In Legion, Paul Bettany plays the angel Michael, who comes to earth to save humanity from a vengeful God going Old Testament on everyone's ass. The battle for humanity takes place in an unlikely locale -- a middle-of-nowhere diner -- and is over an unlikely prize: the unborn child of a single white-trash waitress.
On the eve of Legion's premiere, we joined a group of journos and sat down with Bettany and writer/director Scott Stewart to get their take on good and evil, why Legion won't be like their other upcoming horror/action/religious film, Priest, and... just what's up with Paul and God? Read the full interview after the jump.
How did the story come about? Was it based on a graphic novel?
Stewart: We actually created the graphic novel after the film. Legion: Prophets was something I wrote with IDW Comics about what's happening during the same three days that the movie takes place in. Paul's character refers to these other characters in the film, but we don't actually see them.
The original story came to me when I was hired to re-write a script. I thought it was an intriguing script, but I wanted to take a different approach, and I started over. There are a lot of elements I kept – the same location, for example – but I grounded the story and reconsidered the mythology of it. I took a more Old Testament view of God, and recast it as a horror-western movie. There is an angry father dynamic, set in a diner. With monsters.
What was it before?
Bettany: It was a drawing room comedy by Noel Coward, called Private Lives. But set in a diner.
Stewart: The other script was more interested in each of the characters portraying an aspect of the seven deadly sins. There were no angels, just demonic forces outside. They were literally creatures – wild spider characters, for example. They didn't look anything like people. What was more interesting to me was to take the idea of things that are comforting to us, like little old ladies, and families in minivans, and turning those into things that are scary.
Bettany: The little demon girl in the party dress with the balloon – that one was really disturbing.
Stewart: That I took from a photograph I saw. I just thought it was so disturbing, the idea that the possessed don't know why they are here, they just are. She was at a party – her party – and she has a balloon, but now she is suddenly in the middle of this warzone.
Were you familiar with films like The Prophecy?
Stewart: I had seen the first one. I think it's cool, but it wasn't really of interest to me. If there are similarities it certainly wasn't intentional.
Paul, how did you achieve that other-worldly vibe in your performance as Michael?
Bettany: I can't actually interview an angel, so I try to narrow down the things that are my responsibility to bring to the screen. I went to museums and looked at paintings and statues of angels. They were all fairly ripped, and often had swords and spears. So physically, I had to get in shape. I was playing the soldier who was taking command. So that's what I tried to play: a warrior, while safe in the knowledge that somebody, somewhere, would have to put 8' wings on me, and people would say, "Oh, he's a fucking angel." Otherwise you try to play something abstract. It felt like a waste of my energy to try to play an enigma. I would be massively helped by those wings.
Was it tough to get in shape for such action-heavy scenes?
Bettany: They make it very easy for you. [The movie] pays for your trainer, and your job becomes going to the gym for two hours a day and being paid a lot of money. Anybody can do that – just focus on the money, and eat cake after. I'm quite quick on my feet. I did judo as a kid, so I love that kind of thing. I thought, if I was going to make an action movie, I want to do the actual action. If I don't, then what is the point? I had a great stunt double named Adam Hart who wanted me to do as much as I could. There are certain things they wouldn't let me do, insurance-wise, like coming through the window.
Stewart: But that was only for, like, three shots in the whole movie. Same with Kevin Durand [who plays opposing angel Gabriel]. The only stunts they didn't do were the ones the insurance company said no to.
Bettany: Because you might not be able to shoot the next day. The plate glass is obviously not real plate glass – it's sugar glass – but it still cuts, and then they can't shoot you the next day. They're not worried about you; they are worried about you fiscally. But I loved doing it. It was a pleasure, flying around and all that. The real skill is to try not too look too surprised when you land. I really adored doing it. Except my testicles. The flying harness makes it feel as though you are being swung around by your testicles.
Did you look towards any one Bible story for inspiration?
