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Stranger Things EP and director Shawn Levy on helming the best episode from season four of Netflix’s blockbuster series.
By Danny Munso
Shawn Levy has done it all in his 25-year filmmaking career, and it’s why his last few weeks have been so special to him. If you spend even a modicum of time on the Internet, it’s likely you have seen a strong reaction to “Dear Billy,” the fourth episode of the fourth season of Stranger Things, which has won universal acclaim for both Levy and actress Sadie Sink and even turned a 1985 Kate Bush song back into a top-10 hit. Despite his time behind the camera directing blockbuster comedies and his beloved collaborations with Ryan Reynolds — Free Guy and The Adam Project — Levy is bowled over by the response to “Dear Billy,” even given the phenomenon of the series itself. “This whole crazy reaction to the episode has been so uniquely exciting,” he says. “It’s so strange to say this having directed 13 movies, but I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a viral popularity quite this way. It just seems to be building and feeding off itself. Seeing audience members engage with the work and make their own creative work in response to the episode has been very fun to witness and is a blast of a ride to be on.”
Levy’s title on Stranger Things is executive producer, but he is much more. In addition to being the show’s shepherd since 2015, he also directs two episodes a season and is the creative force with whom series creators and primary writers the Duffer Brothers — Matt and Ross — frequently bounce ideas. When the Duffers delivered their outlines for season four, Levy could tell they had handed him an episode that could be special. “When I get the outlines for every episode from the Duffer Brothers, I pay special attention to episodes three and four because those are always the episodes I direct every season,” he says. “When I got the outline and script, it was clear ‘Dear Billy’ was packed with a unique amount of material. It has major action set pieces, it has juicy suspense and poignant emotion, and it all crescendos in this finale sequence that was already great on the page but I really wanted to elevate and turn it into a sequence that fans of Stranger Things would always remember.” When breaking down a script, Levy takes his cue from the page. “It starts with the writing. I’ve told Matt and Ross that I can always tell what they want by how they write it. I just sort of feel what the script wants and I convert it to my visual storytelling. It sounds a little bit mystical and a little bit magical, but it’s no doubt intuitive, and that’s why the Duffers and I have found this brotherhood over these years—because I feel what they want in the way they write.”
The behind-the-scenes story of how “Dear Billy” was made is almost as epic as the one told onscreen, which sees Max (Sink) almost lose her life at the hands of villain of the season Vecna, Hopper (David Harbour) almost escape from a Russian prison and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) almost gunned down at the Byers’ new home in California. Because of the COVID pandemic, Levy actually shot the episode over a two-year period, and the hiatus was so long he shot an entire big-budget movie — The Adam Project — in between. He started filming in early 2020 in Lithuania, where the Hopper prison scenes were lensed, before moving to Atlanta, where much of the series is filmed both on location and on stages. Then the pandemic shut down production and they didn’t return for over a year. The break did more than allow Levy to film Adam. He returned to Stranger Things able to view the material with renewed eyes, and that resulted in one of the highlights of the episode: a two-minute uninterrupted shot where the camera follows Mike, Will and Jonathan throughout the Byers’ house as they are being shot at. “I came back to the material fresh and when I read the California scenes, I came across that shootout, and it just felt like we could do a lot of shots and make it editorially kinetic—but maybe it would be most kinetic if we stay with the experience of our characters. I called the Duffers and said, ‘Am I crazy, or can I try to do this in a single shot?’ They said fucking go for it.”
Stranger Things has one of the biggest television budgets in history, but it is still only a fraction of what is spent on a feature, so that gave Levy, cast and crew very little time to plan and execute the oner. “On a movie, you would spend weeks designing the shot, rehearsing it and maybe you’d spend a day or two doing takes until you got the perfect one,” he says. “In my recollection we had one day for the stunt team and me to do choreograph the sequence, which we did by literally acting it out ourselves with an iPhone.” He then had half a day to show the actors what they shot and run them through the plan. “I had a blast figuring out the mechanics of that sequence because we don’t do them often on Stranger Things. So for us it was like fantasy summer camp doing one of those shots that we are all fans of when we see them in other shows. Levy can’t remember exactly when it was, but he thinks it was either take 9 or take 13 that we see in the episode. “We got it right. I’m hesitant to say we got it perfect because the energy of that sequence didn’t want perfection. It wanted dynamism. It wanted chaos. All I cared about was that we not miss the key beats with the camera. [In the end] we felt we had captured the feeling we were going for with perfect imperfection. The great irony is I thought the oner would be the thing everybody talked about from that episode when it turns out all they want to talk about were the final five minutes in the cemetery.”
