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Stories From the Set of Stranger Things, the TV Escape We Need Right Now

Stories From the Set of Stranger Things, the TV Escape We Need Right Now
From TIME - October 17, 2017

Everyones tired on the set of Stranger Things. Im visiting on a Friday in May, and a months-long, effects-heavy Season 2 shoot is grinding toward its end. Its going slow, says Millie Bobby Brown, the 13-year-old Emmy nominee who plays the supernatural character Eleven. Last season, it felt like we were rapid. Everything was fast, she says. But now the anticipation from the fans scares everyone. It makes the Duffers stressed. It makes us stressed.

The Duffers are Matt and Ross, identical 33-year-old twins and the maestros of a show that was about the only thing every-one seemed able to agree on during the contentious summer of 2016. The Netflix series, whose eight-episode first season arrived with relatively little fanfare that July, was set in 1983 and told the story of a group of young Dungeons & Dragonsplaying friends who encounter interdimensional forces. As they look for their missing friend Will (Noah Schnapp), they befriend a mysteriously powerful preteen girl (Brown). Wills mother (Winona Ryder) unravels as she searches for him with the help of a hard-living cop (David Harbour). And Wills loner older brother (Charlie Heaton) warily teams up with other teenagers in their small town of Hawkins, Ind., to find him.

But what made the show so addictive was its clever and lovingly detailed packaging, from wood-paneled rec rooms and Schlitz-fueled teen keggers to a soundtrack of Toto and the Clash. References underpinned the story at every level. The show didnt just use Ryder, the queen of 1980s teen cinema, in a comeback role. It also brilliantly employed the visual language of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg as well as the sinister-yet-comforting narratives of Stephen King. Stranger Things added up to something that not only felt like it came out of the 80s but also let you relive the decadeeven if you werent there the first time around. All in one bingeable package.

Stranger Things also became a huge hit. While Netflix does not release viewer-ship numbers, the show made an obvious impact. Last Halloween, you might have noticed more than a few kids, and grownups, dressed as Eleven, or wrapped in Christmas lights to look like Ryders character, Joyce, at her most forlorn. The Stranger Things kids became fixtures at awards shows, on late-night TV and on magazine covers. Hollywood took notice, too, honoring the show with 18 Emmy nominations and the top prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. To see Meryl Streep standing up and clapping for us was so weird. I never really thought it would happen, says Brown.

If Stranger Things now seems like a predestined success, it was a fairly edgy bet even by Netflix standards. After all, the shows creators were as green as they come. The Duffers had fairly thin rsumsa little-seen horror film released in 2015, a writing gig on a short-lived M. Night Shyamalan TV showwhen they put together their pitch. It consisted of a book of images and a mock trailer summing up what their show would be. It was super-nuts, says Matt. Sometimes Ill ask them point-blank why they let us do it at all. On Oct. 27, when a new season of Stranger Things comes out, well get to see how nuts exactlyand just how far the Duffers can push television forward by looking backward.

In action, the Duffers tend to move in tandem. When the scene Im watching them film ends, one brother bolts to advise the actors and the other is up and following before anybody can even parse which one called Cut. Both wear T-shirts, jeans and the sort of retro sneakers that look like what you mightve worn to high school gym class in 1984. Between takes, the kids gleefully goof off. Their acting is jazzy and improvisational as theyre encouraged to amp up their terror take after take. The Duffers parents are visiting the set today, watching the action with headphones on from behind their director sons.

Matt and Ross Duffer grew up in Durham, N.C., where, Matt says, it was hard to get or even hear about more obscure films. Instead, they went to the video store and rented the sort of crowd-pleasing, all-ages movies that Hollywood doesnt really make anymore. The Duffers claim that their influences are more tonal than specific, that they draw upon the cinema of the past for mood more than detail. We honestly werent thinking about the references as much, says Ross. Wed do a few winks, and of course we talked about E.T. when we first came up with this show, but that wasnt the primary focus. Lets just tell the best story we can and hopefully well capture some of the magic of these movies we loved growing up.

Theres something essential about those references to Stranger Things resonance. Theyve turned into an Internet parlor game among fans, who hunt out specific shots, for example, that might tie the show to its adventure-film heritage. And despite the Duffers protestations, its easy to get them talking about specific sequences that are meant as homage. One scene I observed featured Max (Sadie Sink), a new member of the kid cast this year, driving a car with a block under her foot to reach the gas pedal. Thats exactly like Short Round in Temple of Doom, Ross says, referring to Jonathan Ke Quans character in the second Indiana Jones film, which was released the year when Stranger Things second season is set. Spielberg has an identical shot. The whole scene is informed by something elseand then lets do one wink for the fans. The Duffers are a very specific sort of fan: slightly too young to remember the material theyre quoting firsthand. They were too young to see E.T. in theaters, for instance, but they were able to watchand pause, and rewind, and restartthe VHS tape endlessly at home.

The shows first season seemed to wrap up Wills journey out of captivity, only to suggest that he came back more haunted than his buddies might realize. The ending seemed to promise deeper excavation into what the shows characters call the Upside Down, the nether-world within or beneath Hawkins, with new kids and a new commitment to figuring out what exactly happened and is still happening in the paranormal town. This year, in terms of scope and size, its much closer to what weve always wanted the show to be, says Matt. The Duffers say this sequel moves the plot forward while keeping the series signatures. Among those signatures are, of course, the interplay between the kidswhich is running up against a ticking clock of sorts. As Matt puts it, Our kids are growing, and we have to get the show out, whether its a compromise or not.

Among the biggest expectations for Season 2 is that it come out before the shows young stars get much older. Working with children plainly has its challenges. Theyre a pain in the ass! I love them, but [by law] you can only work with them for a certain number of hours, Matt tells me. Were having a somewhat rushed conversation during a lunch break between shoots for a scene that includes most of the kids. Theyre going to get yanked away from us at 7 even though were not going to be done with them, he adds.

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