Tales from the Loop is not your average sci-fi TV series. It’s not overly serialized—it’s a bit of an anthology hybrid with each episode telling a different story set in the same town, with overlapping characters. It’s not overly “sci-fi”—the world of the show takes a more grounded and realistic approach to the science fiction elements. And it’s not even made by people who regularly make television—the crew is a who’s who of Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated talent.
Which is what makes speaking with director Mark Romanek, who helmed the pilot, so fascinating. Romanek, who first broke out with the 2002 film One Hour Photo and also directed the sorely underrated 2010 drama Never Let Me Go, was selected to help create the visual language for Tales from the Loop by the show’s creator and showrunner, Nathaniel Halpern, with whom Romanek shares a similar taste in cinema.
Indeed, throughout our interview it was clear that the influences for Tales from the Loop—both from a visual and storytelling standpoint—were foreign films and challenging cinema, not other TV shows like Stranger Things. The Amazon series (which is now streaming) was based on a series of paintings by artist Simon Stålenhag, and the story follows various characters living in a small Ohio town that sits above a mysterious machine that was built to “unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe.”
Romanek directed the show’s first episode, which follows a young girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) who can’t find her mother, and who then stumbles upon a woman (Rebecca Hall) with whom she has a mysterious connection. The episode handles sci-fi elements relating to time travel and loops without getting bogged down in nitty gritty technical details—Tales from the Loop is a series that’s more concerned with visual storytelling than with long scenes filled with expositional dialogue.
During our interview, Romanek talked about what first sparked him to the material, and how he and Halpern set about creating the visual language for the series. He discussed how they put together a crew with a background in filmmaking, not necessarily television, and discussed the advantage of working on a series where episodes have a beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, as a fan of Romanek’s work I had to ask him about his original vision for the 2010 film The Wolfman, which he was originally going to direct. And he also offered an incredibly tantalizing tease of what his take on the Shining prequel movie The Overlook Hotel was going to be like, and if that film will ever happen.
Check out the full interview below. Tales from the Loop is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
How did you first get involved in this show?
MARK ROMANEK: I’ve been friends with Matt Reeves for many, many years and I just got a call from him saying, “Hey, I have this terrific script that I think you might like, it’s based on those paintings by that guy, Simon Stålenhag.” And I went, “Oh, I love those paintings, what a cool idea.” So he sent me the script, and it was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, whether it was for television, or movies, or whatever. I called Matt back and said, “I’m totally in. I love this.” And I sat down, which I think he was shocked by, because I think he has the impression that I say no to everything, which is not actually true. I say yes to all these things, but I can’t get them made. But I love this, so I sat down with Nathaniel [Halpern], and he executive produced and ran the whole show and wrote all the scripts.
I got along really well with all the producers, and Nathaniel and I particularly hit it off, we have like really similar taste in cinema and he’s very well versed in cinema. It seemed like we all agreed on what we wanted the show to feel like. It was just from that point, frankly, it was a really great experience. Great experience from Fox 21, great experience with Amazon. I’ve become really good friends with Nathaniel, and the whole thing was basically joy.
As you said, it’s based on these paintings and it’s a sci-fi show, but it’s not super concerned with explanations or explicit sci-fi concepts or anything like that. How did Nathaniel kind of describe what this would be, to you, when you guys had those first conversations?
ROMANEK: Well, he wasn’t quite so prescriptive about that in the beginning. I kind of feel like I kind of started to learn more what the show would be when I sat in the pitches and we were pitching this to the various networks and streamers. We only pitched about four or five places. But I just sort of sat and mulled and listened to the Nathaniel tell the stories and explain how they were all going to fit together. I got very excited, as did the people that we were pitching to, which is why the show got made. But you know, he often brought up Winesburg, Ohio and how that was able to tell this kind of macro story of the whole community, but dipping into the stories of specific characters in that community, kind of within the community just being able to tell different stories. I think some of the networks had a hard time picturing that, and how that would work because a lot of these shows are based on casting a movie star and they become essential to the rest of the show. It was a little tricky, figuring out how to cast the show at the level that we wanted.
