12 Ways 'Legion' Became the Trippiest Show on TV
Production designer Michael Wylie reveals how FX's trippy Marvel series came together.
The psychedelic first season of Legion on FX has come to an end. As X-Men fans pick their melted brains up off the floor after seeing the Shadow King on the loose, Inverse caught up with production designer Michael Wylie, who revealed some neat secrets behind one of the trippiest TV shows on the air.
Based on the Marvel Comics character, Legion follows misdiagnosed schizophrenic David Haller (Dan Stevens) as he learns to wield his unmatched psychic mutant powers inherited from his estranged birth father (who is definitely Charles Xavier). Under the guidance of mutant scientists and therapists at Summerland, David learns to harness his abilities while evading a dark mutant known as the Shadow King (Aubrey Plaza) who lives in his mind and threatens to take over.
Led by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, Legion has won acclaim as a stylish hour of TV that bucks typical superhero trappings. Although it’s set within Fox’s equally confusing X-Men continuity, Legion is a singular voice and stands on its own. Peppered with chic ‘60s and ‘70s aesthetics, the series has little in common with contemporaries like Arrow, The Flash, and Marvel TV shows like Luke Cage and Daredevil.
So just how did Legion achieve such an iconic visual language? Wylie gave Inverse a peek behind the curtain.
1. Not Even Wylie Knows When Legion Takes Place
It’s difficult to put a time stamp on Legion, which is a mishmash of aesthetics from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even modern day. The show’s production designer, Michael Wylie, says that was intentional.
“The whole idea was really about world creation,” he says. “You never wanted to know whether David’s experience was real or not. A good way to do that visually is to keep people wondering where they are, what year they’re in. It was us constantly changing the vibe and making it look a little bit unbelievable and like a world you wouldn’t understand that exists in real time. You didn’t ever think you had the ability to tell where you were.”
2. The Classroom Scene Is the Most Exposition the Audience Will Ever Get in Legion
In the penultimate episode of Season 1, David conjures a classroom to reveal his origin story to himself with charming stick figure animations. Wylie says a classroom was chosen to drive home the idea that it’s a teaching moment. “It was the most exposition you’re going to get in this whole big TV show.”
Shot in a theater at the University of British Columbia, the idea of an “old-fashioned classroom” was inspired by The Knick. “It was meant to be one of those old operating theater classrooms, so that when you see the version of David telling us what’s happening, he could be in all kinds of different seats, in different spots every time you look up.”
3. The Glass Room in the Woods Where David Initially Does His mindwork Was Originally Based on the Louvre
In Episode 2, the folks at Summerland bring David to a glass room surrounded by lush green forest. The room, Wylie says, was inspired by the iconic French museum, and its setting is rooted in deer hunting. “It was written in the script that that room was out in the woods, and it was a glass pyramid, a la the Louvre. The handles on the table are just so everyone is sort of in an electric circuit. I found images of deer hunting blinds; there’s a couple in Michigan and in Scandinavia that are just big mirrored cubes that sit up in trees. That was the inspiration.”
4. To Shoot the Scenes Where David is Trapped in His Own Mind, They Built Four Different Coffins
And it was more involved than just turning off the lights and putting a camera on David’s face. “The script called for a literal coffin. We built four. One you could shoot from the top, one that you could shoot from the side in, one that had a clear top so he could beat on it, and one that was bigger so that you see two of him in the same box.”
5. Aubrey Plaza’s Dance Sequence Was All Foreshadowing
In Episode 6, after it’s revealed that Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny is the Shadow King, she dances around the rooms in David’s mind in a cabaret-esque sequence.
“She is an extension of David himself; she dances through a lot of rooms you see David walking through later in the show,” he says. “He keeps having to walk through the same door because he’s trying to get somewhere, and his mind won’t let him. She’s walking through all the same environments he is. It was foreshadowing of what she was trying to hide from him. David starts to figure it out as he’s trying to walk through all the same rooms.”
6. The Black and White Movie Sequence Wasn’t Just a Post Production Effect — the Hospital Was Actually Repainted
In the climax of Episode 7, Legion becomes a classic black-and-white silent movie. But turning the hospital black and white wasn’t just a matter of altering the colors in post production. “It made everyone sad, because it used to be this beautiful place, and we just messed it up. It looked like Chernobyl,” Wylie joked. “That was physically done to the set. It wasn’t a visual effect. We chopped big holes in the walls. We made it look like explosions happened. It was a post-apocalyptic nightmare.”
7. In David’s White Room, the Paintings Change With His Mental State
David’s mental “safe space,” or mind palace, embodied by a calm, breezy beachfront hotel room, has a fun Easter egg that Wylie and company planted.
