Watching the elaborate action sequences in FX’s unorthodox superhero series Legion, there is a texture and a level of complexity which brings one particular film to mind: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2016 Best Picture nominee, The Revenant. This is no coincidence—working on that film, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Inception, and the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes, stunt coordinator Guy Bews has brought a new level of cinematic stunt coordination to television.
Speaking with Deadline about Legion and Fargo—Noah Hawley’s two visually ambitious series—Bews discusses pulling off a remarkable one-take chase sequence, and the distinction between these two projects, from a stunts perspective.
Fargo is beholden to a set of conventions, whereas Legion is much more a no-holds-barred world. What did that mean for you as a stunt coordinator?
They’re definitely two different worlds. I remember when they sent me the pilot script for Legion. I was working on another show and they said, “Hey, Guy, can you meet us at the hotel tomorrow morning?” I just got the script that day and had half of it read. Legion is an in-depth script—it’s something that you almost have to read three times, to get the gist of it.
I got done working at 2 o’clock in the morning, slept for five hours, got up, read the other half of the script, and I’m going, “Okay, well, it’s really not that heavy action. It’ll be interesting to see what these guys want to do.”
I get in my car and go meet these guys at 9:30 in the morning, with bags under my eyes—I think it was Noah Hawley and John [Cameron, executive producer]—and they said, “There’s going to be some wire work we want to do,” and this and that. The way it read and what was in Noah’s mind were two different worlds.
Reading it, it could go any direction, I guess you could say. It was like, “Oh, now I see where you’re going with this. This is bigger than I thought it was.”
The way Noah and John Cameron are, in that Coen brothers realm, they have stunts, but it’s not something they dwell on, and I like that. It’s something to leave to the imagination. Sometimes, shows can go overboard with action, and it’s like Mad Max—it doesn’t end.
Did your Legion actors do their own stunts? Was there a training process you put them through?
There definitely was. With Amber [Midthunder], for all the fight stuff, I had lots of rehearsal time with her, and also had a double for her.
Lots of times, we built [shots] so we could use the actors if we could. It was the same thing with Dan Stevens—we’d bring him in, rehearse him, give him the sense of flying, or whatever, all that stuff.
That’s one thing that was brilliant—all the actors were game to do whatever they had to, as long as it was safe.
The fight stuff was pretty intense—it was bigger than what you see on the show. One big fight scene that we did, with the dance in it, was like a five-day rehearsal with stunt performers, and Amber and her double. The crazy part was, we shot it in two hours—something like that, I would normally be looking at a four-to-six hour day.
It’s hilarious how that all panned out. Thank God, we rehearsed it enough that we had it dialed in, and we could just go. It was wicked, in that sense.
In an action-heavy show where lights are exploding and objects are flying through the air, how do you ensure the safety of your actors?
Well, vis effects sometimes helps us in our job in that way, depending on what it is. Sometimes, we would rehearse, and then we put the effects where we need them to be. Vis effects takes care of stuff that would be kind of unsafe.
Now, we have the opportunity to [work] this way with actors, and vis effects will put in the explosion, or the sparks flying, and make it so that it’s doable. Because if we had to do it totally practical, then you’re going, “Okay, we’re going to have to shoot it differently, with doubles or whatever it is.”
There’s a great crossover in that world. Our effects guys on Legion were a good bunch of guys.
The go-to visual moment in Legion is the kitchen explosion—to my understanding, the explosion itself was done practically.
That shot looks so good, it looks fake. The effects guys and Paul [Benjamin, special effects coordinator] did such a good job on that, where stuff’s blowing out, and the drawers, and the fridge, and everything’s flying through the air—and with that bolt camera and the Phantom, shooting at 1000 frames per second. That thing moves so fast, it was a blur to the eye.
When you saw it in real time—when you could see the cards flying through the air, and it’s so crisp and clear—you can see the ace of spades and go, “Wow that looks fake.”
We shot that as basically a plate shot, and then all we did was put Dan in the room, without everything blowing up, and just matted the two together.
There has to be a certain amount of unpredictability when you’re pulling the trigger on a shot like that. Where was the crew in relation to the camera as you shot this?
