One of summer’s runaway hits is “Stranger Things,” the new Netflix series about a 12-year-old boy whose sci-fi infatuation becomes all too real when a monster pulls him into an underground world called the Upside Down. “Stranger Things” is an elaborate homage to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and a host of other storytellers who defined the creators’ childhoods. Matt and Ross Duffer, 32-year-old twins who wrote for “Wayward Pines,” crafted the series with the genre trappings of science fiction and horror, but imbued it with a dense character study about four outcast boys and their families in small-town 1983 Indiana. It’s also the only place you might cry while Winona Ryder, in a much-deserved comeback, talks to blinking Christmas lights.
Netflix hasn’t formally renewed “Stranger Things” for a second season, but the Duffer brothers have been gabbing like it’s pretty much a done deal. The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with the duo earlier this week to discuss the show. Spoilers abound in this interview, so proceed with caution if you haven’t finished all eight episodes. (But what are you waiting for?)
Were this made five or six years ago, it would have been a movie. Now, it’s obvious fodder for a TV show. Given how many films you pay homage to, did you always conceptualize it as a series?
Ross Duffer: We are obviously, from watching this show, movie guys. That was our first love, and that’s what we’ve wanted to do with our lives. But I think it was a couple of things. It was being so discouraged by what was going on in the film world, in terms of getting original movies made. The stuff that we fell in love with [wasn’t] getting made by the studios unless you’re Chris Nolan. But then, at the same time, we were seeing a lot of filmmakers like Cary Fukunaga and David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh move into television. We were starting to get more and more excited about watching these TV shows than we were going to the movies. That’s when we started talking about, “OK, if we can see any TV show, what would it be?” We started going back to the movies and the books that made us want to do this in the first place. Why did we fall in love with those things, and can we capture that again? It was always conceived as a series, but it wasn’t conceived specifically for Netflix. We honestly didn’t think it was a realistic possibility.
Matt Duffer: The other thing that was exciting to us was we love horror films. It’s really difficult if you’re making a horror movie right now. They’re kind of more like haunted-house rides. They’re fun, but it really is about a jump-scare every seven minutes, which is not why we fell in love with it. It’s hard to do. We’ve said the show is kind of genreless. I like that because we’re able to tell very character-driven stories that do not rely on jump-scares, but there’s also a monster in it. You cannot do that in film right now. There’s not a place for that type of story.
Only in the indie market, where you’ll never get the budget to make a “Stranger Things.”
Matt: Exactly. That’s the other way to go. But in terms of mainstream studio films, they just don’t do it. It’s all this crap that you have to deal with. And the other thing is, a lot of the TV we watch that we love, hardly any of it is actually genre. It’s “Freaks and Geeks” and “Friday Night Lights” and “My So-Called Life.” We’re watching all of that, but then we’re also kind of still 12 years old, so we’re going, “But what if there’s a monster in it? That would be even cooler, right?” The idea was, “Can you fall in love with a character the same way we have in those TV shows, but also appease our more childlike sensibilities?”
One reason “Stranger Things” is effective is because the monster is revealed slowly. At first, it’s only glimpses. That out-of-sight, fear-of-the-unknown quality feels very “Jaws.”
Ross: “Jaws” was a big one. It’s a classic. The shark not working while making that movie made it much better. Also, we looked a lot at Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” On YouTube, there’s a cut of all the instances where you see the alien in that first movie, and it’s a couple minutes long. And that’s a two-hour movie. I think the reason it’s so scary is that, when it does appear, it has a certain amount of impact. So we thought, OK, we’re going to see the shadow in Episode 1, because we knew we had eight episodes. We were trying to slowly reveal it, until you finally saw the full thing. We don’t really deal with it until Episode 8. It’s a dude in a suit, and I remember reading old interviews with Ridley Scott about “Alien.” The studio was upset with him for it because it’s an amazing alien suit and you’re not shooting it. But the reason is because so much of it will look like a guy in a suit, and so much of it is that what you don’t see is much scarier. We tried to go back to that old-school style of filmmaking.
How did you conceptualize the monster’s aesthetics? It has a crazy head.
Matt: We worked with this really brilliant concept artist who we’ve worked with once before, Aaron Sims. We were working with him when we were still writing the script. We played around with a lot of different designs. We talked about Guillermo del Toro’s creatures ― he’s such a genius. We talked about Clive Barker’s stuff and “Silent Hill.” We had all these different references, and we wanted to come up with something that was humanlike. It’s a humanoid in a way that’s really, really bizarre.
Ross: But we also didn’t want it to be too complicated. There’s so much art out there, and I’m happy to see people who are drawing monsters that are very simple designs.
