We have so much nostalgia and love for this era. We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up: the Spielbergs, the John Carpenters, as well as the novels of Stephen King. What makes all of these stories so great to us—and so resonant—is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. When we were growing up, we were just regular kids, living in the suburbs of North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons with our nerdy friends. But when we watched these films and read these books, we felt transported. Suddenly, our lives had the potential for adventure—maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic; maybe my brother would vanish into the TV screen. We really want to capture that feeling with Stranger Things. We want to bring that feeling to people who grew up on those films—and we also want to bring it to a whole new generation.
–Matt Duffer, co-creator of Stranger Things
by Nancy Mills
All photos by Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix, except as noted
Back in 2015, when no one had ever heard of a Netflix series called Stranger Things, location manager Tony Holley, LMGI and his team could work wherever they wanted without hassle. With the exception of Winona Ryder and David Harbour, the actors involved in this fantasy/horror/drama series were totally unknown. Stranger Things was just another blip on the thriving Atlanta shooting scene.
Flash-forward to today. Virtually, the whole cast has risen to superstar status. For Season 3, that means a huge increase in security, including innovative ways to avoid paparazzi, tourists and locals bent on uncovering Season 3’s upcoming twists.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Holley admits about those long-gone early days. “Initially, it was all good because the scripts were so good, and the atmosphere on the set during the first season was always very pleasant. Then the bingeing occurred, and the wildfire started!”
No one could have predicted that twin brothers, Matt and Ross Duffer, whose limited credits include writing a few episodes of Wayward Pines, would hit on an irresistible premise. And yet, like all surprise successes, the success of Stranger Things really isn’t so strange after all. It simply touched an unidentified nerve: nostalgia for the 1980s.
All the buzz brought instant attention to Holley and KALM Kyle Carey, LMGI, who were nominated two years running for an LMGI Award for Outstanding Locations in Period TV. Last year, they lost out to The Crown and this year, to Game of Thrones. Trying to explain the series’ remarkable popularity, Holley says, “Its viewing population is basically 18 to 44. (The Duffer brothers are 34.) A big chunk of those people grew up in the ’80s. The show is a love letter to a generation. The fashions, music and even the way it’s shot are in that mode of nostalgia.”
Executive producer Iain Paterson credits Holley with some of the success. “As a native Georgian, Tony brings an insider’s knowledge of the Atlanta area that is unparalleled.”
Production designer Chris Trujillo elaborates. “Firstly, Tony has a very intimate understanding of Atlanta and all of its endless highways, byways, woods, rivers, tunnels, hills, back alleys, neighborhoods and myriad small and not-so-small towns that make up the greater Atlanta area. He has cultivated working relationships and friendships with every person with any bearing on procuring locations in this part of the world. We have been working closely since before Stranger Things had even settled on Atlanta as a filming location. Early scouting with Tony is what convinced me and subsequently everyone else that Atlanta would work for our show.”
Trujillo was not disappointed. “It has served us so well because Atlanta proper and the various towns that surround it really represent a broad spectrum of archetypal Americana. There are all of these incredible neighborhoods that, with very little modification, perfectly paint the picture of split-level ranch-style suburbia born in the ’60s that came to define the look of ’70s and ’80s American life. So, we get rid of the DirecTV dishes, manicure the lawns, switch out a few mailboxes, fill the driveways with period-correct station wagons and sedans and voila! You’re ready to travel back in time with some misfit middle schoolers on BMX bikes.”
Stranger Things’ premise is seemingly very simple: It’s the early 1980s in the fictional town of Hawkins, located in rural Indiana. Nothing much happens there. Then one night, a 12-year-old boy disappears. As friends, family members and the police search for him, they begin to wonder if his vanishing could be related to the top-secret experiments going on at the Hawkins National Laboratory. Are supernatural forces to blame? Is there really another dimension called the Upside Down? Where did the odd girl named Eleven come from?
The fact that all eight episodes of Season 1 were instantly accessible to millions of Netflix subscribers brought a new kind of excitement to Hollywood and the Atlanta community. For the location team, which was getting ready to scout for Season 2 when success hit, there was one overriding fear: they wouldn’t be able to go back to some of the places they used in Season 1. “Even though I asked them, the studio decided against issuing location agreements that gave us the right to return,” Holley says. “So there was a big scramble to lock down as many of those locations as we could. Beginning in Season 2, we now build options into location agreements where appropriate.”
