'Stranger Things' Producer on New Characters and Casting "Famous People" for Season 2

"Certain actors that you have definitely heard of have raised their hand with real interest to be a part of it," Shawn Levy says of the drama's second season.
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'Stranger Things'

Netflix on Wednesday finally announced a second season of summer streaming sensation Stranger Things.

A renewal for the 1980s-set thriller from newcomers Matt and Ross Duffer was widely expected after the series, starring Winona Ryder, debuted to rave reviews and plenty of social buzz in mid-July. Now, as the creators approach the next installment of the drama, executive producer Shawn Levy says the focus is on expanding the world created in season one while staying true to the characters viewers grew to know and love.

"There's no question that the scale of Stranger Things season two is an escalation, but it is very loyal to the tone and to the heart of the show people love," Levy tells The Hollywood Reporter.  Levy, who helped bring the binge-worthy series to Netflix via his production banner 21 Laps Entertainment, adds that the producers were "very, very conscious of not increasing scale at the expense of character, so we're just really policing ourselves rigorously to root every scene, every episode in the characters that we all love."

Dan Cohen, who executive produces Stranger Things alongside Levy, adds that the writers already have a broad understanding of what the second season will look like, which makes sense given that all of the upcoming season's episode titles were unveiled in the renewal announcement. "I'm sure those titles will be heavily talked about and dissected in the next year. It gives our greatly enthusiastic audience something to chew on," he says, later teasing that the writers are also very cognizant of the fans' strong reaction to certain characters. "It's something that's not being ignored."

THR caught up with Levy while he was on a layover from Frankfurt to Venice in an effort to squeeze some season two details out of him, discuss why it took Netflix so long to hand out the official renewal and, of course, ask about fan-favorite Barb.

Congrats on the season-two renewal.

Thank you. I think Netflix made everyone sweat it out, but we've got some really exciting ideas cooking for this next season.

They sure did. Why do you think it took them so long?

The truth is, I actually have no idea. Like, I don't even have a theory. I do know that no one stopped us over the last month from a lot of brainstorming, so the signs were always positive. I don't know why they didn't want to make it official before now. But you know what? The outcome is all the same. We get to keep telling these stories, which is, at the end of the day, what we want.

Part of the thrill of the last month is that, unlike a lot of Netflix shows that come from famous writers or name-brand creators or pre-awareness titles like Fuller House, this was just this little show with a couple of brothers who no one had ever heard of and a film director producing it through his company. So it's been fun to watch this phenomenon build in an unexpected way and in a way that wasn't reliant on marketing, but was reliant on the show connecting with its viewers.

What has it been like to see the Duffer brothers rise to fame in a way?

On the one hand, it feels really validating for my instincts because I really did feel that they were ready for this opportunity and that they were going to ascend very quickly once the world heard and saw their vision and their voice. [I feel like] the proud, unofficial third brother, the older brother. And one thing that's been impressive to me is in spite of tremendous hype and opportunity suddenly surrounding the boys, they have remained as humble and as grateful as they have been along the way. They remain super collaborative. We talk all the time, and we're just now figuring out the next season together.

What was the thought process behind revealing the season-two episode titles with the renewal announcement?

I'm sworn to secrecy on a lot of things, but I have to give credit where credit is due. It was always Netflix's idea to announce it in a unique way and to announce season two using our now-iconic title sequence. But the notion of chapter headings was a very late idea, and it was brought into the process by the Duffers. It was a genius idea. We knew we wanted to do something with the title sequence, but this notion of teasing the season by using the episode titles — or rather the chapter headings — that was in large part a Duffer idea and creation, and it's just further evidenced their instincts. Even as I praise the concept design of the title sequence, there would literally be a hit taken out on me if I were to explain any of those chapter headings to you. So please don't put my life at risk by asking me that! (Laughs.)

Fair enough. But since you have episode titles already, is it safe to assume that the entire second season has already been laid out? 

We have mapped out the season. We certainly know all of our big moves and our big ideas. But now it's very much in process as far as the writing goes. I don't want to be more specific as far as how many episodes I've already read outlines or scripts for — it's in process.

