Shawn Levy, who made his bones as a “popcorn movie director” with films like Night at the Museum, is experiencing something, well, strange with Netflix’s Stranger Things. “Now I’m kind of recognizing that maybe the only blockbusters this summer — true cultural event blockbusters — are on a smaller screen. And that’s fine by me,” said Levy, whose company, 21 Laps, produces the show. Levy, who along with producing also directed episodes three and four of the first season, and makes a brief cameo as a morgue worker, gave Vulture a behind-the-scenes peek at your favorite summer show, including making the Demogorgon, casting the child actors, and feeding Barb monster goo. Spoilers ahead.
The monster was half-human, half CGI.
Like a true Spielberg classic, a lot of effort went into building the practical effects, including the Demogorgon, the monster from the Upside Down. “When we started the series, the plan was to use 90 percent man-in-a-suit,” said Levy. “As we got into it we realized we wanted the monster to be humanoid, so we didn’t want him to move with purely human mechanics. We ended up doing more of a 50/50 split between our practical monster shots and pure CG monster.” When shot on film, the monster was “a man on low stilts in a rubber monster suit, hosed down with slimy goo,” which became something of a safety issue when the goo made it difficult for the stunt actor to walk without slipping.
At least the goop that Barb had to spit out 14 times was edible?
While her time on Stranger Things was brief, Barb, played by newcomer Shannon Purser, was certainly memorable. And that includes her ostensible (after all, who can say for sure?) death scene in the Upside Down pool area. “For every take, we coated her with a fresh coat of goo,” said Levy. “Before every take we would roll the camera, Barb would open her mouth, and we would shoot a syringe filled with Upside-Down goo into her mouth, because every take she needed to start the take by spitting up a mouthful of Upside-Down goo.”
Don’t worry, though, they weren’t making your summer fave put industrial goop into her mouth. “It was a mixture of baby food, olive oil, some water, and some marmalade,” said Levy. “It was some weird-ass combo of ingredients, but completely nontoxic and, if necessary, edible.” Levy added, “We did like 14 takes of that opening shot, and every time she was a gamer.”
That was Levy himself yanking poor Barb into the swimming pool.
“She’s literally covered in the disgusting, slimy material that coats the other dimension in our show and hanging off a pool railing with me and a bunch of stunt guys yanking at her ankles to simulate the monster dragging her to oblivion,” Levy said. “And I kept saying, ‘Shannon, I’m so sorry to put you through this. I’m so sorry to put you through this.’ And she kept saying, ‘Shawn, I just finished high school. This is my first acting job ever. I’m in heaven. More please.’ So literally Shannon is this incredible movie-buff nerd who got to play the doomed character in a movie-buff-nerd’s fantasy series.” Barb! A woman after our hearts.
Winona Ryder nailed the alphabet.
Early in the season, Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce, realizes she can communicate with her son, Will, while he was trapped in the netherworld by creating her own Ouija board on the wall. “We needed to get that right in one take; otherwise it would’ve been 45 minutes to bring in a different wall, and we shot on a pretty tight schedule,” said Levy. “So Winona was really aware that she could not screw it up. And, thank God, she nailed the alphabet in a straight line without too much paint splatter or drip in one take.”
Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) was the easiest child actor to cast.
The Duffers, co-executive producer Dan Cohen, and Levy saw “literally hundreds of kids” before settling on their chosen ones: “Many talented kids were rejected because they didn’t feel rough and authentic enough.” But the one they all agreed on from the jump was Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin. “The second Gaten walked in, we were like, Okay well we’re done looking for Dustin, because he’s in the room with us right frickin’ now. I remember that being the most un-debatable casting decision,” said Levy. “He has the greatest face on planet Earth, and he has such a natural comedic instinct that we needed in that group. We knew Mike was going to be something of a leader. We knew Lucas was dealing with suspicion and anger. So we needed a force of pure positivity and levity, and Gaten walked in with that.”
And the kids can sing!
It’s not just Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the laconic Eleven, who can sing. The other child actors including Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are both in major musical productions. Gaten was in the national tour of Les Miserables as Gavroche, and McLaughlin has played Simba in The Lion King on Broadway. “There was the occasional show tune on set,” said Levy. “Whether it was singing the Clash or ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ they had freakishly great voices.”
Jonathan had a real hard time with the word Nancy.
British actor Charlie Heaton, who plays town loner Jonathan Byers, had some trouble with his American accent — specifically the word Nancy. “The number-one word that was challenging for him in his American accent, was Nancy, which is important because “he probably screams that name 50 times in the season,” said Levy. “So we would occasionally have to re-record Jonathan’s dialogue to make his ‘Nancy’ pronunciations more American.”
In earlier scripts, Jonathan works at a movie theater.
While Jonathan’s job isn’t of major consequence in season one (well, except for the fact that picking up an extra shift means he’s not home when Will gets abducted by the monster), in earlier scripts it functioned as more of an on-the-nose homage. “Jonathan had a job at the movie theater, and so he and Nancy used that movie theater in Hawkins as their hideout once they were aware of the monster,” said Levy. “The movie was made by movie nerds for movie nerds. This is that love letter, and this is what happens when you give movie nerds a shot at making their whole own TV show exactly the way they want.”
Will’s dead body was actually a “grown-ass woman.”
In the scene where Will’s body is supposedly “discovered” in the quarry, the original plan was to use a dummy replica — like the one they used at the morgue. “As we got close to filming, we were worried that it wouldn’t look real enough for Hopper and the kids to believe,” said Levy. “So we asked a stunt woman to go into that icy 3 a.m. water as Will Byers so that it would look maximum convincing.” The stuntperson was a “a grown-ass woman” in her 30s in a short-hair wig and Will’s costume. Levy said, “She had to lay perfectly still. It was like 3 a.m. and really crazy cold. But that is what we ended up using.”