Tag Archives: Noah Hawley

Noah’s art

With an eye for crafting unique worlds, Fargo and Legion creator Noah Hawley tells DQ why he is bringing movie methods to television.

As the stream of talent between cinema and television continues to flow in the small screen’s favour, Noah Hawley is bucking the trend.

The creator of US dramas Fargo and Legion admits that, as the TV industry evolves, he too is on a personal journey – from writer to filmmaker – as he increasingly departs from traditional TV production methods and adopts a more hands-on approach across writing, directing and editing that is more commonly associated
with movies.

This is undoubtedly down to the types of shows Hawley is making – dramas set in such unique and stylised worlds that their creators trust only themselves to bring them to life – at least until such time that their vision is in place firmly enough for others to follow.

Fargo, returning on April 19 for a third season on US cablenet FX, is based on the iconic Coen Brothers movie and demands certain sensibilities in writing and direction. Likewise, Legion is a mind-bending, dazzling and disorientating drama that looks and sounds like nothing else on TV.

Legion stars Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller

Speaking about Legion, which has been renewed for a second season, Hawley (pictured top) admits he “likes it when it’s at its oddest – and by ‘odd’ I don’t mean deliberately unfathomable but where the structure of the story and the intricacy of the emotion of the characters can be woven together in a way that transcends the genre.”

Loosely connected to the X-Men universe and based on the Marvel comic books by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, the story follows David, a schizophrenic whose life inside a psychiatric hospital is turned upside down by the arrival of a new patient, after which he begins to confront the possibility that his visions and the voices in his head might actually be real.

Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) stars as David, supported by Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza and Jean Smart. Legion is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.

“It’s been an evolution,” Hawley says of the show, which launched on FX in February. “What attracted me originally was the subjective nature of the show and that David’s experience of reality was going to be our experience of reality. But it wasn’t until I practically sat down to write that it became more about the demon within, as opposed to fighting some government agency.”

The showrunner says it was his intention to make something unexpected and unpredictable, if only to keep savvy viewers hooked on the series as it unfolds, and describes Legion’s two-year development as a “down-the-rabbit-hole journey” that fostered a sense of creativity, inventiveness and imagination.

Stevens plays David, a troubled young man who discovers the voices in his head may be real

“So I would sit down with the script and say, ‘Well, I know where it starts and know where it ends and I know on a macro level what has to happen in this episode, but how are we getting there and what are the fun gimmicks and tricks and visual ideas?’ It is a very surreal show but I always wanted the trailer for next week’s episode to have some element to it that meant viewers would have to see it because it was so visual and interesting.”

In terms of researching the source material, Hawley treated the comics the same way as he used the original Coen Brothers film when he began working on the first season of Fargo, which debuted on FX in 2014.

“I watched it and thought about it,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ve watched it again since. You want to take the essence away from it, and it was a similar dynamic with Legion. It’s about trying to create something that feels familiar and yet completely unfamiliar at the
same time.”

Part of Hawley’s evolution is embedded in his attitude to writers rooms, which he describes as a “kind of bigger brain” that helps to map out storylines across episodes and seasons. But as the creative leader of his shows, he also finds that the time he spends in the room correlates to its success.

“The room is at its most successful when I’m in it,” he says. “On the first year of Fargo, I was in the room 100% of the time and I ended up with a 115-page outline that I stuck to religiously. For the second year, I was in there 60% of the time and it worked about 60%. This last year I was in there 40% and I’m re-breaking a lot of the story as I go.

Legion, like Hawley’s Fargo, has earned rave reviews

“With Legion, there was a sense that a writers room, by definition, is an outline-generating device, which is to say you get a group of people in a room and what they can all agree on is plot. ‘This happens and then this happens’ – it’s very linear, and that’s not what the show is. It wasn’t very helpful to me because it takes all the inventiveness out of the writing and because it’s not how you tell a subjective and surreal story where things aren’t necessarily meant to be linear.”

Subsequently, Hawley will do a pass on every script, “even if it’s not my name on it,” though he admits the first season of any show is always the hardest: “You talk to any showrunner and they will tell you that they end up doing 90% of the writing because you’re asking people to write something that exists only in your head, whereas they don’t really have a point of reference. The question of how a show works – how we do romance, how we do action – hasn’t been defined; it can’t be defined until it’s made, and it can’t be made until we make it. There is this catch-22 to it where you’re just grateful for the big brain to help you think things through and, ultimately, you need to make a season of it to show next year’s writers what it could be.”

