Set Visit: Legion

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The Scott Stewart-directed film starring Dennis Quaid

The conditions are appropriately apocalyptic. The sun’s gone down on a dismal, barren stretch of New Mexico desert where a frigid wind is whipping up dust in every direction around a fabrication diner-slash-filing station surrounded by beat-up junkers that’s about to be assaulted by a cadre of grim-looking zombified stunt players. The environment couldn’t be more uncomfortable, and the cast and crew of the Biblical doomsday thriller Legion couldn’t be having more fun.

“I don’t know if it’s still on me, but blood splattered all over my face,” says actress Willa Holland (“The O.C.,” “Gossip Girl”), then 17, her waifish frame shivering in her barely-there wardrobe. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

As Holland takes the chill off between takes in which she’s dangerously close to some real-life pyrotechnics (zombie attack + gas station = guess what’s coming), her co-star Tyrese Gibson (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) watches nearby while first-time director Scott Stewart sets up the next shot. Stewart, one of the founders of the visual effects studio The Orphanage (Sin City, Iron Man, and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels), is working fast to complete shots with his underage actors before their work curfew kicks in, and will move on to even more complicated sequences before sunup with Gibson and the film’s central character Paul Bettany as the Archangel Michael, taking a stand against God’s plan to decimate humanity.

Gibson’s ear-to-ear grin shows that he’s having as much fun watching the set-ups as he is filming Legion‘s elaborate action sequences – many of which are shot with practical FX to be enhanced later by the digital sorcery of Stewart’s team.

“I’m trying to get to this court proceeding that’s happening where my wife is trying to take my child, so I stop over to get directions and end up dealing with the apocalypse – It’s fucked up,” says Gibson. “These apocalypse things were on the way and we kind of jumped off the roof and went straight into action, shooting up all these zombie-type of creatures.” He flashes a bigger smile. “Rock star stuff!”

Along with Bettany, Gibson and Holland, the film features an impressive ensemble, including Dennis Quaid (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”), Charles S. Dutton (“Threshold”), Adrianne Palicki (“Friday Night Lights”), Kevin Durand (“Lost”) and Doug Jones (“Hellboy” films). The actors were each won over by the story’s quirkier, character-oriented qualities rather than the promise of the eye-popping effects expected, according to director Stewart.

“It always starts with the script,” Stewart said. “That’s where the actors work. I think if I’d had a lot of fancy visuals but the script wasn’t compelling for any of them I don’t think that they would’ve done the film because none of these people need to do this movie. I think they want to do it because they think it’ll be fun and they think it’ll be different.”

“I wanted to have an action hero that was not known as an action star,” Stewart explained. “So that takes a certain group of people out of the picture. I said that I wanted real actors to be in this movie – and not that they’re not real actors but actors who are known for their acting ability and not their gymnastics or their muscles. Then I wanted to make that guy into an action star. To play the character of Michael the Archangel, it needed to be someone who had the thousand yard stare that can be part Steve McQueen and part something otherworldly and supernatural.”

Made up in that otherworldly mode (including a body-covering array of tattoos crafted in an angelic tongue), Bettany underscores the point. “What I like about the film is that Scott has sort of created this movie that’s about hope in the face of really appalling odds. That’s a sort of fantastic version of what we’re all, I guess, feeling on some level.” (Read full interview with Bettany)

Despite his status as one of Hollywood’s premiere FX gurus, Stewart (who re-wrote Peter Schink’s original screenplay) said he had the background to put story first. “I was a screenwriting major at NYU and I played with computers as a kid and I have this very strange, circuitous route where I landed at ILM as a visual FX artist. So I kind of came from both areas. I principally see myself as a writer… I guess I was geek enough to know how to do visual FX but writing was the first passion.”

Stewart was initially hired to work on the script for another director years earlier but the film never went into production. Finally producer David Lancaster approached The Orphanage about partnering to finally realize Legion. “I said, ‘I’ll do it if I can direct it.’ He said, ‘Well, you know it better than anybody. So let’s do it.’ We just kept working on it and working on it and we kind of got it to a place where the momentum built and finally it was happening.”

“Weirdly, he’s shooting quite an analog movie,” said Bettany of Stewart’s decidedly non-digital approach to filming, capturing as much practical action as possible before layering in the FX. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t want to shoot a blue movie.’ And I went, ‘Or a green movie! He said, ‘Yeah, or a green movie. ‘I want to shoot a Technicolor movie. I want to shoot a movie that’s like the colors that you get in ‘Close Encounters.’ Suddenly all movies are blue or they’re green and I thought ‘God, that’s sort of fantastic.’ You can just feel all of his sort of film references.”

“It is tonally really kind of unusual,” agreed Stewart, “There’s a lot of comedy in it, but the visceralness, the horror, the supernatural elements, the action, we try to just commit to it and make that as real as possible. We tried to think of movies that had that tone. We thought like ‘American Werewolf in London.’ That was a movie that was really funny but in a very grounded and real way and the scary stuff is really freaking scary. Visually, Rick Baker’s stuff was awesome for the time. I was thinking about a movie like that, and then of course ‘Close Encounters’ is probably the biggest influence at all.”

“Everyone always goes, ‘Visual FX artists have such a bad rap – All they care about are the pixels and they don’t pay any attention to the acting or the story,'” chuckled Stewart. But make no mistake: he does plan to bring the full weight of The Orphanage’s creative resources to bear on the final film. “We have a rule, which is no boring shots. We try our best to make each and every shot really graphic and be visually telling the story.”

“It’s a sort of relief because I know whatever they’re going to spend on this, it’s his FX house,” affirmed Bettany. “If it were me I’d be up 24 hours a day, late at night trying to make it look as good as I can. So he’s going to do that and I know he will… Having seen their reel, it’s really second to none. It’s pretty fucking pucker stuff.”

Gibson agrees: “When I saw the director’s reel after I read the script and then I heard about the cast that was on board for this, I figured it was a win-win situation. I’ve never done a film like this before and so that’s kind of what got me.”

As excited as the male actors are about their opportunity for both acting and action – “There ‘s a lot of kicking the shit out of people,” laughed Bettany. “I’ll be doing it again tonight, stove-piping this guy in the neck.” – the female stars are equally stoked. Holland plays a typical rebellious teen “trying to get away from her family and be on her own, have her own rules. She has this older persona she tries to put out there, and then all this stuff happens and all she wants is her mommy… She ends up finally taking charge and being that person that she tried to be – taking on the world and fighting demons and shooting guns.”

Adrianne Palicki says her character – a sort of trailer-trashy, very pregnant Mary figure caught up in the apocalypse – “finds her inner hero and she also finds her heart. She’s very adamant about taking care of herself and not thinking about the baby or anybody else in the world, and she comes full circle.”

And “she gets to whup a little angel ass. But I don’t get to shoot anybody,” Palicki pouted. “That kinda sucks!”

Legion opens in theaters on January 22, 2010. To read our on-set interview with Paul Bettany, click here.

Source: Scott Huver