But then I think when the actors of this caliber, the caliber of Johnathan Pryce or Rebecca Hall or Ato Essandoh or Paul Schneider, this level of people who simply when they read the script, they wanted in and they had the same reaction as I did. “Wow, this is extremely well written. I want to be in it.” And they didn’t care so much that, “Oh, I’m not going to be the star of the show.” Which was very lucky, because it could have gone the other way. It could have been very hard to cast. The quality of the writing is pretty compelling.
You’re essentially establishing the visual language of the show when you’re making this pilot. And the whole story is based on these visuals. What were some of the kind of touchstones for you, in kind of creating this world and what it would look like?
ROMANEK: Well, to be candid, I didn’t set the look of the show, Nathaniel and I did working together with this incredible crew that I was able to put together of people. But all of them had never done television, so I was able to bring people like Jeff Cronenweth to shoot it, and Phil Messina as a designer, and Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan to score it, and Catherine George to do the costumes. So, I was looking to bring in a very high quality team of immensely talented people.
And then Nathaniel and I, together with them and using the paintings as a basis, simply tried to solve these aesthetic problems as the scenes required them and how to best tell the story, and what felt like the most original kind of way to do it. We knew we didn’t want to be Stranger Things. We all like Stranger Things. But Stranger Things is already Stranger Things. So we knew we, just in and of itself, just didn’t want to be fetishistic to the period or anything. We wanted it to have a kind of timelessness and an elegance. We talked a lot about the pace of the show and how we can modulate a certain kind of stately European style pace in an American place, American made show and see if audiences might not only be able to tolerate it, but be able to kind of settle into that and enjoy it, the way you can in a great, maybe foreign film. We talked about Kieślowski’s Dekalog and Bergman. Not a lot of our references were all American cinema.
I really loved the look of the show. You mentioned Jeff Cronenweth, I’m a huge fan of his work. What was it like working with him as your DP, and you guys kind of navigating the world of television together?
ROMANEK: Well, we had worked together for like 25 years. I mean, we’ve done dozens of commercials, and music videos and then Jeff shot One Hour Photo, so Jeff and I are old friends. So it was very, very easy. We looked at a lot of paintings, and a lot of film references and Jeff was involved with Phil in the design, and some of his sets so they can lend themselves to a variety of angles and textures and where the light is coming from. To be honest, I can’t even articulate how I work with Jeff, because it’s very easy. I guess we share a similar taste.
We get out a bunch of references in the beginning and we test a bunch of lenses, and we test some lighting looks and we go, “Yeah, that kind of a zone.” We try to do new things, things that haven’t been done before. We try to use equipment or light fixtures that aren’t normally used for filmmaking. Jeff has a way of making things look very real, but very painterly. I think his work is slick and yet deeply poetic. We just find a groove together and it’s hard to really even actually articulate how we do it.
ROMANEK: We don’t really talk that much. He’ll suggest some things to me about this, and then we go, “Yeah, that looks great, let’s do that, when we do that.” Then I go, “What about this instead?” And he goes, “Oh my God. Yeah, yeah, that’s way better. Let’s do that.” And we just get on with it.
That’s funny. I’ve talked to Rodrigo Prieto about working with Scorsese and it sounds like they have a kind of a similar rapport over there, as well. Some kind of strange alchemy.
ROMANEK: Well, you just find the right family and you let people kind of get on with their thing, and they all kind of know what I like and hate, and so they don’t even go that direction anyway. It’s like trying to pick up in a band, you know? Sometimes you can get the greatest musicians and they start playing and it doesn’t really work. But then a different four people play and they’re not even the best musicians, but you know, and you get Nirvana. So you know, just, you always try to cast the crew almost like casting a band.
Making a pilot in of itself is a difficult task, just by itself. But your protagonist is a kid and there are certain challenges that come with working with child actors. The time constraints. And the actress is fantastic in this episode and I really think it’s really beautiful how you kind of work with her and the other actors to kind of bring the story full circle by the end of this episode, but I was curious what it was like for you, kind of approaching that from this child’s point of view?
