I really enjoyed Netflix's Stranger Things, an unapologetic tribute to the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and other masters of suspense and horror that creators Matt and Ross Duffer grew up loving. (Here's my initial review, and here are some spoiler-heavy thoughts on the season.)
Yesterday, I spoke with the Duffer brothers about how they drew the line between homage and straight-up thievery, why the season was only 8 episodes (a length I think more Netflix dramas should try), why actor Gaten Matarazzo deserves so much credit for making Dustin the show's most entertaining character, what a potential second season would be like, and more. That's all coming up just as soon as you give me this phone, two weeks advance, and a pack of Camels…
Where did you draw the line between paying homage to all those great movies and books of the period and trying to tell your own story?
Ross Duffer: The real goal was to just go back to that style of storytelling. It was us looking back to the kinds of movies that made us do what we want to do, the stuff that we grew up loving, and the Stephen King novels. And it's trying to just capture the feel of those. That was really the goal. And a few times, with stuff like Will running into the shed, which is clearly an homage to E.T., or the typewriter thing being an homage to Jaws, we would let there be some moments that nodded at the movies that we loved and that inspired us to do what we're doing. That was more the goal. It's not like we're in the writers room going, “Let's reference this movie here and this movie there.” It's more setting the story in motion, and then seeing where that story would go. And then occasionally, we couldn't help ourselves with the bike chase.
Matt Duffer: The bike chase, it felt very organic to the story that there would be a bike chase. But of course, we were like, “Is this a bad idea? Crossing a line? We can't do a bike chase.” It's just so E.T., obviously. In that instance, I think we just gave into our weaker impulses and wrote the bike chase, and it's out of our system. So we don't ever have to do it again.
But were there any times in the writers room where a pitch actually got shot down as being too close?
Matt Duffer: I can't remember. It's not like we're in the room spitballing scenes from other movies.
Ross Duffer: We would talk about Poltergeist, and be like, “Why is the girl and the TV so iconic? Why did that stick with people more than anything else in that movie?” It's because you're imbuing this very ordinary object and making that feel supernatural. So when you make that supernatural or other world extraordinary, it really has impact. I think discussions like that are what led to, for instance, the Christmas lights. Let's take something mundane and ordinary, that most people deal with on a yearly basis, and let's make it suddenly come alive and take on a different meaning. it was more those discussions than specifically referencing things. Obviously, production design is a different beast. Of course, we have pictures from these movies up on the wall. We're referencing them, and as a way to make it feel like the '80s.
Well, related to that, Winona Ryder gives a really good performance in this role, but you get the added benefit of her having been a child star in the '80s, and about the right age to have played Eleven in 1983. Was it important to you to have someone with '80s acting credibility? Or if Winona had said no, would you not have cared if the next-best choice hadn't been a child actor at that time?
Matt Duffer: That second thing you said. It's funny, all the Winona meta-casting stuff, – we really weren't thinking about it. I associate her more with early 90s stuff than 80s. The idea of Winona came from Carmen Cuba, our casting director. Her first idea for anyone in the show was her, and we fell in love with it. Especially when you're doing television, you want to find an actor who we just haven't seen enough of lately. We were just really big Winona fans and she hasn't been on screen that much in the last ten years. You got a little taste of her when she was in Star Trek briefly, or Black Swan, you're like, “F–k yeah!” We realized how much we missed her. It was more being excited about seeing Winona onscreen again in a big role.
Ross Duffer: And Winona in something supernatural. Tim Burton's stuff was such a huge part of our childhood. She's fantastic in stuff like Girl Interrupted and Little Women, but to us, the Tim Burton movies are the first thing we go to when we think about Winona Ryder.
Netflix usually does 12 or 13-episode seasons. How did you decide to only do 8?
Ross Duffer: The great thing about Netflix is they don't mandate how many episodes they think your series should be. What they tell you is, “What do you think is right to tell your story?” From the first time we pitched it to them, we said, “This is an 8-hour story.” And they said, “Okay, here's 8 hours.” If we had said 10 or 11, they would have been with that, too. To us, it's an exciting time for storytelling, because what we can do is, filmmakers can come up with stories and go, “What is this? Is this six hours? Five hours? Two hours? Should it go to cinema?” This is something that, even five years ago, would have been unprecedented. It's exciting to be part of this new style.