“The script called for a hotel room at a beach. One of the questions that we had as the design team was, how does he know what a beautiful hotel room at the sea looks like?”
To reflect David, as well as add color to a blindingly white set, the crew hung paintings that changed as David’s mood changed. “The paintings change a bunch of times, from sunny skies to cloudy skies as we get further along in the story. The paintings are all landscapes with lots of sky, and the sky changes from sunny to cloudy during the course of the show.”
8. The Ice Cube Room Where Oliver (Jemaine Clement) Resides Was the Hardest Set to Design and Was Rebuilt Twice
“Here’s one of the problems that come up in production designing television shows,” Wylie explains. “You don’t have a lot of time to do stuff. As much as the show looks like we spend a fortune every week making these outrageous, over-the-top stuff, we don’t actually have a whole lot of money to work with.”
So when Wylie and his team get a script calling for a “conversation in an ice cube,” he starts sweating. “I didn’t know how to do that.”
The first room was a disappointment to Wylie. “The first idea was to have those people who make giant sheets of ice for ice sculptures and stuff. We quickly figured out that that wouldn’t work. It was a major learning curve,” he said. “It was a gigantic disappointment.”
Wylie likes the result of the second version of the set, which was built after a week the first one was completed. “You’ll notice my idea was to use different layers of clear plastic Visqueen. Clear plastic, the kind they make wedding tents out of. It didn’t work. We completely rebuilt the room. We ended up pouring acrylic into giant molds and hung those from the ceiling so it looked like thick sheets of ice.”
“It’s a great example of the things that the viewer at home wouldn’t understand about what we do,” explains Wylie. “When we get the script, we have to shoot that as quick as seven days. We have to figure all that stuff out and test it and light it and figure out how it works. You can’t call someone to go, ‘How would you do a gigantic ice cube with two people inside it?’”
9. The Hospital Tracksuits Were All Handmade, All 40 of Them
A fixture early in the series (and later in David’s mind) were the iconic brown and yellow hospital tracksuits, which took a long search to finally nail down. Says Wylie, “Noah Hawley said that he wanted them in tracksuits. There was this theory that they would wear different colors of undershirts, or there would be some kind of pattern or banding that would say whether they are dangerous or not. Carol Case, the costume designer, brought in racks and racks full of off-the-shelves tracksuits. He didn’t like any of them. She made one with a big floppy collar and the oversize zipper, and he really liked it, so she made all of them for all 40 people that were in that set.”
10. The Shadow King Was Inspired by the Reality Show My 600-lb Life
The Shadow King, a large, egg-shaped monster with scrawny legs and arms, was a nightmarish presence in Legion who never seemed too far away. Although the character comes directly from X-Men comics, Wylie and his team were instructed not to look at them. So to design the Shadow King, Wylie sought inspiration elsewhere. “He sprang from my utter obsession with a show called My 600-lb Life,” he said. “I’m literally obsessed with that show.”
He added, “They do this amazing thing at the beginning of every episode of that show where they show the person struggling to get out of bed or walk down a hallway. They do it every episode. They light it badly just to make the person’s journey seem that much more difficult.”
During a brainstorm session that was going nowhere, Wylie came up with a sketch that wound up as the basis for the final design. “I did a really quick drawing of what became the Devil with the Yellow Eyes, the gigantic body with no neck and really skinny arms and legs.”
Fans of Legion were disturbed by the Shadow King, who was physically played by a 6-foot-8, 125-pound actor with slender arms and legs. But he wasn’t meant to be terrifying. “You know when you have a nightmare, and it’s as simple as a light flicking on and off, and it scares the daylights out of you? That was that monster.”
11. Another Avatar of the Shadow King, the World’s Angriest Boy, Was Inspired by Edward Gorey Drawings
“That was us just doing a ton of drawings. I loved the idea of him wearing a little velvet, Eddie Munster child’s funeral suit. That’s where that dude came from. He’s really scary. There’s an actual actor who wears that costume and runs around in the dark on the set. It’s incredibly frightening.”
12. David’s Powers Will Continue to Manifest as Practical Effects Moreso Than CGI
Legion dazzled early on with some nifty special effects that were done with a lot of practical elements rather than mere CGI. The penultimate episode — where David is in a corridor that breaks into a fork — repeated the hallmark “kitchen scene” when David’s power manifests in an uncontrolled explosion. “We built that hallway, and all the doors were on air rams and on a bunch of different apparatuses to make them shake, open, and close, then blow into the room. There’s was a lot of effect work that went into that scene. You noticed that David smiles before he blows that room up because now he knows how.”