WATCHING NOT WATCHING:
The beauty of Netflix is that an addictive new series will appear seemingly from thin air, ready to be discovered in its entirety. And then the word will spread, slowly but surely. Stranger Things is a perfect example. An unassuming trailer popped up at the start of summer, and now you're telling (or being told by) all of your friends that it's the best thing since [enter 80s reference here]. Fans are obsessing over every aspect of the show, from the 80s allusions to the haunting electronic score to the glorious opening credits, co-designed by WNW Member Arisu Kashiwaga.
Below, we talk to four WNW Members (Ben Stafford, Phillip Van, Ann Shen, & Evan di Leo) who love the show as much as we do, and approach the discussion with a consideration for how the show can inspire their creativity. A few of them love Stranger Things so much they even threw in some awesome fan art. A special thanks to WNW Member Ida Kristina Andersson as well for perfectly rendering the majestic life form that is Winona Ryder.
*Light Spoilers & Nerding Out Ahead
What was it about Stranger Things that hooked you?
BEN STAFFORD: I ended up watching four episodes the day it came out (July 15th) and the remaining four the following day. It felt more like a movie experience rather than your typical episodic TV show. There's a certain beauty to what Stranger Things was able to do in 8 episodes that most shows can't do in 22. They were able to tell a clear story, make the viewer care about the characters and how they developed and changed over time and they managed to keep the pacing just. Here's where I'm giving out some "A+'s": child actors/actresses, theme/score, title sequence, set/prop/costume departments and the many nods to the classics it borrowed from in Season 1.
Am I gushing too much? Likely. But I know what it feels like to care passionately about what you're making and hope other people receive your vision and love it as much as you. I'd say the Duffer brothers can be confident in knowing their vision has been accepted and applauded. So from one artist to another, well done and here's to Season 2!
PHILLIP VAN: The aesthetic! Then the performances. Then the story. In that order. The look and feel of the show is pure nostalgia. For any 80's kid, resistance is futile. Every reference gave me a pleasant, even unnerving sensation, tapping into a weird part of my brain that has been dormant since the 80's. Sorry to my brain, which I just completely sold out. Who didn't love The Goonies, E.T., Explorers, The Lost Boys and Close Encounters growing up? The series also mines darker films like Nightmare on Elm Street and Altered States. Granted, none of this is original, but that's the point. It's the jigsaw construction of references that makes the whole collage so ridiculously enjoyable.
Then the performances got me -- the kids they found are insanely amazing. And they clearly all trained at whatever kid acting school Sean Astin and Corey Feldman graduated from before making The Goonies. Not Eleven though -- she's even better -- she definitely went to whatever school Natalie Portman came out of before making The Professional. Around the end of episode 3, the story really kicked in, the pace picked up, and I found the premise more original than I assumed it would be.
ANN SHEN: I love spooky mysteries that dip a toe into horror but not quite because I can be such a chicken about real horror films (like The Exorcist) or disgusted by the gratuitous torture gore-fests that’s the trend nowadays. But as a child of the 80s and early 90s, these sci-fi mystery/adventure stories were the best! Stranger Things walks that line SO well. From the opening mystery to the variety of characters, there’s so much for anyone to connect to – and the opening titles are so good, the set details are fantastic, and the soundtrack sets the perfect mood. It’s all so familiar yet completely original.
EVAN DI LEO: I had a very vague ‘you have to watch this show’ recommendation from a friend and knew little else about it. It quickly became obvious this was going to be a show I needed to spend the time with. It feels like just a fantastic love letter to a very specific flavor of film and media from our childhood... even in an age where huge chunks of film and media companies are trying desperately to capitalize on that nostalgia. This show just hit all the right notes.
Which of the three storylines (the kids, the teenagers, or the adults) did you like most, and why?
BEN: Without a doubt, it's the kids who stole the show. The boys' chemistry was great, but the most captivating character was Eleven. I loved the way she learned how to be a friend and what it meant to care for others. I think the group's bond grew tighter and gave them more confidence the more time they spent with Eleven.
