Like most television series, Stranger Things underwent a long creative process before it finally hit Netflix. As series creators Ross and Matt Duffer pitched their project to various networks and studios, it took a different shape, meeting the trends of the time. And in the mid-2000s, when they began work on the project that eventually became Stranger Things, studios were all about found footage. With movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity making big profits from small investments, studios were much more interested in found footage projects, especially from untested creators like the Duffers.
Describing the origins of the show to Variety, the Duffers said the first inklings for the show came from a movie idea about the Montauk Project, a purported government program involving children with ESP and a monster. “We love conspiracy theories,” admitted Matt, and the project “was something we hadn’t seen on screen before.” With that concept in their pocket, the Duffers began pitching to studios. “But this was at a time when, you know, Paranormal Activity was really big,” Matt explained. “It was a found footage idea.”
Stranger Things has so firmly established its 80s throwback aesthetic, so it’s hard to imagine shaky camcorder footage of Eleven psi-blasting a Demogorgon. But the idea described by the Duffers does fit well among the movies released around the time, especially with its sci-fi horror trappings. Movies such as Chronicle, Willow Creek, and [REC] all brought the paranormal to the masses via their low-budget aesthetic.
Despite the right combination of compelling idea and studio interest, the Duffers “never could crack it.” The problem stemmed from their passion for the form, or lack thereof. “We don’t really love found footage,” Matt admitted, giving his twin brother a knowing smile.
Even as the Duffers set aside the concept to pursue other projects, including their feature film debut Hidden, and work on the Netflix series Wayward Pines, the show that would become Stranger Things continued to percolate. The Duffers point to the movie Prisoners by Dune director Denis Villeneuve for inspiring a kidnapping plot, as well as their desire to indulge in the pop culture they loved in their youths.
In fact, as the show developed into what we now know as Stranger Things, the Duffers found themselves so personally invested in it that they could not imagine turning it over to someone else. Even when a string of rejections broke and a major studio expressed interest, the Duffers walked away because they insisted on directing. “We really want to do this, we love this,” Ross recalled the studio saying. But after watching Hidden, the studio passed, leaving the Duffers to wait until Netflix offered the control they wanted.
Today, it’s hard to say that the Duffers were wrong. Stranger Things continues to be a huge success for Netflix, even as the streaming service struggles to maintain subscribers. And while fans still fondly recall some movies, the found footage bubble has certainly burst. Maybe in the upside-down, the Stranger Things found footage franchise is about to release its eighth entry straight to Peacock. But here, we’re happy with the show we got.