Stranger Things Rocks This Town "Upside Down"
Creating 1980s Hawkins, Indiana in 2019 Georgia
The success of Stranger Things, which returned with record-breaking viewership in July, is due to a number of factors, including the ever evolving narrative and artistic innovation that keeps the fans interested and begging for more. Most of the credit goes to the series’ visionary creators, Matt and Ross Duffer (aka the Duffer Brothers). But also deserving of recognition are the many crew members who’ve turned the Duffers’ vision into a reality by transforming modern day Georgia into 1980s Indiana.
This year’s third season was anything but more of the same for the hit Netflix series. As the story of kids battling monsters in small-town America continued into the summer of 1985, we saw changes that were realized through a combination of talents. The show reached a turning point in terms of its setting and its characters. To get there, Stranger Things required impeccable effort from every department involved in the production.
Oz Magazine talked to five department heads, those in charge of locations, extras casting, costume design, cinematography and production design of Stranger Things, to learn what goes into making one of the most popular and most iconic series of our time.
Locations Manager / TONY HOLLEY
Channeling the 1980s Hoosier State
Tony Holley is a Georgia native who has been scouting locations locally for years. He rose to become location manager, responsible for not only finding, but also securing and overseeing shooting locations throughout the production. At the end of Stranger Things season 3, he was promoted again to the position of supervising location manager, handling shooting locations in multiple cities and for multiple units.
OZ: For Stranger Things, you were tasked with two challenges: the 1980s and Indiana. Is the Midwest easy to translate in Georgia?
TH: Indiana was selected originally just to be a little on the generic side: Anywhere USA, geographically speaking. The middle of the country was selected somewhat strategically to make it so that anywhere we film, being in Georgia, it wouldn't be that incongruous. There are some plants that are not native to Indiana, and someone who is very discerning might be able to pick up on that, but by and large the seasons are kind of the same, though we don't have as much of a rough winter season as Indiana might.
What was the most difficult thing about getting the time period right?
When I have to find a location, the only thing that's super challenging from the period perspective is if we're going to end up in someone's kitchen, or their bathroom. Otherwise the materials haven't really changed. You still use brick and sheetrock and all that, and the types of houses, they're the same. Obviously, the modernist aesthetic is a little bit different when there are a lot of concrete houses going up, but I'm never going to look at those houses for Stranger Things.
Things that only exist or definitely would have existed in the time period have to be thought of when you're out scouting. You can't go to a house and directly across the street there's a McMansion or a new modern build or whatever. That's constantly part of the bible of scouting for the show. At least the 270-degree surrounding the location, if not the 360, has to have existed in the ‘80s.
The type of town setting we're working in kind of helps me, because it's a fairly small town and the things I have to bring the production from a location perspective aren't impossible. It's not impossible to find a brick and mortar retail store or a house that has largely not been updated. They still exist, I guess. We established most of the houses in season 1. The standing sets that we see every season, those are actual sets. The only time we go to the Wheeler house, it’s the outside of the house. Sometimes we'll go inside doorways, but the interiors are on a sound stage.
Do you typically use a sound stage for interiors?
From a period, perspective, yes. For an episodic series, your standing sets will be built; the things you're going to return to over and over again. It gives you a place that's not impacted by weather, and it doesn't matter if it's day or night. That’s what the stage set becomes, a safe place. We've done a few houses outside of season 1 that have been practical, but by and large, we don't go into the rooms where it is going to be difficult. Or, if we do, that's when I have to find something that's period appropriate throughout, and then it gets more challenging. Barb's house in season 2, the interior was an example of that. Season 3 definitely did not live in small spaces. Everything in the world was so much bigger in season 3.
"The middle of the country was selected somewhat strategically to make it so that anywhere we film, being in Georgia, it wouldn't be that incongruous."
Were you asked by the Duffers to find anything specific looking as far as being totally ‘80s?
They wrote to the period in which the show existed. That's why we had an arcade, and that's why we had a mall as a bigger location in season 3.
What about anything that looked like something specific from ‘80s pop culture?
There’s no request to find the Amityville House or the house from The Goonies or anything like that. There's nothing that's that much of a call out.
In season 3, the show moves in a new direction and that’s reflected in the progression of the time period and how locations in the town represent that. How did you help in getting that across?
The way that dichotomy of the old way and the new way was portrayed was this: we took downtown Hawkins, which we actually kind of expanded upon a little bit in season 3 by bringing in the newspaper office location, and we tried to make it look as if it wasn't doing as well. You'll notice in season 3 that half of downtown is vacant or going out of business because of the impact the mall is having on it. We aged downtown a little bit…the storefronts…because they're not getting as much business. We closed a few stores to make them look like they were going out of business as well.
The flip of that is the mall itself. It was made to look brand new because it's the new kid in town. The mall is very bright, very inviting and very warm, the way it was constructed and decorated and lit and everything else. There was definitely a play between the change in consumerism that began with the introduction of the mall to American life.
Did you also shoot less in Jackson, Georgia . . . aka “downtown Hawkins” . . . because it’s outside the 30-mile zone and therefore more expensive?
Yes. The fact that Jackson's outside the zone does make us schedule and visit it less in a broad sense. Usually we're going to shoot two episodes at a time. First and second episode together, third and fourth, fifth and sixth, and so on. We did not do that in Jackson because of the fact that it's outside the zone. We basically clumped all the Jackson work into two different visits to get it done. What brings us into Jackson, or what used to at least, was primarily the store where Joyce worked. Now that Melvald's [General Store] isn't doing as well, she just didn't stay in that space as much in terms of the story. The other part of downtown that we established this season, the Hawkins Post, was not actually in Jackson. It was in a town inside the zone. So, we could go there as it was scripted in our block structure.
Has it been difficult to secure locations, such as character homes, over the years? At least one spot, the quarry, is no longer available, right?
We're definitely more forward-thinking now. Thinking about what kind of impact it's going to have on us if we want to do [a certain location] in a follow up season. If the Duffers said we want to go back to the quarry, we could, but it would just be a different rock quarry because that one no longer exists. Or it would look vastly different than it looked in season 1. We eye toward the future with most of our location work now because I build future options into every location we contract, for the most part.
What was your process for finding Starcourt Mall?
Not that much different from any other location. This one was just so big in scope that it's more challenging because of how large it is. It's the location for season 3 I spent the most time on trying to find. I made it fairly clear to everyone that we were not going to find a completely closed mall because the metro area presently doesn't have one. We'd be relegated or stuck with the underutilized or slowly dying mall, of which there really aren't many of those around either. The mall, surprisingly enough, has experienced a bit of a resurgence in the last few years. Most of the regional malls are being populated and housed by more local chain stores as opposed to big national brand stores. There really weren't that many wonderful options. We had a few to choose from of varying degrees of underutilization or availability. The one that we chose to work with had the emptiest space in it. Roughly 25 percent of an entire quadrant of the mall, with the exception of the anchor store, was completely empty.
"If the Duffers said we want to go back to the quarry, we could, but it would just be a different rock quarry because that one no longer exists.”
