Strangers Things interview

Right from the opening of Stranger Things season 2, the hit Netflix series expands in scope. Once you reach the the Duffer Brothers-directed season finale, though, it’s clear they still kept the already beloved characters front and center. Matt and Ross know audiences are streaming and bingeing for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Sherriff Hopper (David Harbour), and friends, not what lurks in the Upside Down.

If demodogs, telekinesis, and all the mystery were removed from Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers’ show would still have plenty going for it. “The rule of law for season two was characters first, characters last, characters all the way,” producer and director Shawn Levy recently told us, while speaking with him and his 21 Laps Entertainment producing partner, Dan Cohen. We spoke with the duo a few days before season 2 came to Netflix, so we had a non-spoiler talk about the making of the second season, the production schedule, how the series made Levy fall back in love with directing, and how the show stands apart from its influences.

We spoke a few days before season one came out, and I remember saying I think people were going to really enjoy it, and you were both enthusiastic about it and hopeful, but it took off immediately. Was there a specific moment that showed you guys how much people were connecting with it?

Levy: Well first of all, I’m happy you shared that anecdote because we get asked a lot, “Did you know it was going to be this big?” And I have always answered no, we just thought it was good. We didn’t know if people would embrace it in any kind of big commercial way. So it’s good to know that’s not just an answer I give but that was my actual experience of it. For me, I feel like I had a really good sense of this wild fire catching in the culture over that first weekend of July 15th. Seeing the amount of social media traffic, the level of enthusiasm, and then by a week later, I feel like not a day went by that summer where one of the websites that we read wasn’t doing stories on our show. For me, it was really pretty quick.

Cohen: Yes, it was definitely immediate, and it was thrilling to watch ’cause it isn’t like a movie coming out, where you track box office. It’s really like an album being dropped and you see the world kind of react to it, but what Shawn’s talking about is almost the more fascinating thing where, yes, the first weekend was incredible and we’re exchanging reviews with the Duffer’s and tweets and celebrities signing on to it. Really, it was the fact that months later when any movie would have been out of theaters, it was still heavily talked about and still heavily in the zeitgeist. To a point now where 15 months later season two is coming out and it feels like it quite never left the zeitgeist. Whenever it was the anticipation of season two then took over.

I imagine when you were all working on season one it was far under the radar. Now, season two is an event. When a show becomes a part of the zeitgeist, does that have any influence or is there any added pressure?

Levy: Yeah, for sure. It’s a very different experience. No one even cared what we were working on. We had this little show shooting in Atlanta with these twins that no one had ever heard of and a bunch of kids. So, we went from working in absolute anonymity to now working with, without question, a level of expectation and anticipation that is as daunting as it is exciting but for us the whole trick has been embracing the popularity of the show and appreciating it but knowing when it’s time to put the blinders and the earplugs in and to quiet down that cultural noise and focus on the instincts that brought us here-

Cohen: Exactly.

LevyWhich is largely Duffer instincts and our job is there as exec producers is to defend, empower, and champion those Duffer instincts.

Cohen: Just to build on that, I mean yes, it’s the opposite effect now where everyone’s waiting for it and you have to deliver on something and this build up but beyond on that I think the quality remained just as great if not better because of that alchemy involved in it. The Duffer’s are going to charge in a very specific, especially for TV small team supporting, it’s still a very singular voice, kind of world expanse.

Stranger Things Season 2 Netflix

After that level of success, was there another level or sense of freedom with season two?

Levy: Oh yeah. Early on in our earliest meetings with Netflix it was clear that the vision and the appetite for season two was more ambitious and that it was going to require resources and a budget that enabled those new and more ambitious storylines and threats to Hawkins. The luxury of becoming popular is a network or studio is willing to put more resources behind it the next time around and we definitely got the benefit of that.

What were maybe some of the lessons from season one that were in mind for season two?

LevyI know for me the lesson was no matter how much people are talking about the 80’s setting or the Demogorgon or the upside down, people above all care about these characters. So the lesson of season one and the rule of law for season two was characters first, characters last, characters all the way. That became even more important as the scope of the visuals grew. We constantly made sure we were still anchored in these characters that the world now knows and roots for.

Cohen: We went to work on season two pretty quickly. I mean right as season one was coming out but seeing immediately … It’s literally being tweeted, put out there, what people were responding to. Being those characters and being specific stories and elements and making sure that remains the core fabric within the show. I mean the Duffer’s even in their interviews talk about the pressure of sequels, why most sequels don’t work. Them shooting the first one like a movie and the second one like a movie sequel and making sure that while different and expansive it’s still retains that magic of what was season one.

Because season two is bigger, did the scope pose any new challenges?

Levy: I think the level of visual effects in season two isn’t even a distant relative of season one. Season one was 50% practical creature and 50% CGI. Going into season two because the threat is more sophisticated and daunting than one Demogorgon we knew we were going to rely much more heavily on visual effects and that required a level of pre-planning and design and pre-visualization that had to be done. That was definitely a challenge. Then I think the other challenge is as we added new characters the ensemble has wider span to it and it does become hard balancing characters and storylines so that you don’t short shrift one these characters that really matter.

Cohen: Yep.

How did the schedule compared to season one? Was the show being worked until days before it hits Netflix?

Levy: You mean like yesterday [which was last Tuesday]? Was it being worked on till like yesterday?

[Laughs] Yes.

Levy: Just about.

Cohen: Yeah, it was.

Levy: Yeah. It was definitely. We had to add a couple of shooting days to each episode because again from the get go we’ve always maintained this cannot follow a television paradigm. We were approaching this like an eight or nine hour movie. So fitting into a television pattern of shooting days was and is always going to be basically impossible because the Duffer’s creativity refuses to conform to it. So we added a couple of shooting days per episode. We definitely added a couple of days on top of that to the two part finale that is, I swear to God, as good and as ambitious as any tentpole movie I’ve seen in the last five years. We have been finessing, honing, and finalizing these episodes until the last possible minute, where essentially Netflix had to say pencils down. Time’s up.

What were some of the earliest ideas the Duffer brothers discussed for season two? Did it evolve or change in any away from how it was originally planned?

Levy: It’s one of the true unique oddities of Stranger Things. We are a very small group. It’s not a big writers’ room and it’s an especially small cadre of exec producers but it allows us to make changes in a really nimble way and some of the things that happened in season two are exactly as the brothers laid them out, early, early, early but there are entire storylines in the second half of season two that never existed in any outline and were ideas that came to the Duffer’s mid season, which they said, “You know what. We like this idea more.” They had the audacity to throw out their game plan and write new ideas and new relationships and new storyline. I don’t want to give too much away but a lot of where the second half of season goes with the Billy character and the Steve Harrington and Dustin characters was never anticipated until we were shooting like episode four.

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