Welcome to Straight to Series, where Backstage takes a (very) deep dive into how some of the most successful television shows of this Golden Age got made—and, of course, how you can make one, too.
If you have been conscious at any point since mid-2016, you’ve heard of “Stranger Things.” The Netflix series—a pastiche of ’80s horror films investigating the paranormal activities of one Anytown, USA—grabbed ahold of the collective zeitgeist during that strange summer more than three years ago and it hasn’t let go since. And we’re going to break down exactly how this mega-hit sausage got made.
There are many reasons as to why the show caught on: nostalgia; the young leads who are as talented as they are adorable and who have all become bonafide stars since the series premiered; that it debuted at the height of the 2016 presidential election (you may recall that time was contentious). However, there is one reason above all others for the show’s success—actually there are two: Matt and Ross Duffer, which is where the story begins.
A Seed of an Idea
The Duffer Brothers, as they’re known in the industry, created the series following their 2015 indie horror flick “Hidden.” That project was deeply influenced by the work of M. Night Shyamalan—so much so that it actually caught the attention of M. Night Shyamalan; he reached out to the brothers, and enlisted them to work on his Fox series “Wayward Pines.” Shyamalan mentored the brothers throughout that first season, on which they wrote a few episodes.
During that time, the two began to hatch a glimmer of an idea that would become “Stranger Things.” This was 2015, when the two were very much still novices. However, they felt ready to conceptualize the project: “What if Steven Spielberg directed a Stephen King book?” They met with “15 to 20 networks,” according to the Daily Beast, all of whom turned them down; the collective thinking was: An adult show starring children can’t work.
But like so many ventures in this industry, it takes just one person to “get” it—well, one person with power, prestige, and money. Enter Shawn Levy, a film and TV veteran, who founded production company 21 Laps. That company’s executive vice president brought Levy the script; “He said, ‘It’s by these twin brothers no one’s ever heard of,’ ” Levy tells Vulture. “And it may be the best pilot I’ve ever read.”
Three pages in, Levy agreed and saw the potential for this project. “You knew you were in for an experience,” he tells the Beast. Levy, along with Dan Cohen, became the would-be series’ co-executive producers, and it was their idea to bring the project to Netflix. It’s important to remember that this was still at the start of the “streaming boom,” and the landscape looked very different than it does today; Netflix as the leading platform for original content and highly binge-watchable series was not a thing. That is to say, going with Netflix was a risk.
“It’s by these twin brothers no one’s ever heard of. And it may be the best pilot I’ve ever read.”
Even though Netflix was not what it is today, the team still had to put a pitch together with convincing materials. “We had this big two-and-a-half-minute trailer that had about 20 or 30 of these [’80s horror] movies kind of woven together to try and tell the story of ‘Stranger Things,’ but obviously all these images or ideas were in our heads,” Matt Duffer tells the Beast. “Those are the movies that we grew up on and they’re so much a part of our DNA.”
They even went one step further in their pitch, just to ensure there was no mistaking what they were going for. “When we were selling it, we made a fake Stephen King paperback cover for the show. We actually used the ‘Firestarter’ paperback and put our title and an image of a fallen bike on top of it, so when we were trying to come up with titles, we would type them out onto this paperback cover and it would help us,” Matt adds. “And ‘Stranger Things’ sort of sounds like ‘Needful Things’—it sounded like it could have been a Stephen King book from the ’80s.”
Netflix liked what it saw and not only picked up the project but also gave the creators the range to make the peculiar show they wanted (the streaming platform had no overhauling notes as far as the show’s structure, tone, or content). That’s exactly what the team did and, needless to say, it was a precedent-shattering success.
The (Writers’) Room Where it Happens
Despite a strong sense of the vibe they were going for, actually achieving that through writing is another matter entirely. And given the lightning-quick speed of television production at all phases, there is very little time for self-referential or ironic indulgences. The brothers figured that out quickly.
“When you get into the writers’ room and you’re working on individual episodes, actually very little time is spent referencing other movies,” Matt tells the Beast. “Mostly you’re just trying to tell the story, letting the characters guide where everything’s going. Otherwise it would just be a jumble and a mess.”
Ross agrees, and explains that almost immediately, the writers’ room came to evolve around how to relay the now-trademarked feel of the series. “The bigger discussions, especially early on, were about how we capture the feel of these movies,” he says. “It’s taking a very ordinary object that people deal with every day, their television set, and imbuing it with something otherworldly. Discussions like that led to, for instance, the Christmas lights. Like, let’s take something very ordinary and then make it really come alive in a very different way.”
