Coming off his surprising feat of re-imagining the 1996 Coen brothers’ movie “Fargo” as an anthology TV series, showrunner Noah Hawley has turned to a different kind of story. The FX drama “Legion” shows the world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.
The lead character, the schizophrenic David Haller (Dan Stevens) from the “X-Men” comics, discovers that his mental illness may actually be a form of mutant superpower that combines telepathy and telekinesis.
Production designer Michael Wylie was tasked with creating the bizarre physical world seen through Haller’s fragmented and emotionally insecure mind. He approached the challenge by invoking jarring visual themes that induce double- takes among viewers.
“Our goals were to make sure the audience didn’t know where we were or what was real,” says Wylie, whose work on “Pushing Daisies” earned him an Emmy in 2009. “The sets couldn’t be too identifiable, so viewers wouldn’t get comfortable or feel like they knew where they were. We tried to make everything weird.”
Hawley and Wylie decided to almost completely eliminate visuals of cars — a device often used as a time stamp. And they exploited examples of Brutalist architecture at the Vancouver shooting locations to create a world that’s Soviet-like in its oppression. Sources of inspiration include “A Clockwork Orange” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Some sets were made to look as if they belong in a place in time, but others, such as David’s French-style high-ceiling apartment, were designed to dislocate viewers — simulating the character’s sense of being lost. Other set pieces are intentionally disorienting. A ceiling covered in cubed lampshades floats above an interview room. A giant swath of greenery, including a waterfall, covers one wall of David’s room in a mental institution. A three-story billboard of Moe Howard stands at the end of a street for no logical reason. “If you have a friend who’s a huge liar say to you, ‘Dude, I was walking down the street and there’s this giant billboard of the guy from ‘The Three Stooges,’ you wouldn’t believe him,” Wylie says.
David feels secure when he’s around people who understand him; for these moments, the scenery is bucolic, represented by misty forests or serene fields. When Haller re-enters the outside world, we return to cityscapes of anxiety where he feels the least peaceful.
Is he really in those places, or is it all just a reflection of his mind?
Wylie wouldn’t say.