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Looping back to the present with Simon Stålenhag

The Swedish artist’s books, the inspiration for the Amazon series ‘Tales From The Loop’, seem to predict our covid world, with desolate landscapes and mysterious forces

Simon Stålenhag’s art has served as the inspiration for the Amazon series ‘Tales From The Loop’.
Simon Stålenhag’s art has served as the inspiration for the Amazon series ‘Tales From The Loop’. (Photo: Simon Stålenhag)

The world has started resembling a Simon Stålenhag artwork. Recent drone videos of cities with all the evidence of humankind but no humans aren’t far from his paintings, many of which have a barren landscape and a giant robot or machine of some kind, and a person, usually a child, in the foreground. This unique aesthetic—an unsettling mix of sci-fi and autobiographical intimacy—can be seen in the Swedish author’s three narrative art books: Tales From The Loop, Things From The Flood and The Electric State.

On 3 April, Amazon debuted the English-language series Tales From The Loop. The show, starring Rebecca Hall and Jonathan Pryce and inspired by Stålenhag’s paintings, is about the residents of a town with a powerful, mysterious machine called The Loop. The setting has changed from the rural Sweden of the book to Idaho, in the US Midwest. But the feeling of uncanny displacement is intact, not least because the show does a terrific job of bringing Stålenhag’s illustrations to life. I caught up with the artist, who lives in the countryside not far from Stockholm, over the phone and asked him about his inspirations, the series and his writing music. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Stålenhag’s art books, the inspiration for a new Amazon series, seem to predict a world in isolation, battling mysterious forces
Stålenhag’s art books, the inspiration for a new Amazon series, seem to predict a world in isolation, battling mysterious forces (Photo: Simon Stålenhag)

Has the pandemic changed your routine?

Well, my routine is already very isolated. I live out in the countryside and I work from home normally, so for me it hasn’t been much of a change. I don’t go into town as much as usual now. The lockdown here is more of a recommendation. If you want to hang out, you can—but people are responsible. It doesn’t feel like a curfew.

Some parts of the world under lockdown are starting to look like your art—landscapes with solitary figures.

That’s just my life. My pictures are often of the countryside and there are not many people there. I have always preferred being by myself, I have never liked being in crowds.

My pictures are a way of creating a setting that’s relaxing. When I started I painted tranquil landscapes, almost like a meditation. So right now it’s just a weird coincidence. Of course, in real life, it’s much more scary, because it has implications. If there’s a big freeway and it’s deserted, you know there’s a consequence to it.

You once described your style as “trying to find mechanical designs that fit the rhythm of the landscape".

Yes. I think that’s the reason I started doing science fiction, because I am adding stuff, I am adding things to the conversation that wouldn’t be there. To use the pictures of the landscape and extend them, to find things that complement the landscape. Then suddenly you have a surreal landscape. Something like H.R. Giger…

You cited Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead as early influences.

Well, (McQuarrie) mostly did concept art for movies. When you do concept art for film, the main focus is to convey the design of the thing, not to make a pretty picture. When I do it, the picture is the final piece in itself.

It’s not abstract. I try and make it look like an actual physical thing that works.

There is a sci-fi aspect to your art but also a feeling of everyday life unfolding.

When I started drawing people, I had a backstory for each of them—mundane, boring stuff. Instead of doing “normal" science fiction, which would be a story about the sci-fi elements, I would rather describe what it feels like waiting for the bus to go to school.

How did the series (‘Tales From The Loop’) come about?

It started in Sweden, back in 2014. The book was about to be published. I was talking with a production company about making it into a Swedish TV show. Later, we did a Kickstarter; the book became more widely known because of that. That’s when (US production company) 6th & Idaho reached out to me.

They found Nathaniel (Halpern, co-producer and writer on the TV series Legion)—he had this idea to do it as an anthology, with different characters intertwining between episodes, but still having one person per episode. Which matched with the fragmentary form of the book, which is like a short story for each page.

We were on the same page from the beginning, me and Nathaniel. I think he already had this idea for a format of a show, and then he read the book and felt this is the perfect premise. We were lucky to run into each other.

You drew on your childhood memories while writing ‘Tales From The Loop’. Did the change of setting in the series, from Sweden to Idaho, worry you?

No, it was the other way around. I was scared of an American production trying to make it Swedish. That’s why I said they should find an American writer who could do an American version and make it personal and real. Setting in the Midwest, you can make slight references, since there are Scandinavian settlers there. You see a few of these in the first episode: There’s a (Ingmar) Bergman film in the movie theatre, Swedish music is playing…

Did these elements come up when you were discussing the series?

Nathaniel had a big part, but also Mark Romanek, who directed the first episode and set the tone. If you look at (Romanek’s film) Never Let Me Go, it’s a very similar feel. Most of that is interiors, costume design. I didn’t do any interiors in the book, it’s all landscape. So his aesthetic perfectly matched with the book.

Did you visit the sets?

Yes, I did. It was a month into production so they had already built things. It was really weird seeing stuff I had painted years earlier in Sweden as huge super-realistic creations in Canada.

As a composer yourself, what did you feel about the score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan?

Obviously, he’s a legend, but it’s very different from the things I compose. The show is very close in some ways to the book, but there are aspects to my book that aren’t in it at all. The music and some aspects Mark brought to the production, these make it its own thing. If I had the talent to make a show, the music would have been a totally different thing.

What were you listening to when you wrote the book?

I still have the playlist. Some Brian Eno. I like the albums he did with Harold Budd. Alva Noto, some of his darker tunes. A lot of minimalistic ambient things. Aphex Twin. This is when I was painting. But when I write, I might have something else, like songs no one would know outside of Sweden, to get in the mood of the culture. One of these songs is used in the first episode, though this is a coincidence, I had nothing to do with it.

It was much darker, what I was listening to. Everything was much darker. Nathaniel avoided going into the darker areas of the book. There’s more (David) Cronenberg in my book, stuff like tentacle monsters, which go well visually and technically with the setting in my book, but it’s hard to imagine it happening in the show now. But I would love to see it going that way in the second season.

Have you had any other brushes with film?

This is the only one. We are working on a feature film adaptation of my third book, The Electric State. It’s in development. I did paint background for an animation studio 10 years ago. And I did video games and stuff like that.

I have always been into films but never thought I would get the chance to make them. I am very eager to see what I can learn. To me, all my pictures are kind of moving, it’s just that I choose one frame.

You mentioned Cronenberg. Is he an influence?

The Electric State is very Cronenbergian. I think his work is always there in the back of my head. It’s horror but it has a mundane quality. Stephen King is also someone that fascinates me, horror with an everyday setting, things like The Mist and The Raft.

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