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‘Tales From the Loop’ Helmer Mark Romanek Reflects on the Essentials of His Career So Far

Mark Romanek Tales From the Loop
Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the career of director Mark Romanek that his newest work, “Loop,” the pilot episode for eight-episode Amazon Studios series “Tales From the Loop,” is as visually arresting as it is conceptually bold and emotionally evocative.

Best-known for his work on some of the past two decades’ most audacious and powerful music videos and commercials, Romanek has accrued multiple Grammy Awards for his clips for stars from Fiona Apple to Johnny Cash, Taylor Swift to Michael Jackson, Jay-Z to Joni Mitchell, Nine Inch Nails to Madonna. Prizes at Cannes Lions and more have come his way for innovative, emotive spots for Apple, Tiffany, Nike and American Express, among others.

Romanek’s feature film resume is shorter, but just as powerful, with Robin Williams-starrer “One Hour Photo” and his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” both visionary excursions that help prepare the viewer for his work on “Loop.”

Inspired by a 2014 book of the same name by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, who has a cult following for his gorgeous depictions of an alternate reality, “Loop” was called “a gentle slow-burner ideal for our alternative pandemic universe,” by Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips. He noted: “Mark Romanek’s pilot recalls the steady chill and precision of his earlier work, particularly ‘Never Let Me Go.’”

One Hour Photo (2002)

Romanek says his edgy “One Hour Photo” was greenlit on the basis of his screenplay’s “catchy premise” and despite what was deemed “the seemingly odd choice” of comic genius Robin Williams as the film’s disturbed and disturbing protagonist. “Everyone thought that was very daring,” says Romanek, “but not to me as I had seen him in the PBS adaptation of Saul Bellow’s ‘Seize the Day,’ so I never thought it was that odd. But it was an idea that worked and I remain very proud of that character and of Robin’s performance.”

Hurt (Music video, 2003)

When Romanek describes his video for the Johnny Cash recording of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt” as one that “broadened the range of what a music video could truck with in terms of subject matter,” he’s barely scratched the surface of that work’s impact on the industry. In Romanek’s view, the producer of that landmark recording, Rick Rubin, “provided that opportunity to capture Johnny’s truth. He trusted in me to travel down this very candid [path], knowing it might not work. It was an extremely unlikely hit record and unlikely at that time to make a hit video that wasn’t pandering.”

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Calling “Never Let Me Go” “one of my favorite novels,” Romanek says the project came out after “One Hour Photo” “did over $100 million in home video. I owe that job to Peter Rice, who greenlit ‘One Hour Photo.’ He introduced me to Alex Garland, Allon Reich and Andrew Macdonald when their director fell out. I had read the book and read it again so I had pretty deep knowledge of the book. And my interests dovetailed with three very smart guys whose only intention was to make the very best film possible.”

Romanek also credits Rice with locking in Carey Mulligan for the key role of Kathy. “We hadn’t found Kathy and we got a text from Peter who was in Sundance and he was watching ‘An Education.’ The movie wasn’t even over yet. We got a print sent over to England from Sundance and that was it.”

Voices (Nike commercial, 2012)

With dozens of award-winning and landmark commercials on his resume, it says a lot that Romanek considers Nike’s “Voices” “the commercial I’m most proud of.” A celebration of the 1972 passage of Title IX legislation banning discrimination in education, Romanek describes the spot as “interviews with incredible female athletes, where we talk to them about their experiences with discrimination, how hard it was to do their sport, but you hear the words coming out of the mouths of young girls.” Prepare to be moved.

“Loop” (Pilot episode of “Tales From the Loop”) (2020)

Romanek’s involvement as pilot director and executive producer on “Tales From the Loop” began when he “got a call from Matt Reeves who said, ‘I have a great script by Nathaniel Halpern based upon science-fiction paintings.’” Romanek says he was familiar with Stålenhag’s paintings, and was further enticed when “Nathaniel started namechecking Bergman, Tarkovsky and Kieślowski.”

“It’s very hard to get these kinds of stories on the big screen today. My goal is to be a great visual storyteller, and one of the attributes of great visual storytelling is modulating the visual palette. In ‘Loop,’ there are long stretches when the story is told in pictures, and there’s almost no violence, and today that’s a very rare quality.”

In addition to the show’s visual panache, Romanek describes the program’s dramatic grounding as “a kind of Sherwood Anderson working-class world. We’re not fetishizing the period. It’s about real people facing real-life issues, but their problems are tweaked and torqued by this object below the ground which is playing with time and space. It’s an unusual structure, but in a ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ way.”