(NYTimes) - In 2016, after Andrew Stanton finished his billion-dollar-grossing movie Finding Dory, for which he was co-writer and co-director, he thought about what he wanted to do next.
"I was looking to take a long-term break from animation," he said in a phone interview from his offices in San Francisco. It takes four years to make a Pixar film, he said, "and those years get shorter as I get older."
Having just turned 50, he wanted to take another crack at directing live-action features, hoping to come back from what had been a humbling experience helming John Carter, a box-office disappointment for Disney in 2012. Already a fan of Stranger Things and its vividly detailed story of kids fighting extra-dimensional monsters in an early 1980s Indiana small town, he asked his entertainment lawyer to set up a meeting with the show's producing team of Matt and Ross Duffer and Shawn Levy.
Stanton, who also directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, spoke about the experience of being a hired gun on someone else's project and what he feels he brought to the two episodes he directed: Episode 5, Dig Dug, and Episode 6, The Spy.
Mild spoilers follow in these edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Of all the shows you could have directed, why Stranger Things?
A: I was 15 to 25 in the 1980s. I went to college, studied film, went to the movies like crazy and ate everything up. The Duffers captured exactly what it was like to watch all that stuff. There's a pure sense of wonder about the show, and an appreciation for unadulterated geek cinema.
Q: Stranger Things has a distinctive visual style, referencing Steven Spielberg and James Cameron and a lot of other 1980s movies. Is the look of any given scene dictated in the script?
A: You know, the Duffers don't like to admit what they're referencing too head-on. I think they try to let inspiration fall where it may. I was basically allowed to run free, to get my Spielberg on and my Cameron on. You try not to be gratuitous. But man, was it fun, staging these shots that were not just straight out of a movie, but that for me were like, "This is exactly what it felt to watch this scene from Aliens."
Q: What about the cultural references? In one of your episodes, Dacre Montgomery's bad boy character Billy is listening to Ratt. In the other episode, someone's watching Family Feud on TV. Were any of those touches up to you?
A: Family Feud was mine. The songs are a separate thing. But really, the Duffers trust their art department and props department and set-dressing department and costume department to go on little archaeological digs. I haven't talked about this with the Duffers or with Shawn, but I have to believe that half the fun of directing an episode of Stranger Things, for them, is walking onto the set and suddenly seeing the extras wearing those clothes and seeing all the vintage props and getting inspired by what's in front of you. That surprise is really useful.
I remember in one of my episodes, Billy's working out with weights and smoking, and he has a sleeveless shirt on. The minute I saw it, I thought, "Oh my god, I wore so many of those." And Dacre said, "I think my character would work without a shirt on." I told him, "We'll do a take without it, but just for this rehearsal, can you try it with the shirt?"
This is a scene where the shot is of him coming outside the house, so I was all the way across the street with the camera crew. The second he stepped out of the house, I heard about four guys behind the camera go, "Oh man, I totally had that shirt." I was like, "OK, we're keeping it."
Q: You have a sequence where Sean Astin walks through the Byers house and realises that Will's strange drawings are actually a map. Why did you do it mostly as a series of long tracking shots?
A: Not only was it hard to shoot in that house, but also I knew that Shawn had already shot some of the drawing and piecing-together of the maps. I didn't want my scenes to feel the same. What can I do differently that feels supportive of the narrative, and which captures this slow build of Bob going, "I get it, I get it, I got it?"
I wanted to do one well-choreographed take. We ultimately ended up cutting it into three shots, because we got some other coverage. But it was mostly one long master shot, so you could feel Bob's mood. And we could feed off Sean's acting, to have like a musical build to the "Aha!"
Q: What's next for you?
A: I've got an independent feature that I'm trying to get off the ground called Revolver. It's actually written by Kate Trefry, who wrote Episode 6 of Stranger Things, but it was a different route through which I connected with the script. Right now I'm back at Pixar.
Part of my job is to be one of the creative overseers of the projects going on here. I spend half my year here, keeping that all going. Hopefully I'll be doing more TV. I want to be all over the map.