Stories From the Set of Stranger Things, the TV Escape We Need Right Now

13 minute read

Everyone’s tired on the set of Stranger Things. I’m visiting on a Friday in May, and a months-long, effects-heavy Season 2 shoot is grinding toward its end. “It’s going slow,” says Millie Bobby Brown, the 13-year-old Emmy nominee who plays the supernatural character Eleven. “Last season, it felt like we were rapid. Everything was fast,” she says. But now “the anticipation from the fans scares everyone. It makes the Duffers stressed. It makes us stressed.”

The Duffers are Matt and Ross, identical 33-year-old twins and the maestros of a show that was about the only thing every-one seemed able to agree on during the contentious summer of 2016. The Netflix series, whose eight-episode first season arrived with relatively little fanfare that July, was set in 1983 and told the story of a group of young Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends who encounter interdimensional forces. As they look for their missing friend Will (Noah Schnapp), they befriend a mysteriously powerful preteen girl (Brown). Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) unravels as she searches for him with the help of a hard-living cop (David Harbour). And Will’s loner older brother (Charlie Heaton) warily teams up with other teenagers in their small town of Hawkins, Ind., to find him.

From the set of Stranger Things, May 19, 2017. McDonough Stages, Atlanta, GA.
Ross and Matt Duffer, the wunderkind creators of the fall’s most anticipated returning series, Stranger Things, on set in Atlanta.Grant Cornett for TIME

But what made the show so addictive was its clever and lovingly detailed packaging, from wood-paneled rec rooms and Schlitz-fueled teen keggers to a soundtrack of Toto and the Clash. References underpinned the story at every level. The show didn’t just use Ryder, the queen of 1980s teen cinema, in a comeback role. It also brilliantly employed the visual language of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg as well as the sinister-yet-comforting narratives of Stephen King. Stranger Things added up to something that not only felt like it came out of the ’80s but also let you relive the decade—even if you weren’t there the first time around. All in one bingeable package.

Stranger Things also became a huge hit. While Netflix does not release viewer-ship numbers, the show made an obvious impact. Last Halloween, you might have noticed more than a few kids, and grownups, dressed as Eleven, or wrapped in Christmas lights to look like Ryder’s character, Joyce, at her most forlorn. The “Stranger Things kids” became fixtures at awards shows, on late-night TV and on magazine covers. Hollywood took notice, too, honoring the show with 18 Emmy nominations and the top prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. “To see Meryl Streep standing up and clapping for us was so weird. I never really thought it would happen,” says Brown.

If Stranger Things now seems like a predestined success, it was a fairly edgy bet even by Netflix standards. After all, the show’s creators were as green as they come. The Duffers had fairly thin résumés—a little-seen horror film released in 2015, a writing gig on a short-lived M. Night Shyamalan TV show—when they put together their pitch. It consisted of a book of images and a mock trailer summing up what their show would be. “It was super-nuts,” says Matt. “Sometimes I’ll ask them point-blank why they let us do it at all.” On Oct. 27, when a new season of Stranger Things comes out, we’ll get to see how nuts exactly—and just how far the Duffers can push television forward by looking backward.

In action, the Duffers tend to move in tandem. When the scene I’m watching them film ends, one brother bolts to advise the actors and the other is up and following before anybody can even parse which one called “Cut.” Both wear T-shirts, jeans and the sort of retro sneakers that look like what you might’ve worn to high school gym class in 1984. Between takes, the kids gleefully goof off. Their acting is jazzy and improvisational as they’re encouraged to amp up their terror take after take. The Duffers’ parents are visiting the set today, watching the action with headphones on from behind their director sons.

Matt and Ross Duffer grew up in Durham, N.C., where, Matt says, “it was hard to get or even hear about more obscure films.” Instead, they went to the video store and rented the sort of crowd-pleasing, all-ages movies that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore. The Duffers claim that their influences are more tonal than specific, that they draw upon the cinema of the past for mood more than detail. “We honestly weren’t thinking about the references as much,” says Ross. “We’d do a few winks, and of course we talked about E.T. when we first came up with this show, but that wasn’t the primary focus. Let’s just tell the best story we can and hopefully we’ll capture some of the magic of these movies we loved growing up.”

