The Duffer Brothers Recap Stranger Things 2, ‘Chapter One: MadMax’

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Netflix

As a supplement to our recaps of Stranger Things 2, we asked Matt and Ross Duffer — recent subjects of a New York Magazine profile and the creators of the Netflix sci-fi drama — to get nitty-gritty about the creative decisions behind each of the season’s nine episodes. We present this information in a series that could only be called one thing: the Duffer-caps of Stranger Things 2.

In this Duffer-cap of episode one, the Duffer brothers discuss the thinking behind that surprising opening sequence in Pittsburgh, the creation of the Hawkins town arcade, and the casting of some crucial new characters who make their debuts in “MadMax.”

The Opening Sequence

Ross: It’s this idea of starting to expand the world, starting to introduce some new tones that we were excited about. That was really what it is, and just to start [the season] off with a bang. And honestly, being super-childish, Matt and I have just always wanted to do a car chase, so that was the impetus, just to do a car chase. It was very fun to shoot.

Matt: Everybody was like, “It’s so dumb for you guys to be out there doing this, you really need to be writing. Just get second unit to do it.” The whole reason I wrote this was so we could try to shoot a car chase, and then learn how you shoot a car chase.

Ross: It was a pretty time-consuming endeavor, but we wanted to throw people off a little bit and make them feel a little bit uncomfortable. It’s always the balancing act, right? You’re trying to do new and different things. You don’t want to repeat yourself. You want to be familiar, but not too familiar. That’s obviously the struggle moving forward.

Matt: We always looked at the movie sequels that we admired, and they always pivot and they always try new things. Even if you swing and miss, at least you’re trying something different.

We did [shoot the scene in Atlanta], and then the [Pittsburgh] skyline we added. Instead of [Kali] manipulating this tunnel, it used to be that she was manipulating a bridge. We were going to have this really spectacular bridge sequence, and there’s a lot of really great bridges in Pittsburgh. That’s I think ultimately why we chose it, but you just cannot find a bridge anywhere even near Atlanta. You actually can’t even find a tunnel. That tunnel was actually about 20 feet long. It was ridiculous. It was the tiniest, puniest tunnel, and we just ended up extending it with computer graphics.

We were definitely going for [a Dark Knight vibe]. Some of this stuff happens subconsciously, so I’m sure, yeah, we were ripping off Chris Nolan. Some of it was deliberately. We put on movie music when we write — I know I wrote that [scene] to The Dark Knight score or The Matrix, one or the other. But we love that kind of film, and we don’t usually get to explore that kind of vibe or tone on the show, so I think that’s really why we did it.

The Arcade

Ross: We wanted to do an arcade. We thought that would be a great location … so that was one of the initial ideas we wanted to use to kick off our story. Also, we wanted to introduce another girl in the group. So we used those two first ideas to propel at least the story line of our kids [from] that first season.

Matt: We’re starting work on season three, and you start to get excited about different imagery [when you start a season]. So we had an idea of an arcade, of him seeing a storm outside of the arcade, that helped define the season for us. You just want to expand it a little bit more: You want new locations, you want new colors, you want new characters. So that’s really what episode one is about, just starting to introduce these new flavors and characters into the show.

Ross: Our production designer took this abandoned space — it was just incredible — and completely turned it into the Palace. For us, just as video-game nerds, it was really a dream come true.

Matt: I don’t know what [the building] was [before]. It was disgusting, whatever it was. I mean, there was so much junk in there. You could not move without falling over. I didn’t go in there because it was unhealthy. But yeah, they completely transformed it. Our production designer, Chris Trujillo, is just amazing, so he really took this place over. It’s in a really small town in Georgia, and I think people got really excited that there was an arcade coming. Only to realize that, no, it’s not for you at all. Sorry.

Dragon’s Lair we played a lot as kids. It’s a fun game to look at — it’s not a very fun game to play. Everyone who played it as a kid had the same experience: It’s outrageously expensive, it looks really cool, it draws you in like a magnet, and then it just takes your money and is very frustrating. All these barcades are popping up now, and I was at one recently and they had Dragon’s Lair there. And no one is playing it because it’s not a very good game. But it’s still 50 cents! It’s 2017 now, and 50 cents is a lot less, but it still felt like it was ripping you off. It’s such an impossible game.

