Taking a swing at ‘Stranger Things’ with Joe Keery and Shawn Levy

Courtesy of Netflix

When Vanyaland sat down with Stranger Things own Joe Keery (a.k.a. bad-boyfriend-turned-surrogate-dad Steve Harrington) and director/executive producer Shawn Levy, both gentlemen were in the glow of A4cade in Cambridge, basking in the flash of pinball machines and other buzzy arcade games of yesteryear. It’s a scene that’s not dissimilar from our first glimpses of Stranger Things’ season three trailer and the new, ’80s-rific gleam of Hawkins’ Starcourt Mall that’s a focus of this season. (Although there was no Scoops Ahoy sailor outfit for Keery on this afternoon, unfortunately).

Don’t let the retro pops of color fool you, though; looking towards the summer-centric next few episodes of Stranger Things, which debut on Netflix tomorrow (July 4), Keery and Levy affirm that this season drops the hammer nail-laden-baseball-bat harder than ever before.

“It’s not even close to anything we’ve ever done,” Levy tells Vanyaland. “Fans can expect much more action, much more visual effects spectacle and, most excitingly perhaps, more emotion than I think we’ve ever packed into a prior season.”

It’s a tall order that Levy describes, but the cast of Stranger Things (and Keery’s envied updo) have yet to disappoint. Read on for the complete scoop on S3, from the “next level and super juicy” elements of this season, to Steve’s ongoing, awww-inducing friendship with Dustin.

Victoria Wasylak: How do you guys fit so much story into so few episodes? That has to be difficult. 

Joe Keery: Definitely.

Shawn Levy: A really good question. You’re starting with one we haven’t heard.

Keery: I feel like the Duffer brothers, they will go through different revisions of editing scripts and just cut away all fat so that literally every single line is moving the plot forward. And if you watch the episodes with that in mind, you start to notice that literally every single line is delivering information and they just happened to do it by dividing these lines up into a very interesting way and just making it really entertaining and enjoyable to watch.

Levy: That’s what I was gonna say. I mean, the Duffers, their scripts generally are over 70 pages per episode. They literally go through and just cut, cut, cut, cut. And if it is not moving things along, it doesn’t survive. Then, in the edit room, every single ounce of air is taken out, because the rhythm for the show has always been propulsive and it’s gotta be like a jet plane every episode, every year. And that’s why we’re able to fit so much. It’s packed, really, really dense.

When do you learn what’s going on in the show? Do you go episode by episode or do you from the start know everything that’s going to happen?

Keery: No, we’ll shoot in a block schedule, so a couple of episodes at a time. I think we got four this year at the beginning, and we’ll just go as we’re shooting, we’ll kind of get more information. But I remember in season one, I didn’t even know if I was going to be alive until that last thing came out like a day before we started shooting it.

Levy: Yeah. It’s like it’s a fun rhythm. We have the first four scripts, but then the cast gets the scripts as we go. And usually, episode eight comes in very, very late. So it’s like the minute it hits them, every actor’s reading voraciously trying to figure out what their fate will be.

And how far ahead are you guys writing? Have you gotten to season four yet?

Levy: I’m completely forbidden from speaking about the future. As you’ll see on July 4 though, season three is definitely next level and super juicy and there’s definitely seems like a good amount more story to tell.

What will fans notice that’s different this season? I know it’s in the summertime, so that sets a whole different tone for everything.

Levy: And that informs definitely the first four episodes in particular. It’s more comedy than our show has ever had. And as a result of that, when the darkness comes — as it always does — somewhere around episode three or four, which is pretty much the rhythm every year, three and four or is that pivot point, it feels even more kind of intense because it’s against this poppier happier summertime backdrop.

Keery: It’s great. The colors are so full this year. It’s like, seems like such a rich full world. And you’re right. It’s like the extreme of this comedy and this darkness. I feel like almost in episode two it really starts getting a little…

Levy: Yeah, we get serious. We definitely start drilling down earlier than we have because, I mean, the back half of season three is on a scale, it’s not even close to anything we’ve ever done. Fans can expect much more action, much more visual effects spectacle and, most excitingly perhaps, more emotion than I think we’ve ever packed into a prior season.

Well, I feel like that’s surprising because you guys already set the bar pretty high for that. 

Levy: Our biggest fear is complacency. That’s every year we start off just mortally afraid, yes, of disappointing our fans, but of feeling like lazy losers. So we really challenge ourselves to take every season somewhere new.

Well, that’s another thing I wanted to talk about, because Stranger Things and Orange Is the New Black are the two shows that I feel solidified Netflix as a company that can make a really good show. That’s kind of hard to uphold — that’s a lot of pressure on you guys.

Keery: Yeah. But I think the Duffer brothers step up to the plate, especially with the writing this year. They just allowed themselves to dream, and Netflix being the company that it is, backed them.

Levy: Yeah. I mean, our creative appetite on season three was very ambitious, much more ambitious than the last two years. And the Duffers, because they’re twins and they’ve got this hive mind, they’re really able — maybe more than a single writer would be — they’re able to just go inside and listen to the inner voices, probably because there’s two of them. And so they’re having a conversation where most of us would just be having an inner singular voice, and it allows them to be creatively clear and autonomous in a way that’s kept the show very, very good. And to Netflix’s credit, this season was definitely not cheap. As I said, the scope of it is way bigger and it definitely needed a bigger budget, and Netflix supported that vision.

Were you working on it longer than the previous two seasons? 

Levy: No, it feels like it’s been about the same time. We did take more days to shoot it, but we also got a little more efficient in the editing. So I think overall it’s the same. But yes, I would say that, I mean, we needed many more shoot days than we did in seasons one and two.

[To Joe Keery] I want to ask about your character. The character development for Steve, it’s just insane in the show. In season one, everyone hates him, he’s the shitty boyfriend, and now he is the mom of everyone. How does that play into season three?

Keery: Well, I think that’s where you pick them [the characters] up. At the beginning of this season, he is kind of this older brother, sort of protective figure for these kids. And his relationship with Dustin stays at that point as well. And that’s kind of the relationship that you get to see unfold in this new season. But also there are a couple of new additions to the cast, and I think that it showcases Dustin and Steve in a different light. 

Levy: It’s also no longer Steve as mentor and Dustin as kid. It’s actually a friendship. I mean, and it’s incredibly charming because the age difference has become all but irrelevant to Dustin and Steve, and you don’t see that [elsewhere]. I’ve never seen a relationship like that. So the evolution of their relationship combined with some new characters who kind of are part of their storyline, it takes Steve to new places.

What is it like playing someone who’s so much younger than you? Also, you have all these kids and young teenagers in the show. Given two years (between seasons), they’re gonna look a lot different.

Levy: I think we’re too late. I think they already do.

Keery: They do, yeah.

Levy: I’ll answer first. Just saying the key for us as producers and directors is don’t pretend they’re not changing. Adjust the story to meet the actors where they are. So hopefully in season three, we’ve told stories that reflect the ages they’re at and the developmental changes physically, emotionally that our actors are going through. You see those incorporated on screen.

Keery: And, I guess, for my answer, although that, you know, certain things that you’re going through in your life when you’re in your late teens are different than the things that I’m going through now in my late 20s, they are human issues. Things that the Duffer brothers are touching upon are things that I still think about today — like self-confidence and inadequacy or, just wanting to do the right thing. I think that those are all themes that everybody can kind of relate to. Although it may be hard to remember the specifics of what it is like to be in high school, I think anyone can relate to those sorts of issues.

‘Stranger Things’ season three debuts July 4 on Netflix.