Tag Archives: Sci-fi

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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The age of ‘sigh’-fi?

Big names including Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips are on board the adaptation of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion
Big names including Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips are on board the TV adaptation of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion

Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) recently lamented the number of sci-fi and superhero sagas that are appearing on television and in the movies. Speaking to The Radio Times, he said: “Obviously I’m a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.”

He has a point – particularly when you look at the factory-farm exploitation of the DC and Marvel mythologies by Warner Bros and Disney. But there is a flip side to sci-fi and fantasy – which is that it provides creatives with new ways to address important themes about the way humanity conducts itself. The best projects, many of which start in book form, are superb treatises on power, war, gender, immigration, the environment, medical ethics and the advance of AI. So many of the challenges and opportunities we are living through now were first identified and debated by the farsighted sci-fi writers of the last century.

US sci-fi channel Syfy has broadcast its fair share of tripe down the years, but more recently it has really been getting to grips with what the genre can offer at its best. This week, for example, it announced that it is teaming up with Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Graham King (The Departed, Argo) and Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) to develop Dan Simmons’ Hugo Award-winning best-selling novel Hyperion as an event series. As if that isn’t enough top talent to be getting on with, the screenplay will be written by Itamar Moses, best known for Boardwalk Empire.

Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh
Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh

Set on the eve of Armageddon with the galaxy at war, Hyperion is the story of seven pilgrims who set forth on a voyage to seek the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. A complex and intelligent work that employs a similar narrative structure to The Canterbury Tales, it’s a million miles from the kind of projects Pegg is concerned about. Commenting on the project, Syfy and Chiller president Dave Howe said: “Epitomising the gold standard of science-fiction story-telling, Hyperion tackles smart, provocative themes that help define Syfy’s development vision.”

Syfy isn’t completely free of the shackles of comic book tyranny (it recently greenlit David Goyer’s Superman prequel Krypton, for example), but there’s no questioning the channel’s ambition. Aside from Hyperion, recently announced projects include The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling books; a futuristic detective series called The Expanse; Childhood’s End, based on an Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic about a peaceful alien invasion; and Brave New World, a series from Amblin Television based on Aldous Huxley’s superb novel. For Howe, the latter is another example of the way the channel is heading: “Brave New World is precisely the groundbreaking programming that is becoming the hallmark of Syfy. It is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.”

The inclusion of Bradley Cooper in its roster of talent is, of course, a coup for Syfy. But it’s not the only example of Syfy’s ability to attract A-listers. In April, it greenlit Incorporated, a futuristic espionage thriller from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Productions, CBS TV Studios and Universal Cable Productions.

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson (right) exec produces and has a role in Power
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson (right) exec produces and has a role in Power

Set in a future where companies have unlimited power, Incorporated tells the story of executive Ben Larson, forced to change his identity in order to infiltrate a cut-throat corporate world and save the woman he loves. In the process, he will take on the entire system – with deadly consequences. Syfy says the dystopian future of the show – created by David and Alex Pastor (Selfless, The Last Days) – reflects contemporary trends: the growing influence of corporations and private interests in Washington, the slow but steady dismantling of the public sector, and the accumulation of an amazing amount of wealth by an ever-shrinking minority. “It is an electrifying example of what science fiction does best,” says Howe, “holding a mirror to present realities and projecting forward to a recognisable future in which we face the impact and consequences of our actions.” And there won’t be a cape in sight.

Back in the here and now, Starz has just greenlit a third series of Power, the New York-based drama from Courtney Kemp Agboh that came with Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer. Power is a crime drama set in two different worlds: the glamorous New York club scene and its brutal drug trade. With its predominantly black cast, it has been a revelation for Starz. The first episode of the second series, which aired on June 6, logged 1.43 million Live+SD viewers, the most ever for a Starz Original series season premiere. More than 3.62 million Live+SD viewers watched the episode over the initial weekend.

Episodes will return for a fifth run
Episodes will return for a fifth run

Kemp Agboh, who created the show, has much to celebrate this week. In addition to record ratings and a third season pick-up for Power, Starz has just signed her to an overall deal. Commenting, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “Courtney is a highly regarded showrunner whose creative vision brings viewers into the two worlds of Power. We are extremely pleased to continue our relationship with Courtney in the coming years.”

There was also good news for Matt LeBlanc this week, following Showtime’s decision to order a fifth season of Episodes, a scripted comedy starring the former Friends actor as a fictionalised version of himself. After a relatively low-key launch in 2011, the Hat Trick Productions show has emerged as one of best comedies of the last few years. Now up to 43 episodes in total, it has also sold well internationally for distributor Hat Trick International.

Finally, it seems Nordic, French and Israeli drama producers might have a new competitor. At the New Europe Market in Dubrovnik, FremantleMedia and Jadran Film Zagreb announced a strategic partnership to bring the literary works of one of Croatia’s most popular writers, Marija Jurić Zagorka, to global audiences.

Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka
Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka

Zagorka, who died in 1957, is one of the most read writers in Central and Eastern Europe, although her novels have never been translated into English. The partnership kicks off with a joint production of one of Zagorka’s most famous works: The Witch of Grich (Grička vještica), which has sold more than 10 million copies in Eastern Europe.

Set in the second half of the 18th century, it tells the story of a young countess called Nera, whose popularity among men causes envy among her female peers. When Nera tries to save a group of poor women from a witch-hunt, her rivals see this as an opportunity to accuse her of witchcraft. FremantleMedia and Jadran Film are also looking at developing titles such as Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Gordana and Jadranka.

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