Legion Creator Noah Hawley Talks Dance Sequences, Mental Illness, and David’s Parentage

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Noah Hawley. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The first season of Legion has come and gone, and with it, superhero fiction has been changed. The FX drama, based on a character from Marvel Comics’ X-Men legendarium, was easily one of the most stylish and ambitious pieces of superhero filmmaking ever produced, and that was largely due to the influence of creator and showrunner, Noah Hawley. We caught up with him just before the airing of the season finale to talk about the show’s surprising relationship to the mainstream X-Men universe, his approach to depicting mental-health issues, and why he started the show planning to do zero musical sequences and somehow ended up with three of them.

Spoilers for the season finale of Legion below.

Let’s start with the most important question of all: How’d you end up picking that old-timey number, “If I Ruled the World,” for Jemaine Clement to sing in the finale?
Well, it made it on the playlist of, whatever, 130 pieces of music I put together for this season. Somehow, in my youth, I was exposed to that song. I don’t know when or how. But it just seemed very appropriate for a guy who had just become a supervillain to sing “If I Ruled the World.” But, y’know, when you have Jemaine Clement, you’d be a fool to pass up a musical opportunity.

Tell me more about that playlist of 130 songs. How early in the process did you start deciding on the soundtrack?
I start thinking about the music very early. I sat down with Jeff Russo, the composer, probably at the outline stage. I pitched the show and set it up at FX, and I still had to write a script, but he and I talked about what I think the show sounds like, and came up with how, in my mind, the whole show should sound like Dark Side of the Moon — which is both an album of songs but also has some soundscapes to it that creates this sense of mental illness that has never been duplicated anywhere. So he went out and tracked down some of the early synthesizer equipment that they used on that album, and then I’d call him from time to time and say, “I’m thinking about a Vangelis song, like from Blade Runner,” and he would write something. But I also started pulling together a musical identity, some of which was very rooted in the early-’60s rock, but some of it also is just very avant-garde. There was a piece for a thousand metronomes that I found somewhere that we used. Avant-garde pieces for trombones. And, just trying to create a sound space that was both musical and gave you a sense of what it’s like to be inside David’s head.

I’m glad you brought up mental illness, because that ended up being a real focal point for the show, one that got more nuanced and ambiguous by the end. What intrigued you about exploring mental illness? Was there any kind of message you were trying to convey?
I don’t know that I had a message about mental illness, but I do feel it was very important to me to take it seriously as subject matter, and not just as a gimmick to get into the story. In the last hour [of the season], there’s a scene with David and Syd, where he’s saying the most dangerous thing about being schizophrenic is your disease convinces you you don’t have it. There were conversations about cutting that scene for time, and I just said, “No, that’s the most important scene in the episode, really.” We’re at this moment where we have bought into the fact that this stuff is real and it’s not just his illness, that he has these powers, and I thought it was important in that last hour, before we got into the big battle, to just say, one more time, that all of this could just be his illness. That’s a reality he has to face every day: The moment that he surrenders to that idea that he’s not mentally ill, he’s lost, if it turns out that he is mentally ill.

The mental illness material was most prominent in the sixth episode, where all the characters are stuck in the Shadow King’s illusion of a hospital, being told they’ve been hallucinating the whole story. That’s a bit of a timeworn technique for serial genre fiction, of course, so how did you want to approach it in order to make sure it didn’t come across as hackneyed? And why do it in the first place?
We wanted to have a moment where we would play with the idea of, Well, hold on, before we go any farther: Was any of this actually real? And yet, I didn’t want to do the gimmick episode that you just mentioned. I see television as a character-driven medium, so it seemed like a great way to explore and get to know these characters better. All of these characters have been defined by society as having a psychological condition. Y’know, Syd is told she has antisocial personality disorder, and I’m sure that Cary and Kerry have a codependency issue, etc. And yes, there is a degree to which that’s not true because they actually have these powers: Syd, she’s not antisocial, she just can’t be touched without consequences, so as a result, she tends to avoid people. But of course that’s exactly what an antisocial personality disorder is. So it seemed interesting to me to say, What makes them fascinating as characters is that their powers and their psychological profile are the same thing. We can look at Melanie Bird and say she’s both someone whose husband is stuck in the astral plane and has been frozen inside of a Jules Verne diving suit for the last 20 years; or we can say she’s just a grief-struck widow who won’t change her husband’s voice on the answering machine. And both of those things are true at the same time.

Speaking of things not being as they seem: The penultimate episode of the season had a genuinely shocking twist, in which it’s implied that David’s biological father is Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men. That’s the case in the comic-book source material, but prior to that episode, it had seemed like Legion didn’t take place in the usual X-Men universe and that David was the only character from the comics who was kicking around. So are we reading that correctly? Is Professor X David’s papa?
Well, I wanted to stay true to the mythology in the comic book. I hadn’t been literal with anything else in the comic book, but I do feel there are certain things you can’t change. The reason that David Haller exists as a character in those comics is because he’s Xavier’s son. That’s his connection, and if you disconnect him from any of the X-Men, then why is he in an X-Men universe? I also feel like you have to give the fans something they want. On Fargo, we went three episodes in that first year with zero connection to the movie, and the audience accepted that this had nothing to do with the film, and it was just gonna stand on its own two feet. And then I rewarded them after they accepted that with a connection to the movie: finding the money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried [in the movie]. I think that’s nice. It’s good to give them enough time to accept that the things are completely separate, and then to give them something that they were looking forward to.