How Did They Cast it?
Along with writing the thing, the team needed to cast it; a particularly harrowing prospect considering they needed to find child actors who could handle and carry that aforementioned adult material.
“Everyone recognized really early on that if we had even one kid who wasn’t good, it would take the whole ship down,” Matt tells the Beast. “So we just started looking really, really early on. At that point, we just had the pilot script and we had so little material that we were actually having them audition with scenes from ‘Stand By Me.’ ”
Ultimately, Matt adds, “We found four kids that we just fell in love with. Some of them matched the characters in the script and some of them didn’t, really.”
Once the actors were in place, the team quickly found their writing was shaped by their interpretations. “A lot of these actors that we cast made us write more interesting, more three-dimensional characters for them,” Matt explains. “The show is so much better because of these actors. That’s one of the cool things I love about television, is it’s able to evolve and able to adapt and the actors and the performers are actually a more integral part of the process. So they’re informing not just the characters, but the story.”
Along with casting Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, and the rest of the young actors, the team also needed to find the perfect adult actors for a few principal roles, which ultimately went to the unlikely duo of David Harbour and Winona Ryder. Unsurprisingly, casting superstar Carmen Cuba had a hand.
“This was the first time I was casting actors who were in the same age range as my two sons, and I realize now that this was a big factor for who I gravitated to in these roles,” Cuba tells Backstage of initial casting sessions. “Being able to experience the young actors with this very present sense of what, at that age, a person is like, how deeply they think and feel, how connected they are to their younger selves, and yet how fragile they are while transitioning into that next independent phase, was special for me. It might sound corny, but my connection to my own children at this magical time in their lives informed the qualities I wanted these kids to have as people and as actors.”
Along with Brown and Wolfhard, the ensemble of child and teen actors includes Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Gaten Matarazzo, and Charlie Heaton, among others. Cuba, however, makes it clear: Auditioning child actors is just the same as auditioning adult actors, and the Duffer Brothers feel similarly.
“I know this sounds cliché, especially when it comes to casting, but the Duffer Brothers were really just looking for the best actors for the roles,” Cuba adds. “What was great about this process was that we were able to find kids who had so much of their own individual traits and energy that they shaped their own characters organically, and we had enough time before shooting that the writers could build the story to the actual actors we cast.”
While the young stars are certainly the series’ breakouts, “Stranger Things” also marks major career revitalizations for both Harbour and Ryder—and according to Levy, their unexpected casting was as intentional as could be.
“We were able to find kids who had so much of their own individual traits and energy that they shaped their own characters organically.... the writers could build the story to the actual actors we cast.”
“This show was produced by two brothers who had never done television, and a director who directed movies for the last 15 years, so we never really operated with respect for the conventional rules,” Levy tells Backstage. “Winona Ryder was not getting offered a lot of jobs [in 2015]. David Harbour was getting offered jobs, but they tended to be number seven to 12 on the call sheet. We saw David’s audition, we sat for four hours having tea with Winona, and we came away from those interactions with certainty that we’d found our Hopper and our Joyce. We just knew what our characters felt like when we sat across the table from those actors and we wanted to take that shot. My point is, the greatest idea in the world for casting is often not the obvious thought.”
Matt Duffer, clearly, agrees. Recalling the audition phase, he tells Backstage, “[Carmen] was seeing a bunch of New York actors, and I just remember getting a text from her going, ‘Watch David Harbour right now!’ We watched and we were like, ‘Boom. That’s it. That’s our guy. That’s our Hopper.’ ”
Harbour explains in his Backstage cover story his character Hopper checked all his boxes. “I think [Hopper’s evolving characterization] is a much more satisfying arc than really falling in love with the character at the beginning, because it opens up your heart. You see this thing where you can’t really judge a book by its cover. People are more complicated than you give them credit for.”
As the team was at work writing the first season—with all its supernatural twists and turns—they also had to figure out the logistics of a production that would rely heavily on both practical and digital effects. Just like the actors they cast, the monsters they were designing had to be perfect and specific.
“We were turning out scripts as quickly as we could but they don’t have six months to prep this stuff,” Ross tells the Beast. “You show up on set and stuff that seemed like it would be a great idea to do in that old school way, we didn’t have time to do. It takes a lot of trial and error, so that was a lesson learned.”
Their solution, it turned out, was again informed deeply by their predecessors; those whose work they’d grown up on and which formed their artistic purview.
