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Noah Hawley Talks Bringing LEGION to a Dreamlike Close

For two seasons, Legion has challenged the way audiences see comic adaptations. Inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero (and X-Men spinoff book) of the same name, the show has explored mental illness, moral ambiguity and the very nature of reality itself through the feverish creativity of Noah Hawley, a storyteller who’s no stranger to idiosyncratic points of view (as a writer on Bones) or unconventional interpretations of familiar material (as showrunner on Fargo). Season three of Legion will be its last, and in those final eight episodes Hawley delivers a cathartic odyssey into David Heller’s topsy-turvy world that promises a different kind of resolution than sci-fi and comic book fans may expect. Nerdist recently spoke with Hawley about the process of developing the show’s final season.

LEGION -- "Chapter 20" - Season 3, Episode 1 (Airs Mon, June 24, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Lauren Tsai as Switch. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

You’ve said previously said that Legion was envisioned as a three season show. How thoroughly had you plotted out what you wanted it to build towards?

My own specific take on storytelling is that the ending is what gives the story meaning, and it’s hard for me to start a story that I don’t know how it ends. So part of this whole venture for me has been with this end in mind as something to build up to. But that doesn’t mean that I had mapped out every landmark and place that we wanted to go, so that becomes part of the fun of it. You know what note you have to end on, but what are the notes that lead up to that?

How beholden have you attempted to be to the source material at this point, and how tough has it been to merge your own creative impulses with that over the course of the series?

I approached Legion in the way that I approached Fargo, which is with great respect to the underlying material and also a desire to tell my own story. And to the degree that this world that we’re in connects to the X-Men, what I looked at from the X-Men was more thematic. What I really appreciate about that world is its embrace of moral complexity—the fact that the first movie starts in a concentration camp, so clearly the franchise is concerned with the nature of real human evil.

And then it develops into a franchise that basically is about these two polar opposite characters, Charles Xavier and Magneto. And Magneto says the human race is afraid of us and they’re going to kill us, and he’s right. And then Charles Xavier says, “No, we can teach them and they can learn to accept us,” and he’s also right. That’s a fascinating duality to have at the center of your show. Not, “You’re my enemy and I have to kill you.” It’s that sometimes we’re on opposite sides and sometimes we’re on the same side and that’s more interesting to me.

LEGION -- "Chapter 20" - Season 3, Episode 1 (Airs Mon, June 24, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Dan Stevens as David Haller. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

The show looks really expensive in terms of the design and the visual effects. How difficult has it been to balance stories that explore different locations and ideas and satisfy the limitations of a TV budget?

We push our boundaries, but at the end of the day, I think we’re very responsible producers. We’re always bursting at the seams, but we’re also trying to live within our means. So there are these DIY solutions that force you to be creative. We had this gag in the first year of the show where David and Syd had astrally projected to this place, and when they came back to Summerland, they landed in the lake and they had to swim to shore. And the lake that we had at our facility, we couldn’t drop them in.

So I just asked them to get me a fish tank and some colored oils and we did some macro shots of these drops of colored oils dropping into the water—because I was like, “Well, they’re just energy projecting back.” So you see the oil drop into the water and then it kind of springs back to the surface, and when it hits the surface, we cut to them popping out of the lake—and it worked seamlessly. It was a conceptual approach. It cost about nine dollars. So what’s fun about the show is to say, “Let’s not think literally about this. Let’s think about the effect on the audience, because they accept the story that you give them as long as it makes sense.”

The ideas and references in these episodes are so dense and interconnected, from Kris Kross to Charlie Brown to Lewis Carroll. How do you decide where to add them into the plot?

I describe the show as a children’s show for adults and an adult show for children of a certain age and a big part of its surreal identity is processing and repurposing all of the bizarre ’70s children’s programming that I grew up on, from Seals & Crofts to Peanuts. I started to think of this cast of characters that I was working with as the kids from Charlie Brown all grown up, and carrying their ennui with them.

So even when we get into, like, drug culture in season two, there’s still an innocence to it. So all of that stuff that you’re describing, the actual music from Peanuts, the Vince Guaraldi music that we use at times, and the Alice in Wonderland references are in there because at the end of the day this really feels like a meditation to me on parenting and on childhood, and about how children become adults and the kinds of adults that they become.

The show has always really effectively blended dreams, delusions, memories and reality. What has been sort of your learning curve for determining how long you can explore a “dream” before having to deliver more concrete answers?

What excites me is when the structure of a story reflects the content of the story. So if you have a character who doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not real, the show is that. But the pact that I make with the audience is that, as the character David learns what’s real, as he gets clarity, you will also get clarity. And so you are separating an image from information. So in the first episode of the show, we have what we call this “devil with yellow eyes.” You don’t know what it means, but neither does David, and when he knows you will also know. So all of it means something and all of it is connected to information. It’s just not information you need at this moment.

LEGION -- "Chapter 20" - Season 3, Episode 1 (Airs Mon, June 24, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

The show taps into a lot of issues about the treatment of mental health and the portrayal of that in a responsible and respectful way. How careful have you had to be in terms of really exploring the full panorama of David’s mental abilities and disabilities without courting controversy?

The reality is you need to be very respectful to your characters and your subject matter, and at the same time, you can’t live in fear of the world because otherwise you’d never tell a story. But my biggest concern is with the preservation of human dignity and to never dehumanize characters or minimize the problems that they have. And what is meaningful to me about the show is that I’m able to make an entertainment that still addresses real issues and concerns.

I never wanted mental illness to be a gimmick to get us into a superhero story and then leave it by the roadside. The reality is he’s a man who’s suffering symptoms of disorientation and hearing voices and seeing things, and also, he was given away as a child and he had a literal demon in his head and he’s not okay. He might have started with a chemical imbalance, but his personality has developed based on his symptomology.

Syd is a woman who can’t touch somebody else without changing places with them. She’s diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder because she doesn’t like to get close to people, but she is antisocial for good reason. So I always look at those issues three-dimensionally for these characters, and then your attitude has to be grateful for the conversation that follows. And some people might think that you were disrespectful or some people might think that you got it wrong, but then it’s like, let’s talk about that. Because obviously you shouldn’t tell these stories if you’re not willing to have a conversation.

Creating a series that has a “satisfying” ending means different things to different people. When you decided how you wanted to conclude the show, were you looking at something that had real narrative clarity, or just something to satisfy the approach and the themes of the story you were telling?

There’s a lot of elements that go into an ending, obviously, and what an audience wants from an ending. We want love stories to work out. We want families to stay together. We want the people we care about to be okay. We want the people who do wrong to be punished. All of that is intrinsic in our nature, and you cross it at your own peril. So if you’re not going to do those things, you have to lead the audience to the conclusion that you want them to reach. They don’t have to love everything that happens in an ending, but it has to make sense to them and they have to feel like there’s an emotional truth to it and validity to it.

But the other thing about this genre is that most of the time these comic book movies and shows end when good guy and your bad guy go to war and one of them wins and one of them loses. But if you’re concerned with character and the choices that they’ve made and what they’ve learned from those choices and whether they can change, defeat never equals change. Only change is change. If I beat you on the battlefield, you don’t go off and change. You go off and either you’re resigned to your defeat or you’re plotting your revenge and the whole thing starts all over again. So how do you end a story like this and effect real change and growth in these characters? And that was my approach to it.

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