That isn’t to say Hawley doesn’t like collaboration or delegation. “I can’t do it all myself,” he jokes. “Sam Esmail, who created Mr. Robot, directed every moment of the second season himself – but he doesn’t have a wife and kids! TV is a collaborative medium and, at a certain point, you have to direct the directors, instruct the editors and let everybody take their best swing at it.”

As well as writing, Hawley is now adding directing to his duties. Having helmed two episodes of Fargo so far – the second of season two and the opener of the forthcoming third run – he also directed the first episode of Legion, and admits he enjoys the added pressure of directing while also assuming every other role that comes with being a showrunner.

“It’s really 3D writing,” he says of directing. “Every element, every detail is important. And the scripts, if you read them, are very visual. They’re really a blueprint, which is my way of saying, ‘This is how the story unfolds and how the audience wants to see it, so let’s just film it that way.’

“Especially with Legion and the idea of world creation, I really needed to make one episode myself and then bring in the other directors and go, ‘This is what the show is.’ The minute you add a layer of removal and bring in somebody else who has maybe a complementary vision, but a different vision nonetheless, it becomes more of a dialogue.

“I’ve done pilots with other directors who did great but, at this point in my career, I want what I want and I’m trying to do something different and original. And the only way to really do that is to do it yourself.”

That’s why Hawley says he is now gravitating towards movies, with a pair of films lined up at Fox Searchlight. As a writer, he says he has had to become a director to make the shows he wants, allowing him to follow a path that naturally leads to the big screen.

“From the very first day on Fargo, I knew if I just wrote some clever scripts and sent somebody else to make the show, it wouldn’t feel right,” Hawley says. “So I had to become a director; I had to become a filmmaker. And with Legion it’s a very idiosyncratic and personal vision.”

He adds: “The older I get, the more the traditional TV dynamic doesn’t work for me. I just can’t let the script go out of the door without making it mine, or let an episode go without turning it into what I want. So in a perfect world, I would write them and direct them myself, which is why I’m gravitating towards making movies. My next thing will be season two of Legion, and hopefully I’m making a movie next spring. It’s all gone very well, so I’m excited.”


Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ewan McGregor in the new season of Fargo

Finding Fargo’s voice

Since its debut on FX in 2014, Fargo has been a huge success story, winning critical acclaim, Emmy and Golden Globe awards and a legion of fans.

Now back for its third season, which is set in 2010, the story centres on Emmit Stussy and his younger brother Ray. While Emmit, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, sees himself as an American success story, pot-bellied parole officer Ray is forever living in his brother’s shadow. But their sibling rivalry follows a path that begins with petty theft and leads to murder, mobsters and cut-throat competitive bridge.

If this were a traditional drama, creator Noah Hawley might feel pressure to live up to the standards of previous seasons, but he says the anthology format of Fargo relieves him of the weight of expectation.

“There’s pressure to a degree because of the success the show has had and I would really feel that pressure if we were coming back with the same characters each year,” he says of the drama, which is produced by MGM Television and FX Productions and distributed by MGM.

“The advantage I have is that it’s a completely different 10-hour movie. They’re always set in a different time period, and in many ways a different tone of voice, a different visual palette, and the tone shifts and the characters are different. So I’m able to focus on this movie, make this one the best it can be and you don’t even really have to think about what you did before because you’re just following this story to its natural end.”

Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist in Fargo’s second run

Playing both Emmit and Ray, Ewan McGregor follows in the footsteps of previous Hollywood actors to star in Fargo including Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson. He is joined on screen by Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Bungle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ray’s girlfriend Nikki Swango and David Thewlis as mysterious loner VM Vargos.

“There’s an interesting dynamic to working in [Fargo’s] tone of voice – the performances have to be grounded and real but there’s also something heightened about the movie you’re in,” Hawley explains. “Ewan is great at that. He’s a great dramatic actor but he’s also funny, he’s got great timing and great instincts. There’s a love story in it for one of his characters, which he’s hapless and charming at. So he’s checked every box.