Stewart: Yeah, I like the story of Cain & Abel. But I also looked towards the Dead Sea Scrolls and the flood myth. In one of the scrolls there was the story of the sons of lightness versus the sons of darkness. That sounded like a cool movie! But the story was literally that a group of angels came down to teach humans agriculture and mathematics and whatnot, but started cavorting with humans and created a race of half-breeds. God decided that wasn't good, so he sent Michael and Gabriel down, threw the other angels into a pit, and flooded the world. That is an earlier, alternate version of the Noah's ark story.
I started thinking about all these things, and the idea of alternate versions of the canonized stories, and decided there could be the same kind of thing for stories you would tell for today. What if they found another scroll? Who is to say that it couldn't take place in the southwest United States? Angels are always described as being soldiers, so what is the contemporary version of that? A guy holding an MP5. Some people would say, "Angels don't have free will." Well, when was the last time you met one? Frankly, we are just tickled pink that a genre movie like this is something that people could be having theological discussions about. Hopefully people will watch it and be scared, but if they want to, they can look deeper and draw parallels between this and other Bible stories.
How different is it from the action we are going to see from both of you in Priest?
Stewart: Very different.
Bettany: We went into Priest with the same spirit, but with three times the budget, which changes everything. It is a very different story, and for me, it is a very different character. Michael is all about forgiveness and faith, and Priest is all about revenge.
Stewart: Tonally, they are very different. Priest has lots of action, but it is a somber, sci-fi western. It takes place in an alternate universe that is retro-futuristic, big industrial cities, and a whole mythology that goes over the history of the human-vampire wars. The priest characters are like Jedi knights. It is really more of an "after the war" movie. You go off and fight the war, you win the war, and you come home expecting a parade, and instead they decommission you, are sent to work in a factory, and no one will sit next to you on a bus because they are afraid of you. What happens to the next generation?
That differs quite a bit from the graphic novel, doesn't it?
Stewart: In some respects. Min-woo Hyung, the writer of the graphic novel, came out to visit us on set. I was really nervous. He read a translation of the script and was really pleased. We talk about the graphic novels being the past, and Priest [the film] being the future. There were 16 books, but it was kind of a soap opera with no ending. So you will see how that story dovetails with ours. The Ivan Isaacs character in the Priest comic books is the first, prototype Priest. The characters in our movie came much later. The priests were trained by the church to be like Ivan Isaacs.
There seems to be a good deal of apocalyptic movies in the last few months – any notion as to why?
Bettany: With climate change, and wars—
Stewart: It's also millennial.
Bettany: I think it is comforting to go into a movie theatre, see the world destroyed, then have the lights come up and [be relieved to be safe].
Stewart: You vicariously experience it.
Paul, did you have any sort of whiplash going from Charles Darwin to the role of an angel?
Bettany: No, because I'm incredibly shallow! I actually did Legion first, then Creation. It's actually the way I like to do things. It's fun. It can be edifying to put yourself in someone else's situation, and it is just fun to play wildly different people in wildly different genres. If I am in a vampire movie or an angel movie, part of me thinks that my next role should be a really heartfelt movie about Charles Darwin. Then I'm playing Charles Darwin, and all I can think is how much I want to jump around and shoot shit. It was thinking that when I went from this to Darwin, I was on the set of Creation and I thought that perhaps Darwin's ideas would have been more widely accepted had he had an AK47 assault rifle.
Did you enjoy working with all those guns?
Bettany: Yes. I like film guns. Film guns are fun. I like film fighting as well. Film-foo. I don't like real guns, but I do like pretend guns. When I was a child and playing on the playground, I never once pretended to be the grandfather of evolution. I was running around shooting stuff, and it was enormously fun. In Legion, apart from the pain in my testicles, having people who can put you on wires and flip you around in the air and make you look cool – it's just an absolute ball.
