The Duffer Brothers / Creators of Stranger Things
“There’s a particular feeling that I experienced in those summers in North Carolina that we are attempting to recapture because they were the best times of our lives … As much as Stranger Things is a love letter to these films and books we grew up loving – it’s just as much a love letter to our own childhood in North Carolina.” — Matt Duffer
Twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer were born in Durham, North Carolina on February 15, 1984 and are known professionally as the Duffer Brothers. Matt Duffer recalls, “We grew up in the suburbs of Durham, kind of in the middle of nowhere by a tobacco farm. We had woods and creeks, tobacco fields train tracks. It was beautiful.”
The brothers were first attracted to film with Tim Burton’s Batmanin 1989 when they were just five years old in the first grade. As Matt recalls, “I remember seeing a TV commercial for it and going, ‘I want to see that.’ It was dark for that age and it took a little convincing, but eventually our mom let us see it, and then we fell in love with Tim Burton. He has such a signature style that even at a very young age – like first grade – we were able to track from film to film.” During this early time, Matt notes, “We started to learn what it meant to be a director, [and] we started to find other directors we liked … obviously, Steven Spielberg being one of the main ones. From that our love for movies grew. Also, our dad was a big movie goer. He’s not in the arts himself, and none of his friends liked going to the movies particularly, so we were his movie-going partners. We just went to every movie regardless of whether it was appropriate or not for children. We went to everything.”
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)
They began making films in the fourth grade using an Hi8 video camera that was a gift from their parents. In fifth grade they made our first “feature-length film” which was an adaptation of this card game called Magic: The Gathering. Their best friend lived next door to them and was their partner in making their first movies. As Ross Duffer recalls, “Every summer as soon as we got off from school, we would all start brainstorming the next movie to make, and we would spend all summer making it. We never went to camp. We just stuck around the neighborhood and wandered around and made these movies.”
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They attended the private Duke School for Children from grades K-8. The teachers at the school were positive and encouraging. As Matt remembers, “The teachers found out I loved making movies, and they were very encouraging. No one was like, ‘Let’s be realistic, maybe you should also study to be a lawyer.’ People said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ No one told us how difficult it was going to be. If anything, we were very deluded when we came out here, but I think that was actually good because I think you have to be a little insane.” At Duke School, author Charles Frazier’s daughter was in their class. Frazier’s book Cold Mountainshot to the top of the bestseller lists in 1997. “I saw Cold Mountain become a big phenomenon, and that showed me it was possible. We were from this small city in North Carolina, but we can still make a cultural impact! That was unbelievable to me.”
Ross Duffer recalls the supportive environment and how friendly everyone was. “I remember just wandering around being able to shoot in basically any restaurant or property we wanted to. Everyone loved the idea of us making movies. I remember we did one movie where the opening was shot in an abandoned mall, and we just asked this mall to let us in before it opened at like 5 in the morning, and they said sure. It was just this incredible experience. You can’t go and ask, ‘Can I film in a mall before it opens?’ in L.A. That won’t go over very well. We learned that very quickly when we went to film school in California. Everyone in L.A. is jaded about film, but there was just an excitement about it in North Carolina.”
Jordan High School, Durham, NC
After Duke School, they attended Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham. At Jordan they had a drama teacher named Hope Hynes who played a major role in their career. “She was incredible,” Matt says. “She more than anyone influenced us. We’re terrible actors, but I just wanted to be part of the drama department because she was an incredible director. She was fantastic with kids, and fantastic with people who hadn’t acted much. She was brilliant, and I still pull from the lessons I learned from her.”
In their junior year in high school, they were doing a musical. Neither Ross nor Matt can sing so they weren’t going to be part of it. But they asked their drama teacher Hope Hynes if she would let them do a documentary on her and the process of putting together the musical. She let them do the documentary and they really got into documentary films because of a documentary film festival called Full Frame at the Carolina Theater. Full Frame. Their whole goal was to get into the Full Frame festival. But in the end, they were not let in and got about 100 rejections. But Matt notes that it was an amazing experience putting the documentary together. “That was when we first learned how to edit,” he says. Besides this, they volunteered at the Full Frame festival and this allowed them so see many documentaries and discover many documentary filmmakers.”
