Lessons from Freaks and Geeks and Stranger Things.
Ensemble casts comprised of children are risky propositions for most filmmakers. Terrible performances from child actors are especially flagrant errors in any production, even already awful ones. Just remember Noah Ringer as Aang in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender or Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I ‐ The Phantom Menace. You don’t? Let me remind you.
The difficulty of working with children makes the successes of shows like Freak and Geeks and Stranger Things especially impressive. Though Freaks and Geeks was a commercial failure when it aired, the Paul Feig-created and Judd Apatow-produced comedy remains the most accurate depiction of high school in TV history and a cult-favorite more than fifteen years later.
Coincidentally, the best recent portrayal of kids on TV comes from another 1980s period piece. Stranger Things, the new Netflix series from the Duffer brothers, is an homage to the cinema of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, as well as Stephen King’s extensive collection of books and short stories. The story of a small town thrust into turmoil when a young boy goes missing is both captivating and endearing in a manner unlike any show in recent history.
Although the series have drastic differences in style and story, the realistic portrayals of children they offer share some of the same qualities. In combing through interviews with the creators and casts of the programs, I identified four similarities in the processes by which the filmmakers were able to produce grounded depictions of children on screen. Follow these steps and you can achieve success as well!
Step One: Conduct an extensive and expansive casting process.
When Feig and Apatow sought after actors for Freaks and Geeks they held sessions around the U.S. and Canada searching for “normal-looking” kids. Feig remembered speaking with Apatow before a meeting with NBC executives, “I’m going to tell them we can’t just cast this with a bunch of beautiful kids and put glasses on them and mess up their hair and say, ‘Oh, they’re nerds.’ We’ve got to have real casting.” Luckily, NBC agreed. The breadth of the search allowed Feig to isolate the best actors possible:
“You’re seeing hundreds of kids, so every person you see you’re like, Yeah, he could do it. But then you have these moments when somebody walks in and it’s like, O.K., everyone else is out of my head now.”
Stranger Things was lucky enough to undertake an endeavor of a similar scale. The Duffer brothers explain how that is the key to finding good kid actors:
“[A]udition pretty much every kid in the world who wants to act. With our great casting director, Carmen Cuba, leading the way, we auditioned 906 boys and 307 girls. The kids each read select scenes from the first episode, as well as a few classic scenes from Stand By Me (a film which features not one, not two, but four of the greatest child performances in film history). We flew the finalists to Los Angeles, read them together to test their chemistry, and cast our gang. The kids came from all over the place: New York (Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin, and Caleb McClaughlin, who plays Lucas), Canada (Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike), and the UK (Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven).”
Some may consider this too expansive, but the Duffer brothers would disagree. In an interview with Empire, Ross Duffer insists, “We saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids and there’s so few that can give you a good performance without having to do ten takes. And the bottom line is we found four kids that we thought could do that. There was honestly no one else that we found.”
Step Two: Adjust the characters to the actors you cast.
The Duffer brother began the casting as soon as Netflix greenlit the show, so they had a lot of time to rework the characters to reflect the people playing them before they started shooting. Ross continues, “When we started casting these people we didn’t have a script written, and honestly that was extremely helpful.” They were able to utilize this time to write moments for their actors that suited their unique strengths. For example, early in the first episode, two bullies force Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) to do “the shoulder trick” before they’ll let him and his friends walk into the school. I won’t explain what it entails, but the intimidation feels particularly personal (and was only possible) because Matarazzo has the same condition as his character: cleidocranial dysplasia. He brings his own experiences to the performance, adding an extra layer of realism to it.
The creators of Freaks and Geeks also developed their characters with this method. Because he believed the roles could have more specificity to them, Apatow wanted to “try to cast unique characters and re-write the pilot to their personalities.” The decision was a surprisingly unprecedented one in the world of television at the time. According to casting director (and winner of the show’s only Emmy) Allison Jones, “ I had never had any experience like that before ‐ inventing while casting. It had always been about trying to fit the person to read the lines correctly.” Apatow’s strategy was also apparent to the actors themselves. In an article from Vulture, two of the former child actors reflected on the tailoring of their roles:
Martin Starr (Bill Haverchuck): “[I]t was easy, because their writing system ended up being built around the characters we created.”
Samm Levine (Neal Schweiber): “There’s the way the characters were written in the pilot, before anyone was cast, and then that changed, after Judd and Paul and Jake Kasdan cast all the child actors. They really, really wrote to our strengths, and it seemed a more authentic outcome. Neal was written as kind of a short, fat kid with a bowl haircut and an underbite. But when I came in, they thought, ‘Eh, let’s make him the whiny Jewish kid.’”