“We’re big fans of Guillermo [del Torro],” Ross adds. “In the company Special Motion that built our monster, the dudes who designed it were the ones who do a lot of Guillermo’s stuff. What we were trying to do with our monster is, first of all, we wanted it to be a dude in a suit, which limits you but in a good way. We wanted it to have a simplicity to it, so that if you’re a 12-year-old and you’re watching the show and you get inspired, you could easily sketch this thing out with your markers or crayons or whatever, then you’d show your friends and they’d instantly go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the Demogorgon, that’s the monster from ‘Stranger Things.’ We wanted it to have a defined silhouette so that it could be recognizable anywhere.”
Finally, the cast was in place, the monsters were made, and the production—as many do these days—made its way to Atlanta, Georgia, where it would shoot. As anyone who’s ever worked in television can attest, things move at hyper-speed and with rigor. Factor in the element of child actors, and getting the shot becomes doubly complicated. This is where Levy’s veteran expertise came to the rescue.
“When I’m in producer mode, I’m kind of the problem-solver, and I need to be someone who stays calm and who my actors trust to simply handle things,” Levy tells Backstage. “When you’re the director, it’s a much more emotional and intimate relationship with your cast, because you’re crafting moments. You’re crafting emotional details that require you as a director to get into the emotional life of your actor. For instance, when I was directing the Season 2 episode when Hopper and Eleven have that massive blowout fight in the cabin, that felt like 10 hours [of shooting] where the three of us were conjoined in an emotional experience.”
“When you’re the director, it’s a much more emotional and intimate relationship with your cast. You’re crafting emotional details that require you as a director to get into the emotional life of your actor. ”
Levy also knew his approach on this series had to be an especially malleable one, because kids are kids, even if they are also incredible actors. “We’ve definitely found, especially with young actors, if you can avoid saying ‘cut,’ it’s better,” he explains to Backstage. “Because it’s so much easier to make an adjustment and keep rolling, because the attention span and the retention and the application of the note or the adjustment is a lot easier if you can give a note and the actor can redo it right away.”
The team does work hard to accommodate young actors, however, every actor no matter their age is part of the series’ well-oiled machine. Thus, when actors arrive on the Atlanta set, “We just kind of throw them into the deep end,” Matt Duffer tells Backstage—with a good-natured laugh. “We’re not able to coax these performances out of them.”
A day onset is as follows: First, a couple of run-throughs during which, Matt says, “everyone’s acting at usually about 30 percent [and] no one’s actually bringing it.” The brothers will then determine camera placement and give their necessary notes to actors. However, they are very careful to micromanage. “You don’t want to go, ‘David, you’re going to move from this spot in the living room to that spot in the kitchen,” says Matt, adding, “He needs a little bit of freedom.” Next comes 45 or so minutes for lighting before it’s time to actually shoot. “We’ll call cut after the first take, because the first take is never good,” Matt says.
Matt also makes it clear, though, that he is not precious about who can and cannot receive direction. “[The kids] don’t get insulted if I shout directions at them,” he says (although doing the same with Harbour or Winona Ryder would admittedly be “a little rude”). He does keep the notes fairly simple, though, along the lines of: “Say that line again!,” “Bigger!,” and “Energy times 10!” He adds: “You can’t get all intellectual about it. I’ve found that kind of stuff never works.”
It took six months to shoot Season 1, according to Entertainment Weekly, with approximately 11 days devoted to each of the eight individual episodes. Fast forward to July 15, 2016, and the series is released in full—with little fanfare prior.
But the world took notice, and the following year, so did the Emmys. The freshman series was nominated for outstanding drama, along with 17 additional nominations including for Harbour and Brown. (Season 2 would go on to notch another 12 Emmy nods, solidifying the streamer as an awards contender.)
And, though Netflix is notoriously opaque when it comes to ratings, it is a well-founded assumption it fares well on that front, too. According to the official Netflix Twitter account, the third season (which aired this past summer) saw 40.7 million household accounts watched at least one episode within four days of its initial release. Yeah, that’s a lot of Eggos.
Where Do We Go From Here?
With three seasons now out in the world and a fourth on the way, each installment of “Stranger Things” is concerted in its efforts not to reinvent the wheel, but to add new spokes; new characters (and of course actors) have been added every year.
And though details for the impending new season are being kept tightly under wraps, obviously, it appears the Duffers and co. will have many more casting opportunities. Sources close to the production have revealed four new male roles will be added to the roster, three of which will be teens and one an adult, according to TV Line. A release date is not yet known, but fans can likely expect a release at some point in 2021.
Per usual, keep up with us at Backstage for opportunities to actually get cast on the series, as well as interviews with the cast and creators, casting news, and all the information you can get on this side of Hawkins, Indiana.