Whether it’s a galaxy far far away, the crime-riddled streets of some derelict city, or (in this case) the multiverse-guarding headquarters of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), one can find no safer hands for a beloved franchise than those of Kate Herron.
The British director has delivered Disney+ its most watched Marvel series to date with Loki. Like WandaVision, the series takes place directly after the events of Avengers Infinity War and Endgame.
In the opening episode, this lesser-evolved Loki (who now escapes capture using the Tesseract in the year 2012) sees the evolution —and ultimately the demise — of his character across Thor The Dark World, Thor Ragnarok and Avengers Infinity War.
That key scene, where actor Tom Hiddleston reacts to a 1970s-like film reel showing his would-be future, was a key part of Herron’s vision. The director came to the project with a clear plan for his character and the otherworldly hierarchy that Loki encounters at the TVA.
Herron’s extensive pitch deck convinced Marvel producer Kevin Feige that she was the right person to direct all six episodes of Loki’s first season. Herron quickly gained that same trust with the cast and crew as they battled through COVID and lockdowns while filming in Atlanta, Georgia.
A major highlight of the Disney+ series is the career-redefining performance by Owen Wilson. Wilson brilliantly morphs into the character of Mobius, a clever TVA agent who forms an unlikely bond with Loki.
When Herron spoke to Awards Focus, she delved into the creation of Mobius’ look and what it took to land Wilson, her collaboration with BAFTA nominated Loki composer Natalie Holt, and her upcoming comic book The Storkening (out July 20th via Skybound Entertainment).
AWARDS FOCUS: First of all, congratulations on directing all six episodes of your first Marvel series. We all just learned that Loki is the most viewed Marvel series, thanks to the Kevin Feige announcement.
I wonder if you can reflect on the recent Los Angeles in-person Loki Emmy FYC panel that featured Tom Hiddleston, writer MIchael Waldron, composer Natalie Holt, and yourself? The standing ovation from the crowd at the Pacific Design Center isn’t something that’s common for these events.
Kate Herron: It was massively flattering to see so many people there. It was the first Loki event I’ve been able to do in-person, so it was so nice to meet fans of the show. I loved watching it with an audience too, it always feels more immersive on the big screen.
AF: You’ve often talked about your expansive pitch deck that landed you this series. It’s commonplace in the industry for directors to hire outside companies and graphic artists to secure the look that they want for a pitch deck. How did you go about making your Loki deck?
Herron: I didn’t know directors did this and now I feel like I’ve been doing it all wrong (laughs). I didn’t have any kind of money to hire anyone, so it was me at my parents’ kitchen table toiling away for two weeks.
I had already chatted virtually with Marvel executives Kevin Wright and Stephen Broussard, bombarding them with images and ideas. Based off those chats, I put together a very lo-fi but very extensive power point presentation.
Every time I talk about this presentation it seemingly gets longer, you can write that I did 300 slides to really add to the myth (laughs).
AF: Meeting Kevin Feige is a big moment in anyone’s career, but from what I understand, the most pressure-filled meeting was the one you had with Owen Wilson. Landing him for the role of TVA agent Mobius was solely on your shoulders, correct?
Herron: Yes, my Casting Director Sarah Finn was like Owen wants to speak to you and only you!, The pressure was on, but it quickly became a great conversation… I think we both realized how self-deprecating we both are, so it was just a nice chat about why he’d be great and why I was so excited to work with him.
I fell in love with Owen’s work, both as actor and writer, through his collaborations with Wes Anderson. It was very surreal to chat with him about that while building this very different character together.
AF: The look for Mobius was quite a departure, it pushes blond Wedding Crashers Owen out of our consciousness. Was that an obvious choice or a battle with Owen or the studio?
Herron: I remember Marvel were like, “Okay let’s do a test,” when we pitched that look to them. From my first conversation with Owen, he wanted to do something outside himself and what people expected from him.
We were talking ideas, and Owen had this idea of silver hair and the moment he had the wig on there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was the right route.
AF: Having wanted to helm all the episodes yourself, what did you find most appealing and consequently challenging about that undertaking?
Herron: Well, for me it was a massive step-up as I had done episodes on other peoples shows, so this was an opportunity to show how I could lead and bring a vision to a very ambitious ask.
Kevin Feige said that he wanted to run our show, not in your traditional showrunner system but how they run their movies. So it was setting out to make a six-hour Marvel movie on a tv-schedule which is a massive challenge but that was a big part of the appeal for me.
AF: You’ve submitted episode five for Emmy consideration, which to me, is the apex of the series (in no small part to Richard E. Grant’s performance). Can you walk me through the process of filming that episode and the emotional climax?
Herron: I really love this episode as our audience has just learned the mid-season twist that the TVA’s motives are nefarious and it seems like Loki has just been killed.
Tonally, I feel this episode really captures the balance across the whole show, that fine line of chaos, heart, and drama. We teased the idea of multiple Loki’s early in the show and this episode is where we made good on that.
