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Jeff Russo Finds a Mutant’s Emotional Truth Via Music

Composer Jeff Russo continues his successful partnership with Noah Hawley in the Marvel adaptation Legion, premiering tonight on FX.

By Joey Moser

When you watch the opening credits to a show scored by composer Jeff Russo, you know exactly what you are getting into. He sets the mood just right. The opening to FX’s Fargo is ominous yet nimble. The score to The Night Of bleeds dread into every scene. Legion, Russo’s latest project with Fargo creator Noah Hawley, is the highly anticipated X-Men spin-off that focuses on a young mutant who is diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. Superhero dramas are making the leap from film to television more and more as of late, and FX and Hawley seem to have another hit on its hands.

I originally thought Russo might have a massive comic book collection stowed away in his basement. For some reason, I wrongfully assumed that everyone who boards a comic book or hero vehicle is a massive fan. Surprisingly, Russo didn’t follow a particular franchise.

“As a kid, I was kind of into comic books, but I wasn’t what you’d call a comic book geek—I wasn’t a collector. I read a lot of Archie,” Russo said. “That definitely appealed to me more. I wasn’t really into X-Men, but when I got older I got into the comics. It didn’t last very long—maybe 2 years.”

Composers are oftentimes given filmed material, and they must provide the underscore for the entire project. Russo continued his close collaboration with creator Noah Hawley. Working from scripts and extensive knowledge of Fargo‘s two seasons, Russo married his Emmy-nominated music from the ground up. He repeated this process on Legion.

Jeff Russo“Noah sends 2 or 3 scripts and I sketch out themes, vibe, and feel. He’s a very visual writer. Very evocative and he puts you right there. We had conversations about how to set the tone, and we did the same thing with Legion. I originally wrote 3 different themes for David (Dan Stevens’ central character). Legion, at the core, is a love story, and that lends itself to musical moments. It allows it to underscore the character. Then when the picture comes in, we have to adapt to it or change it here and there. There needs to be some added finesses to make it really work. With The Night Of Steven Zaillian sent me the script and said, ‘Tell me what you think.’ Mind you, I wasn’t hired yet, but I immediately wrote the theme. He said it was exactly what they were thinking about. It all really depends on how I’m struck by something. The narrative really drives me. Certain elements of a script really drive different parts of my brain.”

Russo’s last two projects garnered him Emmy nominations, and it’s easy to see why. Both scores are very specific to their narratives, and they compliment the stories very well. Legion is another animal. The Marvel universe allows artists to spread their wings in ways they might not have been able to do before, and the television adaptations easily take more risks and explore darker themes.

“It afforded me the opportunity to anything. It was sort of like ‘Here’s a sandbox—let’s play.’ It allowed me to mix some stuff up. There are big orchestral pieces and then there are atonal quartets, and they don’t have any real musical relation. It’s so much fun! It’s such a joy to write. A lot of the time the character doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not, so it’s fun to play around with that. Why can’t the viewer feel the same way?”

The score isn’t just big orchestral pieces. Russo incorporated a lot of different sounds to achieve an “interesting sound design.” When you have an otherworldly and mysterious show that deals with repression and possible mental illness, an unconventional sound design proves exciting. You can hear intriguing sounds in the trailers alone.

“ ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is one of my favorite albums—it’s the music of my youth. Noah shares the same love of music. I actually went out and bought an esoteric synthesizer to mold the music into it. It was a really big watershed moment. I plugged it in, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ ”

Sure, Legion features huge blockbuster action under the umbrella a very famous brand, but one of the things that attracted and grounded Russo to the material was the human connection between the characters. While you have things blowing up around everyone, the most important aspect–the one that drives the heart of the show–is emotional honesty.

“I live best creatively in an emotional point of view–whether the narrative is driven by drama or it’s a thriller or sci-fi or whatever. I do my best work if I can really delve into it. If comedy has an emotional beat, I can have a connection with it, and I’ve seen drama s that don’t have an emotional center. I respond to a true narrative based in emotional truth. With Fargo it was the case of good versus evil, and The Night Of was about the relationship between Naz and Stone. With Legion the through-line is about David and Syd. Everything ties together with an emotional core”

Legion premieres tonight on FX at 10pm ET.