Stranger Things episode 2: The Duffer Brothers on finding their Eleven
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. Here’s their insight on “Chapter 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street”…
This chapter is really focused on our “weirdo” Eleven (or El, as Mike dubs her). We don’t know much about her at this point, but we get the sense that she’s spent the majority of her life in a laboratory, like a mouse in a cage. So when she escapes that lab at the beginning of our story, she becomes the quintessential stranger in a strange land, unfamiliar with our customs and lifestyle. Everything mystifies her — especially boys. The Hawkins suburbs might as well be another planet.
Speaking of other planets, there are many not-so-subtle nods to E.T. in this chapter. Just as E.T. is about the connection between E.T. and Elliot, this chapter is about the connection between Eleven and Mike. Over the course of the day, they begin to bond and empathize with one another in surprising ways. Is there first love blooming? Of course there is! All of this is fun, but we also wanted to keep a sense of danger alive. Eleven isn’t a normal girl, and she’s no gentle plant-collecting alien either. She has unpredictable supernatural powers that will most definitely put our boys in jeopardy. So while E.T. may have been our biggest inspiration, there is plenty of Elfen Lied and Akira in the show’s DNA as well (albeit with quite a bit less bloodshed).
Eleven was the most difficult role to cast because she has to convey many emotions with very little dialogue. Child actors, even the great ones, almost always have difficulty listening. They’re able to deliver their lines well, but to stay fully in character in a scene when they’re not talking… that’s another skill set entirely. They’re kids after all; focus is not their strong suit. To find a girl who didn’t just have this skill but excelled at it made us concerned. Then we met Millie Bobby Brown, and we weren’t so concerned anymore. Millie broke out in a 2014 British show called Intruders, which we hadn’t seen at the time, but one of our idols had. Back in the fall of 2014, Stephen King tweeted: “Millie Brown, the girl in Intruders, is terrific. Is it my imagination, or are child actors a lot better than they used to be?” We agree with the King: Millie’s something special, alright, with a downright spooky preternatural talent. She inhabits every moment so intensely, with some alchemy of intelligence, preparation, and instinct. By the end of production, we found ourselves listening to Millie as if she were one of our most seasoned adult actors.
Millie is still an 11-year-old girl about, well, other things. Bring up “boys,” “crushes,” or “kissing,” and she freaks out. Boys are really gross and stupid, and kissing one of them is just downright unfathomable. Another example of her youth: During the filming of this episode, Millie showed up to set covered head to toe in glitter, halting production for 30 minutes. To this day, the origin of this glitter remains a mystery, but it seems like something that could only happen to an 11-year-old girl.
Of course, we can’t talk about our “weirdo” without also talking about that buzzcut. When Millie auditioned, she had long brown hair down past her shoulders. But Eleven was written as having hair “buzzed almost to the scalp.” Millie and her parents were understandably hesitant to chop it all off. Would it look ugly? Would it cost her other roles? Fortunately, Mad Max: Fury Road was about to come out, so we pulled out a magazine photograph of Charlize Theron as Furiosa and showed it to Millie. “Charlize looks totally badass, right?” Millie agreed; Charlize looked badass. And that was it: She agreed to buzz it all off.
When the day of the haircut finally arrived, Millie’s mom brought out a camcorder, while her dad ran away with tears in his eyes, unable to watch. It was a pretty dramatic scene. But also very quick. Within 10 minutes we had shaved it all off and slapped a fake “11” tattoo on Millie’s wrist. Millie looked at herself in the mirror, gave her best Furiosa scream — and Eleven was born.
Random trivia: The shooting style, music, and cutting pattern of the scene when Eleven sees the picture of Will is modeled closely after one of our favorite scenes from Peter Weir’s classic film Witness, when Lucas Haas points out the evil Danny Glover to Harrison Ford. In extreme close-up, we think Millie even looks like the young Lukas Haas. It’s downright freaky!
The Duffer Brothers on “Chapter Three” here.
Netflix’s hit sci-fi series follows a group of kids in the '80s battling supernatural forces in Hawkins, Ind.