“Practically, it’s not like these two brothers are on screen together for the whole show but when they are, there’s a combination of classic lopped off shots where you film one side of it, then you change the hair and make-up, sit him in the other chair and film the other side of it. There are some programmable camera dollies where you can repeat the same moves so you run it once with him in one role and once with him in the other role, but it’s not a gimmicky show like Legion. The point is more to create something that will feel like the rest of the movie. My hope is that part of the filmmaking becomes invisible.”

With the show set to debut in the US on April 19, there will be a tight post-production process in place as shooting doesn’t finish until the first week of May. Despite that, Hawley says he “couldn’t be happier” with season three. He adds: “It really feels special this year and with this cast. You have to hope as a filmmaker that your next film is better than your last and it feels really good to me. That’s all I’ll say!”

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Building Legion

A Clockwork Orange provided some of the inspiration behind the look of FX’s latest original series, Legion. Production designer Michael Wylie tells DQ how he created this unique world.

Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film A Clockwork Orange, the 1970s and the brutalist architecture movement of the mid-20th century might not appear to have much in common, but blend them together for a television show and you might come close to creating something that looks like Legion.

Michael Wylie

The new drama from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, it is based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and is the first TV drama with a connection to the world of X-Men.

The story follows David, a schizophrenic whose strict daily routine inside a psychiatric hospital is upended by the arrival of a new patient, Syd, after which he begins to confront the possibility that the voices in his head and his visions might actually be real.

The cast is led by British actor Dan Stevens as David – the actor is unrecognisable from his stint as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey – with Rachel Keller (Syd), Aubrey Plaza (Lenny) and Jean Smart (Melanie Bird).

But while the show stands out for its take on mental illness and its comic book origins, it is the look and design that really demand attention.

From the retro costumes, the futuristic, space-age sets, psychedelic lighting and its disorientating soundtrack, Legion is a work of art.

Much of that success is down to the efforts of production designer Michael Wylie, who has previously worked on Grimm, Masters of Sex and another Marvel property, Agent Carter.

“We had a blast doing it because it’s just fun,” he tells DQ. “When you get to do weird stuff, it can either be really hard or really fun, and thankfully it was really fun!”

Rachel Keller and friend in Legion

Wylie interviewed for the job in November 2015 and just weeks later, in January 2016, he was in Vancouver preparing the pilot, in which almost everything on screen was built by Wylie and his team.

He recalls that first meeting, sitting down with exec producers Hawley, John Cameron and Lauren Shuler Donner. Hawley, who is meticulous in his preparation, had already compiled and printed a book of images that conveyed the feeling he wanted for the show, which is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.

Wylie had prepared something similar, and he was pleased to find that they had both picked out several of the same images.

A Clockwork Orange’s brutalist architecture directly inspired Wylie and Hawley

“Noah’s book was 20 pages of really cool imagery – a lot of 70s stuff, a lot of stills from A Clockwork Orange and there were a lot of interiors of brutalist buildings around the US and the really cool one in A Clockwork Orange,” Wylie recalls. “I had pulled a bunch of images I’d put on my iPad and I think we had four of the same exact pictures. It was a match made in heaven, I guess.”

Wylie had specifically avoided any of the comic book artwork or anything related to the established X-Men universe to ensure his own vision wasn’t contaminated by existing works. Instead, he took Hawley’s detailed pilot script and ran with it.

“It’s all in the script really,” he said of his starting point for the show. “It talks about an odd-looking psychiatric hospital and talks about brutalist buildings. But at that time, no-one knew Noah was shooting in Vancouver and the city has a ton of brutalist buildings.

“He just thought instead of trying to hide them, let’s try to embrace them. It’s kinda like you’re shooting LA for Boston and you run around trying to not shoot palm trees all day long. At the end of the day it would have been cheaper to film in Boston. So we decided to embrace it all.”

That the pilot’s 70s vibe – which largely comes from the colour and design of the psychiatric hospital and the characters’ clothing – has been such a talking point since its launch on FX in February was a surprise to Wylie, who admits the whole show has been designed to keep viewers off-balance, as though they are seeing events unfold through David’s eyes.

