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Television

‘Legion’s’ Noah Hawley wants to build you more than an emotional roller coaster

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Noah Hawley, the creator of “Legion” and “Fargo,” at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Believe it or not, Noah Hawley does find time to sleep. But you’d be forgiven for doubting that he can afford to lay down his head for more than a few minutes after a glance at his current schedule.

He’s completing the concluding episodes of “Legion,” FX’s kaleidoscopic series about a powerful mutant who is also grappling with schizophrenia. The third and final season of the series, which was created by Hawley and links to Marvel Comics’ “X-Men” universe, premieres Monday, June 24.

Meanwhile, he’s putting the finishing touches on his feature-length directorial debut, “Lucy In the Sky,” starring Natalie Portman as an astronaut who starts losing touch with reality after returning from a mission into space. A release date has not yet been set for the Fox Searchlight production.

He’s also written three scripts for the fourth installment of FX’s Emmy-winning limited series “Fargo,” which will star Chris Rock as the head of a crime family in 1950s Kansas City. Production is scheduled to begin in October.

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And if that wasn’t enough, he’s planning a new novel — his sixth. His other books include “A Conspiracy of Tall Men,” “The Good Father” and, most recently, the bestselling “Before the Fall.”

Hawley, who commutes between his home in Austin, Texas, and Hollywood, smiled last week as he considered his ability to juggle so many high-profile projects while maintaining his sanity.

“I wish I could bottle it and then drink from it,” Hawley said. “I feel a little bit like the little pencil nub who is going, ‘Get another pencil already. Why are you still using me?’ It’s never my goal to be overwhelmed. Obviously, I’m a good multi-tasker. But even I get overwhelmed. I can’t explain how to do it. I can only do it. If I take the time to explain how to do it, I’m going to miss something.”

It’s fine to say something’s an emotional roller coaster. Why can’t it be an intellectual roller coaster, philosophical roller coaster, visual roller coaster?
Noah Hawley

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The task of overseeing and producing the mind-bending “Legion” would be more than enough for most writer-producers. While anchored in the comic book world, the show’s eccentric characters, thematic complexity, eye-popping visual style, and disorienting plotting are worlds beyond conventional superhero tales. Although the series has been hailed by many critics and fans, others have found the material not only challenging but impenetrable. Those viewers even have a “Legion” “hate thread” on Reddit.

“Legion” stars Dan Stevens as David Haller, a tormented young man who may also be the world’s most powerful mutant. In the first two seasons, David, allied with a group of fellow mutants at a remote facility called Summerland, confronts both government forces and a powerful parasite known as “The Shadow King.”

The Season 3 opener serves as a quick recap of the past two seasons while offering up more examples of the show’s penchant for irreverent mind-bending: a teenage time traveler, a red bus called “the yellow bus,” a pregnant virgin and a musical number involving crowded moving clothing racks.

Taking a short break in a conference room near his Paramount Studios office, Hawley talked about whether fans can expect a happy ending from “Legion” and previewed the new “Fargo,” which he said will be bigger than previous editions.

LEGION -- “Chapter 20" - Season 3, Episode 1 (Airs Mon, June 24, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Dan Steve
Dan Stevens as David Haller, the schizophrenic mutant hero of Noah Hawley's "Legion," in the Season 3 premiere.
(Suzanne Tenner / FX)

“Legion” is really unlike any superhero show — or anything else — on TV. What are your emotions like as you approach the end?

I feel good. For me, what I’m increasingly concerned with as a storyteller is human dignity. A story is basically an empathy delivery device, a way I can get you feel empathy for someone who is not you. It’s what we teach our kids. It’s the story of the bunny: You’re not the bunny, but when the bunny is sad, you feel sad. I think that there’s been a real move in the last 30 or 40 years to simplify, to just say “hero and villain” and there’s no moral gray area. These issues aren’t exactly complicated. My hope is, [in] as entertaining a way as possible, to explore human nature and morality.

