It is evident that Nathaniel Halpern has created something really special with the Amazon Prime series Tales From the Loop. We first found out about the series about a month earlier, and we were able to screen episodes 1, 4 and 6 in advance of speaking with the creator. Perhaps best known for his amazing work on Legion alongside Noah Hawley, Halpern has enlisted directors such as Mark Romanek and Jodie Foster, stars such as Jane Alexander, Jonathan Pryce and the amazing Rebecca Hall, and brought a vision as a showrunner (for the first time, which amazes us), to the creations of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. Yet Halpern has crafted a narrative from a series of interconnected episodes, for which he is the single writer, and created a stunning landscape on a medium that has perhaps never been this theatrical.
We spoke to Halpern by phone recently and the following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
BT: How do you handle the responsibilities of working on Tales From the Loop as first-time showrunner, as the sole writer and executive producer?
NH: It was quite a journey. [laughs] I would say there’s so many responsibilities and timelines that need to be observed for every aspect of it, and when you’re as detail-oriented as I am, at times it can be quite daunting. But I think that it all fell under the umbrella of just making sure everyone was dreaming together and understood what we were making. And so that, I think, was the big umbrella task, which was all the department heads and the directors and the actors, everyone knowing what we’re making and that’s difficult oftentimes in a first season show, because you’re finding it. But I certainly had a strong idea of what I wanted, and obviously Simon Stålenhag’s work was a great visual inspiration and reference along the way. I would find myself talking with the crew a great deal about the films of Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrei Tarkovsky – these were pillars of inspiration tonally and the kind of film tone that I was going for.
BT: You have so much trust in your actors. What was key with bringing on Rebecca Hall, Jonathan Pryce, and the rest of this incredible ensemble? As an aside, was Rebecca connected with Dan Stevens, with whom you worked on Legion? What was the understanding within the vision to bring on all of these amazing performers?
NH: Well, the Dan Stevens connection was just a small world there. But with Rebecca Hall or Jonathan Pryce or Paul Schneider or Ato Essandoh, the list goes on with these actors. For what I was looking with them, I was very fortunate to get all of them and very flattered they wanted to do it, but there’s not a lot of talking on the show, so I knew that it would have to be characters that are compelling to watch who are being quiet and behaving, often just alone, and someone who is endlessly watchable, but also can communicate what they are feeling, quietly, and I felt that all these actors had that in spades. And so especially with Rebecca Hall and Jonathan Pryce, I could watch them all day and know what’s going on emotionally with them. They brought a great sensitivity and intelligence to the world.
BT: Why was it important to bring on these directors who have experience in different media? Mark Romanek, I know from his work in video and photography, Andrew Stanton has worked extensively within animation, and Jodie Foster is a phenomenal actress as well as director.
NH: Yeah, it’s interesting that you point that out, I never really thought of it that way. I would say that every director is hand-picked, and either I had a pre-existing relationship or I sought them out. It really was finding like-minded people that had the same cinematic ambitions that I did and there’s just a wonderful crossover sensibility with all the directors. And what they brought to the table was invaluable in terms of their artistic contributions of “I’m not here for you to just think the trains run on time, let’s make a beautiful film together”. Those eight collaborations, I cherish from the process.
BT: Do we need to know what The Loop actually stands for or are we free to make our own interpretation?
NH: I hesitate to prescribe anything, but if there’s anything I’ve learned, there’s a lot of different types of people in the audience that engage in different ways, who enjoy the puzzle aspect and the mystery, that’s not something that I was chasing. As I said earlier, I was really trying to transcend words and just be an experience that you feel abstractly, some people just aren’t wired that way and would rather engage in a different way and so that’s more than fine, however you get your enjoyment out of it, but it wasn’t my point of view in making it. I wanted something that would be felt versus posing mysterious questions that would then have answers. So for instance, you saw the first episode, we go beneath ground right away at the end of the first episode because I wanted to take that off the table. I find if people are going to be asking what’s beneath ground, it would emotionally distance themselves because they would be investing in these quiet emotional stories of these characters, it’s not about a question, it’s about just experiencing things.
