Ross and Matt Duffer are twins who grew up in North Carolina in the 80s and 90s and got a producing deal with Warner Bros. straight out of college. They wrote and directed the 2015 feature Hidden and contributed to the script of TV series Wayward Pines.
Now the twins are embarking on their latest project, a Netflix original show called Stranger Things. The show stars Winona Ryder and David Harbour and is set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 and revolves around a group of children and adults who are drawn together after the mysterious disappearance of a young boy.
The show is coming to Netflix on the 15th of July 2016 and I got the chance to view the first three episodes before chatting to the brothers about bringing the 80s to life on screen, their favourite films from the period, special effects and directing duties.
[This interview took place on the 10th of May, 2016 over the phone]
Q. What was the first germ of the idea for Stranger Things?
Duffer Brothers: We were really inspired by a lot of what was happening on TV, it was feeling more cinematic so we loved the idea of doing basically a long form movie. We talked about if we could see any show what would it be and we wanted something in the vein of the classic films we’d loved growing up – Spielberg, John Carpenter, Stephen King’s books and his adaptations as well. What made those stories so great and resonant was that they explored that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.
We grew up in North Carolina and we were regular kids living in a suburb playing Dungeons and Dragons with our friends so when we watched these films we felt transported. Like our lives suddenly had potential for adventure.
What we wanted to do was capture that feeling and bring it to people who loved those films and also for hopefully a whole new generation of viewers. That was sort of the ambition of the show, initially.
Q. What are some specific movies and shows you used as a point of reference?
DB: For Spielberg I think it was E.T. and Jaws and Close Encounters and then The Goonies which he produced. We sort of have three different generations – there are kids and then teens and adults. And we broadly speaking envision them in one of these types of movies.
For the teens they’re more in a classic horror film; John Carpenter’s stuff like Halloween or Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. That’s where the teens live. For the kids it’s more the adventure thing, like The Goonies or Stand by Me. And then the adults are a bit more in the classic Spielberg movies like Close Encounters where they’re slowly coming to realise that something extraordinary is happening around them and the sense of wonder that provokes. So that was what we were trying to do. Those are some of the big touchstones for us.
Q. You previously wrote and directed a feature – Hidden in 2015. What was the biggest difference in moving to a TV show?
DB: You have a lot more time on a feature so it’s much faster on TV. But that’s something we like, you have to just keep going and trusting the story and characters. Even on set when you’re filming you’re trusting your instincts more – as opposed to overanalysing everything.
There’s something nice about that, just keeping going. So it’s stressful and there are constraints but they’re ultimately beneficial at least for this story. It gives it an energy that I think is great.
Q. You shared directing duties with Shawn Levy [Night at the Museum], would you have liked to direct all the episodes?
DB: Shawn is also a producer on the show so he’s been involved for a long time. Yea the plan was to direct all eight but there was so much writing to be done, luckily our producer was a director but he also had a spare moment of time when he was able to come in and direct while we were writing.
So yea the original plan was to direct they all but it worked out well. Because he’s not this for hire guy – he’s not only a filmmaker but he had been with the show from the beginning so we felt incredibly lucky.
Q. Are there any favourite scenes you missed out on shooting?
DB: Yes and no! There are scenes we wrote that we were excited to shoot. But on the other hand it’s really fun to see someone else bring your vision to life, which we hadn’t really seen before. Because they also bring other ideas you hadn’t thought of.
Because you’re dealing with eight hours of material and you’re shooting over months and months, TV is hugely collaborative. And that’s what I like about it. And I like having other people bring their point of view and the show evolving and changing in ways you didn’t envision. That part of it was really fun and I think he did an amazing job on his episodes.
Q. How do the duties between you two break down – some directing teams like to break things down.
DB: No we kind of do everything together. We started making movies in the third grade so we have very instinctive shorthand where we can just communicate with a look. And we think so much alike. We really do everything together.
The benefit comes in most handy in the writing stage because we can work on scenes separately and that means we can move at twice the speed. Which is awesome! And having that partner when we’re showrunning and writing and directing that sometimes it’s great to be able to lean on someone else for him to lean on me or me to lean on him. It goes get overwhelming at times. I don’t think we could have done it with just one of us!
Q. What was it like to build your own vision of the 80s? There’s a Coke ad in the show, how do you pick the perfect one to get the era across to people who maybe weren’t even alive then!?
DB: [laughs] Yea… we had an amazing production designer [Chris Trujillo] who really brought it to life, especially when you’re building these sets. And Atlanta is such a sprawling city and you’re able to find these little pockets that haven’t changed at all.