Dig-Dug I don’t think I ever played, weirdly, but that tied into the story of this season really well. One of our writers was like, “We have to do Dig-Dug because it’s going to tie into our tunnel story line.”

Not all of them, but most of the games were functional. And it was free! Unfortunately, when you’re shooting you don’t have a ton of downtime, but when there was downtime, we’d just boot up Pac-Man.

R0ss: We were hoping to do with the arcade what we did in season one with D&D, which was to do a bit of foreshadowing for the whole season, with Lucas getting Princess Daphne, and the monsters in Dig-Dug. We were hoping to roughly set up where we were going to go in the next nine hours.

Casting Dacre Montgomery As Billy

Photo: Courtesy Netflix

Matt: The funny thing is Steve was supposed to be [our ’80s movie villain], and then we found Joe Keery and we fell in love with this kid. He had this charisma, and even when he was reading the douchey scenes we wrote for him, there was something kind of likable about him. Steve was just a jackass, just a bad guy. The casting of Joe was what forced us to do something more interesting with the role. But then we were like, “We do really want just a bad human character, a human villain.” That’s why we created the character of Billy. That’s something that Stephen King always has in his works. There’s a human villain who’s just as bad, if not worse than the supernatural one. That was the intention here.

Ross: Dacre Montgomery just gave one of those auditions. It’s my favorite, when you see those auditions that you’re just like, “That’s the guy.” We didn’t even have to bring Dacre to L.A. to read with anyone. He made such clear, bold choices, and to everyone who saw it, it was like, “This guy is something special.” I think they even showed his audition at a Netflix board meeting or something. He’s dancing to music, he’s wearing all sorts of costumes. I mean, I’ve watched thousands of auditions now, and it’s by far the most bonkers that I’ve witnessed, but it was great. It had that kind of edge and energy you needed for Billy. This is a guy who can be fun one second, and in the next, you’re terrified for your life.

Matt: Billy was supposed to have a bigger role. We ended up having so many characters it ended up, in a way, more teed up for season three than anything. There was a whole teen supernatural story line that just got booted because it was just too cluttered, you know? A lot of that’s just getting kicked into season three.

We consistently forget about how little time we have, because we have so many different characters and story lines that you only have so much time you can spend with each character. We had more ideas than we had room for. The only good thing about that is that I think it’s hopefully going to speed up season three a little bit, because we have accumulated a lot of stuff that we just didn’t have time to get into.

Casting Sadie Sink As Max

Photo: Courtesy Netflix

Matt: We did the same thing we did in season one, where you just audition a ton of kids. There are a lot more girls trying to get into acting than there are boys, so you have even more auditions to look at. Also, because Stranger Things had come out, it was like every little girl on the planet Earth put themselves up for it. It was like insane, the avalanche of auditions that came in. Initially, we made the mistake of [acting] like we were casting season one. So the girls we picked out, we started to read them across from our boys and [the girls] were just little. They were too young. We forgot that our boys had aged a year.

We had to do a second search, and that’s when we found Sadie. She’s an incredible, incredible actress. She’s pretty accomplished already on Broadway. She was Annie on Broadway, and she’s acted across from Helen Mirren and stuff. It’s weird, these Broadway kids. I don’t know why we keep finding them. But Gaten [Matarazzo] and Caleb [McLaughlin] were both on Broadway, and they actually knew Sadie. Because I guess apparently all the Broadway kids play on the same playground? I have no idea. There’s this little weird group of them, and they’re all very, very talented kids. Also, they’re incredible singers, so if we ever wanted to do a musical episode, we’re good to go.

Millie was very nervous about another girl coming: What is this going to be like? Now they’re best friends. She’s like, “Thank God for bringing in another girl, because I am so sick of these boys!”

Casting Paul Reiser As Dr. Owens

Photo: Courtesy Netflix

Ross: We knew that we needed someone new in the lab to take over the mantle of Dr. Brenner. We just were like, “What is the opposite of what [Matthew] Modine brought to the role?” Someone who you can actually talk to and who is friendly and charming, in a way, and yes, he could be sinister. But at the same time, he can earn your trust. When we thought about who that could be, we immediately thought of Paul Reiser. We’re fans of, obviously, Aliens, but we also are just fans of Paul in general and all his work. Diner was a huge movie for us growing up, which is why we make a not-so-sly Diner reference at the end. We just loved Paul, so we started calling the character “Dr. Reiser,” and suddenly, everyone in the writers room could see who this was and they could understand it. It was three weeks in or something and we were like, “Why don’t we just ask Paul Reiser if he wants to do it?” The show had just come out and his teenage son made him watch it. I don’t know if he understood all of it, but he was a fan. We met him at, I think it was at a diner. We hadn’t written a single word, and he’s like, “Whatever you want to do, I’m in.” He was so lovely to deal with.

