The hit-maker is best known for comedy franchises like “Night at the Museum,” “Cheaper By the Dozen” and “The Pink Panther.” But he also produced the nuanced teen indie “The Spectacular Now” and directed the Steven Spielberg homage “Real Steel” — two projects that aren’t so far removed from the world of Netflix’s breakout ’80s-set and inspired genre series.
In the week since “Stranger Things” debuted on Netflix, it’s become an instant cult sensation with huge social media buzz. Levy has been a believer from the beginning, when series creators Matt and Ross Duffer first pitched the idea to his production company, 21 Laps. He came on board, helped bring the series to Netflix, agreed to direct two episodes, and continues to champion the show as it finds its audience.
Variety spoke with Levy shortly before “Stranger Things” bowed about his role in the project, directing Winona Ryder, and why he had hope that the show would succeed with Netflix’s viral model.
How did you get involved with “Stranger Things”?
Increasingly one of the great benefits of having made some successful movies is opportunities to produce things I don’t necessarily direct. The great fun of this project is I am not a TV company nor are we television producers. Our policy is we’re only going to get involved in television if it’s irresistible. A little over a year ago Dan Cohen, VP of 21 Laps, said, “You gotta read this script, you gotta meet these boys.” I read the pilot for “Stranger Things” and I brought the Duffers into my office. Before the meeting was over, I knew I had to do what I could to shepherd it to the screen. It was this great diamond in the rough found by Dan. I fell in love with it, completely bought into the boys and felt like they were worth betting on.
Was Netflix your top choice for a network?
Literally Netflix was the first buyer we pitched to. By the next morning they bought the season.
They were the first pitch because they were our first choice. A big part of that is the Duffers are new and emerging filmmakers and they really didn’t want the show to conform to increasingly obsolete notions of what is TV. They always spoke of it as an eight hour movie. It’s why they laid hands on every script. It’s why we directed all of them ourselves. We wanted a continuity of authorship. And Netflix was our dream home because A) they genuinely empower creative, that’s their rep and it’s the truth, and B) we wanted people to have the option of watching a big chunk of episodes in a row without having to wait.
You’ve made films with fantasy and sci-fi elements before, but “Stranger Things” is still very different from what you’re known for. Was that part of the appeal?
I am very much the guy who made “Real Steel.” As such it’s hardly surprising that I respond to Spielbergian motif and themes. Steven was my literal producer on “Real Steel.” That was a robot boxing movie but very much a descendant of “E.T.” — about a lost boy with a hard parental situation who finds redemption through a creature. My Spielberg fanhood is real close to the surface.
Steven was a real model for the kind of producer I’ve tried to be, which is to say: empower the directors or showrunners and be 100% available for anything they need. Don’t be in their face, don’t be in their business, but be ready to throw some weight around or render an opinion when asked. That’s the kind of producers Dan and I tried to be on this show. I have two shows on ABC now that are conventional in that they have studios and networks. “Stranger Things” was done without an outside studio and with such a small circle of approval or notes. I think that’s why the show is so singular in its voice, it just didn’t get f—ed with much.
How did you decide to direct episodes 3 and 4?
It was clear to me I needed to buy the Duffers time to write the rest of the season and I didn’t trust an outsider to come and direct any shows in season one. A big part of it was I did it for the team and did it for the Brothers. The selfish agenda was by that point I had fallen so hard in love with the show and I knew episode three and four had some of the juiciest scenes and visuals of the season — it’s our first real glimpse of the creature and it’s the Christmas light idea and motif.
I’ve made 11 movies and I have rarely been as inspired as I felt directing these episodes. These scripts and these characters are so rich. It might have been for a TV series but I was feeling so inspired to bring these people and images to life. Probably because I’ve directed so many movies, I know that feeling of heart-pounding inspiration is hard to find. It’s something I really experienced directing my shows.
You also got to direct some of Winona Ryder’s best scenes — including that great moment when she rigs the Christmas lights to try to communicate with Will.