Did you have to make sure it had more of a 1980s look?
The mall hasn't changed that much over the decades. By and large, the size of the stores is the same. There’s going to be big anchors that draw you into those other stores to feed along the way. Because there was so much that was going to take place at the mall, I couldn't get hung up on “does it have this store,” or “does it have that sort of look to it.” The idea was to basically make every store that's inside the mall something that existed in early to mid '80s. I think there are two stores that never existed before inside the mall. One of those is the ice cream shop.
Was there anything specific you needed that Gwinnett Place Mall lacked?
It didn't have a movie theater attached to it. We built the facade of the movie theater inside the set and then we shot a practical movie theater to tie it together. The anchor store was actually still in operation in that mall, and its second floor became the movie theater facade.
How tough was it to manage the mall location during production?
At first, the sheer magnitude of how large it is was a challenge. It’s kind of hard to get your mind around the fact that your location has 40 other locations in it because there are 40 storefronts inside. That compounds with the fact that one corner of your set is an active business and another corner of your set is an open mall that's still in operation. There were a lot of ways to get into our set that we didn’t have any control over because there are back of the house corridors in malls and hallways that I don't have control over because I'm not leasing the entire mall. It was a heavy lift to secure and hold and not give away to the public what we were doing. Because it's a big show, a hit, the studio did not want us to let any information, any leaks, to get out. We had privacy fencing as soon as storefronts started to go up in February of last year, and they didn't come down until [season 3 premiered]. I've had 24 hour security at the mall even since we wrapped.
People got through during that time, though, right?
People definitely got in. It was a nearly impossible task. Yeah. People would stay in the mall after hours, and once the mall closed, wherever they were hiding out, they would just walk around and walk into our set. That happened a number of times.
Why couldn’t Starcourt have just been built on a sound stage?
Too big. The ground floor to the ceiling, which was practical on that set, was close to 50 feet. And there was interplay between the ground floor and second floor constantly. It was not feasible to build a set like that on a sound stage. If you have a two-story house on a sound stage, the first and the second floor are on the ground and you just connect them in editing with a cut between them going up and down the stairs. Each floor of a set is going to be on the "ground" on stage. Sound stages have 30-40 feet clear span, and we needed like 70-80 feet to put that big of a set onto. It wasn't really a question of “can we just build it.”
Is there anything you’d like to see in season 4?
I’d be excited doing stuff in season 4 that wasn't exclusively in “Hawkins," just from my career perspective. If they told me, and I'm not saying this as anything that's happening by the way, with the Byers leaving Hawkins in season 3 that we really want them to move to Hawaii, for example, or if they wanted to move to Portland, Oregon, or wherever they wanted to move…and then there's wherever the story goes with respect to what's happening in Kamchatka, Russia. We’re not going to film in Russia, but they may have a unit that shoots in Romania or wherever for a month. From a professional viewpoint, I welcome that because I'd like to grow in this industry and the job as well. I have no idea where season 4 is going. I just know people who were fixtures in the town of Hawkins are presently not in Hawkins.
Extras Casting Director / HEATHER TAYLOR
Banking on Background Performers in Georgia
The 1980s are remembered for its materialism and consumerism, the decade of the “yuppie”, MTV, malls and “greed is good.” How does one know what an authentic ‘80s look of patrons in Hawkins, Indiana looks like? Painting the scene of a mall, school, and the Hawkins town fair with a database of dependable background players is Heather Taylor, the head of Casting TaylorMade, a boutique agency that pairs background performers with movie and television productions throughout Georgia, including all three seasons of Stranger Things.
OZ: What is your biggest task in populating 1980s Hawkins for Stranger Things?
HT: My job is to find the people that have that authentic classic look, not the ones that look contemporary. It’s just a different type of look. I make it very well known, several times a year, for everyone to please not cut your hair or let your hair styles get shaggy. Let us be able to do what we want to do with your hair because hair is what sells it. Our department head of hair, Sarah [Hindsgaul], and I work together to make sure we're getting the right look. That's how we've been doing it since day one. Now, with season 3, there are different things that were more popular. It's just really hilarious what people allow us to do whatever we want to do with their hair. We did many perms.
"Actors were very excited to have a Netflix production in Atlanta.”
Was it difficult in the beginning to find so many willing people?
Very hard. I had to beg people [to do stuff with their hair]. I was passionate about [the show] because they hired me early on. I really loved the show. I felt that it was super cool because nothing related specifically to an adult, teen or kid market, because all three levels of people in the family could watch. I'm like, well, I hope they hire good kids. That was the first thing that went through my head: this show is going to rely completely on the kids. It was an awesome crew. Everyone was starting on the same page, and we became a family. I got to know the kids, and I thought, “this show is incredible; this is going to be an insane success.” I banked on the background performers in Georgia to believe me. I feel like I'm a good salesperson and I did a hard sell.
Actors were very excited to have a Netflix production in Atlanta. They were excited to be part of something that Netflix was doing, and that brought a lot of attention with just the word Netflix. So, I was very lucky.
How has the extras casting process changed since the show became a big hit?
We had an open call [for season 3], and over 200,000 people responded. It was incredible to see how many people wanted to apply. I think I had to spend a week going through all of them; it was insane. I had to comb through it because we had several people from all over the world applying, and then we narrowed it down to places where people could drive [from] easily. Then we would narrow them down again to people that had the right size and weight and dimensions that would be right for costumes. From there we would make sure, out of those people, which ones had the best hair. Then we would start making sure those people knew that in two months we needed them to be ready, because we would need their hair this way. I’ve had people that I've talked to for over six months getting them prepared for their role on Stranger Things. No joke. They have gone to such an extra measure that their whole aesthetic is 100 percent ‘80s and ready for it. We also had a casting for marching bands, and we had, I think, just on that casting, 60,000 people apply.
"We had an open call [for season 3] and had over 200,000 people responded.
It was incredible to see how many people wanted to apply.”
Do they need to bring their own wardrobes?
We're more spoiled and luckier for this show, being on our third season. I think that we were given more allowance to have more actors dressed by the costume department. But in the beginning, we had actors just working in wardrobe they brought. All of our background players truly love to be in character. Some of them would literally go and buy stuff at thrift stores and vintage stores like, “Hey, we just picked up these sneakers that'll be so rad for Stranger Things. We can't wait to wear them next season.” They're always thinking of costumes. People would bring their options with them and then [the costume department] would combine some of the things that they had with the things that the extras brought to make an outfit look exactly like what they wanted.
How did you facilitate the bigger crowd scenes to populate for season 3?
This was a huge scale compared to what we have been used to. With the incredible submissions that we had, it was really exciting to be able to hire a lot of people. Our usual bigger scenes were for the town and the Will search party in the beginning. This season had full-fledged giant scenes: Hawkins town fair, the community pool and of course, Starcourt Mall. We did a hundred perms, we had to make sure people didn't have tattoos for the pool scenes. It's not that easy. You get the people who want to be that hipster type and retro with their '80s looks, but they all have these little tattoos that are trendy right now. We're looking for the most authentic look.
