Awards Daily TV talks to Chris Trujillo about establishing the look and feel of Stranger Things‘ 80’s era interiors and its imaginative Upside Down.
Part of the magic that makes Stranger Things so compelling and popular are the foundations created by a super-talented technical team in designing an 80’s world we all recognize. The production design team integrates some magic touches of fantasy and horror as well as the familiar surroundings of childhood homes.
One key figure in Stranger Things‘ excellence is production designer Chris Trujillo. On the back of some memorable contemporary work on feature films, he brings that infamous decade to life with some outstanding set design. I was privileged to find out more.
What inspired you to work in production design, and how did you break into that field?
To begin with I did a bachelor of fine arts at the University of Florida. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with myself for a long time. I thought I would go more in the direction of opening a gallery, but when I moved to New York I realized very quickly that without a silver spoon or a legacy in the art world it would be very difficult to make a living, unless you are very wealthy.
Anyway, I was running a screen printing shop and had a friend who knew I had an art background and carpentry background and got me to work on a couple of music videos. I pretty much instantaneously knew where all my interests were creatively. As soon as I got the opportunity, I learned what the art department was all about and changed my focus completely, worked any art department jobs I could find. That got me into the New York indie world, which was a pretty incredible boot camp.
I was learning how the film business works and the art departments. I made the most of every job that came along. I started production designing small stuff, a whole bunch of little kitchen sink stuff, learned the ropes that way. And I got a bit of a name and a resume, that was it. Started to get some bigger jobs, a series of fortunate events and a lot of hard work. Basically it all came from the art background and the kind of carpentry design background, combined with my lifelong love of movies – being the right time and right place.
Do you feel production design has a misconception that is it more about pretty period sets? Do you find that?
You don’t often notice a production designers work as much unless it is a period set. In a weird way most people see the costumes, the hair and make-up, swords and sandals, Victorian outfits, or sci-fi of course – people are like “Oh wow, they have to create that world.” That is why some production designers are overlooked. You put in just as much work creating the space for a very specific character in a present day script.
A lot of your work is contemporary. I have seen a lot of it. Kiss of the Damned, Nerve, Honeymoon, Viral, Tiny Furniture. Those are all very different, even though they are modern day, they must have been different experiences.
Very much so. On every level of these experiences they are different – budgets, time frames, settings, like a New York setting is different to Pittsburgh or New Orleans. There are so many factors with every project that make them totally different experiences and challenge you differently. Obviously, the approach creatively is the same. After meeting the director, reading the script, you try to realize and understand who the characters are and the world they live in. If it is a more stylized picture like Nerve you approach it differently to, say, Tiny Furniture. How it gets created and the relatively small team of people. There is an order of operation. It is the same even if the creative things we are trying to accomplish are different.
So Stranger Things came about through the director of Honeymoon right as Leigh [Janiak] is married to one of the creators [Ross Duffer]?
Yeah, we did Honeymoon. We both had a pretty scary vision for that movie, and we were able to realize it with our resources. We spoke a similar language creatively. When I was in L.A. making Viral, I happened to be living around the corner from Leigh. We were catching up every now and then, having a meal together. And I think Ross came and was kind of pitching a pipe dream idea that I fell in love with, which was then called Montauk and would become Stranger Things.
At that point they were a bunch of thirty-somethings with a dream to make such an outlandish thing with a bunch of kids set in the 80’s. I said if it ever came to fruition it would be a dream for a production designer. Two years later they called me and said it had the green light, and they could get me on the project. It was a struggle to get on as my credits were smaller, but I had just finished Nerve which was a big enough resume bump. And Allison Shearmur, who was the producer on that, had enough clout in the movie world of big budget film-making that she told the line producer it would be in good hands. And it was all go from there.
So you had your own idea of 80’s America, then. What did you bring from your own experience to your work on Stranger Things?
I literally was able to get family photos and get my own case from my actual childhood, photos of the suburban home I grew up in. When I think of running around as a kid, it was very much like the ones we created in the show. And all the movies we referenced kind of made up my childhood. That was like second nature, bringing those childhood experiences to the show. Like walkie talkies, riding with my buddies on bicycles, all that was there, and my heart was in it.
Any other show could have gone overboard with the 80’s stuff, it could have become a bit kitsch. Where did you draw the line?
For us it was like as long as it was believable, in the characters worlds, in their homes, we wanted to squeeze in little winks and nods to things like specific movies, with the big Jaws poster, and all the stuff that inspired us. Otherwise it was a matter of taking a real look and going back to the way I would approach a TV drama set in the present day. It is about bringing these characters out, through the scripts, and conversations with the Duffer brothers like who they are socioeconomically, psychologically, what they have been through. And from there we were thinking what should the house look like, would the furniture be from the 70’s.
There are a lot of really great vintage and set dressing places, estate sales. The set decorator and her team are always really great about going out, going above and beyond in finding mountains of vintage furniture. Going through junk draws at estate sale and buying everything. When it came to me to put a life layer into a set, we literally had like a storeroom full of real, vintage, worn in, lived in, 80’s stuff – or 70’s in a lot of cases. That was our approach, and our philosophy was to really make it super real and not distracting to the audience.
We want people to have a smile and take note of a particular element. It’s the same approach I have with indies, which is creating really real spaces that have gravity and texture. Ultimately the set kind of informs the character as opposed to just showing people what cool 80’s shit you can put on a set.
It’s the little details, like what is in the cupboards, or on the kitchen worktops.
Yeah, all that stuff. We tried not to overlook anything or gloss over things. It’s taking every room seriously. Even if we are not going to see that corner of the set, making sure that corner is integrated into the rest. There is no stone unturned.
Did you have much creative input in other aspects of the production, like where the camera would go, character movement?
The creative triad is usually the director, cinematographer, production designer, knowing the scripts backward and forwards. I spent a lot of time with the directors, and the DP Tim Ives, Tod Campbell, and we all approach it in this very collaborative, creative way. When I go into designing a set it is always with the script in mind, and with the style of shooting, a lot of deliberate camera movement, well thought out shots, going into creating.
I am very conscious of this is what we can expect to take place, and we want to give cinematographers, the Duffers, as much room to move. To give many interesting angles and how one doorway of one room frames another room and how the action can flow from the kitchen through the dining room and into the living room. A lot of what you build is with camera motion, actor blocking in mind, and of course lighting. We try to find as much practical lighting as possible. Feels much more cinematic.
Was there something specifically challenging? What did you learn?
The learning is constant. The pace of TV is a little bit different. Some of the most challenging stuff was more logistical, like the process of the metamorphosis of the Byer House goes through – the Christmas lights, Joyce’s breakdown, the monster – they required quite a lot of logistical pre-planning and a lot of inter-department co-operation. We shot it all on one space and had a fairly tight schedule, so making all that happen was tricky, having a set undergo such a radical change through the course of a season. Also the look and the feel, and the material process of creating the Upside Down, deciding on what that would look like. How we would achieve it. Kind of a broad collaborative thing.
It is easy to talk about, but it is super abstract. And it is not just a matter of putting furniture and a life layer into an otherwise pedestrian world. It was about creating this strange other worldly space. That was creatively probably the most challenging thing as it was a total cooperation between so many different departments. In a lot of cases we were figuring it out as we went. When we were shooting the first block of episodes, we were still testing materials for the third and forth. So that was really challenging.
The success of Stranger Things is that you have taken people back, like myself, and I recognize a lot of it, and that is down to the production design and the team. That is what people have fallen in love with as well as the story. So congratulations on that.
Thanks a lot, I really appreciate you saying that.
Stranger Things Season 1 streams on Netflix. Season 2 drops in October 2017.