The Duffer Brothers Talk 'Stranger Things' Influences, 'It' Dreams and Netflix Phase 2

Matt and Ross Duffer discuss homage versus adaptation and their Spielberg/King inspirations.
Courtesy of Netflix
The Duffer Brothers on the set of 'Stranger Things.'

Promoting their new Netflix series Stranger Things at the Television Critics Association press tour, Matt Duffer is wearing a black shirt, and his brother Ross Duffer is wearing a gray, striped shirt. That's what my notes say, because that's the easiest way to distinguish between the filmmakers.

Born in 1984, the entity credited as The Duffer Brothers have (has?) gone from unknowns who spent time on the first season of Fox's Wayward Pines to the big-hearted resurrectors of the 1980s Steven Spielberg/Stephen King legacy of supernaturally infused stories featuring ordinary, relatable kids facing the extraordinary. Not that we'll ever know specifics about Netflix's ratings, but my perception is that Stranger Things has been Netflix's most word-of-mouth-driven success since Making a Murderer last winter.

Stranger Things has DNA from Spielberg, King and Carpenter, but it's also an entirely original story that stands on its own visual inventiveness and tremendous young cast. In THR's all-too-brief sit-down with the two, Matt and Ross talked about their influences, the Stephen King book they wish they could have adapted and why they're committed to seeing this story through on Netflix.

Check out the full Q&A, and apologies to the Duffers for any quotes accidentally swapped between Matt and Ross...

OK, if I'm on set, how do I tell the difference between you? What are the on-set differences in roles or temperament, anything?

Ross Duffer: We think so much alike and we've been doing this together for so long, and it's not like some teams, where one person is devoted to the visuals and the camera and one's to performances, but we both like both things equally, so I would say that we sort of just trade off. The great thing about it is that, it's exhausting, you're doing these 12- or 14-hour days, we're writing on the weekends, it's helpful that occasionally one of us, you just burn out a little bit. So, it's nice to have that support that there's someone there to pick up the slack.

Matt Duffer: Yeah, if I'm fried mentally, incapable of directing for a second, Ross is there and will take over. Or at least, together we can somehow manage make it through the day.

Ross: But the DGA drills in this thing where if you're going to be a team, they make you go through this terrifying ordeal to get a co-director thing. They're very protective of it, which I understand, right? They don't want producers and all this stuff suddenly being like, "I directed, blah blah." So they're very protective of that "one vision" thing, and I think that for us it's really important that we [are], and I think that we are because we've grown up with the same stuff and we've been doing it so long that we both know what we want. So if a scene isn't playing right or something's off, we just generally can share one little look, and we go, "Yeah, something's off."

Matt: But we do, and if he's not there, or I'm not there, I think the other one becomes insecure. That's probably, I don't know, psychological issues because we've been together for so long. Our entire lives, obviously.

Now I want to talk about one of the most important things about this show, which is obviously the title font.

Matt: Yes! Super important.

Ross: I'm so glad people responded.

What is the immediate thing you guys associate with that font, and what was the process of finding exactly the right one?

Matt: Well, it wasn't a specific book. We were working with this company called Imaginary Forces, and I think we sent them 14 or 15 different covers, not all Stephen King, but 90 percent Stephen King paperback covers, that we really liked. They came back with that font, and that was really close to what is in the show, and that got changed a little bit.

Ross: It's funny. I don't know what it is, but it obviously brings you back. It's weird, because the font was one of the first things. When we sold the show to Netflix, and when we were pitching it around to companies, we made a little look book. In the front cover, we made it look like an old Stephen King book, and we had a very similar font in the red and the outline and there was a bike that was just on the ground that was lost. It's funny, it's a year and a little bit later and I'm seeing these billboards with this bike on the ground. It's actually amazing how much, and it's exciting that Netflix just embraced the tone and they embraced what we wanted to do, that it stayed true to that feeling from beginning to end.

Matt: We literally took the Firestarter paperback and pasted a picture of a bike on top of it and changed the font to our font. So yeah, and that was the idea, the idea what we really wanted the show, we wanted it to be like, "This is what it felt like when we were in middle school or high school reading those paperbacks." So that's what we wanted it to evoke.

So, formative Stephen King book for each of you. It can be the first one, the one that lingers, whichever.

Ross: It's probably It for both of us. It's the big one, and It is obviously a huge inspiration for the show. That's probably the biggest, I think just because we're the age of those characters when we're reading it, so it's not that his other books aren't amazing, they were.

