Stranger Things Season 3: Inside the Summer of Strange

We take you behind the scenes of Stranger Things Season 3 to explore Starcourt Mall and the ever-changing Hawkins, Indiana.

The following contains no major Stranger Things Season 3 spoilers but those who want to go in completely clean should probably skip.

The Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Georgia first opened its doors in early 1984. Like most brick and mortar shopping establishments, it’s now all but a ghost town. But over its nearly 35 years of life, the mall has welcomed in some mighty guests – Macy’s, JCPenney, Sears, and more. Now, on a balmy fall day in 2018, it’s playing host to a new tenant who has restored Gwinnett Place to its former glory. 

On the mall’s second floor, a theater marquee proudly announces that Back to the Future is playing. Across the hall, there’s a Claire’s sign above one storefront, and a tan Waldenbooks above another. On the first floor food court yet another sign, gold, red, and brown reads “Taco Bell: Coming Soon.” A crew of young actors are holed up in that food court, preparing to shoot a climactic scene from one of Stranger Things Season 3’s final episodes. Across the veranda, Millie Bobby Brown is working on her stare down, with one hand outstretched. She talks to herself between the many takes. Her nose is bloody. Gwinnett Place is now the Starcourt Mall in Hawkins, Indiana. It’s the summer of 1985 and Stranger Things is in session. 

Ask anyone on the set Stranger Things Season 3 to describe what’s new about Netflix’s genre juggernaut in its third season and they’ll respond with a simple “it’s summer.” 

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“We’ve been doing the summer thing for so long,” Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler) says. In Atlanta it’s so hot and we’ve been doing so many outside shoots. We were like ‘I can’t wait until we’re back in corduroys.’”

The previous two incarnations of Stranger Things have both premiered in and taken place in the fall. The story of Hawkins, Indiana in the early-to-mid ’80s, the people who inhabit it, and the strange things that happen to them is taylor-made for the Halloween season. But sometimes inertia sets in, even for Netflix’s biggest hit.

further reading: Stranger Things Season 3 Review

Hence the summer. Hence the mall. Starcourt mall is one of the biggest sets ever assembled for Stranger Things, save for a sprawling state fair also created for Season 3. 

“We have the longest amount of time in this mall,” Joe Keery (who plays bully-turned-bro Steve Harrington). “I think this was kind ofthemall to go to in this time period. There are local people who work for this show who have said that, ‘man that Waldenbooks was a Waldenbooks back in the day when this mall was like this.’ So it’s pretty crazy that they kind of re hauled this entire thing to really resemble…”

Keery stops as all the lights in the false Jazzercize studio that serves as the interview room have suddenly gone out

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“The mall’s listening to us,” Keery’s co-star Maya Hawke says. 

Stranger things have certainly happened – the mere existence of Stranger Things itself for one. Like many TV shows that find mass appeal, Stranger Things beginnings seem unusually humble and unassuming. The Duffer Brothers, twins Matt and Ross (referred to as “The Boys” on set) originally saw their little ‘80s pop culture homage, which more than shouted out the works of Messrs. Spielberg, Carpenter, King, and Lucas, as an anthology series. Then Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, and Noah Schnapps happened. 

The cast of Stranger Things, led by mostly child actors, was so evidently talented and chemically bonded that they had to stay together. That’s what brings them all to the Starcourt Mall in the summer of 1985 three seasons in to what was supposed to be a one-season story. 

further reading: Stranger Things Season 2 Recap

All of the Stranger Things cast returns for the new season as do season 2 additions and mismatched siblings Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink) and Dacre Montgomery (Billy Hargrove). Each gets an expanded role and opportunity to further integrate into the Hawkins crew in Season 3. 

Sink says that Max and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven forge an unlikely friendship with the help of the Starcourt mall. 

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“Max kind of takes (Eleven) under her wing,” she says. “She introduces her to the real world.”

“She also teaches Eleven new phrases and Eleven’s like, ‘Whoa! I love this!’” Brown says. “It’s like Eleven going into a theme park for the first time. There are so many things to this new life that she wants to learn about. (Max) is cool. We’re two powerful girls in real life, and we’re also two powerful girls in the show. So putting two powerful forces, female forces together, it’s like the Duffer brothers couldn’t have been more smart.”

Eleven and Max will need some more quality time with each other as they’ve each acquired a different kind of Upside Down monster: boyfriends.

“I’m a girlfriend. It sucks,” Brown says. Season 2’s conclusion saw Eleven forging a relationship with Mike Wheeler (Wolfhard) and Max takes up with Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). What is summer for if not for budding teenage romances?

Meanwhile, Max’ brother embraces the community in his own way. He puts his abs to good use as a lifeguard at the community pool. The ladies of Hawkins, led by Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) are not upset with this development. Montomgery, in flagrant disregard for Netflix’s carefully constructed spoiler protocol also intimates that there are even bigger things on the horizon for Billy. The actor is bruised from some recent wire work and just wrapped up multiple days of shooting with Brown.

There’s a darkness setting over Hawkins, Indiana in the real world. Whereas seasons 1 and 2 dealt with The Upside Down as a dark mirror image of small-town America, season 3 finds the darkness that exists alongside it. Members of the production team describe this outside as a blender of genres. It’s more sci-fi with touches of ‘80s mainstays Karate Kid and even Mr. Mom

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With that darkness comes a new look. Stranger Things is moving less than a year into the future but given the change in seasons and rapid fashion evolutions of the ’80s, Season 3, might as well be a whole new show, stylistically. Costumer designer Amy Paris says she prides herself in choosing costumes that will make cosplaying as the characters challenging and rewarding. This time around cosplay-inclined will have to raid their dad’s closets for Chief Hopper’s Magnum P.I. look, Lucas Sinclair’s Karate Kid attire, and much to Finn Wolfhard’s dismay: the shortest shorts imaginable. That’s not even to mention the bright dayglow colors of the Starcourt mall and all the colorful denizens within.

