The Netflix Original Series, Stranger Things, has taken over the Summer of 2016. The show, which tracks the disappearance of a young boy and his paranormal whereabouts, was an instant hit when it debuted and hasn’t looked back since.
Created by The Duffer Brothers (Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer), the show has incredible visual references from classic films like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goonies, to name a few. Yet, it still feels fresh, unique and completely original which is a testament to the incredible cast, writing and production design.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Chris Trujillo, who is the Production Designer for Stranger Things. The architectural drawings are property of Chris Trujillo and his team.
INT: First off, we were curious how the opportunity to do the show, Stranger Things, came about? What was it about it that made you want to work on it?
CT: A series of very fortunate events led me to Stranger Things. In the Spring of 2013, I designed a dark little gem of a genre film called Honeymoon for Leigh Janiak. She and I really jived creatively and became fast friends in real life. We kept in touch, and then, in the summer of 2014, I was in Los Angeles for a few months designing a film and staying in an Airbnb around the corner from where Leigh and her then fiance, now husband, Ross Duffer live in Los Feliz. The first time I heard of Stranger Things was over brunch with Leigh and Ross. At that point, the project was still called Montauk and it was little more than a glimmer in the Duffers' eye. It seemed like too awesome an idea, like a perfect pipe dream. I'm a child of the 80s American Suburbs, and, as a production designer, I'm a student of the great American films of the late 70s and early 80s. So once we started throwing around influences like Mike Nichols, David Lynch, and Ken Russell in the same context as Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, I knew this was a dream project for me. We talked excitedly about it for a bit, I made them promise to remember me if ever the stars aligned, and then we moved on to other topics.
Over the next year said stars did align more quickly than anyone could have predicted as the Duffers made their bones with Hidden and Wayward Pines and then, through sheer perseverance, found producers with the vision to take a shot on this awesome idea. Like the genuinely loyal guys that they are, and, no doubt, on account of a little cheerleading from Leigh, they didn't forget about me and my enthusiasm for the project. As soon as they got in touch, I got to work putting together a lengthy lookbook to give them a broad strokes idea of how I envisioned the look, tone, and texture of the show. Turned out we were on exactly the same page creatively. The final piece to the serendipitous puzzle was the fact that when they contacted me about Stranger Things, I had just finished designing Nerve, a super slick, smart teen thriller produced by Lionsgate and directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, another pair of fantastic directors that I've been lucky enough to work with twice. Nerve was the first "big budget" film I had designed, and, without the blessing of it's executive producer extraordinaire, Alli Shearmur, I don't know if I would have passed Netflix's vetting process. In the end, it all came together, and Netflix gave us the time, resources, and creative freedom to make the seemingly too-good-to-be-possible pipe dream come true.
INT: The show has a very distinct tone and serves almost like an homage to the Cinema of the Eighties. Did you do a lot of research into movies from that time? Also, were there any challenges along the way with trying to create something authentic from that era?
CT: The cinema of the the 80s was already pretty well imprinted on my subconscious from my having grown up transfixed by it, but, yeah, I spent some very enjoyable hours revisiting the touchstone films of the era as well as some of the deeper cuts that your average movie fan might not be hip to, like The China Syndrome, Altered States, or Ordinary People. It was incredibly useful creatively to immerse myself in the tone, texture, and pace of those films because there's something essential about them that can't really be intellectualized but rather needs to be arrived at intuitively by going into "the bath," so to speak. Additionally, I spent a lot of time pouring over the media of the era: everything from lifestyle magazines and newspapers to comic books and Sears catalogs.