Were there also fans of the show just trying to get on set?
Yes, of course. Denise [Godoy], Stranger Things unit publicist, has always been extremely on point, and we always work with Netflix to make sure that they approved our emails, our language and everything that we use to make sure we find the most appropriate background players.
We had a couple of people that were big fans that wanted to Instagram, and of course, that was not allowed. They were asked to please leave in the most gracious way, they understood that they had broken the policy, as they signed an NDA and that went against it. For the most part, I'm able to feel out people within the time that we book them. We get to know these people, even though it's not on the phone or in person, the fact that we communicate to them so often and have so many questions to ask them, they have to respond in a certain manner. To be considered and to make it to the actual casting day, they had to do a lot to get there. So, we can weed someone out when they feel kind of shady. Some people get by and you're like, okay, maybe this person is a little too excited.
Do the Duffers give you parameters regarding the kinds of background roles they want?
Yes. They always requested to have kissing couples. We would have to find the kissing couples. That was always a request for our ADs and from the Duffers. Just in case they wanted to make it geeky and fun like that at the mall. It was more about ages and shoppers, or we had people that were dedicated to stores in the mall. Those people were employees, and they had to have special looks, and we wanted them to work more days than maybe some of the mall guests. Sometimes they worked a couple of days in a row and other times they would work here and there.
Do you have any favorite scenes or extras you’ve cast for the show?
The Jazzercise scene. Some people will come out for more specific castings than would come out for an everyday type of casting call. We got some really awesome women from Buckhead to come out; that was so not the typical extra type. They got in their Jazzercise outfits and had a blast. That was so fun. I loved that scene so much.
Why do you cast real people, like marching band musicians and such, to play specific roles?
Authenticity. You have things that are very intricate and important that you want to seem 100 percent real. Just like any surgical show that's on TV, they’ll try to have the best surgical advisor training with the staff. So, authenticity is extremely important for these types of scenes. For shooting, they want it to run smoother. They don't want it to seem jolted and unrehearsed like no one has ever seen a gurney or a hose. They have the movement, the ability to do exactly what the director is needing of that person. So, if we're needing a marching band, we want people to know how to play the drum, know how to play the trumpet, know how to play all these different instruments. Maybe it's not their music that we're going to hear, but we want it to look like it's their music. Just like any time you do a music video: the artist wants to look like they're singing. Authenticity is very important.
What are some others you cast for Stranger Things? (SPOILER ALERT)
We've booked real military. So many paratroopers for that whole scene in the end. Local people from all the different basecamps here. We hired real police and real lifeguards.
In addition to background players you also provide background cars. Can you talk about the challenge of “casting” cars for the show?
Yes. Cars are extremely challenging, and in the beginning, it was almost next to impossible. I started cold calling all the different people on the Facebook car clubs and looked at the different car shows going on. Then after introductions, I found people, more people, and it grew and grew. We now have about 250 classic vehicles in my database, and I'm known in the extras casting world as having the best classic car collection out of all the other extras casting companies. But it's been extremely challenging because they can't be rigged up. They need to be in classic condition. The paint needs to be a classic color, probably a color that existed in that model of vehicle. The cars can't look rusted out, can't have rims that are not original, can't have tinted glass. There are so many prerequisites. We had scenes for cars in front of Starcourt Mall with 220 to 240 cars.
Are your background players repeat hires from previous seasons?
Yes. I’m very loyal to the people who have been with us from the beginning since they were the ones who were first to let their hair grow or cut their hair off. I've been devoted to them, and they've continued throughout the years to constantly maintain those looks or grow out their facial hair, so we can make a mustache on them. It’s hilarious because people are so on point about the requirements and dedicated that they'll turn down other jobs because they’d have to cut their hair. They’re saving their love for Stranger Things, and I am so grateful because without that dedicated participation from our background performers, we couldn't do this.
Costume Designer / AMY PARRIS
Like, Totally Gnarly Costumes
Amy Parris joined the crew as costume designer for Stranger Things on season 3. Prior to Parris landing the show, she worked on the costume departments of such fantastical movies such as Her, A Wrinkle in Time and another Netflix series, Insatiable.
”I felt tremendous pressure going into it. I was like,
'Oh God, what's the next iconic ‘pink dress’ going to be?'”
OZ: How did you get your start into costume design and how did you get the opportunity to work on Stranger Things?
AP: Costume design is always what I wanted to do. I started out helping friends with music videos and independent movies. I got into the union and started assisting. I worked my way up fairly quickly, nose to the grindstone, working all the time and saying, “yes” to every job. I found myself with an agent. My agent reached out and said, “You know, there's a show in Atlanta... .” I was doing a show for Netflix right before Stranger Things called Insatiable, and I moved to Atlanta for that. While I was working there, and we were near finishing up, my agent called and was wondering if I'd be interested in sticking around in Atlanta and working season 3 of Stranger Things. Instantly I said I would, absolutely. The timing worked out. I interviewed with the Duffer brothers and producers Shawn Levy and Iain Paterson. I brought some of my boards to the Duffers in Los Angeles. We had a great conversation, and I was lucky enough to be hired.
What was it like joining a show that had already become so iconic for its costumes?
I felt tremendous pressure going into it. I was like, “Oh God, what's the next iconic ‘pink dress’ going to be?” But many people tell me the next iconic costume is Hopper’s date night shirt, which I don't disagree with. It's quite a print. It’s a great vintage fabric that we've made into a costume that David Harbour wears for nearly all of the season, and he looks great in it. I did not approach the costumes thinking everything would be made into a doll or everything would be sold at Target. Someone just sent me a picture of the Scoops Ahoy uniforms being sold at Hot Topic and another picture of people wearing the uniform at Comic Con! I did not expect that to happen.
I'm pleased that people like it, and it’s really cool. But it was certainly daunting, and I sort of had to shut that off once we got into it because if I would had sat there and thought about who's going to recreate this, I don't think I would have gotten any work done. Once I dove in, I just focused on the show and hoped that people would like it. I’m very pleased that people seem to enjoy it and want to emulate the costumes.
Season 3 brings 1980s flashy costumes and fashion-forward styles. Can you talk about that change?
When the Duffers hired me, they knew they would be doing the summer of ’85. So, we knew we were going lighter. They wanted the show to feel different and brighter. I amped up the color in the way that you do when you are wearing your clothes for the summer. Back then, people had the kind of rules of no white before Labor Day, so in season 3 actors are wearing a lot of lighter colors, and the silhouettes are different. There's this new mall where they're able to buy fashion clothing that's of the time.
For some outfits, we toned down the color. Often we will tech a piece of clothing for camera so it’s not too bright and shocking. But with many of these costumes because its summer and its sort of like an overall seemingly happier vibe for the season, (though we see the characters go through some pretty dark stuff) having this fun new shiny mall is reflected in their clothing being readily available. We knew going into it that we were going to shift it.
