Interview: Nathaniel Halpern on turning viral paintings into Tales from the Loop
Katherine McLaughlin | On 03, Apr 2020
The digital paintings of Swedish Artist Simon Stålenhag provide inspiration for Nathaniel Halpern’s eight-part sci-fi Amazon Prime Video series, Tales from the Loop.
The Loop is a machine that was built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. Jonathan Pryce stars as the creator of the device Russ, with his family played by Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider and Duncan Joiner. Each episode plays out as a contained story exploring the lives of the inhabitants of the town and covering big themes such as love, loss and grief.
Mark Romanek directs the first episode and Jodie Foster the concluding one, with Ti West, Andrew Stanton, So Yong Kim, Dearbhla Walsh, Tim Mielants and Charlie McDowell taking turns at the rest. The haunting score is composed by the legendary Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan.
The originals pictures present a blend of nature and future technology, with Stålenhag citing the work of Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead as inspirations for the robots that roam through his work. For the tone of the show, Halpern’s references include the films of Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrei Tarkovsky.
We talk to him about making the first TV show adapted from digital illustrations.
Your show sets an uncanny tone with nature and technology coalescing. Can you tell me more about the kind of conversations you had with each of the directors to achieve the distinct atmosphere?
I sought each of them out individually as I’m a big fan of all of their work. I knew I wanted this show to be very cinematic in its nature. Each episode is somewhat unusual because it’s not an anthology – each episode feels like a standalone film – so I wanted filmmakers who could really come in and craft a complete piece.
Mark had the task of making the first episode, and really setting up what the world looks like and what it feels like. We saw eye-to-eye on aesthetics and he was a wonderful partner to help bring this to life. He set a wonderful establishing tone with lovely attention to detail. Ti West is a director who I greatly admire and his episode somewhat looks like what a horror film would be like within the tone of our show. It was a very tricky concept to pull off because it’s not what you expect necessarily. He brought so much artistry to that hour without betraying the aesthetic and tone. Andrew Stanton, I’d worked with him on Legion, and admire him immensely. I especially love WALL-E and how the first part of that film has no dialogue. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in the show because I wanted it to be a very visual experience. I think he’s masterful.
What was it like working with Jodie Foster?
I didn’t know Jodie Foster personally before, but she was just so supportive and has been a champion of the show. She directed the last episode and knocked it out of the park.
And you managed to get Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan on board – can you tell me more about that collaboration?
It was a huge coup to get Philip Glass and Paul as they have never scored a show before. They had a previous relationship with Mark Romanek so I attribute it to him who helped to get Philip Glass on set. The score is such a present character in the show, particularly because there isn’t much dialogue. So often in TV shows, scores have to be tucked under because there are never-ending conversations, but here the score cues are allowed to be three to four minutes long and become the centre and really soar.
Can you tell me about your working relationship with Simon Stålenhag and the process of adapting his illustrations?
When Simon and I first met… it was funny because he’s from Sweden and I’m from New Jersey, but within 5 minutes we started talking about how our walks to school were very similar in terms of what we saw. We both grew up in similar woody areas. We chatted about the show, and how the episodes were supposed to be stories about people and their lives, and it’s not about robots. Once he saw that I understood that about his work he was very supportive in me telling the stories I wanted to tell in his world. He’s this wonderful artist so I kept him close and I’d ask him questions. Every episode corresponds to one of his paintings and we tried to emulate that structure as closely as possible. There were also elements that were not in his paintings; because his aesthetic is so beautiful, unique and specific, I would ask him what my ideas would look like. For instance, there’s a character with a bionic arm, so I would ask him what that would look like. He was generous with his time and designed the arm, so my visual effects team was able to construct it. There are several instances like that where he contributed from a design point of view.
And finally, as everyone is currently indoors, can you tell me about what you’ve been streaming?
Oh boy! I’ve been doing a lot of press so I haven’t been watching that much. If you hadn’t asked me, I could think of something! [chuckles]
What about the last thing you watched?
The last thing I watched was Terry Zwigoff’s documentary on Robert Crumb. I revisit that every couple of years. I’m not sure if that’s a good suggestion for others to watch!
Tales from the Loop is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.