The Stranger Things creators want some scares with their Spielberg

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The Stranger Things creators want some scares with their Spielberg

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (Photo: Netflix)
Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (Photo: Netflix)

To sell their new Netflix series Stranger Things, Matt and Ross Duffer cut together a fake trailer using images from approximately 26 different movies. The likes of Poltergeist, Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Super 8, Altered States, The Mothman Prophecies, and Looper were all included. Even some, in the words of Matt, “not-so-great movies that had great images.” But what the brothers really wanted to do was pair the optimistic wonder of Steven Spielberg with a John Carpenter-esque sense of dread. “When you put John Carpenter over E.T. it was really fucking cool,” Matt told The A.V. Club. “It was scary.”

Stranger Things, premiering July 15, does at times feel like a mash note to everything the 32-year-old Duffers loved as kids, but it’s also grounded in a compelling story that is more than the sum of its tributes. Boiled down to its elements, the plot is simple: Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a kid in 1980s Indiana, goes missing, and a creature is the culprit. His mother (Winona Ryder) is frantic. The police chief (David Harbour) is helpful, but skeptical. And Will’s friends—a trio of Dungeons & Dragons-playing Tolkien fanatics (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin)—decide to take matters into their own hands. Will’s disappearance also just happens to coincide with the arrival of the town’s newest addition: A girl with a shaved head who barely speaks and only goes by the number branded on her arm, Eleven.

The Duffers chatted with The A.V. Club about building their throwback world and mixing monsters with Freaks And Geeks.

The A.V. Club: Tell me a little bit about where this idea originated. I know it was originally called Montauk.

Ross Duffer: We were excited about the idea of doing something coastal. Probably our favorite movie of all time is Jaws, and Montauk is one of the bases for Amity, so I think that’s where that idea came from. Logistically, it became more necessary for production reasons to set this not in a coastal town. [In] part [the idea came from] just us being excited about where television was going, because we’re totally movie guys. We grew up movie guys. It’s not like we didn’t watch shows like X-Files and stuff, but our heart was in movies. That’s what we fell in love with, and that’s what we wanted to do with our lives. I remember seeing the trailer for the first season of True Detective, and what Cary Fukunaga was doing with that, and what Steven Soderbergh was doing with The Knick, and it felt like there was this new generation of filmmakers—not just writers, filmmakers—pushing television into new territory. There was the potential to tell an original story, and not just something that’s purely based on character and dialogue, but also based on the visual.

I think that’s how we started talking about this. It just became, “If we could see any show on TV, what would it be?” Of course, that got us talking about all the stuff—movies and books and anime and everything—that made us want to do what we’re doing today. That led to the Spielberg movies, John Carpenter stuff, Stephen King novels. We were just talking about, “Why did we love all this stuff growing up? What was it?” The simple answer is that it’s generally about very ordinary people, whether it’s family or whatnot, coming into contact with something extraordinary. Whether that’s The Shining or E.T., that’s sort of what connects those stories. We were like, “Can we go back to that style of storytelling?”

AVC: What was it about seeing this type of genre film in TV that excited you guys?

Matt Duffer: We were thinking a lot about Stephen King, initially. At the time, New Line was developing It. Stephen King’s It was a really big book for us when we were growing up. Cary Fukunaga was attached at the time, and I was very excited for that movie. But he had just done True Detective, which was eight hours. I was like, “How much more excited would you be if Cary was doing this for HBO and got an 8- or 10-hour miniseries?” Because how do you even do that book in two hours? Could you be more true to what Stephen King did if you were doing something a little bit more sprawling, and you had the room to spread out a little bit more?

I think one of the problems I have sometimes with genre and horror films today is that they tend to run really short. They tend to be around an hour and a half. They almost feel like haunted house rides—which are really fun—but they don’t really stick with you, because it’s so much about jump scares. I love monsters and I love the supernatural, but I also don’t give a shit about it if it’s not in a story where I also care about the characters and the story and the town. I thought, “Okay, television now is becoming more cinematic. Can you do a show where you care about the characters just as much as Freaks And Geeks or Friday Night Lights, but can there also please be a monster in it? So that was a goal with it. I just hadn’t seen enough of that on TV.

