Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo lunge to the window of a school bus, peering out at the junkyard, fog obscuring their view. Keery's character Steve needs to exit the bus to face off with Dart, who brought a few friends — but all the demodogs are supposed to be added in later with CGI. So how does director Andrew Stanton help get Keery in the mood to stand his ground, and then run like hell, with no visual stimulus? "We had Jaws cranked," he says, referring to the signature riff from the iconic 1975 shark thriller.
Here's how the intertextuality of Stranger Things actually helps make the show fire on all cylinders. Even when Stanton was storyboarding the action sequence, he started thinking of Jaws. One of the problems that he needed to solve was that this episode was already over its visual effects budget, so he had to get extra creative. The Pixar mainstay realized he could solve the budget issue and make the scene more thrilling by borrowing from the iconic shark movie, which was itself shaped by budgetary (and technological) issues.
"What if we couldn't see any of the demodogs attack the bus?" he remembers thinking. The creatures would throw their bodies against the fortified bus, the bus would rattle and shake, and the characters would defend themselves against monsters unseen until a pivotal moment. And to remind the actors of the sense of suspense he wanted, "to truly get that feel, and to get the pace of it, and everyone's heart rate up," he used the Jaws soundtrack.
Fun fact: Stanton requested a particular junkyard car for Lucas and Dustin's heart-to-heart about Max, and Steve's action hero hood-rolling. It's a 1974 Dodge Dart, chosen "as a subtle nod to our little Gremlin monster," according to production designer Chris Trujillo.
"The Duffer brothers like to pay homage to all of their influences, but they don't rip off directly," Stanton says. "It's a certain kind of wonderful freedom, which was the thing I took away the most, once I got on set. A lot of their references are for movies where I was first in line on opening night, so we spoke the same cinematic grammar. I could go, 'What would James Cameron do? What would Steven Spielberg do?' And just do it."
Woven throughout the DNA of Stranger Things are a bunch of these pop culture references, ranging from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and the all-important Aliens, but not just for nostalgia's sake — they allow the creators and the characters to communicate to us and to each other through metaphor. Stanton can play Jaws and get the mood he wants on set. The boys can use Dungeons & Dragons terminology to understand and explain the nature of the Upside Down and the creatures crossing over. Max can even use criticism of Stranger Things to react to what's happening in Stranger Things. And so we learn to pay attention during these intertextual moments.
When an actor like Paul Reiser shows up, it plays with and actually depends on our recognition that he portrayed Carter J. Burke in Aliens, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation company man who sells out his crew. "I knew the audience would be asking exactly what I was asking, which is, 'Is this guy good? Is he trustworthy?'" Reiser says. "This guy comes into a place that has been royally screwed over by the government and goes, 'Uh, I know what happened, I'm going to be different, I swear, and you're going to like me.' You look at him like, 'Yeah, no. We don't like you, and we don't trust you.'"
Even if we're not thinking about Aliens on a conscious level, Reiser plays Dr. Owens with shades of Burke. When confronted with the deaths he's responsible for, Burke calls it making "a bad call," while Owens calls it making "abundant mistakes." When he tells Nancy and Jonathan that he'll use "whatever means necessary," we assume that perhaps he, too, would be willing to sacrifice human life for the chance to research or create biological weapons.
But then Owens subverts our expectations and proves to be the anti-Burke, helping our heroes. Would we have suspected him quite so much if not for the stunt casting? "It works because I carry some baggage, some resonance," Reiser says. "That was part of the design."
Owen's workplace, the Hawkins Laboratory, was reconstructed from a mid-century pediatric psychiatric hospital and designed both to resemble a clandestine Cold War government facility and to recall the look and the tech of the makeshift research lab set up at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But just to show that they do have some restraint with overloading obvious homages, the Duffer brothers cut one from Episode 6 because it felt "too planned."
Stanton says he had a flash of inspiration during a control room scene to mock a shot from Close Encounters, with the lab scientists and technicians looking at the radar screen the same way the air traffic controllers did in the film. "We got the right number of people, we had someone walk in and lean in so it matched it, and the only thing that we did differently was that it was in the opposite screen direction," Stanton says. "But the minute you saw it, it felt staged, so it didn't make it."
