FX’s “Legion” has always drawn inspiration not only from the Marvel “X-Men” comics on which it is based, but also from the weirder corners of pop culture. When creator Noah Hawley cast “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens as the lead — David Haller, a mutant whose telepathic powers have been misdiagnosed as mental illness — he gave the actor a playlist that included everything from experimental noise music to Pink Floyd. Even more so than Hawley’s “Fargo,” “Legion” has been driven by a visual aesthetic that reflects that range of influences.
As such, the choice of whom to bring aboard as production designer for the show’s third and final season, which premieres June 24, was an important one. Hawley turned to Marco Niro, fresh from the first season of FX’s motorcycle-gang drama “Mayans M.C.”
“He’s a man with a passionate soul,” says Hawley. “In the combination of his Italian heritage and Mexican heritage, there’s a long history of magic realism and an understanding that you can be flexible with what reality is. I think that’s what really served him. He respected the whimsy of the show and the romantic nature of the show, but he also is a very thematic designer. Usually you get stuck to reality, but he understood that part of his job was to bring out the heart of the show literally into the design of it.”
Born in Mexico City, Niro split his childhood between Mexico and Italy. (The design of one of the “Legion” Season 3 sets is based on his grandmother’s basement in Rome.) After college, he spent years traveling Europe and Asia on a shoestring budget. He eventually landed for a time in Sri Lanka during that country’s two-and-a-half-decade civil war, having gone there because it was the place he imagined, as a child, as the farthest in the world from home.
Along the way he began to paint. He set his sights on the movie business, and broke in working in the art departments on films such as “The Arrival,” “Titanic” and “Troy.”
“There’s a very tough attitude to break that says, ‘You can’t be a production designer unless you have been a production designer first,’” says Niro, sitting in his office on the Paramount lot, where “Legion” shoots. “To break that is very, very difficult. But apparently I found my way through stubbornness. Just never stop aiming at the same direction, and here I am.”
In “Legion,” much of the action takes place in imagined physical spaces (a natural for a show whose protagonist is an emotionally traumatized telepath), which represented both a challenge and an opportunity for Niro.
Season 3 finds David, having done an apparent heel turn, existing in spaces made by his own superpowered mind — and his former colleagues in the secret agency Division 3 on the hunt for him.
To create new bases of operation for David and Division 3, Hawley would spend time talking with Niro about broad concepts, making sure to go into specifics where story points dictated. For instance, David has amassed a group of followers with which he communes in a space called the Enlightenment House. Hawley spoke with Niro about how the space would not need to obey the laws of physics, giving the production designer freedom to ideate. Then Hawley and Niro had several detailed discussions about a particular feature of the house — a blue energy that emanates from David and flows through the space.
But when creating the Division 3 headquarters, Hawley told Niro that he needed a flying fortress — and didn’t tell him much else.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t know what it is. What do you see?’” Hawley recalls. “And he came back with this design for an airship, which I thought was just so brilliant. He worked out what every part of the ship did, and it just seemed really perfect to me.”
Into that airship are poured tiny details — mythological symbols from across multiple cultures, references to books and pieces of art that Niro has encountered over the years. Much of his work on the show represents a synthesis of his personal cultural journey. In his Paramount office, he points to a set design based on the Harmandir Sahib, the Sikh “golden temple” in Amritsar, Punjab, India.
“Finally I have an opportunity like this one, which is not creating just one world but creating the whole universe,” Niro says. “All my background, all those years of studying and traveling and my mother taking me to every possible museum in the world, now I can bring it back.”