BT: This is a multi-generational series, is that by design?
NH: Yeah, I think that for every episode I was trying to design what at least I perceived as a universal quality of we all encounter – this kind of emotional instances at some point in our life, so there’s a range of experiences, the stories bounce around from childhood to teenager, middle age and older characters and just trying to address these different feelings that we have throughout our lives, and hopefully everyone can see themselves to some degree.
BT: How do you feel like you yourself have changed by experiencing the world of The Loop?
NH: I feel that there’s more to be done with mining with what we can do the medium visually and sonically, I think this was encouraging to me, this experiment, that it doesn’t just have to be two people talking for an hour, that this can continue to evolve and become more filmic, but just with an even bigger canvas. So I think if anything, it just encouraged me to think about the prospects of what you can do in this space.
BT: How did you manage to convince very esteemed people to travel with you into Manitoba, for at least some of the time in the dead of winter?
NH: Well the short answer is that I don’t think they knew how cold it was going to be. [laughs] But I think that Mark Romanek directing the pilot and all the talented people who worked on the show, I think they saw an opportunity, which I was trying to create with the show, which was to tell these really cinematic stories and essentially be making films that are very visually driven in the storytelling. I often say that a friend told me once that a lot of television, if you turn the sound off, you wouldn’t know what was going on. And here I wanted to tell stories that you could follow visually, truly watch them with your eyes and have a certain sensibility that I think that all these filmmakers and the wonderful artists that worked on it saw that this was a unique opportunity to work in that way. So I was just very fortunate and flattered that everyone wanted to come work on this with me.
BT: You were planning to debut the series at SXSW, which is great, but I am curious, how do we recreate the cinematic experience that this series demands at home?
NH: Well, it’s interesting, my take in the current moment of where we are with watching things is that for a lot of people, it’s coming through the same screen, they’re watching films and television through the same screen a lot of the time and I think that speaks to they just want the experience and seeing it as an experience and no longer having to really think about that line, between the label of film and television. It’s a visual experience coming through whatever screen they have, and so it speaks more to someone’s sensibility. So I certainly brought my filmic sensibility to it and didn’t approach it like a conventional television show, because honestly at home, I know I’m watching both mediums through the same screen and it’s just what are you going to do with that screen?
BT: Instead of going bigger, as sci-fi often does, you went smaller and there’s a laser focus on the human connection. Was this something that you had in mind when you began?
NH: Yeah, that’s very interestingly put. And I would say, just kind of adding to the way that you are describing that is that honestly, I know the films that linger with me, they moved me emotionally, and I find that somewhat rare in the television landscape. And especially also in the sci-fi genre, which I love, usually it gets quite cold and cerebral, because it becomes all about serving the idea. And here, what I wanted to do was use the genre purely to amplify and externalize the emotional experience of the character. And have this be the show itself an empathy delivery device, that it’s something to experience and I wanted to transcend words. Almost like when you listen to music and you just feel in the abstract, and my hope was that it was a show that could provide a bit of comfort and hope and actually move you versus just give you an interesting idea to mull over.
BT: Perhaps in a time of social distancing, a little bit of comfort and hope in the form of an empathy delivery device is what was need?
NH: I certainly didn’t see the future, but I would say that my hope is that I’m very interested to see how the audience responds, because my hope is that they do take some comfort and hope from the series. Unlike a lot of other things out there that mine anxiety and fear and anger, this doesn’t really play that game, there’s not really violence in the show. It really is about humanity and finding connection and empathy, but it’s also not sentimental, and so I’ll be curious what the audience feels. Because for me, I know that I’m moved when I recognize something nice. I watch it and I think: “Oh, that’s how that feels, I know how that feels”, so the show certainly doesn’t shy away from “Life can be hard”, but the story certainly leaves you in a place in which there is hope and there is connection. At the end of the day, it’s not here to tell you that everything is terrible. So I hope that is the takeaway for the audience.
Tales from the Loop is available tomorrow on Prime Video