Matt and Ross Duffer spent much of their 90s childhood in Durham, NC, exploring – riding bikes, seeing where the train tracks led, playing Dungeons & Dragons. Their parents gave them a Hi8 camcorder, state-of-the-art at the time, and they spent their summers making small film projects (their first was an adaptation of the fantasy card game “Magic: The Gathering”) . Then there were the VHS tapes, starting with the rather benign stuff (“ET”, “The Goonies”) before moving on to scarier fare like “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Hellraiser” and the TV mini-series of “It”.
The twins didn’t know it at the time, but they had been planning to do “Stranger Things” all along.
Netflix’s hit fantasy-horror series kicks off Volume 1 of its fourth season on May 27, followed by Volume 2 on July 1. Down and the monsters, human and otherwise, he unleashed upon the world. Since then, the series has exposed nefarious deeds at Hawkins National Laboratory, featured evil Russians, indulged in teenage romance, and showcased enough ’80s nostalgia to fill a John Hughes film festival. The series has won seven Emmy Awards, all in technical categories.
It’s a rare and sure thing for the struggling Netflix, which continues to stand the test of time.
“I wish I could say we were super confident it would be a big hit,” says Ross, seated next to his brother during a post-production break in Sherman Oaks. “But you just don’t know. You have no idea if it’s going to resonate with people.
“Stranger Things” began in 2016 as the story of three schoolboys, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), in search of their missing friend, Will (Noah Schnapp). They come across a lost girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has mysterious telekinetic powers. Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), join the search, which leads to this strange laboratory, overseen by a dour doctor (Matthew Modine), and eventually to the Upside Down, a dark, slimy land of floating spores and predatory vines.
From there, the show built an ever-expanding world of monsters and more mundane teenage fears, like bullies and dating. Our heroes are outcasts and nerds, navigating a world of jocks, stoners, and cool kids. Now they’re in high school, where they’ll likely stay until the show ends with Season 5.
As for Season 4, the Duffers naturally don’t want to say too much. But they can’t wait to tell a scarier story.
“This year they’re in high school and it’s a very different experience than they had in middle school, where they could have these more ‘Goonies’ adventures,” Matt explains. “It felt very natural to put these kids in a pretty tough and scary horror movie. And that’s something we haven’t really had before. Before, we had the older characters in the ‘Nightmare’ storyline. on Elm Street.” This year, it was fun to be able to put the kids in this story. Because now they’re not kids anymore. They’re teenagers.
They grow so fast, don’t they? The main cast members of “Stranger Things” are either in their 20s or getting there fast. They look like young adults because that’s what they are. Watching the show is reminiscent of going back to a new “Harry Potter” movie after a few years and wondering: Who is this?
The Duffers had some time to get used to the feeling. “Going into Season 3, we were like the audience,” Matt says. “We were amazed at how much bigger they were and had to quickly rewrite a lot of the dialogue. It was like, ‘Wait, I was imagining Season 2 of Finn; I imagined season 2 of Millie. So this year we were pretty prepared for how old they were going to be, and we wrote a lot at that age.
Although the brothers didn’t grow up in the ’80s (they were born in ’84), they got there as fast as they could, thanks to a steady diet of decade-long pop culture. A very partial list of “Stranger Things” influences includes “The Goonies”, “ET”, “Red Dawn”, Stephen King, John Hughes, Freddy Krueger, John Carpenter and “Ghostbusters”. They were mesmerized by the trailer for Tim Burton’s first “Batman” movie in 1989, and they pestered their mother until she let them see the PG-13 movie. Going back to the 70s and beyond, you can add “Carrie”, “The Exorcist”, “Jaws”, “Alien”, the “Lord of the Rings” books and HP Lovecraft.
It was the movies and books that fired the imaginations of the young Duffers. The imagination, however, belongs only to them. What they do is tap into the wonder qualities that made their influences special in the first place.
“It’s about trying to evoke a style of storytelling that I think has kind of faded away,” says Ross. “It’s a sincere style of storytelling. There is no irony. There aren’t many nods to the camera. It’s not meta, and he’s not aware that it’s a spectacle. The characters are not anti-heroes. They are very connected in terms of stories that touched me. When I saw characters on screen that I understood, they weren’t homicide detectives, they weren’t FBI agents. They were my mother and my father and my brother and my friend.
The brothers recognize a kind of nostalgia for a time when they could let their imaginations run wild. Fortunately, they have a TV show where they can do just that.
“I’m sure it was probably less adventurous than we thought, but back then you’re not tied down,” Ross says. “You say ‘Goodbye, Mom’ and you walk away with your video camera and she can’t reach you. There was something liberating and exciting there. We haven’t found a treasure map, and we haven’t found a girl with superpowers. But it certainly felt like an adventure for us every summer. It was such a big part of our childhood, something that we try to do in a lot of this show.