The apocalyptic horror movie “Legion” may be Scott Stewart’s directorial debut, but Stewart’s been working in Hollywood’s big league for years. After studying screenwriting at NYU’s film school, Stewart, a self-described “computer baby,” joined Industrial Light and Magic, the now legendary special effects company founded by George Lucas.
“It was an incredible education,” Stewart says, “almost a film school in itself. But as a filmmaker, there were things I wanted to be able to do on my own.”
Stewart and two friends went on to found The Orphanage, which was since established itself as one of Hollywood’s leading special effects houses, contributing to multiple blockbusters including “Iron Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Night at the Museum” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”
How does a background in special effects help Stewart in the director’s chair?
“Having that background helped me pre-visualize ‘Legion,'” he says. “I storyboarded virtually every shot of the movie. Having done visual effects for big movies, I was not intimidated by the technical challenges.”
Stewart is big on planning. Most of the classic directors he admires were storyboarders as well. And he has experience with the production of major motion picture.
“I’m comfortable in the filmmaking process,” he says. “I know that when you shoot, it’s not the end of the road. If a car goes by that shouldn’t have, you can take it out.”
And, as he likes to point out, he is a writer, and co-wrote the screenplay for “Legion.”
“My back ground is in writing, but I’m an interesting mash-up,” he points out, noting his comfort level with computers.
The attention he lavishes on planning pays dividends once he’s on the set: “All I need to think about are the performances and the story.”
In “Legion,” a dusty diner in the Mojave Desert becomes ground zero for earth’s final showdown. Unlike other recent films, like “2012,” which deals with large scale disaster, or “The Book of Eli,” which is set in a post-apocalyptic world, “Legion” is about the start of the apocalypse. Stewart doesn’t have an explanation for a sudden interest in the end of the world, other than, as he sees it, “something in the zeitgeist” that seems to accompany the end of one millenium or the start of another.
The movie, which deals with angels, however, is about “faith in all its forms,” and not any particular religious tradition.
“The movie isn’t attempting to say anything about particular beliefs,” he says. “It is about the idea of faith, using things that are familiar to us from Judeo-Christian ideology as a way to tell the story. No matter what your bent is philosophically, you can bring that to this movie.”
Paul Bettany plays the archangel Michael in the movie, and also appears in Stewart’s next movie, the science fiction/western/vampire “Priest,” which is currently in post-production and is due to be released this summer. Stewart was influenced by western motifs in “Legion,” and even more so with “Priest,” which he acknowledges has roots in “Star Wars” and John Ford’s “The Searchers.” He notes there are numerous visual homages to “The Searchers” in “Priest.”
And the credits to “Legion” acknowledge footage from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Stewart says his greatest challenge in “Legion” was “Probably the tonal balance.” The movie is meant to be provocative, but still not to be taken too seriously.
In “Legion,” the characters gathered in a diner represent a cross-section of America; a man on his way to a custody hearing, a married couple struggling with their teenage daughter, a young woman about to have a baby.
“The characters are surrounded by a comforting normalcy,” says Stewart. “Then, layer by layer, those comforts are stripped away. The sense that everything is okay starts to dissipate. The TV goes out, then the radio. Something is happening, slowly but surely. A little old lady, a minvan family, the ice cream man–all these very familiar things take on new significance. The world’s gotten a little sideways.”
Or as Stewart likes to say about the creative process ultimately, it’s “the best laid plans abandoned.”