Netflix’s Stranger Things Creators Talk ’80s Inspirations, Influences

We talk with the creators of Netflix’s supernatural throwback Stranger Things about their influences and monsters.

The Duffer Brothers might not be a household name like the Coen Brothers, the Wachowskis, or Anthony and Joe Russo, but they are poised to join those ranks. Matt and Ross Duffer had a promising start to their careers with their budget film Hidden (which was doing a whole 10 Cloverfield Lane thing before it was) and are responsible for some of the most important episodes of Wayward Pines’ first season (including that episode where the four thousand year-old cat is let out of the bag). But now, the Duffers are working on their own show for Netflix, and it’s one of the more satisfying and shocking dramas that the streaming service has put together.

Stranger Things delivers addictive storytelling that embraces the masters of the ‘80s to deliver a great story pulled from the era. Ahead of the release of their show on the July 15th, we spoke with the Duffer Brothers about their transition to television, the power in the ordinary, synth scores, and a whole lot more. A quick note: They requested to be referred to as the collective “Duffer Brothers” for this Q&A. 

DEN OF GEEK: Television has changed so much lately that trying to do a show like this even five years ago would have made it a very different program. You’ve got the luxury of doing a season of eight episodes. Even doing Stranger Things as a 13-episode season would have led to it having a different pacing. As a result it feels a lot more like a really long movie or a novel. Was this freedom important to you?

THE DUFFER BROTHERS: Definitely. We grew up with movies. That’s what we fell in love with and that’s what we wanted to do. So we tried to pay homage to a bunch of movies that we grew up loving in the show. I never thought we’d have moved to television, but then us, along with the rest of the world, started to get really excited about the medium. For us, physically, it was just becoming so much more cinematic and I do think that has to in part do with shorter seasons. 

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When The Sopranos came out that sort of blew our minds. It was the first time I had seen anything on television that looked and felt like a movie. But then you also see people that we really look up to, like Soderbergh and Cary Fukunaga, or whoever. But there’s been such a migration of filmmakers to television, and the shows have become so cinematic on top of the great writing. So that got us really excited about basically doing a really long movie.

Your show is essentially split up into three age demographics between the young kids, the teenagers, and the adults. But you also seem to use a different ’80s influence on each of them, as if they’re in their own movie. The kids have a Spielberg and Chris Columbus kind of going on, there’s a Carpenter vibe with the teens, and then a more traditional Spielberg and Stephen King sort of feeling with the adults. How did those particular inspirations come to be?

Well I think part of it was us going back and looking at all of these movies that we fell in love with growing up, and these were the things that made us want to do what we’re doing. And it’s not just movies, but also that Stephen King late ’70s attitude. Those are what we read growing up and what inspired us. I think the one thing that connected all of these stories for us was the idea of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. We had a normal childhood growing up, but we’d watch these movies and we were sort of transported.

I think part of it is that we’d go out with our friends into the woods with a video camera, and you’ve got no cell phone, and your parents have no idea where you are. It’s this idea of going on this big adventure, whether that’s Spielberg, or Carpenter, or King, and that idea would connect all of these stories. Lately, I think we’re seeing a little less and less of that in the movies—these ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It’s not that we don’t enjoy these superhero movies, it’s just that a normal family caught up in this amazing thing means so much more to us. It’s that thing that Spielberg does so well. So I think it was just a desire to go back to that style of storytelling. 

I mean the fact that you decide to label your episodes as chapters ends up giving the thing a very novelistic structure to it. There’s a definite Christine vibe going on there too in terms of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. I really love that you guys use Dungeons and Dragons as sort of an allegory for the kids’ quest to find Will. Juxtaposing that fantasy peril with actual danger works so well. Were Dungeons and Dragons or any sort of role-playing games a part of your childhoods?

Yeah, as it was we didn’t play it. To be totally honest, we were much more into Magic: The Gathering. That was much more our addiction. We played Dungeons I guess a little bit, but obviously Magic wasn’t around in ’83. And like you said, I like that Dungeons and Dragons allows these kids to make certain leaps that the adults are unable to do because they’ve spent years invested in this fantasy world. We love that the kids are able to grasp this stuff so quickly when the adults are really struggling with it. It’s a lot of fun.