I was wary of shifting it too much because season 1 and 2 look so similar; the costume design is a beautiful color scheme way of autumn, dark, dusty and rusty. We were edging away from the late ‘70s moving into the mid ‘80s. It's not yet acid-wash. It's not yet highlighter neon. We didn't want to go too far. That doesn't really happen until 1987, the big shoulder pads and stuff. It's a fun time for fashion. It was a delicate balance.
What did your research entail?
After I signed on, I did some research at home. I grabbed old Seventeen magazines from a bookstore called Movie House Book World in Burbank. They’re unfortunately closed, but in the back, they had hundreds of catalogs. I was able to get everything they had from ’84 and ’85. With the internet now, obviously it’s an incredible reference and people love to post pictures, so it's digging through websites and finding hashtags for 1984 and 1985 and finding family photos. I like to do a mix of real and pop culture stuff. There's no resource that's off limits for us. We searched libraries, magazines, real books and movies.
For the Eleven look, they're now going to the mall, they’re going to get the stuff that's in the magazines because that's what they're seeing. That’s their “Instagram.” The influence is also from family photos, pictures of people on vacation, the real photos of everyone else in Hawkins because, they're still a small town, and often in the ‘80s, small towns were behind in fashion. We didn't have Instagram and Facebook to update what everyone's wearing at all times.
How much time do you get to design all the costumes?
Time-wise, the scripts can come pretty quickly. Luckily, I started with the first four scripts. I knew the Duffers really wanted to focus on the Steve and Robin costume and Dustin’s Camp Know Where costume. I focused on knowing that they were specific about those. The mall happened pretty fast, having to outfit 40 employees at a mall for 40 vendors. As we got the store names and the types of stores and the food court vendors, we could construct uniforms around what we got from the art department and as storefront colors were released. We definitely worked with other departments as we got scripts and then incorporated our research to kind of finesse the outfits.
What’s the biggest challenge with costuming for a show like this?
For me, as a costume designer you want to be able to either find everything that's actually made in the ‘80s or you want to make everything that is truly ‘80s with vintage fabric. We got really lucky with the Hopper shirt and vintage clothes. The biggest challenge I find that its sort of a mix of time and money because if you had all the time in the world and had all the money you’d get authentic clothes made in the ‘80s, and you would have real fabrics from the ‘80s but obviously the ideal is to use the real thing as to replicating it.
For Eleven’s new costumes in particular, how do you design them to stand out?
I would examine the design and sort of pull back. You can get really tacky. The fashion of the ‘80s was to emphasize excess with accessories, a lot of big necklaces and earrings and lace and, you know, crazy layers of ruffles. Maybe it's one less accessory or one less big necklace or one less crazy pattern. But with Eleven, she could wear it so nicely, and it was something so different for her. It’s a style that we haven't really seen on the show, and it's her figuring out who she is. So, it was kind of nice to let her be the one to gravitate towards these bolder patterns and prints. We leaned into that with Eleven, with Millie. It was like, what would this girl who's been sheltered put on? What is she going to go for? She's been wearing clothes that boys give her. She’s been wearing hand-me-downs. Now she's got this chance to wear these bright colors, and I think it really worked well to put those crazy patterns on Eleven.
For the Hopper shirt, it literally starts out as a gag. Then there’s the Scoops Ahoy uniform, which can never become cool, right? How did you find something that could do that but then become cool?
We can thank David Harbour for that because there's only so much you can do with fabric. You've got this great print and you make it into a great shirt and at first, we paired it with the blazer, and he wears Top-Siders with the jeans and no socks because he’s going on a date and wants to look cool. But later, when he puts it back on, it’s really Hopper wearing it. He's put on his work boots that he can run around in, and he sort of rolled the sleeves up, and I just think the way David Harbour wears it; you can't help but find him sexy in it. It then becomes something the actor does, in a good way. It’s out of my hands. The way he plays it so effortlessly cool and tough and Magnum P.I., you can't help but enjoy it.
The Duffers wanted Steve to look kind of embarrassing because he's Steve “The Hair” Harrington. The intention was to make it goofy. Steve works at the mall, he is trying to pick up chicks, but then he wears this goofy uniform. They knew they wanted it to be something pretty embarrassing but something you could look at for the entire season. With Robin, we sort of just imagined her as this cool girl who's also unfortunately stuck in the same uniform, and she probably prefers not to wear it, but she had her own accessories to show her personality through it. We used ‘80s pieces and matched the silhouettes, giving pleated front shorts, puff sleeves for Robin. Steve's is based on real sailor uniforms, and then we stylized it with the red handkerchief and the trim. Both costumes have the ice cream patches and the name tags.
Did you bring any new ideas to other characters?
With the boys, it’s the summer before high school. They're really getting into their own personalities. Lucas is kind of finding that he can amp up in the way of going more towards ‘80s contemporary fashion. Dustin wears a “Weird Al” shirt, so he's getting into pop culture and music. Will is a little bit stuck in what he knows, and he wants to play Dungeons and Dragons, and he doesn't care about girls yet, so he advanced a little bit less. They're growing up through their clothing. That was really nice to design.
"I just think the way David Harbour wears it; you can't help but find him sexy in it.
It then becomes something the actor does, in a good way.”
Where do you get the clothes you don’t create? Are there places in Georgia to find authentic ‘80s outfits?
There are a couple costume houses in Atlanta. We rented from Southeast Costume, which has a good selection of ‘80s rentals. We would often go there generally at the start of the season. Nancy’s white, cream and black striped dress, Mike's solid teal Polo tee that he wears in the episode where they're fighting Billy in the sauna, are from there.
I've definitely utilized my surroundings and learned the vendors that are in Atlanta. I started to find people that can make patches overnight or can print t-shirts fast. It's really nice to see that Atlanta is speeding up with the processes that Los Angeles is used to, and the vendors are more film friendly. I do feel like I've gotten some footing there and I learned the neighborhoods and I'm taking advantage of the local craftsman that are here for sure.
Did background performers provide their own wardrobe, or did you have to costume everyone?
If they brought stuff, we were happy to take a look, and often there were some “gold star member” extras. They bring stuff from their grandma’s closet or their mom's closet. They'd have some great true ‘80s fashion that they were so happy to wear. But a lot of people remember the ‘80s differently. So, you would have an extra come in with the contemporary stuff that they think is ‘80s but maybe is not quite there. Maybe it's a little too ‘90s. So, we would respectfully say, “Thank you so much, let’s try something from our stock.” As much as we liked them to bring stuff, it wasn't always a hundred percent true period, so we used our own stock.
I'd approve the looks of the background players, making sure nobody was in too much of the same color or too much of the same jumpsuits or whatever. We looked at them all as a whole and then approved each person “head to toe ‘80s” because you don't want to risk putting somebody in stretchy contemporary skinny jeans and then that's all you see. There was no room for error. You didn't really want a non-accurate costume to “sneak” by like the Converse sneakers. I would let a few Converse sneakers in here and there. Converse is classic. They were around. Those were pieces that we let people keep.
So, you’re very concerned about anachronistic looks?
