Amazon’s new series Tales From the Loop was a unique creative challenge. Instead of adapting a book like Game of Thrones or His Dark Materials, showrunner Nathaniel Halpern was making a series out of paintings. Specifically, the Tales From the Loop artbook from Simon Stålenhag. Luckily for Halpern, he was “uniquely cut out” for this.
io9 spoke with Halpern over the phone about the joys and struggles of turning Tales From the Loop into a television show. He also shared details about Stålenhag’s involvement, what it was like working with directors like Jodie Foster, and why we need hopeful science fiction now more than ever.
Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.
io9: When were you first introduced to [Simon Stålenhag’s] artwork, particularly his Tales From the Loop series?
Nathaniel Halpern: I was introduced to Simon’s work by Matt Reeves and his producing partners. They showed it to me and I was just really taken by the feeling of them. I think a lot of people are. There’s a poignant emotion that I find in Simon’s work, and also the unique esthetic of mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary that I hadn’t quite seen before in that way. So it was just very exciting to see this.
And that then led to what is a rather unique way to go about making a TV series, which is: “How do you adapt paintings into a show?” That was kind of the fun of it, which was the going from one visual medium to another. And for me, I’m mostly primarily drawn to tone and world and a mood, and it was right there in Simon’s work. So in my mind, the hard work was done.
io9: What made you specifically decide to adapt it into a TV show and were other mediums considered first, like a movie?
Halpern: No. I mean, Simon has another property which is being developed as a movie, The Electric States, which is a separate thing. It was always in the cards to do [Tales From the Loop] as a show. It was never really considered to be a film. What I liked about that was there’s so much in Simon’s work, almost a film wouldn’t do it justice—and might not be able to tell the quiet, emotional stories that I love telling and did with this series. I think I got to explore more corners of the sandbox with Simon’s work than I would have been able to do with a film.
io9: What conversations did you have with Simon during the pre-production and writing process?
Halpern: A lot. Simon was very involved. I remember meeting him the first time, we just got along very well, and we saw eye to eye on what this was. He was just so encouraging and supportive, and he said, “Just make these stories yours and personal.”
Once it came to the pre-production and the production of the series, I called upon him because he has this wonderful mind and sets aesthetics that he created with his paintings. Did you see the first episode?
io9: I did, yes.
Halpern: So you know the character with the bionic arm. I asked Simon, I said: “What would a bionic arm look like in your aesthetic?” So he designed it, and my great visual effects team built it. There were several instances like that, where I drew upon him to say, “What would this look like?” There is some invention that happens within the series, it’s not depicted. So it’s just wonderful to have him collaborating along the way and just be so supportive.
io9: What were the unique challenges in adapting an artbook that doesn’t have a lot of story into something with a plot, characters, and forward momentum?
Halpern: Well, I’m uniquely cut out for that kind of thing because I’m very visual and I’m a big cinephile. I just find I’m drawn to the experience. I love the feeling of watching something and being in that world and feeling a certain way. And so this was a match made in heaven for me. It’s not a very plot-heavy show and there’s long sequences without dialog where the score just carries us through these things. I tried to make something where I felt like you get in the car and go to this town. And so certainly plot had to be created, but that’s not really where my focus was. It’s just like, how can I create this feeling?
io9: A lot of times in adaptations, we start with substance and then move to style, because you’re starting from a book where everything is described to you. And here it’s kind of the other way around. So, granted you are wanting to create a mood and a feeling and prioritize the visuals, but how did you still work to create that substance from style?
Halpern: I think it was really just however any story comes about. Just what stories interest me, wanting to tell these quiet, emotional, personal stories using science fiction and the science world as a vehicle. The structure is somewhat unique in that it’s a serialized show but each episode feels self-contained like a film. You go on a full journey versus what you usually see, which is just kind of domino-ing into each other with a larger narrative. Here you have the best of both worlds. It’s almost a collection of short stories, a portrait of a town and people who live there.
io9: Amazon gave me a couple episodes to look at for review purposes, and I got a few episodes that are not linked together. It wasn’t, like, the first three. Would you say the show is meant to be viewed sequentially or is it more of an anthology?
Halpern: It certainly should be watched in order because the story—there are, like a regular show, there are serialized elements that play forward. But at the same time, the individual stories are crafted so that you don’t necessarily need to know those things, so it is unusual in that regard. I don’t like describing it as an anthology series, I think it puts an image in people’s minds that’s incorrect. But at the same time, it delivers on that level, because in each episode there’s a different science fiction element that’s introduced—so the “wonder” gets reset with each episode.
io9: You have quite a few notable directors who stepped on board for the season—for example, Jodie Foster directed the season finale. What unique talents did they each bring to the project?
Halpern: Yeah, I mean, we don’t have time to go through each one [laughs]. They were all so wonderful, and I was so flattered everyone came to work on this. And what they all came with was a very cinematic sensibility. Going back to what I was saying earlier about just the aesthetic of the show, all those directors have a wonderful eye and sensitivity to the world-building, and what the possibilities are with film. So I think they saw a unique opportunity to flex those muscles and really have fun in that regard. So it brought so much creativity to the project.
io9: How many pieces from the Tales From the Loop artbook are included or feature visually in the show? Is it all of them or is it like just a certain number?
Halpern: Each episode is inspired by a single painting, so there’s a correlation between a core image in that episode with a specific painting. But that said, I also draw on elements of paintings to temper throughout. So the first season is eight episodes, so we couldn’t even begin to touch everything that he did. There’s definitely plenty of space going forward, and there is a season two to further bring this work to life. And there’s other things as well. Some of his other work falls a little bit more to the dystopian corner, and I veered away from that because I was chasing a certain aspect of his aesthetic.
io9: It’s actually interesting that you point out going more for a hopeful angle as opposed to a dystopian one, because right now we’re facing a very, you know, not exactly hopeful atmosphere. What kind of feelings are you hoping this show inspires in people, especially those who are going through a pretty scary time right now?
Halpern: I mean, obviously, it’s very unfortunate what’s happening right now, it’s something we’d prefer not to be. This show was made with the intention that—unlike a lot of other shows or science fiction shows, that instill a bit of anxiety or fear or anger—what I really was trying to strive for is a show that you could take a bit of comfort from and a bit of hope, hard-earned hope. I didn’t want to tell stories that were sentimental, but stories that felt truthful and emotional and that you could recognize yourself in. I know how that feels to take comfort in that. I’m certainly hoping there’s some positivity that’s taken from the viewer from watching the show, versus doom and gloom.
Tales From the Loop debuts on Amazon Prime on April 3.
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