I want to pose a logistical plot question: Why did Will survive the Upside Down but Barb didn’t?
Matt: Right, I guess we think of it as ― and this is continuing with the “Jaws” references ― it’s the other dimension, the Upside Down, where the shark lives, and every once in a while it comes out of that ocean into our world on the surface and then it grabs a victim and pulls them down to the Upside Down. You saw Barb at the top of Episode 3 in the Upside Down. Just imagine that’s a world, and Barb tried to escape and failed to escape, but Will was sneakier, so he was able to escape. He was able to hide. He goes, initially, to that cubby in Episode 3 inside the Byers’ house, which is why Joyce is able to communicate with him. We had this whole backstory for what Will is doing, but we don’t see it all.
Ross: It’s more like the monster bringing him back to the net, which is why Hopper and Joyce are able to distract Will into being held in this net like a spider caught in its web. He’s brought there by the monster for eating later. Is he there for other reasons? We don’t know. We have ideas.
Have you seen the internet fodder about how much of a favorite character Barb is?
Ross: Oh my God, yes. It makes us so happy. Shannon Purser is amazing. This is her first role. We’re so happy for her. She deserves this.
I have to mourn Barb for a second. Nancy, the preppy girl, survives, while Barb, her frumpier friend, dies. It’s a sad tease on the death-by-sex horror trope, since Barb is snatched by the monster while Nancy and Steve go upstairs to get it on.
Ross: We did like playing with those tropes ― or even with [Steve Harrington, Nancy’s boyfriend], who is such a douche bag for most of the show. We like the idea of trying to turn that on its head a little bit. In not having him get eaten by the monster, we hoped we could find a place where he would be heroic in the end. And sometimes we didn’t invert the tropes; we just had fun with it. Like, when Nancy goes through the tree, the hope is that people are screaming at her, “Don’t go in there!”
Matt: Specifically with Barbara, my thing is, we had horrible high school experiences. I think that’s why people relate to Barb, because they felt like she did. We certainly did. And oftentimes, in movies, that character ends up with the popular boy and it’s a happy ending for everybody, but that’s just not true. At least in our case, you’re kind of stuck in the Upside Down all through high school. It’s not a happy ending for most people like that, I don’t think. So I think it’s fair.
It’s interesting that Joyce and Jonathan are living in a broken home, yet they are willing to believe anything that will lead them to Will. Whereas Mike comes from this idealized nuclear family and his parents are the most clueless and skeptical of anyone. They have no idea that a girl is living in their basement.
Matt: It’s true, they are. And I like playing with that idea, too. Yes, they seem like they’re the perfect family, but they’re certainly not. Ted is far from the best dad ever, and Karen is very overwhelmed. It’s almost like there’s this façade of a perfect life and a perfect stable family, and I think that’s kind of what Jonathan tries to drive home for Nancy.
Ross: If you look back at a lot of these Spielberg movies and Stephen King books, even though there’s a lot of fun and a lot of camaraderie, there’s also a bit of sadness there, whether it’s “E.T.” with the divorce or in Stephen King’s “It,” where there’s racism. There’s always some sort of evil ― there’s sadness and people aren’t happy. It was important to us that that was there, even if it wasn’t the main storyline.
The way the season ends, there are enough questions answered for it to almost stand as a complete series. But the many unresolved mysteries set up an obvious next chapter. How much of the backstory regarding Dr. Brenner’s experiments and Eleven’s history did you have in place from the get-go?
Matt: We had ideas that we were sort of feeling out. We have a lot more backstory built in for Brenner and Eleven. Every time that we were writing scenes in the Hawkins Lab, we wanted to stop writing them, just because it seemed like we wanted to experience as much of it as possible in the present day and through the eyes of our ordinary characters. We just wanted to leave that as mysterious as possible. I hope that, with the mystery, people are responding to it and it’s not frustrating. But to us, the sci-fi elements are so much more fun if we’re understanding it via our characters. I like that basically everything we understand about what is going on is pretty much through the boys. And they’re only able to understand it through Dungeons and Dragons terminology and by talking to their science teacher, Mr. Clark. It’s all sort of hypothetical. I never wanted any scenes in the laboratory where you have Brenner and the scientists sitting around discussing what’s going on. And Eleven even doesn’t fully understand how she wound up where she wound up and what their plans for her are, so there are very few scenes with Brenner without one of our other main characters. The scenes that are with Brenner and not our main characters have almost no dialogue in them.
