Netflix’s Stranger Things: Shawn Levy interview

We chat to the producer-director of 80s-set sci-fi horror series Stranger Things, now on Netflix, about Spielberg, nostalgia and more…

Read our spoiler-free Stranger Things review here.

Stranger Things, Netflix’s new sci-fi horror series is made by and for our kind of people. Movie nerds Matt and Ross Duffer have translated their love of classic Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Stephen King pictures into an eight-part drama that feels as comfortable as sinking into your favourite chair.

Set in 1983 Indiana, Stranger Things is the story of a boy’s disappearance, odd goings-on at a local government facility and the mystery arrival of a peculiar little girl. With a very likeable young cast (think Freaks & Geeks if Sam, Bill and Neil had to deal with real monsters, not just the high school variety) and Winona Ryder, David Harbour and Matthew Modine capably leading the grown-ups, it’s entertaining and fondly familiar, not least for being littered with movie references and nostalgic geeky nods.

It’s an ersatz kind of nostalgia. Born in 1984, creators Matt and Ross Duffer grew up in the age of Pogs and Tamagotchis, not original Star Wars toys and classic Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of their personal biographies, they pay homage here to their early obsession with the movies of the era.

Ad – content continues below

Helping them to bring the project to life is director-producer Shawn Levy, who collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Real Steel and is currently heading up the Starman remake for Sony. We chatted to Levy about Stranger Things, horror, and what it is creatives can draw from looking back at the movies of the 80s…

I’m interested in something you said once about 80s Amblin movies, that they transport you back to a time when you didn’t have to feel smarter than the film and  reject ironic distance and cynicism, a sentiment I really feel applies to Stranger Things. Can you talk a little about that?

Well, obviously if you’ve seen one or ten of my movies, you’ll know I’m really resistant to a cynical stance. I was really shaped by movies that actually want to be moving and funny and transportive. [Stranger Things creators] The Duffer brothers had a very clear vision from the get-go that this would have an 80s setting but that it would not be a retro, ironic point of view. It would not be commenting on those times but trying to recreate, I suppose a certain innocence, but also a certain paranoia that was in the air.

With Amblin, Steven [Spielberg’s] instincts are so audience-oriented. He’s at once an auteur but also very much making movies for an audience and not talking down to them or trying to wink at them. That might be a better way of putting it. Today, so many movies, and some of them are incredible like Deadpool, wink at the audience as if we’re in on the joke and ‘we don’t really mean this’. Amblin meant it. Amblin invested in the stakes of its stories and as a result, they were immersive rather than commentary.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWxyRG_tckY

So by going back to the decade of the 80s for Stranger Things, you sort of skip over the irony of 90s horror, the meta-referencing of the Scream movies, for instance?

Ad – content continues below

Yes. It’s interesting because, you know, that makes some sense for me because I’m of a generation that… I was the age of those boys in Stranger Things in the early eighties. The Duffers were not born until 1984.

Sickeningly young and talented!

Right! So they came of age in the 90s and yet I’ve asked them repeatedly what is their fixation with the Amblin movies of the 80s and the Stephen King and John Carpenter stories of the 80s and it is just their bedrock. It is their storytelling nourishment. So interestingly, while some people will call the show a nostalgic view of the 80s, it’s actually also and perhaps more so, a nostalgic view of 80s movies. Real life but equally so, the movies of those times. That’s what the Duffers grew up on.

It’s interesting isn’t it, how people can feel nostalgia for childhoods they didn’t experience. I grew up in the English countryside but I still feel nostalgic watching E.T.

I think the one other time I’ve spoken with your outlet it was on Real Steel, on which I had the privilege of working with Steven [Spielberg]. He produced Real Steel and the great thrill was to get inside his head. He really does… there’s something specific about his movies, there is really something expressive of childhood, more globally. E.T. might have been set in the San Fernando Valley but there’s something universal about childhood and connection and loneliness that is much more globally resonant. Someone asked why Stranger Things is set in Indiana and it’s like, well, I felt like that’s where Spielberg would have set this story [laughs] but what I really meant is that it feels like anywhere and everywhere Americana.

Ad – content continues below

You’ve said Stranger Things isn’t ironic or pastiche, there are still a lot of movie references and nods woven into it. Not just the set dressing, but the John Carpenter’s Halloween-style music and the Steven King paperback logo font, but also deliberate nods to Poltergeist and, in one of the episodes you directed, a clear borrowing from A Nightmare On Elm Street

It’s funny you say that, because I also directed the Poltergeist parts—both the little girl following the lights but also in episode three where Eleven is sitting in front of the television watching the channels change—and I literally had to resist shooting the actual poster for Poltergeist as one of my shots!

