Stranger Things’ Shawn Levy Talks About the Dark Setting of Season 4 Ahead of Volume Two Release

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[This article contains huge spoilers from Stranger Things season four, volume one.]

Netflix has released the fourth season of Stranger Things on Friday after almost three years away from Upside Down.

The new episodes begin six months after the events of the season three finale, with Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven and the Byers leaving Hawkins, Indiana, for a new life in California, and the rest of the gang remaining in Hawkins, with the exception of “Hopper, played by David Harbour.”.

Volume one’s seven episodes take viewers on a journey with the cast through several different storylines set in California on an “Eleven rescue mission”, Indiana on a teen survival mission, Alaska on a Hopper rescue mission, “Nevada on Eleven power-saving mission”, and, of course, the Upside Down, where season four’s darkest villain is revealed.

In a flashback at the end of volume one, viewers learn that Eleven was the one who first opened a gate to the Upside Down while she was being tested in Hawkin’s lab. She befriends an orderly who had planned to escape from the lab while she was there. When Eleven begged him to accompany her, he said that he had a tracker on him that “weakens” him and wouldn’t let him leave the premises.

Eleven was able to remove the tracker from orderly Jamie Campbell Bower who was later revealed to be Henry, the son of Victor Creel played by Freddy Krueger’s Robert Englund. With his powers restored by Eleven, he went on to become “One” (001), the first child ever tested at Dr. Brenner’s Matthew Modine lab. 

When the orderly tried to persuade Eleven to join his side, she refused, and the two faced off. “Eleven’s rage overpowered her when it was discovered that she had been duped, driving her to open the first Upside Down portal and trap 001 inside. He would spend years inside to become Vecna, the villain that torments and murders Hawkins teens in season four.

Since its premiere, Stranger Things has avoided discussing how the first doorway to Upside Down was opened. With the first season’s penultimate finale approaching, co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer thought it was time to respond to the fans’ requests. The discovery also reframes the entire season, as Shawn Levy points out.

“The Duffers said, ‘You know what? Answers feel good. And now, it’s time. It’s time to explain so much of what’s been going on,’” Stranger Things executive producer and director Levy says. “It does reframe everything we know about the evil of Hawkins and the supernatural villains that we face, and … it certainly also serves as a springboard for what’s next.”

In the conversation below with THR, Netflix’s Stranger Things director explains how the show draws inspiration from ’80s horror films. He also talks about directing Sadie Sink in the Dear Billy episode and what’s in store for season four, volume two, releasing July 1 with two feature-length episodes that will set up the fifth and final season. The dialogue shared below between THR and the director might not be his exact words, but definitely along the same lines as the actual question and answers.

“There’s no chance in hell that we are going to give our passionate, loyal fans anything less than a deeply satisfying close in the final chapter.”

The next season of Stranger Things will be released in two parts. Volume One consists of seven episodes, with the last two episodes arriving in July. Why is the season being split into two parts?

We’ve always known that if we could produce the first seven episodes, which is such a satisfying breaking point and pay-off moment, we’d be able to do volume two in a reasonable amount of time. We didn’t think nine episodes would be completed in time, and the fans have had enough of waiting.

Every streamer is experimenting with various models. Stranger Things 1, 2, and 3 are examples of full-season, binge-worthy streaming. A weekly approach was tried by Disney+ and Hulu, but it didn’t feel right for this season. This season focuses on next-level visual effects and world-building, and as you can expect, volume two storytelling is pretty ambitious, so we’ll need a little more time to finish strong. So we’re pleased that we were able to provide a substantial tale supper to our viewers. It also provides us time to nail the landing by completing the last two episodes with a bang.

Note: Previously, the Netflix series has received a graphic violencewarning label ahead of its Season 4 premiere in light of the deadly school shooting.

The Duffer Brothers have shared some of their film inspirations for this season, which leans into the ’80s horror genre more than ever before. What were some of your inspirations when directing episodes three (“The Monster and the Superhero”) and four (“Dear Billy”)?

“Well, the truth is that I direct movies on the side, and as a result, my film directing business provides me with a lot of food. But every year when I direct my Stranger Things episodes, my role is the same as it is as a producer of every episode: I’m pleased to be in the service of the Duffer Brothers’ vision and voice, he says. I did not grow up as a horror fanatic like the Duffers.” He says Stranger Things has broadened his horror vocabulary far beyond what it was before.

“When I started working on my block of episodes this year, the third and fourth episodes of each season, particularly episode four ‘Dear Billy,’ which has gotten such positive feedback, I was definitely inspired by Nightmare on Elm Street. But there’s also Silence of the Lambs, which isn’t strictly a slasher film. ‘Dear Billy,’ which has gotten such positive feedback, is one of my favorite episodes so far.”