Matt Duffer: We didn't know how to make the story 13 episodes. I feel like it starts to tread water. It was important, and it felt like a movie, and in order for it to feel like a movie, we had to keep it on the shorter side. Even if there is a season 2, I think we keep the number down again. Otherwise, I think it starts to lose that more cinematic feel.
Ross Duffer: Inevitably, what happens is you have to plot. It's hard to keep pushing forward at the rate we want it to go. Or if it does, you have to start contriving stuff like being attacked by a cougar. For us, it felt like around 8, in seeing how successful True Detective was with 8 felt like the right number.
It definitely moves well at this length, but did you ultimately find there were any aspects of the story you couldn't fully explore in a way you could have with 10 or 13?
Matt Duffer: I don't think so. Lonnie, who is Joyce's douchey ex-husband, was going to play a bigger part in the climax, but we ended up giving that part to Steve Harrington. But that was narrative reasons dictating that, not story reasons. But I think if we were breaking this story and we suddenly said 9 episodes, Netflix would have said okay. We never felt too confined by it.
Barb, though, seems to get shorter shrift than Will when it comes to people, and even the show, being concerned about their fate after the monster takes them. How much emotional weight did you feel you could give to Barb in all this?
Ross Duffer: “What about Barb?” became a constant refrain. We said that almost every episode as we were writing season 1. I think what it boils down to is we're not following Barb's parents, or her family. So what it boils down to is Nancy cares so much about Barb. It's not that other people don't, but that everyone else is connected to Will in an extremely personal way. It's not that Barb's forgotten, but that the characters we're following are focused on finding Will.
Matt Duffer: I'm surprised and also not surprised at the outpouring of love for Barb, because that was something everyone felt on set. The fact that people aren't really following up on her disappearance to the same degree they are with Will makes her that much more of a tragic character.
When last we see Dr. Brenner, the monster is leaping onto him, but then you cut away quickly, despite being very comfortable with gore. Did you want to leave his fate ambiguous, or was that meant to be his death?
Ross Duffer: We wanted to purposely leave it ambiguous.
Matt Duffer: I will say, if we were going to kill him, we would have really killed him. That's a very anti-climactic death, if that's his death. If I was a viewer and that was his death, I would be upset about it.
Why does Mike's mom never go into the basement? Is she allergic to something down there?
Matt Duffer: (laughs) No, she's happily oblivious. She has no reason to think anything. My mindset is, when we were growing up, and we were making these really bad nerdy movies, we would just wander off. We were left alone all day. They didn't come into our world. We didn't want our parents coming into our world. To me, Mike and his friends spend an obscene amount of time in his basement playing these never ending Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Karen just doesn't come down there. She has no reason to be concerned.
Ross Duffer: Also, to us, we love this idea that this is an age without cell phones. So when these kids are going out in the woods, there's no way for their parents to contact them. I think there's something nostalgic ingrained in the idea that, no, your mom can't get ahold of you, and you can go and fight a monster.
Speaking of Dungeons and Dragons, in the epilogue, we see that, while the kids have learned better teamwork through their adventure, encountering a real monster hasn't really cooled their enthusiasm for fake fantasy adventures. How much do you feel this experience changed them, if at all?
Ross Duffer: We like the idea that maybe this has brought them closer, the experience made them appreciate their friendship even more than they already did. It's a nice thought for us that at the end of the day, they're still these great kids they were at the beginning. For us, it was important that it's not like this adventure changed them in some major way, that they became darker or more jaded. We liked the idea that they were still these lovely boys, who were great to begin with.
Matt Duffer: But then they're having all this amazing fun and they lose themselves in this fictional adventure, but then we hang on Mike at the end, and we realize that beneath all his smiles and stuff, he's really still wounded and upset by what happened. He feels he's lost Eleven, of course. And we follow Will home, and see that there are repercussions that he experienced – it's had a real effect on him. They're trying, and if there was a season 2, we'd get into it, but everyone who's gone through this nightmare is trying to return to their normal lives, pretending everything is perfect and happy again, and they're sweeping all of this mess under the rug. The question is can they do that forever, or will it come back to haunt them? And obviously, it's going to come back to haunt them. What happened is too big to sweep under the rug.