Winona is getting completely deserved attention and praise for that performance. She is a deep well of emotion and the professional in her knows how to access that. That’s a gift to a director. [The Christmas lights scene] was one of the coolest moments. I decided to operate the light dimmer in that scene. It was a really intense experience as a director, it was like we were in that scene together for a minute, minute and a half. It really made me key into how deep she went with her performance.
She walks a real tightrope with this role and pulls it off. Did you have her in mind for the part from the start?
Many of these roles we looked for months and months — the Brothers were insanely stubborn in their search for the right kids. From the day (casting director) Carmen Cuba suggested Winona, the Duffers and I were like, “Oh yeah, that’s got to be it.” Not only is there the legacy of work that feels appropriate given the period setting, but even if she had never done a movie she would be the most perfect actress to play Joyce because not many actresses are willing and able to access such harrowing places. We were down from day one. We had a four hour cup of tea with her at the Chateau Marmont. I think by the time we all left the hotel restaurant we all felt like it was a really good match.
Did it take any convincing to get her to commit to a series? Was she interested to work with Netflix?
She didn’t know what streaming was, she barely knew what a television series was, she most certainly had never done one. She came to play because she loved the character, the writing and she vibed with me and the Brothers. I think Winona is still figuring out how people are gonna watch this thing because she is charmingly tech basic.
Another standout part of the show is the music. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein create a really unique sound. Were you involved in the decision to bring them on?
Again, it’s the Duffers. Before we started shooting they came to me, and I went to Netflix with their idea of these unknown musicians from Austin who did all electronic music. I think the guys heard it on the Internet. They never scored a goddamn thing, but the Brothers wanted a singular sound that was both period appropriate but unlike typical TV. My job is to advocate for the boys’ instincts and Netflix was impressively willing to bet on the Brothers’ gut. Every interview we do we’re talking about that music. They were so right.
How different is Netflix from other studios and networks you’ve worked with in the past?
They invest a lot of trust and a lot of money in creative people they believe in. When we sold this, it had no pre-awareness title, no big star actor or showrunner, just these young twin brothers with a crazy idea, vividly realized, and a movie director as the producer. They really empowered us and let us lead the way.
One beautiful thing is when I was in a jam, when the Brothers needed something, when we realized we made a mistake and needed to correct it, there was such an openness with Netflix. I would call them and say, “Look, we screwed up. Here’s what we need.” Or, “We have a big idea, how about this?” There was a real comfort in candor. We were all figuring it out as we did it.
Did they talk to you about marketing plans? They don’t always do the kind of traditional advertising you see for a big movie or TV series launch.
Early on they repeatedly said to me in particular, because they know I worked so extensively within the system, “You will not see billboards. You won’t see posters at bus stops.” They kept warning me because they knew my instinct would be to freak. That’s so different from how a network or movie studio markets. They have tremendous faith in the instantaneity of our culture and the contagion factor — the viral potential of this world right now. And the biggest thing is they have real faith in the show. The show will have to do the work for us. The idea is to turn people on it a way that makes people tell their family and friends, and we build organically from there. Netflix has had tremendous success with that paradigm. So just as they put faith in us, I’m putting faith in their paradigm for how to release something.
They also famously don’t release ratings. Do you think you’ll be curious to see the numbers or is there a freedom in not worrying about that?
Because I make popcorn movies I’ve been a bit of a numbers whore. It’s all about opening weekend, worldwide cume. You become a little bit slave to the numbers. Part of me is like the addict who wants the thing that I crave. Do I want to know how we’re doing? That would be great. Especially if we’re doing well. One thing I keep reminding myself is this year making “Stranger Things” was as gratifying as any movie I’ve made. What I really care about more than bragging rights of ratings is to keep telling stories about these characters. If we get enough mysterious undeclared numbers of eyeballs to keep telling it for a bunch more seasons that’s ultimately the most important thing to me.