If Netflix’s “Stranger Things” has taught us anything (besides how to punch a hole through dimensions), it’s that childhood and creepy stuff go hand-in-hand.
That winning combo created the man behind “Stranger Thing’s” monster, Hollywood’s go-to creature guy Mark Steger, who has both performed and choreographed movements for all things eerie in projects such as “World War Z,” “American Horror Story” and “I Am Legend.” In an interview with IndieWire, Steger detailed some of the influences and surprisingly complex biological inspirations that went into creating the Demogorgon.
READ MORE: ‘Stranger Things’ Composers Discuss Creating That Haunting Theme Song
“I got a call to go meet with the Duffer Brothers, who I didn’t really know anything about at the time,” Steger said. “They showed me the lines for the creature and we discussed different film influences that they were playing with. John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is one that obviously comes up quite a bit. ‘Alien,’ the early films of David Cronenberg.”
Based on two renderings of the creature by the Aaron Sims company, “We discussed how it was going to be executed, how they wanted to do most of it practically with some visual effects enhancements,” Steger said. “We started the process with Mike Elizalde’s company, Spectral Motion, which did the creature effects and built the whole shoot. We started the development process with them that lasted for a couple of months. We basically would add bits and pieces of the character, and that was the genesis of the whole thing.”
The Duffers also had another frightening cinematic beast in mind for the menace Steger had to convey in his movements. “The main direction they gave me is that it was like the shark from ‘Jaws,’ that would appear now and then to feed,” he said. “That was a great direction. It was very concise and clear and that would just tap me into where I could take it then.”
Despite this direction, Steger wanted to create in his mind a biology and environment for his monster that would inform his performance. He explains, “I read the scripts but I didn’t fully understand the cosmography, so I was kind of embellishing myself. I ask myself questions when I do characters like this: What’s the gravity like for where this creature comes from? Where does it breathe? What’s the nature of its consciousness? I mean, it’s obviously not psychologically human. How does it develop?
“I [the Demogorgon] was actually from a different dimension as well,” he continues. “There were these basic things of the biometrics — I felt like I was from a heavier gravity. I imagine that perhaps the character is less of an animal or a plant, but more like a mushroom. The DNA is closer to an animal than it is to plants, but it is something different, like some kind of a fungus or a mushroom. Slime molds are really fascinating organisms because they’re these small microscopic individuals, but they come together and create a whole unit, a whole other form. So I was imagining, maybe I’m like, a colony. I’m actually a colony of something. I mean, all our bodies are colonized. We have one-and-a-half to two pounds of alien, non-human cells in our bodies that we’re actually living in symbiosis with.”
Whether or not Steger is right about his musings remains to be seen since, so far, little is known about the Upside-Down and its denizens (if the monster is even from the Upside-Down). Once he was suited up as the monster, though, he lived in his own little world that made it even easier to feel and act alien.
“When you’re playing these kinds of characters, because of the parameters of the makeup, the suit, or what it is you’re wearing, your biometrics are altered,” Steger said. “I’m not moving like a normal human being in any case. I can’t see the way I can normally see, I can’t hear — if I could hear at all — because of the servo motors and the batteries in the suit. When the whole thing was firing, I couldn’t hear very well. The sensory deprivation part, what you feel in the suit, what you can see, what you smell, that creates your reality picture. But at the same time, it also allows you to feel like you’re this Other.”
After first glimpses of the Demogorgon, both Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) described it as having no face. It’s only later that viewers find out that its entire head appears to be look like a smooth, closed flower bud that once unfurled looks like a giant, gaping mouth.
“Aaron Sims designed it, and it was sculpted at Spectral Motion and then the animatronic engineer for the head, this gentleman Mark Setrakian, he’s effin’ brilliant,” Steger said. “I mean, that in itself is an incredible work of art. I wore it on my head. A little bit of my face was exposed, so of course that was replaced digitally with another mouthpiece that was created by Spectral Motion. It’s incredibly complex. It had all these motors in it and wires and cables operating it. And the way it moved was so incredible. It was a very articulated, more than you think you was possible.”
Twins Anniston and Tinsley Wheeler, who played Mike’s younger sister Holly, weren’t sure what to make of Steger at first when he was in full monster regalia. “She was actually a little bit frightened,” he recalled. “After a little bit of coaxing, she was able to touch the monster. She got to know my name and she knew I was Mark. And after a certain point, she started smiling. And as far as the other kids go, we were always, we’d be kind of talking smack to each other every once in awhile. ‘You’re going down! You’re going down!’ They’d yell back, ‘You’re going down!’. So that was pretty fun.”
Steger came to monster work through his experimental dance group Osseus Labrynt, which staged live performances off the stage and in the real world. “We would perform completely naked in unusual environments doing these transformations with our bodies,” he said. “Our main influence was evolution and the natural world. For instance, we did a big show on the L.A. River in 1999. My interest was in showing the human body as part of a continuum in some sense. And being part of nature and also these things about the built environments.”
While touring with Osseus Labrynt, Steger came into contact with the metal band Tool, which would gain him entry into the world of monsters. “They headlined the first Coachella festival, and through a friend of a friend we came to their attention,” Steger said. “Their guitarist, Adam Jones, who directs all of their music videos, used to do creature effects at Stan Winston Studios.”
Steger collaborated with Jones for the music video for “Schism,” which opened doors for more gigs performing creepy beings and choreographing using his talent for creating unique movements. He’s also appeared in “American Horror Story: Hotel” as the Addiction Demon and choreographed the “Coven” installment. Check out examples of his work below:
Although Netflix has yet to confirm a second season for “Stranger Things,” Steger is game for the return of the Demogorgon. “I’d be honored to work on this again,” he said. “I’m sure there’s gonna be another season. It hasn’t been announced yet, but it’d be ridiculous for them not to do more. I think the next season is going to be kind of the Duffer brothers’ ‘Empire Strikes Back’ in some sense. They’re gonna take it to another level. I can’t wait to see what they’re gonna come up with.”
In the meantime, Steger is keeping himself busy with other gruesome gigs, including IFC’s upcoming horror comedy “Stan Against Evil,” premiering Nov. 2 and the micro-budget horror flick “Incarnate,” which stars “Game of Thrones” Carice Van Houten and Aaron Eckhart, in theaters on Dec. 2.
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