Stewart: The first day on set that Paul got to shoot an MP5 and an M16, they were full mags, and I orchestrated a shot – the superhero shot, because it is a low angle – and he whips around with the guns and starts shooting. We were all deafened. At the end, Paul stayed in character for a beat, then went, [blinks] "Wow! What was that? I was in the Royal Shakespeare Company, but this is why I wanted to be an actor."
Bettany: That's true! You say that you'd love to be in a Shakespeare play, or you'd love to play Charles Darwin, but your first impulse is to want to shoot guns. It would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise.
You have mentioned recently that your children are really into laser tag. Do the skills required for working on something like this transfer over to laser tag? Or do the kids still beat you?
Bettany: I don't know what it is about those little bastards, but they are so fast! You can bury yourself in the snow with a straw and they'll still find you. We bought laser tag "for the children" this Christmas. Christmas night, we had about 20 people with us, and the children were all running around out in the snow, playing. It was crazy-late – late enough that children shouldn't be out – it's like 30 degrees, and everyone is running around with laser guns.
Stewart: And night vision scopes?
Bettany: They want night vision scopes now! It's terrible.
Will they want wings after this movie?
Bettany: Well, it's hard to make real wings look that cool. That's a point I want to make. Scott's background is in visual effects. It was lovely working with a first-time director with all that verve, but also with real practical knowledge of film and a huge, overwhelming desire to make an analog [practical effects] movie – as much as he can. For instance, the old woman running up the wall was a stunt woman – clearly augmented in post-production – but a stunt woman running up a wall on a wire. There are lots of examples of how successful that was – but the wings weren't one of them. It just wasn't going to work.
Stewart: Yeah, we wanted the wings to be dynamic. The fights between Michael and Gabriel are real – we didn't CGI them at all, except for a couple shots where they are full-on fighting while flying. We had stand-in wings so we could frame the scene properly, but it was really about having animators come in and making them look bitchin'.
Bettany: I love the way they fold separately.
Stewart: They also feel like they could really carry you aloft. I didn't want them to look like Hawkman from Flash Gordon or John Travolta from a Nora Ephron movie.
The action scenes in Legion do not look like those of a first-time director. When working in digital effects, you worked with people like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. What did you take from those experiences that you could put in your own films?
Stewart: I worked on a lot of those movies, and it helped me demystify the post-production experience. I was at ILM for 4 years, then my own company for 10. You learn a lot in post-production about how malleable footage can be. So you can look at footage and say, "it's not quite what I want, but I have all the elements I need." So I can move on to shooting another scene, and make the minor changes in post. Working on visual effects at that level is very process-oriented. There is a really regimented process you go through to, say, put dinosaurs in a movie. That trained me for preparation and pre-visualization. So when we are doing a fight scene, I don't like to just wing it – no pun intended – I like fights that are violent and real and visceral, but you can actually see all the moves. There is a trend in movies for fight scenes to be tight and shaky. It feels violent, but you can't really tell what is happening.
Bettany: There is no story in the fight. You need to understand cost and consequences.
Stewart: I am really proud that that comes across in our fights, particularly the two angel fights. Those fights were meticulously storyboarded, we did pre-visualization for anything that would incorporate 3D elements. Then we brought in our stunt coordinator to see what we could actually do.
There was a sequence we shot on Priest that was a complex scene with a fully CG character, and it was based on pre-vis. The pre-vis looked like a video game version of the movie. We played the real footage next to the pre-vis. The monsters aren't all there, and Paul is stabbing a pillow, but we look at it and say, "son of a bitch, it worked."
When you wrote the script, did you know how to shoot everything you were writing, or was there anything you thought you would just figure out later?
Stewart: The wings were a bit of a question mark, because when I was writing it, I didn't know what the budget of the film would be. Fortunately, when we got this incredible cast, we got a little more money to play with. It's still not a lot – this is still a fairly low-budget film by studio standards – which is exciting for us because it is getting good attention and it started with very modest aspirations and has exceeded them already. The bar is set financially low, so if we do fairly well this weekend, the movie will be successful. Then the more the studio saw of the movie, the more money they wanted to give us to make it even better.
