Pixar's Andrew Stanton on directing Stranger Things and the key lesson Steve Jobs taught him

Contributed by
Dec 6, 2017

Stranger Things did something a bit, well, strange for Season 2: it took a chance on a director who had never directed television before. Granted, Andrew Stanton had directed film, but a glance at his credits — Finding Nemo, WALL-E — reveals a long history at Pixar, with only one pit stop in live action in 2012 (John Carter).

Clearly, the man knows his way around computer animation, but was he poised to become the next Brad Bird (who jumped from making films such as The Incredibles to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who juggle the Lego movies with 21 Jump Street sequels)?

To convince the Duffer brothers, Stanton was willing to go above and beyond the usual workload. He shadowed the production for a few weeks, storyboarded out his episodes, and adding his own soundtrack cues for the actors. The result? You probably couldn't even tell that episodes five and six were helmed by someone different, let alone a first-time TV director. Stanton called up SYFY WIRE to chat about how he did his homework, a trick he learned from Steve Jobs, and what he yelled at actors on set.

So how did you go from being a fan of the show to becoming the director of two of the most pivotal episodes?

Andrew Stanton: I had just finished press on Finding Dory, and I wanted to take a big break from animation. I wanted to get back to live action, and I thought TV might be a great way to get back in, because it's a short schedule. It can be very rigorous, but it wouldn't be a multiyear commitment. And so I was searching for something to do at the same time as they released the first season of Stranger Things.

The timing couldn't be more fortuitous. And I was talking to my entertainment attorney in L.A. about possible shows to have meetings with, and I sort of joked to him, "You might as well add Stranger Things to that list! I'm binge-watching it, and I love that show." And then he said, "Oh! Well, I represent [producer] Shawn Levy, too. Why don't I just have him call you?" By the next day, I was talking to Shawn. It was all who-knew-who.

 

You had never done television before. How did you present yourself as a good option?

It was a bit of a negotiation for a while. They did warn me that they were pretty sure that what would fall into my lap would be freaking big. I was the first to say, "I get the risk. Do you want me to shadow the production first?" So when they were in the middle of shooting episodes one and two, and Shawn was overlapping by prepping for three and four, I shadowed them so I could do episodes five and six. Perfect timing.

That's why there was an opportunity to direct anyway, because the Duffers had to take care of what was coming down the train track. I was there for two and a half weeks, and I was able to see the full-on production and what they did to prepare. It was all familiar things to me — when I did John Carter, that was equally as dense — but it was condensed and done with no time to make a lot of decisions.

Did you offer any input on the episodes they were doing while you were shadowing?

Even though I come from the best example of a team effort, working at Pixar, I also knew it was their show. I didn't volunteer my opinion unless asked. And the Duffer brothers were very inviting. They would ask what I thought, and I got used to that. By day three, if I thought if something was a missed opportunity, I would chime in. But I was very judicious about it. I know what it's like to be there trying to do just the few things you have planned, and time is running out, and you have to make sacrifices, let along somebody suggesting things on top of that. I was very deferential to them.

The bigger thing for me was just getting to meet everybody, to know everybody, to be a fly-on-the-wall, so that by the time I air-dropped in, I was a familiar face. I just wanted to set up what I was doing in episodes five and six, and set them up for eight and nine.

You also prepped by re-watching Season 1 without the sound on?

Oh yeah. I do that with any films that I want to get inspired by, or learn from, because the audio can distract you. You're trying really hard to pay attention to the technique, and really good filmmakers are trying really hard to make you not see the technique! [Laughs] So it's this exercise in willpower and discipline to pay attention to what the camera is doing, what the lighting is focusing on, think about what the crew is doing, their style of framing things, their pacing of things. There wasn't a rulebook, but you get a flavor for it.

Something that you brought from your background in animation is that you storyboarded the heck out of your episodes.