So do the X-Men exist in the Legion universe?
Well, I don’t have a Google Earth for the entire planet David’s on. Part of what’s fun about it is that the X-Men play with alternate universes and timelines, and I won’t say for sure if this is one of those, but I will say I don’t feel linearly tied to the X-Men universe as explored in the movies. I don’t think people should expect David Haller to be recruited by the X-Men on the show. If they want to go ahead and write Dan Stevens to be in a movie with them, that would be great. But I don’t see bringing Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence onto the show.

David was created by writer Chris Claremont and writer-artist Bill Sienkiewicz, and you were wise to give them prominent credit in each episode, which is something that doesn’t always happen. Have you had much interaction with either of them?
Yeah, Bill came to the premiere in L.A. and loved it. And then I just got an email from Chris after the seventh [episode], and it was very humbling: He was hugely laudatory about the work that we’re doing, saying how satisfying it is to see that as the creator of this character and also one of the originators of the X-Men stories that everybody loves. He felt like what we were doing was exactly what he’d been waiting for.

One of the best sequences in the season was the opening segment of the season finale, when Hamish Linklater’s character returns. He was depicted as villainous in the pilot and got burned up by David while he was being interrogated in a pool; then, all of a sudden, we see his journey through medical treatment and reconstructive surgery and physical therapy, learning about the human cost of the actions of our supposed hero. Whose idea was it to do that mini-story?
I’d been looking for ways to bring him back, and when I filmed the pilot, I’d filmed a version where we saw Hamish jump in and we just saw his legs. I did it because Hamish was so great that I thought I’d be a fool not to leave myself open to bringing him back. I’m a lover of ensembles, and I really enjoy playing with point of view. The best strategy for making people care about what happens is if they empathize with both sides. If you just have a Villain with a capital V, it becomes very two-dimensional. But if you have two guys whose point of view you could relate to, and they have to fight, then you’re conflicted about who you want to win, or how badly you want things to go for either of them. I thought it was interesting to say, look, [Hamish’s character] was a person with a family and something to lose and he’s been horribly disfigured, and he has trauma from that and we should recognize that, and now he’s going out and he’s going to try to kill the people we love most of all — and that’s really uncomfortable for us.

I’m told you send your cast and crew lots of emails around 3 a.m. Why? Are you a nocturnal creature?
I have a hard time staying up past eight o’clock, but that means I often wake up in the night. I also change time zones a lot: I live in Austin, so I’m in the Central Time Zone, which means I’m two hours ahead of Los Angeles. And when I travel, I try to stay on that time zone because I need to say good morning to my kids before they go to school. If I’m in L.A., and they go to school at 7:30, that means I’m up at 4:30 or 5 to do that. So I tend to get to work early in the morning, and some people get emails from me at odd hours, and that doesn’t mean that I’m burning the midnight oil, it just means I got my six hours of sleep starting at 8:30 at night.

You went so far away from the comics source material that I can’t help wondering whether you thought of going really far from it all and casting a woman or a person of color as David. Did that ever cross your mind?
You know, I think that when you’re trying to do something very different, you need to be aware that some things have to be grounded in the familiar. That you can’t just reinvent every single thing. I think there was a degree to which David had to be familiar to people who loved the comics as the character they were familiar with — that was going to help us when we changed almost everything else about the show.

While we’re on the topic of gender: Syd fits into a tradition of female characters who can’t be touched. What was interesting to you about depicting an untouchable woman?
I don’t know that I thought about it along gender lines. What was really interesting that I wanted to explore was, what happens to someone who has no real memory of the pleasure of human contact? When Syd and David get to have sex, and they get to have physical intimacy and they get to feel all those endorphins in their brain and the physical sensations that go along with it, what did that do for this relationship between these two people? It’s almost like doing a drug like heroin for the first time. It has a profound shift that happens in your personality when you suddenly realize, Oh my god, the world has this in it! She becomes, in that hour, addicted very quickly to this feeling and it kind of blinds her to the fact that David is not acting like David right now, and there’s something wrong with him. There’s a degree to which being untouchable is only interesting if you then explore what it’s like for that person to be touched.

Why all the dance sequences?
The first one wasn’t in the script for the pilot. There was this sort of falling-in-love montage that was scripted, and as we got into it, I thought, What signals falling in love? Well, it makes you want to sing and dance! So we designed the sequence, which became a full day’s production. I think there’s a sense of the surreal, too, since we’re inside David’s perspective and his view of the world, and when he thinks about Syd, he thinks about the fantasy of it. Then, once we were doing that, I asked Rachel in the second hour to sing “Road to Nowhere” on-camera. We ended up just using her voice in that opening, but it opened it up so that by the time we got to episode five, suddenly Dan’s playing banjo and singing the Muppets, and in episode six, Aubrey is marking her territory in David’s mind by going to all the places that we’ve been and leaving her scent everywhere, which also turned out to be a musical number. I mean, there’s a degree to which music bypasses our rational brain and accesses our emotional core in a way that’s really visceral, and allows you to make a strong impression on people without necessary delivering information.

You can’t give any plot details or anything, but thematically or aesthetically, what are some things you’d like to explore in the second season?
One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about the X-Men style of storytelling versus other Marvel stories is how fluid the line between good and bad and right and wrong is. In David’s formative years, he thought he had a mental illness, and he doesn’t have a very grounded and tangible sense of reality or a real connection to the world. So, on some level, his soul is in play. He’s a character who’s coming into great power, whose connection to the world is weak; it’s just through one person. It’s just through Syd, really, and what’s to say that at the end of the day he’s gonna be a hero or a villain? We’ve already seen him do some pretty monstrous things, so I think that I’m interested in exploring that. If now he can look back and say, Everything bad I did was not my fault. It was the Shadow King inside my body, then he’s gonna think that every decision he makes is a good decision, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. [Laughs.] I want to dive deeper still.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Legion’s Noah Hawley Talks Dance Sequences and David’s Dad