Ross: Moving forward, we’re going to get more into detail about the monster and where it came from and what the Upside Down really is. But with this season, we talked a lot about “Poltergeist.” At the end of the day, what really matters in “Poltergeist” is that Carol Anne is missing and they have to go through a portal in the closet to get her back. That matters more than the backstory. People want explanations for all that, so while we have answers for all this, what we really wanted to get from this first season is that this gate opens to this other dimension. What it really boils down to is, Will is in there and we have to get him back. The hope was that, because we resolved that, the first season will be satisfying to people and work as a stand-alone. Hopefully we get to go back and explore more of this stuff.
I adore the scene where the boys give Eleven a makeover, mostly because you see the pleasure they take in doing so. A lot of young, seemingly heterosexual boys in pop culture are not allowed to have fun playing dress-up. As someone who enjoyed fiction and playing dress-up as a young boy, it’s remarkable to see that.
Ross: When we were in high school, we were just going around making movies. We were in the drama club. We had fun playing make-believe. For us, that was an important thing with the kids. It was about them doing what they want to do. That’s one of the reasons we fell in love with “Freaks and Geeks.”
Matt: When we were kids, the type of friends we hung out with were more creative types. We were running around in the woods telling stories and putting on costumes. We’re terrible actors, but we acted in everything that we did, and it was fun. For us, it was just being as truthful as we can about our experiences growing up and the kind of things that we did. What’s exciting is then you realize, when the show comes out, that a lot of other people had those experiences, too. It’s awesome to see that it connects with other people.
What was the pop-culture reference you were proudest or most excited to include from your own childhoods?
Ross: A couple big ones: I was happy to get He-Man in there. Growing up, that was such a huge thing for us. And another one was the floating Millennium Falcon thing, which was not easy to get because they’re very protective, understandably, at Lucasfilm about [the rights to “Star Wars” entities]. At the time, this was right when “The Force Awakens” was about to come out. Luckily, Shawn Levy, who directed two episodes and was our producer, has friends in high-up places. He was able to get that done.
Matt: It’s funny, if you’ll notice in Episode 3, the Falcon is actually hidden under a blanket because you can’t be showing it in every scene. We were really excited that we got to put in some “Star Wars” toys, like Yoda. When we were able to use the Millennium Falcon and Yoda, it was like the coolest thing ever. Lucasfilm was super cool to let us do that. We didn’t get all the posters that we wanted in the show ― some of them wouldn’t let us, but the people who did were great. I love that we got the “Thing” poster in Mike’s bedroom. We are such big John Carpenter fans. And I’m glad we got the “Evil Dead” poster in Jonathan’s room. That stuff was fun to do. And the people who cooperated with us, we’re so thankful for.
Have you heard from anyone who you pay homage to? I know Stephen King tweeted about the show.
Matt: We heard from Stephen King, which was the best thing ever. That just blew our minds. Our minds are still kind of melting from that. We had known Guillermo del Toro a little bit before, but he reached out and said some nice things. That meant a lot to us. These are people we’ve idolized. We’ve been following their work since seventh grade or whatever, so it means the absolute world to us. That was very emotional for us.
Finally, I want to talk about Winona Ryder and the blinking Christmas lights. Winona is great casting since her career started not long after this show is set. And that was such a nice “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” allusion, communicating with another world via colorful flashing lights.
Ross: We directed six of the eight episodes, but we got slammed with writing the show, so Shawn Levy, our amazing producer, came in and directed Episodes 3 and 4. He was directing that scene. We weren’t even on set for that scene. The minute I saw the dailies, I couldn’t believe it. I think Shawn was controlling the lights ― you’d have to talk to him about it. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the show. Winona killed it. She’s acting opposite small Christmas lights! That’s the thing about Winona, though ― she just goes in all the way and commits. That’s why she’s a movie star. We’re like you ― we grew up huge fans of hers. So many of her movies were staple parts of our prized VHS collection. To be able to work with her is an actual dream.
Matt: And, actually, casting her was not the meta-casting thing. I get it now, of course. But our casting director, Carmen Cuba, her first idea was Winona. A lot of it was, “Who’s a big actress who we miss? Someone we haven’t seen enough of on screen?” That’s what TV allows for. It gives us platforms for these actresses you haven’t seen in a while. Winona has kind of dropped off the radar, purposely, I think, on her part, for about 10 years. When you get even a little bit of her, when she shows [up] in “Star Trek” or “Black Swan,” you’re like, “Fuck yes.” As fans of hers, we just wanted to see her in something, so it got me excited about the idea. I think we hit her at just the right time. I think if we’d asked her two years ago, she wouldn’t have done it. I think with the McConaissance, as they call it, the damage is done. A lot of these movie stars are discouraged by the stuff that Hollywood is doing right now, and a lot of them are looking at TV for more interesting roles. When Winona was big in the ‘90s, television would have been a really big step down for a movie star. That’s completely changed now, so that’s exciting. And I think she had a lot of fun doing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.