‘Stranger Things’: How Two Brothers Created Summer’s Biggest TV Hit
Matt and Ross Duffer, the twin masterminds who wrote and directed Netflix’s Eighties nostalgiafest Stranger Things, have a confession: They’re sorta Nineties kids.
The North Carolina–bred brothers were born in 1984 — a year after the show’s setting — and, while they have murky recollections of Cold War anxiety, they grew up playing Magic: The Gathering more than Dungeons & Dragons. “We were like, ‘Shit, the kids in the show can’t be playing Magic: The Gathering; it hasn’t been invented yet,'” Matt says with a laugh. “My brother and I played D&D. We just weren’t particularly great at it.”
“We have vague memories of the Eighties,” Ross says. “But we were still pre-Internet and pre–cell phone for most of our childhood. We were the last generation to have the experience of going out with our friends to the woods or the train tracks and the only way our parents could connect with us was to say, ‘It’s time for dinner.’ … We were also movie nerds and had all these VHS tapes of all these classic Eighties films that we would watch over and over again. That was our point of reference for what it was like in the late Seventies and early Eighties.”
Regardless of when they grew up, the Duffer Brothers, as they’re professionally known, crafted the fictional Reagan-to-Rubik’s-Cube era of Stranger Things in such a believable, authentic way that it amplifies the show’s central mystery without becoming a distraction. The series, which notably features Eighties actors Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, tells the story of how a small Indiana town reacts to the disappearance of a boy at the same time a girl escapes a military testing facility; they ultimately stumble on a dark, fantastic portal to another dimension. As fans have begun parsing and picking apart all of its familiar signifiers and references to the decade’s most celebrated movies, books and records online, Stranger Things has become a buzzed-about breakout hit.
It’s been a sudden success for the brothers, who began their film careers in late 2011, after graduating college. Prior to Stranger Things, the two most notable productions on their C.V. were the 2015 thriller Hidden and a few episodes of M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi book adaptation Wayward Pines that same year.
So how do two relative newcomers to filmmaking sell a fantasy series to Netflix? “We’ve never asked to do TV before, and we’ve never met with anyone about TV before,” Ross says. “Then [producer] Donald De Line told us he’d read our script for Hidden and asked us to do Wayward Pines. That became our training ground, and M. Night Shyamalan became a great mentor to us. By the time we came out of that show, we were like, ‘OK, we know how to put together a show.’ And that’s when we wrote Stranger Things.”
The brothers initially took inspiration for the plot from Prisoners, the 2013 Hugh Jackman thriller about a man who searches for his missing daughter and goes into a moral free-fall. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t that movie have been even better in eight hours on HBO or Netflix?'” Matt says. “So we started talking about a missing-person story.”
“It was great seeing those characters in that tone on the big screen, but we thought it needed more,” Ross offers. “It was taking that idea of a missing child and combining it with the more childlike sensibilities that we have. You know, can we put a monster in there that eats people? Because we are nerds and children-at-heart, we thought it was the best thing ever.”
After discussing the movie as a jumping-off point, the brothers began talking about what Matt describes as “bizarre experiments we had read about taking place in the Cold War,” specifically Project MKUltra, a mind-control program the CIA led from the Fifties through the Seventies. That led them to placing the show in the 1983, a year before the Cold-War–hysteria epic Red Dawn came out, and it brought into focus the fantasy aspect of the story they’d wanted to include. “We wanted the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way,” Matt says. “As ridiculous as it is, the monster [in the alternate dimension] doesn’t come from a spiritual domain and it’s not connected to any religion. It made it scarier. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in aliens and alternate dimensions.
“Once we decided that the Eighties would be the best time for that,” he continues, “we realized it would allow us to pay homage to all the things that inspired us most. Maybe we could catch a little bit of the feeling of Stephen King’s books and the Spielberg movies. We allowed all these influences to converge into the idea for the show.”
