The Artist Whose Rural Dystopian Scenes Inspired an Amazon Series

Simon Stålenhag discusses science fiction, nostalgia, and the new TV show based on his work.

Two children encountering a robot in a field.
Simon Stålenhag

Stranger Things fans, rejoice. Last week, Amazon Studios issued a series order for a new domestic-dystopia drama from Legion writer Nathaniel Halpern. The show, called Tales From the Loop, is based on Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag’s award-winning artbook of the same name. Stålenhag’s digital paintings, which combine bucolic visions of rural Sweden with sci-fi elements, evoke a haunting familiarity. Against the comforting markers of 1980s suburbia glow the neon lights of a government-sanctioned particle accelerator that washes the surrounding area in alien technology and strange beasts.

I caught up with Stålenhag this week to understand his artistic process for Tales From the Loop and to find out what he was most excited to see translated onto the screen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rachelle Hampton: How would you describe your book Tales From the Loop to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?

Simon Stålenhag: It’s a story of growing up, a coming-of-age story, but it’s set in an alternative early 1990s or late ’80s rural Sweden. It’s written as if these things really happened to me. It’s a very mundane, realistic science-fiction story I would say. There’s no great evil supervillain or anything, it’s like me and my friends at school trying to skip classes or whatever.

I’m really curious about your process: How did you get the idea for the paintings and the series as a whole? What kind of things in the real world inspire you for this alternative sci-fi world?

I think the real stuff, the buildings and the cars and the homes and all that came first. I was inspired by all those things, the aesthetics of the symbols that we grew up with, like the street signs and the street lights and everything that’s made in the era. What kind of visual cues makes this feel like 1991, for instance? At the same time I was working as a concept artist for video games and films, and I learned from my profession how to do robots and monsters and dinosaurs and all of that stuff. Once my hand knew how to do that, I had to do that, so I was like I have to put a robot in this scene of a rural setting in Sweden, and it kind of worked.
Being a kid in that environment, those are the sorts of things you were imagining seeing there anywhere since you were bored.

So, I first started experimenting with that, putting those two separate things in my life, putting them together. I started I would say maybe ten years ago. I didn’t start doing the actual art that’s in the book, but I started to investigate those kinds of scenes, using the place where I grew up, using those settings and using very local stuff like the place where I went to school. I started using my own personal experiences in these science-fiction paintings and I think that’s when I started to really think about the whole concept of the Loop. It kind of made sense, from an artistic and also a storytelling point of view. I wanted to tell a story about how I felt as a kid, it just felt right to pretend those things were real.

A robot examining the exterior of a house.
Simon Stålenhag

Do you feel like the type of dystopian-domestic scenes have changed since you started this idea in 2011?

Yeah, when I started I was looking a lot at photos from the ’80s. Now that feels too far away from me because, first of all, I was very young, I was born in 1984 so I don’t have memories from the actual ’80s. But also the same feeling I had in 2011, I’m starting to have that feeling about the late ’90s and maybe even the early 2000s. I think it’s like a fishing net that you drag behind that’s always 20 years back—that’s when the nostalgia is starting to happen.

Are you still working in this genre?

My interests are the same, but I try to find new stuff. So for instance, the thing I’m working on now, which is my fourth book, it started with me going through old IKEA catalogs and looking at all this furniture from the early ’90s and I was like I love these chairs. I want to paint them, but I don’t know how to paint them so then I constructed a setting where it would make sense for me to do paintings of those and that lead to this whole new story. I don’t even use the furniture anymore but that’s just where it started for me: It would be cool if there was a place that looked like this. Then my imagination starts going on a tangent.

That’s incredible.

It starts with those mundane things. When it comes to the kinds of stories I want to tell, or the moods I want to create, I think it always ends up in the science-fiction genre or horror, just the kinds of films I grew up watching basically.

So what would you say is the kind of mood you want to create?

I want to create some kind of recognizable human element in everything I do. A feeling of really being there, a feeling of how everything feels for a human being experiencing this, like the humidity in the air, all the little details but also having something really cool. I feel like a kid [laughs], I want to have something really cool that would make the 5-year-old you feel crazy. For me that’s always the most important thing, to make something that’s really kind of unpretentious and just a cool thing. If I don’t have that, if it’s just this very serious examination of being human or whatever, to me it feels it’s missing something, like we also need a tentacle monster or something. I think I’m doing a lot of these artworks for my 12-year-old self, to be honest. That’s the person I’m talking to even though it’s very dark sometimes. I want to make those books that a 12-year-old feels like they’re not supposed to look in but want to look in anyway.

It feels like right now with shows like Stranger Things and the revival of Twin Peaks and a few others that this kind of genre, of wanting to appease your 12-year-old self, is really popular. Why do you think that is?

I think because those 12-year-olds are grown-ups and making films, they’re adults now. I think mainly that the ’80s to us, who were born in the ’80s or in the ’70s, the ’80s is like the ’50s for the Steven Spielberg generation. Which is weird because a lot of what we consider the ’80s is actually a lot like what the boomers dream of the ’50s was: the suburbia. The biggest ’80s movie, Back to the Future, is about the ’50s and the ’60s. It seems like that kind of cycle is just happening again.

The weird thing about Stranger Things is that when I started game design in 2008, I actually made a concept for a game that had the exact same story and setting like a small town in 1983 where kids on BMX bikes uncovered a government conspiracy dealing with aliens or something. When I heard about Stranger Things, I thought this is one of those things where there’s just a zeitgeist. This idea is everywhere, everybody who has these references is going to come up with similar stuff.

People at a lookout point with futuristic buildings in the distance.
Simon Stålenhag

So when did talks of the adaptation with Amazon begin? And how involved in the show are you?

Talks about making it into a TV show started four years ago with Matt Reeve’s production company, but the Amazon thing is quite new, I knew about it since April or something. I’m not going to be involved in any production role, but I’m going to be a consultant and I’m going to be part of the discussion and everything and I’ve been part of the discussion, but it’s nice for me to take a step back. My stories are so personal, and I always said when I knew it was going to be a U.S. project that it should be an American writer that can set it in America and make it believable and use his or her own memories and experiences. I think it’s hard for someone who never visited Sweden to look at my pictures and try to write a story about what’s in those pictures because there’s so much about authenticity. I think it’s good to set the story in a U.S. town and have a writer who can have that authenticity himself. And Nathaniel is that guy, when he told me about what he wanted to do I thought, yeah it’s perfect.

That’s really cool. What are you most excited to see in the adaptation?

The close-ups of people’s faces [laughs] because that’s the stuff that I can’t do. I can write characters, and I can write about feelings and I can paint people, but you can’t paint close-ups. Even if you could technically, it’s impossible to get acting in a still medium. Even in comic books, it’s impossible. You can kind of get it, but you don’t get it. In film, with real actors, there’s a whole new dimension to it. For me that’s the most exciting part of it: the actors.