They continued to pursue filmmaking in high school and realized that they would have to leave Durham to pursue their film ambitions. In Durham, Matt recalls that “We were the only ones really into movies as much as we were. We were weird in that sense. We were certainly the only people making movies.” Ross adds, “We had this plan mapped out very early on. We knew that we were going to go to film school, that we were going to California.”
In 2004, at twenty years old, they left North Carolina for California where they went to Chapman college in Orange, California. They studied film at Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Studies. During their years in college, they made a number of short films. They were writers & directors on the 2005 short film We All Fall Down(winning the Best Short at the 2005 Deep Ellum Film Festival in Dallas) and editors on the 2006 short film The Big Toe. In 2007, they were given the opportunity to meet with producer Mace Neufelf, who had produced the film The Hunt for Red October. Under his guidance, they created their senior thesis project, a short film titled Eater. It was one of five films selected to represent Chapman at the annual First Cut screening of the DGA.
After college, they continued to make short films, working on them in various capacities. In 2008, they produced Story Night at Normsand The Milkman. In 2009 they wrote Abraham’s Boysand Road to Moloch. In 2012, they wrote Vessel. They directed none of these short films except for Abraham’s Boys(where they were also editors and producers).
Between making the short films, they wrote a feature-length script for a post-apocalyptic horror film called Hidden. The script was acquired by Warner Brothers in 2011 and the Duffer Brothers were hired to direct the film in 2012 which was released in 2015. It is a story about a young family surviving for over 300 days in a deep bunker. Outside and above the bunker lurk “The Breathers” with glowing eyes sounding like Darth Vader, they stalk the night on the lookout for the family.The film stars Alexander Skarsgard, Andrea Riseborough and Emily Alyn Lind. The producer was Richard Zanuck and it was Zanuck’s last film as the producer died before filming began.
Hidden never made it to theaters, instead receiving a home release with mixed reviews. As reviewer Mike McGranaghan notes in The Aisle Seat Movie Reviews, “It takes a lot of elements that have been done countless times before and dutifully trots them out in a rote fashion” making it “predictable and uninspired.” When the Duffers do tryto add an original twist at the end, McGranaghan notes “they bungle it with overly dark cinematography, choppy editing that makes it difficult to tell what’s going on, and a howler of a credibility-straining final scene … Hidden isn’t the worst thing you’ll ever see, but it doesn’t do anything that hasn’t already been done – much better, mind you – on The Walking Dead or dozens of other movies about people trying to survive after a deadly outbreak. It’s pretty generic stuff.”
However, other reviewers like Daniel Kurland were more sympathetic to the film on the horror film site Bloody Disgusting. At the end of the mainly positive review, Kurland notes “Hidden might not be a perfect film, but it’s one that plays with a bunch of themes ahead of the curve while still subverting the norm in the process. It’s easy to see how this film could grab M. Night Shyamalan’s attention, spurring him to bring the duo over to the equally unpredictable first season of Wayward Pines. On top of this though, Hidden shows the work of growing filmmakers that are clearly only getting started and hopefully this title won’t remain hidden for much longer.”
At the time, Hidden felt to the Duffers like they’d gotten their big break — and blown it. As Matt told Vulture’s Adam Sternberg, “You’re banging on the door for years, and they finally let you in the party. And then they’re like, ‘That was an accident. You don’t actually belong here. Get the fuck out.’ Your dreams come true, and then they don’t.”
It was a low point for the Duffers. But Ross notes they used this low point to their advantage to re-evaluate the film business. As he says, “I don’t think Stranger Things would exist without it, because it was us being disillusioned with movies, the things we fell in love with, and then seeing this other opening in television that, if we really want to tell the kind of stories we want to tell, maybe we were just looking in the wrong place.” They now became excited about the prospect that television was becoming more cinematic.
