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Shawn Levy on Why He Produced Stranger Things When Others Passed On It

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The name Shawn Levy may not be as familiar to Stranger Things fans as, say, Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown, or Finn Wolfhard. But without him, there likely wouldn’t be a Stranger Things at all. The powerhouse director and producer behind the Night at the Museum franchise and Arrival, and now executive producer of Stranger Things, saw so much potential in Matt and Ross Duffer’s retro-fantasy pitch, he helped shepherd the show to Netflix where it has become the streaming company’s most talked-about series. Vulture sat down with the Montreal native inside the Fox-based offices of his company, 21 Laps Entertainment, to discuss how and he the Duffers approached the enormity of Stranger Things 2, the bizarre odyssey of securing rights to use Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” why Hollywood’s longstanding “culture of being a dick” helped spawn the Harvey Weinstein mess, and why there’s “really no protecting” Stranger Things’ young stars from the unforgiving madness of stardom.

How much stress did you and the Duffer brothers feel when you sat down to map out season two of Stranger Things, knowing that fan expectations were insane, and you were filming young actors who were growing and changing by the minute?
The good news is that we started cooking up ideas for season two before we even launched season one. I should say that my job on Stranger Things begins and ends with answering: What do the brothers need? The Duffers trust very few people as their defender, surrogate, and partner, so I take that privilege really seriously. They were able to conceive much of season two before the show became a juggernaut, but certainly over the summer of 2016, the deafening cultural noise added a layer of pressure and expectations.

How will you gauge success for season two? We don’t know the actual numbers, so what is your methodology?
It’s all about the number of Vulture articles. [Laughs.] For starters, in the absence of matrices like ratings, cultural imprint becomes a barometer for success. Have we affected people in a way that has them thinking and talking about our story in real life and on social media? I’m not going to bullshit and say, “We don’t care if critics love it.” Of course we want them talking about it in a positive way. But cultural feedback from social media is going to be a big part of how we feel if we’ve succeeded. But I will say this: Before we launched season one, I sat in the mixing sessions and felt we’d made something pretty singular. I had no idea if people would like it, but I knew it was pretty good. With season two, I know it’s good. The brothers have deepened their storytelling and done it without abandoning the characters. We love the damaged, bruised outcasts in the show. We identify with them being marginalized and overlooked people who come together to do something important. In that way, Stranger Things has a big element of wish fulfillment. I think there has also been a cultural shift…

That the geeks have inherited the earth — not the jock bullies.
Yes the geeks won. The jock bullies lost! Sometimes we see bullies have moments of resurgence, but the tolerance for that is, I pray to God, waning.

Speaking of bullies, how have you felt — as a powerful male producer and director working in Hollywood – to see the wide-reaching alleged abuses committed by Harvey Weinstein?
The Harvey thing has unleashed a breadth of revelation that is appalling and deeply troubling.  I would love to see intolerance for such behavior applied everywhere because in very recent history, we’ve seen the same behavior not only fail to be punished, but fucking rewarded. That keeps me up at night.

Where and how have you seen it rewarded?
Well, right now, literally up to and including the highest office in our country. I really don’t know how to reconcile the injustice of that with Harvey — who is being rightfully condemned, fired, and exiled, likely forever — when we’ve seen the same behavior admitted to and not even remotely punished in our own government. And by the way, there are far less extreme villains than Harvey all over Hollywood; fellow directors of mine who are known pricks. But you can’t get away with that behavior forever because nobody is in the power seat forever. In the absence of some grounding forces — whether it’s the right spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, sibling, kids — so many become worse versions of themselves. I feel strongly that my four daughters and my wife of 22 years have constantly kept me tethered to a better version of myself.

How do you, as an influential producer and a director, ensure that people are treated fairly, respectfully, and safely on set or in your offices on the Fox lot?
I am incapable of keeping feelings inside. I actually don’t even understand a capacity to keep feelings inside, sometimes to my detriment! I always want to talk it all out. If I’m digging what you’re doing, I’m going to tell you. If we have an issue with each other, or you make me or anyone else feel shitty, or someone tells me you’re being shitty, I’m going to have that talk too. It’s all about emotional transparency. I hope the effects of the Harvey mess are durable. And it’s about more than just inappropriate sexual advances; rather, an entire culture of being a dick. The correlation between dick-hood and talent is just bad dogma.

Have you ever worked with Harvey Weinstein?
We never have, but I’ve had a breakfast meeting at the Peninsula Hotel and met him a number of times over the years. I have seen the charisma and the charm, and that is the beast that’s hardest to reconcile. He was the defining producer and distributor of a movement of cinema, and now the name Weinstein itself is forever tarnished. 