Many of the locations in the fictional town of Hawkins have become iconic. “The Palace Arcade, Hawkins National Laboratory, Melvald’s General Store and Hopper’s cabin are characters in their own right,” producer Paterson says. “Even some of our less frequented locales have entered the pop culture zeitgeist. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see someone wearing a Benny’s Burgers or Hideaway Bar T-shirt.” Hawkins Laboratory is a favorite location for the crew. “It’s always felt like a second home to us,” Paterson says. “The actual building has such a fascinating history. The lab itself was formerly a state-run psychiatric hospital that was in operation up until the ’90s. There is an inherent gravitas there that makes it an ideal location for the show’s nefarious research facility.”
PD Trujillo adds, “Finding Hawkins Lab was a tall order, and we explored many options before arriving on our now iconic brutalist masterpiece. I didn’t start with a perfectly clear architectural vision for Hawkins Lab, but I had a very clear sense of the imposing but clandestine mood and tone I wanted to emanate from it. The location (owned by Emory University) where we ended up spoke exactly to that feel. “Historically, the building we shot as the exterior lab was effectively a mid-century ‘insane asylum,’ complete with these terrifying, long, low, stark-white, underground corridors that linked the main building to what once were patients’ quarters. Above ground in the main building, there were a number of incredible, very institutional, dark-wood hallways and a massive tiled half-basement space that seems to have once been, at least partly, a cold storage facility. We were able to retrofit and elaborate that space into what became the rooms and hallways that Eleven lives and suffers in at the hands of Doctor Brenner and the insidious Department of Energy.”
When Stranger Things is not filming on location, the company works out of EUE Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta. “On Season 1, we shot about 40 percent on stage,” Holley says. “On Season 2, it dropped to about 25 percent, so more was on me. Most of our domestic interiors have been shot in the studio, including the Byers house, the Wheeler house, Hopper’s cabin and the tunnels.” Despite more reliance on locations, Holley’s team hasn’t expanded much. “I have two key assistants, three assistant LMs, one of whom is the coordinator and location staff assistant,” he says. “For Season 3, my coordinator has become a new key assistant, but that’s it.”
Season 3 will be almost all on location, according to Paterson. “As the story expands, so does the fictional town of Hawkins,” he says. “Be on the lookout for several new locations in Season 3. Without going into spoiler territory, I will say one in particular has to be seen to be believed.”
Despite the large number of productions shooting in Atlanta, Holley insists the location team has not had to compete for locations. “By and large, everything we shoot is within a 30-mile radius per the union contract,” he says. “The city is very large, especially if you take into account the metro area. We don’t step all over each other’s toes unless we’re in downtown Atlanta. Then it wouldn’t be easy. But the only time we shot there was when Eleven was going to Chicago.”
In Holley’s view, the location team’s greatest challenge “is that the show takes place in the early and mid-’80s, and there’s very little of the ’80s left in Atlanta. Even though it was burned to the ground (during the Civil War), we still don’t value the history of the edifices. We need to keep the show in period perspective, so renovations are bad. Updated kitchens are bad.”
“Our fans spot anything that is not strictly period,” Paterson says. “That has meant we have become laser-focused on accuracy and authenticity. And that is very hard to achieve in an age where cell towers, recent construction and twenty-first-century life clutters the landscape. It’s getting more and more difficult to create a scene where none of these things exist, so we spend a lot of time narrowing our frame to exclude elements.”
The town of Hawkins is shot in Jackson, Georgia, a city 46 miles from the location office. “We explored a number of small-town main streets in the myriad small towns around Atlanta,” Trujillo says. “Jackson offered us the greatest amount of period-appropriate downtown real estate. The Duffer brothers wanted a recreation of what we remembered and loved growing up as kids in the ’80s. It’s a reinvention of classic American cinema from the early ’80s.”
Unfortunately, Jackson is beyond the 30-mile zone. “Going there is an expensive trip,” Holley says, “so we go there about once a season. We’ll stack the work that takes place at Melvald’s, where Joyce works, and downtown all together. The first two seasons we pretty much put all the Hawkins’ work in one shot.
“The police station is supposed to be in downtown but it’s not. If we need Hopper pulling out or walking away, we’ll do that. We have little scenes on the street and mostly just establishing exterior stuff downtown.” Those exteriors include the public library, Radio Shack, Regal Furniture Company, the Hawk Theater (actually a furniture store with a marquee added) and Hawkins Water and Sewer Authority.
Another Georgia city housing numerous Stranger Things locations is East Point, which is within the 30-mile radius. It’s home to exteriors of the Wheeler, Sinclair and Henderson houses. The Hawkins General Hospital is filmed at East Point First Baptist Church.
