Matt and Ross Duffer (Wayward Pines) are taking EW behind the scenes of every single episode in their thrilling new Netflix drama, Stranger Things, an ’80s-set supernatural show starring Winona Ryder and a slew of fantastic young stars. (You can read EW’s season 1 recap here.) First up, an inside look at the premiere…
If you’ve watched the first episode of our show (and we assume you have if you’re reading this!), it’s probably clear to you that we love the films of the ’70s and ’80s. We grew up particularly obsessed with the movies of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, as well as the novels of Stephen King. Although their stories have a wide range of tones, we think they share something essential in common: They all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.
We were pretty ordinary kids growing up in the suburbs of North Carolina, and when we watched these films and read these books, it made us feel like our rather normal lives had the potential for adventure. Maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic, or maybe one of us would vanish into the television screen, or maybe there was a clown in that sewer grate down the street. The feeling was powerful and inspiring. There was nothing better. We wanted to capture that feeling again with Stranger Things.
We knew this would be impossible without the right ensemble of actors. Casting is always a challenge, even more so on a show where four of the leads are 12 years old. A cringeworthy child performance will kill a movie or show like almost nothing else. We’ve found that the key to finding good kid actors is actually rather obvious: You just have to audition pretty much every kid in the world who wants to act. With our great casting director, Carmen Cuba, leading the way, we auditioned 906 boys and 307 girls. The kids each read select scenes from the first episode, as well as a few classic scenes from Stand By Me (a film which features not one, not two, but four of the greatest child performances in film history). We flew the finalists to Los Angeles, read them together to test their chemistry, and cast our gang. The kids came from all over the place: New York (Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin, and Caleb McClaughlin, who plays Lucas), Canada (Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike), and the UK (Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven).
We also knew the fastest way for these kids to act like best friends was for them to actually be best friends. Luckily, without our prompting or knowledge, the kids formed a text group and began incessantly texting each other over the summer. By the time they arrived in Atlanta, they were already a close-knit group. The hope, of course, was that this would translate when the cameras were rolling; would nerves mess them up? The first scene we shot was the first scene we ever wrote for the show: the Dungeons and Dragons scene. We held our breath, called action, and… it clicked. Our boys flew through the scene effortlessly and energetically, and their chemistry was electric; they felt like they had known each other their whole lives. Other than when we sold the show to Netflix, this was the single biggest moment for Stranger Things. We slept pretty well that night.
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Equally important, we needed an adult star to anchor the show. Winona Ryder was Carmen’s first idea for Joyce, and we fell in love with it right away. We grew up in the early ’90s, so we were very well acquainted with Winona’s films. Three of her movies were among the most-worn VHS tapes in our prized collection: Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Little Women (yes, Little Women, which features maybe our all-time favorite Winona performance!). We loved the idea of seeing Winona back on screen in a leading role. As fans, we just really missed her, and we believed that a lot of other people felt the same way. So we sent her the script and crossed our fingers and…
“She liiiked it.” That was the email we got from Carmen. We may have danced a little bit in our apartments. A meeting was set that very week, and that meeting became one for the record books, lasting four-and-a-half hours. We actually talked very little about the show or the character of Joyce; we were mostly just getting to know each other. If this was going to work, we all knew that we had to see eye to eye. When an actor signs onto a television show, it’s not like signing onto movie, as the time commitment is potentially years, not months. Luckily, we had a lot in common. Winona is a film nerd herself with an even deeper knowledge of film history than us. She’s like a walking, talking IMDb! She has a particularly impressive knowledge of obscure ’80s films (one example: She’s very fond of the largely forgotten Audrey Rose, starring Anthony Hopkins), loves conspiracy theories, and is fascinated by ’70s-era LSD-laced psychiatric experimentation — her godfather is Timothy Leary! We had a great, unforgettable time talking about all this and more, and she agreed to be Joyce the next day. It’s impossible now to imagine the show without her.
We hope you love our cast as much as we do, and that you enjoyed “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers.” It just gets crazier, bigger, weirder, and scarier from here. Thanks for watching — and reading!
Random trivia: The main title sequence (designed by Imaginary Forces) was inspired by the work of Richard Greenberg, who designed many of our favorite title sequences, including the main titles for Alien, Altered States, Superman, The Goonies, and The Untouchables. Greenberg was known for using the lettering of the movie titles to create hypnotic combinations of movement and color and shadow. The man is a genius, and we hope we captured a little bit of his magic.
Be sure to come back to EW.com Saturday for more from the Duffer Brothers on “Chapter Two.”