PHILLIP: The kids, definitely. I mean, other films and shows have conjured the 80's, Like Halt and Catch Fire, Freaks and Geeks, Donnie Darko, House of the Devil, but until now, none have nailed the feel of the KID FILMS of the 80's, which were arguably the most important ones. Tarantino craps on the 80's a lot, but one thing he can't crap on at all (is saying crap twice) is that there was never another era that made kid films the way the 80's did. Don't get me wrong, Spy Kids is great (haven't seen it), I love Harry Potter (totally lost track) and Pixar is Pixar (nothing to add to this, Pixar IS Pixar) but where are the kids riding around on BMX bikes late at night to deal with the secret nature of reality using DIY contraptions they built in their basement???
That having been said, the teenagers' story exceeded my expectations. Charlie Heaton reminded me so much of River Phoenix that he actually feels like he time traveled to the present to shoot this show. (What kind of day rate would he get for that?) I love how his story basically turned into a class struggle -- blue collar misanthrope vs. white collar preppy kid and his terrible wealthy friends. It was also a classic test of faith. In the 80's, if you believed in weird stuff, the rich conservative kids would beat the hell out of you. The Duffer Brothers totally channeled 80's writers, addressing the worst of Reaganism, specifically the intolerance Reagan supporters had for anyone who thought or acted differently. Thank God we live in a better era now, where the idea of a megalomaniacal Republican out to poison our minds and spread fear and hate is an unimaginable nightmare, relegated to the distant past.
ANN: The kids! Their story was so reminiscent of those 80s childhood stories about coming of age, being full of hope, and doing the right thing. Eleven is such a great character -- she’s so strong and powerful, expresses the hell out of the show, and barely says 10 words total in the series. Kids have such rich internal lives, and it was so great that some of it started spilling into the adults’ reality in Stranger Things, most exemplified by when the adults start using the kids’ fantasy vernacular to describe what was happening.
EVAN: I think probably the Mom's story, or the Adults is the most interesting. The show does a fantastic job showing you three distinct perspectives, or really four if you count Eleven as a separate line. Watching the show now as adults we can relate to those nerdy kids because we were those kids. We were those angsty teenagers. And there's piles and piles of great (and not so great) films about these stages of growing up. But Stranger Things has a very relatable and real take on parenthood as well. On adulthood. That’s something thats largely missing from these other coming-of-age films. And to use sci-fi/paranormal devices to explore real loss and relationships. "People think I’m crazy, I know I sound crazy… but I can FEEL him." It's very compelling.
Is Stranger Things, and television in general, a source of creative inspiration or escape for you?
BEN: I believe it's both. I love tv shows with stories that engage and make me think. It helps spark new ideas and causes me to approach my work differently.
PHILLIP: A creative inspiration, definitely. An escape, not so much. I always get a little worried when people tell me they watched something because they "needed to escape." Not to get pedantic, but all good stories involve conflict. Most involve extreme conflict. Saying I watched Stranger Things to escape feels like saying I played Call of Duty to go to my zen place. If dying on a battlefield in Frankfurt is my form of meditation, something's wrong.
But seeing such insane love for the 80's on full display is inspiring, to say the least. I've read articles about how the 80's are a fully exhausted era in film and TV, but if anyone gave a sh*t about what those cynical writers looking for a clickbaity headline had to say, Stranger Things wouldn't exist. Sorry, just venting. Stop attacking the 80's!
ANN: Oh definitely a source of creative inspiration. Even though I love nothing more than something brand new to marathon as my preferred method of chill, I always inevitably get inspired by what I’m watching. It helps that I tend to be drawn to things with great stories, strong characters, and obsessively addictive qualities (inspiring me to think of why, and then hopefully adapting it for my own work).
EVAN: It definitely is. There's so many amazing things happening with television right now. Literally too many. I can’t keep up. And theres a lot of lessons on storytelling and writing and aesthetics there as well. There are lessons in studying painting or literature or music or photography… but television and film combine so many disciplines. And of course to let yourself get carried away in a good story, it's a great source of escape.
Complete this sentence: If you like ________, you’ll love Stranger Things.
BEN: I'm being redundant with what most are saying but I have to say E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. I watched it soon after finishing the show to help fill that Stranger Things-sized gap in my life.
PHILLIP: The Goonies / The 80's / Trapper Keepers / BMX bikes / Dark Crystal / Golden Era Spielberg / Joy Division / David Bowie / The Lost Boys / Television.
ANN: E.T. / Goonies / Winona Ryder / The 80's / sci-fi mysteries / Are You Afraid of the Dark
EVAN: John Carpenter / Stephen King / The Goonies / Synthwave. Yes Yes Yes Yes.
