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Stranger Things Production Notes @NetflixUK

Stranger Things
Production Notes

About the Show

Created by the dynamic writing and directing team of brothers, Matt and Ross Duffer, and executive produced by Shawn Levy who also directed two episodes. Netflix’s newest original scripted series, Stranger Things takes place in 1983 in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. The story follows the mysterious disappearance of a twelve-year-old boy and the strange happenings in a small Midwestern town.

Stranger Things stars: Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers), David Harbour (Chief Hopper), Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler), Natalia Dyer (Nancy Wheeler), Charlie Heaton (Jonathan Byers), Millie Brown (Eleven), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas Sinclair), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin Henderson), Cara Buono (Karen Wheeler) and Matthew Modine (Dr. Brenner).

The 8-part series was filmed on location in Atlanta, Georgia and will debut on Netflix globally on Friday, July 15th.

‘80s Nostalgia

“We have so much nostalgia and love for this era. We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up: the Spielbergs, the John Carpenters, as well as the novels of Stephen King. And to us, what makes all of these stories so great to us -- and so resonant -- is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. When we were growing up, we were just regular kids, living in the suburbs of North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons with our nerdy friends. But when we watched these films and read these books, we felt transported. Suddenly our lives had the potential for adventure -- maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic, maybe my brother would vanish into the TV screen. We really want to capture that feeling with Stranger Things. We want to bring that feeling to people who grew up on those films -- and we also want to bring it to a whole new generation.” -- Matt Duffer                  

Stranger Things was filmed both on sound stages as well as on location in Atlanta. Screen Gems Studios housed the interiors of the Wheeler and Byers homes as well as the government lab. The production filmed on location in small towns surrounding Atlanta to capture the small-town look of Hawkins, Indiana, including downtown Jackson, Ga, a school in Stockbridge, Ga, and a cold-war era looking building near Emory University in Atlanta.

“Hawkins is an ordinary, idyllic little town filled with relatable, ordinary people -- and that makes it the perfect place for something supernatural to happen,” says creator/executive producer, Ross Duffer. Executive producer Shawn Levy says about the show’s setting, like any small, American town, “there’s something Spielbergian Americana about Indiana. Hawkins is a town with history, not only in its buildings and its land, but most importantly, amongst its characters.” It was a specific look at which the production team aimed.

Production designer Chris Trujillo was tasked with creating the world of Hawkins, Indiana, in Georgia and set in 1983 – no small feat.  Trujillo says about the world the Duffer brothers wanted was “A recreation of what we remembered and loved growing up as kids in the 80s – a reinvention of classic American cinema from the early 80s. This was a dream project for me because this was my world as a kid.”

“Atlanta was actually quite the perfect location to play Hawkins because of its similar typography as well as the treasure troves of set décor we discovered at estate sales,” said Trujillo.  “We’d freak people out! We’d find these amazing homes that look like time capsules from the late 70s and early 80s and go in and go in and basically buy everything, including what was in the junk drawers.”

From Schlitz beer cans to walkie talkies to Dungeons and Dragons to wood paneled station wagons, Stranger Things evokes the 80s in subtle but meaningful ways. “We never wanted it to be ‘in-your-face’ 80s and obvious,” said Trujillo. “The lived-in look was important to us so that it would feel familiar to audiences, and not distract them.”

“You walk onto the set and you feel like you’ve fallen straight into an 80s movie,” describes Charlie Heaton who plays Jonathan Byers. “It is enjoyably nostalgic for those of us who remember the 80s, but for a kid or a teenager for whom that is another era, it’s just a great story,” elaborates Levy.

Dungeons and Dragons is thematic to the show, not just as a way the boys occupy themselves, but also in giving the audience a sense of nostalgia and a metaphor the kids’ search for Will. “In order to be as authentic to the game and honor the fans of the game, we really did a lot of research on D&D game playing,” said Lynda Reiss, propmaster for Stranger Things. She adds, “We visited a group that meets present day to play the game and even found some actual campaign books to replicate for the show, with drawings from a guy who was a kid in the 80s and played the game. You’ll see some of his drawings in the campaign books and on Mike Wheeler’s bedroom wall.”

Millie Brown (Eleven) says about the era, “It’s a lot more fun to work in the 80s than modern day! I saw a record player on one of the sets and asked my dad for one for Christmas and he got me one and I love it!”

The music adds a layer and is germane to the tone of the series in a way that Levy feels isn’t seen anywhere on TV. “It’s singular to the TV landscape. Our original music is all electronic. It’s extremely ambient and atmospheric.” But it will strike a familiar chord for those who grew up in the 80s, as it evokes the iconic sounds of electronic composers like Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and John Carpenter. The show is rounded out by an eclectic mix of classic popular music from the era, from Toto to Joy Division to Modern English.

