To land ‘Loki,’ Kate Herron had to pull out all the stops. How she won over Marvel
As a teenager, Kate Herron was obsessed with the “Lord of the Rings” films.
In particular, she recalls heading to theaters repeatedly with friends who shared her passion to see “The Two Towers” (2002), the second installment in director Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel. She even wrote “Lord of the Rings” fan fiction.
“It was very silly,” the British filmmaker insists, revealing that one of her stories saw the heroic Fellowship traveling through a magical fountain and getting trapped in New York. “Honestly, I was just writing the stories to make my friends laugh. I guess it was kind of that first foray for me: ‘How do I tell a story?’”
Years later, Herron is again involved in telling a story about a protagonist displaced from the world he knows. But this time, her audience is much bigger.
Herron, 33, is the director of “Loki,” the Marvel Studios series that follows the adventures of the titular god of mischief after he has been plucked out of time by an agency charged with maintaining the sanctity of the timeline. Thus, the six-episode series, which premiered earlier this month on Disney+, features a slightly different version of Loki than the fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grown to love since his first appearance in “Thor” (2011) through “Avengers: Endgame” (2019).
“I love villains,” says Herron during a recent video call from Atlanta, where she is putting the final touches on “Loki.” “I think that if a villain’s done right, you don’t necessarily have to like their actions, but you have to understand them. And I think that Tom [Hiddleston], in the last decade, has brought such empathy and wit and pain to a very real character for so many people. I just wanted to be part of whatever [Loki’s] next chapter was going to be.”
The series, on which the self-described Loki fan also serves as an executive producer, is Herron’s highest-profile project to date. Her previous credits include directing on Netflix’s “Sex Education,” as well as “Five by Five,” a series of short films executive produced by Idris Elba.
While growing up in South East London, Herron never considered filmmaking as a career. Her love of movies manifested as the aspiration to become an actor, and she often goaded her peers into putting on plays or making movies using a friend’s father’s camcorder. It wasn’t until some astute and encouraging teachers at Herron’s secondary school pointed out that she seemed more interested in storytelling that she changed course.
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By introducing Herron to new texts, these teachers — as well as a film studies class that covered films directed by Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa — helped expand her perspective.
“I just didn’t know that you could have a voice and an authorship over a film, which probably sounds a bit silly. But I just hadn’t really thought about films in that way,” says Herron. Soon enough, she was on the path to film school at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, England, where she graduated with a degree in film production.
Herron laughs as she remembers how she believed she would just go off and find work in film straight out of school. “Obviously that did not happen,” she says.
With no post-graduate roadmap (or job offer) to help her break into the industry, Herron eventually started writing and directing short films with “no money” while juggling a day job as a temp. Both experiences provided Herron with material for “Loki,” which introduces a new bureaucratic agency called the Time Variance Authority to the MCU.
“I’ve worked at a lot of random places, which weirdly has influenced ‘Loki’ in some ways because we have this office culture kind of running through it,” says Herron. “I’ve worked in a lot of offices.”
In order to give the retro-futuristic offices of the TVA “a real lived-[in], breathed-in office” feel, Herron incorporated details that viewers could recognize from the real world — from paper files to the posters on the walls — and gave them a fantastical twist befitting the superhero series.
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“One of the most exciting things to me about Kate is she has this amazing attention to detail,” says “Loki” co-executive producer Kevin Wright. “That was something that we saw on her very first pitch [and] it works its way into every frame of the show. Every monitor, every piece of paper in the TVA … she has looked over and approved everything you see.”
In an email, “Loki” star Hiddleston described Herron as “a dream collaborator” who possesses “a unique combination of extraordinary diligence, stamina, energy, respect and kindness.”
“Her affection for and understanding of Loki was so deep, profound and wide-ranging,” Hiddleston wrote. “She built a new world for these characters to play in with incredible precision, but she was also acutely sensitive to their emotional journey.”
Herron’s affinity for outsiders is apparent throughout the course of our conversation. There is of course her love for Loki — the heir to the king of Frost Giants raised as the prince of Asgard who has become one of the MCU’s most beloved villain-turned-antiheroes. Herron’s first introduction to the world of Marvel as a kid was through “X-Men: The Animated Series,” about the superhero team with mutant powers that set them apart from average humans. Herron cites Lisa Simpson — the overachieving, opinionated middle child from the animated sitcom “The Simpsons” — as the reason she is a vegetarian who can play the saxophone.
And although Herron describes herself as shy, it’s no match for the passion she brings to discussing film and television.
She calls Wes Anderson’s 2001 film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” co-written by “Loki” actor Owen Wilson, “a perfect movie.” In addition to being obsessed with “The Simpsons,” Herron gravitated toward genre shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the updated “Battlestar Galactica” and “The X-Files” when growing up.
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As Herron enthusiastically dives into “Loki’s” influences — which include “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Brazil” (1985), “Metropolis” (1927) and, yes, even “Teletubbies” — it’s easy to see why Wright knew she was the right person to bring “Loki” to life from their very first meeting.
Upon learning that Marvel was developing a show about Loki, Herron tasked her agents with calling Marvel every day until they would meet with her. And it worked.
“I was just so excited that somebody was chasing the project,” says Wright. “Which sounds crazy, that Marvel would be excited somebody’s chasing us. But it was the early days of us trying to get this Disney+ streaming stuff off the ground, so people were very hesitant … they didn’t know what it was yet.”
Herron’s enthusiasm for the show landed her a video meeting with Wright and executive producer Stephen Broussard. Believing it might be her only shot at the project, Herron came armed with so many stills and clips to illustrate her discussion of the scripts she’d been sent that a simple meet-and-greet turned into a four-hour conversation.
“Over the course of the next week or so,” Wright explains, “it was really figuring out how to set Kate up to succeed when we got her in front of Kevin Feige to pitch this.”
Herron put together a 60-page bible of ideas for the characters, the story, the visual references and more. The rest is Marvel history.
She learned not to wait for permission, she says, after graduating from film school and becoming involved with improv and stand-up to both develop her comedy chops and to meet funny collaborators to be in her short films.
“I think I’d always find excuses, almost, [to not do it],” says Herron. “It was that thing of being like, ‘Oh, well, I’m not ready. So I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’m perfect at it and then I’ll go do it.’”
Taking inspiration from Robert Rodriguez’s “Rebel Without a Crew” and a SXSW keynote speech by Mark Duplass, Herron realized that she just needed to start making things. She told herself it was OK if the films were messy. If a short was bad, nobody had to see it. If a short was “halfway to good,” she would submit them to festivals.
It’s this tenacious creativity that connects the dots between her early fan fiction, her short films, her pitch presentations — and now “Loki” itself. It’s a trait that has helped her navigate the industry to her current success, even during the periods it’s been most frustrating. As a female director, “I got asked crazy stuff in interviews sometimes,” she says of life on the festival circuit. “I remember being asked, ‘Are you sure you’re ready? Are you sure you’re ready?’ And male colleagues of mine were never asked that in interviews. I think that’s probably why I was so driven to just go out and make stuff.”
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