Well, not the whole episodes. Anything that had visual effects involved, which was very heavy in my episodes. I think one of my episodes had more visual effects than the entire first season? So that was a lot. [Laugh] And the other thing was, there were so many scenes with Hopper in the tunnels, and we had similar problems with certain stories we've done at Pixar, like Monsters, Inc., where every other scene was in a hallway. How do you make them not feel like they're all the same?

You have to come up with some kind of plan so you don't inherit sameness, so I boarded those scenes more for myself than the crew needing them. I don't know if the crew ever really referenced them. It just helps me think, to get my brain into this mode of thinking I can't otherwise. I would try to get it down to one word or phrase, like, "This moment in the tunnels is about giving up," "This moment is about rebelling," "This moment is about fear."

There's a moment where Hopper finds one of the tunnels has spores everywhere, and he's breathing that shit in, and he's basically in a panic: "I gotta get out of here, and I gotta get out of here now." A lot of those angles, those shots, were born of out of what helps magnify those feelings.

 

Storyboarding would also help you track the geography in complex action scenes. Like in the junkyard.

That's why we board! Because the minute you start boarding something that crazy, it starts getting more specific, as in what is it that you need to be able to track? Geography is a huge thing for me, and you're always trying to shoot a little wider than you would expect, to keep some sort of set piece or prop in frame. I'm always saying on set, "We need our Eiffel Tower. We need our Big Ben." Something where you just how where you are in town, because I can see the Eiffel Tower.

So that car in the middle of the junkyard that the demodogs jump into, and Steve rolls over the hood on? That was not there in the script. But when I was boarding, I realized that I needed something in the middle of all this for you to lock down your geography, to make it an identifiable location. The second you see it, you remember that. That's an easy thing I see people overlook in a lot of films.

It's a trick I learned from Steve Jobs, actually, because when we were marketing our films early on, he would complain about the billboards. He wanted to be able to drive past a billboard at 60 miles per hour, and never forget it. And that's very similar to what you need to do in a movie, because the shots are moving so fast. So when I'm in charge of stuff, I want to make this thing as clear as I f***ing can. [Laughs]

The Duffer brothers were also writing while they were shooting. How did that affect your episodes?

There were a lot of moments where we created something right there on set, a line, or how to shoot it. Like with the resolution of Bob Newby, Sean Astin's character. Shawn always had a lot of ideas for lines, and he suggested "Bob Newby, superhero." He whispered that to Winona Ryder during episode six, and they loved that, so they incorporated that and referred back to it when it was time for Bob to save the day in episode eight. That was fun.

You played music for some of the actors to help cue them during rehearsals or shooting certain scenes?

A lot of the times, you can't use music on set, because there's dialogue, but you can do it in rehearsal. It's usually only the shots where you don't have to worry about the audio, and it just really helps them understand the mood I'm going for. I dabbled with that on John Carter, and when I write, I write my own movie scores, too, because it helps me write. So when I found out that Shawn Levy was doing that on his sets, I felt I had license to do it on Stranger Things, too. I'm pretty geeky that way.

So when Max and Lucas are on top of the bus, I played a really gentle cue from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial called "Toys," which is essentially Elliott showing his toys to E.T. And when Eleven was walking towards the crib, I had this piece of music by the composer Max Richter, which was just really somber and sacred. I was going for this feel like you were walking in church, and that helped Millie Bobby Brown. She would ask me to play that again and again.

What was it you would yell out every time you were about to roll on Noah Schnapp playing Will?

"It's. Just. Not. Will's. Day!" [Laughs] On set, we were joking, "Gee, this poor kid can't catch a break!" You hope that it will relax for him in season three, but I don't think it will. The Duffers enjoy torturing him too much.

Will you be back for Season 3?

I hope so! The intention is that we'd all like to work together again. We spend most of the hours prepping and planning, and have very little time to call "Action!", so if you can make it fun, and it was, then it's definitely a good gig. It would be like going back to summer camp.