Returning to that Jonathan Demme classic reacquainted me with the vocabulary of tension, suspense, and fear-based narrative that isn’t jumpscares but rather a slow-burn dread. When it came to shooting at Pennhurst Asylum, the other one might have reminded you. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ director, Jonathan Demme worked hard to produce layers of material that are both frightening and delicious. The cast of background patients in their white clothing and haunting features was entertaining to behold.

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Were there conversations about the season being too dark of a jump? It seems like the kids and the show finally grew up. [Note: Netflix added a graphic content warning to the premiere in wake of the Uvalde, Texas shooting.]

“I knew this season would be terrifying for some of those who have been watching Stranger Things for the past two years. Season one was created with the intention of being a viewing experience for people aged 13 and up.

There were a few times when I wondered if the show was becoming too dark and disturbing for younger viewers who had flocked to our show,” says executive producer Dacre Montgomery.

The Duffers were correct in pointing out that when we go darker, our audience sticks with us and grows. Despite the fact that I don’t have figures for season four yet, I’m seeing what I’ve seen in every previous season: a high degree of social media participation and passion. And it doesn’t appear like turning darker this time has affected us. Because, as you indicated, the programme and our audience are maturing and evolving alongside our young stars, it could have assisted us.

Stranger Things is balanced with the heart, no matter how dark it gets. This is what distinguishes Stranger Things, making it a highly binge-worthy show. In the characters’ narration, there’s this warm passionate throbbing heart, and that’s the antidote. I honestly believe that one without the other wouldn’t produce the same sensation that Stranger Things does.

“Shawn, I’m just as obsessed as I’ve always been,” she says as I hang up the phone with my 75-year-old stepmother, who is about to begin episode five. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she first saw the show and fell in love with it. She’s alone in Montreal, binge-watching season four over the course of a single weekend, and it’s a fantastic [show]. My preteens are watching in New York, demonstrating the franchise’s odd demographic breadth. Stranger Things is the only show that I can think of that caters to such a broad audience. It’s the incredible wonder of our program.

You touched on the “Dear Billy” episode, which gives Sadie Sink her due and takes her role in the show to the next level. How long had you been planning to focus on Max in this way, and can you talk about what was it like to film this episode with Sadie?

When we were working on season two, I told the audience that “Look out, this is the year that Noah Schnapp as Will Byers gets to spread his wings and show what he can do.”

When I first read the season four outline, it was clear that this would be Max’s season in many ways, as well as a showcase for Sadie Sink’s acting abilities. However, I feel it is as legitimate to suggest that Max is in the same boat as Steve Harrington, Joe Keery, and Robin [Maya Hawke]. New characters are introduced in each season. By the way, I’d add Eddie Joseph Quinn and Argyle Eduardo Franco to this list, just to name a few, because the Duffers feed the power of an actor who excels in a part. They bolster the actors’ abilities by providing them with more meaty material.

It was time to do the same with and for Sadie as Steve Harrington grew from a one-episode character to a one-season character to a franchise favorite and in the same way that Robin went from a one-episode character to a franchise favorite. During the filming of “Dear Billy,” we encountered a number of big acting challenges, including her monologue at Billy’s grave, her confrontation with Vecna in the Mind Lair, and, of course, her escape from the Mind Lair. Sadie had to dig deep and go places as an actor she had never been before, and they weren’t easy. There’s no manual for getting to the most susceptible, damaged parts of one’s body, yet she always managed to achieve it.

dear billy

How did you decide on Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” being Max’s anthem?

Stranger Things’ music is occasionally discovered after a lot of trial and error in post-production. The script included the song “Running Up That Hill.” The Duffers were always thinking about it. They were confident it would work, so while editing “Dear Billy,” I experimented with an orchestral rearrangement of Kate Bush’s song. If you watch the last five minutes of “Dear Billy,” it’s not simply the Kate Bush song. I wanted to take a beautiful song that was well-known and boost the emotionality to a level that would suit and underline the circumstance, so I used Kate Bush’s song, which had layers of strings and orchestra. It’s simply a beautiful musical piece that equals the original.

There have been Twitter conversations about Kate Bush gaining a generation of fans. 

I see your point. It’s a thrilling experience. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all of this without Kate’s permission, which we gratefully received.

The seventh episode ends with the huge twist of Vecna not only being the friendly orderly but also One and Victor Creel’s son, Henry, which serves as an origin story for the whole show. How does this finale reframe everything we know about the Upside Down, the Mindflayer, the Mind Lair, Demogorgons, etc.?

To begin with, one of the things I appreciate about the Duffers is that they do things for audiences. They have quite different personalities than mine and come from different generations, but one thing we’ve always known about each other is that we make things for audiences. We’re not telling stories just for the purpose of telling them. This is something we’re telling them in order to appeal to a wide spectrum of folks. In a world where so many shows end abruptly, I respect the Duffers for getting to the seventh episode of our penultimate season and saying, “You know what? It’s nice to have answers. It’s now or never. It’s past time to explain everything that’s happened, says show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. “I don’t want to give too much away about volume two and season five, but it does act as a springboard for what’s to come”.

