'Stranger Things' Producers Shawn Levy And Dan Cohen On Making Season 2 Of The Hit Series [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.

Stranger Things trailer breakdown

[Cinematographer] Tim Ives shoots most of the episodes, and his work is fantastic. With season two, were there any discussions with him about how the style of the show would develop in the second season? 

Levy: Well Tim, everyone who works on the show is both a member of the team but also a fan and Tim is no exception. His passion and his devotion to this show is profound and we knew that we had developed a cinematic language in season one that felt right to us and the Duffer's. So there wasn't really any talk of changing the visual language of show but we did want the cinematic scope of season two to feel more ambitious and so it was a matter of sequences that are more visually complex and choregraphy in many cases that require more sophistication but no we ... We wanted to take things up a notch but we were careful not to change who we were.

Obviously you directed more episodes this season, Mr. Levy. As a filmmaker on set, did you feel any changes behind the camera?

Levy: I directed two episodes and they're the same two as season one because the Duffer's and I are just superstitious enough to believe in good luck and season one had them get us out of the gate with one and two and then I come in and do three and four. From the very beginning, we planned on upholding that same rhythm.

So I directed the third and fourth once again, which like in season one tends to be the episodes where things go from being grounded and pretty under control to slightly more batshit crazy. So you'll find the same is true of the pivot in episode four in particular. For me I am genuinely inspired by this world that the Duffer's have created. I fell in love with directing all over again, when I directed season one episodes. That love deepened in season two. If anything was different I would say it was both the introduction of several new characters who are incredibly interesting like the ones played by Paul Reiser and Sean Astin and Dacre Montgomery and Sadie Sink but also for, me personally, the season two belongs to Noah Schnapp.

Finally, getting to challenge this incredible young actor who we knew was awesome, the minute we cast him but we also knew we were going to under utilize him until season two to finally get a chance to let that Ferrari out of the garage and let it run was really, really, fun cause this kid is a marvel in season two.

You mentioned last season that you really fell in love with directing again on Stranger Things. What about the experience for you was rejuvinating?

Levy: For me it was having spent a lot of time and having had a lot of success in the family space and the comedy space, I really hadn't done a genre piece like this. I had never done a story that not only allowed for but required a darker aesthetic and a more ambient feel to the directorial approach. When you're doing a comedy or a family film, you're servicing the laugh and you need to stay out of the way of the next laugh. On a genre piece like Stranger Things, you lean into aesthetics. You lean into atmosphere. You lean into expressive lighting. All of these new opportunities were really galvanizing for me.

That's great. The Duffer Brothers have always been pretty open about their influences for Stranger Things. Were there any new inspirations for season two?

Cohen: I know the guys talked a lot about up front in terms of just like what some of the great sequels were. James Cameron sort of being the master with Aliens and T2 and how those worlds work directly in conjunction with the predecessor and kind of bumped the stakes and just standalone awesome. In terms of other movies ... I'm trying to think. I mean it's still operating well within the kind of 80's cinematic universe but Temple of Doom I know they'd mention as well.

Levy: There's also, I mean, definitely the desire to do ... the desire to do a sequel that was better than possibly it's predecessor, that was a very high bar to aspire and for sure Aliens and Terminator 2 were the most frequently touch stones but we also knew that there was a Gremlins aspect to season two that you will soon know what I mean. There was also a kind of intergenerational pairings that season two does. Has shades of Goonies that was very much on our minds as well.

I think some of their other, non-80s influences show as well. I just read an interview with them where they talked about The Conversation and Prisoners.

Levy: Well the brothers are self acknowledged film nerds of the highest order and so you really like ... Not unlike Dan, their film literacy is incredible deep and eclectic and you never quite know where their next inspiration's going to come from but I'm always quick to say in the next breath that if Stranger Things was just quoting style nods from other films it wouldn't be the global phenom that it is. The Duffer's have really created a world that's clearly inspired by our predecessors but very rich and singular in its own thing, too.

