‘Stranger Things’: Shawn Levy on Balancing the Darkness of Season 4 and How Volume 2 Will “Punch You Right in the Heart”

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[This story includes major spoilers from season four, Volume 1 of Stranger Things.] 

Stranger Things’ highly anticipated fourth season finally hit Netflix on Friday after almost three years spent away from the Upside Down.

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The new episodes — which released as the first of two volumes — pick up six months after the events of the season three finale, with Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven and the Byers leaving to start new lives in California, and the rest of the gang, besides Hopper (David Harbour), still residing in Hawkins, Indiana. Over the course of Volume 1’s seven episodes, viewers journey with the ensemble across several different storylines that are simultaneously set in California (on an Eleven rescue mission), Indiana (on a teen survival mission), Alaska (on a Hopper rescue mission), Nevada (on an Eleven powers-saving mission) — and, of course, the Upside Down, where season four’s darkest villain yet reveals himself.

By the end of Volume 1, viewers learn in flashback that Eleven was the one who first opened a gate to the Upside Down when she was originally being tested on at the Hawkins Laboratory. While there, she befriended an orderly, who had planned to help Eleven escape the lab. When Eleven asked him to come with her, he said he had a tracker that “weakens” him and wouldn’t let him leave the premises. Having already begun to hone her powers, Eleven was able to remove the tracker from the orderly (Jamie Campbell Bower) — who was then revealed to be Henry, the son of Victor Creel (played by Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund); who went on to become “One” (001), the first child ever tested on at Dr. Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) lab; who went on to become season four’s big bad, Vecna, and who had his powers restored by Eleven.

When the orderly tried to woo Eleven over to his side, she refused and the two went head-to-head. After she realized she was used and tricked, her anger overcame her, leading her to open up the first Upside Down gate and seal 001 into it, where he would go on to spend years becoming Vecna, the villain who torments and kills Hawkins teens in season four.

Since its launch, Stranger Things has skirted around the question of how the first gate to the Upside Down was opened. Now, with the first finale of the series’ penultimate season, co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer decided it was time to give the fans some answers. And, as Shawn Levy says, the reveal reframes everything about the show.

“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 tells The Hollywood Reporter. “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, the filmmaker opens up about the darker turn of Stranger Things with season four, how it takes inspiration from ’80s horror films, what it was like directing Sadie Sink in the “Dear Billy” episode, and what’s in store for season four, Volume 2 (the two, feature-length episodes release July 1), which will set up the fifth and final season: “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.”

Season four, for the first time ever with Stranger Things, releases in two parts. These seven episodes make up Volume 1, with the final two episodes of the season, Volume 2, coming in July. Why split the season?

We didn’t think nine episodes were going to be ready in time, and we have made the world wait long enough. We always knew that if we could deliver the first seven, it’s such a satisfying breaking point and pay-off moment, that it’ll keep people fed for enough weeks so we can finish up Volume 2.

Every streamer is playing around with different models. We’ve seen full-season, binge-worthy streaming, aka Stranger Things 1, 2 and 3. We’ve seen Disney+ and Hulu try a weekly model, which didn’t feel quite right for this. So, we’re happy that we were able to give our audience a huge meal of story. But it also gives us time to stick the landing by finishing the last two episodes really strongly and, as you’ve already now seen, this season relies on next-level visual effects and world-building, and as you can imagine, Volume 2 is very ambitious in its storytelling, and we need a little more time to finish strong.

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, and so I get fed a lot from my film directing career. But when I direct my episodes of Stranger Things every year, my job is the same as it is as producer of every episode, which is I’m thrilled to be in the service of the Duffers’ vision and voice. I did not grow up as the horror genre nerd that the Duffers are. In fact, as a younger audience member, I really didn’t like being scared that much. So, my friendship and now brotherhood with the Duffer brothers has opened my world to horror fluency way beyond what it was.

When I took on my block of episodes this year [the third and fourth episodes of every season], especially episode four “Dear Billy,” which has been getting such thrilling reactions, [it] for sure [had] those inspirations like Nightmare on Elm Street. But also Silence of the Lambs, which is not straight slasher-horror, obviously. Revisiting that Jonathan Demme classic kind of got me back in the language of tension and suspense and fear-based storytelling that are not jumpscares, but are a more slow-burn dread. Maybe the other one is a little bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when it came time to shooting at Pennhurst Asylum. That was fun, too, just even in the casting of the background patients in their white outfits and haunted faces. I really tried to create layers of stuff that is unsettling in a very juicy way.

