,” for the small screen.

There is still some "X-Men" DNA in “Legion.” Among the show’s executive producers is Lauren Shuler Donner, who has been running that movie franchise, producing every film since 2000. 

When John Horn sat down with Hawley and Donner on the Fox lot recently, they talked about the series' distinct visual language, the timeliness of X-Men's message of inclusion, and how their pursuit of the uncanny made the show unique.

Interview Highlights:

It's clear from the first episode that you're making very specific choices about the look and the feel of the show, from the cinematography and production design to the composition of shots and the use of music. When you're talking to your department heads about the things you want to keep consistent, what were those things you kept coming back to? Were they emotions? A feel? A look?

Hawley: The comic book is called "The Uncanny X-Men," and I really fixated on that word, uncanny. It's such a fascinating word. Sigmund Freud wrote this essay about the uncanny, which is really about what it is about the supernatural or the horror genre that's so frightening to people.

He fixed on something that I found really interesting, which is that the scariest things are not new things — the scariest things are when familiar things operate in unfamiliar ways. In a haunted house story, your house isn't supposed to do those things, right? A child's not supposed to be possessed.

Those elements create this sense of the uncanny, this unsettling sense, and to the degree that a mental illness is kind of a haunted house story, and the fact that those elements are laid into the show, that became something that we would talk about with our department heads. A lot of times, they're looking for linear or literal translations of things — costumes, justifications for things.

It makes the script coordinators crazy because of the continuity issues, but in my mind, David's memory of an event and the reality of an event are two different things, so continuity isn't an issue for me. There was a learning process for everyone, myself included, in terms of designing the show and thinking about the logic of it.

The X-Men, as a group of stories, are distinguished by this idea that the things that make people look to be outsiders, or mutants, are actually gifts, or things that can be incredibly powerful. David's a bit different, because he suffers from mental illness, and mental illness is something he struggles with because of how it affects his reality. As David's medical condition becomes part of the story, how do you use it in what you think is a respectful way, but also in a way that illuminates what its possibilities might be for David?

Hawley: We had a scene in the pilot that didn't make it into the final cut. It was this moment where he's talking to his psychiatrist, and behind the psychiatrist we see this man levitate up into view outside the window. And it turns out that he's a window-washer, but there's a moment for David where you understand that this is his reality.

He sees things that sometimes aren't there, and then sometimes he sees things that really are there but are just odd. If he were to acknowledge that there was a guy floating outside the window when he wasn't there, he would seem crazy. But if he were to act strangely about looking away from a guy washing the window, he also seems a little nuts.

I think the dynamic of the mental illness — obviously he's told for most of his life that he has a mental illness. And then he's rescued from this place and he's told that he doesn't, that actually these are his powers, that he's telepathic, he's telekinetic, et cetera.

And then there's a third possibility — maybe it's both, and maybe having this power and having been treated as mentally ill all these years has certainly created a personality that he has. The power and the character dynamic are the same in a way that's really exciting as a writer to explore.

Donner: And that's the part of the X-Men franchise that is in "Legion." Usually a character's power defines the character.

The X-Men movies have been, to a lot of people, very clear in terms of having a message about what it means to be considered an outsider, and what it means to be set apart from the rest of society. Do you think there's a similar thematic message that carries through to "Legion," in terms of how people judge [others] who are different from themselves?

Donner: Oh, very much so. Tolerance is at the core of "Legion" and the X-Men franchise, and I don't think you can tell a story within the X-Men world without it being about an outsider in some respect.


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