Oh, for sure—that was all practical. The only thing that could be hit would be the camera—I’m sure there were pieces that did—but the camera moves so [fast]. That shot is, in camera times, probably 30 seconds long, if you wanted it to be, but it really only took a second and a half to shoot, or a second, maybe. It moves so fast, and everything timed out. It was such a brilliant shot.
Basically, the room was a box, and the only thing that was in there was the camera, on a robotic arm. They computerized the move in the room—they said, “When we yell ‘Action,’ this camera’s going to go from Point A to Point B, shooting at 1000 frames.”
They had their effects dialed so that not everything went off at once—[the camera] chased it through the room. After we got that, we put Dan in and did the same moves.
How did you approach elaborate military-type sequences for Legion, particularly the one-shot chase scene which closes out the first episode?
For the continuous shot in the pilot, we looked at the location, we talked about where things were going to be, and what we were going to do. We rehearsed all our fights, built and designed everything for them, and basically pre-vised them.
The day before [shooting], I had a rehearsal day with all the stunt performers and the actors, and once we put in the camera, seeing what we were going to see, I started peppering in the background, where guys are getting shot or in a fight, and effects could then figure out where they were going to put in explosions, all that kind of stuff.
The guys flying there, we couldn’t put in any cranes or do any kind of ratchets or handheld device, so we shot those on green screen, and then vis effects composited that into the shot.
We shot that sequence in two days, and if you’re going to shoot that sequence like it was practical, you’re looking at probably a week’s work. We rehearsed for two weeks before we shot the Revenant sequence, as that oner piece. It was that same idea, just more condensed.
We shot it in basically three pieces; it was lots of talking and planning. It worked out really well, considering the time we had.
What were the biggest creative challenges you faced on Legion?
The action sequences in the pilot were probably the ones that I had the most sleepless nights about. It happened to be, too, at the busiest time probably for everybody in Vancouver at that time. Being able to find my stunt performers, my stunt riggers, to be able to put it together…I had nights I’d wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, going, “Oh f*ck.” [laughs] It probably made me go grayer than I needed to be.
But it’s also a challenge, and a good feeling at the end of it all. If you watch the series, it’s not a big action series, really. When we’re doing the stunt stuff on it, it’s telling the story. It doesn’t dwell on it. Most of the stuff was the flying of my actors—I was fortunate enough that I have a good working relationship with the rigging community, that I could bring some good guys in.
In that last episode, when Dan lands in the hallway, I put him on a descender rig—I put him like 14 feet in the air. I just dropped him in on a 45-degree angle, and fortunately enough, Dan’s done other work that transitioned him into it.
Did your work on Legion impact your approach as you went back for Fargo’s third installment?
Working with Dana [Gonzales, cinematographer] and the camera crew on [Legion], we were designing and building such cool shots, and I think from Fargo, it transitioned to Legion, which then transferred back to Fargo.
Being able to pull off some action sequences where there’s no cut, and putting actors in position, you go, “Holy sh*t. They actually did that.”
Back to Fargo, we did a technocrane shot—Keith [Gordon], our director on the last block, he goes, “We’d like to see Mary [Elizabeth Winstead] jump into the semi-truck and pull away. They hijack the truck, and we want to see her jump into the truck and drive away.”
I said, “Okay, well let’s find out if she can drive a standard.”
“Hey Mary, can you drive a standard?” “No, I’ve never driven a standard car before.”
I’m like, “Okay. They want you to drive a big-rig with a 53-foot trailer on it. Do you feel confident in that?”
I brought all my guys out—I actually had a big rehearsal day, because we were flipping the bus on a gimbal rig. I had a break where I could get the semi, put her in it with one of my guys and start driving it.
The cool part about it was I shot it on my iPhone—I was thinking, in our Fargo/Legion way, how they would shoot it. I shot it on the move: She comes around the truck, smashes the passenger side window. She jumps in the truck, takes the air brakes off, puts it in gear, and drives away, and I see it go.
I show it to my camera guys, and they’re going, “F*ck, Guy—that’s a good camera angle.” We shot it the exact same way I shot it—the only difference is, they had a technocrane. [Mary] was game, and I love her for it because she was so awesome.
Take 2, I said, “OK Mary, here’s the deal. When you guys take off and get to that intersection, lay on the horn on that semi.” When she took off out of there, it was wicked, because she hammered on it. It was such an awesome feeling.