Joe Keery as Steve Harrington, Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson, Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley. - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Joe Keery as Steve Harrington, Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson, Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley. - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

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.]

There were. I was occasionally nervous that the show was going so dark, it would be off-putting to the younger viewers that have flocked to our show. When we made season one, we thought this was a 13-and-over kind of viewing experience. What we now know is that kids as young as 9 and 10 are watching Stranger Things, and I knew that this season would be scary as shit for some of those viewers. The Duffers, to their credit, pointed out that every time we go darker, somehow our audience stays with us and grows. Though I don’t have numbers yet on season four, I’m seeing what I saw in every prior season, which is the social media volume of engagement, of enthusiasm. And it feels like once again, going darker has far from hurt us. It might have helped us because, as you say, the show and our audience is growing up and evolving along with our young stars.

I think this is the superpower of the show. No matter how dark we go with Stranger Things, it’s always balanced with the heart it is. I really think that’s what makes Stranger Things unique — in addition to several stylistic instincts that the Duffers have, which makes the show deeply binge-worthy. It’s got this warm, passionate beating heart, in the characters’ storytelling, and that’s the antidote; that’s the balance for all the gore and darkness. I really feel like one without the other wouldn’t work in the same phenom way that Stranger Things seems to deliver.

I literally just hung up with my 75-year-old stepmom, who is about to start episode five, and she’s like, “Shawn, I am as addicted as ever.” She couldn’t believe it when she fell in love with the show season one. She’s sitting alone in Montreal, binging season four in one weekend, and it’s just a powerful [show]. Meanwhile, my preteens are watching in New York, so it’s a reminder of the unique demographic span of this franchise. I can’t think of any other show that has that demographic breadth like Stranger Things does. It’s the great miracle of our show.

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?

I remember when we made season two, I told people, “Look out, this is the year that Noah Schnapp as Will Byers gets to spread his wings and show what he can do.” As soon as I read the very first outline for season four, it was clear that this was, in many ways, the season of Max, and certainly an opportunity for Sadie Sink to show her chops. But I think it also should be said, just like with Steve Harrington [Joe Keery], just like with Robin [Maya Hawke], it is the same thing with Max. We get new characters every season — I would, by the way, add Eddie [Joseph Quinn] and Argyle [Eduardo Franco] to this list, just to name a few — when the Duffers see an actor who delivers in the role, they feed that strength. They feed the strength of the actors with juicier material.

In the same way that we’ve seen Steve Harrington go from a one-episode character, to a one-season character, to a franchise favorite — same thing has happened with Robin — it was time to do that with and for Sadie. When we filmed “Dear Billy,” we have massive acting challenges, like her monologue at Billy’s grave, her confrontation with Vecna in the Mind Lair, and certainly inclusive of her escape from the Mind Lair. Sadie needed to dig deep, and she needed to go places that she hasn’t gone before as an actor, and those aren’t easy. There’s no rule book for how to access those more fragile, wounded parts of yourself, but she did it every take with no drama, she just delivered the goods.

Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield in “Dear Billy.” - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield in “Dear Billy.” - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

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

Sometimes the songs of Stranger Things are found in postproduction, through trial and error. “Running Up That Hill” was in the script. It was always in the Duffers’ minds. They were convinced that it would work and when I was editing “Dear Billy,” I played around with an orchestral rearrangement of the Kate Bush song. If you rewatch the last five minutes of “Dear Billy,” that’s not just the Kate Bush song. It’s the Kate Bush song with layers of strings and orchestra, because I wanted to take a phenomenal song that was known by so many and bump it up to a level of emotionality that would support and amplify the scene. It’s just a musically amazing song because it’s great as its original version, but it’s also so compatible with rearrangement and orchestral augmentation, which is what we did at the end of “Dear Billy.”

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

I know. It’s just so thrilling. Obviously we couldn’t do any of that without Kate’s blessing, and we’re so grateful we got it.

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, et cetera?