Matt: That made probably the biggest impact on us.

Ross: We just devoured. I remember reading The Running Man in like one night. We just devoured his stuff when we were little.

The disturbing thing, of course now, is that if you read It around the time you were the age of the kids in the book, now you're the age of the older versions.

Matt: Yeah. I re-read It again, it's been like five or six years, but it's such an incredible book. He's amazing, and when he tweeted about Stranger Things, I was trying not to cry, because that was right before the premiere and it really f---ed me up. It was like 20 minutes before we were supposed to get in the car, and I'm like, "I'm barely functional right now."

When you guys look at the DNA of the show, how would you break it down percentage-wise in your mind between Spielberg, King, and Carpenter?

Ross: I think it's almost divided, in a way, into thirds. I mean, it's very simplified. Because the teens are almost in that, whether it's Carpenter, King or Wes Craven. It's like they're in that Halloween mode where they're having sex and getting into trouble and there's obviously darkness that comes with that that's symbolized by this monster. With the kids it's more, yes there's the Spielberg stuff, but that's where it get's a little confusing, because part of it is the Spielberg stuff like E.T., and because with adults, we really wanted that Close Encounters feel with Joyce and stuff, or Jaws, where it's like these people that don't really believe in the extraordinary coming encounter with that, and that's where you get the sense of wonder with the Christmas lights and all that, which is what we really wanted.

Matt: I like to think that it's half. I love that people are picking up so strong on the King, I guess we weren't that subtle about it. It's so funny, you think you're being subtle about certain references, and like, "No, we're pretty on the nose."

Ross: But, when the first trailer came out, when people started talking about King, I was relieved, because I was worried that just you put kids on bikes that instantly, and I understand, you go straight to Spielberg, and Spielberg obviously is a huge influence on us, but King just as much.

Matt: That's one reason we wanted to do synth music, because we thought it would help differentiate from Spielberg. It was going to have a slightly different tone than a lot of his movies. So, even though we were taking a lot of inspiration from it, also some of these darker sci-fi horror stuff that we were reading in the '80s were equally, if not more, influential.

In Jurassic Park, the secret DNA is the frog DNA that makes everything weird. What is the secret DNA that people aren't picking up on in this? That you haven't seen anyone nodding to?

Ross: I think there's two things. One is anime. 

Matt: Everyone's picked up everything. There's a kind of obscure anime called Elfen Lied, and it was like the first trailer, someone was like, in the comments, someone pointed out, "Oh, this reminds me of Elfen Lied.

Ross: They picked up on that, but not very many people. That's deep cut.

Matt: I'm like, "Oh, wow." I don't know how that came through in the trailer. I was like, "That's crazy, I didn't realize anyone had even seen that anime." That's an older [series], it's very very violent though, so in that way it's very different, but a girl who escapes from a laboratory. It reminded me when I watched it of a very violent, anime-ish E.T.. So, that DNA is in it. I don't see a lot of people talking about it. Then, we play a lot of video games, so there's a lot of video game references that people are picking up on. There's Silent Hill and Last of Us.

Ross: We're just nerds really, so we love all this stuff, really. Again, at a certain point, especially in the pilot, we're doing Will in the shed, which is obviously reference to E.T., but at a certain point, when we're in the writers' room, we're not really talking about other movies, we're just like, "What would Joyce do? Her son's missing. What's her next step?" Just going from there, and trying to capture the feel of these movies, but it's not us trying to specifically reference the movies. It's fun, because people are doing "Spot the reference stuff," and obviously some of it is absolutely true, and then some of it is so funny because I'm like, "I've never even seen D.A.R.Y.L. I don't even know what that is."

Matt: I feel bad, I'm like, "What is D.A.R.Y.L.?" I'm going to have to watch some of these movies that people are saying we're referencing that I haven't seen.

Ross: Or Beyond the Black Rainbow. They're like, "This is a direct homage to D.A.R.Y.L. or Beyond the Black Rainbow." It's like, "What? What are these movies?"

Matt: I watched a little Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Ross: All right, well maybe it influenced you but not me. I don't know.

Matt: Yeah, it was cool. They did a Vimeo video when they were putting shots back to back. It was really cool.

Ross: A lot of it, I think, it is sort of more subconscious than specific.

This was originally sold as Montauk, with that as the location. What was the thought process of changing it to middle America?

