When Legion writer Nathaniel Halpern got the greenlight from Amazon Studios to produce Tales from the Loop, his dreamy science-fiction series about a small town experiencing mysterious phenomena due to underground experiments, he had no idea how different the world would look by the time his series premiered on April 3.
Inspired by an extensive series of lonely, thrilling paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, Tales from the Loop centers each episode on a different character who’s experiencing something odd — time travel, portents of the future, parallel worlds, and so forth. The phenomena are all linked by the work going on in The Loop, a bunker dedicated to exploring the potential of strange objects like The Eclipse, seen in the first episode.
Stålenhag’s original paintings suggest a world where rural simplicity has collided with some form of ancient technology. Rusty robots and high-tech, alien-looking gear stand in forests and fields, dwarfing the human characters around them. Mysterious artifacts that look like low-tech sculptures sit in the open, slowly decaying, while fierce-looking metal people loom in ponds and corners. In Stålenhag’s three art books (2014’s Tales from the Loop, 2016’s Things from the Flood, and 2017’s The Electric State), the science-fiction elements feel oppressive and threatening as often as they feel benevolent or abstracted. But in Halpern’s show, the unknown seems more ineffable — not easily grasped or explained, but not harmful to humanity, either.
“I found Simon’s work poignant and emotional, and I recognized myself in some of it, in spite of the science-fiction elements,” Halpern tells Polygon in a phone interview. “I tried to carry that forward and really think about universal feelings, that people in their own walk of life encounter in their own ways. I tried to have every episode address something that I felt on some level was universal. I was almost trying to treat the show like an empathy delivery device, where everyone could recognize something and say, ‘Oh, I know how that feels.’ That certainly was the approach to the types of topics or themes that ended up in the show itself.”
The show’s gentle form of escapism — its sense of wonder and comfort — feels particularly suited to a moment of worldwide anxiety, where millions of people are isolating themselves at home to flatten the curve of coronavirus infection, and millions more have lost their jobs. As streaming services see an immense jump in demand for entertainment and escapism, Halpern recognizes that Tales from the Loop might be headed to a wider audience than he expected. He says he “doesn’t want to come off like I’m trying to take advantage of the moment,” given the real difficulties people are facing. But he does acknowledge that his show might have a particularly warm message for people who are feeling alone.
”Obviously people are going through some very hard times right now,” he says. “With that said, I think what’s fortunate in terms of our timing is, these stories for me are about people searching for connection. As we all find ourselves unfortunately isolated, I hope people can take a bit of comfort from that. A lot of TV deals with fear and anxiety and anger, but here, there’s a little bit more of a tenderness to the emotion. Hopefully people can feel a bit of connection, and take a bit of comfort from these stories.”
Halpern says that roughly speaking, he mapped the show’s individual episodes to individual emotions. “I would look at a painting of Simon’s and think, ‘What is the story here? What is the universal quality? What is the feeling I’m getting from that painting?’ And then we’d figure out a character who could go on a journey with that feeling.”
As an example, he points to episode 4, “Echo Sphere,” directed by Pixar director Andrew Stanton, who also helmed Finding Nemo and WALL-E. The episode centers on an older man (Brazil star Jonathan Pryce) who was instrumental in beginning the town’s experiments on a strange artifact. When he introduces his grandson to a rusty sphere that indicates how long its visitors have to live, he realizes he himself is dying.
“I started with, ‘Well, what is the function of the sphere in this painting?’” Halpern says. “And then all of the sudden it became an episode about mortality, and how it’s a part of life, but that doesn’t have to destroy you. Having these stories end with a sense of hope was always important to me. It’s not a sentimental mode of storytelling — I think it’s rather truthful about how life can be hard and rather lonely. But it was never my aim to tell stories that were doom and gloom. It was always about getting to this point of hard-earned hope, vs. the easy answers of a more sentimental story.”
The tone of Tales from the Loop is an unusual mixture of melancholy and warmth, which Halpern says he drew directly from his own impressions of Stålenhag’s work, and from looking at the films of Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Andrei Tarkovsky. The latter was particularly helpful as a model — his films, Halpern says, use science fiction to explore humanity, and his distinctive storytelling in films like Stalker and Solaris was an inspiration.
Asked whether viewers should expect Tales from the Loop to rapidly solve the mystery of where objects like the Echo Sphere and The Eclipse, Halpern he’s “just not interested in creating a mystery show or a puzzle.” He says mystery series tend to lose the characters’ emotions amid the question of what’s going on and what it means. “The audience just becomes obsessed with finding answers. Here, it was important to me that I wasn’t playing that game.”
“So in the first episode, I wanted to go right underground and say, ‘Here it is, and it’s as simple as this: Everything above ground is a result of experiments going on in this facility. That’s the lump sum of it, and now we can move on.’ And now it’s about the fascinating encounters these characters have, and the emotional journeys they go on, rather than any kind of conspiracy or mystery to solve, which I find to be a colder way to engage. I wanted an empathetic, emotional engagement with these stories.”
Stålenhag’s paintings have also inspired a well-regarded indie role-playing game that expressly draws on the “kids with bikes” era of film entertainment. The game echoes the modern hit Stranger Things, where a bunch of children become aware of an alien force in their midst, and deal with it on their own, in spite of adult interference. Both the game and Stranger Things were inspired by a 1980 subgenre of entertainment, popularized by Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial — and possibly to a lesser extent by Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, which explores similar themes in a much darker way.
Halpern’s series also has some of the “kids with bikes” feel, particularly in the opening episode. But any similarities with Nils Hintze’s RPG come from the fact that it was drawn from the same source material. Halpern says his development process ran parallel to Hintze’s, and that he never looked into the game.
Instead, he used Stålenhag as a resource, both in discussing “the feeling of the world he created, and that aesthetic he dreamed up,” and in asking him for further visual design when the series ventured into territory not covered in Stålenhag’s paintings.
“It was quite wonderful, actually,” Halpern says. “From early on, Simon and I just saw eye to eye. We both agreed the stories here are more about the people and the feeling than the robots. And using that as a starting point, he was very encouraging and supportive of me telling the stories I wanted to tell. And then because he’s a wonderful artist — several elements were invented for the show, and he helped design them. I’d just go to him and ask, ‘What would this look like within your aesthetic?’”
“So for instance, there’s a character with a bionic arm. So I asked Simon, ‘What would a robot prosthetic look like in your world?’ and he generously designed that arm. He has such a fascinating way of mixing materials in color. And then my visual effects team built the arm to his specifications. There were several instances like that throughout the show, where I would have been a fool not to try and draw him in to contribute to the aesthetic.”
Stålenhag contributed in other ways as well, designing poster art and key art for the show, and creating new paintings inspired by looking at the show’s design. “When Simon visited the set, it was fun to see him taken aback to see something he had painted, now standing in front of him,” Halpern says. “And then he painted it … There was a wonderful circular quality to the collaboration.”
The first eight-episode season of Tales from the Loop is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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