Amazon’s “Tales From The Loop” is a gorgeous and melancholy meditation on the relentless tyranny of time and all that it’s slow erosion eventually takes from us. It’s also, on a less cerebral level, a highly engaging, thoughtful mind-bending sci-fi anthology series. Inspired by the evocative paintings of Simon Stålenhag—that mix rural landscapes with lo-tech sci-fi and robots—“Tales From The Loop” explores the stories of disparate people in a small town who live above “The Loop,” a mysterious machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe— making things previously relegated to science fiction, possible.
Created by producer/writer Nathaniel Halpern (“Legion,” “The Killing”) and executive produced by Matt Reeves (“War For The Planet Of The Apes,” “The Batman”), “Tales From The Loop,” is not unlike smart, thoughtful sci-fi brought to you by filmmakers like Shane Carruth, Rian Johnson, Christopher Nolan, et al, but the difference is the emotional, humanist bent that grounds these interconnected stories starring people like Rebecca Hall, Jonathan Pryce, Paul Schneider, Ato Essandoh, and gives ample space to some extraordinary newcomers like Daniel Zolghadri, Nicole Law. To bring this vision to life, visually and emotionally, Halpern and Matt Reeves turned to filmmaker Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) who tackled a comparable look at sci-fi through a similar prism of poignant and meditative humanism in “Never Let Me Go.”
“That was actually the one drawback of this incredibly enticing show,” Romanek said in a recent Playlist interview about the similarities to the aforementioned Alex Garland-penned sci-fi 2009 movie. “I really don’t like to repeat myself, but it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Romanek directed just the pilot episode, but he served as an executive producer too, instrumental in shaping the tone, tenor, and visual style. Not only that, Romanek— known for many iconic music videos for artists like Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash and more— was tasked with “putting the band together” for the show. That meant, working with Halpern and Reeves to hire the A-list pack of creators on the show, including the murder’s row of directors Jodie Foster (“Little Man Tate”), Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E”), Ti West (“House Of The Devil“), So Yong Kim (“Treeless Mountain”), Charlie McDowell (“The One I Love”), Tim Mielants (“Legion,” “Peaky Blinders”) and Dearbhla Walsh (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Fargo”), legendary composer Philip Glass (working with Paul Leonard-Morgan), and for Romanek’s first episode, superstar director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, renowned for his work with David Fincher. Suffice to say, the band is all made up of heavy hitters and “Tales From The Loop” is must-see, binge-worthy TV (read our review).
While ultimately hopeful in ideas of coming to terms with death, and the way time moves on without us, Romanek’s visual language for “Tales Of The Loop” definitely was inspired by cinema that is both inscrutable and melancholy.
“Nathaniel and I are drawn to the ineffable and haiku types of things,” Romanek explained “Little things, little nuances we would get obsessed with. But it was the ones that we felt just take resonated for us over decades. And we want to try to kind of maybe fill the stories with some of those cinematic moments because we’re both deep fans of cinema. When I met Nathaniel that was the thing we were able to really, immediately bond over. Even though he’s a good bit younger than me, but we have the same exact taste in cinema. And so, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, and Yasujirō Ozu all came up as references and touchstones.”
“The idea was,” he continued, “What if we can apply some of those things to an American based series, but still have these compelling, mysterious kind of ‘Twilight Zone’ stories? But use that European language, or foreign film language, in an American series. We may risk boring some people, but we may also get a lot of people who are really grateful for that kind of rhythm, and those kinds of emotional interests and insights.”
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterwork “The Dekalog,” a ten-episode 1980s mini-series, in a similar, moral, existential, introspective mood, tied together by the disparate people who live in a Polish apartment complex was a big influence on the entire affair.
“Well, that’s the exact, key reference that Nathaniel brought up,” Romanek said. “Which immediately informed the creative vision and made me go, ‘Okay he doesn’t want me to do Spielberg. He wants this to be much more grounded. Not that Spielberg isn’t spectacular, but I immediately understood the tone he was after — more grounded, more European, more working-class kind of story. ‘The Dekalog’ was a big influence on this and, we could’ve gone grittier, but I think we wanted— there’s something fairytale-like about some of these images.”
The look and feel of “Tales From The Loop” are incredibly evocative and yet difficult to put your finger on— a kind of mid-century modern aesthetic, clashing lo-fi and sci-fi and hi-fi maybe set in the 1970s, but maybe not.
All of that was by design as was being murky with what era the show was set in. “We really didn’t want to be ‘Stranger Things,’” Romanek stressed. “As terrific and fun as that show is, we had a much different aim. Also, there’s a timelessness there that actually served the mystery of the show. There is something alien, and exotic and Swedish about the original paintings and we took our cues from that idea. Everything the viewer looks at, even the colors are made to be almost indefinable. The whole thing is meant to exist in a kind of its own timeless, spacelessness. We wanted to just own our own language.”
Romanek has been working in feature films for at least three decades now, but he’s only made two feature-length films. But none of that has been by design, as several projects he’s been attached to over the years—“Cold Case” with Tom Hanks, ”The Wolf Man,” the recent “Overlook Hotel”/’Shining‘ spin-off— have fallen apart before cameras began to roll.
“I wish I had made ten films by now, honestly,” he said. “It’s not for the lack of trying. Life takes over and I have a family, and then I started doing a lot of work for Apple and I have a lot of movies that I worked on that it didn’t come together.”
One less-known project Romanek revealed was lost, was “Blackbird,” a David Mamet script that was to star Cate Blanchett as produced by Scott Rudin.
“I worked on it for a long time,” Romanek admitted. “I was really desperately trying to do that [Mamet] script with Scott Rudin and it’s something I’d still love to do. I’m now working on an original script with a new young writer named Kyle Fried, and I can’t really tell you about that. There’s some stuff we’re cooking up at Netflix, and there are a lot more places now, HBO Max, Apple TV+, a lot more outlets I think that probably want to make stuff and actually excited to make the kinds of movies and shows that I want to make.”
Romanek said he’s feeling hopeful and like his output will improve in the coming months, perhaps as a tease of things that might be announced later this year if all goes well. “Audiences have an appetite for things that are different, I think. I had a great experience at Amazon, right now I can make more stuff through them or Netflix, we’ll see. But I have a feeling I’ll be a little more productive in the coming years. It’ll really depend on whether audiences want cinema or cinematic shows like this to make a big comeback and I’m hopeful they will.”
Tales From The Loop” is available to watch in its entirety on Amazon now.