There are nods. This is the difference: there’s no question there are nods but they are acknowledgements with gratitude. Every poster that features in this series was hand-picked by the Duffers because it’s a movie that shaped them. It’s very much an affectionate tipping of the cap rather than a wink-y kind of self-aware thing.

More homage than pastiche?

That’s well-articulated, yes.

Ad – content continues below

Did you envisage part of Stranger Things’ fun, as it certainly was for me, being for movie nerds to spot the references?

Let’s put it this way, there was no calculation in it. I was aware it would happen, but you know what, the Duffers are movie nerds. The Duffers are… it was clear to me the first minute they sat on the couch in my office they are sincere and passionate movie nerds. It was clear that they wanted to make a movie—it’s funny I call it a movie!—they wanted to do a series that was informed by all of their lifetime of cinephilia and a lifetime of movie nerdom so I knew it would resonate to likeminded viewers.

Absolutely it does. Interesting that you slipped there and called it a movie instead of a TV show. The Duffers have described it as a long-form movie I think. Was that the approach?

Yeah. A) it’s why we didn’t want anyone except us directing any, we really wanted the voice of the show, the vision of the show to… some shows benefit from auteurship episode by episode but some shows like Fargo, for instance, there is such a firm, rigorous aesthetic and style through the season. We wanted ours to be similarly unified in the way that a movie is, with one director.

Sam Esmail now, on Mr Robot, I believe wrote and directed directing every episode of his second season himself, to keep that coherent aesthetic.

That’s the other thing. The opportunity in television right now for true auteurship in a cultural moment where movies are increasingly going to be the domain of superheroes and fairy tales, which don’t allow for auteurship in quite the same way, I think that so many creators are drawn to that opportunity in television.

Ad – content continues below

That’s why we knew Netflix was the dream home for this, so that people have the option of watching it as an eight-hour movie. Frankly, if they’re crazy and committed bingers, I encourage the world to spend the weekend of July 15th watching an eight-hour movie. We really did approach it from that point of view. It has endings and cliff-hangers but it really is made with an awareness that it can and might be viewed in one sitting.

On the subject of movie genres, you spent years making huge family comedies, and now the success of Night At The Museum, for instance, has given you more choices, it seems fair to say.

That’s completely true. My Museum chits helped pay for the opportunities of Real Steel and This Is Where I Leave You. Frankly, they also gave me a presence in the industry that allows for opportunities like this, where we come across young, emergent voices and if we like it, we can help get it made. I really viewed that as a tremendous opportunity.

But yes, I’m known as the family comedy kind of big movie guy, but I have to tell you, the fact that that gave me a profile with a shingle on my door that brings people like the Duffers in, that’s been a joy. And as I’ve said already to a few people, directing the episodes of Stranger Things was absolutely as inspiring an experience as I’ve ever had on a movie. I loved it.

Without digressing, I got successful at one thing but it’s far from the only thing that interests me and now that I have the opportunity to be a little more varied in my choices I’m taking advantage of that.

Ad – content continues below

When it is comes down to those personal choices, it’s interesting that the American 80s sci-fi vibe recurs. Real Steel was set in the future but still had that retro vibe.

It was set in the future but it feels like it’s the past, I know!

And you’re working on the Starman remake now. It’s not just you of course making choices like that. Neil Blomkamp’s CHAPPIE had a similarly 80s Short Circuit vibe to it, there’s obviously the new Ghostbusters. Just to wind up the conversation about 80s nostalgia, we all know about the pre-sold movie title from a financial perspective, but what is it creatively that you think film and TV-makers are looking for when they look back to the 80s?

I don’t think you mean ‘why are we seeing so much of it’?

No. From a creative viewpoint.

Your question is more what is it creatively that is inspiring people to look back?

Ad – content continues below

Exactly.

I really do think that there is a yearning for the pre-ironic. I really do think that there’s a yearning for times where there was fear in the atmosphere but it was frankly, largely in the abstract, i.e. the Cold War and the nuclear arms race but it wasn’t shootings and bombs going off in our real world with horrifying frequency. I do think that there was, weirdly, a simplicity, and oddly, the illusion of innocence was more intact. The illusion of safety was more intact. People crave that.

Let’s talk about creature design. On Real Steel, you talked a lot about the importance of practical effects. How was the design for Stranger Things’ monster approached? What were the touchstones there?

The creature design was that the boys always wanted humanoid—I don’t want to give too much away because you’ve only seen three episodes—we wanted humanoid but ungodly and grotesque. The brothers love horror in an organic, deep way that I do not! [Laughs] They genuinely love horror. So they wanted a monster that was humanoid but disgusting as shit. As you will see, we did exactly that.