There’s something essential about those references to Stranger Things’ resonance. They’ve turned into an Internet parlor game among fans, who hunt out specific shots, for example, that might tie the show to its adventure-film heritage. And despite the Duffers’ protestations, it’s easy to get them talking about specific sequences that are meant as homage. One scene I observed featured Max (Sadie Sink), a new member of the kid cast this year, driving a car with a block under her foot to reach the gas pedal. “That’s exactly like Short Round in Temple of Doom,” Ross says, referring to Jonathan Ke Quan’s character in the second Indiana Jones film, which was released the year when Stranger Things’ second season is set. “Spielberg has an identical shot. The whole scene is informed by something else—and then let’s do one wink for the fans.” The Duffers are a very specific sort of fan: slightly too young to remember the material they’re quoting firsthand. They were too young to see E.T. in theaters, for instance, but they were able to watch—and pause, and rewind, and restart—the VHS tape endlessly at home.

From the set of Stranger Things, May 19, 2017. McDonough Stages, Atlanta, GA.
From the set of Stranger Things, May 19, 2017. McDonough Stages, Atlanta, GA.Grant Cornett for TIME

The show’s first season seemed to wrap up Will’s journey out of captivity, only to suggest that he came back more haunted than his buddies might realize. The ending seemed to promise deeper excavation into what the show’s characters call “the Upside Down,” the nether-world within or beneath Hawkins, with new kids and a new commitment to figuring out what exactly happened and is still happening in the paranormal town. “This year, in terms of scope and size, it’s much closer to what we’ve always wanted the show to be,” says Matt. The Duffers say this sequel moves the plot forward while keeping the series’ signatures. Among those signatures are, of course, the interplay between the kids—which is running up against a ticking clock of sorts. As Matt puts it, “Our kids are growing, and we have to get the show out, whether it’s a compromise or not.”

Among the biggest expectations for Season 2 is that it come out before the show’s young stars get much older. Working with children plainly has its challenges. “They’re a pain in the ass! I love them, but [by law] you can only work with them for a certain number of hours,” Matt tells me. We’re having a somewhat rushed conversation during a lunch break between shoots for a scene that includes most of the kids. “They’re going to get yanked away from us at 7 even though we’re not going to be done with them,” he adds.

From left: Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughin and Finn Wolfhard, May 19, 2017.Grant Cornett for TIME

Stranger Things isn’t just about the kids. In the first season, Ryder delivered perhaps her best onscreen work since her Oscar-nominated performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film The Age of Innocence. As Joyce, she frantically sought out a son who everybody said was dead but whose presence she could feel bleeding through the walls of her house. Harbour, a Tony-nominated character actor who had appeared in the James Bond franchise, brought soulful fatigue to the role of the alcoholic town police chief, Jim Hopper. Both actors tapped into undercurrents of pain and exhaustion; Ryder was nominated for a Golden Globe, Harbour for an Emmy.

Rolling a cigarette in his set trailer, Harbour calls working with the Duffers the “greatest cinematic creative collaboration I’ve ever had.” The differences between a Broadway-trained thespian and a pair of Blockbuster Video–trained directors has been fruitful for both parties. “I’m much more intellectual and much more academic in my process. I’ll always push for more explanation,” Harbour says. “And they’ll always be like, ‘Well, this is just kind of cool.’ They’re coming at it from an intuitive place. I consider them one being. They share one mind—it’s just twice as big as mine!”

As for working with children, Harbour has had to push himself yet further. “I’ve never had to work with kids before in this capacity. There are pleasures to it, and there are also things that are difficult,” he says. “When something’s good, the relationships that we develop with lead actors, it’s kind of a f-cked-up process. To do that with a 13-year-old child feels tricky. So, like, you know, on the surface, it’s all cute and everybody loves it. But underneath, there’s a real complexity to it.”

