Building Stranger Things
Netflix drama Stranger Things became an instant classic upon its launch last summer, not just for its horror story but also its celebration of 1980s culture. Production designer Chris Trujillo reveals how he created the look of the series and what’s in store for season two.
If television doomsayers greeted the emergence of SVoD platforms by sounding the death knell for genuine word-of-mouth hits and watercooler moments, they hadn’t banked on a little show called Stranger Things.
To be fair, not many people had heard of the supernatural series until it launched on Netflix in July 2016. But when it did land around the world, everything that was old became new again as this tribute to the 1980s made as much noise as the biggest prestige drama on HBO – only viewers could now watch all eight episodes in one sitting.
The drama opens in 1983 Indiana, where a young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into an extraordinary mystery involving top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl.
The series, which returns for a second season this Friday, skilfully combines elements of thriller and horror with the nostalgia of a decade wistfully remembered for Dungeons & Dragons, Ghostbusters and walkie-talkies.
Much of the success in recreating this era on screen has been down to production designer Chris Trujillo, who drew inspiration from the likes of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. But he says creators Ross and Matt Duffer were keen to avoid creating a “dim facsimile” of their heroes’ work. In particular, they wanted to draw on the designer’s indie film background that has seen him create gritty, realistic worlds on a shoestring budget.
“My approach is always to take all those films and go a layer deeper to figure out how they made that texture – movies that were made during that era as opposed to movies that look back and try to recreate it,” Trujillo explains. “Then it becomes about the physical media of the time. We spent a lot of time poring through catalogues, Life magazine, Ladies Home Journals and tons of comics. The computer industry was just coming into the light of popular culture so there’s loads of tech magazines and fan magazines. So it was all about spending a lot of time immersing ourselves in the look, feel and texture of that stuff.”
The series is filmed in and around Atlanta, Georgia, which serves as a base for the studio lot, while nearby Jackson and other surrounding towns double for Stranger Things’ fictional setting of Hawkins. It proved to be the perfect location for Trujillo and his team to recreate the small-town vibe they were looking for, making use of a number of towns developed at different stages over the last 50 years.
“Once we decided we were going to make small-town USA, it became important to have a real wide range of neighbourhoods at our disposal,” he says. “The thing about Atlanta is, the way it developed, it was kind of in fits and starts and it’s made up of a lot of small towns around the main urban centre. Each of those towns has a different flavour and grew during different periods of time, whether it was the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s.
“Atlanta is such a hotbed for filming right now – ‘That’s The Walking Dead town,’ ‘That’s The Vampire Diaries town’ – so we had to go a little further out to find our little town, but it worked out pretty well.”
With the locations identified, Trujillo found that once the trappings of modern life – satellite dishes, cars and so on – were removed from the exteriors, they quickly reverted to their original state, particularly when it came to the houses that were used as the main characters’ homes. Then the designer was able to take images of the exteriors into the studio and build matching interiors.
“One of our secret weapons in Atlanta is that every weekend there are these incredible estate sales, so you’re going into these homes that seem like they have been sealed since the 70s or 80s,” he reveals. “Often we would go into one, find stuff we could dress a set with and purchase a houseful of really useful stuff. That’s why we were able, in a lot of cases, to transcend what you might expect from a period 80s set because you can really feel this is a real space where people lived, down to the spare batteries lying on the counter. That’s a big part of the physical base.”
Trujillo’s path to Stranger Things came through a friendship with director Leigh Janiak, with whom he worked on 2014 horror Honeymoon. Janiak is married to Ross Duffer, who pitched Trujillo a show called Montauk, an 80s-set love letter to all the movies he and his brother loved. Trujillo says he was “instantly enchanted” by the idea, which brought back his own fond memories of films such as The Goonies.
“They pitched this project to me and I just thought, ‘If ever this comes to fruition, don’t forget about me,’” he recalls. “It seemed totally far-fetched – I didn’t think anyone would let them make this show. But two years later, it was greenlit with Netflix. I basically already had a vision for it and put together this look-book, and they were super on board with it.
“A lot of people don’t realise that a lot of our references, tonally, beyond The Goonies and Stephen Spielberg stuff were a lot grittier and darker, from late-70s US movies – The Conversation, Ordinary People, Silkwood… It came from a general love of US cinema from the mid-70s through to the 80s.”
Trujillo and his team built most of the interior sets for Stranger Things, most notably the Byers house that goes through an intense transformation as it’s attacked by monsters and Christmas lights are hung up as a makeshift ouija board. The inside of Hawkins Lab, which serves as the main gateway to the paranormal world of the Upside Down, was also built after location scouts found a suitably creepy building on which to model it.
And when it came to finding the props that were key to turning Stranger Things into a nostalgia trip for many viewers, Trujillo says he was largely given free rein to find the items that would add a layer of authenticity to the action.
“There are some references to walkie talkies and things that are scripted but [the Duffers] really gave me pretty open creative reins to bring my vision to life,” he says. “There’s always the process of making sure they’re happy with the line I’m going in, showing them look-books, references, drawings and concept work, but they really trust me to be on the page with them. I had a lot of creative freedom.
“We talked through things and some specific scripted things they wanted, mostly prop elements, and we all talked about the characters and figured out who they are together. Once we made the broad creative decisions about what kind of space it should be, they really let me loose.”
Following the events of season one, Stranger Things’ second run opens a year later, in 1984, as citizens of Hawkins are still reeling from the horrors of the Demogorgon and the secrets contained within Hawkins Lab. Will Byers has been rescued from the Upside Down but a bigger, sinister entity still threatens those who survived.
Most importantly, Trujillo believes the next eight episodes retain what was at the heart of the success of season one. “You’ve got this great group of misfit friends who are dealing with new problems and having new adventures but it’s bigger,” he teases about season two. “We went bigger in scope, definitely. With the proven success of season one, I think we had to dream bigger and there’s some really exciting new sets.
“In this day and age, the sets we built for season two are not built, they’re more CGI so we’re lucky to be able to have this aesthetic that we’re building stuff that would normally be green screen now. Season two delivers on the promise of season one, it opens up the world, we have some fun new characters and great new sets and you’re going to start seeing the home life of some of the characters you would have liked to have seen in the first season.”
With a third season all but confirmed and a fourth season in the works, Trujillo can already start planning his return to Hawkins and the Upside Down to delve further into a world that will inevitably get bigger and darker, as is the trend for franchise series. Returning to Hawkins shouldn’t be a problem, however. “Everybody loves it,” Trujillo concludes. “Nobody wants it to end.”