Chris Trujillo Reveals How He Made a Star Out of Starcourt Mall for ‘Stranger Things’
The production designer details how the bodacious mall is like the Death Star.
June 20, 2020 in ADTV, ADTV Feature
I remember the first mall that I used to go to as a kid. There was a huge fountain in the center and a ton of stores that I didn’t have enough money to buy anything from, but that never stopped me from begging my dad to take me there so I could just hang around. I’m not sure if that mall had a secret Russian headquarters underneath it, though. Stranger Things production designer Chris Trujillo created a time machine to the ’80s in the form of Starcourt Mall, and it’s a massive, tubular achievement.
If Starcourt looks unbelievably detailed, it’s because Trujillo and his team took over a mall in Atlanta to transport us back. All of the stores were thoroughly designed and curated to function as a real store. Imagine being an extra on set and actually getting to walk into the food court. Below the mall’s surface, however, the real reason the shopping outlet is there is in the form of the ultimate bad guy lair. Everything is slick and steel in this Russian station.
When you have a set like Starcourt, it’s easy for the actors and the crew to fully feel lost in this world. Even if it’s something the audience can’t see, it makes everything more authentic and believable. Trujillo has been doing mind-blowing, intricate work on Stranger Things for three seasons straight, and he deserves an Emmy for this. Now, who wants to go to Orange Julius?
Awards Daily: For Starcourt, you looked at several malls in the Atlanta area. What made you settle on the Gwinnett Place Mall?
Christ Trujillo: We did a survey of every conceivable mall whether they were serviceable or were truly derelict. Some were completely shuttered. Many of them could’ve worked but it’s a centerpiece of the season, and we really held off until we found the perfect place. When we walked into Gwinnett Place and saw that atrium, I knew it was what we were looking for. It was a perfect combination of factors. The bones and architecture were exactly what I needed as a starting point. The mall was still partly populated—maybe a third of the stores were still open. But the part we fell in love with was completely vacant.
AD: Oh, I didn’t know that.
CT: Yeah, one anchor store was still functioning, but the two levels we took over were completely empty. It was a blank canvas. The mall itself was originally built in, I think, 1982 or 1983, so it was exactly the right era in terms of a suburban mall.
AD: When you say the bones were all there, do you mean even details like the wood railings? Or did you have to recreate a lot of that?
CT: The majority of that we built-in. Almost all of the wood we had to create—over the years those wooden details were taken out or painted over. We had to custom build out all of the benches around the planters and trash cans and banisters. That was great.
AD: Starcourt really feels like the first type of mall that I ever saw. The Starcourt logo hanging on that metal grid looks like what I saw in Western Pennsylvania.
CT: All of my first experiences of malls were a variation on that mall. It’s burned into my childhood psyche.
AD: It boggles my mind that you built all these stores. How did you know what stores to pick? Did you look at what stores were prominent at the time?
CT: It was a little bit of everything. Largely it came from my recollection of malls, and my team had specific ideas of what meant the 1980s to them. We got to cherry-pick touchstones from our childhoods. It was important for us to stay within the bounds of reality, and we had to bear in mind that we are in Indiana and this is a brand-new mall in 1985. It was a matter of making sure that we didn’t do anything that was anachronistic. You may not have found in Indiana what may only be in California. What things would ring true about the mall they would remember? That’s why you have your Orange Julius and you have your Sam Goody.
CT: I didn’t remember The Gap until the ‘90s. We definitely did a deep dive into research to make sure that the store had a presence in the mid-80s. We recreated to a T the look and feel of that store. There were some elements that we had to invent like the stuff that was script specific. In some cases, we weren’t able to use a store we might like to have because there was going to be some evil Russian connotation to what was going on.
AD: Like Scoops Ahoy?
CT: Yeah, we invented it based on the research of a lot of ice cream chains and nautical restaurant chains. We did an amalgamation. It was an entirely original design inspired by those nautical-themed restaurants and ice cream chains. We wanted to hit all the logos and brands and stuff that makes the most interesting storefronts.
AD: So you literally had to fall into The Gap?
CT: Yeah, kind of.
AD: Was there other research you had to take into account?
CT: When Elle and Max get their Glamour Shots taken, that’s how it was scripted. After a little bit of research that showed that Glamour Shots didn’t become a thing until the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, especially not in Indiana. In the interest of having no Reddit blowback, we designed our own concept store, Flash Studios. There’s consideration like that that goes into everything.
AD: I never even thought that you would have to do research on when a particular store would come to the Midwest.
CT: We try to. So much of it is to satisfy us and to satisfy the obsessive-compulsive person that might bag us online.
AD: Was it horrible to see the destruction at the end? I know a lot of it is visual effects.
CT: The mall was sort of our big hurdle for Season 3. We gave it everything we had for months and months and months. We had a 100-plus people working on it, so it was a massive endeavor. But it was only one of three or four massive elements in Season 3. We got it where we wanted it to be, and we handed it off with tears of satisfaction but ready to have it out of our hair. It’s always satisfying when a set gets its due. It’s such a character of the season and it had its full run and was splashy throughout the season. It was nice to see it have its own send-off.
AD: Starcourt has its own character arc.
CT: Every season it seems like one of our sets gets really featured.
AD: I love the Russian underground hideout. Erica, Dustin, Steve, and Robin go down the elevator and everything is symmetrical and there’s a lot of blue tones there. It reminded me a lot of Street Fighter in a way. Tell me about designing that.
CT: I very much wanted it to feel like an extension of the mall. The dark, true purpose of it. We tried to keep a similarity in the angled architecture and we were also referencing a lot of Soviet, brutalist architecture in our concept work. The Duffer Brothers were adamant that it be kind of an underground, Hawkins version of the Death Star. That was our shorthand for it. The Duffers threw out there that we needed something with a sci-fi sheen to it.
CT: With the show generally, while we are trying to do these outlandish, very design-y things, we are trying to ground it in this gritty, middle-class, small-town reality. Working-class small town. With this, we got to get really far-fetched and let these Russians have this underground chamber to transport us to another world. We wanted to go for it. The Duffers wanted this endlessly long tunnel and a sense of this epic scale although it was underground.