ROMANEK: Well, what I like about it is that it’s a very specific and cinematic point of view. Most writers don’t even write from point of view, they sort of write third person objectively. But the best writers, I find, often tell the story just through one person and then if you tell it through a child’s eyes, that’s a different filter that you’re looking at everything through. You’re looking at everything through a more innocent filter. And I just find that lends itself to the kind of filmmaking, like, there’s a lot of films made that way, that I’ve loved over the years. Like Fallen Idol or Black Stallion. So somehow I ended up being like, the kid guy. One Hour Photo, and Never Let Go, the whole first act of the movie is, not only one kid, but three kids who had to pretend like they’re these incredible adult actors like Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. That was hard.
But I have two young girls, I don’t know. I do a lot of commercials with kids and so now I enjoy working with children. What I don’t enjoy about it is that you have by necessity, they are only allowed to work on limited time, so it puts a lot more pressure on the day. And with kids, the last thing you want is pressure. You just want it to be kind of filming, easy going. But there’s always that time pressure weighing down on you.
I had worked with Abby before, she was in a pilot I made of a show for ABC called The Whispers. I actually made that with Steven Spielberg, and he was on the set the day that we were working together, and standing at the monitor, and Spielberg just turned around and looked at me, with his jaw hanging open at how gifted Abby is. She was only five, I think she turned six on that production. So, I had a nice relationship with Abby from before and I brought her in because I knew how professional she was, even as a six year old, and it was a pretty high degree of difficulty story.
Like if you just look at it as a story on the page, from a filmmaking stand point, we’re in the freezing cold. I’ve got kids carrying most of the show. I’ve got elaborate visual effects and we’re trying to set this new look and language and tone based on a painting. And then there’s all this time travel confusion that you have to subtly flip. It was a very hard hour of film storytelling to accomplish. And frankly, this is why I brought in heavy hitters like Abby Ryder Fortson and Duncan Joiner, and Jeff Cronenweth, and Phil Messina. Because I knew that it was going to be hard.
We only had 20 days, which is fairly luxurious for television. But still, that’s half a movie in 20 days, it’s pretty quick. But like I say, lots of support and lots of good collaboration, and smart people in the room, so it was a joy.
That’s fantastic. Well, as the title suggests, there are certainly themes of kind of loops and kind of a circular nature to the narrative, especially with the idea that your two characters are the same person at different ages. How did that kind of manifest in your approach to kind of visualizing the story in this first installment?
ROMANEK: I mean, I didn’t want to get too jokey, or too many loop motifs, but if you notice the episode starts in the sky and ends in the sky. So it does form a loop. It starts tilting from daytime clouds and it ends tilted up to the nighttime stars. And that’s about as gimmicky as I got with reference to the loop. But what I did like about the idea of making a film and telling stories in a place where some sort of alien technology was sort of tweaking and torquing time and space, and memory and emotion, is that’s a very cinematic idea. The idea that you’re in sort of this field of fluid forces, you know?
And again, I didn’t want to get gimmicky with the filmmaking. My music videos or commercials can sometimes be kind of a little flashier to grab your attention. But for some reason my taste in films is to be a little more restrained.
But for the loop motif, it was fun playing and subtly with the way the camera moves and little contra zooms here and there and sometimes it’s slow motion and memory. Just ways of playing with time and space, and how that works, and memory. The premise of the stories freed you up to do these kind of subtle but elegant cinematic kind of tricks. You don’t often get to even shoot something where people have a dream, and you get to do a dream sequence. You know, that alone is a treat. I think there’s two or three in this.
Did you ever consider directing more than one episode, or kind of given the anthology structure, was the plan to kind of always have different directors?
ROMANEK: I think the plan was always to have different directors. But I think they wanted me to kind of establish the look of the wardrobe and the color scheme—again, with Nathaniel—and who the cast would be, and who would score it. That was a big one, and just getting the tone right of transferring these stories from these paintings to cinema.
I think that was enough of the path, but similarly if they pick it up for season two, I’d be very keen to do maybe the first episode of season two. Those episodes go much faster than the pilot. Like a pilot you get a certain amount of time and the episodes they do them much, much quicker. I don’t know how cut out I am for that kind of pace. I’m a little bit more of like, “Can you move the salt shaker two millimeters to the left?” kind of guy, and I would lose some of that in the pace of an episode. But there are tricks and ways of artfully making episodes, I should probably start to learn that.
