35 Things You Didn’t Know About Stranger Things

Inspirations, special effects, a nod to Jaws and what could have been a near fatal accident, we go behind the scenes on Stranger Things...

Stranger Things

This story originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

If like me, you’re a Stranger Things aficionado, you’re probably kicking your heels and mourning not making the annual round trip to Hawkins, Indiana this autumn, as the show takes a year off before season three releases. Upsetting, I know. While you could “do a Joyce” and spend that time howling in anguish at the walls, cursing the fickle and cruel gods of television, ultimately, that’s an inadvisable approach, as you’ll probably just get a sore throat and blame it on us.

Fear not though, because a crumb of comfort is on the way. The official Stranger Things behind-the-scenes companion has just released, courtesy of Penguin Random House, and it contains all sorts of interesting tidbits about the show’s journey into being. Next to hanging out playing Dragon’s Lair in the Palace Arcade, it’s the closest we’re getting to Stranger Things for quite some time… so in a fashion true to the show, let’s see what secrets we can unearth…

1. The original idea for Stranger Things coalesced from a series of inspirations including an old, unfinished script written by the Duffer brothers, set in the cold war era, their experiences working with M. Night Shyamalan on the TV show Wayward Pines and Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 thriller, Prisoners.

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2. In tribute to Jaws, the show was originally set on the East Coast and titled Montauk (in reference to the inspiration for Spielberg’s classic).

3. The original concept for the character of Mike was a much more serious character, a straight man with a very prominent birthmark upon his face. However, when the Duffers cast young Finn Wolfhard in the role, they were impressed by his winning optimism and relentless determination and rewrote the character to better fit the actor.

4. The fog in which the Demogorgon is first glimpsed lurking was a direct tribute to the John Carpenter film of the same name. During their initial pitches for the show, the Duffers created a “look book” and cut together samples from movies they wanted to homage, all set, of course, to a John Carpenter soundtrack.

5. The imposing building used for the Hawkins National Laboratory was the former Georgia Mental Health Institute, a former psychiatric hospital that also featured in the 2016 NASA movie Hidden Figures.

6. The darkly mysterious plot which sees Eleven’s powers made manifest because of government experiments upon her then-pregnant mother were actually rooted in reality. A C.I.A. program named MKUltra ran from 1953 to 1973 and was centered around the use of colleges, hospitals and prisons to test psychotropic substances on U.S. citizens, often with out their consent or knowledge. As in the series, the program was then expanded to include sensory deprivation and behavior conditioning. Ken Kesey, writer of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, was one notable member of the mass experimentation.

7. The character of science teacher Mr. Clarke, the boys’ moustachioed inspiration, was based upon scientific writer Carl Sagan, as neither of the Duffers had a science teacher that actually inspired them.

8. Wherever possible, in deference to the practical approach of the ’70s and ’80s films that they love, the Duffers used physical effects to achieve their goals. For example, in the junkyard sequence in season one where Eleven uses her nascent powers to hurl Lucas away from Mike, the stunt was achieved using wires and foam padding.

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Further Reading: Stranger Things – In Defense of Nostalgia

9. In the first season’s standout moment where a Hawkins Laboratory van is lifted above the fleeing kids by the power of Eleven’s mind, the stunt was also achieved practically by using nitrogen cannons to flip the van into the air. Of course, the BMX-riding actors were composited in digitally afterwards. This proved to be a smart decision as a mechanical failure in one of the cannons meant that on the first attempt, the van misfired and landed right where the children would be, destroying the camera positioned in lieu of them.

10. The Duffers’ aversion to the overuse of digital effects is particularly apparent in the season one sequence where Mike, attempting to save Dustin from some rudimentary dental work at the hands of the ruthless school bullies, steps off the quarry lip, to probable death. He is saved by Eleven’s telekinetic powers, but despite appreciating the human element within the scene, Matt Duffer admits that the “shaky-looking green screen” used to achieve the moment bothers him still.

