Three years ago, Noah Hawley did the impossible: he made a TV adaptation of Fargo that held its own with the classic 1996 Coen Brothers film that inspired it. He then topped himself a year later, turning Fargo’s second season into the best TV show of 2015.
Now the creator is ready for his biggest challenge yet: pulling off a hat-trick with Fargo Season 3, which stars Ewan McGregor (who is playing two brothers) and will debut on FX in April, while also launching FX’s first superhero series, Legion, which premieres tonight.
Based on a character from Marvel’s X-Men comics, Legion follows David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), who has been told all his life that he is mentally ill, but has begun to realize that he actually has mutant, psychic powers. It’s Marvel’s first live-action series to air on a network other than ABC or Netflix.
Hawley spoke with Adweek about turning another beloved brand into a distinctive TV series, how he’s juggling the two shows and what’s in store for Fargo’s third season.
Adweek: You’re bringing together two very distinct, and somewhat disparate, brands in Legion with FX and Marvel. How are you approaching that?
Noah Hawley: The first X-Men movie starts in a concentration camp, so you know that they’re concerned with the real nature of evil in the world, and not just the supervillain of the week. So that felt like it presented the opportunity to explore morality and human nature in the same way that you would on Fargo or another FX show. Which is to say that there’s darkness and there’s light, but there’s also nuance. What I loved about the franchise is that you have Magneto’s character, who grew up in that concentration camp, and he says, “We should kill them all, because they’re just going to kill us.” And he’s kind of right. Then there’s Professor X on the other side, and he says, “No, we can train them, we can teach them to live with us.” And he’s also right. Which is very different than this binary: a good character’s always good and a bad character’s always bad.
So that appealed to me, this idea that the struggle over morality is never fixed, it’s constant. And characters that are good under the right circumstances can do bad things. That felt like the FX show. Then on the Marvel side, there is a sense that the readers of these comics—and I saw it at Comic-Con—a huge part of the fan base feels like they don’t fit in. These stories are metaphorical for them, about defining themselves instead of being defined by society. So it felt like the perfect kind of balance.
It would have been one thing to upset fans of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo film with that series, but comic book fans take everything personally if you make any sort of misstep with Legion. How daunting was that, to jump into this different universe?
The traditional approach is to say, “issues 113 through 120 are the first season.” But what happens when you do that is, just by the nature of the animal, you’re going to end up changing things. And if you’re telling a story the fans know, they don’t like that at all. But if you’re telling a story they don’t know, if you’re saying it’s inspired by these stories and these characters, then my hope is certainly that that judgmental part of the brain—where it’s like, “You’re killing something I love!”—is turned off. Because they’re saying, “I don’t know what this is or what to expect from it, but look, it’s doing this thing that I love about the books, and it’s doing this other thing.”
On the flip side of that, because you were so successful at making Fargo your own, does that give you more leeway with Marvel and its fans with Legion?
I think so. There’s this concept in Hollywood called “execution-dependent,” which is: it’s a great idea, but in order to be great, you have to make it great. It can’t just be a high-concept thing. I think I’ve proven my ability to pull off the execution-dependent show. So it’s going to be this crazy, existential, genre show, but it’s going to satisfy you on all the genre levels. It’s also saying, there’s a large part of the canvas that’s already been covered in multiple places, but there’s other parts of the canvas that felt like new territory, and that’s what I wanted to explore.
When Fargo debuted, that anthology genre was in its infancy. But with Legion, you’re entering a much more crowded field, with more than a dozen other superhero series. Is that distinctive approach what enabled you to feel like you could carve out your own space in the genre?
The gestation of this project has been a couple of years, and when I pitched the show to FX, none of the Netflix shows had aired yet. Over the course of developing it, there came to be more and more shows. My approach is always, if there’s 500 shows on television, the only reason to make another one is if you think it can be the best one. So the ambition here is not a rehash of the familiar, it’s to say, any time you have a genre and you look at it in a nontraditional way, you have something both familiar and unfamiliar, and that’s a sweet spot. There are horror elements in this show, and there’s fantasy elements in this show, and it’s a love story. And it is an ensemble, as much as it’s driven by Dan [Stevens] and Rachel [Keller, the female lead]. That becomes the key, the hybrid. It’s like Fargo: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
You’re working on Legion and Fargo Season 3 simultaneously. How are you juggling both shows?
OK, I think. [laughs] It was important that we wrap Legion before we started shooting Fargo. Originally, we were supposed to start shooting Fargo in November, and we pushed it because it just seemed dumb to try to pull that off. They’re polar-opposite languages, visual and storytelling languages, and the Coen show is a very “objective” show: the camera moves in very traditional ways, and everything is downplayed, and there’s nothing subjective about it.
Legion was the opposite, it was a very emotional and expansive and dynamic show, which made it really exciting. There were weeks where it was like, “OK, this week I’m writing Legion 107 and next week I’m writing Fargo 4,” and I just made it work.
With Fargo Season 2, you were competing not only against the quality of the movie, but how great Season 1 was. Now you’ve also got Season 2 to live up to. What is your mindset going into Season 3?
We were rewarded for taking risks both years, and that’s my feeling, that we should keep doing that. You can look at the movie and our first year and see real similarities. You can’t really look at the movie and the second year and see those similarities, or even the first and second year on some level. On another level, they’re very much the same story about a crime that’s committed and a moral line that’s crossed for a little bit of money. So I think that identity remains, the idea of what people do for money. I turn off the part of my brain that looks at what I did before. “Here’s this story, what does this story want to be? Where does this story want to take me?” You always have to be aware of, “Did I do this before?” But as I said, there’s a certain mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
You’d previously talked about specific Coen Brothers films you had used as inspirations for Season 1 and Season 2, but you haven’t said anything about what you’re pulling from for Season 3. Do you feel like you’ve already exhausted their library?
No, it’s hard to exhaust their work. And there are things in there that maybe I’m not consciously aware have an homage feel to them. The key, I think, is to take things that are familiar and then do something different with them. So there was a Miller’s Crossing aspect to our second year, that ended in one character walking another character out into the woods with a gun. That felt very similar to that movie, but something different happened—and the relationships were different, and so it made the story different. And yet, at the same time, you were remembering what happened in the other one. I think we always have to have the structural stakes of something like No Country [For Old Men], because if the show ever feels comic for comic’s sake, then the energy goes out of it. So it needs to be life or death, every hour. Then within that, we’ve cast Michael Stuhlbarg, who was in A Serious Man, and David Thewlis, who was in [The Big] Lebowski. And there’s a little Lebowski flavor in this one, but it’s not like Lebowski at all.
Because Season 2 was set in 1979, you told me you couldn’t do any integrations. What about for Season 3?
I think we still have [FX’s] deal with Miller. There’s no car placement. Again, “It’s the best car ever in 2010!” is not really selling cars. So it becomes more about, is there a different brand that might want to be associated with us?
How about for Legion? Marvel has pursued those brand partnerships for its other TV shows.
It’s hard, because it’s not really tied to a specific time and place. There are some Twizzlers, but we don’t have a deal with Twizzlers. Maybe they’d like to make one!