By contrast, one less obvious homage shot they did keep at Hawkins Laboratory in that same episode was a tracking shot over a conference table leading to Winona Ryder – a shot that Stanton wanted to feel like Network. Ryder's Joyce is mad as hell, and she's not gonna take it anymore. But for answers at Hawkins Laboratory, you need to go to the rift, "this open wound into another dimension," as Trujillo calls it. The room leading into the rift was inspired by real-life cleanrooms and NASA's Space Environment Simulation Lab, and the suspended industrial elevator leading down to it was modeled after the shark cage in Jaws.
"At first, we just go down about six feet, and they put in the floor around it, so you would see us disappear," Reiser says. "And then when we're taking the long shot down, down, down, that giant rift around us is all added in later. But when we land, the mouth of the tunnels were physically there. You walk around those and you go, 'Whoa! This is like a big motion picture. This is a big deal.'"
It's also the biggest development in the Upside Down this season — the other dimension is starting to colonize reality, and infecting our world. "It's a larger version of the vines that you see covering everything in the Upside Down," Trujillo says, "and that's how all these dimensions are propagating themselves and infecting our world physically." It was important that the tunnels seemed organic, so Trujillo modeled them after endoscopic imagery from the human body, especially the esophagus, painted them to look like bruised skin — purples, blues, browns — and glossed them with methylcellulose for a slime effect. (The same plant-based syrup used to create the xenomorph's goop and drool in Aliens).
The largest tunnel piece, 20 feet tall, leads to a honeycomb of tunnels, but there were other, smaller tunnel pieces built on decks so they could be wheeled around and reconfigured. Some were built as hinged rooms, so they could be raised up with chain motors and shot from the side. One piece was an 80-foot-long circular tube open on both ends; another was a 40-foot semicircle for shooting profile shots of people running.
And to everyone's annoyance, Trujillo says, he insisted on these tunnels having uneven surfaces. "I think it forces better acting, because you have to struggle to run through them," he explains. Says Stanton, "I don't think there's anything nice anybody has to say about those tunnels!"
Those who hated the tunnels were no doubt delighted when they got to destroy them. Although they couldn't shoot flamethrowers in the closed tunnel sets, they got to burn down one of the pieces for real. Once they were done using the tunnels, they doused one with gasoline, pushed it outside, and set it on fire. "We burned it down to its skeleton," Trujillo says. "VFX rigged it with flame bars, and it was basically like an oven. Which is why, when you're looking at the quick shots of the tunnel going up in flames, that is actually the tunnel going up in flames. That's why it looks so real and so insane."
And then there's the all-important tunnel intersection, the hub that fills with all the spores and doubles as the boneyard trap where the soldiers die. Leading up to that moment, there are multiple Aliens nods and references – a sort of Aliens/Stranger Things remix: an anxious Paul Reiser watching the soldiers on a grainy monitor, the soldiers moving through misty, slimy tunnels with guns and flashlights, advice to "stay frosty," the radar and beeping signaling that the beasts are descending upon them.
"This show is very riddled with Aliens references," Reiser says. "Sometimes it's shot-for-shot, sometimes it's lines of dialogue, sometimes it's in the story, sometimes it's in the design of the creatures themselves." One prominent example is how creatures' "faces" peel back into four corners, or how a supreme master controls the others with a hive mind, or how it incubates in humans, or sheds its skin to grow larger.
Not all of the Alien and Aliens references were planned — some were unconscious. While shooting a scene where Steve picks up Dart's shed skin in one scene, Stanton realized it resembled the scene in Alien where Harry Dean Stanton's character finds a discarded chestburster skin. "I was planning to shoot coverage of what it was like to see it on the floor, and the second we did that shot of Steve coming up and turning on the light and bringing it into frame, we realized, we didn't need any other coverage," he says. "We realized that it should go into the episode as is, because we were on the edge of our seats just watching it being filmed, let alone knowing what it would be like in the show."
Reiser had one more iconic role beyond Aliens that the show wanted to reference – although the actor thinks it might be so nuanced, fans might have missed it. In the last episode, Dr. Owens meets Hopper in a diner and offers him a bite of his sandwich, which is the exact opposite of what Reiser's character Modell in Diner would ever do. (He'd snag a bite out of someone else's sandwich first.) "I was like, 'Guys, you're so subtle, nobody's going to get that,'" Reiser says. "'It's a roast beef sandwich!' 'Yeah, but you can't see it, and I don't say it, so how will they know?'"
"But these guys, they were very deliberate in what they were doing," Reiser adds. "They knew what shots they wanted, and they knew the framing. They're remarkably skilled. These could have just been loving nods or callbacks, and it's more than that. But they don't try to get cute about it. They own it."