I mean I know you’ve done some television before, but was it that significant of an adjustment to kind of switch to that mode? You’re not necessarily doing a close ended story, although I guess with this particular show you have a little bit more closure than maybe some other shows.
ROMANEK: Well, yeah, and that’s one of the things, that’s one of the main differences between TV and cinema is that often if you’re doing an episode, it comes to this kind of anticlimax kind of to be continued next week, or next binge, or whatever. And I find it much more satisfying to do the beginning, middle and end. I just like the discipline of that and it feels more satisfying, and I think that’s what’s so appealing about Tales from the Loop, and why so many great directors wanted to be involved. And again, if they pick it up next season I think we’ll find that lots of directors might want to do this because it is the rare opportunity to—yes, it’s an ongoing story of Mercer, Ohio. But each story seems to be its own insular beginning, middle and end, which is really appealing. It’s a different way of storytelling, really. And something maybe I’m more cut out for.
Although I did episode three of Vinyl and had a great time on that show, but that was the same kind of movie level of talent and time that allows you to really, really give the attention to the detail that a good story deserves.
Yeah, and I’m sure you know, having Martin Scorsese around allows a bit of latitude, in terms of the production schedule.
ROMANEK: It was a thrill of my bucket list things, to be involved with someone like that.
Is The Overlook Hotel something that still might be happening? Is that a project that’s gone away now?
ROMANEK: It seems so. I mean, it’s a great script I think, it was based on a prologue to the novel that Stephen King wrote and then that prologue was cut for length. And so it’s based on Stephen King. It’s not just some thing somebody made up, and it’s more of an origin story on the, almost like a Western or a wilderness story, going back to the construction and the desecration of the Indian burial grounds, and the construction of the Overlook Hotel and to its meaning to its opening night.
Actually we wrote the script, it’s a really great script. The problem is it’s really expensive, it kind of reads like The Revenant or Heaven’s Gate or something and I think they wanted to try Doctor Sleep to see if—my impression is they wanted to see if there was this sort of Shining universe that would have financial life through them, or artistic life with the audience. And I think Doctor Sleep did just sort of okay, and given that our script is so costly, it’s a little dead in the water right now. But you never know, it’s a weird business. It’s a very good script. I’m proud of the script.
That sounds incredible.
ROMANEK: I was stupidly undaunted by its relationship to The Shining, because it takes place decades and decades before and there’s very little specific visual crossover. It was just, I thought, a really great story, based on Stephen King.
That sounds great. I am forever lamenting not being able to see your vision of The Wolfman. Now that Universal is kind of giving filmmakers a go at these other monsters, is that something you’d ever consider revisiting?
ROMANEK: Well, no, because it was a perfect storm of potential, and with a perfect storm of kind of shit. It was Benicio Del Toro and I collaborating on a vision of the kind of film we wanted to make, and then we got Anthony Hopkins, and we got Emily Blunt, and then we got [production designer] Rich Heinrichs, and I got Milena Canonero to do the costumes and we were really in the process of making this more daring, darker, more mysterious horror film.
And it was during the writer’s strike and there were changes of leadership at the studio, and they didn’t seem to really trust what we were doing. And it was costly, the film, and everything started pulling apart rather than coalescing. Everybody started going in opposite directions until it was clear that if they wanted to make their idea of the film, meaning the studio’s idea of the film, my hands were kind of tied because there was a writer’s strike, so we couldn’t really change the script. So I didn’t see a way to give them what they wanted and the only option really was to step away and say, “Do it how you want,” which was very disappointing and that’s the way it went.
Well, that’s a bummer, but I do hope we get to see a full on Mark Romanek horror film someday.
ROMANEK: Well, yeah, I’m working on some stuff, so I’d love to make one. I’m hoping to make one. I’m talking to a terrific novelist about optioning a book, just this week.
Tales from the Loop is now streaming on Amazon Prime.