The story is very open-ended. Any plans for a sequel? Is there a backstory for the child?
Stewart: We tried to create a sense of resolution at the end, this moment of safety for the characters. But we did want to leave the child's origin ambiguous. It's pretty clear she slept around. There was a scene in the film that we removed, but it was between Lucas Black and Dennis Quaid's characters, where Dennis asks if the girl ever tells him who the father is, and Lucas makes reference to some "bad boy." The story does progress with the legion prophets, and Michael and Gabriel's minions, and how betrayed they feel, realizing they have been tested as well.
Between this and Priest, are you two going to be known as the religious-horror-action super-duo?
Stewart: I think we are actually pretty excited for our next film to not be a religious-horror-action movie.
Bettany: The next thing we do has to be something different – I just can't face the questions any longer! I am so naïve – I just didn't think about my role choices. Sometimes it is just how the cards fall. If you take all my roles individually, and Ron Howard calls you up and asks if you want to play a role in a huge blockbuster [The DaVinci Code], of course you say yes. Then I get offered the role of Charles Darwin, and I have a fascination of Darwin. Then I get the opportunity to be a hero in an action movie. I'm usually the baddie – I guess because of the War of Independence or something, you Americans are all still pissed off about that. So taking the action hero role makes sense. Then your buddies call you up and want you to star in their vampire movie, with three times the budget, and that sounds awesome. But you stitch them all together and it looks like you have a problem with god! Like I mentioned earlier, I am quite shallow, and I live for doing diametrically opposed roles. But then suddenly you are facing 68 interviews a day, and every one asks, "So, you and god – what's the deal?"
Can you give us more info on the tattoo that Paul's character wears throughout the movie?
Stewart: There is an angel language there –they are called The Instructions in our story. Then they are written on to Jeep's body [played by Lucas Black] and that's the sequel. It's like the plans to the Death Star! He does not have it at the end.
Bettany: Which is great if there is a sequel because it just took forever to paint on. Hours!
Stewart: The angel language can actually be read. There is a key to it which I guess we should release. It's also written on the weapons, on the wings, on the armor…. He brought something with him that will be helpful to humanity, and helpful to Jeep.
Bettany: The story about where the language actually comes from is very interesting.
Stewart: It's called Enochian script. I said I wanted it to look like crop circles and circuit boards. My production designer took that with Enochian script, which you read in a zig-zag – all the words are connected by a line. Paul's character also tells Jeep to find the prophets – that is where the graphic novel comes in. You get to meet these other people and learn about their special abilities.
Did you set out to make an R-rated film?
Stewart: I set out to make the movie I made. I wanted it to be extremely visceral, and I didn't want it to pull any punches or sanitize it. I wanted the violence in the movie to mean something so that when bad things happened to characters it mattered to the others. You have an 8-year-old boy chop his own thumbs off, and I didn't want to have to hide it.
You rarely see that in a film.
Stewart: Yes, and hopefully it will make people go, "Awww… fuck!" If you get that kind of reaction from an audience, then you win. They have responded emotionally.
You made the movie you wanted to make – does that mean we won't see the unrated director's cut with never-before-seen footage on DVD?
Stewart: Like an even more violent version? I am not really into, like exploding heads just for the sake of exploding heads. If there was a purpose for it, then I would do it. We did the level of gore that I wanted for the film. The things that were cut were just other little bits of character business, or truncated scenes to keep the pace.
We were worried that the audience wouldn't get behind us killing a whole lot of people, but we wanted to make sure it was clear that that was the scary part. There is a little girl holding a balloon, and she doesn't look like she would be possessed, but she is.
Have you faced any religious controversy?
Stewart: Surprisingly little. We weren't courting it, but we thought we would get more. At the end of the day, when you get to the end of the movie, you realize God is not the villain of the story in any way, and it doesn't take a moral side. Hopefully people will take that away with them.