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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first episode of FX’s Legion.]
If not for the Marvel branding before the action begins, it would be easy to forget where FX’s Legion comes from. It’s based on the X-Men comic book character of the same name, albeit a very obscure one. The pilot episode leans on that obscurity, focusing more on David Haller (Dan Stevens) and the surreal world he sees as a result of his mental illness. Or is it mental illness? It’s through that question that the premiere rounds a corner, revealing David’s surroundings as a top-secret government facility filled with people who know that David’s a mutant — perhaps the most powerful mutant of them all, in fact.
“There’s this sense of always out of the frying pan and into the fire,” creator Noah Hawley tells The Hollywood Reporter about how Legion grows over the course of its freshman season. “There was a sense, architecturally, with that first hour, that just when you thought you knew where you were, you walked out of a door and you think you’re in a police interview room, but then you walk out the door and it’s a set that’s built at the bottom of an empty swimming pool.”
The pool doesn’t stay empty for long. David’s interrogators strand him in the middle of the pool, now brimming with water, threatening electrified torture if he doesn’t start cooperating. From there, the already visually stunning but incredibly cerebral episode takes a hard turn for the superheroic, as David’s girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller) and other mutants appear at the facility and orchestrate an elaborate prison break.
“I suppose it’s the payoff that people are waiting for, isn’t it,” Stevens says of the episode’s action-packed climax. “At first, you’re going, OK, this is a superhero show, but where are the explosions? Nobody’s died yet! What’s going on? And then it suddenly goes full action, very very quickly.”
Indeed it does, as Legion embarks on an uninterrupted one-take action scene, following David and friends as they use their myriad mutant powers to dismantle the facility’s heavily armed operatives. The scene required multiple days of shooting, and a lot of stopping and starting, according to Keller.
“We stopped for the clouds a lot,” she remembers. “Everybody was standing up looking at the clouds. When you’re doing a shot continuously, you have to have no clouds there every single time you do it. So if a cloud came by, we had to wait.”
Too bad Ororo Munroe wasn’t on hand to weather any storms. For his part, the biggest hardship Stevens faced didn’t involve what was in the sky, but what was on the ground — namely, his feet.
“I had the misfortune of coming out of a swimming pool, so I had to be barefoot,” he says. “They gave me what they thought would help. You know those horrible toe sneakers? They dug out a pair, and they were flesh-colored, kind of. They were incredibly uncomfortable. Everyone else is just in regular footwear, and I was pretty much barefoot. It got quite painful after a while!”
Even Keller remembers Stevens’ footwear quite well: “They were like little Hobbit shoes.”
As for how the sequence evolved from the page to the screen, Hawley, who directed the episode, explains that “in the original script, it was not a very detailed thing. As I was prepping the pilot, it grew and grew into this enormous single-take shot of this escape and the action going on. It’s one of those measure twice, cut once deals. That’s all we were doing that day. We would rehearse it and rehearse it. We mapped out exactly what we were going to be seeing, because there were a lot of visual effects elements to it. Then it was a question of trying to run it through and have the explosions go off exactly where they’re supposed to, and everybody’s hitting their marks and doing their things and it was really thrilling.”
“It was chaos, for all departments, really: cameras, stunts, ourselves as actors. It was fantastic,” says Stevens. “There was something very comic booky about the absurdity of it as well. There was something thrilling about how big it suddenly got, from being this very cerebral inner space exploration, and this interrogation, and then we get into dancing, and then we’re in full bore Saving Private Ryan mode.”
Adds Hawley, “The pilot as a directorial experience for me really allowed me to check a lot of things off the list. It was really fun.”
So, where do things go from here? On a literal level, the next act of Legion involves fulfilling the promise of the pilot’s final scene, in which David comes into contact with the mysterious Melanie Bird, played by Jean Smart, who worked with both Hawley and Keller previously on Fargo season two.
“Melanie runs a different kind of facility than Clockworks,” says Keller. “We have these two opposing views: one place that wants to subdue what is special and unique about someone, and another that wants to help express and learn and experiment with what’s special and unique.”
Beyond the question of what’s next, there’s the question of how the subsequent action will play out onscreen. The first episode’s structure was meant to build in increasingly inventive and surprising ways, and Keller says the remaining episodes will be no different.
“I think what I’m most excited about is how different each of the episodes are,” says Keller. “When I watched the pilot, and then watched episodes two and three, it almost felt like a different show each time. I think we’re given such a great lens through the X-Men genre, but we’re also playing with film noir and thrillers and romantic comedy. It’s a very director-driven show. It’s almost like the episode prior doesn’t set you up for how the next episode is going to go. It will connect. It will. But you have to experience it. You have to go on the ride and let the episode wash over you again. I think that’s the magic of it.”
Stevens adds, “Particularly in that first chapter, that’s kind of the point,” weighing in on the pilot’s disorienting nature. “We want to rattle your perceptions a little bit in order to welcome you into the show. I think most shows in their pilot hour are setting up a store, and it’s like, this is what we have on display here. This is the kind of thing you might get. That’s the aim of a pilot at every stage, right? This is the kind of show we want to make, this is the tone it’s going to have, this is the kind of humor you might expect, these are the weird things you can expect. With our show, those things just so happen to be extra weird.”
Extra weird indeed — or, given the show’s roots, perhaps that should be X-tra weird. Sorry, we’ll show ourselves out.
What did you think of the Legion pilot? Sound off in the comments, and keep tuning into THR.com/Legion for more coverage throughout the season.
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