Interview: ‘Stranger Things’ Producers on Influences, Marketing, the Possibility of Future Seasons and More
Posted on Thursday, July 21st, 2016 by Jack Giroux
If you binge watched Stranger Things this past weekend, then you spent your time wisely. The series’ creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, transported Netflix’s subscribers back to the 1980s, where kids and government conspiracies run amok. The siblings wrote and directed most of the eight episodes, which, as executive producers Shawn Levy (Real Steel) and Dan Cohen (The Spectacular Now) told us, they approached as an “eight-hour movie.”
Levy directed chapter three (“Holly, Jolly”) and four (“The Body”) of Stranger Things. When I spoke with the director and Cohen, I hadn’t seen all of season one yet, so we mainly covered their collaboration with the Duffer brothers and Netflix, the show’s references, and what to expect from the future of Stranger Things.
Below, read our interview with Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen.
I’m sure you saw it already, but Stephen King tweeted some kind words about the show.
Dan Cohen: That tweet…I mean he is the influence of all influences, alongside [Steven] Spielberg. That tweet went out an hour or two before the premiere Monday night and the brothers couldn’t have loved that more, and certainly started the whole wave of press off nicely. So it was pretty awesome.
When did you first meet the brothers? When did this all get started?
Dan Cohen: I’ve known the brothers and their work for a while. They had written this script they ended up directing, and it was a really good first movie called Hidden. That was a few years back. But the end of 2014 is when we read this pilot and sat with them and started talking about this project and how to bring it to the world. It was really through that and their ideas of how to make it into a show. When you get to meet these guys, they have such humility and a great understanding of the genre and what they want to do, and a deep love and respect for what they are doing, and it’s contagious. You just want to work with them and see them through that journey. It started then. And we took it out to town and then we brought it to Netflix in, I’d say, early March of 2015. They jumped into it and we were off to the races.
Mentioning their love for the genre, it’s obvious watching the show, but it doesn’t only come across as a throwback.
Dan Cohen: Absolutely. I think what’s important is, obviously, there are influences you can spot and a love for that world and period. And the music is a glorious symphony, yet it still feels emotional and conducive to the storytelling. But we didn’t want it to just be a novelty. We wanted it to be, and I quite think it is, a standalone story that just works for having to take place in Indiana in 1983. Independent of those influences, I think the guys did an amazing job crafting a very smart way in of an ordinary group of people dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
The kids are great. How long did it take to put that group together? What about Millie Bobby Brown made her stand out?
Dan Cohen: The search for the kids in general, and including especially Millie, was a long and exhaustive one. Carmen Cuba, who worked with the Duffers before, and has worked with Netflix, and also casted The Girlfriend Experience, has an amazing eye for talent. The Duffers had to really push themselves to make sure that these kids felt like kids and could act, and that it would feel effortlessly organic to 12-year-old friends.
With Millie, she’s an incredible actress and has such a real onscreen persona that is very unique and rare. And so much of her character isn’t done through dialect but, in fact, emotion and what’s going on within her. That is not an easy thing to find. And yet, as you’ve seen in watching the show, Eleven is an integral piece of the show that really ties many storylines together. To have a character that is so specific and kind of a fulcrum of the show and, yet, is not giving monologs, that’s a unique piece of casting. We are so lucky to have had her. The Duffers and Carmen just nailed it in casting. She’s a terrific young actress, and she really nailed it.
[Spoilers ahead for episode 3.]
In the third episode, “Holly Jolly”, when she snaps that man’s neck, you still feel empathy for her, especially because of her reaction.
Shawn Levy: I literally joined you right as you were describing one of my favorite moments when Eleven breaks that fucker’s neck.
[Laughs.] Do you recall any notable tidbits about filming that scene?
Shawn Levy: First of all, nice to meet you over the phone. It was Millie’s idea to do that gesture with her head to break that dude’s neck.
When you all first met with Netflix, how did the pitch go? What did you all do to sell them on the show?
Dan Cohen: They are the dream house. Shawn and myself and the Duffers definitely went back and forth intensely to make sure this went as well as it possibly could. But it was a warm meeting. They had obviously read the script. The brothers had created sort of a mock trailer that was quite fantastic and had an outline, and they had just seen their movie. It was a warm room. And Shawn is an incredible salesman in the room. But I think that we were able to just highlight where we wanted to go.
And to Netflix’s credit, they were asking great questions and were very passionate about it from just a first meeting, not yet officially being in business kind of level. Even though we wanted to go with them undoubtedly, when we jumped in with them we knew they were coming from the right place with it.
Shawn Levy: The way these things work, especially in a pitch like this where the network has already read the pilot, you spend your time talking about where you think the characters will go, what you think the style of the show is. We declared some pretty bold ground rules, starting with the fact that we didn’t anyone to direct it except the Duffers or me. We really, really wanted to approach it like an eight-hour movie.
They were the very first choice. They were our very first pitch. And they bought the entire season within 24 hours. We never had to pitch a second buyer.