• Christopher Campbell

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?