Stranger Things producer says cost of 'Thriller' was stratospheric, but worth it
Shawn Levy says the Michael Jackson classic made the trailer but almost broke his heart.
By Jesse Kinos-Goodin
You'd be hard pressed to get a better reception for a trailer than the one the team behind Stranger Things received following the release of its season 2 trailer at Comic-Con in July.
It contained everything fans would expect from the Netflix hit that mined '80s nostalgia better than any other show in recent history. First was the arcade, specifically featuring Dragons Lair, a game infamous in the '80s for its cutting-edge graphics but frustrating gameplay. Then there was the Ghostbuster reference, a movie that managed to truly capture the zeitgeist of 1984, the year in which season 2 is set. But first and foremost, there was the music, perhaps the single most famous song of the era — Michael Jackson's "Thriller." A song so iconic it was otherwise thought off limits.
How it ended up in the trailer for Stranger Things came down to Shawn Levy, executive producer of the show, who calls the trailer a "labour of love."
"There's not been a trailer for any of my movies that I have obsessed over and gotten more personally hands-on over more than this 'Thriller' trailer," he says over the phone.
Even the earliest cut of the trailer from the Duffer brothers (Matt and Ross), who created and direct the series, featured the Jackson classic. "I instantly fell in love," says Levy.
After falling in love, we instantly had our hearts shattered because we were told for a variety of reasons that ["Thriller"] was just not licensable.- Shawn Levy
Unfortunately, "Thriller" (or anything from the Jackson estate for that matter) is one of the most difficult songs to get licensing for.
"After falling in love, we instantly had our hearts shattered because we were told for a variety of reasons that it was just not licensable," he says. "It wasn't even a matter of money, which was stratospheric."
They were given an "absolute no," he says, so they spent months cutting other versions of the trailer with different songs in order to premiere it at Comic-Con in San Diego in July.
"It was good, but about 10 days before Comic-Con I woke up at 4 a.m. and was like, 'Goddamnit, it's not good enough,'" says Levy. "It's not going to destroy [Comic-Con's] Hall H and the internet in the same way that the 'Thriller' trailer would have. So I basically started my day and told everyone involved, I am about to become a huge pain in the ass because I just cannot take this 'no' for an answer. I pulled out all sorts of producerorial cards to play and I begged and I threatened and I went all the way up the food chain and three days before Comic-Con, I was able to get the rights to 'Thriller' approved. It was definitely the most challenging rights situation that I've ever been involved in."
Clearly the strategy, and the cost (which he later qualifies as stratospheric but "a very fair deal") worked, as the trailer has over 9 million views on YouTube. Levy says he's seen aggregated numbers from other sources that put the number at over 170 million.
"I had a feeling it would be worth it and my vow to the Duffer brothers, from the first meeting, was that my job on this show is simply to handle everything that needs handling. This fell under that mandate and I'm thrilled it worked out."
Levy, who grew up in Montreal but now lives in L.A. and has directed films such as Real Steel and Night at the Museum, adds that the eventual thing that pushed the Jackson estate to agree was realizing that Stranger Things had cultural cachet.
"There was a recognition that anything linked to Stranger Things tends to get some cultural topspin as a result," he says. "The show has achieved this phenom status around the world so I think I was able to articulate the value of this, beyond money. There is a cultural currency to Stranger Things that is separate from dollars."
Levy, who also directed episodes 3 and 4 from the first season of Stranger Things and will direct episodes 3 and 4 in season 2 — "we're superstitious" — says fans can expect a decidedly darker vision this time around.
"If season 1 was a big dose of Steven Spielberg and smaller doses of Stephen King and John Carpenter, season 2 adjusts that ratio more in favour of King and Carpenter," he says, adding that it's not a big enough change that fans will feel betrayed.
'Creepy, gross, spooky'
"We don't abandon the core traits that got us here, that was job one," he says. "But it is scarier, it's more infused with horror genre, and there is some creepy gross spooky stuff."
Which also goes for actor Sean Astin, who fits the '80s aesthetic well, considering his first major acting role was in The Goonies (1985). Astin is briefly spotted in the trailer and will join season 2 playing Winona Ryder's boyfriend Bob, who works at a Radio Shack (of course he does).
"What I can say is that, much like how Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery) started off as a type that you assumed would be predictable, Sean Astin's Bob goes places that audiences would never expect and I think that he is going to be a major, major fan favourite in season 2."
Just don't expect to see the return of another fan favourite, Barb, the beloved awkward friend who is most definitely still dead.
"It is a little mystifying and very amusing that it's made people cling to the hope that she is somehow still alive," Levy says of the various conspiracy theories, exacerbated by the cast members themselves. "We never expected this, but I will say that Barb's memory and her family are definitely a part of season 2."
Season 2 of Stranger Things premieres Oct. 27 on Netflix.