Every person, whether it's background or principals, every piece of clothing is important. I know how hard every other department works and coming into a show that looked as beautiful as it did, I wanted to do nothing but match the level of work that they put into it. For me, that was looking at every piece of clothing, looking at every outfit. I was looking at every detail. It was extremely important, and my crew can attest to it. I have my tailors working day and night on clothing, and we look at every stitch, every seam, and if it didn't feel right or if it was off, we would have to fix it.
Is it true, though, that the lifeguard suits weren’t exactly right?
When I looked up and researched real lifeguards in the ‘80s, the shorts were so short. They were like booty shorts; so incredibly short. I do wish I would have gone a bit shorter on Billy, looking back. I think we still could have gone maybe an inch shorter because he has great legs, and he's just such a handsome guy. Obviously, that outfit is just a pair of red shorts, there's only so much you can do with it. But even with the other boys, it's hard for them to get used to these shorter shorts, so I didn't want the short length to be distracting. I had crew on set saying, “Are you sure you're putting them in shorts this short?” Yes, this is what they were wearing. Go look at your pictures; go look at your family photos. It's a delicate balance getting that hem length just right. I think plenty of females would have been happy to see it shorter on Billy. The scene is about everybody at the pool, the story and, you know, Hawkins. It’s not about red shorts. So, I took that into consideration thinking I don't want to distract the viewer from what's happening in the frame.
Is there anything you wanted to do but couldn’t make happen or had rejected?
So far, no. We were really lucky, and the thing I really like about the Duffer brothers is: when I show them fitting photos, they always ask what the actors think. How do they feel in it? They ask what I think, which is extremely collaborative. I was able to say, “Let's try this.” So, I don't feel like there was anything that I didn't get to do. I like to serve the story, and the words of the Duffer brothers give us a very descriptive idea, and they really lend themselves to describe a character.
Were there any intentions to turn any of the looks into Halloween costumes or clothes that fans could buy in stores?
Did I plan for it? No, because then you’d just be spending the whole time thinking about that instead of the job. The focus is on the characters. I did have Levi's come in halfway through with some archived pieces that they gave us, and we got to use that in our stock. They knew we wanted to recreate Eleven’s outfit: the black and yellow shirt, the high-waisted pants with the suspenders and that extra belt. They did ask for photos. They wanted patterns because they wanted to do right by the costume and recreate it exactly how it's made. It's not an easy pants pattern. It's 19 pieces, which is very ambitious to recreate, so I'm proud of Levi's for making that happen and not cutting corners. They really did recreate it how we made it. We made it true to the ‘80s, and they've made it true to the show. But like the uniforms for Scoops, that is nothing that I saw coming. As a costume designer I am extremely flattered and love that people liked it enough to do it, but you can't anticipate that whatsoever.
What are some of your favorite costumes that maybe aren’t being talked about as much?
I really enjoyed dressing Nancy and making her this strong powerful woman that's entering the workforce. I think all of her dresses were sweet and appropriate for the time period. I feel like Nancy and Jonathan's style was kind of that edgier, new wave look of the ‘80s. They weren’t really brought up as much because everybody's looking at the colorful jumpers and the Hopper shirts, which we all love, but I also just really appreciated how Natalia [Dyer] and Charlie [Heaton] played those characters. Not that it's been swept under the rug, but I feel like that the two of them, that duo, are so cute, and I feel like they played it so well. I just love how we dressed them.
Director of Photography / TIM IVES
Capturing a low-def look in a high-rez world
Since 2015, Tim Ives has served as director of photography for Stranger Things. Ives received an Emmy nomination for Stranger Things two years in a row, 2017 and 2018, for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series. He also recently shot the acclaimed FX limited series set in the ‘70s, Fosse/Verdon.
OZ: What was your initial approach for the 1980s look of Stranger Things?
TI: From the get-go, Stranger Things has been a unique project in its visualization, its themes and its throwback to a different era. In this case, for season 1, we did research together, the [Duffer] brothers and me. We looked at a lot of films, and it came down to the work of Steven Spielberg, the films he produced. Ultimately it was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the first season, which I think we've moved away from in this new season. For me as a visual reference for the photography, E.T. was a mantra in the first year. The lighting design from the ‘80s, which we pushed a little more in the direction they were heading back then, just to sort of let everybody know that this is a different time. That was done mostly on interiors, the Byers house and the Wheeler house.
Were you looking to mimic certain visuals from ‘80s movies?
I didn't look at it as mimicking anything. It was more of taking an overall vibe from the films that we loved and what inspired Stranger Things. There's nothing, I don't think, that's exactly specific. But sure, there was blue light coming in the windows for night. That was more of a style of the '80s than it is now. There was the use of atmosphere in the '80s to convey either heat or steam. That was a little more popular in the '80s, although it seems to come back a bit more now. Maybe we had some small part in that. But I don't think we ever said we're going to pick a scene and do exactly what they did. We were certainly inspired by others' work in the '80s, but our hope was not to copy that but to take it as more of a love letter to that style of work.
How has the look of the show evolved since the beginning?
In season 1, we had a mantra in how we film the show, and we had two seasons behind us when we started season 3, so we knew what was working and what could be improved. As far as my department goes and my job goes, there's a style of photography that we're very comfortable with and that we like very much. The Duffers are very cinematic in the way they want to tell the story and the way they describe what they want. Over the years, the tools they especially love have become things we know to go to right away, whereas with season 1 we thought, well, maybe we don't need that for this, and then we realized that we did.
By the time we got to the middle of season 2 and season 3, we knew how to make a show that would please us, and that was born out of research into films that inspired Stranger Things on initial photography, and then we found our style within that. That would include camera movement that really was designed to tell a story and not just to move for the sake of being fantastic. At least from my perspective, I would say that's a big deal. I think the camera in Stranger Things is excellent and very fun, and ultimately, I think that's how the brothers described the series to me in the beginning. It's fun. Even though I was like, “How could it be fun when a woman is losing her son and has to find him? It seems terrible.” But I came to learn that this whole thing is built on fun, and ultimately, I think it is a family show.
This season took a turn for Stranger Things as far as where we were in season 1 and where we wound up in season 3. I think that the show has a lot more color to it. It's a brighter show. It’s set on a summer vacation. It's time for the kids to let loose, which all kids can relate to. And it was the first opportunity to really bring full-on joy, the joy that we all experienced as kids on our summer vacation, and that's reflected in wardrobe by Amy Parris’s use of color, and that's reflected in Chris Trujillo's Starcourt Mall, and it's reflected in the performances that the kids and the whole cast bring to the show.
Was it exciting for you to go in a new direction with season 3?
It was a wonderful opportunity for me because, usually in a series when you have something that works, you don't divert from it. You stay with it, whether that's a good idea or a bad idea. And the way the brothers are looking at this, they're telling a story each season that definitely pays homage to what they've done in the past, but also moves forward. When they came to me and said they wanted this to be a brighter, more colorful season, it was really fun and exciting, and a challenge.