How did that Robert England stunt casting as Victor Creel happen?

Victor was always in the script, and we all decided early on in conversations with Carmen Cuba, our casting director, and Matt and Ross that this would be the perfect cameo for him, not only because he’s a fantastic actor and a perfect fit for the part, but also because so much of season four is inspired by Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise’s ideas. As a result, everything appeared natural. When it’s good casting, like when Sean Astin portrays Bob, it’s not stunt casting.

Stunt casting is when you cast someone famous in a position that they aren’t well suited for. However, if you watch the scene at Pennhurst Asylum with Victor Creel, you’ll see that it’s incredibly captivating since Robert is a fantastic actor playing a part that was made for him. The pop culture wink is a positive, but that’s not why we did it or why this scenario works. This helps when the stunt casting is also superb casting.

I took a number of photos this season that I really enjoy. Regardless, it was one of my personal favourites. I rewatched Nightmare on Elm Street shortly before I taped. I said when I arrived at work.“Let’s take some kind of tool and grind away at the top of the table in Victor Creel’s cell, and I’m going to open on a shot of his fingers just scratching the surface of the table as a little bit extra Freddy nod.”

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A lot of questions were answered in the volume one finale, but there is that Nancy cliffhanger, which circles around to #JusticeForBarb. There was such a reaction to not seeing justice for her at the time… was the plan all along to wait, get viewers to love Nancy, and then revisit her later?

Nancy is a champion for us every season. Almost like a detective story, she frequently plays a vital role in the mystery. If Nancy is dealing with Vecna, who has the ability to access people’s innermost guilts, then Barb must be high on Nancy’s list, much as Billy is for Max.

What can you tell us about what’s in store for volume two and how it sets up the show’s endgame with season five?

I’ll just say that we’re working on volume two right now. There’s a lot said about the lengths of these episodes, especially episode nine, which has a long runtime. Both finale episodes are as emotional as they are cinematic, in my opinion.

I’ll simply say this about Season 5: the Duffers and I talk a lot about sticking the landing. We tried our hardest to nail every episode’s final five minutes, as well as every season’s finale. So, if you want to have a successful season next year, you must finish strong. For Season 5, we have some excellent ideas, and we don’t want to remain any longer than we need to see our road clearly and firmly. So, without a doubt, Season 5 will be fantastic. It will be bittersweet for us to shoot it, and it will be bittersweet for the audience to watch it. But, hopefully, it’ll also be quite fulfilling, because, as viewers of many other series know, there are few feelings as terrible as an unsatisfied conclusion and there’s no way we’ll give our committed fans anything less than a truly satisfying conclusion in the last chapter.

The Duffer brothers have a Stranger Things spinoff idea in mind. What can you tell us about that? 

No comment from my side. I have been trained for this.

Finn Wolfhard guessed the spinoff idea.

I’m terrified of spoiling anything Stranger Things-related, which includes any prospective spinoff, says actor Finn Wolfhard about his character’s secret identity. Finn is such a sensitive and insightful individual that I’m not surprised he figured it out, Wolfhardist says.

You worked with Sadie in All Too Well The Short Film. How was it working with her in that capacity, after years together on Stranger Things

It’s fascinating since Sadie recently stated that the emotionality of season four prepared her for the emotionality required of her in All Too Well, and I believe she is correct. Sadie is a terrific actress, but she’s never been pushed as hard as she was in All Too Well and key season four chapters. It was strange to spend months directing Sadie in season four, then reuniting with her a year later on a set in New York as her co-star for a scene.

Because I honestly had no recollection of sitting at that table with Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink, it made me appreciate what actors do even more. Acting is a really self-conscious activity for me. I adore making a fool of myself in front of the camera, but I have no idea what my hands and face are doing if you place a camera in front of me. So, after Taylor [Swift] shouted “Cut,” I’d turn to Sadie and Dylan and say, “What did I say or do? I literally blacked out.”

Would you want to see a Ryan Reynolds cameo in Stranger Things?

I’d want to see Ryan Reynolds appear in something. Stranger Things and Ryan Reynolds have defined my work for the previous half-decade, so seeing my two worlds collide would be both surreal and wonderful, says director Alfonso Cuarassos of Stranger Things season five.

With so much information directly from one of the major contributors to the show, Shawn Levy, our interest has definitely risen in the latest and upcoming seasons. Stranger Things is a Netflix original series with Matt and Ross Duffer serving as writers, directors, executive producers, and showrunners on the series. The series is produced by Monkey Massacre Productions and 21 Laps Entertainment. 

Joshua Garner

Joshua calls himself nerd+geek who is also passionate about football. He enjoys comics, animes, and science fiction. He finds his comfort in writing about suspense, thrillers and science fiction shows and movies.

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