11. The original intention was for the Demogorgon to only be portrayed by Mark Steger practically, within the physical suit without resorting to CGI. However, once the creature is trapped at the Byers’ house and set ablaze, the suit didn’t look effective when burned, so the rest of that scene and the climax at the Hawkins Middle School were largely done with a CGI version of the creature.

12. Speaking of that climactic moment in season one, the original plans were to have Eleven permanently die, sacrificing herself for her new-found friends. The Duffers had long ago realized though that Eleven had become an integral part of the show and rewrote her demise into something more open-ended.

13. When Natalia Dyer won the role of Nancy Wheeler, the girl-next-door turned midnight monster-hunter, the Duffer brothers immediately introduced her to her namesake and cinematic inspiration, Nancy Thompson, the determined and inventive hero of 1985’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, a movie that season one’s second episode “The Weirdo On Maple Street lovingly homaged.

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14. The Duffers’ original plans for the character of preppy jerk, Steve Harrington, were to kill him off in season one, reinforcing the horror trope of the jock always falling foul of the killer. However, much like Nancy in the show itself, the creators fell for the character’s easy charms and developed him into the more subversive ‘tweener archetype that he eventually became.

15. The hazmat suits that Hopper and Joyce wear while navigating the Upside Down were inspired by similar suits worn by characters in 1973’s The Crazies and 1977’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

16. David Harbour’s chief’s costume was intentionally designed to be different from the other members of Hawkins Police Department, another reference to, you guessed it, Jaws, where Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody is similarly different in his attire, a reference to the obvious imperfections of small town America. In terms of the character’s more inward-looking influences, Harbour cites Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte and of course, Roy Scheider as being key.

Further Reading: What Stranger Things Season 3 Might Look Like

17. When considering how to score the series, the Duffers originally thought about adding an orchestral score in the style of John Williams, before nixing the idea as it would be too expensive and would sound “like a knockoff.” Instead, they returned to the synth-laden score that had first inspired their pitches and approached the Texas-based electronic quartet S U R V I V E to produce the score for the series.

18. While the deathly Upside Down, that decaying parallel dimension, was always part of the show’s plotline, the Duffers never intended to actually make an onscreen visit there. They thought it would be more terrifying for it to only exist offscreen, glimpsed only through radios and walkie-talkies.

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19. When the brothers did decide to create the Upside Down for the screen, they were largely inspired by the 1999 Silent Hill video game. They cited the combination of “color correction, ash and deteriorating buildings” being visually potent.

20. The construction of the Demogorgon suit was especially intricate. Performer, Mark Steger was not strapped, nor zipped, but glued into the suit and controlled the creature’s elongated arms using handles that were located on the outside of the suit then green-screened out. The opening mandibles on the head were operated by 27 motors that were concealed in a small backpack concealed within the costume’s back.

21. The Demogorgon’s distinctive snarls were produced by mixing various sounds comprised of baby seals, human breathing and scraping sheet metal with dry ice.

22. The pronounced limp in the gait of Dart, one of season two’s monsters who is befriended by Dustin as a baby and blooms into a Demogorgon, was actually created by a rendering error in the CGI process. When designers saw the limp, they liked it, believing the imperfection created a life-like feeling and opted to keep it in.

23. One of the new additions to season two, Billy Hargrove, was cast as the antagonist to fill the void left by the absence of Matthew Modine’s Dr. Brenner. The initial idea of creating a very human antagonist who in some ways, is darker than the story’s more literal monsters was derived from classic Stephen King. Characters such as King’s Castle Rock town bully, Ace Merrill, were the primary inspiration, although the decision to create empathy for the character by making him a victim of sorts, played into the show’s more human approach.

24. Hawkins’ favorite hangout, the Palace Arcade, was named in tribute to the arcade in 1983’s Wargames, the 20 Grand Palace.