“We started to use a lot of colour that happened to give that feeling,” he explains. “There is a lot of yellow and it seems to be a hip colour, but the last time it was a hip colour was exactly in 1973. I think that’s why it feels kind of 70s, and I know some of the costumes are kind of 70s.

“That was all by design with Noah and [costume designer] Carol Case. They really wanted to confound the viewer as to where they are. Our ideal is to make the viewer feel as crazy as David feels. Things shouldn’t match and things shouldn’t be anything that a viewer could really look at as a point of reference. You always want the viewer to feel like they don’t know where they are; they shouldn’t recognise these rooms with big round windows, or that have giant goats in the middle of them. It’s all meant to keep the viewer on the back foot so they can have a subjective experience, just like David is.”

Dan Stevens moves away from his Downton image

In particular, the use of new technology was key to creating this environment. The whole appearance of the hospital set could be changed by manipulating the LED lighting on set, so every scene feels slightly different.

“It’s almost imperceptible how much you feel disorientated by a lot of things in the show, especially the soundtrack. You hear voices, there’s banging and there’s things to distract you that you would never normally do in a TV show,” Wylie notes. “You want to hear what the people are saying and you notice in the sound editing of the show, they just keep making loud noises. Normally a writer would be really precious about making sure you don’t do that so you can hear every word they’re saying, but I don’t think Noah wants you to hear every single word, or at least he wants you to be confused or hit your rewind button on your DVR a bunch of times.”

The hospital sets were also used to bewilder viewers. The pilot includes several long takes that follow characters around the facility, but in practice the set wasn’t that large. According to Wylie, “there’s some camera trickery there because the room is an octagon, so although the actors change direction, you feel as a viewer like they’re still walking in the same direction.

“We had limited space and limited time to build stuff so I worked really closely with Noah to achieve what he wanted. In the pilot there’s tons of overhead shots, so that’s a special kind of build and when you’re doing lots of overheads you really have to concentrate on the floors in places where normally you don’t care too much about. So during the [Bollywood-inspired] dance number in the day room at the psychiatric facility, that floor was specially made for the overhead shot of people dancing.”

Wylie recalls that in the past, huge sets would have been constructed, lit with dozens of lights above removable ceiling panels. However, sets today are much more like real locations. “They have ceilings, floors and windows and a lot of times they get lit through the windows we provide,” he says.

The architecture of Legion lends much to the show’s 70s vibe

“The big challenge for the art department now is we’re designing a lot of lighting because they can be part of the set. Everything’s gotten a lot simpler.”

World building isn’t anything new for a production designer; indeed, every new series begins life as a couple of sketches or models. But few dramas are as all-encompassing as Legion.

“I did a show called Pushing Daisies [Bryan Fuller’s quirky comedy drama for ABC in 2007], where we created a whole world for them to inhabit,” Wylie recalls. “So I’ve done these kinds of things before. A couple of years ago I did another Marvel show called Agent Carter, where we did 1940s New York City. I get to do a lot of shows where we create a lot and we’re not just shooting on location or turning the camera on to something that’s already existing.”

And with the increasing popularity of sci-fi/fantasy dramas that require their sets to have an other-worldly quality, Wylie believes this trend is pushing production design further into the spotlight than ever before.

“If you get 10 or 12 hours to tell a story on TV as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes in a movie theatre, so you’ve got to make it great and make a splash,” he continues. “I always say people sometimes disregard art direction as background, but when you’re telling stories like this, you can’t disregard the background because it’s part of the story.

“I don’t think people tune into TV to see what they see in everyday life, they tune in to see something much different from their real lives. I’m a big fan of going over the top, even when it’s not called for!”

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Fargo keeps going as French shows impress

fargo-season-2-cast-image1
Fargo has proved popular with the critics

US cable channel FX has renewed its stylish anthology thriller Fargo for a third season. Based on the Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo’s second run will finish stateside on December 14 and is currently receiving rave reviews. The first season was nominated for a total of 18 Primetime Emmys, winning three.

The show was written by the multi-talented Noah Hawley, who was a singer-songwriter and a published novelist before he turned to TV screenwriting. He wrote for Fox drama Bones for three seasons before being handed the Fargo gig, as well as a couple of projects for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation).

