Interview: Jeff Russo talks Superheroes, Hallucinations, and Scoring FX’s ‘Legion’

Jeff Russo has quickly become one of the most heard composers in TV, starting in 2014 with his Emmy-award winning score for the first two seasons of FX’s Fargo as well as the score for CBS’ American Gothic and The Night Of on HBO.

Now, he’s re-teaming with Fargo executive producer Noah Hawley to bring David Haller, the occasionally patricidal, frequently omnipotent, always entertaining X-Men anti-hero Legion to the screen in an FX original series. Before the Legion premier on Wednesday night, we talked with him about scoring the new take on the superhero genre, music for character versus music for situations and ’70s psychedelica. 

How did you get involved with the project?

It was Noah [Hawley]’s project so after we did Fargo Season 2, he called me and said we were doing Marvel’s Legion and I said, “Wow.”

Going from Fargo to something like this, it sounds like a shocking transition. did your approach change?

Y’know I don’t think the approach changed. The approach is there’s characters, there’s narrative. It’s all about how do we tell the story how do we support the narrative and what do we want to to do and how do we want to do it. The approach is basically the same. There are melodies and there are harmonies. How do we want to make this different than other Marvel shows and other superhero shows? It was choosing a palette and choosing the way to get from Point A to Point B.

You touched on it briefly but this seems like a dramatically different take from the other Marvel shows and the movies? Was that something you considered?

Definitely, we didn’t want to sound like a Marvel movie or a Marvel television show. We wanted to be what we are, which is everything other than being that. The way this story is told is from a completely different perspective. It’s all about the character.

One of the things Noah was talking about was if our main character doesn’t know what’s real, why don’t we try to also invite the audience to not know what’s real and what’s not real and how do we achieve that with music, how do we make it so the music can seamlessly go from being in the real weird to in the hallucination world? He had suggested to me that a book called Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks and I did. There was a section on auditory hallucinations and it really helped. It didn’t help guide me in how to write something but it gave me a little insight into not knowing what’s real or not real in terms of sound. That also gave me the  opportunity to turn the music on its head.

We did a lot of aleatoric and atonal stuff and stuff with a quartet playing backwards and I then would manipulate the sound and put it in a tape machine and slow it down and take the tape. We did all kinds of fun stuff like that. Then there’s this sort of electronic element and we had to figure out how to go from this electronic element to this orchestral score that all at the same time had this through-line of this emotional beat. The story at the core is all between the two main characters, David and Syd.

That’s where I live the most in my writing in that emotional state. I live in that state and I write in that state. I won’t say this score came easy but it seemed right in what I loved to write because it was really right between these two people.

Doing something that’s so much about a pair of characters versus something like Fargo that has a much bigger cast of characters, does that change your focus at all?

It’s interesting that you say that because what happens between Season 1 and Season 2 of Fargo was just that. In Season 1, there was a much smaller group of characters and I was really focused on the good and the evil, Lester and Malvo. In the second season, you’re right, there was this much larger group of characters. I had to take a different approach in how to write for situations, as opposed to characters. I would say, in the approach, Legion was maybe more like Fargo Season 1 in terms of how I was approaching character-based themes, as opposed to situational based themes.

David’s kind of an unreliable superhero character. Was it a challenge to have sort of a lucid feel to his character?

The challenge was how to make it feel lucid and then not and then lucid again. The idea is he sort of goes between reality and non reality and I had to figure out how to do that musically. That was challenging figuring out how to do those challenges seamlessly but it ended up working pretty well.

Was this a character and world you were familiar with?

Totally! I was a comic book fan and I was an X-Men fan back in the ‘80s so I was familiar with the character Legion. What we’ve done with the character is different from what you might expect because it’s different from the way it’s written in the comics but its ethics still holds true, I think. In the end, it’s still about what is good and what is evil, what is bad and who is bad. There’s this struggle between David saving Syd and Syd saving David.

How do you go from seeing Legion on the page, with no music whatsoever, to composing music around him?

I had conversations with Noah about how he wanted it to sound and what he thought the music should sound like in his mind. As I started writing, that sound started to flesh itself out.

Were there any musical reference points you had when you started writing the score?

One of the things Noah said was Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd is sort of the modern pop music/rock music version of crazy music, certainly Dark Side of the Moon. I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan so the first thing I did was go out and buy a synthesizer that I know was used on Dark Side of the Moon. I started there.

There was a little guitar, a little drums a little bass and, on top of that, I asked, “How do I do that and make it more electronic sounding and also add this orchestral element?” I started there and I don’t know that I really went any deeper for inspiration. I just went into the pages of the script to pull my inspiration from it.

Is that the traditional way you work on score or do you sometimes have a firm idea before you get a script?

It all depends on the project. It all depends on what I’m working on. The stuff I’m working on for Noah, he sends me these scripts and I really get inspired because he’s such a visual writer, so I get really inspired before I ever see the picture. Sometimes I wait until I see the final picture before I really get inspired.

Is there anything viewers should watch out for musically as they navigate the show to keep up with everything?

That’s an interesting question. I would say that you’ve just gotta watch the first two episodes a couple of times to really keep up. Things happen and you go back and watch it again and say, “Oh yeah, there it is.” You just have to stay with it. You have to give it a chance to live. You learn a lot in the first episode but you learn a lot in the seventh. You’ve got to get all the way to eight to truly understand what the whole story is about.

Interestingly enough, I think that we are more like what a comic version would be on screen. I think. It feels more like getting inside the brain of this schizophrenic person, or person who thinks he’s schizophrenic, that’s what they really tried to do with the book. We achieved that in a way that doesn’t necessarily get achieved by the movies and the television shows because they approach it from a different perspective, which totally works but doesn’t have the same sort of ethic as we do.

Legion premieres Wednesday, February 8th at 10pm on FX.