Summer 2017

Learning from the Masters

As the Duffers prove, everything old is new again


Directors Ross, left, and Matt Duffer (Photo: James Minchin/Netflix)

When twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer were creating Stranger Things, their episodic Netflix homage to the scary/funny films of their '80s youth, irony was off the table. "We didn't want it to wink at the audience," says Matt, even though the show clearly nods to the genre sensibilities of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Stephen King, among others. "We wanted the show to be very sincere."

The siblings, born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, are the latest directors to turn childhood movie obsession into career success. A video camera that was a Christmas gift kicked things off when they were in third grade; iMovie offered editing fundamentals years later; and film school provided set experience. "You're not mastering all the aspects, but at least you're understanding how all the pieces work," says Ross of their time at Chapman University. "By the time we shot Hidden"— their feature debut, a small-scale dystopian horror film made for Warner Bros. starring Alexander Skarsgård— "we got how it was supposed to run."

A series is a different animal, however. After several studios wanted their idea about odd occurrences in a sleepy Indiana town, just without them, they turned to Netflix, which OK'd the Duffers directing every episode, a decision that delighted but shocked them. "I think for [Netflix], it makes their life easier if it's all coming from one place, as opposed to a director for hire," reasoned Ross.

The biggest benefit of their twoness is in simply managing the enormity of it all. But even as a tandem, they realized the workload for prepping and production for every episode might be overwhelming, so they enlisted director and executive producer Shawn Levy to direct two episodes of the first season and two additional guest directors, Andrew Stanton and Rebecca Thomas, for season two.

The tandem provides guidance on the set of Stranger Things. (Photo: Netflix)

Disagreements are rare. Even so, one brother's ill-advised notion on set—"because everybody is capable of terrible ideas," adds Matt—can be quickly blocked by the other, sometimes with a certain look that signals "let's take a walk." Matt admits to a mild paranoia about the cast or crew noticing small internal dissensions.

"Us walking around is a pretty normal sight," says Ross. "That's how we brainstorm and solve problems."

For the next batch of Stranger Things episodes, set in 1984 during what the brothers consider a golden movie summer—expect sly references ranging from Ghostbusters to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom— the debate was in considering it a second season of television or a movie sequel. The Duffers wanted to call it Stranger Things 2, but Netflix countered with the argument that most sequels aren't viewed so kindly.

"I can't not think of it as a sequel, though," says Matt. "It's structured more like a movie in that there's a tension introduced, and that tension is resolved by the end."

The Duffers' visual style is cinematic as well, with classic compositions and conscientious movement. A favorite shot is the slow push-in on a dolly. "It's great for suspense," says Matt. "It's very simple, and makes you feel like something terrible is going to happen. Combine that with drone-y synth music and you can't go wrong."

Ross adds, "We much prefer that to a constantly moving camera. That's less interesting to us, because it's hard to find what the motivation is."

On set, the Duffers like to create as spooky a mood as possible to keep their actors in the zone. Lighting is a case of subtraction rather than addition. "You can get away with not a lot of light on these digital cameras," says Ross—and they'll go so far as to play monster noises sent from the sound designer or temp tracks of pre-recorded score. Says Matt, "Especially for the kids, they'd forget they were on set, and it would transport them."

The breakout success of their young stars is, to the Duffers' mind, a testament to how important casting is over anything the directors tell them during filming. "We found kids who were authentic," says Matt. "You can't coach that. Our biggest challenges were the silly stuff like hitting their marks, blocking, eyelines. They didn't understand any of that. But this year, they're little professionals. They know camera left, camera right.

The Duffers confer with actress Winona Ryder while filming Stranger Things, which was inspired by such '80s films as Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Photo: Netflix)

"This year it's about getting them to focus. We talk to them and respect them like we do our regular actors, and that helps. They're not nervous at all on set. We'd rather they be too loose than the other way around. It contributes to the sense of fun when people watch the show."

When the crew isn't rolling their eyes at the brothers' use of an iPhone to frame shots—"Damien [Chazelle] does the same thing, and he just won the Oscar, so it's fine," says Ross—the crew is telling the Duffers how what they're doing hardly resembles television.

"Spielberg shoots with one camera. The Coens, and I think this is right, maybe discarded one shot on No Country for Old Men," says Matt. "That's something you want to aspire to, because nothing's out of place. Everything's necessary."

The Duffers promise the new season will be "bigger and darker," with more confident visual effects. "We were flying by the seat of our pants last year," admits Ross. Working with their young actors, not to mention key crew members relatively new to episodic, has been a training ground for everyone. "That's what we liked about this show," says Matt. "Everyone was inexperienced, but super-passionate."

For them, it's all about that sandbox vibe: stoking pure creativity, whether it's Claymation midgets (their seventh-grade epic), in-your-face Sam Raimi horror (a high school crush) or using movie stars and state-of-the-art effects to pit small-town Indianans against big-time monsters.

Says Ross: "The summers of our childhood were the best times of our lives. All we're doing is trying to recreate those summers. Only the audience isn't just our parents, and there's more stress now."

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