Just as season 2 welcomed new entrants like Montgomery and Sink, Stranger Things Season 3 is set to expand once again. That’ll happen when demodogs are on the loose and eating America’s most beloved character actors (R.I.P. Sean Astin’s Bob Newby). Cary Elwes is set to lend some real ‘80s gravitas in his role as Mayor Kline. It’s nice to know that in all this supernatural chaos, Hawkins still has a functioning government. 

further reading: 35 Things You Didn’t Know About Stranger Things

Maya Hawke (who is the daughter of actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) takes up the role of Robin, Steve’s co-worker at the Scoops Ahoy shop in the Starcourt mall. 

“What I’ve gotten is we have a friendship that begins kind of like a buddy comedy epileptic seizure,” Hawke says.

“Happens all the time,” Keery confirms. 

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The other “new” character in Stranger Things Season 3 isn’t really new at all. Priah Ferguson as Lucas’s little sister, Erica, appeared briefly but memorably in Season 2 but now she’s a full part of the cast, and alongside Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Robin, and Steve, forms a kind of Fellowship of the Scoops Ahoy. 

“I guess you could say it’s kind of like a brother/sister sarcastic love/hate type thing where they’re always at each other’s throats,” Matarazzo says of Dustin and Erica. “But at the end of the day they really do care about each other, and they learn that they actually have a lot in common. Kind of like Dustin and Steve. Instead of Dustin being the Padawan now Erica’s the Padawan and Dustin’s the master.”

The Duffers have dared the acting gods again in writing another major role for a child actor. And once again, they’ve escaped their wrath. 

“(Priah) sets an example as far as talent and preparedness and professionalism that I don’t think I will ever rise to in my wildest dreams,” Hawke says. 

When asked to predict who or what might become Stranger Things Season 3’s biggest meme a la Barb, Steve Harrington-as-a-father, or Bob Newlby, Wolfhard answers immediately. 

“Priah,” he says. “Priah’s going to be huge. She’s younger than us and we’re gonna make sure that nothing goes to her head. But she’s incredible, and super funny, and has the best comedic timing out of all of us I think, People are going to love her character, and what she has with Dustin. People are gonna meme the crap out of her. Lots of GIFs of her.”

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There still may be some GIFs left in the tank for the pre-existing relationships on Stranger Things. The unlikely friendship between young Dustin and slightly-less-young Steve in Stranger Things Season 2 was a highlight for many viewers. With Steve stuck at home the summer before college in season 3, that bromance will get to continue. 

“(Dustin) and Steve are pretty much like best friends now. Like, you’d be surprised. They are like best buds,” Matarazzo says.

“It’s kinda funny to think about when you’re that age a couple years is such a massive difference, so if you think about the amount of time that they are, that separates them, it’s pretty cool that can have such a close relationship,” Keery adds. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Steve in a lot of ways is immature and Gaten, Dustin in a lot of ways is so mature. So they kind of have this thing where they meet in the middle and the relationship is almost, kind of sometimes like an old married couple which is kind of a fun thing to play with.”

Dynamics like the Dustin/Steve old married couple are a big part of Stranger Things’ appeal and success. Of course, it’s not all just the Hawkins Hangout hour. There are dangers to be confronted, and monsters to be slain. For as much as fans want only the best for their pre-teen heroes to get a break, that’s not always in the cards.

“No one really gets a break,” Noah Schnapp says. “People have asked me – ‘Noah, does Will get a break this season?’ And yeah, sure, for like the first two episodes, and then everyone doesn’t have a break.” 

Wolfhard says that the summer setting makes things more upbeat in the beginning, before adding “There’s always something really bad that happens in Stranger Things, I think the more fun we’re having at the beginning, the higher the drop.”

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The realer the danger, the bigger the catharsis when that danger is thwarted. That’s always been the Stranger Things formula and based and according to the cast, no amount of summer sunshine will change that. Nancy Wheeler actress Natalia Dyer says Season 3 will be the scariest outing for Stranger Things yet. Wolfhard disagrees. 

“I don’t think it’s become scarier,” Wolfhard says. “I think that there’s a difference between becoming more scary and the Duffers doing horror better. The second season was more about the horror aspect, the first season was more about the adventure aspect. Season 3 is kind of like everything, it’s the fun of season one and like the horror of season two.”

There’s a linguistic urban legend that the words “the mall” is a portmanteau of “them all” as in “I don’t want to go to one store, I want to go to ‘them all.’ Alas, that’s not the case. But the fake origin of the word “mall” is fitting for Stranger Things Season 3 all the same. 

Stranger Things Season 3 wants to give you them all. This series has always thrived on the synthesis of many genres and ideas, like sci-fi, adventure, comedy, and more coming together with a strong dose of horror all the way through. It works because the people at the center of it are real…or at least close enough to real to vaguely recognize.

Soon the Gwinnett Place mall will lose their Netflix guests and start to accommodate the real world again. That real world includes a potential future plan to restructure the space into a multipurpose development anchored by a cricket stadium. Maybe one day it will be ill-used, gathering dust, and once again be asked to play host to another film crew shooting a nostalgia-tinged tale about teens battling dark forces in a bustling cricket stadium.

Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad

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