‘Legion’ Producer Lauren Shuler Donner on the Rules of Time Travel and Crafting an Emotional Conclusion [Interview]
When a show breaks narrative convention as much as FX’s Legion, in which entire episodes can take place during a split second, there’s only one way to possibly end it: by introducing time travel. Legion introduces Switch (Lauren Tsai) to help David Haller (Dan Stevens) conclude his journey.
Season three of Legion will be its last, but creator Noah Hawley is ending it on his own terms. David is seeking a time traveler to help him correct mistakes he’s made in the past, especially in his relationship with Syd (Rachel Keller), but also to stop Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban) once and for all.
Lauren Shuler Donner, who brought the X-Men to the screen in 2000, produces Legion with Marvel Television. Shuler Donner spoke with /Film by phone about the final season of Legion, premiering tonight on FX.
Do you even give Noah Hawley notes on Legion?
We do, we do. Very few of us do but mostly, we question him. Mostly we want to know what he had in mind, and then there is an occasional note, absolutely, that we will throw out. Sometimes he will take it. Not all the time.
Is there an example of something maybe from season one or two, so it’s not a spoiler anymore, of a note that did influence Noah?
Oh my goodness. Interestingly, my notes are usually about, uh, emotional connectivity. Just sort of exploring a little deeper what Noah wrote and balancing that with more emotional resonance in the character to make him a bit more accessible. Or, my note will be about clarity. Obviously, the way the story is told is a different way of storytelling. An audience has to accept it that way but occasionally I feel like a few things would not be understood and we can be clear.
You couldn’t do season three without another musical number, right?
Of course not! Absolutely, we have a musical number.
Is that the sort of thing where you know fans respond to the musical numbers but you don’t want to force it?
Oh, absolutely. Fans have responded to the musical numbers. We as a cast and crew enjoy making the musical numbers. It’s a lot of fun. Bill Irwin who’s a fantastic dancer, and Dan is a wonderful dancer. Everybody’s a great singer by the way, just about every single person in the cast. Music, as you know, is a big part of this. I think it’s just the next step to include dance. We had so much fun with that original Bollywood scene in the first season.
Does David give a mini-recap of the series so far in the first episode?
The thing about Legion as you know, he catches us up from his point of view, and he’s not reliable and that is the fun of it all.
Even the scenes from previous episodes are introduced with “Ostensibly on Legion.” Is that to suggest even past episodes are not to be entirely trusted?
Not to be trusted. No, because you’re seeing a lot of it from his point of view and you don’t know if it’s a memory, a memory within a memory, if it’s one of David’s personalities. It could be Daveed or DVD. You never know quite who’s telling you the story.
I love all the chapters of Lessons in Time Travel. Has Noah given you all the chapters we don’t see?
You’re going to see them. You see them all. You see all the lessons in time travel. She’s a great character. You will enjoy her journey.
I already do. I was just wondering if he wrote out every single lesson, since it jumps around.
She has many lessons written out and then part of her learning is experiential. So she goes beyond what the lessons would say and learned either in a good or a bad way.
You dealt with time travel in movies, on X-Men: Days of Future Past and non X-Men movies like Timeline. Was it easier or harder to figure out how it works on Legion?
You know, it was easier. The hardest of all was Days of Future Past because we really had to figure out, Bryan [Singer] was tortured about trying to not drive through plot holes moving backwards. We were trying to keep the timetable straight in a franchise that has its own timetable. We didn’t always adhere to the comic book timetable. That was probably the toughest.
Syd points out that even if David can erase his mistakes, he was still the person who made them at one point. Was that a significant theme to deal with this season?
It is, it is. It is something to ponder. That’s what we all like about Noah’s writing. It is significant. He wants to go back for many reasons, obviously to try to stop Farouk. But he also obviously secretly longs to start all over and win the girl again. She’s a very practical character. She’s looking at it from her point of view: well, you’re still going to be that guy. If Farouk’s not in you, aren’t you still that guy again? It’s really the question that cannot be answered but it’s something that she has to consider.
When Noah decided he was ready to end Legion, were there certain things that had to fit into this season to be true to the season?
Conceptually, when we first started talking about doing Legion, Noah was very interested in sort of the dissection of the making of a villain. And love coming in as the villain is growing and love having an affect on the villain and possibly stopping that character from beginning a villain. Or, love having an affect on the character and possibly stopping that character from veering into villainhood. That was what he wanted to examine in these three seasons. Therefore, this season had to be very much about okay, well, we know David’s mentally ill and he’s got demons to deal with. Those demons are going to haunt him and part of his problem is that he’s a narcissist. Being a narcissist means he’s going to act out Syd’s love and not what’s best for the world.
Has each season of Legion been a different beast?
Oh, I totally think so. Totally. I think the fist one was more narrative. The second one was more complicated, let’s say. This one probably sits in the middle.
Has each season been different to produce because of that?