Wayward Pines 2015 / The Duffer Brothers First Work on a Television Series
Although the film Hiddenhad limited success, the script for Hiddenattracted the attention of famous film director M. Night Shyamalan who was working on a Fox television series called Wayward Pines. Shyamalan hired them as writer/producers on the series. With Wayward Pines, the Duffer Brothers made their first foray into television, learning how to create a television series. Together, the Duffer Brothers penned season 1 episodes “The Truth,” “Choices,” “A Reckoning,” and “Cycle.” As Ross told Rolling Stone, “That became our training ground, and M. Night Shyamalan became a great mentor to us. By the time we came out of that show, we were like, ‘OK, we know how to put together a show.’ And that’s when we wrote Stranger Things.”
The initial inspiration for the plot of Stranger Things came from the 2013 film Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman as a man searching for his missing daughter. Wanting the show to have something more, the Duffers began discussing “more childlike sensibilities,” like having a monster devouring people. They also discussed bizarre experiments conducted by the government during the Cold War that they had read about, especially those of Project MKUltra. This led to the show taking place in the ‘80s, which also allowed them to pay homage to all the films they had loved growing up.
However, two weeks after they conceived the idea, they threw it away, believing there was no way they’d be able to create it due to their inexperience with television. But their work on Wayward Pines gave them television experience and confidence that they could create a television series.
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In addition, the brothers began to see a more creative potential for their ideas in television. Part of this potential was that it offered a better place for a new type of character-driven horror story. As Matt Duffer told Finn Cohen in an 8/11/16 interview in the New York Times, “If you’re doing a movie, the minute you put a monster in it, it becomes a horror movie. And if it’s a horror movie nowadays, it’s basically a haunted house ride. You’re trying to get jump scares every six, seven minutes. You just don’t have the time to spend with characters. We love monsters, but if it was a movie, it would be all about the monster. But a place like Netflix, they actually care a lot more about the characters. So, we’re able to tell these very character-driven stories and also appease our childlike sensibilities by putting a flesh-eating monster in it.”
Apart from the current horror genre and its attachment to movies, they were also looking to utilize the new concepts of length for stories. Unbound to traditional two-hours for films, the so-called Golden Age of television was created in large part by new conceptions of story length. Increasing story length provided for deeper characterizations and more character-driven stories. As Ross Duffer told Finn Cohen in the New York Timesinterview, “This is really the first time I can think of in history that people are able to come up with a story, and they’re able to go, how long should this be? Should this be six hours? Should this be seven hours? Should this be 11 hours?”
Cover and Sample Pages of Pitch Bible for Stranger Things
They wrote the show’s pilot script (then titled Montauk) and created a 20-page pitch bible. They also created a mock trailer composed of 20-30 films that had inspired the series. They were rejected by 15-20 networks, a major concern being that four of the major characters were kids, but the show itself wasn’t necessarily for children. Execs wanted the show to either be made for children or to have the story centered on Hopper investigating the paranormal occurrences in the town. The Duffers refused to comply with these demands because they felt everything interesting about the story would be lost.
In late 2014, Dan Cohen, Vice President of 21 Laps Entertainment, brought the script to director-producer Shawn Levy. Cohen told Levy, “It’s by these twin brothers no one’s ever heard of. And it may be the best pilot I’ve ever read.” Levy agreed and worked with Cohen to bring the Duffers’ vision to life. With Levy and Cohen’s backing, they pitched the series to Netflix and within 24 hours Netflix had bought the entire season.
By April 2015 it was decided that the that the show would be targeted for a 2016 release. The Duffers began their writing and brought both Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen on board to start the casting and filming as executive producers of the series. The show would be set in the early 1980s in the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana. It would offer an homage to ‘80s pop culture and inspired aesthetically informed by the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas among others.
Stranger Things Title Logo
It was released on July 15, 2016. There weren’t great expectations. Netflix puts out new stuff no one hears about all the time. But Ross remembers eating out in Los Angeles a week later and listening to the tables around him talk obsessively about the show. The buzz continued to grow and the show soon began to develop an online cult following. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the series an approval rating of 95%. On August 31, 2016, Netflix renewed the series for a second season of nine episodes, which were released on October 27, 2017. In December 2017, Netflix renewed the series for a third season of eight episodes, one less than the former season. While season two followed season one by one year, season three will arrive in July 2019 two years after season two. It is one of the most anticipated seasons in the history of television.
(The above is from a book in progress)