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25. The arcade itself was actually a disused laundromat that was transformed into a mid-80s arcade setting. The interior was completely refurbished with 14 arcade cabinets installed, but it was the distinctive exterior, awnings and all, that really caught the notice of the production team.

26. The boys’ BMX bikes weren’t restored period bicycles as getting multiple identical versions (for stunt purposes) would have been impossible. Instead, vintage bike frames were found on eBay, tricked out with accessories from the era and then artificially aged. The BMX bikes were designed to reflect their owner’s distinct characteristics: Mike’s bike was slightly newer as his family are more affluent; Dustin’s bike sported a half-finished paint job to reflect his tinkering nature while Lucas got a green one with a sparkly seat because, well, because sparkly seats are cool, okay?

Further Reading: Stranger Things Season 2 Easter Eggs

27. The show initially didn’t get the rights for the boys to wear the Ghostbusters outfits in the wonderful second episode of season two. The Duffers knew that the costumes were a “make-or-break” moment for the episode. The image of Will Byers in the iconic jumpsuit being dwarfed by the impossibly-tall shadow monster was a conceptual jumping-off point that the showrunners felt they couldn’t abandon. Ultimately, producer Shawn Levy spent weeks tracking down Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman so they could make a personal appeal. It worked and boy, are we glad they went the extra mile for it.

28. For the trick-and-treating scenes, the production team couldn’t use vintage Halloween masks from the era because their disposable nature meant they had literally disintegrated, a curious case of life imitating art as Stranger Things 2 contains visual nods to Halloween III: Season Of The Witch where Halloween masks decompose, er, taking kids’ faces with them.

29. Halloween Night also saw Dustin encounter Dart for the first time. Unbeknownst to the youngster, the cute creature is of course, a baby Demogorgon, a storyline inspired heavily by Gremlins. Actor Gaten Matarazzo was often working with no more than a tiny mirrorred ball to represent Dart. Director Shawn Levy would make sounds for the young actor to respond to as he interacted with the creature.

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30. The netherworld tunnels that materialize under Hawkins were physically built on sound stages. Eighty-thousand square feet of them!

31. The season two scene where Nancy and Jonathan finally come to terms with their mutual longing for one another was modelled directly on the classic flirt/sulk showdown between Indiana Jones and Willie Scott in Temple Of Doom. The showrunners wanted to evoke the same love/hate feeling between the characters that existed between Indy and Kate Capshaw’s mercurial nightclub singer in the second film in the series.

32. Andrew Stanton, co-writer of Toy Story and director of Finding Nemo, WALL-E, John Carter and Finding Dory was not approached to direct episodes five and six (The Flea And The Acrobat and The Monster). It was actually Stanton that approached the Duffers and asked to direct part of the season. The Duffers credit his animation background and storyboarding preparation with the success of those episodes.

33. Sean Astin’s Bob was originally scripted to die in episode four. He made it to episode eight because Bob was just so damn likeable, say the Duffers.

34. Eleven and Hopper’s final facedown with the Upside Down was composed of over a hundred shots and says Matt Duffer, was the closest they’ve got to “shooting a Marvel movie, or what I imagine shooting a Marvel movie would be like.” With that said, the visual inspiration for the scene, as Eleven and Hopper battle the netherworld from within a small, suspended cage came from another movie with equally daunting technical difficulties: Richard Dreyfuss’ shark-cage encounter with the deadly fish in Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws.

35. Despite winning a Grammy for “Every Breath You Take,” one of several songs featured during season two’s school dance finale, the child actors remained unimpressed with The Police’s iconic lyrics, referring to it as “The Stalker Song.” Executive Producer Shawn Levy has noted that this was intentional as the season’s swooping final shot reveals that the Shadow Monster is still indeed, watching and waiting for its chance to return and haunt the town of Hawkins once more. You can read more about the music from Stranger Things here.

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Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down – The Official Behind-The-Scenes Companion is available now from Penguin Random House.