From a story perspective, I loved what this episode does for our Loki, who is surrounded by these other versions of himself and he couldn’t be more different. It shows how much he’s evolved across the season. And it has my absolute favorite scene, the conversation between B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) and Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The episode closes with our lead Loki having an existential crisis about who he is falling in love with and who he’s becoming, at the same time we’re witnessing this powerhouse performance from Richard E. Grant.
AF: The episode really is VFX heavy, with Grant’s Loki erecting an entire city. Who in your team is responsible for that massive undertaking and what input are you giving in pre-vis?
Herron: Oh yes, the series in total had 2,524 VFX shots and a significant amount were just in this episode. I was lucky to have the best team that a person could want. I worked on this episode with my editor Calum Ross (Sex Education). As a team, we both have a strong handle on emotion and character, but this was easily the biggest outing we’ve had effects wise.
We were surrounded by a brilliant team, VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, Jesse Lewis-Evans heading our pre-vis team at The Third Floor and the brilliant minds of ILM. This episode is the graft of hundreds of talented artists. Initially Dan, Jesse, Calum and I worked over Christmas putting this together for my first cut and it was a beast.
On a movie, you’d have months to do a sequence like this, but with our schedule we were cramming this into a month to make our test screening and get a working version.
Like anything, you keep working on it, working with your team and Marvel to get it across the finish-line. I was so excited to be working with the legendary Victoria Alonzo also on the show and I feel I learnt so much from her on every zoom call we had looking at shots and refining.
AF: I read that Tom was shooting pick ups for the first episode while filming episode five, for Tom and yourself, how did you balance the production demands amid early COVID protocols in Atlanta?
Herron: Credit to my first AD Richard Graves for not only orchestrating this chaos, but also doing it with a smile. I mean it was a challenge, I’m always incredibly grateful to the hundreds of people who gave their time making this with us because it was challenging to be making this project in normal circumstances.
Adding a pandemic on top of it, it was a just big ask to ask people to come work for us. I honestly felt grateful to be working when so many people weren’t, so I just felt that we can’t waste this opportunity.
AF: One of the benefits of the pandemic shutting down production was that you were able to hire a composer to start working on themes. Can you tell me how you landed on Natalie Holt, who has since been BAFTA nominated for her Loki score?
Herron: On Sex Education, I shot the second half of season one and remember how useful it was to have the music (by Oli Julian and Ezra Furman) available to use in the edit.
I’m a musically driven filmmaker and I play music to help find the tone in what I’m doing. When we were no longer able to continue the shoot, I immediately started editing, trying to soak up that extra time for VFX, storyboards and going back into the scripts.
At the same time, I knew getting a composer would be key. We had a sort of cook-off with a few brilliant composers giving us their take on the show, but when it came to Natalie’s pitch… immediately we both were creatively in-line with each other.
I loved how she talked about her score in relation to character and she just got the tone. Not to mention also being a big fan of theremin.
AF: Having worked previously with actress Sophia Di Martino, what made her the right choice for Loki variant Sylvie? And when it came to casting He Who Remains, what involvement did you have in casting Jonathan Majors?
Herron: So Sophia and I met through the comedy scene in the UK. We had done improv together and I’d persuaded her to do various lo-fi projects with me over the years.
She always blew me away with how funny she could be, but also showcase this ability to play pain and regret. I wanted her to come in and read for us, and she of course nailed it.
With Jonathan Majors, it was an honor to be part of a conversation with Kevin Feige and Marvel on a role that will have a defining presence in the MCU. Jonathan is of the best actors out there. As soon as we knew he was interested, I knew our finale would be safe because it’s a real challenge, coming in at the end of a show and owning it. That takes force and presence, and Jonathan has that in spades.
AF: From a directing standpoint, you’ve showcased a tremendous amount of talent from yours days on Sex Education to Loki. Given that you also contributed story ideas to Loki, I’d love to highlight some of story beats.
Herron: One thing that springs to mind for me, is that in our first episode for example, we were originally going to be cutting to clips and scenes but I wanted to avoid any kind of full flashbacks, I wanted to keep the audience in that room with Tom Hiddleston.
So, I pitched this idea when I first met everyone of Loki watching his memories play out on a stage. I was inspired by the moment in Miniority Report where Tom Cruise’s character sees his loved one who has passed away, it’s so emotionally effective. That felt emotionally right to me, and you know, always steal from the best.
AF: With July just around the corner, I wanted to ask about your partnership with Skybound Entertainment for The Storkening comic book, which is part of a larger anthology series? Herron: My partner, Briony Redman, and I have written a comic together for the upcoming, horror series Afterschool based on the Afterschool special. Ours is about an urban legend where if you try and get rid of your baby, a monstrous stork tries to force you to keep it. The myth is, “Scratches to mark you, a feather to warn you, then it comes.” It releases on July 20th, so everyone can mark the calendars right after San Diego Comic Con.