Matt: It was more practical than anything. We liked Montauk, because we liked the coastal setting, and Montauk was the basis for Amity, and Jaws is probably our favorite movie, so I thought that that would be really cool. Then it was really going to be impossible to shoot in or around Long Island in the wintertime. It was just going to be miserable and expensive. We're actually from North Carolina, so when we wound up in Atlanta and I started scouting Atlanta we got excited about it, because it looked actually much more like our own childhoods. It reminded me of my own childhood. I don't know what it's like to live on a coast, so it was actually once we settled into it and got used to the idea and we came up with this town name, Hawkins. It takes a long time to make a change like that, for your brain to accept it, to accept a new title and to accept a new name for a town.

Ross: Now it's weird thinking the other way. It was us wanting to create our own fictional town, because if you have Castle Rock or whatever, it allowed us, if this goes forward, to do stuff in this town that maybe we would feel strange doing if it was a real place. Like, you can quarantine it, I'm just spit-balling, but I'm saying we can do stuff that didn't happen in real life because it's this little fictional world that we've made up. That excited us as well.

Were you guys happier doing homage or would you want to do a straightforward adaptation? Would you guys have killed to have gotten a shot at the It adaptation?

Ross: Absolutely, because we asked to do it.

Matt: We asked, and that's why we ended up doing this, because we'd asked Warner Brothers. I was like, "Please," and they were like, "No." This was before Cary Fukunaga. This was a long time ago.

Ross: When we asked to do it was before, then he got on it afterwards because he's established. So, he got on it and we were excited just because we're huge fans of what he does, and one of the few people who hasn't made a bad movie. So, that was exciting to us, but also, we were seeing trailers for True Detective, we're like, "I kind of want to see. How do you do It in two hours? Even if you're separating the kids, how do you do that right?" You don't really fall in love with them the same way you're going to when I read that book. So, how much more excited would I be if Cary Fukunaga was doing that for HBO or he was doing that for Netflix? 

There were a lot of different discussions we were having around this time, and a lot of it centered around how exciting TV was becoming and how cinematic it was. Certainly one of those discussions brought us back to It and how we wish it was an eight- or ten-hour miniseries.

Matt: It's like, "Could you be truer to the sensibilities of It if you had eight or ten hours?" We thought that you probably could more than if you were confined to two hours. At least that's how we made ourselves feel better about not getting the movie adaptation. We still would have done it, obviously. I'm really excited about that movie. I think it will be cool.

I wish they hadn't led with demon Pennywise. I wish they'd led with actual clown Pennywise, because Tim Curry was both, man. 

Matt: That messed us up, that miniseries. Did you see it when you were younger?

Oh, of course I did!

Ross: Tim Curry is just horrifying in that movie.

The first half of that miniseries is great. The second half, when you get into the giant spider, is awful.

Matt: Is really bad. Even as a kid that didn't scare me. It's actually ripe for remake.

It is, but the things you couldn't do then you still can't do now. I mean, there's still a gangbang that's gonna be a problem.

Matt: Oh my God.

Ross: You can't do that, no.

Matt: No, you can't do the gangbang. I mean, there's something that is so nerve-wracking, though. It would make me nervous. I like that it's our own original story that's inspired by this stuff, but if we screw it up we're not screwing up anybody else's work. You know what I mean? It's all our material. I would feel really nervous doing something, especially something like one of Stephen King's classic books that meant a lot to me, because there would be nothing worse than screwing that up.

Would you feel the same way about sort of a remake of one of these movies that you love from the '80s?

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there is some John Carpenter stuff that they're floating around. It makes me uncomfortable.

Have you watched these remakes? So many of the things that you guys nod to, whether it's The Thing or Poltergeist, etc. have been re-made or rebooted or whatever.

Ross: The Thing is a classic example that it can be done correctly. 

It can be done correctly one time, but then there was the prequel that we had last time.

Ross: No. Yeah. One time. I think he had a very specific and a clear point of view, and it was not about Carpenter, back then, cashing in on this, and I think that that's probably the difference. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, you don't result in a classic movie like that. 

Matt: Taking something just because it's an IP but betraying the spirit of whatever that was, which is what I think sometimes happens. It's like, "Let's just use this title to do something." I'd rather just take inspiration from that and do your own thing rather than relying on that title.

Ross: I think audiences are getting excited; they want to see original stuff out there. I think people are embracing this, because it's really us just going, "Hey, these were the movies we loved, these were the types of stories we loved," and in all honesty, we couldn't get this made as a movie in a million years. 

Matt: When we came up with it, it was a movie, and we said, "We'll never get this made. No one will ever make this."