Did you keep most of the same people from the season-one writers' room, too?

Yes, we were thrilled. We kept a lot of our writers. We kept Justin Doble, Jessie Nickson and we actually promoted our writer's assistant — he's now a staff writer. So most of the team is from day one. We've added really just a very little bit of fresh eyes and fresh blood, and it's already had tremendous benefit just getting a little bit of outsider perspective.

Anything else you can tell us about the second season?

There's definitely a handful of really compelling new characters this season, but absolutely servicing the core group first and foremost. But yes, we have some new characters entering the adventure. Like the show itself, it's multigenerational new characters and really, really intriguing ones.

We also know that the story will pick up about a year after season one. So presumably, the second installment will give us some answers to some of the loose threads in the finale?

We are definitely digging into the questions left hanging at the end of episode eight. There were some troubling loose ends. Why did Hopper get in that car? What was that thing that Will coughed up in the bathroom? There's these loose ends that we are definitely going to pick up and follow, so that's one piece of it. In the same way that we always talked season one as an eight-hour movie, we view season two really, less as season two and more as Stranger Things 2. We really view it as a sequel, and the Duffers have spoken about sequels that have worked — whether it's Aliens or Terminator 2 or Empire Strikes Back. We're going to remember what brought us to this moment, which is to say the characters, but we are exploring new dark forces at play. I know I'm being frustratingly vague, but it's intentional. (Laughs.)

You mentioned some new characters joining the series. Have any of them been cast yet?

They are characters that we've already conceived but none of them have been completely, officially cast. We have people in mind — some of whom are names you might know, many of whom are names you won't know. But no, no one has been officially cast as one of these new characters. And as I intimated, it's a range of generations we're looking for because we think that's been so much of the show's appeal: It's that rare show that's multigenerational viewing and you can sit together and enjoy. We'd like to keep that very much part of the character of the show.

I'm assuming after the show's success that perhaps some well-known names reached out in hopes of taking part in future seasons, yes?

You're absolutely right. Without naming them — look, obviously certain people like Aaron Paul and Stephen King and Guillermo Del Toro have been very public champions of our show and supporters. But the list of famous creative people — whether actors or filmmakers — who have found their way to the Duffers and I as fans of the show … and you're right, certain actors that you have definitely heard of have raised their hand with real interest to be a part of it. But I don't know that just because those are available that opportunity makes them the right ideas. When everything is available and possible, there's a temptation to exploit it. But the show's appeal is based so much on the unknown quotient in our actors, in our premise, in our plot. So we do hope to keep that same discovery, and that would suddenly go away if we decided to cast all the famous people who said they'd like to be a part of it.

And what about some of the characters whose fates were left up in the air. Can fans expect to see, say, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) again?

I cannot speak to that. And the other people you're about to ask me about, which I assume include Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Barb (Shannon Purser), I just cannot speak to it. I really believe that if we do divulge a ton of stuff, it would make for a less satisfying second season.

Speaking of Barb, did anyone involved with the show expect that character to become such an internet sensation?

We literally had not even a glimmer of a dream that Barb would become this flag bearer for the show, this adored character. So no, every single bit of her fame and iconography — the hashtags surrounding "Save Barb" and "Bring Back Barb" — has been thrilling. It could not happen to a nicer young woman than Shannon [Purser]. We're so psyched that it's put this terrific young actress on the map in a real way.

Why extend the second season to nine episodes, as opposed to eight like season one?

When we started talking for real about the ideas in season two, we couldn't see a way to contain them in eight episodes. There's some major stakes at play and we didn't want to stretch things out just for the idea of doing 10 or 13, but we definitely couldn't contain them to eight. So we like that it's an escalation from season one, but we also like that it feels like a number of episodes to where we can maintain the quality of our storytelling.

It also was unveiled that the new episodes will land in 2017 but no word on a specific month or date. Do you know when that'll be, exactly?

I have a very good idea and I'm not allowed to tell you that either. (Laughs.) I literally feel like I'm on a J.J. Abrams show or a Star Wars movie. The secrecy is insane and really, really difficult for a motormouth like me. But I really believe it's a benign withholding. We're withholding information because we love our fans.

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