Audiences seem to be responding to it as much as they ever have. That's certainly a fun thing that Stranger Things is a little unpredictable. I think for the audience, that's a smart thing for the brothers to do. The audience is happy to have things happen that they couldn't have seen coming, which is hard to do in the show. It was a very exciting season to shoot for those reasons.
I think I would be missing something big if I didn't emphasize that wardrobe and production design are key elements to this season feeling different from previous seasons. My wife and I were just talking about light and how light is the same over time but it's what light hits that change the way you look at things. And the production design, the locations, and the wardrobe design were things that were amped up and changed this season, and it was just fun to shed some light on that in a little different way.
How do you keep the show scary when so much is now in daylight?
As far as creating a show that's scary where you have many bright daytime scenes, you have numerous contrasts in this season between scarier nighttime stuff and joyful daytime stuff. We still create tension in the daytime, whether you're inside a hospital that has no windows or you're at a house that has rats in the basement. We're still able to create drama there as well. One of the first things you see in Stranger Things that sets the tone for that is the town pool scene, which the Duffers wanted to feel sunny: no clouds in the sky. That was a challenge to get in Atlanta where you sometimes get some thunderstorms in the afternoon. But I also embraced and was encouraged to embrace the direct sunlight in there for those scenes where Billy is walking to his lifeguard stand and also after he's been subjected to the monster's bite, so to speak. We wanted it to feel superhot, hotter exposed in camera, and no apologies for direct glaring sun because this character has to relate to that in a way that's uncomfortable for him. That's something we hadn't done in the past and maybe wouldn't have embraced in seasons 1 and 2 but we fully embraced this season.
How do you get stylish visuals in the mall, which is inherently very well-lit throughout?
The mall is going to be the mall. If you want to be truthful to what a mall looks like in the ‘80s, you have to embrace what a mall would look like in the ‘80s, or even now, as far as it is a place you go where the lighting doesn’t change that much. Technically speaking, Starcourt Mall had a huge skylight that we had to diffuse and also knock out for reasons, not just between day and night, but as the sun moved. I didn't want to have hard light coming in there that all of a sudden wouldn't be there for the next scene. We had much work to do covering that up and also revealing it for daylight: floating helium balloon lights in there during the day to amp it up or to even out the lighting. It was more work than you would think in there. But if we had tried to do something more stylized in there as far as typical beauty lighting, it just wouldn't have worked. For season 3, I think the use of color, using purples for night and blues, looked really great and gave it a sense of style and color that is synonymous with the ‘80s and makes it also a little stylized but believable.
In talking about embracing lighting in the mall and what a mall looks like, that's what you have to do with Eleven, because her new friend is taking her out, and she is discovering new things for the first time and having her eyes opened literally to what it's like to be a kid at that time. Maybe the wardrobe is a bit bigger, but it's got to be that way for the cinema style. It was certainly fun to see that.
You've talked about the intention to make Stranger Things look like it was made in the '80s. Was there ever talk of using only equipment that was available in the ‘80s?
The equipment has changed a bunch since we started season 1, with the advance of LED lighting. The main thing we had to talk about was shooting film versus digital. For practical reasons, we knew we were going to be shooting digital. That was my main challenge, especially in season 1, to shoot on a format that wasn't around back in the '80s. We've all grown accustomed to what digital looks like versus film, so I had to do some testing of cameras and lens packages to find that thing that looked most “filmic” for us. We found it in the RED camera and Leica lenses. We tested a bunch of different packages together, and the brothers were heavily involved in that as well. We were all of the same opinions as far as whether the edges of something looked too sharp, which meant, you know, too digital.
So, we went digital and then, of course, there's the lighting. No matter what tools we have available to us in the present, those tools should be able to accomplish that, and they do. Lighting tools, whether you're using fluorescent tubes for a soft light or a window light versus what you may have used in the past … because I'm at an age where I remember what was and what inspired myself in the '80s to become a cinematographer and certainly knew all the films we reference quite well … I didn't want to do anything that would stick out in a way that felt like we weren't being really true to the '80s. It was an amazing opportunity for me to capture something like that.
Ultimately, as the seasons went on, we did start using technology in a way that benefited the show and maybe moved away from the technology of the '80s. We use Technocrane work on the show to move the camera, and that's something that hadn't been invented back then. Certainly, they used cranes in the '80s, but they were time-consuming to build and to move around. Now we have technology that allows us to get to the shot faster. The show has grown in those ways, and the Duffers absolutely love working with that Technocrane in there. They're fantastic with it. It's a great tool to help get us all what we want to get out of the shot.
"If a lens is flaring, I look over at the Duffers and ask them,
'Is this too much?' and they'll laugh.'”
If you want to have lens flare, which helps give it that look of '80s movies like E.T., can the cameras pick that up or does it have to be added in later?
That was a big deal for us. We found lenses that would pick up flares in a way that we wanted. We're always ones for that. If a lens is flaring, I look over at the Duffers and ask them, "Is this too much?" and they'll laugh. I'm lighting in a way to accent the flare all the time on Stranger Things, and very rarely do we find a flare that we don't like. We embrace that as well. That brings a sense of magic to the show and makes you remember that you're watching cinema well, not really; its television, but we're paying homage to cinema.
But there are many effects you can add later in post production. Do you lean on that or try to get as much done in camera as possible?
Well, there's a realistic thing when monsters start getting involved. But whatever we could get in camera was important for us to get in camera. It will always look more believable. All those films back in the '80s did as much as they could in camera with special effects on the day helping you out, whether it's Indiana Jones or E.T. So, if we can do it in camera we take it as far as we possibly can, and then we lean on VFX: Paul Graff is our VFX supervisor and his work has become more intensive as the seasons go on. But we always start from a place where: what can we do to get this in camera first? At least we did in the first two seasons. Now we have a few more things going on that are beyond the scope of everything being in camera. I think the latter episodes especially have heavy VFX in season 3.
Besides the monster effects, though, do you lean on any cinematographic or coloring effects in post?
That's all in camera. The colors and the lighting, that's all in camera. It's basically there. I look at my stills from the whole season, all three seasons, and they don't differ very far from what we wound up with. We're picking colors on the set that make sense for each season. Season 3 clearly had more color in it, so we researched and picked up on those colors. Plenty of Miami Vice colors and the colors that are synonymous with the '80s. From a lighting standpoint, of course, I had to change direction with it for season 3. Anytime you see a colored light in there, it's the color we had on set.
What movies did you reference visually for season 3?
The whole opening is a nod to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Our main reference [for a sunset shot on the highest hill of Hawkins] was Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana and the guys are digging on top of the grounds trying to find the key to where the Ark is. There's that beautiful sunset shot Spielberg did then that we really loved. As much as we could with the location, we unquestionably waited to get that shot as long as we could. We were stuck on a hillside that had no electricity, so we couldn't wait for the sun to near the horizon that low, but it was low enough to make it look great. It's a shot we were excited to get.