The subgenre of children coming in contact [with] and facing off against a terrifying supernatural force is my favorite subgenre in the world, and there’s actually not that much of it. It’s like Stephen King’s It, Dan Simmons’ Summer Of Night, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. I think there’s an absence of that generally, specifically things starring kids that are not children’s movies. When we were kids we watched Stand By Me and I loved Stand By Me, but that was not a movie that was made for kids. I like that kids are going to watch this, but that it’s not meant for them. It makes it much cooler.

The basement where Will and his friends play D&D. (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: Why did you want to set it in the ’80s rather than doing something that takes place in the present day that has that aesthetic to it?

RD: We really love conspiracy theories, and there was a lot of weird stuff and experiments going on at this time. Whether it was MKUltra or the Philadelphia Experiment where the government—true or not—was doing stuff where it was trying to put the boundaries of science in this sort of race with the Cold War. To us, it was the idea of, “What if they’re pushing a little bit too far here?” And, of course, there are conspiracy theories out there where [people] say that they did. It was more believable then that in some small town—that this would happen in this race with Russia. The other, more obvious thing is that we grew up without cell phones. I don’t know what it’s like growing up now, but when we were kids, you’d go outside, you’d go into the woods behind your house, and your parents [couldn’t] contact you. They don’t know where you are. There was this sense of, “What if we find a treasure map out here, and mobsters were after us, and we’d find a ship with gold?” It feels like now, your mom texts you that it’s time for dinner—it might just take you right out of that.

AVC: Doesn’t the setting of the ’80s also give you the ability to reference these ’80s things that you love so much?

MD: This is also when so many of our favorite movies were made. It worked narratively, and then it also allowed to pay homage to so many of these films that are the reason we’re doing what we’re doing. And go back to a certain style of storytelling.

Watches from the props department. (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: The show feels like it could have been in the ’80s.

MD: That’s awesome. That’s actually just sort of the look that we love. If it were set in modern times, it would probably be very similar. These are the movies that we grew up on, and whether it’s right or not, we prefer the way they look aesthetically and we like the way they sound. We shot on a digital camera, but we added film grain, and we wanted to have a very sort of filmic look. We tried to move the camera as much as we could, as long as it was motivated. We wanted an all-electronic soundtrack. In part, just because, I think when you see a story like this that has any sort of Amblin DNA in it, you’re going to expect a sort of John Williams orchestral score. We kind of wanted to play against those expectations. We also wanted it to have a slightly darker, John Carpenter edge, so it allowed us to do that.

AVC: What was the process of finding the kids for the show and searching for kids who do have that Spielbergian-child vibe?

RD: The kids can make or break the show. There’s nothing worse than a grating child performance. So the minute Netflix green-lit the show, we started looking. We knew it was going to take a while to find these kids. With the help of our casting director, we weeded through, ultimately, I believe thousands of kids from all over the world. In the end, it wasn’t like, “Here are three kids that I think would be great for Mike. Let’s see which one plays best against the other kids.” No, [it was], “This is Mike, this is Dustin, this is Lucas, and this is Eleven.” Because there are just so few kids out there.

Ninety-nine percent of them cannot hold a show up on their own, in terms of feeling natural, being able to deliver the type of performance we needed from them without doing 10 or 12 takes. Ultimately, this is a TV show, and you’re on a TV schedule, so these kids have to nail it pretty much right away and feel natural while doing it. We cast them so early on that we were able to get the script to match their energy and their personality a little bit. They’re playing versions of themselves.

Note the Tom Cruise poster in the bedroom belonging to Nancy (Natalia Dyer). (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: What were some of the changes that you made to fit them?

MD: I think the big one was Gaten, who we love, who plays Dustin. [Dustin] was a fairly generic uber-geek when we first wrote the script. Finn, who plays Mike, is a huge movie buff. He’s obsessed with early Sam Raimi right now. That was before he was involved with the show. He’s a very, very creative guy and very, very smart. So we kind of wove that into Mike’s character.

RD: I think the original Mike had a little Sean Astin, soft-spoken hero in him. There’s a little nervous energy to [Finn], where he starts talking very quickly, which isn’t really how we originally imagined Mike, but it’s actually much more interesting than the original character.