Step Three: Ensure the kids become strong friends.
Now this is the tricky part. After all, forcing childhood friendships is a near impossible task. Luckily, with that much time together, friendships tend to form naturally. At least on these two shows, the kids did the work for the producers. John Francis Daley (who played Sam Weir) mentions in an oral history of the series for Vanity Fair:
“Flying from New York to shoot the pilot, Samm Levine came up to me and said, “Hey, are you on the show as well? Come up to my row at some point and we’ll chat.” Who talks like that at that age? We told each other jokes for a couple hours and became friends. Martin was the exact opposite, very mischievous, liked to get a rise out of people. Samm was more the Vegas comedian with the puns and the quips. They got on each other’s nerves immediately, but were friends at the same time. It was a very odd, bickering-family kind of friendship. That I got a lot of enjoyment out of.”
The friendship between these three translated to the screen incredibly well, and the dynamics of their real life friendship ended up on display in the show. And, while I’m sorry to include another large block quote, this story from the Duffer brothers is another testament to importance of off-screen camaraderie:
“We also knew the fastest way for these kids to act like best friends was for them to actually be best friends. Luckily, without our prompting or knowledge, the kids formed a text group and began incessantly texting each other over the summer. By the time they arrived in Atlanta, they were already a close-knit group. The hope, of course, was that this would translate when the cameras were rolling; would nerves mess them up? The first scene we shot was the first scene we ever wrote for the show: the Dungeons and Dragons scene. We held our breath, called action, and… it clicked. Our boys flew through the scene effortlessly and energetically, and their chemistry was electric; they felt like they had known each other their whole lives. Other than when we sold the show to Netflix, this was the single biggest moment for Stranger Things. We slept pretty well that night.”
Step Four: Make sure the kids actually talk like kids.
When asked about what series inspired him, Paul Feig discussed how Leave It to Beaver influenced Freaks and Geeks. Despite some of its more corny humor, the show treated its children as if they were children: “I know, they’re all ‘Gee whiz!’ and stuff, but they were never clever, and my problem with shows about kids is that they’re always so clever, it’s clear they were written by adults. Hollywood writers really like that, because it’s like they have little adults to read their lines, and that has some comedic value occasionally. But to me, it’s cloying and fake.” A prime example of the application of this philosophy comes from the show’s second episode, “Weirs and Beers”. After realizing that the keg at his sister’s house party has been replaced with one filled with non-alcoholic beer, he has the following conversation with his friends:
Sam: What’s non-alcoholic beer?
Bill: It’s just like beer but it doesn’t have that ingredient that makes you drunk.
The beauty in this writing is its simplicity. Plus, it demonstrates the circuitous nature of a young teen’s thought patterns (and it’s funny). But the filmmakers didn’t limit this approach to humorous portions of dialogue. In fact, Apatow made a key writing breakthrough by improvising with two of his young actors.
In the second to last episode of the series, “Little Things”, Ken (Seth Rogen) finds out that his girlfriend Amy (Jessica Campbell) was born with both male and female genitalia, and struggles to come to terms with their relationship. While writing the episode, Apatow found it difficult to balance the comedy of the situation with the seriousness that the conversation entails on an emotional level. His solution came when, as Feig recalled an interview with The A.V. Club, he “ pulled Seth [Rogen] and Jessica [Campbell] into his office, and they sat there and improvised her telling him that she has this… condition. [Laughs.] And that kind of started everything for Seth and for Judd. Out of this improv came this great scene, and it was kind of a new way to look at problem-solving and honesty, and get things feeling more real.” Apatow and Rogen would go on to pioneer the popular, improv-centric style of comedy films in America today.
Though none of the scenes in Stranger Things were as heavily impacted by improvisation as this one, it still had a presence on the show. A set of twins, Anniston and Tinsley Price, played Holly, the younger sister of Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer). As it turns out, according to the Duffer brothers, “their best moments in the show are improvised. When Holly watches the family argue in in “Chapter One”… When she gets upset by Dustin and sinks into her chair in “Chapter Two”… When Joyce asks if she saw something in the wall and she confidently replies “yes”… None of that was scripted. That was all Anniston. Or Tinsley. We have no idea.” Yes, they were unsure of which sister ended up in each scene. Regardless, the brothers also committed to writing their show’s kids realistically. They swear; they hide everything they can from their parents; and they have an intricate system of promises and conflict resolution. And those are only a few of the accurate characteristics the Duffers embedded in dialogue for the series. Taken together they represent the best portrayal of a group of geeky kids since Freaks and Geeks set the bar in 1999.
Stranger Things and Freaks and Geeks are both available for streaming on Netflix.
Related Topics: Comedy, Netflix