Published on Newsweek.com Feb. 23, 2017.
To build the perfect set, Designer Michael Wylie had to make sure the audience had no idea what was real or not, just like the characters.
The new X-Men adaptation on FX, Legion, took fans on a wild ride with last night’s season premiere. With unconventional visuals and a peculiar storyline, it’s hard to confine this show to just one genre. But one thing is clear, Legion doesn’t follow the same formula as other superhero TV shows. Set Designer Michael Wylie describes the tone perfectly, “It’s a dark story told by a character who just so happens to be from the comics.”
This is in spite of the fact Legion is a fairly important X-Men character–the mutant son of Professor Charles Xavier, who you’re probably familiar with from one of the many X-Men films. But unlike comic book movies, and shows like The Flash, Arrow, and Agents of SHIELD, we won’t necessarily see David Haller trying to save the world in costume.
“There won’t be any capes or masks. There won’t be a lot of ass-kicking. It’s a psychological story,” Wylie told iDigitalTimes.
Wylie, who previously worked on the set of Marvel’s Agent Carter, collaborated closely with Fargo creator Noah Hawley to help bring David Haller to live action. Wylie said he purposely didn’t to do any research on Legion to prepare for the gig. In his job interview, Hawley gave him an iBook and the award winning screenwriter already had a clear idea of what direction he wanted the show to take, visually.
“I didn’t want to be influenced by the amazing artists who invented him and drew him. It [the iBook] was filled with amazing images that were not specific but gave a feeling. He knew where he wanted to go. I just added some stuff on top and kept the thru-line of the episodes even.”
Usually, Wylie explains, sets are just backgrounds to inform the audience of time and place, and to give context. But in this show, the set does the opposite. While it’s nearly impossible to tell where David Haller is at any given time, because of his powers (which he perceives as an illness), each place his mind drifts feels distinct and gives us clues to identify the true reality.
“In order to keep the audience guessing we needed to build environments that don’t necessarily click with the viewer as being relatable. So, for instance, David’s apartment looks like it’s in Paris or Budapest. The hospital is somewhere between cheerful and fake. It’s too nice to be a mental hospital but it’s also uncomfortably cold. The usual rules of production design asks us to not draw attention to sets.”
Legion is a drama, it’s action, it’s fantasy, and also quite humorous. To build a set for a show with such a unique tone, Wylie said he had to add to all those definitions.
“It’s dark to add to the drama. It’s weird to add to the fantasy and sometimes silly to add to the humor,” Wylie explains. “The overall design idea here was to make sure the audience–in exactly the same way the main character does–has no idea what is real or not real.”
Wylie’s approach to the set design was different from Agent Carter, in fact, almost the opposite.
“The design of Agent Carter was meant to reaffirm the innocence of the 40s as a backdrop that allows a secret agent to fight to retain it. So we designed a VERY sweet-looking world for Peggy to PROTECT and Preserve,” Wylie continues. “We wanted to give an objective view through the eyes of a man who may or may not be able to perceive reality. We as an audience want to see him get out of this world. It’s the opposite of sweet.”
Legion airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.