I looked at The Terminator and Terminator 2. James Cameron's work came into play for the dramatic stuff and how to create tension in daytime situations. Also, there are the John Hughes films, which weren't necessarily known for cinemastyle but truly wound up having a style of their own that we referenced quite a lot in the show this season. Those are the ones for me. The brothers had a few other ones leaning more towards horror that I haven't maybe seen as much to be honest with you. I'm pretty much a chicken when it comes to watching horror movies. Some of their references are a bit too much for me to watch. I literally have to watch those movies at noon with all the lights on and the windows open.
When Hopper and Joyce first discover the underground Russian lab, that was a very James Cameron-inspired situation right there, for me anyway. Our use of red there was something the Duffers and I discussed in great detail.
Is there anywhere you're hoping to go stylistically in season 4?
That would be me jumping ahead of it. The brothers will write something, and we'll all be inspired by it. I wouldn't presuppose or even predict any sort of style we're going to do for upcoming seasons until the words have been written. That's fundamentally the inspiration for all of us to bring our best to it. It'll be fascinating to see what they come up with next. I would imagine that it will, again, surprise the viewers.
Production Designer / CHRIS TRUJILLO
Bringing the Duffer Brothers vision to life
Chris Trujillo came into production design through a fine art and independent film background. He has been part of the Stranger Things team from the start, and fittingly, he received his first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design for his work on the very first episode of the first season in 2017.
OZ: How does one become a production designer on a show like Stranger Things?
CT: I came in through the fine arts route, which I don't know is an especially common way to get into it. I went to the University of Florida focusing on printmaking and drawing, had a small DIY art gallery in Gainesville, and moved to New York intending to work more in the fine arts. But I always had a real love for film, having been a bit of a film buff and after making a short art film in college. I kind of had a background from my childhood in carpentry and had a real leaning toward design, interior design particularly. I realized pretty quickly that the art world is relatively inaccessible to somebody who's not bred into it or doesn't have some kind of independent wealth.
I had some friends working in film; I went ahead and did a few jobs as a PA for the art department on some music videos. I immediately realized that working on a set was the place where my talents and interests intersected. From there, I made a very conscious decision to try and establish myself in the business. I just started doing everything I could get my hands on in terms of independents, commercials, music videos, and small movies. I worked my way up learning the art department ropes by wearing all the hats on smaller projects over the course of about a decade, honing in on production design as my goal. It was just a matter of taking every opportunity, no matter how small, and making the most of it. Then, a series of fortunate events led me to Stranger Things. A few projects before that qualified me for Stranger Things and then the opportunity happened. It’s just been a decade and a half of a lot of hard work and hustling and learning. That's how I came to it. Art school gave me the vocabulary, and I had a preexisting experience with carpentry that kind of came together.
Was Georgia always planned as a stand-in for Indiana?
There was a time in the early pre-production process before season 1 when we were still trying to determine [the setting]. It was originally conceived as a more coastal American town, in the vein of Amity Island in Jaws. That was the initial intention, but as we scouted a number of different cities and areas of the country, we started to feel maybe Georgia was going to be the most advantageous place for us to try to make it happen. At that point, it occurred to all of us that maybe the best way to approach it was as Anywhere USA, Middle America, and thus make it more accessible, more approachable, to a broader cross-section of Americans. Georgia was selected for Stranger Things because there is such a wide cross-section of the quintessential suburban America around the greater Atlanta area. In a way, Georgia/Atlanta partly steered us to the vision that we ended up with.
Did you research specific towns in Indiana?
We weren't super specific to any particular Indiana town, but we definitely did research as far as what Indiana suburbs looked like. We did countless period research for that, and that's why we cross-referenced with what was available in Georgia, and that's kind of what made us confident that we could sell the area outside of Atlanta as Indiana. It felt like the right kind of place to have this idea of ubiquitous American suburban life.
“We scouted a number of different cities and areas of the country, we started to feel maybe Georgia was going to be the most advantageous place for us to try to make it happen.”
What were your challenges with getting the time period captured accurately?
Every single decision we have to make is in some way affected by the period, so it's probably on a larger scale when you get into these downtown spaces or you get into full neighborhoods where you're seeing blocks and blocks, or we see a larger scale of the world of Hawkins.
You really have to be very deliberate in choosing places that are already as close to the period as possible. Numerous times that involves refinishing exteriors, recreating huge signage, completely replacing, obviously, all the vehicles and anything that's distinctly anachronistic for the mid ‘80s. It's particularly challenging in big exterior pieces: picking houses that are simultaneously very indicative and evocative of the era but also aren't distracting or too old. There's a very fine line that we try to walk in not just choosing the super obvious “this is from the ‘70s” or “this is from 1985,” but also kind of making sure that it's appropriate to the characters as well. There are several choices to take into consideration for final approval.
Just given the layout of the mall, it would have been incredibly prohibitive to do on a sound stage. The mall is one enormous element in a season of enormous set pieces. To be honest, my feeling is whenever possible, working with a real practical location gives you an essence you can't always duplicate on stage. It’s inherent in something that was actually built in the era, and particularly given the mall's epic scale, we wanted that. The only way to get that realized was to use something real, just to start with the physical architecture of the actual space.
How do you deal with stores like Sam Goody and other copyrighted things that maybe no longer exist?
We have really great clearance folks that we work with through Netflix, and then our art department staff is amazing at tracking down the people who can give us those clearances. In some cases, it's really a fun, investigative process. We want this random store that hasn't existed in 20 years, and it requires tracking them down and figuring out legal sign off on using their logo. It's definitely challenging. It can be a total headache, but it's really more of a logistical pain in the ass than creatively difficult. That's the nice thing about a show like Stranger Things: we have so much support legally and resources where we're able to invest some manpower and time into getting exactly that specific thing, whether it's Spencer's or Orange Julius.
In some cases, it's really tricky and becomes this process of who represents this long-defunct brand name. For the most part, another nice thing about Stranger Things is that it has so much love for it that most people want to play ball with us if we can get a hold of them. People tend to be pretty amenable to being part of Stranger Things.
How much of it is product placement?
It's funny because I think there are many cynical people, and rightly so given the way entertainment works and branded cross-marketing is in a lot of media, but the thing with the Duffer brothers is the cart has driven the horse as far as all that branding stuff is concerned.
They probably have some fond funny memory of being kids and drinking New Coke. It's just products the brothers find funny or appropriate to tell the true story of America in the mid ‘80s. That's always what motivates these playful product integration things. The show, luckily for all of us, has become such a phenomenon that all these brands are really happy to let us play with their old logos and use their old branding. Many times, you'll work on a show that maybe had some questionable content or is making a statement about a brand that is negative in some way, and you wind up with a lot of push backs and not able to use a product or logo, or you end up having to use it in this very limited, legally restricted capacity. But, because of all the admiration Stranger Things has and the fact that the Duffers generally and genuinely are earnest and just want to get the period correct, we’re able to use them with little fight. Maybe a wallpaper here and there. A color we choose deliberately as a wink to a set that we really like from one of the movies that we take inspiration from. But generally speaking, tonally we're really deliberate in trying to reference things, but we never try to replicate anything that's come before.