Cohen: And it was completely original characters. It is original. I mean, so many filmmakers take inspiration from others and even own it the way that we have, but with these guys, it doesn't come from any direct source other than their love for that period and their mastery of storytelling. I would just say on the Prisoners note, which we were lucky enough to make a movie with Denis and even we love Prisoners, we always have this thing with science fiction and horror and high concept with fantasy, if that doesn't happen, if there was no magical buy in, you still have to want to stay there, and there is no supernatural thing happening in Prisoners. It's completely grounded in reality. The fact that, that's what inspired the guys, I think, shows you they were into that world, that town, those characters. Then they brought in the 80's genre sensibilities that, you know, they've been inspired by to it but it's always as Shawn said character first. So the fact that you get to live in this kind of Prisoner's universe that then bends into Hawkins or the Demogorgon I think is part of that magical alchemy.

Stranger Things Hopper

The emotional moments on the show are big and earned. For the both of you, was there a moment working with the cast that has stuck with you? 

Levy: Millie, in general, is able to access a depth of feeling. So there's like magic trick. Like I don't know where it comes from and again I don't ... I'm not going to presume that everyone reading this story has seen all of the episodes so I don't want to be too specific.

But season two, I think this has been acknowledge, part of it is Eleven's exploration of her history and there are scenes that are in some episodes, some of which are in scenes that I directed, where Eleven connects with her history and has to go through very emotional places. Her ability to do that and the authenticity of it, really moved me. Similarly when Will in this moment is in our Micheal Jackson Thriller trailer, that we debuted at Comic Con, I directed this scene where Will has to say, "I felt it everywhere," and I remember saying to Noah after a few takes, "Try whispering the word everywhere." He goes, "What do you mean?" I go, "Don't say it out loud with your regular voice. Literally say it like a whisper. Like a secret." And he did this one take where he did, and that's the take that's in the show and that's the take that's in the trailer, and it's really where I first kind of had a sense of this little guy is going to shatter people in season two. As episodes developed and amp up I think you'll find that he does.

Cohen: I mean that stuff is amazing and there are so many powerful moments, but I will say there was a key one early on that I still think about in seeing acted. Also, between Will and Finn where they're just talking, and I think something that this show captured so well in season one but so much more in season two, given that it's a year later, is this kind of organic feeling of somberness in the community. Will has survived and it's a year later and yet something's not right and there's a very specific moment in the first episode of the season of just them talking. They're in a room talking and the dialogue, as always with the Duffer's, is unbelievable. You're on them and they're just ... they're ... I don't know if I can even say anything about the specifics, but Finn is just doing a really beautiful job of relating to him. We're starting to get a sense that something's not right with Will and it's a very simple scene, and yet it really stuck out to me. It really translated in the final product.

Levy: I'll jump in on this because what Finn does in that scene and in the show is emblematic of what all our characters do, especially our male preteen series regulars, and it's really something special that the Duffer's do, which is there's not an embarrassment around male affection. There's a gentle caring empathy between these boys that is so rarely portrayed because it's not like an acceptable softness in guys very often, but it's the truth of friendship and it's definitely the truth of friendships that shape you for the rest of your life. It brings you back to River Phoenix in the scene by the campfire in Stand By Me. I forget who's comforting who but one character's crying right? Is it Wil Wheaton? Is Wil Wheaton crying?

Cohen: Yeah, it's Wil Wheaton.

Levy: Wil Wheaton's cring  ... or maybe it's like River Phoenix crying and Wil Wheaton's comforting but like it's just honest and it's-

Cohen: Pure emotion.

Levy: It's pure and it's vulnerable and it's human. In a very sweet and affecting way and season two has several of those moments.

Cohen: Yeah, there's a couple scenes where Gaten is explaining how a group works to its new member and again it's like the values sound so simple and what you realize is as he's talking you realize that this kid has such pure compassion and love for his friends. It's a genuine thing. In 2017 looking back at 1984 it's a rarity to see that and yet it's so special and a big part of why this show works.

Levy: Yeah. Yeah and I think that intimacy amongst friends...

Cohen: I think that to me by the way is the most important element of these kind of ambin era.

Levy: I agree.

Cohen: Shawn and I have been talking about for years. What is it? We've read many imitators and we've read many things trying to be it but you can feel like they were trying. There are many, many reasons why the Duffer's wrote this beautiful show and pulled this off but I think creating a world where intimate friendships felt organic and non-cynical is probably the most important of them to pull that off.

Levy: I was actually going to say, and then we'll shut up Jack 'cause I know this has been the longest answer ever, but like, I actually think that this portrayal of close, empathetic friendship is the antidote to this cynicism that fills 2017. I feel like it's a freaking life preserver in these times.

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Stranger Things season 2 is now streaming.