“What would Steven do?”
That was the mantra for director of photography Tim Ives on the set of Stranger Things. The Netflix show, about a small Midwestern town dealing with strange forces, counted quintessential cinema from the 1980s, like John Carpenter films and movies based on Stephen King’s novels, among its references. But none were as influential as the works of Steven Spielberg, who directed such iconic films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial around that time.
“We talked a lot about and saw movies together before we started,” Ives said in a recent interview. “We were continuously inspired by Spielberg’s work. What would Steven do if we could ever hope do it half as well as he could.”
The hit show returns today for a second season. But to see how deep the nostalgia ran, we asked Ives to break down how much an influence had on their story from season one. None had more of an influence than E.T., where the children of a similar small town befriend and protect an otherworldly being. ”E.T. was the big jump-off point in season one for me,” Ives said.
In fact, one of the very first scenes in the opening episode, where Will Byers goes missing, is a direct homage to that 1982 sci-fi classic and set the tone for everything to come.
“Stranger Things” vs. “E.T.”
In E.T., the main character, Elliot, hears a noise in his backyard and finds the light on in the woodshed. Thinking it’s the family dog, he throws a ball into the shed. An unknown creature—later to be discovered as E.T.—throws it back. (The moment begins around 26 seconds in.)
That is mirrored in Stranger Things by a moment when Will sees the monster at his front door and runs to the back of the house to get a weapon from the shed and hide. (Starts at 7:21)
“In E.T., Elliot goes to the woodshed when he’s looking to find the monster. Will is looking to get away from the monster and hide,” said Ives. “There was a shot, very similar, that was an homage. It was very wide, looking back at the house on the left and the shed on the right. It was sort of a signature shot for us that I think the audience responded quite well to.”
Ives used a dolly to capture the wide shot of Will running and took some creative license to make the connection between the two scenes even stronger. He put more light in the shed than there would normally be from the single lightbulb burning in the night to make it look “hyper real,” as it does in E.T. “If this was a real environment, the light in the shed wouldn’t be projecting out to illuminate you as you’re running toward it,” he said.
Spielberg’s touch is everywhere
There are other references to E.T. in Stranger Things, too. There’s the scene where Eleven puts on a dress and a blonde wig, like the way the kids dress up E.T. in the movie. And the shot where Eleven flips the van so the gang can escape on their bikes, which mirrors the famous scene in E.T. where the kids soar into the air on their bikes with a little from their friend. There are also direct references to other movies like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
“When I first read the outline, [the creators, the Duffer brothers] had put together a package lovingly created in honor of movies they fell in love with,” said Ives. “The script and their packaging wreaked of this nostalgia that I fell instantly into. I’ve seen people trying to make Eighties-type films, but I felt like we had an opportunity to really nail it even in the digital age.”
The new season also harkens back to that era. In the season-two trailer, the boys—Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin—are dressed as Ghostbusters for Halloween, a costume the 1984 film’s director Ivan Reitman and original star Dan Aykroyd reportedly blessed. Ives also said he brought more neon from the decade into the color scheme, citing a scene from another trailer where the boys are in an arcade.
But the show is also pushing forward into the 1990s, in terms of its influences. Ives said 1991’s Terminator 2 inspired some of his work on season two.