On a chilly night just before Christmas, helmeted black-clad soldiers pursued a homeless person in an otherwise quiet Grand Park. The disheveled man struggled up one of the park’s long concrete stairways as the armed phalanx closed in.
Cornering their helpless prey, the squad parted to make way for their leader — a swaggering young woman wearing an outfit that could be called “Lenny Kravitz casual” who brandished a samurai sword.
Have City Hall’s efforts to manage a homeless crisis in downtown Los Angeles reached a surreal, authoritarian peak? Not yet.
The scene was actually a dramatic moment being filmed for an episode of FX’s “Legion,” a spinoff of Marvel’s “X-Men” films that launches its second season May 8. The bearded vagrant was the heavily made up Dan Stevens, who stars as David Haller, a powerful telekinetic mutant who reckons with questions of madness, reality and identity.
The drama has been hailed by critics, who’ve said its mix of sound, visuals and unconventional narrative has redefined where a superhero story can go. Based on what the second season has shown, “Legion” has no intention of playing things straight now.
“There’s now, what, 500 shows on the air?” series creator Noah Hawley asks in a phone call. “And so many of them have gotten so good at doing all the things that traditional great storytelling does, right? I guess my feeling was, ‘Well, if it’s not just about creating an emotional arc that rides along a predictable rail, what happens if we take this roller coaster off the rails?’”
Haller’s katana-weilding adversary in the scene was Kerry Loudermilk (Amber Midthunder), usually one of David’s allies and a fellow mutant who, in a complicated bit of Marvel Universe physics, shares a body with Cary Loudermilk (Bill Irwin).
Cary is a scientist and the brains of the two, which makes the younger Kerry (who ages only when outside their body), the brawn. If this already sounds confusing, it was for the actors too, especially as “Legion’s” strange world was established in the first season.
“We all know this year how to navigate the madness,” Midthunder says between takes, huddled under a long down coat over her caramel-colored sleeveless leather duster costume. “I think we all understand how to not understand anything,” she adds with a laugh. “I really do!”
Despite the fantastic elements to the scenes being filmed downtown, “Legion” did not always appear to be out of sync with the normal atmosphere of the area.
“It was amazing how few people batted an eyelid,” Stevens said of the shoot in a later phone call (prosthetics left him barely able to speak on set that day). “This crazed man shuffling along the streets, barking — you don’t have to go far in this town to see that, anyways. It was interesting to step out and see how much of the weirdness of our show is not all that foreign.”
Last year, “Legion” was one of a handful of shows that moved their productions to Los Angeles from Vancouver, Canada, to take advantage of a tax credit. But even when the series was shooting in Canada, it remained cagey about when and where it took place, with a mix of otherworldly technology and design flourishes that drew from the ’60s and ’70s.
“We never say what the environment is. There’s no kind of geopolitical name to anything,” says episode director John Cameron, who is also an executive producer. “But we knew we were moving, and it was going to be somewhat of a road season. L.A.’s the perfect location for most things, because we kind of have everything here.”
“You have the paradigm of a place that is a paradise, but it’s also a desert at the same time,” adds Hawley, an Emmy-winning producer of the network’s “Fargo,” which he created. “There’s just a lot of impossible things about this city that are interesting to explore.”
As if to further complicate things, the episode filmed in Grand Park finds a distraught Haller wishing to live in any other reality than his own, and in an apt, “It’s a Wonderful Life”-like twist given the timing of shoot, the episode explores multiple other ways his life could have turned out differently. In this reality, he is alone, raving and homeless, and judging by the gunmen in pursuit, it does not end well.
That night, with a head full of prosthetic teeth and makeup, Stevens joined Cameron around a monitor to review the scene he was just in. He watched footage of his character scrambling up the stairs and, for a moment, looking desperate in front of the park’s cheerfully pink Christmas tree.
Behind him, the pale majesty of City Hall towered overhead. It’s an iconic, even heroic shot for a show that despite its ties to the “X-Men” series does not often allow such things.
But what “Legion” does embrace is the bizarre, both in its storytelling and atmosphere. Hawley credits podcasts like “Radiolab” as inspiration for this season’s instructional interludes explaining (in a dark, “Legion” sort of way) a few mental health concepts. Some of this year’s visual flourishes — the basket-headed Adm. Fukuyama and a virus that immobilizes people into teeth-chattering zombies — are as haunting as the villainous Shadow King, played by Audrey Plaza, who at times also appears as a nightmarishly pale, obese figure.
“The X-Men were originally called ‘The Uncanny X-Men,’ and ‘uncanny’ is such a specific word that refers to a certain kind of horror you feel when familiar things act in unfamiliar ways,” he says. “A haunted house story is terrifying, because your house isn’t supposed to do that, and what’s really unsettling about people frozen with their teeth chattering is it’s not what people are supposed to do. So, rather than having to work hard to create some kind of horror that’s a lot bigger, often it’s those simple elements.”
Yet for all its ventures into swanky astral planes and various mazes within the mind, the new season of “Legion” has also evolved to become something maybe even more unexpected — topical.
With its exploration of how unhealthy ideas can spread from person to person, this season reminded Stevens of how personal information from Facebook was used in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“There was one headline that said, ‘The data was used to target users’ inner demons,’” Stevens said. “And I thought, ‘To see the phrase “inner demons” in a headline?’ That’s really what a lot of ‘Legion’ is all about is inner demons, those deeply rooted psychological fears and how they’re preyed upon. [To be] exploring this very abstract space, looking at the philosophy of the mind and mind control, and then to see it echoed in reality is bizarre.”
Hawley agreed, to an extent. “If Season 1 is the story of an insane man in a sane world, maybe Season 2, now we realize David is sane, [but] maybe the world has gone crazy on him,” he says. “That a society can succumb to an idea and become someplace where, just a few years ago, if you looked forward to see where we were, it would seem insane. And yet, somehow we get these moments in history where what is considered normal suddenly becomes very abnormal.
“If that’s a topical subject, that wasn’t necessarily on purpose.”
Back at the park, a camera swoops along an overhead cable to capture the advancing soldiers, Haller’s labored attempt to flee toward what looks like (even without digital effects) a harsh end. Or maybe it isn’t. As the cameras reset, Cameron deflects when asked about a theory on what might lie ahead.
“Could happen, anything’s possible,” he says. “That’s the bottom line for ‘Legion.’”
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
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