Ross: I could have pitched that 'til the end of time and no one would have made it. Then we were seeing True Detective and you're seeing this stuff and these filmmakers are going into TV and that's a world that's willing to take chances. We still didn't think somewhere like Netflix would take a chance on us, but luckily the David Finchers of the world and Jenji Kohans and whoever paved this path where Netflix felt comfortable giving some newer voices a shot, which is really what they gave us. They just took a leap of faith on us. 

With this as a calling card, what are you guys suddenly getting in the room for that you weren't a year ago, or two weeks ago?

Matt: We weren't getting in the room for anything. No, but that was the thing. We really felt like if we want to be doing what we want to do, we had to be generating our own material, and we had to be writing our own stuff. We worked on Wayward Pines and then we took any amount of money we had off of that and spent time unemployed developing this off of that money, and then we went and sold this. It was fun. And now, I think more doors are opening, but it's hard because we're doing exactly…it's almost the dream. It really is the dream, which is that Netflix has given us a sandbox to give an incredible amount of creative freedom to do and tell whatever story you want to tell. It can be an original story and you don't have to be relying on an IP. That's so exciting, so it's hard to ask for more than that.

Ross: Right, and you're not boxed in by test screenings and all this other stuff. It's just nice, the freedom that Netflix gives, and the fact that they would give it that amount of trust and freedom. I get why they give to the David Finchers of the world, but to give it to us is an amazing thing.

Matt: I think it's them taking this new paradigm. They've figured out, "Oh, hey, you know what's working really well is we're giving these filmmakers we respect basically total creative freedom and for the most part leaving them alone," and it's actually resulted in a lot of success for them. So I think maybe we were like Phase Two, where they're like, "Let's try it with people who we like, and they might be really good, but they don't have an established track record." The good thing is that I think it is working out for them, so maybe they're going to keep doing that and allowing new voices and new filmmakers a chance to tell original stories, which is, I think, the most exciting thing.

Ross: Our friend Zal Batmanglij, I always pronounce his name wrong, who did The East and stuff, he's got The OA coming out out in December.… He's our generation, and we talk to him all the time. We have a parallel career paths, because he was on Wayward, he did a Skarsgard movie, it's very weird.

Matt: He did! His first movie was an Alexander Skarsgard movie, then he ended up on Wayward somehow. Eventually I just emailed him, it's like, "We have to meet."

Ross: Within a week, we both sell these Netflix shows. What we've been talking with him about a lot is that he saw the same thing, which is he's getting frustrated with getting blocked, and how narrow filmmaking has become, like the big theatrical releases. Then we're starting to see that, "Oh wait, we have these original stories we want to tell and there's this opportunity to tell it on television, also, to play around with form a little bit." We went in, we said, "This is an eight-hour story," and they said, "Great." So they're not saying, "Do 13, do 10, do 15," they're just like, "What does your story dictate?" To me, that's exciting, that storytellers nowadays can just come up with this thing and go, "OK, maybe this is five-and-a-half hours." It doesn't matter. Our episode length adjusts per episode. Episode seven is like 38 minutes. That's amazing. You can't do that on network TV, and you can't do that theatrically, so I think it's exciting to play around with form and all of that. You feel a little bit like part of a new wave a little bit.

Is the hypothetical season two of this the priority over if a studio comes and says, "Here, do our superhero movie"?

Matt: Yeah. Yes. Absolutely. Just because now we feel protective of this property, of the show and the cast and the story. 

Ross: We still love movies.

Matt: Yeah, I don't want to put it out like "I don't want to do a movie," because yeah, I do. You know what I mean?

But when you guys sign on for the next Spider-Man thing before season two of this, I've got that on tape.

Matt: Exactly. We're screwed.

Ross: No, but for now, as of today, right now, the hope is to continue with this. Try to tell the story to its end, and then move on to something else.

Matt: It's not going to be like a seven-year story. 

Ross: Because at some point, the Byers are just going to get out of town. Like, what are you doing here still?

Matt: You see it happen to too many shows that I like, where they just fall apart at a certain time, and you feel they're just treading water and milking, and you don't want that to happen. There are a few shows that never happened to, and those are the ones we look up to.

Ross: Even Freaks and Geeks, it's like one season. I know [Judd] Apatow's pissed about it, but it's like "F----, it's beautiful." It's this perfect little thing, and I love it. And I re-watch it and I love it, and I kind of love that it's only one season. Hopefully we'll do more than one for this.

Stranger Things' entire first season is available to stream on Netflix.

 

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