Matt: I think Paul is so successful, with Mad About You, that he doesn’t have to work. He’s like Jerry Seinfeld: If he doesn’t want to work, he doesn’t have to work. He’s definitely not obligated to do anything. But in this case, I think he wanted to do it because his son thought it was cool, honestly. Because he’s not really into sci-fi stuff. He admitted, “I don’t understand any of this,” which is funny because he’s the character in charge of all that. So there was a lot of explaining going on. He would nod like he’s got it, but I’m not sure he did. I think his kid is going to be explaining to Paul what he’s doing in the show while Paul’s watching it.

Thinking about Aliens, I like the fact that anyone who is a fan of Aliens is going to go in not trusting him. In that way, they’re going to very much feel like Joyce toward his character.

Casting Sean Astin As Bob Newby

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Ross: It didn’t cross our minds [to write the part for Sean]. Someone like Paul Reiser, we’d had that idea from the very beginning. The character wouldn’t exist without Paul Reiser. The character Bob wasn’t like that at all. He was Joyce’s boyfriend, he worked at Radio Shack, but he was more of a dope and he was just intended to give Will some not-so-great advice. And then Sean Astin just popped up on tape.

He was a fan of the show, and he brought this warmth to the character and that lovable quality that obviously comes across in the show. We just fell in love with the guy. I mean, we were blown away. It’s Samwise, it’s Rudy, it’s Mikey. It was not what was intended at all.

He was auditioning for Murray. That’s what it was. We were like, “I want to see him do Bob.” Once he did that, we were like, “That’s it right there.”

Matt: I will emphasize that that’s very unusual. You don’t get tapes from established people like that. Usually you have to go to Sean Astin and ask if he wants to do it. It’s a very unusual thing to get that submitted to you blind. That had never happened before.

Sean is not what I thought Sean was going to be, but I loved him. He’s got this really hyperactive [side]. He’s very eager. He’s like a Jack Russell terrier or something. I hadn’t seen that side of him on film before, or hadn’t seen it much, so we put that into the Bob character. When he’s getting really excited about the maps and he can’t help himself and he gets pulled into it, that’s really Sean. But that’s what I do love about TV — I love that it allows the story to evolve based on what the actors are bringing to it. Very much Winona transformed the narrative last year. Sean transformed it this year.

Maybe we had written one episode by the time we found him. Once we saw him and he started to read Bob, we started to get his voice. Then we did a read-through in Atlanta of, I think, the first four episodes, and he stole the read-through from everybody. He was incredible. There were not many people there — it was the whole cast and the people from Netflix and us — and he crushed it. Then we started to lean more into him in episodes five and six and eight. Those are really the ones where it became a bigger role.

Ross: I think of all the people that we cast, he shaped the season and the course of the character more than anyone else. When we started writing for him, we just really enjoyed it and we wanted him in more and more scenes. It just really changed the direction of the whole season.

Barb’s Role in Season Two

Matt: I’ve convinced myself that this was already a part of the season. It was already baked into it. We had about four weeks in, I think, before [season one] had come out, certainly before the whole Barb thing happened, where we were working on outlining season two. It was not supposed to be a story line that would last the entire season the way it did, but it was definitely going to be a big part of it, because it was one of those loose ends that we hadn’t really dealt with.

What it allowed for was a lot of really interesting character moments, and it allowed us to flesh out the Jonathan-Nancy stuff in a really nice way.

Those are old Shannon photos [in the scene at Barb’s parents’ house], I’m pretty sure. Those are from Shannon. We did do poses with her in season one. The rest of it is from Shannon’s real childhood.

Their Favorite ’80s Reference in ‘Madmax’

Ross: Calling the arcade the Palace, which is the name of the WarGames arcade, or a reference to that. That is probably the most obvious one, but I do like it because WarGames is a fantastic film. I just watched it again recently and it really holds up.

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

The Duffer Brothers Recap Stranger Things 2, ‘Madmax’