'Stranger Things' Producer Reveals How they Made Season 3 Bigger and Darker Than Ever
The kids and monsters of Hawkins, Indiana are back to run amok this Fourth of July. Stranger Things has returned for its highly anticipated third season, which sees Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and the gang facing new threats from the Upside Down and beyond. The critically well-received new season, according to producer Shawn Levy, takes the series in a darker direction and ups the action and scope without forgetting its greatest draw: its characters.
Levy and his producing partner, Dan Cohen, are two of the key players responsible for the Netflix show that hit pop culture like an atom bomb. Levy, who previously directed Real Steel, Night at the Museum, and Cheaper by the Dozen, took about a five-year break from filmmaking to produce the series, as well Arrival, The Spectacular Now, and other films. But as the founder of 21 Laps Entertainment and a director on Stranger Things, he simply didn’t want to leave Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things for a year or two to make another movie.
He’s now back to shooting his next movie, Free Guy (starring Ryan Reynolds), but he made the time to tell us about the making of Stranger Things Season 3 without dropping any spoilers to ruin all the fun.
Thrillist: When the Duffers first told you their vision for the show, how much long-term plans did they have? Did they already have ideas that made their way in Season 3?
Shawn Levy: No. The Duffers always have vague notions in their head, but A) They play it close to the chest, and B) When I say vague, I mean pretty damn vague. Because their great ability, in my opinion, one of their great abilities, is improvisation on the fly. They are always nimble to explore ideas that become interesting to them. And characters, they'll reveal interesting dimensions. And so, while there were a lot of ideas percolating beyond Season 1, it was never charted out with specificity. I'm happy about that because every season is reacting, not only to the lessons we've learned in the prior ones, but to the ways in which the characters have grown, and where might it be interesting to take them next.
Do they rewrite much during shooting?
Levy: No. There's almost none. Coming from a comedy background, as I do, I actually can't believe how strictly we adhere to the scripts on Stranger Things. But that is because, when the scripts get written, the Duffers select every word. Whether they're the original writers of the episode or they're rewriting scripts by their writing staff, they literally question that and select every word. So by the time we go into day one of an episode shooting block, the brothers have poured over that script with a fine-tooth comb. And that tends to be 99% exactly what we shoot.
This show didn’t have to find its footing since it had such a strong identity from the start, but how different is it now approaching a season? Do you guys have a list of dos and don'ts for Stranger Things?
Levy: First of all, I agree with you. I have to say when the brothers first brought their script and their workbook into my office, there was a confidence in their vision that was evident from day one. And that's remarkable given that they had never created anything for TV. They were 33 years old, and yet their vision and their voice was so self-assured right out of the gate. And that was a big part of why I had to be a part of it and wanted to bet on them.
As far as the dos and don'ts, there's nothing codified and written down, but I would say the only big, memorable lesson we've learned was with episode seven of Season 2 when we get away from our core. When we leave Hawkins, and more critically when we leave our characters for an extended time, we tend to lose our anchor into the things that make us Stranger Things. So while episode seven, Eleven in Chicago, was an idea that was really fascinating on paper, I think we and our fans felt, that while it was a noble exploration, it got away from our DNA in a way that we won't be so quick to do again. We learned some valuable lessons there, but like most lessons in life, it has to be learned by trying rather than by being told.
Sounds like that episode was a great lesson then.
Levy: Most lessons come with some bruising in the moment, but they're valuable down the line.
Absolutely. One of the more memorable experiences recently at Comic-Con was when the trailer for Season 2 debuted, featuring "Thriller."
Levy: What a day. What a day.
What were some of the tough gets for Season 3? I imagine the music budget is huge for the show, but does your music supervisor ever have any problem securing '80s classics?
Levy: Well, I think there were actually stories about the saga of "Thriller" and how it literally... in fact, we got rejected so many times. I literally spent four or five months personally making it my mission to find a way to a yes. And by the way, the same thing had happened when we were turned down for Ghostbusters, we were turned down for the Millennium Falcon in Season 1. And I guess, to your point, we were initially turned down for "Heroes," the Peter Gabriel cover of the Bowie-Brian Eno song, in Season 1. And again, we knew we had to have it, so we found some crazy road; just someone who could give us a yes.
So I would say in Season 3, the music budget is healthy. Our music supervisor is awesome. It is definitely a team effort, so as long as it gets adjusted by Nora [Felder], our music supervisor, many get suggested by the Duffers or me as we're sitting in the edit room. Some are from our editor. So the ideas come from many different sources. I would say, on a regular basis, we will try 10 to 30 songs for a single music slot until it feels exactly right. And there are several moments that I think you're going to find really memorable in Season 3 with iconic songs. Some of which we knew we wanted from the script stage but many of which we didn't land on until well down the road in editorial and through a lot of trial and error.
