May 4, 2017, 10:39 AM EDT (Updated)
Executive producers Noah Hawley, Laura Shuler Donner and Jeph Loeb appeared with the cast of Legion at the Television Critics Association to talk about how FX's first Marvel co-production is going to be very different kind of superhero drama.
"This is the kind of show Marvel's never made before," Marvel Head of Television, Jeph Loeb said.
He's not wrong, as Hawley's loose adaptation of the Marvel mutant character, David Haller (Dan Stevens), is a highly-stylized drama focusing on Haller's life-long diagnosis as a schizophrenic who comes to discover in the pilot that he might not be mentally ill but actually have repressed telekinetic powers.
Loeb continued that Legion fits the Marvel universe because it's all about character and story. "With Legion, it redefines the genre in a new way. Are there too many superhero shows? Is there a place of saturation? The two responses are do we ask those questions about cop shows, legal and medical shows? No. Marvel also doesn't start out with a person defined by his powers. This is a story about what is happening to David. In particular, the X-Men franchise is one that can bend the rules. There were quiet issues where they just play baseball. It wasn't a save-the-universe world."
With a pilot written and directed by Hawley, the showrunner told reporters that from the start he wanted to approach the narrative from a subjective standpoint. "The first thought I had at looking at the genre was if we remove the genre is there a compelling show that you would want to watch? The underlying show has to be about character and story, so that's what attracted me to it, finding the David storyline. Then it was introducing Rachel Keller's character [Syd Barrett] and this idea of an epic love story. And then it was putting the genre back into it because we have a character who's not sure what is real or not real, so the show is subjective."
The pilot features a very mod design aesthetic that creates the feel of a period piece but has modern sensibilities in terms of its dialogue and execution. The majority of effects are in-camera, which Hawley joked was a challenge for subsequent episodic directors to traverse when he had 21 days to film the visually ambitious first episode.
"Visually, it felt to me like an opportunity not to have it present day/real world," Hawley detailed. "David's perception of reality feels retro and futuristic, so it was important to make something unique. And the pilot is a sales document to pull people in, establish the world and get the actors into these characters. It's a hard show to make on a TV schedule. There are a lot of elements, not just CG. There was one day on the pilot that was upside-down day, so you're not just setting up a camera with two people talking. We're trying to tell the story with the camera and the visuals. I trained a lot of the crew on Fargo, so we're ambitious."
As to the ensemble cast led by Stevens and Fargo vets Rachel Keller and Jean Smart, Hawley said, "When I wrote the second episode, it was very important that in the end of the first episode David goes from where he was to somewhere new, so the world needed to be fully realized and filled out. I had a lunch with Bill Irwin [who plays Cary Loudermilk] in New York, but he wasn't scripted yet. I had to pitch him the weird, crazy character dynamic and that the show is about memory and identity. He was nice enough to come and work with us. I was looking for people to embody the characters. I felt it was important with Dan's character, because we meet him at a mental institution, that the danger is he's a character very inward focused which can be distancing for the audience. Dan brought the sense that no matter the problem, he is always going to solve it, which is very heroic."
Emmy-award winning actress Jean Smart said she was wooed by Hawley after working together on the second season of Fargo to play the Professor X-esque character of Melanie Bird. "When Noah first talked to me about this, he described her as a rescuer, which appealed to me very much," she said. "She gets more fun for me when my husband's character gets introduced, as she hasn't seen him in decades. He's been on an astral plane, which is a hard rendezvous," she joked.
"Jemaine Clement plays my husband," she revealed, "which is a big thrill because I am a huge fan. He's a delightful person. And what an extraordinary thing to play, not seeing your husband for 20 years."
Legion premieres February 8 on FX.