The main storyline of the episode — and the one that clearly resonates most with viewers — sees Max narrowly avoid falling victim to Vecna. It is the closest that one of the main young cast members has come to death on the series to date, but more than that it’s an exploration of the character’s grief and anger in the wake of her brother Billy’s death from the end of the previous season. The Max we meet in season four is darker, shutting herself away from her group of friends. It’s that grief Vecna latches onto and why he targets her. She only narrowly escapes because her friends discover that music is a possible tether to the real world, as the episode crescendos in a moving sequence that sees Max run away from Vecna and toward her friends with Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” blaring around her. Levy has directed Sink for a number of years (the pair even costarred in Taylor Swift’s self-directed video for the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” but that’s a story for a different day), and they discussed the potential of this episode before filming. “We didn’t have a big unpacking conversation because so much of what’s going on in the inner-life of these characters is in the great writing and in the script,” he says. “We did have a conversation where we both knew this episode was a unique opportunity for both of us to do work we could be really proud of. We didn’t stress over it. We didn’t analyze it. But there was an acknowledgement that this one was seriously juicy for both of us, and if I do my job as a director and [she does her] job as an actor, we can craft something that will really land for viewers. That being said, in our wildest dreams neither of us suspected that one episode would resonate and stick in the culture this way, and that’s been a shared thrill.”
Since Levy has been with the series from day one, he was also instrumental in casting the show’s young actors, who were all unknowns when the series began but have grown into household names and wonderful performers. Because of that familiarity, he knows what sort of directorial touch each of them needs to tap into the characters. “I have been in the bloodstream with these performers since we discovered them, and we’ve been in each other’s lives since their initial auditions, so there’s a shared fluency,” he says. “I will say that certain cast members benefit from more proactive direction, but Sadie is one of our stars who straight-up delivers. She just shows up ready and prepared. She’s done her homework on the lines and the inner life of the moments, and she delivers.” Levy calls out a scene from the episode where Max reads a letter to Billy’s gravestone. It’s a two-page monologue Sink delivered perfectly each time. “I ran several cameras, and I think we only did three takes. She’s a self-starter and a real pro. If you rewatch that monologue, the last 30 seconds is one take—one shot, no edits—and it goes from a medium shot into a massively tight close-up. There aren’t many actors who can sustain an emotional performance in an unedited stretch of shot the way Sadie does at the end of that monologue.”
Despite Sink’s brilliance, the filming of the climactic scene had a huge speedbump. As Vecna enters her mind, Max has a vision of Billy (Dacre Montgomery), and the two characters come face to face. Everyone on the Stranger Things team was excited about this scene because Montgomery is so well liked and no one was sure if his character would be seen again. However, he is Australian and the country’s strict COVID protocols prevented him from traveling to Atlanta for the shoot. The solution was a first for Levy’s filmmaking career: He directed via Zoom as Montgomery acted on a soundstage in his home country. “The plan was always to bring him to Atlanta and shoot in the cemetery with Sadie and me,” Levy says. “But the clock was running out and the episode needed to be delivered, so we shot plates of the cemetery when we had Sadie there, and then two months later I had Dacre on a greenscreen stage in Perth with me over Zoom while we shot the Billy side of that conversation. It was definitely the most unique directing technique I’ve ever used, but the results don’t seem the worse for wear.”
The resulting scene has become instantly iconic, so much so Kate Bush herself felt compelled to release a rare statement praising the series and the love “Running Up That Hill” was receiving almost 40 years since its release. Maybe the best testament to how memorable of a sequence it was is it overshadows everything else in one of the most packed and vital episodes of the series to date. Then again, this is fitting for the show’s fourth season, which features longer episodes, more action and more moments for its brilliant cast to stand out. The final two episodes of the season will be released July 1 and when combined are almost four hours long. “I knew season four was unprecedented in scale when I found myself shooting multiple sequences that would be the finale of a previous season,” Levy laughs. “Hopper’s escape from the Russian camp would be the finale of an episode in prior seasons. So would the shootout. The fact that all of them are precursors is nuts to me.” Also in “Dear Billy” is one of the biggest guest stars in the show’s history, as Robert Englund — aka Freddy Krueger himself — portrays the tortured Victor Creel, Vecna’s first victim.
The fact that Vecna was clearly inspired by Freddy only makes the casting more perfect. “Much like the case with Sean Astin [who guested in season two], we don’t stunt cast on Stranger Things,” Levy says. “We do it when it happens to be great casting. Robert’s voice and face are perfect for Victor Creel. The fact that there was able to be a wink inherent in the cameo as well is gravy on top of a terrific meal.” He couldn’t resist throwing in an overt nod to Englund’s most famous character when he had the actor scratch at the metal table in his cell, alluding to Freddy’s famous metal fingers. “Robert was a delight. He came in with no ego and as a fan of the show. He has two and a half pages of monologue, and he came prepared. Even though half of that monologue was intended to be off-camera [during a flashback], he memorized every word, which gave me as a director the option of cutting to him on camera even when the script didn’t indicate that I would. That is a pro.”
Still, despite Englund’s terrific work, despite the oner, despite Hopper’s escape, Levy knows why this monumental episode will be remembered. “There’s something about those final minutes,” he says. “I personally think action is great and spectacle is great, but when you have the good fortune of pairing spectacle with feeling, that’s when you get a sequence people respond to. That sequence is filled with action and special effects, but what it’s actually fueled by is emotion. I think it’s the combination of the visual and the emotional that makes that climactic sequence come together in a unique way. I am so grateful.”
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