The greatest challenge is always arriving at the the right level of "lived in." My good friend and incredible set decorator, Jess Royal, is unbelievably exacting in her approach to period correctness, and it is primarily important to us that our sets inform the characters and reflect the era down to the subtlest details. It's easy to pick a wallpaper or curtains that just scream 1980s! and ultimately, it can be very distracting to an audience. So we start with the characters, who they are emotionally, culturally, socioeconomically, and we figure out how all of these factors would have been expressed in the context of the trappings of American life in the late 70s and early 80s. One of the secrets (Jess may kill me for revealing it to the uninitiated) to creating the ever important "life layer" on a set is fastidious estate sale pillaging. Every weekend in the suburbs outside big cities there are time capsules being opened up for the discerning decorator to dig through. One dead man's junk drawer is another man's period perfect set dressing.
INT: The show was filmed outside of Atlanta in small towns like Douglasville, Jackson and Stockbridge. Was there a particular style or aesthetic that drew you to certain locations or buildings?
CT: Before deciding on Atlanta as our filming location, we were beset by the slightly overwhelming options of an open map. We talked about and explored everywhere from New England to coastal Carolina, from sunburnt Texas to the Pacific Northwest, but then it occurred to us that the world we wanted to create should be ubiquitous, instantly familiar to everyone; Anytown, USA. Suddenly, Atlanta was an obvious choice. It served us so well because Atlanta proper and the various towns that surround it really represent a broad spectrum of archetypal Americana. There are all of these incredible neighborhoods, that, with very little modification, perfectly paint the picture of split-level ranch-style suburbia, born in the 60s, that came to define the look of 70s and 80s American life. So, we get rid of the DirecTV dishes, manicure the lawns, switch out a few mailboxes, fill the driveways with period correct station wagons and sedans and voila! You're ready to travel back in time with some misfit middle schoolers on BMX bikes.
That's not to say that Tony Holley, our intrepid location manager, and I didn't spend countless hours scouting every inch of the greater Atlanta area for the perfect locations. We definitely did. That's maybe the best part of shooting in an area as big and varied as Atlanta. There are so many interesting options that we were really able to cherry pick the best looking, most dynamic locations to build our world: a quaint downtown here, a creaky country home over there, oh and maybe that imposing brutalist experimental psychiatric facility too, all the while bearing in mind the importance of all of these often far-flung locations coming together and feeling of a piece on screen. It's a big task made manageable by shooting in the right part of the country.
INT: Will Byers’ house goes through a transformation during the show and has an important role throughout the series. What was the process like trying to design that particular space? Was it challenging knowing that aspects of the space would be changing? Also, did any decisions involving the space revolutionize as production began?
CT: Maybe the most gratifying thing for me as a production designer is when a set transcends the scenery and becomes a character in its own right. From the earliest outlines of the story, it was clear that the Beyer house was going to have its own, very intense, trajectory. The first step in bringing it to life was finding an outstanding practical exterior location. When we found the Beyer house exterior there was no question in anyone's mind that it was exactly what we were looking for: a ramshackle old house built between the wars, clad in grey-blue faux-wood asbestos siding, across the tracks, at the end of a grim gravel drive, pressed up against the woods on the far edge of town. Before you get through the front door you start to know who the Beyers are and maybe what Will has been through.
As is the case with all of our built interiors, I let the practical exterior determine the basic elements of the interior: placement of windows and exterior doors, rough dimensions, and building materials. From there, the script starts to determine the floorpan. With input from the directors and the cinematographer and with the scripted action in mind, I lay out the interior in a way that allows for the most unencumbered camera movement and interesting framing options, with particular attention paid to depth and the way each room connects to the next. With the Beyer house there was the added fun of building to accommodate an invading monster and a mother with an axe and christmas lights, coming unhinged, tearing the place apart in an attempt to communicate with her son trapped in another dimension. Also, we had to do a version of it completely covered in the membranous tentacles and slime of the Upside Down. The lynchpin to pulling all of this off in one set (we did build a duplicate of the hallway to set on fire) was an Art Department friendly schedule that kept us shooting in script order as much as possible, which our exceptional AD department did their best to ensure. Murphy's law, nevertheless, occasionally intervened, and there were a number of times we had to start the day shooting the living room in a totally wrecked state and then completely un-wreck it for the second half of the day's work. For the relentless graffiti and axe attacks and monster wall breachings, we predetermined which walls would get it the worst and we built them to be removable and replaceable with specially fabricated walls rigged for the various practical special effects we executed. One of my favorite replacement walls was made by printing our wallpaper pattern directly on sheets of latex. I'm starting to run on here, but I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the heroic acts of interdepartmental collaboration that went into making the cacophony of christmas lights behave the way we wanted them to on command. To make them "communicate" with Joyce, lead Holly down the hall, and freakout so beautifully, set dec, props, and a handful of very patient grips and electricians had to work harmoniously and at great length together! OK, next question.