You’ve got a frickin’ monster in this show! How important was it for you to attempt to do things practically as opposed to going the CG route? Especially with films like The Thing obviously being a big influence on you guys.

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It was really important to us. It’s hard to know what’s just clouded in nostalgia, but I know there are a lot of people our age and older that grew up on those genre movies and CG just isn’t scary in the same way. It’s not as tangible. The movies that we grew up with, like Hellraiser, The Thing, and Alien, it’s hard to gage this stuff because we’re now adults and not kids, but nothing scares us as much as those things do. So we wanted to go back to that feeling. It was kind of like a childhood dream come true to get to build a monster. We had a concept artist helping us design it. Then we went to this company that does a lot of work for Guillermo Del Toro. They’re sort of the best in the business when it comes to animatronics. 

It was really cool though! It was a full-on animatronic head, but it would move and never repeat itself. So in that sense it felt very much alive. You had no idea what it was going to do! It was really fun, and then the actors and the kids had something to act with on set, too. Then of course you bolster it with CG and other technology. I kind of think that’s the best approach these days. We did the same thing with the rift—the supernatural tear in the lab. It was half practical and half CG. I like that, it allows that in between where you’re not quite sure what’s real… So we’re trying to do crazy things but we’re also working on a TV schedule. It was a challenge, but it was fun!

We talked about movies that have been an influence for you guys, but one scene really reminds me of classic sci-fi television like The Twilight Zone, Fringe, and The X-Files. Were you big fans of those programs, too?

We weren’t TV fanatics but we were movie fanatics. But we did watch X-Files and were big fans of that. Especially those monster-of-the-week episodes; those would really scare us growing up. It’s hard because back then something like X-Files is great, but then you’d watch something like Goodfellas or The Godfather, and it’s on a whole other level. They just couldn’t compete, so we fell in love with the visual aspects of film and it’s why it was our first love.

But TV has gone into that territory more and more now. I mean, you watch something like Game of Thrones, and obviously they have a lot of money, but it’s hard to think what big movie is going to be more awe-inspiring than “Battle of the Bastards?” I think that’s groundbreaking and exciting. It’s something we wanted to be apart of—this great generation that is making amazing television. It also opens up all sorts of narrative possibilities! That’s what was cool about this, that we could have stuff with teens, adults, and kids and weave it all together. You just have so much time that you wouldn’t in a feature-length film. 

We’ve touched on the John Carpenter influence on the show, but it’s especially apparent in terms of its score. Music is so important in establishing tone, why did a Carpenter vibe feel like the right move for the score?

It was weird. It was one of the first things that we decided on. Like within two days of having the idea we knew that it needed to have a synth score. I think a part of that was we were listening to a lot of electronic scores at the time—Trent Reznor, Cliff Martinez—and so we thought it was cool and that with a story like this people are almost expecting it. So we wanted to play into that expectation. When we were trying to sell the show we cut together — we tried playing John Carpenter music over shots from E.T. and other Spielberg films. We thought it was really cool and showed it all in a different color that we really liked. 

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Given a second season, what prospects of continuing this story are you most excited about? Is Hawkins, Indiana maybe a hotbed for more supernatural activity? 

Yeah, for sure! By the end of the season we wanted to explain what happened to Will, but still have the door cracked open. There’s a lot of supernatural stuff too that we haven’t explored. So much of this was focused on the mystery of what happened to Will, and this monster. What’s great is that there are so many possibilities to explore, especially when you’re dealing with an alternate dimension. When you open up the idea of a multiverse you’ve got a lot of options. The goal is to expand on all of that and if there is a season two it’ll be more of a sequel than a second season. 

Is there a certain moment or set piece that you’re particularly excited for people to see? 

I don’t know… I’m really excited about episode eight [the finale]. I’m really excited about where we were about to push the show. There was a certain concern when we were initially writing the show — we wanted it to feel really grounded and we were worried about how much we could dip our toes in that science fiction, Ridley Scott vibe. So I was excited that we were able to do that. The final episode feels really big, too. But more than anything I suppose I’m just really excited for people to discover the kids. We’re really proud of the four of them and what they were able to do. And no one’s seen them before! That’s probably the part of the show that we’re most proud of. 

All eight episodes of Stranger Things are available on Netflix, beginning July 15th