Stockbridge, Georgia, is where they found Patrick Henry High School, the location for Hawkins Middle School and Hawkins High School. “When Chris (Trujillo) and I were driving around there in Season 1 looking for Benny’s restaurant, we saw a school that looked closed,” Holley says. “I was the first one in there, and we locked that school down for five years. It’s a very important location. It was just a high school, but we split it in half to be a middle school and a high school.”
Although many of the Stranger Things locations have not been used in other shows, Bellwood Quarry isn’t one of them. “That quarry was already a hot filming location,” Holley says. “Season 1 of The Walking Dead filmed a number of episodes there. One of the early Fast & Furious movies drove a car off a cliff into the quarry.” For Stranger Things, the quarry was where people searched for Will Byers’ body. “That location was really challenging because in the winter it was an awful place to be,” Holley says. “The coldest night in the first two seasons was in that quarry. But it’s no longer available as a shooting location because the city is converting it into a water reservoir and park.”
Shooting outdoors is rarely problematic. “Georgia does have four seasons, but none of them are extreme,” Holley says. “We don’t have a big rainy season, although we get enough rain here. We’ve never honored Indiana winters too closely. Season 1 covered Christmas. Season 2 was fall/Halloween. We did some snow in both seasons but not to where we had to worry about making a winter wonderland.”
Although Stranger Things has a considerable number of young actors, the impact on the location team is minimal. “Mainly, we need to find places to school them or place the school trailer,” Holley says. “Kids can only work 9½ or 10½ hours, depending on their age, but there are enough adults in the show so we can split our days between kids and adults.
“When we shot our library in Season 1, the building we ended up choosing was in East Point, the town I was born in. It’s just south of Atlanta, about a three-mile drive to the city limits. The library was on the state’s Places in Peril list. It had been unused and fell into disrepair. We were in jeopardy of losing it because it was so far gone. It had a lot of mold, lead paint and asbestos. As a result, no one had ever shot there. People would get quotes on how to fix it, but the city was of the opinion, ‘That’s on you. Thank you if you want to fix it, but if you want to shoot there, those costs are yours.’ I came up with this idea and pitched them a deal. ‘We’ll do the renovation and abatement to clean it up and give the building back to the city. The city would then have a workable shooting stage, but they would have to set up a fund used exclusively to rehabilitate other buildings and make them available for filming.’
“It goes back to my love of architecture. Old East Point Library is not much to look at on the outside but is beautiful on the inside. All the old fixtures are still there, as is the beautiful inlay for the bookshelves. It’s just a gorgeous space, and now it’s available to everyone. The city loves it, and it has become a hub for Atlanta filming. I don’t want to toot my own horn but I definitely think I had a positive impact on that.”
As for finding the cabin in the woods, he didn’t. “I didn’t think most traditional cabins in the woods would be all that accessible or shootable,” he says. “We found some woods on the property where the pumpkin patch was, and we built a cabin. We left it on the property (Sleepy Hollow farm in Powder Springs) and have a standing agreement with the owner to come back.”
The Upside Down provided its own challenges. “The Upside Down is everywhere ultimately,” Holley says. “Every location can be part of it because that world is a mirror of our world.”
Talking about some of the other filming spots, KALM Carey says, “One fun location from the first season was the abandoned junkyard. I’d actually found it a few years earlier for another film project (HBO’s Lewis and Clark) that got shut down. When I first came onto Stranger Things and discovered they were looking for a junkyard, I pulled it up on my computer. I told Tony there could be some cool techno-crane shots. It was owned by this guy who has a hobby of collecting these old cars.”
“All the junkyard scenes feature an abandoned bus,” Paterson adds. “In Season 1, the kids first stumble across the junkyard while searching for the Gate and later hide out there following the Hawkins Power and Light van chase. In Season 2, it’s prominently featured in the scene where Dustin and Steve go chumming for Dart and the demodog fight sequence that ensues.” Adds Holley, “It’s surrounded by granite outcroppings and looks fantastic on camera. The owner had 40 acres, and he was just a collector. He sold it in the off season but never fear. The new owner was aware of the history behind it and reached out and said, ‘If you guys want to come back, I’m open.’ Since the show is such a success, when you tell people who you are, a show like this never gets a negative reaction.”
