Production designer Michael Wylie stands in the middle of an apartment made from scratch on a Vancouver soundstage, a place deliberately created to avoid being pinned down by space or time. “I’ll try to explain a little bit of what we’re doing but not too much,” he told reporters. “Because I have no idea what we’re doing.”
It was a joke, just to be clear, but it spoke to the spirit of FX’s “Legion,” the newest TV show to draw upon the rich legacy of Marvel Comics – specifically, the “X-Men” universe. What was being built up in Canada by Wylie and his team, under the direction of creator Noah Hawley, bore very little resemblance to past Marvel adventures. Instead, “Legion’s” inspirations include Pink Floyd, Stanley Kubrick, Bollywood and a style of architecture actively despised by the future King of England.
IndieWire visited the set last fall, as the show was deep in production, and even in those early glimpses of the 160,000-square-foot stage, it became clear that “Legion” was determined to be unlike anything else on television. It was plain as the paint on the walls… well, not that the walls were at all plain.
“Legion” introduces David Haller (Dan Stevens) as a mental patient who might be schizophrenic, might have mutant powers — or might be struggling with both issues. The dizzying narrative definitely supports that last option, as David’s point-of-view drives a freewheeling jaunt through different levels of reality.
On set, the technology is an anachronistic treasure trove stretching across decades. David’s apartment contains a number of photographs, but the photographs are all out of focus, their subjects deliberately blurred. There are deliberately no clues that might identify what time period the show is set in. And there are lots and lots of circles.
“We’re just trying to confound everyone,” Wylie said. Mission accomplished, in the best way.
“the deeds of a man in his prime”
Noah Hawley has a bit of a reputation for working with much of the same crew across different seasons of “Fargo,” but “Legion” was his first time working with Wylie.
Wylie’s comic book cred stretches back from “Marvel’s Agent Carter” to the 2001 live-action adaptation of superhero comedy “The Tick.” But it was Wylie’s previous work on the tragically canceled ABC dramedy “Pushing Daisies,” created by Bryan Fuller, that made Hawley want to work with him.
“Michael Wiley is really a hero of mine now,” Hawley said during a December conference call. “There’s both a grounded and a fantastical element to this show and that is often the hardest line to walk. Michael’s work with Bryan Fuller really sold him to me, because Bryan often mixes those elements.”
“never seem to find the time”
It’s the fantastical moments which stand out the most with “Legion,” empowered by the sense of freedom Hawley felt when he came to the “X-Men” universe. “There was no rulebook or anything that I was handed when I came on,” he said.
And beyond that was the idea that within the Marvel world, “there are a lot of alternate realities, and so I felt free to explore this story with the idea that it might not literally be happening in the same time and place as the movies.”
In fact, Hawley took that a step further and in working with Wylie, officially set the rule that there would never be a clear definition of what time period the show took place in.
It was a choice that Dan Stevens said took a little getting to used to on set, as he said to IndieWire during a recent conference call. “It didn’t really seem to matter to [Hawley] and after a while it ceased to matter to us,” he said. “That’s kind of liberating and that’s sort of where comic books seem to exist, in a funny way.”
“[The sets] were as real and playful and mischievous as the scripts were,” he added.
By deliberately aiming for a timeless approach, “Legion” has a singular feel, but there was one element that Wylie clearly found a bit frustrating about this timeless approach — cars. While within the show, they were able to give characters a range of automobiles from the 1960s to today, the production had limits when it came to cars beyond its control.
“We don’t ever really go outside,” he said, “Because the regular cars on the street give away our whole theory that we’re not supposed to know where we are or what time it is or what day it is or what year it is or what part of the world we’re in.”
However, one place they were able to shoot outside was the University of British Columbia, which features plenty of the Brutalist architecture which influenced the show. (Another 1960s nod.) You can read an awful lot about Brutalism on Wikipedia, but here’s the short version: cement, and rectangles. And, for Wylie, a central campus that didn’t have any cars within sight.
Brutalism is in general easy to spot all around the area. “In Vancouver, some [productions] try to hide these Brutalist buildings,” Wylie noted. “We tried to embrace it.”
A Quick Aside About Vancouver (For Which There Were No Appropriate Pink Floyd Lyrics)
Production space is at a premium in Vancouver these days; Wylie approximated that 64 shows were shooting in the city and surrounding environs while we were visiting. So, while the soundstage was large, it was the show’s only one, which threw a wrinkle into production: During the set visit, production on one episode was happening while construction was happening on another, in the same space. This meant that as soon as production called “Cut!”, the construction team’s buzzsaws would immediately start up.
For a signal of how fast production is growing in Canada, it’s also worth noting that the space was relatively new to the world of filmmaking — previously, it had been a distribution warehouse for a chain of grocery stores. The ceiling was still marked by dozens of aisle markers.
“i can’t explain you would not understand”
“What’s always attracted me to comic books and science fiction and fantasy genres is the sense of wonder and imagination and creativity. The fact that there’s a lot of fun a lot of sense you’re not tied to the literal world,” Hawley said. “The places you go can be fantastical and inspiring.”
How fantastical and inspiring we’ll actually find David’s world to be isn’t clear. But the show is fully committed to depicting that, at the expense of any rules we might have come to understand before.
“These are incorrect memories from a unreliable narrator, so that means for us anything goes,” Wylie said. “No one knows what’s real — no one in the story knows what’s real. So that’s why we’re doing stuff the way that we’re doing stuff.”
That includes a certain level of freedom from one of the most important things a production designer typically has to deal with: continuity. “A lot of times in TV shows, things have to be in continuity from episode to episode,” he explained. But for “Legion,” “it doesn’t matter if we do or not. It might be wrong but who cares? Because it’s somebody’s memory and this story’s being told by an unreliable narrator.”
Thus, don’t necessarily count on any particular detail on screen remaining consistent — entire sets could be flipped around with no explantation. “That’s the really fun part of doing this show,” he said.
“the softly spoken magic spells”
In singing Wylie’s praises, Hawley noted that “he’s a storyteller, which was really important to me. Nothing is in this show because it’s cool or looks interesting. it’s all meant to be there to tell the story, and so that became a big part of the production design cinematically in many respects. It’s the exact opposite of ‘Fargo,’ which is a much more traiditional and controlled camera show.”
The ways in which Wylie expresses himself as a storyteller aren’t necessarily obvious — for example, he noted that one reason he really likes using circles in his work is that “because I think it gives it a feeling that things are custom — that I didn’t just go buy the window from Home Depot.”
But then, as we stood in one of the set’s many round rooms, he noted that “In this show, there’s a circle of life kind of element to what’s happening.”
And the room was also painted a vibrant assortment of rainbow colors, which he tapped as a homage to the way in which the “X-Men” franchise has a long history of serving as a gay allegory, “with people who are different wanting to be treated the same.”
“The colors and the circles all sort of do that in a very subtle way,” he said. He wasn’t bragging — just explaining the kinds of choices you might not ever notice on screen. Choices which definitely end up transporting you to an entirely new world.
“Legion” airs Wednesdays on FX.