Are there any pop culture references you’ve personally put in the show or wanted to?
There's nothing super specific that I'm dying to get in. I like to lean into whatever the script is. The story and the characters come first. I have no agenda going in. I try to make anything we integrate into the set design first and foremost have some bearing on the characters and who they are.
Once we know who the characters are, then we have our fun: the set decorator and me. We consider, “What would be in Suzy's room?” And we get to have our Muppet Movie poster that maybe we wouldn't include if we didn't have that character's room to put it in. We don't really premeditate that.
For me, I really like wherever I can squeeze in some less obvious or counter cultural or “cultish” references. Like in Murray's house in season 2, I was able to incorporate my interests with a MC5 poster, R. Crumb artwork and protest posters. Wherever I can get my own kicks, I do because it's amusing to balance some of the more mainstream pop culture references with a substance that maybe is more obscure to the general modern viewing public.
Occasionally, [the Easter eggs] are personal. I get to have something that's a little multi-layered. In the display case of the cookie store that they're hiding in at the end of season 3, one of the cakes is an Oscar the Grouch cake, and it says, “Happy first birthday, Oscar.” Simultaneously, I love Sesame Street, and I have a son who turned one during the making of season 3 named Oscar. We get to have amusement and get our own little Easter eggs in there.
“I worked my way up learning the art department ropes by wearing all the hats on smaller projects over the course of about a decade and honing in on production design being my goal.”
Has there been any request from the Duffers where you just couldn’t achieve their vision?
It's a testament to how supportive Netflix has been and how much they believe in the Duffer brothers and in our art department that we've seldom had to give a hard “no.” We have to figure out workarounds where a sequence might be too outlandish, or they might want something to be slightly more epic than we can accommodate, but generally speaking, we've been able to go for it in practically all instances and deliver almost exactly what they put on the page in nearly every situation.
They have grand ideas, great immense ideas, but they're also very reasonable. We obviously discuss ideas ahead of time, and maybe we can figure out a way we can get what everybody wants without having to spend another million dollars. There is a compromise that's inherent in the creative process, but there's never been something the Duffer brothers fundamentally wanted that we couldn't give them in some form or version.
What about anything you thought you nailed that wound up being rejected?
My team has been with the Duffers since season 1, so we started all working together on a scale that was very manageable. We were on the same page as far as what our vision was for the show. We started in a very unified aesthetic. As the script has grown and the world of Hawkins has grown, we've always kind of stayed on that page. We've never really put a bunch of effort into something that had to be completely scrapped and rethought. Now and then, the dimensions of a room don't work, and we will have to reconfigure something to accommodate the camera. But there's never been anything that's fundamental to the vision that we go back and redo because it didn't work the first time.
We have some time to work through things and conceptualize. We usually take the time that we need on paper to figure out what we're doing and what we're building before we actually physically start on anything.
What has it been like seeing some of your sets become so iconic that they’re merchandise and now in museum exhibits?
I’ve made a considerable amount of movies and worked with fantastic people, but I don't know that I've ever been quite so proud of something that I worked on going into season 1. I don't think any of us knew how much this vision we had created would resonate with people and how it broadly would be embraced and become a cultural phenomenon. It was super thrilling.
We thought we were making some exciting worlds and doing some creative visual ideas, but I don't think anyone could have expected what the response has been. Honestly, for me, it's what you hope for, but you never let yourself go down that rabbit hole [thinking] that it will actually land the way that this show has landed. It's been incredibly gratifying for all of us as far as feeling, wow, people are really jiving with this and it’s really kind of influenced the zeitgeist in some way.
How did the Joyce Byers Ouija Wall come about?
It's similar alchemy to how it all happens. We get a script. The Duffers have conceived it as far as writing it on paper and obviously have a vision in their minds. Then they're creatively generous and collaborative with us. We sit down and figure out what that's going to look like in the context of the Byers house.
We take the abstract words on paper and first figure out: who are the Byers? What does the house look like? What do the rooms look like and what about the wallpaper? What material would Joyce have to write the alphabet, and what kind of Christmas lights would she have? There are dozens and dozens of decisions that are made to achieve the relatively abstract sentence on paper, which is: “Joyce paints the Ouija wall in her living room.”
What's incredible about working with the Duffers is they come up with these astonishing bizarre ideas, and they know they're going to work, and then they give us the freedom to really find out what that's going to physically look like. It's a process. We do everything from discussing the specific dimension of the letters she's writing to what's the wallpaper on the wall. It’s totally collaborative, but obviously, all credit I would want to give is to them and their vision.
Did the response to the first season cause a desire for more iconic sets for season 2 and 3?
After season 1, we got a sense of how these things go viral and become these weird cultural phenomena. We're partly guided by what the season is going to be. But I give the Duffers more credit than that. Generally speaking, the story comes first. Certainly, they're trying to figure out ways to realize the story through interesting visual ideas, but ultimately the story comes first, and we do our best to make it really attention grabbing.
What are your favorite sets you’ve designed for the show?
Know what's funny? I love the big set pieces, the big sort of trophy pieces, like the mall, the Russian lab, the county fair and all those things that are so enormous, splashy and fun. But, the things that satisfy me the most are things that probably, to a large extent, go unnoticed. They're so subtly executed that they just are the world of Stranger Things, the world of Hawkins.
For season 3, a few of my favorites that stick out are the newspaper office, I was partial to Heather's house, the Driscoll basement and the space where Billy brings the victims to the new monster. For me, those were so exceptional.
My team is extremely talented and involved. They create sets that are not distractingly real, more subtle. What I really love are the sets where people watching the show don't even realize they were labored over and, in many cases, built from scratch.
(SPOILER ALERT!!) What was it like seeing the Byers move out of their house at the end of season 3 and saying goodbye to that set?
The Byers house, more than any other set I've ever done, has had its day. It’s a character that has had its story told. In my mind, one of the most beautiful sequences in the whole show thus far was in those final moments of their departure, and almost all of that takes place in the Byers house. I couldn't be more satisfied with the trajectory of the Byers house. It's a little bittersweet, but I feel like it got its due, and I'm happy to retire it and see what's next for them.
The Byers house was one of our first babies as an art department. It was a very significant set to us. The house was sort of the beginning for us. I'm really glad that audiences have identified with it, and that it has had as much screen time as it's had.
As a production designer, what is your personal objective?
For me as a production designer, the most satisfying thing is when a set takes a life of its own and becomes a character in its own right. With Stranger Things, I feel lucky in that there's room for it in the story. The sets really are integral to the mood and the story beats. We've built more this past season than we did any previous season. The percentage of sound stage shooting is up. Obviously, the mall is such a gray area where we did such an extensive rebuild and remodel in an interior that it almost felt like a build.
The Duffers really do value the spaces that the characters occupy. We do everything we can to tell the characters' stories through those sets. The Byers house is an extreme example of being central to the story’s trajectory through the first and second seasons. As production designers, we could never ask for more in terms of getting so much mileage and meaning out of sets we create.