From the set of Stranger Things, May 19, 2017. McDonough Stages, Atlanta, GA.
David Harbour, May 19, 2017.Grant Cornett for TIME

Brown came at her role pretty straight, as child actors tend to do. “Eleven is part of me and always will be. I don’t try with her,” she says. “I don’t even know my lines for today’s scene. So it’s like, I don’t know what I’m doing, and that’s what makes it so instinctual.”

Harbour is right about one thing: it is really cute, and everybody does love it. On set, the kids are both full of capering zest and possessed of that sort of big-kid poise that develops in your early teens. There’s a lot of downtime between takes that adults might spend reading, knitting or staring, bored, into a phone. But the kids have no trouble keeping busy. Caleb McLaughlin, who plays the cautious Lucas, introduces himself to the Duffers’ parents by telling them with some gravity, “I’m fans of you guys as well.” Later on, he and Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, the heart of his friend group, kill time between takes by singing Bon Jovi into a fan held by castmate Joe Keery. The whirling of the fan’s blades distorts the sound so that the words—“Ohhhhhh, we’re haaaaalfwaaaaay theeeeere”—come out like an on-the-fritz kitchen appliance. Keery plays Steve, Hawkins’ high school stud. At 25 he should know better, and charmingly doesn’t, than to encourage them.

They seem like a tribe, in other words. For Wolfhard, who also starred in this year’s blockbuster remake of Stephen King’s It, being on set is an escape from class. “School was difficult for me, elementary school especially,” he says. “That was a hard battle. I was getting bullied a lot.” For Gaten Matarazzo, finding roles became hard as he got older. He has the disorder known as cleidocranial dysostosis, which affects the bones and teeth. His Stranger Things character, Dustin, has it too. Matarazzo casually pops out his front dentures as he tells me, “I still have a lisp, even when I take my teeth out. I was never picked for voice-over or for commercials. I was going out and they said I was good, but I was too short, too toothless.” Now Matarazzo is on a show whose entire cast seems, in one way or another, to have found the perfect fit.

That Hollywood is bereft of new ideas these days is hardly a secret: sequels outpace original properties on executives’ to-do lists. But what really resonates with viewers isn’t just iteration but a sense that the language of the past is being given a new phrasing. It, for instance, freshened up a widely known horror story with vivid effects and a slight attitudinal spin while still revering the source material. This year’s Beauty and the Beast overlaid Gothic glam atop a fresh take on Disney’s older tale. Both are among the most successful films in their respective genres ever made. Netflix’s successes include revamps of past hits like Full House, One Day at a Time and Gilmore Girls. Each updated the story for contemporary audiences while keeping a nostalgic core of friendship and family intact.

Part of what makes Stranger Things special is that it has tapped into our culture’s fervid need to escape into the past. It subtracted smartphones and helicopter parents and added the sort of mortal peril that any good ’80s thriller depends upon. And for all its winks, the show is an irony-free zone. “It’s not nasty or mean or condescending or ironic or any of those things,” Matt says, “which a lot of content can be right now.” He punches the word content, a euphemism for art-as-product. “Because there’s just so much of that. And there’s a lot of shows about protagonists doing really nasty things to other people.”

From the set of Stranger Things, May 19, 2017. McDonough Stages, Atlanta, GA.
From the set of Stranger Things, May 19, 2017. McDonough Stages, Atlanta, GA.Grant Cornett for TIME

As a result, our own prosaic universe came to feel cinematic. If Stranger Things Season 2 is as big or bigger than Season 1, it won’t just be because the sets have expanded and the action is more daring. It will be because, more than ever, we want to escape into what’s remembered, the pleasures and pains of growing up and the pop culture that accompanied us along the way. The Duffers have found a novel formula that does that by balancing homage and kitsch to create something entirely new.

Plus, the kids, whether you relate to them or to their parents, are on one hell of an adventure. “As we grow up,” Wolfhard tells me at one point on set, “the characters grow up with us. For now, we’ve trademarked them. Until they remake it in 20 years. Or make a spin-off.”

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