Then, because they were inspired by my approach to Real Steel, by a lot of what JJ Abrams was saying regarding The Force Awakens, they embraced a heavy dose of practical effects. I will tell you, and I’ve learned it a few times now, that was harder than we anticipated because though we wanted humanoid and there are a number of man-in-a –suit monster shots, they wanted a physicality that felt not of this world and that does become very hard to simulate with a man in a suit. I would say we thought we would end up being 80% practical, 20% CG and in the final product of the eight episodes, it was probably more of a 50/50 split.

You mention horror there, it feels to me as though the horror in Stranger Things was designed in such a way that it isn’t so extreme it would push away younger viewers.

It is not. The boys wanted to make a show that kids… like, they were twelve years old when they were watching John Carpenter and Stephen King movies so they always wanted a show that was spooky as hell but not grotesque and not violent or terror-filled to the point where kids who are the age that the young movie geek Duffer brothers were watching the films they loved, can’t watch the Duffer brothers’ show. The kids swear and it feels very authentic but it’s also always intended to be a broadly viewable show, we wanted that from the get-go.

About those kids, your child cast is really strong. There’s a serious Goonies vibe and also an element of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s Freaks And Geeks to it that I really enjoyed.

I’ve cast a lot of kids in a lot of movies and so I have a certain experience and I played some role in that, but I have to give huge credit to the stubbornness of the Duffers. They saw hundreds of kids and they saw dozens of kids who were exceptionally good but they still wouldn’t cast them because they didn’t feel authentic and real-life odd enough. They wanted kids who we don’t see on TV, who we don’t see in movies and who feel just real and they kept looking, kept insisting on continuing the search until we found the perfect idiosyncrasies.

It really paid off. I remember JJ Abrams saying he had to teach his young cast in Super 8 the words to My Sharona because they’d never heard it. I imagine you had to induct your young actors into the period in the same way.

There was a lot of it. We had to teach them certain songs. I can’t remember whether for instance Noah Schnapp already knew The Clash, Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

You know, these kids would wander around the sets picking up objects from my youth and go ‘what is this foreign, strange object?!’ They were so amused and fascinated by the oversized walkie talkie or the rinky-dink Millennium Falcon model or the Dungeons and Dragons game, and yet by midway through the shoot, they loved these things the way kids of the 80s had. So yes, they had to be indoctrinated into the artefacts and culture of that time but they actually embraced them again, non-ironically with real affection and wonder.

Tell us about casting Winona Ryder. She was such a recognisable part of some late-eighties, early-nineties Hollywood movies, would you agree there’s almost a meta retro element to her being cast in this?

A lot will be written about the fact that Winona is herself, perfectly retro in a show set in the 80s, but honestly, that was like a 2% bonus. We went after Winona because she’s an awesome actress who has not been given the juicy kind of roles that she excels at. We needed someone who was able to access deep, raw places and Winona is that good an actress and it felt like the moment was right to take a shot.

It began with a four-hour cup of tea at a hotel between the Duffers, me and Winona. She signed on and the fact that she was a star in that period is gravy but mostly, there aren’t that many actresses who can play a part as harrowing as Joyce but Winona can and does.

Finally then, as we’re being pushed to wrap up, can you give us an update on a couple of current projects? Firstly, what stage are you at with the Starman remake and secondly, should we expect to hear any more about Real Steel 2 or…?

I’ll start with the heartbreaker which is though I have not and I cannot, I won’t definitively say it will never happen, Real Steel 2, now that it’s almost five years since the first… We have tried mightily to crack a story that feels deserving of a Real Steel sequel. I get more Tweets and emails and questions about Real Steel every single week than anything I’ve ever done and I love that movie with fervent passion. We haven’t yet quite cracked a sequel that feels awesome-enough and I don’t want to be another pretty good sequel, I only want to be an awesome sequel. So I would say that it’s still dimly alive but with every passing month, year, it probably becomes a little less likely and I’m as heart-broken as everybody who asks me that question. So that’s my answer on that!

And Starman is halfway through being written. It is fucking cool and very much the story of the original but leans into the technology and the scientific awareness that we have now, which is radically different than what we had when John Carpenter made the original film.

And the cast?

It’s likely going to be a younger cast than the Jeff Bridges version but that’s halfway through the scriptwriting process and it’s coming along very strong. It’s a movie I very much intend to make.

So it’s contemporary set?

Yes ma’am.

Shawn Levy, thank you very much!

Stranger Things is out on Netflix today, Friday the 15th of July.