After they wrote the initial Stranger Things script, they never thought they’d have a chance at pitching Netflix; they thought it was only a place for established names like Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and House of Cards producer, director David Fincher. Matt estimates the brothers were rejected 15 to 20 times by various networks, while other execs had balked at the idea that the show featured four kids as lead characters but that it wasn’t TV for children. “You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper [detective] character investigating paranormal activity around town,” one told them. Matt recalls replying, “Then we lose everything interesting about the show.” Some other people they knew in the industry understood their vision and helped connect them with Netflix. “There was a week where we were like, ‘This isn’t going to work because people don’t get it,'” Matt says.
Once aligned with the streaming service, casting was a cinch. They had the young boys who auditioned read lines from Stand by Me, and they turned to casting director Carmen Cuba for the role of Joyce Byers, the reluctantly bereft mother of missing boy Will. “Her first idea for the role was Winona Ryder, and we immediately fell in love with that idea,” Matt says. “She kind of vanished from the scene a little bit for the past 10 years but she would pop up in these movies like Star Trek and Black Swan and you’re like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ You quickly remember how much you miss her. Also, Winona was a huge part of our childhood. We had a lot of her movies in our VHS collection.” They sent her the script and, having recently dipped her toes in prestige television with this year’s Show Me a Hero, she felt it was worth doing another TV series. “She trusted us enough to roll the dice,” Matt says.
Once production began, with only one completed script, the Duffers worked hard to maintain an authentic Eighties feel in the show. Although much has been made online about the Easter Eggs throughout the show — extensive lists of its movie references and clever Eighties lexicons — the brothers didn’t spend much time re-watching Reagan-era cinema for inspiration. “We’ve seen them so many times that we have them memorized,” Matt says. “We weren’t trying to directly reference them; we were trying to capture the feeling of those movies. It’s funny, someone did a cut on Vimeo where they’re putting our shots side-by-side with these classic movie shots. Some were deliberate and some were subconscious.”
He also credits the series’ production and costume designers, the composers and the cinematographer for capturing the feeling of the series. The duo also tried their best to avoid using digital special effects, which proved to be more difficult than they anticipated. “Initially, we said, ‘Let’s do this like they did in the old days we’d been building the monster — and then we realized with a TV schedule and budget we don’t have six months to run trials on practical effects,” Ross says. “So we did the best of both worlds. We built the monster but for real-life effects that we don’t have time to figure out – like the monster bursting through a membrane-wall or coming out of the ceiling — we went digital. We merged the look with the practical. I think J.J. Abrams did that really well with The Force Awakens: It’s not all CG and not all practical, it’s something in between.”
“When I look back at something like E.T., it feels timeless. The intention was always that [Stranger Things] would play as a summer popcorn blockbuster. ”
— Ross Duffer
Matt takes a minute, mid-conversation, to marvel at Ridley Scott’s xenomorph in the original Alien. “The test footage for the monster looks horrible, just like a guy in a suit,” he says. “The way he shot it is genius; he barely shot it at all. The studio got really mad at him because they had spent all this money on this monster suit and thought it was a monster movie and when they saw it they go, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Let’s show the thing.’ He was obviously much smarter than all the executives.”
Even though Stranger Things contains elements of horror and sci-fi, like Alien, along with Goonies-like adventure, the brothers kept each of the genres they took inspiration from in balance. Their hope was to create a show that anyone could relate to. “When I look back at something like E.T., not only does it hold up beautifully but it feels timeless,” Ross says. “We hoped that it would be the same with this. It doesn’t matter if you were raised in the Eighties or not, you can connect with these characters. There are kids, teens and adults in this, so there’s someone for everyone to relate to. The intention was always that this would play as a summer popcorn blockbuster. But we didn’t know if it would.”
Now that the show is a hit, the Duffers are trying their best to revel in the praise while remaining cautiously optimistic about the future. At press time, Netflix has not ordered a second season. “We finished this a week before it was out in the world, so right now we’re relaxing a bit,” Ross says. “But we also have hope that we’ll get to continue the story for at least a little longer.”
From musical cues to Spielberg movie references, Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ resurrects the Eighties. Watch here for an inside look into the hit series.