But there is a downside to popularity. “It’s certainly led to heightened security measures, especially while on location,” producer Paterson adds. “Social media has been problematic in instances of locations being shared with the general public online. Our goal is to preserve the content of upcoming seasons for our viewers, and we go to great lengths in our efforts. While it’s great to have such a large and devoted following, it does present new challenges at every turn.” “Essentially, everyone I talk to goes on an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) immediately,” Holley says. “This started in Season 2.”
Carey, who spent his Stranger Things downtime working on Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ant-Man and the Wasp, points out, “There really are no easy locations.” His biggest test came in Season 1. “I had a really hard time finding a location for a bar scene. Two actors are sitting in a bar, and they have a fistfight in an alley. Most bars don’t want to stick with the period look. They want the TVs. And even if something is shot outside, the surroundings have to have the right period look.” He finally found his location for the “Hideaway” bar in Stockbridge. “It was a local pool hall that had been in operation as a family business for decades,” he says. “It first appeared in episode 4 of Season 1 and reappeared briefly in episode 9 of Season 2.”
Carey, who studied journalism at the University of Alabama before taking a production management class in his last semester, got his first job from his current boss. “My professor told me to read up on location work, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I called home and told my mom I wanted to have a career in film, and she freaked out and called my aunt and told her I was making this crazy decision. Not long afterward, a key assistant knocked on my aunt’s door and told her there was going to be filming occurring in the neighborhood. She gave him my information, and six months later, Tony asked me to meet him at the W Hotel at six o’clock the next morning.”
KALM Tim McClure, LMGI, who started as a set PA in 2008, joined Stranger Things at the beginning of Season 2. He had been working on Transformers: The Last Knight in Michigan when Holley offered him a job. McClure had already been through the routine of working on a show with buzz. “LM Mike Riley gave me a job on Season 3 of The Walking Dead,” he said of the Atlanta-based series. “I got used to working in Georgia and dealing with uber secrecy and the fan base tracking us down. It was a crash course.” Like with many TV series, Stranger Things shoots two episodes at a time. “It’s like working on a series of small features,” McClure says. “It’s not quite as grand a challenge as a big feature, and it’s not as unpredictable as a series. We want to be finding new and awesome places, but it’s tough coming up with stuff that wows our creative team and isn’t too far away or hazardous. You start to have to dig deeper. We work about six weeks ahead. We tend to get script outlines that describe what’s happening. We’ll get two or three of those every month. Then we get two episodes about five weeks out. By then, we’ll have locations already selected or have a number of great options. As we’re winding down filming a two-episode block, we’ll get scripts for the next two episodes.”
LMGI ALM Luke Welden’s Georgia upbringing has been a plus in Stranger Things work. “The South is a friendly environment, so it’s a handshake and a smile,” he says. “A promise goes a lot further. I grew up in a small town in the construction business, and it taught me how to talk to people. That’s the majority of our job. I see myself as a large-event planner. We plan seven weddings a week.” Even so, dealing with locals sometimes can be complicated. “Hawkins is full of small-town politics,” Welden says. “One person knows everybody. When you involve a small community and you change their downtown square when you’re filming, you don’t necessarily make friends everywhere you go. You’re always juggling different personalities and different perceptions of how we’re impacting businesses. But once you’re in a good Southern city—luckily, I know how the culture is here—you kind of evolve into another citizen while you’re filming there and you can keep the excitement real for the people around you.”
Welden’s favorite aspect of the job? “The gumshoe part,” he says. “We’re detectives. Part of the challenge is figuring out who owns large pieces of land. Everything else is pretty much a checklist. Until you gain access, you can’t do anything.”
Before starting work on the show, the writers watched (or rewatched) a large list of films, including E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Stand by Me, The Goonies, The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, Aliens and Star Wars. The reason: “Stranger Things is intrinsically an homage to films of the ’70s and ’80s,” PD Trujillo explains. “So EVERY location and EVERY set is influenced by those films. We try to keep the homage tonal as opposed to directly copying anything from those films. So when we scout locations, we are after a very specific look and feel. We want our locations to feel like they came straight from that era without being a duplication of something you’ve already seen on screen.