I imagine with Season 3 you all didn’t hear "no" that often when you were trying to get a song or brand.
Levy: I will say this, we don't hear no a lot when we're trying to get a brand or a song, but there is definitely still a budget. Make no mistake, we can't afford all of the songs we want. We can afford about 80% of the songs we want, and we choose which are the ones we can replace without too much emotional loss.
You’ve said before Season 3 is a little darker and has more action, so as both a producer and director on the show, how do you think Season 3 changes or evolves the visual language of the series?
Levy: Well, without question, it does have more than a little more scope; it's just a pretty radical escalation. Certainly there's a lot more visual effects, but as always, we try to anchor the visual effects work in practical effects. So, for instance, if there's a monster like you've seen in our trailer, we're never just going to create it out of thin air. We're going to have interactivity with real-world objects. Seeing the real-world effect of that monster, for instance, using practical effects on the ground, in the room, with us and our actors.
So, there's an evolution of visual effects still rooted in practical interactivity. Even the scope of the '80s, going from a high school hallway to a full-scale, real, actual mall of 1985, that's an escalation. But it's still very much in the language of our show, which is authenticity to the '80s. So I guess, to your point, our whole mandate is, "It's OK to get bigger, but we must stay authentic to our DNA." And that means, even if there's bigger action set pieces there has to be the balancing presence of character scenes, and humor, and emotionality. As long as we always go back to our characters, bigger doesn't feel unhinged. It still feels connected to our world or Stranger Things and our characters that are our lifeblood.
After two seasons, you all know what these actors are fully capable of with these characters. Knowing what they bring to the roles now, what qualities of the main ensemble influence how the Duffers write them now?
Levy: I would say there is no greater influence on the story ideas than the abilities of our actors. And, even though they're young guys, what is remarkable about these actors is they regularly recognize strength in a given actor and become determined to craft story that will exploit that strength.
Maybe the most famous example, thus far, is the invention of "Dad Steve" [in Season 3], which was never an idea going into Season 2. And yet, consistently, Joe Keery for instance, is an actor who is endlessly fascinating and that's why Steve Harrington has evolved radically over three seasons. When we saw the strength in Millie, and the very different form of immense strength in David Harbour, the Duffers were determined to pair them as a duo for Season 2. You're going to see similar, new dynamics in Season 3 that are the direct result of seeing what our actors can bring.
Obviously, fans have a lot of expectations for this show. They don’t dictate the choices the Duffers make, but do they ever influence them? For example, when people really liked Lucas’ sister, did that lead to discussions about having more of her in the show?
Levy: I think that's a very fine line because if you listen too hard you lose your inner voice. And frankly, a big part of my job is to always protect the inner voice of Matt and Ross Duffer. So, you hear it. There's a lot of cultural noise and you hear it, but we try not to abide by it too badly.
However, Lucas and Erica Sinclair are the perfect example. There was no missing the way Erica resonated with audiences, even though she only had what, three or four lines last year? Suddenly she's a series regular and she is very much caught in the thick of the Season 3 storyline. So we definitely are aware of fan reactions, and we take into account how much we want to go down those roads. If we listen too hard, Barb would still be alive; she would have come back from the dead.
In the past, the Duffers have referenced Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and even The Conversation and Prisoners for the first two seasons. What movies and shows inspired Season 3?
Levy: Well, I don't want to give too much away. There's everything from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers to Back to the Future to Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg; always Spielberg. I think there are shots, even in the last trailer, that any Spielberg fan will recognize as being in the language of Steven. Everything from Close Encounters to Jurassic Park. The use of camerawork with suspense and actor staging. Maybe the most magnificent example being in that basement scene in War of the Worlds.
Levy: So good. And even in our trailer, you can see moments that were inspired by that. Steven is a friend and a colleague of mine; he's an idol of the Duffers. So I would say, even though every year the touchstone movies shift, as far as the ones that are in our minds, the legacy of Spielberg's filmmaking is always coursing through the veins of Stranger Things.
That’s another fine line the show walks. The show’s sense of nostalgia is great, but that’s really just a small part of its charm.
Levy: Thank you for saying that, because I always think it's really reductive and really misses the point to attribute Stranger Things' success to the nostalgia factor. Of course that's a part of it, and of course we are a show that is made for and by movie nerds, right? Like, that's a fact. But the alchemy of Stranger Things, the magic of Stranger Things, is the warmth, humanity, and loyalty of these characters. It is the mixture of lightness and darkness. That, to me, is the special sauce. And that is wholly our own and that is the Duffer brothers. Not the Duffer brothers quoting other filmmakers. It is their own creation, and that is what's special about it.