MD: So the idea is that the characters were a little bit more stock at the beginning. They made us push the characters to make them more unique. Steve Harrington was sort of a stereotypical douchejock, and then [Joe Keery] didn’t quite look like what we imagined he would look like. The energy was completely different—he was incredibly likable and had this charisma about him. It forced us to kind of rework that character and make him so much more interesting than he was initially on the page. I think that’s the great thing, and what we do love about television, is that you’re able to allow the script and the story to evolve, and actors become a much bigger part of it, in a way. Winona informed the show as well.

Millie Brown as Eleven watches TV. (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: Winona was also in films of our youth, including her work with Tim Burton. How did you get her?

MD: Winona was literally the first casting idea from our casting director. Obviously, we immediately fell in love with her. We’re like you: We grew up steeped on Winona films. Three of her films were stable parts of our VHS collection. So we would watch them a lot.

AVC: Which ones?

MD: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Little Women, which I loved. We really wanted to, as movie fans—totally unrelated to our show—wanted to see more of her. So I figured, if we felt that way, a lot of other people probably feel that way. She’s very much beloved by a lot of people. So yeah, we sent her the script, and luckily she responded to it. I don’t think, five years ago, she would have done the show. It’s like, as soon as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson moved into television, the dam broke. Films are getting more and more narrow in terms of what’s getting made these days. So I think a lot of actors of Winona’s clout are seeing television as a really great place to be, especially a little later in their careers. So I think we hit her at just the perfect time. That was the best thing ever, when we were told she liked the script and wanted to do it. It was huge.

AVC: How did she inform the character and the show? Does her legacy inform it at all?

MD: Initially, [the role] was a little bit more of a tough Long Island mom. We cast Winona, and she’s got this wild, unpredictable energy about her, which we love. We started to talk a lot about Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters and the idea of when he encounters something supernatural to the outside world he seems absolutely bonkers, but in reality he’s actually tapped into something very real. We thought Winona could play that really, really well. We really leaned into that, and then Winona brought a lot. She can play really deep, dark emotions, and she’s also very funny. Her timing just in general is pretty impeccable. That’s what you get when you work with someone with experience.

RD: In a lot of it, especially in the first four episodes, she is on her own in this house. To hold the screen like that, it really takes someone who understands a camera. She’s able to take a little thing like plugging in a new phone and the cord is too short, and really turn it into something that is amusing. I think that’s what she really brings.

A lunchbox. (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: You have all these homages and references. Were you ever concerned about the line at which it becomes too much homage?

RD: Yeah, of course. J.J. Abrams gets hit for this a lot. People complain about it. Yes, we’re making homages. There are some direct things. Like when Hopper [David Harbour] types “missing” into the police report, that’s pretty much an identical frame to the “shark attack” thing in Jaws. What we hope transcends [that] is [how we’re] trying to go back to that style of storytelling, which is also to tell a new story. So even though we’re inspired by all this stuff, we’re hoping that it works on its own.

MD: A lot of the filmmakers that we grew up loving and whose work inspired us—George Lucas, Spielberg, Stephen King—they’re very much inspired by what came before them. For them, it was Flash Gordon and The Hidden Fortress and John Carter. For us, it’s their films. Each generation is building off what came before it. I think that’s why you’re starting to see filmmakers like Jeff Nichols, who’s obviously inspired by the same stuff we are. Midnight Special is unquestionably a Jeff Nichols film. By the time you filter it through him and his voice, it doesn’t feel at all like an imitation. I think Nichols is someone who’s incapable of writing a film that’s not truthful to his own sensibility. I love that. I love seeing Spielberg filtered through Jeff Nichols. That’s fucking cool.

So the hope is when we’re writing this, it’s not imitation, it’s filtering it, and that we’re bringing our own sensibilities. There are so many other influences in there, too. We play a lot of video games—there’s a Silent Hill vibe. There’s some anime vibes. Obviously, Spielberg seems to be the one people are picking up on the most. It’s probably the most glaring. I think the only time we were like, “I don’t know if we should do this?” was the bike chase. Just because, government agents chasing kids on bikes? Like, okay. I know we’re going to get knocked for that. You can’t get away from the comparisons to E.T. when you do that. But on the other hand, we were like, “How can we not do a bike chase?” We actually gave into our weaker impulses, and just wrote it. And you know, whatever. We got to do our bike chase. It’s out of our system. We’ll never do it again.

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