INT: Hawkins Laboratory is another incredible space on the show. We see Hopper break into the rooms of the building as well as flashbacks of the facility, but the space is always somewhat of a mystery to the audience. Is this something that was intentional?
CT: It was important that Hawkins Laboratory feel like an imposing, threatening entity looming secretly in your backyard. In that way, it works as a physical reflection of the Reagan Era, residual Red Scare, Cold War anxiety that's lying just under the surface in Hawkins, Indiana. I wanted the main experimental space with "the bath" in it to feel as though it was purposely built in the early years of the cold war as a highly secure, top secret government facility, and that it has probably been modified over the years to accommodate whatever fringe science psychic weapon they're working on at the moment. In designing and building the underground elevator and corridors, we took inspiration from our practical location.
Historically the building we shot as the exterior Lab was an experimental psychiatric facility, effectively a mid-century "insane asylum", complete with these terrifying, long, low, stark white, underground corridors that linked the main building to what once were patients' quarters. Above ground in the main building there were a number of incredible, very institutional, dark wood hallways, and a massive tiled half-basement space that seems to have once been, at least partly, a cold storage facility. We were able to retrofit and elaborate that space into what became the rooms and hallways that eleven lives and suffers in at the hands of Doctor Brenner and the insidious Department of Energy.
INT: The concept of “The Upside Down” is presented halfway through the series and we start to see this alternate dimension. The Production Design for this universe is exceptional because it perfectly balances the line between reality and fiction. Was it difficult trying to create this balance? Were there different concepts of The Upside Down that were discussed as well?
CT: Dialing in a vision for the Upside Down (which we referred to as "the Nether" while conceptualizing it) was possibly the most creatively laborious and painstaking collaboration of the entire season. It was an object lesson in how tricky the alchemy of turning a shared fantasy into a physical set can be. It's funny because, from the beginning, everyone had a very clear sense of what the Upside Down should look and feel like and we could discuss it fairly clearly: like a dim, sick reflection of our world, murky darkness, a haze of "spores" floating in the gloom, vein-like vines overtaking all surfaces, like a disease is spreading over everything, etc, etc. The Duffers even created a lengthy thoughtful document that does a damn good job of making strange sense of what the Upside Down is and how and why it came into existence, even a sort of physics that applies to it, but fabricating it was not so straightforward. From the outset, it was our intention to be as true as we could to the practical special effects that rose to the level of an art form during the era of film making we were so reverently trying to honor with Stranger Things.
We all learned a lot about the advantages and limitations of that approach and gained a massive new appreciation for both practical effects artists and visual effects artists in the process. Ultimately, we arrived at the Upside Down we all now know and love and fear through a lot of trial-and-error team work between physical effects and visual effects, with a large helping of creative construction, incredible scenic work, inspired lighting design and consummate camera work. The really magical part of creating the Upside Down, which actually works pretty well to sum up the entire film making process on Stranger Things, is that after all the logistical ups and downs, all the creative ins and outs, and after passing through a thousand different contributing hands, the world we found ourselves watching at the end of the process is exactly what we all hoped it would be.
Chris Trujillo is a Production Designer and has worked on various Films, Television Shows, Music Videos and Commercials. You can visit his Website to see more of his work.