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Why Composer Jeff Russo Looked to Pink Floyd for 'Legion'

We chat with Jeff Russo about creating the music for FX's trippy new comic-book adaptation.

Charles Moss

FX's Legion, which premiered last night, is based on Marvel comics character David Haller, the mutant son of Professor Charles Xavier from the X-men. Created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz in 1985, the character has a form of dissociative identity disorder with close to 40 different personalities, each associated with its own superpower. Legion is one of those personalities, and has the power to warp time and reality. Throw in schizophrenia and autism, and you've got one complex character. Not only will it make for interesting television, but it'll provide excellent fodder about how we look at mental illness in America.

The first episode of Legion is a sprawling, beautiful 90-minutes with its quality only heightened by the accompanying music. I sat down with two-time Grammy and Emmy-nominated musician, Jeff Russo, to talk about his second collaboration with series creator Noah Hawley, with whom he worked on FX's successful Fargo television adaptation. We had a chat about comic books, the music-making process, and Pink Floyd.

VICE: Can you tell me about the premise of Legion?
Jeff Russo: That's almost difficult to describe. It's based on a character from a comic book. It's from the New Mutants series in the 80s, and the character's name is Legion. But really, that's where the similarity ends.

This character David Haller has been told that he's schizophrenic his whole life, but in fact, he's a mutant, and he has these powers. The idea of the story is he doesn't know what's real and what's not real. Things are in his hallucinating world and then in the real world, and you never really know where he is until you do, and then you don't again, and then you do, and then you don't again. There's that part, but really the core of the show, in my opinion, is this love story between him and Syd Barrett, played by Rachel Keller.

Were you familiar with the comic book at all? Did you read comics growing up?
I was kind of a comic-book fan when I was a kid. I did follow the X-Men. I never got into the New Mutants, which the Legion character comes from. I did know about it, but I didn't really get into it until recently, when I read the script and then went back and looked at some of the comics to see what it was all about.

How is the show different than other comic book shows or movies that have been out?
The comic-book movies that we know are the Marvel comic-book movies and the DC comic-book movies. And those two universes are quite dissimilar. As far as it being a Marvel thing, I would say that the movies and the other television shows tend to take the comic-book story and put [it] into a real-world context and make it feel very grounded and real.

In this case, I feel like Legion is more comic book-esque. It's a little more surreal; it's a little more hyper-real. I mean, aside from the fact that they have these powers and stuff—just in general, it's a more psychedelic look at the whole idea of people with powers and what that means for them and how that affects them as people, and then people coming to terms with that. Then how those people have relationships with one another and how they relate to the outside world and vice versa.

Tell me about your music-writing process for this show. Was it different than other shows that you've worked on?
I looked at it the same way that I do Fargo. I look at the characters and read the scripts and start sketching ideas for themes for these characters. At the beginning, I wrote a theme for David, and then I wrote another theme for David, and then I wrote another theme for David. I kept writing these themes for David, because what I realized was, he has so many different sides to him. In that way, it was much different because instead of it being lots of different characters, it's a single character that has many different facets, so I got to really explore how to augment and change and turn on its side and turn upside down and turn backward, a theme for a single character.

How did you make the transition for writing rock music to scoring and composing for TV and movies?
I would say magic. That's what I would say. I don't really know the answer to that question. It's like one day I was writing music for a little television show, and then I got a call from Noah. I had done two previous shows with him. He said, "We're doing Fargo, what do you think?" I said, "This is great, what is it about?" We talked about it, and then he sent me home with that in mind. I wrote the main theme for it, and I realized it had to be an orchestra because we wanted to make a big movie in the show. We wanted the show to be like a movie, making ten little movies.

When I say "magic," I'm only half joking. I just tried to figure it out. People have said, "No, no, no, no, you can't do that. If you do this with this thing, you can't do it with that thing." And I'm like, "Well, I don't really know that. Nobody ever told me that, so I'm going to continue to do this this way. And if it's wrong, then so be it." Because to me, if it sounds good, it must be right. And if it sounds good to me, it means it's right to me.

What's your collaboration process with Noah like, especially for Legion?
For Legion, we sat down, and we talked specifically about, "What if we have this very electronic sound, and we have this very orchestral, cinematic thing, and we go from one to another as a method of transition between the real and the unreal and back? How can we do that? What if David's theme has this really super electronic thing, and then there's this more orchestral thing that happens? How do we do that?"

Also we talked a lot about Pink Floyd, because we're both huge Pink Floyd fans, and both of us agree that Pink Floyd was basically the soundtrack for schizophrenia in the 70s. So I went out, and I bought an old 70s synthesizer, the same one that they used, apparently, on Dark Side of the Moon. I turned it on, plugged it in, started turning some knobs, and I'm like, "Wow, it really does sound like that."

The process is: We talk about it, and I go write, and then I send him stuff, and then we talk about it some more. He says, "I like this, I like that, this isn't really working for me, change this." Then I do that some more, and then we start figuring out how that is going to work to picture, once the picture's been put together.

It's probably not a coincidence that there is a character named Syd Barrett in the show.
Obviously, the homage is there. Both Noah and I talked very much about that soundscape being somewhat of an inspiration to how I go about writing the score.

What do you hope that viewers will take away from the soundtrack on Legion? What do you want the viewer to feel while they're watching the show?
I want them to be immersed; I want people to be immersed in the story. The music plays a part. It's basically a character. But it's a character as part of the fabric of the show. What you really want as someone who is writing music for a narrative, especially in this case, is for people to just become completely enveloped in the idea of the show, and to be drawn in. For the music to help draw you in, but not take you out of the moment, and to help you be in the music. That's the idea of film music, the idea of music for television or any narrative, is for you to really help the viewer be immersed in the moment. Not to tell you what the moment is, and not to take you out of the moment, but to have you not realize that you're so in it. I think that's what I would really like for people to take away from the show.

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