The sense of family and community is what strikes Natalia Dyer (Nancy Wheeler) the most about the era. “The family eats together and it feels very different from modern-day families. There’s a nice innocence and sense of community.”  And about the wardrobe -- “I love these clothes!,” she beams. “The scrunchies, the shoes, the high-waisted jeans - it’s cool. Plus there’s this modern fascination with vintage things in general and I’m a fan of vintage, so it’s fun.” Levy explains about the wardrobe, “We wanted to tell a true story about the time in the 80s but we wanted to tell true stories of characters. And so whether it’s Dustin’s signature baseball cap, or Mike’s ugly beige parka - we wanted to say something about character through wardrobe choices. So it was about both historical accuracy and character honesty.”

The nostalgia for our childhoods is at the center of the story. As David Harbour who plays Chief Hopper says about the narrative with the kids, “It’s before you know who you are and you’re starting to discover who you are through your friends.” “But it’s the little things like cassette tapes. The mixtape is a lost art form. Things like that really make me long for those beautiful 80s.”

Finding the Cast

Center to the story is the boys’ quest to find their best friend who has gone missing. In casting the kids, Ross Duffer says, “There weren’t any other kids who could do these roles. These are the kids. We searched all over the world and auditioned thousands of young actors. Once we found our four main kids, they really inspired our writing and the characters.” For instance, Gaten (Dustin) does not yet have a front teeth due to a condition called Cleidocranial dysplasia, so the Duffers incorporated this into the character’s backstory.

Shawn Levy, executive producer and director agrees, “When you cast kids to play friends, you never know, it’s a crapshoot.” But he adds, “The process of making the show has bonded them so intensely and it’s completely evident on screen.”

Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler) describes the boys: “Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Will are these geeky kids who are in their own little world and they love to do stuff together like play video games and talk about nerdy science experiments.”

Much like the Duffers, Finn Wolfhard is a cinephile. “I’m obsessed with retro/80s movies,” he says. “That inspired me to do these auditions.” And about how the Duffers described the series to him - “A love letter to the 80s. It’s sort of like Stand By Me, The Goonies - the chemistry with the kids in Stranger Things is a lot like that.”

Leading the cast is the supremely talented Winona Ryder who was keen to do a project like Stranger Things. “It’s a genre that I hadn’t explored before and was interesting to me,” she shares. “I’m really lucky in my life that I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and so it was exciting to try something new.” She plays Joyce, a struggling single mother raising two boys. “I took a lot from performances like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Marsha Mason in Max Dugan Returns and Audrey Rose.”

Matt Duffer says about her, “Winona is completely fearless. She jumps in all the way, 100% and that’s what we needed for the Joyce character. She’s on her own for so much of the show, losing her grip on what is real as she goes through an emotional rollercoaster.”

Levy echoes the Duffers’ enthusiasm for Ryder “Her face and presence on screen are not only amazing and powerful but loaded with cultural memories for all of us.”

David Harbour (Black Mass), who plays police chief Hopper savors his role as a broken man (“Hopper doesn’t really care for the magical stuff, but wants to know the truth”), as well as playing against Winona’s Joyce. “They’ve known each other a long time and she’s someone who can get under his skin and he’s someone who can get under her skin.” He says about watching Winona play Joyce, “She’s like a live wire. She’s dynamite.” Ryder shares his enthusiasm, “David can really deliver and he’s got incredible range. And he’s a real comrade.” Chiming in with praise for Harbor, Levy gushes, “He’s never not great. We’ve all seen his work. But no one this far has ever put him in the center, has made him the leading man.”

Casting Eleven was a tricky task for the Duffers, but one that they succeeded in finding Millie Brown. The same age Winona Ryder was when she began working in film, her castmates praise her as a talent beyond her age.  “Millie’s a real pro,” says Harbour about the then eleven-year-old Millie (who is now twelve). “She can turn it on and turn it off so effortlessly. It’s a fascinating character and she’s digging into it real good!”  Finn adds, “It’s incredible to see what her character is capable of. When would you ever have the chance to see a girl who could kick butt with her mind!”

Authentic and “incapable of artifice,” as Levy describes him, Charlie Heaton relates to his character on a personal level. “We both grew up in a broken home and lower-class family and he has a responsibility to his family.”  Winona praises his ability and their connection as TV mother and son, “Charlie is phenomenal. I’ve never worked with anyone like him. We formed a real bond.”

Playing the sinister Dr. Brenner is the talented Matthew Modine. “One of my favorite aspects of the show is the relationship between Dr. Brenner and Eleven,” says Levy. “On one hand, you could view him as her jailor, but you also could see him as he views himself - as the only person who understands Eleven. The person who has raised her and possibly loves her.”