Not every homage is fully spelled out in the scripts. “During the scouting process, we aren’t necessarily asked to find locations for specific homages as much as to consider a number of classic 1970s/1980s films as the driving force for the look of a location,” Carey says. “The art department does a great job of incorporating Easter eggs for specific homages within the set dressing as well. We’ve referenced Stephen King stories and Spielberg movies, as well as films like The Goonies for scenes involving the kids riding their bikes through town. One of my favorite locations from Season 1, episode 6, is the kids biking through a neighborhood until eventually coming across the aftermath of Eleven stealing the boxes of Eggos from a grocery store. We shot these scenes in Palmetto at a local grocery store that was called Bradley’s Big Buy at the time. The owner, Don Hayes, told us that he had worked at the store when growing up in the area. He later bought it in order to preserve its history and keep a grocery in town at a time when it was at risk of closing. That Eggos scene has turned into such a staple for the show, and it’s exciting to see a location work its way into popular culture. I actually saved an email from the Duffer brothers with their initial reaction to the photos that I’d taken for that location. That’s something that I plan to hold onto.
“Also, in Seasons 1 and 2, there are a number of scenes in which the kids are walking down train tracks. This was described to the scouts from the start as an homage to Stand by Me. We ended up using the train tracks at Stone Mountain Park. The rails circle the park’s granite mountain, which provides a safe, controllable option surrounded by mixed, old-growth woods. We’ve also worked with the park on multiple occasions for various wooded scenes. The film liaisons, Christine Clements and Jeanine Jones, along with Paul Maharry of Stone Mountain Police Department, are always incredibly helpful in coordinating our filming with consideration for the patrons of Georgia’s most-visited park.”
Before becoming LM on Stranger Things, Holley, 46, worked as an ALM on We Are Marshall and X-Men: First Class. “X-Men was such a giant movie,” he says. “We shot it four hours from Atlanta, not anywhere I work regularly. When you’re shooting a movie that big, it’s very compartmentalized. I had specific locations that were mine. Most of the other stuff I didn’t have to deal with. I was training for managing bigger things.” Holley has always liked working on location. “To me, that means shooting out of town, and it always has the potential to be a wonderful experience,” he says. “Usually, you’re somewhere that’s not a hub. Everyone is happy to have you because you’re bringing money to the town.”
He fell into location work by accident. “I was in college in a normal degree program, in risk management and insurance,” he says. “I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. After graduating, I got a job helping to open an Outback Steakhouse and met this guy working there. He also wanted to be a filmmaker. After work, he’d go to my place and we’d write. After we put a bunch of stuff together, we said, ‘What now?’ One of the counties in Georgia had public-access channels without programs. We paid $50 to buy this book, which was useless. There were ‘six courses’ that covered camera, lighting, editing, truck/field management—the full run of production. It was very rudimentary. You take those courses and then you have to volunteer on six half-hour programs doing whatever they’ll have you do. Then you pitch a show. As long as it’s not smut or porn, it’s public access and anything goes. We did a little sketch comedy show for 18 months until we broke the camera. That ended that career.
“Along the way, I met this guy who was a director on a student film/teaser/sizzle thing. He remembered me a year or so later, when he was working at an advertising firm on this industrial spot for Novo Nordisk, a biotech corporation. He said, ‘There are a series of spots for their annual convention, and the company I would normally use can’t do it. Do you want to produce it?’ I said, ‘Hell, no. I don’t know what I’m doing in too many fields.’ He said, ‘Here’s your budget. Hire the people on things you don’t know. That’s what producing is.’ I took the job, and I took the person I’d met at The Outback, Alex Orr, who’s now the producer of Atlanta. He and I have been friends for 20 years. I hired out all the crew, found an editing house back home and put it together. At the end, I had $20,000 in my pocket. I’d done what I’d been trying to do my whole life. I quit my day job and said, ‘I’m in the film business. Somebody please hire me.’ At that time, there was no production to speak of in Atlanta. The first movie I got on was Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, as a location assistant. Someone I went to college with was the production coordinator. She said, ‘The location manager needs somebody. Do you want it?’”
That was 14 years ago, and Holley has never looked back. “I love solving the puzzle a script presents when you first read it,” he says. “Every filmmaker plays a part in the collaborative process, and to be able to contribute in some way, often a crucial one, is very rewarding. I love being a bridge between the project and the community. The relationships we build, inside and out of the production office, matter more to me than the credit, the paycheck or the payoff seeing the work come to life on the screen.
“From the very beginning of Stranger Things, I’ve been able to help tell a fantastic story that continues to unfold. It’s been the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever had.”
STRANGER THINGS Location Team:
Tony Holley, LMGI, LM
Kyle Carey, LMGI, Key ALM
Tim McClure, LMGI, Key ALM
Haley Billue, Key ALM/Coordinator
Luke Welden, LMGI & Jay Elgin, ALMs
Michael Slack, Liza-Anne Cabral, Roderick Davis, Nick DaLonzo – Location Assistants