Netflix’s hit sci-fi drama Stranger Things is three seasons in and still going strong. Full of the show’s signature ’80s nostalgia, the latest season, which sees the kids of Hawkins spend the summer of 1985 at the Starcourt Mall while dealing with an otherworldly threat, is nominated for five Emmys, including a third consecutive one for outstanding drama. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer discuss with The Hollywood Reporter the third season’s departure from Halloween spookiness, its breakout stars Dacre Montgomery and Maya Hawke and plans for season four — and beyond.
In terms of storytelling, how would you compare this season with the previous two?
ROSS DUFFER We want each season to feel different, as opposed to re-creating the same thing over and over again. With season three, we realized early on that we were going to shoot mostly in the summer and that it would be released in the summer. Automatically, that gave it this very different feel in terms of both the tone and the colors. We wanted it very saturated, and we wanted this season to feel like the big Hollywood summer blockbusters that we grew up with and loved so much. There’s a little more humor in it, a little more action, and it just has a different feel than the past two seasons, which were set in the fall and a little more dreary and scary.
What is your favorite moment from season three?
MATT DUFFER We really loved the finale. You always have moments where you’re not sure whether it’s going to work, but seeing it in execution, seeing the “Neverending Story” duet between Dustin and Suzie work in the way that it did, seeing the fans react to it so positively [was great]. Gaten [Matarazzo] and Gabriella [Pizzolo] absolutely killed it. The moment we were filming it, we knew it was going to work.
ROSS We were so happy with the mall and so proud of our whole art department for bringing it to life — all these extras, their ’80s costumes and their ’80s hair. It was like a time machine.
MATT [The mall] was very transportive. It lent a joyful energy to the show that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
The show is very conscious of the Cold War. Did you plan for Russian characters from the beginning, and will we see more of them going forward?
MATT We were looking for a way to introduce new villains and new characters and new flavor into the show, and of course [the Russians] provided not just new villains but fun, endearing characters like Alexei. It was nice that we had planted it in season one, but we really had no idea that the show would go beyond that.
Dacre Montgomery’s character becomes more than just the villain he was in season two. What was the inspiration behind Billy’s arc?
ROSS The Billy arc that you see in season three was initially going to be in season two. We came off of season one, we were so excited by the response, and we sort of poured in all of these ideas into season two, which included the Billy arc as well as other ideas that are now filtering into season four. Immediately we knew that the Billy arc would be better served over an entire season, and Dacre is a force of an actor. The minute we saw his audition tape he just blew us away, so we were very excited to give him that center stage in season three.
MATT What’s cool about a show, as opposed to a movie, is you’re able to adapt the scripts to the actors based on what you’re seeing day to day. Dacre didn’t have a ton of screen time in season two, but he made the most of it. With an actor like that, you can take him really far, so you start to write for him.
What’s a lesson you have learned over three seasons of this show?
ROSS Visual effects are something we really knew nothing about in season one. We attempted to do everything practically, and some of it worked, some of it didn’t. We dipped our toes into visual effects for moments like the Demogorgon breaking through the wall, and moments like that gave us the courage to go a little further in season two. That was scary for us, but we realized it’s something we could continue further. It’s been a learning process for us, but it’s an exciting one.
MATT We keep learning the same lesson over and over again: We cram too many ideas into the show. We’ve learned to really rely on our actors; we take so much inspiration from them. The script evolves as we start to work with them, and that’s something we’ve been increasingly open to. Seeing what Maya was doing in the first couple of episodes really informed how we wrote her character moving forward and made Robin more interesting and well-rounded.
What’s the status of shooting season four?
ROSS Everyone’s excited to get back to work, but the priority is the safety of the cast and crew, and that will dictate when we go back.
MATT We’ve had a lot more time to work on the scripts. For the first time, we have all the scripts written and we’re able to look at it as a whole piece and make adjustments.
Will season four be the last?
ROSS Season four won’t be the end. We know what the end is, and we know when it is. [The pandemic] has given us time to look ahead, figure out what is best for the show. Starting to fill that out gave us a better idea of how long we need to tell that story.
What is the best or worst part of a virtual Emmy season?
ROSS Usually during awards season, we’re in the middle of a show. The argument could be that it can take away from [production], but it is fun to celebrate with our cast and crew amid it all. There are certainly moments where we miss that, but at the end of the day it does allow us to focus on season four.
MATT I don’t particularly enjoy parties, but it’s really nice to be able to meet other creatives who work on shows you admire or actors who work on shows that you love. It was a great year for television, and you just want to tell some of those people how much their work meant to you.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And The Odds Are…
Netflix’s biggest hit is always included in the Emmy conversation but is somehow never a strong part of the narrative. Of its 38 nominations to date, its lone wins (six) have come in creative-arts categories. Stranger Things faces an uphill battle to change its Emmy story in 2020. It has not been helped by a lack of performance noms (a first) or by having last debuted a new episode more than 13 months ago — the longest gap, by far, for any series competing in the drama field. But Stranger Things has something that no other nominee save The Mandalorian has: lavish, pricey and special-effects-laden production value. It could draw votes for its unrivaled scale, something that never hurt Game of Thrones. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.