I need to say, first and foremost, one thing I love about the Duffers, who have very different personalities than me, they’re a different generation than me, but where we’ve always understood each other is: We make stuff for audiences. We are not out here telling stories just for ourselves. We’re telling them for broad populist appeal. In a world where so many shows end unsatisfyingly, I love that the Duffers got to episode seven of our penultimate season and 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.” So, I for one, just love that we have been able to give our audience so much narrative satisfaction with those explanations. It does reframe everything we know about the evil of Hawkins and the supernatural villains that we face, and I don’t want to give too much away regarding Volume 2 and season five, but it certainly also serves as a springboard for what’s next.

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

Victor was always in the script, and somewhere early on in conversations with Carmen Cuba, our casting director, and Matt and Ross, we all decided this would be the perfect cameo for him, not only because he’s a great actor and perfect for the part, but because so much of season four is inspired by Freddy Krueger and by the ideas at play in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. So, it just felt right. Sort of like Sean Astin is Bob — it’s not stunt casting when it’s good casting. It’s stunt casting when you put someone famous in a part that they’re not well suited for. But you watch that sequence with Victor Creel in Pennhurst Asylum, and it’s an incredibly captivating sequence because Robert is a great actor playing a part that is tailor-made for him. The fact that there’s also this layer of pop culture wink is bonus points, but not the reason we did it and not why this scene works. That helps when the stunt casting is also perfect casting.

I have a bunch of favorite shots that I did this season. But one of my personal favorites was this idea. I rewatched Nightmare on Elm Street right before I shot, and I came into work and said, “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.”

Robert Englund as Victor Creel. - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Robert Englund as Victor Creel. - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

A lot of questions were answered in the Volume 1 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 champ for us every season. She tends to be instrumental at the heart of the mystery, kind of detective story. But as far as that redemptive memory of Barb, that was less master plan and more if Nancy’s dealing with Vecna, who’s able to access people’s deepest guilts, then, of course, Barb needs to be high on that list for Nancy as a character, just as Billy is top of the list for Max.

What can you tell us about what’s in store for Volume 2 and how it sets up the show’s endgame with season five?

I’ll just tell you that we are hard at work on Volume 2. There’s so much being written as far as the runtimes of these episodes, and the hefty runtime of episode nine, in particular. Having seen both those finale episodes, they are as emotional as they are cinematic. Holy shit, they are definitely a treat for the eyes, but they punch you right in the heart. So, that’s what I’ll say about that.

Season five, I’ll just say this, we talk a lot — the Duffers and I — about sticking the landing. We tried to stick the landing with the final five minutes of every episode, and we definitely tried to stick the landing with the end of every season. So, ending next season is all about finishing strong. We have phenomenal ideas for season five, and we don’t want to stick around past the point where we see our path with clarity and confidence. So, season five will no doubt be epic. It will be bittersweet for us to shoot and very bittersweet for audiences to watch. But hopefully, it’s also deeply satisfying because as we all know, as fans of many other shows, there’s few feelings as crummy as an unsatisfying ending — and 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 Duffer brothers have a Stranger Things spinoff idea in mind. What can you tell us about that? 

That’s a big no comment from me. I’ve been well-trained.

Finn Wolfhard guessed the spinoff idea.

Finn is such a sensitive and intuitive person, it does not surprise me that he guessed it. But beyond that, I so live in terror of spoiling anything Stranger Things-related, so that most definitely includes any potential spinoff.

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 is interesting because I read Sadie say that the emotionality of season four prepared her for the emotionality that was required of her in All Too Well, and I think that’s absolutely true. Sadie is a great actor, but she’s never been asked to dig deep and break the way she does in All Too Well and in certain chapters of season four. What was trippy was to spend months directing Sadie in season four, and then to reunite with her on a set in New York a year later, but as her co-star for a scene. It gave me fresh respect for what actors do because I can honestly tell you that I have barely any recollection of sitting at that table with Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink. Acting is such a miserably self-conscious experience for me. I’m happy to make a fool of myself behind the camera, but you put a camera in front of me, and I don’t even know what my hands and face are doing. So, after Taylor [Swift] called “Cut,” every take I would literally 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 want to see a Ryan Reynolds cameo in anything. The truth is, my career over the past half-decade has been defined by Stranger Things and my collaborations with Ryan, so it would be deeply trippy but satisfying to see my two worlds collide. So, Ryan Reynolds, get ready for season five.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

Volume 1 of Stranger Things 4 is now streaming on Netflix, with Volume 2 releasing July 1.

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