What other shows, new or old, do you recommend to fellow WNW Members?
BEN: My favorite drama shows are Lost and Breaking Bad. Hard to beat those. If we're talking comedy, you can't go wrong with Parks & Rec, The Office, Community or Arrested Development. And I'll always have a special place in my heart for Survivor. I haven't missed a season since it first started when I was 14.
PHILLIP: Halt and Catch Fire -- the only other super amazing 80's thing I've seen recently. I'm also just getting into Documentary Now! and it's criminally funny.
ANN: So my old reliables aka shows I put on all the time when working (which is a lot) include: Bob’s Burgers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and Gilmore Girls. Shows that are currently on that I’d recommend: Scandal, How To Get Away with Murder, Unreal, Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat, The Mindy Project, Sherlock, and Game of Thrones (I held out for a long time on this one, but I am now in deep). As you can probably tell from this list, “Shows featuring a strong female lead” rank high on my Netflix recommendations.
EVAN: I'm a HUGE fan of Peaky Blinders. I'm a sucker for Crime Family stories and this one is tremendous. The dialogue is cutting and brilliant. There are so many strong and compelling characters. The period setting is beautifully realized. The music and art direction are top notch. Oh and the cinematography. The costuming. The lighting. Pretty much everything they do, they do well.
Stranger Things does a great job of functioning as an homage to so many great shows and films before it, while also establishing its own original personality. How do you achieve a similar balance in your own work when drawing inspiration from other subjects and artists?
BEN: That's a great question. I think they stole the best part of the greats and were able to create something fresh yet familiar. It's very much like how J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens was widely accepted. I think both of these camps knew what struck a cord with people when it came to the originals and were able to capture that for their own benefit and story.
I look at masters and study their work in hopes that I can take the best parts of their work and convey similar feelings in my own. The more I study, the more I'm able to think like the masters instead of straight up lifting their work or ideas. I think that's the balance everyone hopes for. I'm no master, but if I can pay homage or if people can notice similar tendencies, I'll be satisfied.
PHILLIP: If I'm making anything that's an homage to anything else, I wear my references on my sleeve. I don't claim something is mine when it isn't. I try to write a love letter to the thing I'm referencing in a way that I hope flatters rather than mortifies the original makers of that thing. A dedication is worlds apart from a theft. One is the upside-down version of the other. Sorry. Half-baked Stranger Things reference.
ANN: First, I make sure to draw from a large and diverse pool of inspiration – from Rococo paintings to John Singer Sargent to fashion illustrations of Rene Gruau to mid-century children’s book illustrators and designers to Parisian building signage, the list goes on. I study what works and what’s appealing to me about their work -- the design, the light, the color, the lines. Then I put the inspiration away and try to find ways to apply it to my own work. And it always starts with that -- design, value, color, lines.
EVAN: This is a tricky one I think. Finding your own voice is so important as a creative person. But I also think that it's good to study the artists and work that you are moved by. You can't create in a vacuum. It’s good to know and hold up work that you really love so you have something to aim at. I think especially for those starting out, you can let go of trying to be unique or have a voice and just study work that you love. Do the work. Learn your craft. And in time your voice will emerge.
What are you working on these days?
BEN: I do a fair mix of editorial illustrations and logo/branding work. I've only been professionally illustrating for the past couple of years but it's been fun to test the waters find what I'm truly passionate about. I've got some big goals so as they say, "I've only just begun."
PHILLIP: A pilot! And that's all I can say about that. Also, commercials. I'd love to do an 80's inspired one. I wish brands just made straight up 80's commercials for their products again. Can't we all collectively agree to deny that the present exists? If we did, maybe it would disappear forever. Alright, I am a bit of an escapist. I'll admit it. Talk to me after the election.
ANN: Lately I’m doing a lot of publicity for my upcoming book, Bad Girls Throughout History, coming out with Chronicle Books on September 6! I’m also in development of a couple big illustration projects that will be coming out next year, so there’s a lot of juggling happening right now.
EVAN: I’ve been spending time really trying to sharpen up my traditional drawing chops as well as get deeper into digital painting. I do a lot of sketching, drawing people I are memorable walking around New York. And a lot of time painting in photoshop. I’m also developing a short film with my good friend and partner Ashley Becerra that will be a sort of surreal character study. Exploring the complications of expectations in personal relationships. It’s been very fun to explore a idea without a brief or client to tend to.