No one can call “Legion” a simple story. Some viewers and critics have found it challenging because it’s not the usual fare.

The question is, do we need another thing that is the usual fare? I sat down recently with [Marvel Studios head] Kevin Feige and told him I see myself as Marvel’s R&D department. What else can you do with this genre that is not being done already? When I grew up reading “X-Men” and comics and genre fiction in general, it was the places you could go, the fantastical nature of it, the conceptual leaps that were the most mind-expanding. On some level, all of that has been reduced to action. I just wanted to bring it back to its Phillip K. Dick origins, where so much of the story is about the journey, not the destination.

When I watch “Legion,” I’m awed by the visuals, the sounds, the effects. It’s so dense, particularly for television.

With both “Fargo” and “Legion,” I see them as second-watch opportunities. There’s the experience of watching it for the first time, when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Hopefully I make something unexpected that feels inevitable in the end. Then, if you go back and watch it again, you understand the connective tissue and things are much clearer. I had a long conversation with [FX Networks chief] John Landgraf about what it is to take the roller coaster off the rails. It’s fine to say something is an emotional roller coaster, but why can’t it be an intellectual roller coaster or a philosophical roller coaster or even a visual roller coaster? This show allows me to do that in a way where I don’t have to literally say, “I’m telling you this story because of x, y and z.” The experience of watching the whole show has resonance that doesn’t have to be linear or literal or explained to you.

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What’s been the most satisfying part of working on “Legion”?

It’s an act of play for me. It’s one thing to be creative. It’s another thing to be creative under pressure, under a deadline. But the real trick is being able to play, to be able to get down on the floor like my kids with the characters and material, and allow whimsy and improvisation and sense of humor to come in while still maintaining the character structure and stakes.

LEGION -- “Chapter 20" - Season 3, Episode 1 (Airs Mon, June 24, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Aubrey Pl
Aubrey Plaza as David's friend, Lenny Busker, in "Legion."
(Suzanne Tenner/FX)

What do you hope fans will take away from the final season?

You have to give then an ending that makes the journey worth going on. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an ending that they want, but it has to be an earned ending. It has to make sense emotionally for the characters. If you pull your punch at the last minute, if you try to please everyone at the last minute, if you force your story in a direction it didn’t organically want to go, the audience knows. They don’t need a happy ending, but they need a meaningful ending.

”Legion” is part of the X-Men Universe. The recent “Dark Phoenix” was a disappointment at the box office. Is that a concern?

I don’t know if people literally connect “Legion” to “X-Men.” We had a great debate between Marvel, FX and myself when we launched in Season 1. You could put “X-Men” in the title, promote it as a “X-Men” show. The only connection that they made was to put an “X” in the middle of the O. The show stands on its own two feet. It exists in an alternate universe itself. We’re in this subjective “David world” that allows us to tell the story and connect it in a way where you don’t have to worry about how it connects to everything else.

My brain exploded when it was announced that Chris Rock would be in the new “Fargo.” What can you tell us about the new season?

This fourth story is bigger than any of them, probably all of them put together. It’s a collision of these two groups that are outside mainstream America. One group is the newly arrived Italian immigrants who are still very much ostracized and discriminated against. Then there’s Chris Rock and his family, a group of African Americans, many of whom have come up from the South in preceding years in what is often called the Great Migration. But at the same time, Chris Rock’s character is the bank in his community, he’s the insurance company in his community.

These two groups are both fighting to become mainstream Americans in a way that is part of what we see as the American experience — you show up and you work hard and eventually you get the American dream. Of course, hindsight shows us that doesn’t always end the way you think it should end. So thematically there’s a lot of ideas that feel new and original. I look at “Fargo” and at its heart it’s the story of America in many different ways.

And then there’s your novel.

I have a deadline and a publisher who keeps asking. “What’s happening?” The reality is I’m working on something I’m really excited about and excited to make time for. I don’t want to surrender any of these identities that I have.


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