I have to ask about Dustin, who's not only my favorite character, but probably the most quintessentially '80s character in the show. What ideas did you have going into it, and how did the casting of Gaten inform who he became?
Matt Duffer: Gaten was everything. It is Gaten. What's so cool about television, we had cast all the kids, and we only had one script written at that point. I think Dustin was a much more cliché character. He was just the nerd. He didn't have that much interesting personality. We talked a lot: we don't quite understand him as a character. The minute we saw Gaten's tape, we knew he would be in the show as Dustin. The disease we say he has in the show, he has in real life: he has no collarbone and no front teeth. He's very much the person that you see in the show. There's some Buzzfeed quiz where they see what character you get, and Gaten got Dustin. I was so happy that worked out that way. We basically wrote it for Gaten, and so much of the credit for the character goes entirely to Gaten. All the love that he's getting, he deserves. He's an amazing kid. He's very very funny. The hardest thing about shooting with the kids is that Gaten made them laugh so much, sometimes it was hard to get the scene down without someone breaking out with laughter. He's just a funny funny kid. His comic timing is impeccable. I think he's so special.
He's very funny, but he's also involved in the season's most emotional moment, when he joins Mike in hugging Eleven by the quarry.
Ross Duffer: The three-way hug, when we realized how special Gaten was, we realized that couldn't just be a Mike and Eleven moment. It's a nice expression of this friendship amidst all the horror. It's great people are responding to that moment.
Matt Duffer: Episodes 6, 7, and 8 were written after we had already been shooting. So we had started to work with the cast, started to see how the kids worked together on screen. we realized what a powerhouse Gaten was. We started to throw even more fun stuff his way. I think that's a really cool thing about television: the story can be really malleable, and you can lean into the strengths of the actors. Every actor really influenced and informed the characters in a major way, and elevated them. A lot of the characters started out a little bit more stereotypical, and as we found our cast, it made us try to write something more interesting, and a lot of that was inspired by their real-life personalities.
Let's talk about the development of Eleven herself. How much, if at all, did she evolve from your original idea for her?
Matt Duffer: Eleven came to us really really quickly. We had talked about these Project MKUltra experiments that the government was doing at the end of the cold war, and we thought about test subjects who had escaped. For some reason, we decided really early on that she was going to emerge in this dirty hospital gown with buzzed hair.
Ross Duffer: But we really liked this idea, there's a lot of E.T. in it, obviously, of this fish out of water. That this suburban life feels completely alien to her, and you've also got the humor that all the boys are dealing with. Not only are they dealing with a girl, which is shocking enough, but a girl with amazing powers.
Matt Duffer: There was this anime called Elfin Lied that's really great; it's an older girl who escapes, and it's very, very violent, she escapes and has supernatural powers. We talked about that as well, just in terms of we wanted there to be a mystery in her past, and also have her seem a little scary. and it does get very violent.
Ross Duffer: We talked a lot about how Eleven is dangerous. She hurts and kills people in this show. It was important to us that it seem she's soft and sweet, but at the end of the day, we can do very very scary.
Assuming there is a second season, what did you learn from making this one that will inform the next? What do you want it to feel like?
Matt Duffer: I think what's cool about it, we've talked a lot about a possible second season, is this season works great as a season 1, in 15 minutes, this kid goes missing, so everyone's at a 10 right away. Especially Joyce and the kids. Whats nice about a second season is we can ramp it up a little more slowly, so you'd start at a 1 or a 2, and at the end, it's out of control, we can ramp it up in a more gradual, methodical way. I like that we're going to be able to structure it a little bit differently. It's going to lend a different feeling in a nice way.
Ross Duffer: The hope is that it maintains a lot of what people liked, but it's also its own thing. We're trying to view this as a sequel, and with sequels, tonally, they do something a little bit different. I think if we take a step to the side, to us, that's an exciting prospect. We haven't done this before, and we just learned so much, just making what our cast's strengths are and what we can lean into, and everything from visual effects and figuring out the best way to approach that versus practical. We were learning as we were going, and while we're going to learn more, hopefully, we can apply the lessons from season 1 onto season 2.
Matt Duffer: Obviously, you want to go in with the goal that it's going to be better. I think tonally, it's going to be darker. It's not that we're going to lose the fun of the first season, but it's going to get a little darker.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com