The Vision/Producing team

“Television is becoming more and more cinematic, and we became excited by the potential of making a ‘long form movie.’ And what better place to do that than Netflix? It was our dream home.”-- Matt Duffer

Stranger Things creators, writers and directors, Matt and Ross Duffer “came out of nowhere,” according to Shawn Levy. “I got sent a lookbook that was kind of a combination of words and imagery that evoked the world of the show in their hearts and minds and I was so struck by how vivid it was.” He was sold on the concept saying “it was the kind of thing I love, but somehow felt I hadn’t seen in a long time.”

Levy was surprised how inspired he was directing the show. “I have never directed anything quite like this, and as a result, I’m as proud of these episodes as I am of any movies I’ve directed.”

In Levy’s opinion, Stranger Things is the announcement of a new voice in filmmaking. “[the series] marks the arrival of a new vision, and a new filmmaking partnership and brotherhood that is really noteworthy. We’re going to be talking about the Duffer brothers the way we talked early on, about the Coen brothers.”

Having Netflix as the home for Stranger Things was the perfect fit according to the Duffers.  “Working with Netflix has been an amazing experiencing. They’ve been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie,” says Ross.

He continues, “For us, the scariest stuff from what we loved about the movies growing up was with people who we could relate to with very ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them. To us, that is always scarier.”

The Duffers are heavily influenced by Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. Ross says, “We were obsessed with their books and movies because it felt their stories were about people we knew and you throw in the monsters, supernatural and UFOs and it then feels like you’re experiencing it yourself.  We were influenced by so many things - movies, videogames and books, and then we kind of put it in a blender and mixed it up.”

Matt adds, “What’s fun about the show is that it’s a bit of a rollercoaster - it has a little bit of everything. We follow three different generations: kids, teens, and adults. We like to think of each of these generations as existing in a different 80s universe. The adults are in a Spielberg film -- these imperfect individuals who slowly but inevitably come to realize that something very extraordinary is taking place around them. The teens are in an 80s horror film like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, where the pains of high school and the loss of innocence is juxtaposed with supernatural evil. And the kids are in a Stephen King novel, like Stand by Me or It: nerdy outsiders from a small town who have to band together to face this terrifying horror.”

“We want everyone to watch the show,” says Ross. “If you’re a 12-year-old, you can relate to the kids, if you’re a teenager, you can relate to Jonathan and Nancy, and if you’re an adult you can relate to Winona and David’s characters. The kids are based on who we were like as kids playing nerdy games in the basement so I think adults will also see themselves in the kids.”

Finn identifies with the Duffers. “They loved movies like this,” he says.  “They played all those nerdy games. They went off on little adventures together. That’s why they have such a great connection with these characters.”

Shawn Levy finds that what’s unique about Stranger Things and about the vision of the Duffers is that the series is “about coming of age, it’s about family that has humor and a lot of heart. It’s that archetypal, iconic moment where innocence gives way to something else.”

The Lab, the Nether & The Rift

“There’s Hawkins, Indiana, and then there’s a very dark, twisted, disturbing version of that town.” - Matt Duffer

Hovering quietly in the small town of Hawkins is the government facility, Hawkins Laboratory. According to Levy, “no one is quite clear on what they do there.” The townspeople assume it has something to do with the Cold War - being the early 80s. “It’s revealed that the testing there is not overall aboveboard, nor is it within the parameters of what is known or considered acceptable or possible,” says Levy. Overseeing the testing is Dr. Brenner, played by Matthew Modine who has good intentions but whose actions don’t reflect that. The testing reveals supernatural abilities with Eleven.

According to the Duffers, much of the conflict in Hawkins is not about monsters and the supernatural, but about people being terrible to each other and how they react to that.The boys as well as the teens encounter the dark side of Hawkins first hand when they discover the lab.

Something sinister is happening in this lab, and it’s been unleashed on Hawkins. “It’s scary that there’s evil surrounding us, and you can’t see it, but it’s right there,” says Ross.

“It’s familiar, but totally different,” Natalia Dyer describes it. “And that can be scary and exciting.”

David Harbour likens Stranger Things’ Nether to a film negative. “The town exists in a negative relief. Things aren’t alive there except for there are these predators. But there’s something beyond the monster and the Nether. There are deeper fears.”

And the gate to this Nether - this underbelly of evil - is the Rift.  Matt explains, “It was a tear in time or space that leads to this alternate dimension. It’s essentially a gate into Hell and eventually our kids realize they need to go there and open the gate to find Will and retrieve him.”  Ross continues, “For our kids, it’s like a real life Dungeons & Dragons adventure. There is a gate to this evil dungeon -- and it’s in this dungeon where their friend is trapped. Only unlike the game, the stakes are very real -- potentially deadly.”

Finn explains the way the kids finally understand the Nether -- “The boys don’t get it at first until Eleven flips the Dungeons and Dragons board upside down - and then we finally get it. The upside down means a different dimension. And the Demagorgon is the monster. And that’s when we go off on our big adventure.”

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