The ‘80s hold a special place in the hearts of horror fans. During the decade of excess, the genre gorged itself on new creatures and forces of darkness that managed to survive the times and became ingrained in popular culture. It is that particular vein of genre love that Netflix is looking to tap into with its new original series “Stranger Things,” a supernatural thriller setting out to be a love letter to the glory days of horror’s past.
The eight-episode series is set in a 1980’s Hawkins, Indiana. In this tiny town, a young boy’s disappearance is only the start of the thrilling events that involve government secrets and a mysteriously odd little girl.
Dread Central was recently invited out by Netflix to take a peek as filming took place during the final two episodes of “Stranger Things.” Filming was taking place both at ScreenGems Studios and around Atlanta, Georgia. On this particular trip, Dread Central was privy to the filming of a flashback scene taking place in a wooded area of Stone Mountain Park.
The skeletal branches of the heavily wooded area loomed overhead as the expansive crew busied themselves with the magic of making fiction into reality. Controlling all the commotion was the creative force that sold Netflix on the idea of this small town terror: Matt and Ross Duffer. The “Wayward Pines” scribes stopped during their packed schedule to talk to Dread Central briefly. These two have set out to create a love letter to the horror, thriller and adventure movies of the ‘80s. The series, according to the Duffer brothers, takes its roots from titles genre fans know well, including IT, Goonies, and Stand by Me. They saw an opening to explore a new avenue with the horror genre both in terms of plot and cinematography.
As far as the tone and atmosphere of the series goes, the Duffers relayed that there is an air of subtly surrounding the supernatural and horror aspects. Nothing is heavy-handed. Even the monster is shot in the style of Ridley Scott’s original xenomorph: less is more. Nothing is played for camp and the group of characters are in real, tangible danger. Traces of Spielberg and Carpenter should be easily spotted by the attentive viewer.
While the process of making a movie or TV series is taxing and stressful, the Duffers admitted that working for Netflix has allowed them an unexpected level of creative freedom, “They want to do something different. You’re not given the typical notes [expected from a regular studio].” This may explain the sense of calm surrounding the cast and crew as they prepped for a scene taking place downhill from a jogging path.
At the feet of the world’s largest exposed granite monoliths was a small fort constructed of branches, flying a proud American flag. A kid’s fort: Castle Byers. Its owner is the missing boy of the series, Will Byers. Joining Will during filming was his mother, Joyce, dressed in the attire of a working class mother and played by the incomparable Winona Ryder.
Though the fort only plays a minor role in this flashback, the Duff brothers informed Dread Central that what the structure represents in a child’s mind becomes one of the grand set pieces later in the series. Here the series takes a turn onto a much more interesting road. The real world is not the only one the characters of “Stranger Things” must contend with in the search for Will. A Nether Realm exists on a parallel plane of existence next to ours. There anything is possible, and something has broken through the barrier between the realities.
That rift was going to be revealed during the second leg of the visit and could be found at ScreenGem studios. There, the principal interiors of the Byers’ house, a basement set and the mysterious government lab still stood erect and were currently being dressed by the visual effects crew.
The Bryers’ residence, a slightly shabby home that showed signs of the characters’ tax bracket, was adorned with creeping tentacles of maroon red, complete with web-like ectoplasm. The décor, a mixture of late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a muted color palette, was a muted tone of browns, yellows and deep green was so authentic that one could easily take seat on the couch and feel at home … if one’s abode was full of meaty worms from another dimension.
Speaking of the extra dimensional horrors, the soundstage just adjacent to the Bryers’ residence was hosting the expansive set of The Lab. Here the crew was busy prepping more of those tentacles, big ones. Upon entering the set proper, there was a large corridor with one end leading to a large freight elevator and the other emptied out into The Lab’s centerpiece: a two-story set with wall-to-wall scientific equipment. Magnetic tape reels whizzed, and various electronic machinery flashed and flickered with various readings and numeric information. In the center stood a sensory deprivation tank with a clear window.
Across from this impressive piece was a huge gash in The Lab’s wall. From this laceration spread an infection of those familiar meaty fingers from the previous set. This is the tear. The point from which our world has met The Nether Realm is two stories tall, blistering and somewhat reminiscent of the Hell portal from the original Poltergeist. While everything at this point is static, on screen it will be brought to life with both practical effects and some CGI. Regardless, it brought on more than a couple of wows from those in attendance.
Soundstage #2 played host to the basement set. The air was heavy with not only nostalgia but of that familiar odor found at the house of a relative. The set felt lived-in, full of memories and storage. Board games, irons, a tape player, all exactly where you’d think they were if you brought it down to the basement to hide away until the yard sale comes a’calling. At the center of this trip down memory lane was a setup that was not unheard of during the 1980s: the fabled Dungeons & Dragons. The table top of fantasy consisted of multiple sided dice, trapper keepers full of lore and the always essential sugary soda to fuel an army of fantasy beings all night.
While taking in the sights and smells of the set, a young woman walked in and greeted the press with a distinct British accent, Millie Bobby Brown. Sporting a shaved head and a pleasant smile, Millie informed DC about her character: the mysterious escapee Eleven. The character is a troubled little girl who has called The Lab home for a very long time. She was no stranger to the dunk tank mentioned earlier and the experiences from that time at The Lab has left Eleven more than a little damaged. Though Millie’s character does not have an abundance of lines, she did state that her “actions speak louder than words.”
Eleven isn’t just one of those creepy kids horror fans have seen reused and overused throughout the years. As Eleven comes to trust the other kids and even some adults, she forms a bond in which brings out her voice. Millie also foretold that the eighth episode would have viewers “on edge,” a sentiment heard often during this set visit.
It was also on this set that DC met the young actors who play Dustin and Mike (Finn Wolfhard and Gaten Matarazzo), whose D&D binders were at the abovementioned table. Mike is the leader of the group of kids, much in the vein of Goonies’ Mikey, and Dustin is a combination of Mouth and Chunk. Both Woldhard and Matarazzo have screen and stage experience, along with a love for ‘80s film and merch. Listening to the two gush when looking at a table of reference material and props, there was a tinge of that forgotten magic millennials have been trying to recapture with the retro kitsch movement of recent years.
These newcomers have shown a rare love of adventure that adults fondly remember from youth. This will be the selling point of the series, not the monster, horror or suspense. What viewers will take away with them will be the need to venture out into the unknown with friends and face down fears, both real and imaginary, with the special kind of courage found only in kids.
All other photos – Mike Phalin