The most fun is when you’re picking stuff out like yes the right Coca Cola ad, or He-Man – something that evokes that time period. Sometimes it would be fighting to get certain toys, like the Millennium Falcon toy in there. Those little details can instantly take you back to that time.
But we wanted to be careful not to be too cutesy with it. It’s really not about nostalgia, hopefully you get involved in the characters and the story and you forget about it. Because when I look back at E.T. I don’t think that’s a kitschy 80s movie, it feels like a timeless fairytale and you want to try to capture that sense of timelessness. Of anywhere and anytime. We wanted it to feel very modern in a way. So the style of the show, there’s nothing throwback about it. Or at least not intentionally.
Q. There’s no major violence or cursing in the episodes I’ve seen – are you aiming more for all ages, a PG-13 feel?
DB: Yea I think PG13. I love cursing kids and they say ‘Sh*t’ within the first two minutes. The dream scenario is that it works for people of all ages. I think it might be too scary for someone under the age of 10 or something like that but I love the idea that kids, teens and adults can all enjoy and love the show.
But really when we were writing we weren’t thinking of that at all. When we were young and watching these movies I didn’t like when I was being talked down to. Even something like The Goonies, which is a PG film from the time – not only are they cursing but these kids are in real danger and that’s one reason we responded to it.
You felt like they could get seriously hurt during the course of the adventure and you need that sense of danger. If its scares kids that’s fine, these Spielberg films were scary when we were growing up. And for some reason we love being scared.
Q. My favourite image so far is Winona Ryder with the ball of Christmas lights – is that an image you guys had from early in production?
DB: I don’t remember… it was one of those ideas that we had for communicating through lights and that became Christmas lights. I think what we loved when we came up with that image was you’re looking for that thing – like Poltergeist with Carol Anne in the TV.
You’re looking for a way to make ordinary objects into something extraordinary. And that’s what I like about those elements, like the static-y TV in Poltergeist – everybody has a TV. A lot of people put up Christmas lights and I liked taking something mundane and giving it that sense of wonder.
If you can pull that off its cool. And it’s more powerful than seeing a ghost or something. It’s so simple too; it wasn’t that hard to pull off. Although we did test our gaffer and electrician in terms of the number of lights!
Q. You mentioned the influence of John Carpenter, definitely in terms of the music – what are your fave films of his?
DB: I think Halloween is kind of perfect and The Thing is also pretty much a perfect movie. Those are the ones when we were younger which had the biggest impact. And something like Halloween it’s just so simple. And horror had gotten away from that.
You think of it as a slasher movie but it really is a lot like Jaws – you don’t see much and a lot of it is just suspense and dread and mood and build-up. Slasher films about people getting killed in gory ways, I’m not into it. And Halloween sort of started that genre but it’s not that at all. I think it’s very Hitchcock and suspenseful.
Obviously the music pays homage too. And it was fun because when we were first coming up with this show you don’t even know how it’s going to work exactly and if it’s going to work. But when we were selling it we put together a trailer where we combined clips from John Carpenter movies and Spielberg movies and put Carpenter music over images from E.T. and it worked!
It gave E.T. an edge that it doesn’t have and made it scary as sh*t! And I loved that. I hope it makes the show feel very different than something like Super 8 where they purposefully had that sort of John Williams-y orchestral score over the whole picture. I’m excited about that part of the show.
Q. What stage are you at now with the episodes? More or less finished?
DB: We have about a month to go. We’ve locked picture and we’re done editing all of the episodes and we’re colouring and sound mixing and waiting for visual effects shots. The final episode – almost half that episode has some sort of visual effect enhancement in it. The final episode is huge!
So that’s the biggest thing right now with getting the visual effects into a really good place before we air. At Netflix is interesting because you have to finish every single episode about a month before launch.
And then they take a month to get it ready to go across the world. Which is something I can’t even think about! Then we’re going to take a quick vacation and try not to think about it!
Q. Finally, if you guys had total freedom what would your dream project be?
DB: It’s so hard because this was kind of our dream – to tell an original story that’s like a big sprawling movie that it’s in the vein of everything we love. I don’t even know what’s next. I’m so in Stranger Things, I can’t even think beyond that.
Which is great because the hope right now is that people respond to the show and that we’re able to continue the story for a little bit longer and watch these kids grow up on camera for a couple more seasons.
Q. So you’d like to do more?
DB: Yea I’d love it. I’d love it.
Stranger Things debuts exclusively on Netflix on the 15th of July 2016.