Is there a moment you can point to in Stranger Things where you felt you wielded your power as a producer in an especially meaningful way?
In the Duffers’ first script for season two, they wanted to use costumes* from the original Ghostbusters. Much like using the Millennium Falcon on season one, this was a hard get. We went through conventional channels, and the answer was no. It was the same thing when we wanted to use “Thriller” for our trailer. In all three of those cases, the brothers turned to me and said: “Warlock,” that’s their nickname for me, “We need Ghostbusters.” I said, “Okay, leave this with me. I’m on it.” So I personally called [director] Ivan [Reitman] and he said yes! Getting “Thriller” for the season-two trailer, however, took months. We tried 50 other songs. Literally, I’d wake up at 4 a.m. thinking, “It’s a good trailer, but it’s not going to make people lose their mother-effing minds.” So without telling the brothers, I went back into it with the lawyers for Michael Jackson’s estate, which was complicated by factors I won’t go into right now. Suffice it to say, it was a big group of people that had to come to a yes.

Did they know the show?
Some did. Part of my job as a producer was conveying that the value of a song being in Stranger Things was far bigger than money. Trust me, we’re paying good money too [laughs], but my central thesis was, “I know it sounds like I want the benefit of your song in our trailer, but you’re going to get the benefit of our show being linked to your artist’s song.” Mere days before Comic-Con, I got the “Yes.” It was one of my happiest moments of my career. So when people ask me, what is a producer’s job? I tell them: Whatever it takes. And in this case, it was making 50 phone calls for three months to get permission to use one song.

What do you think filmmakers can learn from the success of Stranger Things, especially about what fans of all ages most want from entertainment right now?
I will tell you one thing: The reason so many people passed on Stranger Things is that no one wanted to bet on these unknown brothers and nobody believed that something starring kids could work unless it was only for kids. That was the conventional wisdom even in family films: You always needed adult leads. Stranger Things always centered on these kids. So I think and hope the show ratifies the lesson that, when taking bold chances, sometimes you will whiff; but when you connect, you can change everything. Arrival took us five years to make. Why? Well, it had a female protagonist, a horror-film screenwriter, and a director who had never done science fiction. There were all kinds of reasons it didn’t make sense. But when I see talent I believe in, we’re going to bet on that talent.
And that has led to pretty much every success I’ve had. Personally, I felt frustration for years because studios kept offering me only family films. “Oh Shawn Levy would be perfect for that!” That’s why I’m so enjoying this new chapter in my career. It’s funny — I started directing the show just to help the brothers write; when I’d direct, they could be back home in Los Angeles hibernating and writing. I didn’t realize I’d have such affinity for this darker, more dramatic genre. I’ve made a few movies that aren’t broad comedies, but it’s generally been lighter fare. The show has made me seek out movies to direct that give me similar opportunities to grow.

So the series has essentially, and perhaps inadvertently, become your new director’s calling card.
Yes. I’ve had meetings where they invoke my Christmas-lights episode of Stranger Things more than any of the 11 movies I’ve directed. [Laughs.] It’s unbelievable. I’m a little noncommittal on karma and fate, but within months of finishing the last Night at the Museum, I said, “I’m going to start passing on movies, slow down, and see what comes my way. Let the game come to me.” I had averaged a movie every year until that point, which is a little unhealthy. Then Dan Cohen, my vice-president, walks into my office and says, “Read this pilot.” I know this will read as bicoastal froufrou and liberal-bubble vagary, but I truly believe that to some extent, this is all the result of doing right by people.

How much responsibility do you feel to protect your young actors, who are rapidly becoming stars outside of Stranger Things?
There’s really no protecting them. They have good families, but ultimately neither their families nor we as their producers and directors can protect them from the tsunami of hype and admiration. The one thing we can do is, from the moment they set foot on our set, hold them to consistent expectations. “We expect you to be devoted to this scene in the same way you were when you were an unknown kid 18 months ago.” I have found that clarifies and simplifies everything. “Here on this set, in Joyce Meyers’s living room, you’re still just the person I hired. I expect greatness from you every day just like I always did.” The closest we can come to protecting them from all that noise is to expect the most from them and their craft.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*An earlier version of this piece said that Ghostbusters footage was in Stranger Things 2. In fact, Ghostbusters costumes are in the new season.

Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18! Tickets available here.

Shawn Levy on Producing Stranger Things When Others Passed