Some writers might have been intimidated by the Coen brothers’ shadow lurking in the background of the Fargo project, but Hawley managed to stay true to the original concept while taking the show’s mythology in an exciting new direction.

Fargo writer Noah Hawley is also working on Cat's Cradle with FX
Fargo writer Noah Hawley is also working on Cat’s Cradle with FX

For this, he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries – and it would be a surprise if he weren’t on the list again for Fargo season two.

Commenting on the renewal, Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Year two of Fargo is an extraordinary achievement and, given Noah Hawley’s masterful storytelling, we can’t wait to see where the third version of Fargo takes us. Our thanks to Noah, Warren Littlefield, Joel and Ethan Coen, John Cameron and our partners at MGM TV for making Fargo a memorable and rewarding journey.”

Despite getting his break in network TV, Hawley did an interview with Hollywood Reporter in 2014 in which he made it clear that he was more comfortable in cable drama: “The leap from network to cable was huge for me because at the networks there’s a real desire for original content but also a fear of original content. To arrive at FX and have them say, ‘Can you make it darker and more morally ambiguous?’ is incredible. (FX Networks CEO) John Landgraf would rather make something great for some people than something good for everybody.”

FX seems equally enthusiastic about Hawley. Aside from greenlighting Fargo season three, it has gone into partnership with him on Cat’s Cradle, a series based on Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel.

Billy Ray is adapting The Last Tycoon
Billy Ray is adapting The Last Tycoon

Another writer in the news this week is Billy Ray, who will be adapting F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon for Amazon. Ray is primarily known as a movie writer, having written around a dozen titles including The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips.

The Last Tycoon, which was made into a film in the 1970s with a Harold Pinter script, looks at Hollywood in the 1930s and is being produced by Sony Pictures Television. There were rumours in 2013 that the project was heading for HBO – but there has clearly been a rethink since then.

The project comes after the recent movie version of The Great Gatsby and another Amazon project about Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. So keep you eyes peeled for TV adaptations of This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night.

Congratulations are also due this week to the team behind French series Spiral, season five of which has won the International Emmy for Best Drama Series. A Canal+ show, Spiral (Engrenages in French) follows the lives and work of Paris police officers and lawyers working in the Palais de Justice.

spiral
International Emmy winner Spiral
Created by Son et Lumiere, it debuted in 2005 and has been produced at the rate of one season every two years. The first two runs comprised eight episodes each, rising to 12 after that. With season five having aired in late 2014, a sixth season is due towards the end of next year. In the meantime, it has proved popular abroad, selling to 70 countries including the UK, Australia, Japan, Mexico and the US (via Netflix).

In terms of story and script duties, the show was created Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, with the latter writing the first season. Season two was overseen by Virginie Brac, while season three was handled by Anne Landois, Eric de Barahir and Simon Jablonka. Landois and de Barahir also led season four, while Landois and Jablonka oversaw the Emmy-winning fifth outing.

For anyone wanting to learn more about the structure and intention of the show, Spiral showrunner Landois did an interesting video interview with Vivendi. She also spoke to her UK fans via a BBC blog platform.

whitesoldier
Soldat Blanc (White Soldier)

This year’s International Emmys provided another strong indication of French drama’s increasing impact on the global scripted market. Alongside recognition for Spiral, TV movie White Soldier (Soldat Blanc) won the award for best TV movie/miniseries. Set in Saigon in 1945, the production looks at France’s conflict with Vietnam’s Viet Minh through the eyes of a pair of friends. The idea for White Soldier was from Georges Campana and the screenplay was by Olivier Lorelle. Director Erick Zonca was also credited as a writer.

Winner of the telenovela category was Imperio (Empire), which first aired on Rede Globo in Brazil. Created by Aguinaldo Silva, Imperio aired from July 2014 to March 2015 and was a substantial hit for the network. Seventy-two-year-old Silva himself is one of the most feted telenovela writers in Brazil, having been at the forefront of the industry since the 1980s. His numerous credits include a 1989 adaptation of Jorge Amado’s classic novel Tieta, which scored huge ratings, and 2004’s Senhora de Destino, another huge hit.

The International Emmys also gave a deserved nod to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, in the shape of the 2015 Founders Award.

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