Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with CAS-nominated production sound mixer Michael Rayle and some of the cast members of Stranger Things.
It's complicated, of course: When Stranger Things' Dustin desperately needs to know Planck's Constant (the code he needs to help save the world), he turns to his long-distance girlfriend, the math whiz Suzie. Time is of the essence. But before Suzie will give up the mathematical formation, she demands something odd in return — she wants to hear him sing the theme song to The NeverEnding Story, much to the dismay of everyone else listening on their radio frequency.
Originally, the tune Suzie requested was going to be the mournful Ent song from The Lord of the Rings. But when they realized the imminence of the upcoming Lord of the Rings series on Amazon, writer Curtis Gwinn suggested a replacement — the dreamy power ballad from 1984's The NeverEnding Story, which had been produced by synth wizard Giorgio Moroder and sung by Kajagoogoo singer Limahl with Beth Anderson. Considering that it's a more recognizable hit (and a core piece of every '80s childhood), that song was thought to be a better fit for the nostalgic Stranger Things.
"Oh my God! The NeverEnding Story is one of my favorite movies of all time," Stranger Things actress Maya Hawke says. "I mean, that scene when the horse Artax sinks into the Swamp of Sadness? I could cry just thinking about it right now. In contrast to that, the hopefulness of that song and that movie at large was a perfect way to end Stranger Things Season 3, because it was this collision of all this drama, fear, and scariness on the outside, but all these really human moments and these relationships existing and blooming in the context of all this madness."
During filming, Hawke found herself going around the set singing the melody, because it was so catchy. And once Stranger Things aired, the bursting-into-song moment lodged in viewers' heads, too. Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown and the writing staff issued a #NeverEnding Challenge (to react and reenact that moment) on Instagram and Twitter — and so fans chimed in not just in song, but also cosplay and interpretative dance. One original star of The NeverEnding, the Childlike Empress Tami Stronach, joined the fun along with her daughters. So did Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. Other fans came up with alternative lyrics ("NeverEnding Laundry"), used puppets, and fact-checked the impossibility of singing together via walkie talkie. (Well, technically ham radio.)
"When I read the script, I knew this duet scene with Dustin and Suzie was going to be special," says production sound mixer Michael Rayle. "So I got together with the Duffer brothers and our first assistant director to figure it out. It's two actors who are being filmed separately, but they need to play off one another. They need to ad-lib as if it's live." And they need to sing along to the original track from the movie.
It helped that Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin, and guest actress Gabriella Pizzolo, who plays Suzie, were already friends from their childhood Broadway days. (Six years ago, Pizzolo starred in Matilda the Musical, while Matarazzo appeared in Les Misérables, and the two kids used to hang out.) "We were thrilled," Rayle says. "Already having a relationship was important, and they're both fantastic singers. I think Gaten misses singing."
Although Matarazzo was unfamiliar with the song, Pizzolo had watched the movie repeatedly when she was in the third grade, so she was able to help Matarazzo practice the harmonies. Although they couldn't be in the same space to shoot their scenes (the audio would bleed over each other), each actor supported the other by singing along on a microphone in a nearby room, which they could hear via their earwigs. "The music and the other person singing were pumped into their ears, so they could react to each other," Rayle says. "It's a little bit outside the box of what we would usually do, but that's what makes it fun."
Although Matarazzo and Pizzolo are both capable singers, this method made it a little harder to match their voices to the original instrumental track from the movie — the tempo was off. So music editor David Klotz (who is also one half of the synth duo Dream System 8) adjusted the backing track's tempo. First he sped it up so it sounded like a club track. When that didn't do the trick, he re-arranged and re-recorded it with vintage keyboards. From there, re-recording mixer Mark Patterson fixed the vocals, auto-tuning them slightly to blend the singing.
"It turned out to be amazing," Rayle says.
"For me, the biggest takeaway was seeing just how much the kids embraced it," says Stranger Things guest actor Jake Busey. "They really went with it, as if it were their thing, not a thing their parents liked. That's what I loved."