Tag Archives: Chris Trujillo

Back to the 1980s

As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.

It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.

Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.

The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.

Netflix hit Stranger Things has been at the forefront of the 80s trend

“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”

But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.

“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”

As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.

Female wrestling drama GLOW is also on Netflix

“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”

In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”

Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”

When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.

Weissensee, which highlights a less colourful side of the decade than many other series

“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”

It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”

Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”

“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”

To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”

LA crack cocaine drama Snowfall

That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”

“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”

With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.

One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”

US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.

“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”

So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”

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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.

Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin joins the cast alongside returning actors such as Winona Ryder

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.

Finn Wolfhard (left) followed his breakout Stranger Things role by starring in horror movie remake IT

“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.”

The Duffer Brothers offer guidance to the show’s young stars on set

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.

Millie Bobby Brown returns as the supernaturally gifted Eleven

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.

The show also stars Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery

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.”

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Netflix channels 1980s style with Stranger Things

Netflix goes back to the ’80s with Stranger Things, a supernatural, small-screen homage to ET, Stand By Me and Halloween.

When it comes to the 1980s, there have been plenty of recent television dramas set during the iconic period best known for big hair, shoulder pads and power ballads.

From Cold War spy thriller The Americans and period tech piece Halt & Catch Fire to HBO drama Show Me A Hero and short-lived crime series Wicked City, the decade of Madonna and Michael Jackson has provided no end of inspiration to TV writers.

But rather than music or fashion, it is the big screen and the films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter that new Netflix series Stranger Things, which debuts today, uses as its inspiration.

Described as a love letter to 1980s classics, the eight-part series opens with the disappearance of a young boy. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret government experiments, supernatural forces and one strange little girl.

Star Winona Ryder is praised as 'completely fearless' in her approach
Star Winona Ryder is praised as ‘completely fearless’ in her approach

“We have so much nostalgia and love for this era,” explains Matt Duffer, who wrote and directed the series with his brother Ross. “We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up, the Spielbergs, the John Carpenters, as well as the novels of Stephen King. And what makes all of these stories so great to us, and so resonant, is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

“When we were growing up, we were just regular kids, living in the suburbs of North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons with our nerdy friends. But when we watched these films and read these books, we felt transported. Suddenly our lives had the potential for adventure – maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic, maybe my brother would vanish into the TV screen. We really want to capture that feeling with Stranger Things. We want to bring that feeling to people who grew up on those films, and we also want to bring it to a whole new generation.”

To sell the show to Netflix, the Duffers created a mock ‘trailer’ using clips from more than 25 feature films, including ET, Nightmare on Elm Street, Super 8 and Halloween. They also created a ‘look book,’ which was designed in the style of a vintage Stephen King novel.

Then, before starting the show, the writers all watched films including ET, Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Television is becoming more and more cinematic, and we became excited by the potential of making a ‘longform movie,’” Matt explains. “And what better place to do that than Netflix? It was our dream home.”

Stranger Things is described as a love letter to classic 1980s movies
Stranger Things is described as a love letter to classic 1980s movies

Ross continues: “Working with Netflix has been an amazing experiencing. They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

Beyond the storyline, the influence of Spielberg and his ’80s contemporaries is ever-present, particularly in the setting that was chosen for the series: the town of Hawkins, Indiana.

“There’s something Spielbergian Americana about Indiana,” executive producer Shawn Levy states. “Hawkins is a town with history, not only in its buildings and its land but, most importantly, among its characters.”

The show was filmed both on sound stages and on location in Atlanta and its suburbs, with the city providing the producers with the perfect setting to recreate the small-town look of Hawkins.

“Hawkins is an ordinary, idyllic little town filled with relatable, ordinary people and that makes it the perfect place for something supernatural to happen,” adds Ross.

As episode one plays out, what will also strike viewers beyond the setting is the attention to 1980s detail, from the costumes and synthesiser-heavy soundtrack to cultural references such as walkie talkies and playing Dungeons and Dragons.

“We never wanted it to be ‘in-your-face’ ’80s and obvious,” says production designer Chris Trujillo. “The lived-in look was important to us so that it would feel familiar to audiences and not distract them.”

Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer: the new Coens?
Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer: the new Coens?

Levy continues: “It is enjoyably nostalgic for those of us who remember the ’80s, but for a kid or a teenager for whom that is another era, it’s just a great story.”

The music, in particular, adds another layer of nostalgia to the series. The composers, Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, were members of a synth band called Survive which the Duffers discovered after their work featured on the soundtrack of feature film The Guest.

In total, they wrote more than 13 hours of music for the series. Viewers will also hear tracks from artists such as Toto and Joy Division.

Heading the cast is Winona Ryder, best known for big-screen roles in Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands and whose television credits include the aforementioned Show Me A Hero and BBC TV movie Turks & Caicos. In Stranger Things, she plays Joyce, a struggling single mother raising two boys.

“It’s a genre that I hadn’t explored before and was interesting to me,” she reveals. “I’m really lucky in my life that I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and so it was exciting to try something new. I took a lot from performances like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Marsha Mason in Max Dugan Returns and Audrey Rose.”

Matt says of Ryder: “Winona is completely fearless. She jumps in all the way, 100% and that’s what we needed for the Joyce character. She’s on her own for so much of the show, losing her grip on what is real as she goes through an emotional rollercoaster.”

As for the Duffers, Levy admits they “came out of nowhere” with the idea for a show and he believes they will become a new force in filmmaking.

“Stranger Things marks the arrival of a new vision, and a new filmmaking partnership and brotherhood that is really noteworthy,” he adds. “We’re going to be talking about the Duffer brothers the way we talked early on about the Coen brothers.”

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