Yes, each one has been different to produce, absolutely. Each one has been a treat because we’re in Los Angeles but by the time we get to the third season, first of all, we all love each other. We’re a very happy group, a very collaborative group. So it became even more fun to get together and to work again. But this season has its own flavor. As you bring in each additional character, that changes the landscape. In this one we have Lauren and that changed the landscape. Last year we had Navid and that changed the landscape.
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The journey has been such an experimental show. Would you have ever wanted to try a movie in the style of Legion?
Well, it’s super fun, I have to tell you. We had just a blast making it. A movie of Legion? Sure, why not? We’ve had some terrific directors, Noah included of course. Really, it is fun because the directors come on, have the greatest freedom to visually cut loose.
Had you ever considered Legion as a character in one of the movies?
You know, we didn’t. We did not. We considered a lot of characters. We did talk about Shadow King. I remember it didn’t really become prominent. I went to Noah and I pitched him the idea to do an X-Men TV show and I pitched him a couple ideas. Then he said, “Can I come back to you with my own?” And Legion was the character he picked. That was not a character that we had been developing so it was a good one to do.
With Legion ending, what do you think your involvement might be in future X-Men on television and in films?
Well, X-Men now belongs to Disney and it’s in their capable hands. That’s really up to Kevin Feige. He started out with me. I trust him. I think whatever he does, it won’t be right away. I think he’s already dealing with the plan that he set in motion for the other Marvel universe. But, I will not be involved most probably. I’ll be friend of the court.
I know you weren’t involved with Dark Phoenix, but that was a story you hoped to get right after X-Men: The Last Stand. Were you happy with how Dark Phoenix turned out?
I have to be honest with you, I have not seen it yet. I’m sure I will be but I have not seen it.
With Legion ending, how would it feel if this is the end of your saga with the X-Men?
Listen, I started it. I did a lot of movies. I prepped some movies that eventually I did not get to do but I’ve had a nice long journey. I’ve loved, loved making the X-Men movies. I feel good. I feel there’s lots of other stories to tell but I feel good knowing that they’re in good hands with Kevin and that stories will be told and told well.
What else are you working on?
I have some other things. Out of the X-Men world, there’s a bestselling book called There There which we have set up at HBO. There is another novel, a huge book called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. You might have read it in school. We’re getting ready to make that into a film and I’ve taken two of my movies and I’m turning them into theater musicals: Dave and Secret Life of Bees.
How far along is Dave?
Usually what you do if you’re going to produce a musical that is bound for Broadway, that you want to be bound for Broadway, you need to get it up on its feet. So you’ve got your team, you’ve written the book, your music and your lyrics, you have a reading but those are people standing around reading and singing. You need to get it on its feet, see it move, see the actors move, see how the choreography works, if it’s too long, if you need this song or if you need another song. Everybody does usually a regional run. Dave, we picked our regional theater in Washington, D.C. last August at the Arena Theater. We were sold out 101%. We did very well. Now we’ve done some changes since then. We’ve made it much shorter, 15 minutes shorter. It showed us a lot. Now we are, like everybody else, standing in line for a theater for Broadway because shows like Wicked and Book of Mormon and Hamilton stay in those theaters. That means there’s less and less theaters for us newcomers.
Does Dave get updated at all with all the developments in politics since 1993?
What I think is it’s especially more relevant, that it will be great to go into a theater and watch a President that cares about his people more than he cares about himself. Dave is a wonderful fantasy about a president who really tries to care for the people and do a good job. I think now more than ever, we need to watch a show about kindness.
I agree. For the 25th anniversary of Dave last year, I said, “Make America Dave Again.”
Oh, I love that. That’s a great slogan! I’m going to write that down. Thank you.
Please do. And where is Secret Life of Bees?
Our regional run is in New York at the Atlantic Theater. It’s playing right now. We opened June 13th. I urge you all to go. The Band’s Visit which won the Tony last year, they started out there. A lot of shows start out there. Now we get to watch it with an audience, get to see what works, what doesn’t work and then eventually it will go to Broadway. It’ll get a theater and go to Broadway also.
Aside from theater, have you turned a lot more towards television in your work?
Well, listen, sadly, our movies just aren’t that good. My husband [Richard Donner] and I find ourselves watching digital, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon more than we would watch movies. Of course, we do. We want to keep up, but I wanted to get in there and see what I can do.
Is it nice to find new inspiration in new formats like episodic and theater?
Yes, that is. I wanted the challenges. It’s really fascinating to me to tell stories in each medium and they’re each very different. Very different. The television I like, the multiple casting that you do when you’re prepping one show and you’re shooting another. I like the speed of television. My first love will always be movies, features, but also learning Broadway, learning theater, learning musical theater which is two acts, not three. Instead of a close-up, it’s a song. Instead of dialogue, you have lyrics. It’s transitions. And after you’ve done it for a long time as I have, it’s really fun to learn that.
Is there anything else you want to say about Legion before it’s all said and done?
I love this season. In our tradition, it’s not narrative storytelling. I would just urge the audience to stick with it, roll with it. The lovely thing about it, from my point of view, is the whole franchise started of emotionally with David in the first episode, first season. And it ends that way. The end of season three is really lovely, really emotional.