The Duffer Brothers drew on ’80s favorites to create Netflix’s instant cult classic Stranger Things
Talking to Matt and Ross Duffer (the Duffer Brothers as they are known professionally), it’s clear no one expected their Netflix series Stranger Things to be the buzzy hit it is. Lovingly assembled from multiple ’80s pop culture influences, the 8-episode thriller introduces modern audiences to a Goonies-like group of pre-teen boys, one of whom mysteriously disappears into a void called the “Upside Down.” It’s one of those “the least you know, the better off you’ll be” cultural events that the Duffer Brothers hailed from their ’80s-addled psyches.
Even they are stunned at the widespread love streaming audiences showered on it thus far. Nice when that happens, isn’t it?
“To me, my favorite thing is that younger kids are having Stranger Things viewing parties and binge watching it,” said Matt Duffer of the reaction to the series. “Hopefully it leads them to go back and discover some of these movies and books that inspired us so much. I’d love a kid to go ‘Who the hell is John Carpenter?’ and they’re suddenly watching and marathoning his movies.”
But what is it about Stranger Things that inspired millions of jaded 21st century viewers to embrace it whole-heartedly?
Steeped in an ’80s culture
Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, the Duffer Brothers nourished their future careers on an early diet of all the books, television, and cinema they could get their hands on. They recalled trips to Durham’s Carolina Theatre with their father to watch adult-skewing films like Amelie and Memento and how they quickly realized they were the youngest attendees by far. They also engaged in a primitive (by today’s standards) form of binge watching.
“We initially binged the old school way: Netflix through the mail,” said Matt Duffer. “Because of that, we always approached this as one big movie. [Bingeing] really helps me get more emotionally involved in a story to binge it rapidly.”
But it’s the ’80s-era films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg coupled with the works of Stephen King that gave birth to Stranger Things. The series was originally set in Montauk, New York, as a nod to the Duffer Brothers’ favorite film of all time, Jaws. However, they ultimately set the series in Indiana to reference Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Peter Yates’s Breaking Away. The quarry scenes are direct references to the latter film’s Indiana locale.
The ’80s of their childhood pops up in everything from the soundtrack (mostly ’80s tunes like “Africa” and “Hazy Shade of Winter”) to the opening credits, a simple yet definitive homage to nearly every Stephen King book cover ever printed. There’s even an unexpected (but very deliberate) Peter Weir homage to 1985’s Witness in Chapter 2. Anime. Video games. It’s all there in one frame or another.
Ultimately, Stranger Things is the sum total of all of the Duffer Brothers favorite things from the books and movies of the 1980s, packaged in Netflix HD for modern audiences.
“It’s especially gratifying to see that it seems to be working for people who hadn’t grown up in that era,” Matt explained. “The story and characters are still resonating with them.”
As deep as the series’ mythology runs, though, it would not be as successful a series without that brilliant cast.
The kids stay in the picture
As initially written, the central four Stranger Things boys were, by the Duffer Brothers’ own admission, more ’80s archetypes than flesh-and-blood characters. Thanks to their dogged, stubborn casting practices, the Duffer Brothers were able to elevate the material by casting authentic kids. It wasn’t until the actors started breathing life into their roles that the roles became something else entirely.
“Their characters were a little bit more stereotypical,” admitted Ross Duffer. “But these kids really did inform these characters. We knew that bad child performances, even one, would really, really hurt the show. They caused us to go back and rewrite the characters.”
Armed with a Netflix-approved single script, the Duffer Brothers and co-director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) embarked on a national casting call to find the perfect child actors. Their search paid off in spades. The kids, particularly lead Finn Wolfhard (as Mike Wheeler), don’t really look like modern child actors. They appear to have just wrapped a day as extras in E.T. As a result, their performances are emotionally honest and resonate appropriately within the era.
And which Stranger Thing kid most resembled their youth?
“I took the Buzzfeed quiz, and it says I’m a Mike,” laughed Matt. “We were making these really bad home movies, so we were really the leaders of our own nerdy group of kids much like Mike.”
They fondly recalled meeting Finn Wolfhard (to be next seen in the remake of Stephen King’s IT) during his audition. Wolfhard expressed his desire to one day be a film director of his own. A self-proclaimed “movie nerd,” he impressed the Duffer Brothers by professing his love for “early Sam Raimi.” The experience hit very close to home.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the Stranger Things phenomenon is the Internet obsession with supporting character Barb (Shannon Purser). The Duffer Brothers received tons of fan fiction and art revolving around the doomed sidekick.
“It thrills us beyond words that Barb is our breakout fan-favorite,” said Shawn Levy. “It was definitely not anticipated, but I think there’s something resonant about this character who is neither the hero nor the picture-perfect character that we’re used to seeing on TV.”
Unfortunately for us, Barb will live on in the hearts and minds of Stranger Things fans everywhere. Just not in the sequel.
And what of Season 2?
While technically not yet approved by Netflix, Stranger Things Season 2 is almost assuredly a done deal. The Duffer Brothers are widely on record as wanting to continue their exploration of the “Upside Down” and of Will Byers’ time in it. Season 1 even ends with some jarring and unexpected scenes that punch through the happy ending.
“There are still a lot of unresolved issues in this other dimension. Obviously, we’ve left some dangling threads at the end of the season that we’d like to resolve,” Ross explained. “Unlike a traditional TV show, what we really want to do is create the second season as if it were a sequel, a movie sequel, in that we do have a new tension. It’s still tied into the original events in Season 1, but there’s a new main tension that needs to be resolved as well.”
Whatever the tension for Season 2, here’s hoping the Duffer Brothers are able to successfully avoid the curse of so many ’80s horror films. The sequel is never as good as the original.