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‘Stranger Things’ is back, and the Duffer brothers made it big

  • >> Austin Considine, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-22 11:36:13 BdST

One of the first things you notice about the creators of “Stranger Things,” Matt and Ross Duffer, is that they definitely do the twin thing.

They finish each other’s sentences. They switch roles seamlessly, communicate without words. At times, they can seem to share a brain — “that weird telepathic relationship,” as Winona Ryder, a star of the series, described it — because they rarely seem to disagree, at least not vocally. When they write, they do it facing each other and in a shared Google Doc. To me, this seems insane. M Night Shyamalan, an early mentor and collaborator, affectionately described the phenomenon as like watching a “two-headed creative monster.”

Still, they insist they would never want to isolate themselves in a writing cabin together.

“It could end in a double murder — or just a murder,” Matt said, laughing. “Make sure there are no axes around.”

Judging by the way they worked together here in late March, having two heads was mostly a boon as the deadlines cascaded for Season 4. The new season, the first half of which premieres May 27 on Netflix after a three-year wait, still needed a lot of work in postproduction. Netflix hadn’t yet announced that it had been haemorrhaging subscribers all quarter. But there was a sense in the editing suite that a lot was riding on this season of the sci-fi horror drama, which has earned seven Emmys since it debuted in 2016.

With competing streamers gaining ground, it was safe to say that Netflix needed a giant hit. And “Stranger Things,” as Ted Sarandos, co-chief executive of Netflix, told me last month, is “probably our biggest, most enduring content brand that we’ve created.” This was the same day the company lost about $50 billion of its market value.

During the two days I observed them, the Duffers, who continue to direct, write and oversee “Stranger Things,” had enough on their plates just getting things manageable. The pandemic had already caused significant delays, and the new season is five hours longer than any previous one. That was the main reason they had decided to release it in two chunks, Ross said. There was just so much material to get through. Demogorgons needed animating. Run times needed tightening.

“How long is the episode right now?” Ross asked their editor Dean Zimmerman about the episode on the screen. Zimmerman glanced my way.

“You want me to say it out loud?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Two and a half hours.”

With episodes like short movies (three of the first four are 75 minutes or more), one might worry that the Duffers have succumbed to excess. For now, they seem content to let the fans decide; Netflix has proved willing to support their expanding vision. Meanwhile, the tone is decidedly shifting this season (think “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Hellraiser”), and its young cast has been shaving for at least a few years. (Want to feel old? Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink are 20.) Plenty can change in three years, including viewer attention. Will fans still flock to “Stranger Things”?

Say this about the Duffers, 38, who as two virtually unknown brothers from North Carolina created one of the biggest pop TV phenomena of the Streaming Age: It hasn’t paid to underestimate them so far.

IF THE DUFFER BROTHERS seemed to come out of nowhere when the now-famous opening sequence of “Stranger Things” first rolled out, that’s because by most measures, they had. They had written a few scripts, directed a few shorts. They had made a feature-length movie, but it never saw theatres.

But if fans know little more about them today than they did six years ago, it’s not for lack of appetite. With few exceptions, the Duffers have kept their press engagement to a minimum. Unlike their teenage cast members — say, Millie Bobby Brown or Gaten Matarazzo — they rarely get stopped on the street.

The Duffer brothers prefer it that way. “There’s a reason we’re behind the camera — that’s where we feel more comfortable,” Ross said over pizzas after a long morning of playbacks and colour correction. “We love the part of making a show, the process of making it, and not everything else so much that comes with it,” Matt added.

They dress in sweatshirts and tennis shoes and rarely go out. They drive normal-people cars. Both are blue-eyed handsome, but mercifully, they were easy to tell apart: Matt’s hair is longer, and he appeared to be the more animated and fidgety of the two; Ross’ voice is deeper, and his manner seemed a bit more circumspect.

“They’re still some of the most down-to-earth people I know,” said Tristan Smith, a friend since early childhood who today is a creative director at Google. “When we hang out, it’s mostly, like, go to dinner, play board games, watch a movie, talk about the industry,” he added. “But it’s never name dropping.”

It may help that the Duffers were raised far away from Hollywood. They were born in 1984 — the year after the timeline of “Stranger Things” begins — and grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Durham. Their father, Allen Duffer, a film buff who worked in a local research lab, said the boys had been movie fanatics since they were toddlers.

“I was always surprised at their attention span, even at a young age,” he said. “Dumbo” was an early favourite. Eventually, their tastes expanded to Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton. Friday movie night was sacrosanct, and Allen took his sons to see every new release in theatres that he could.

Starting around the fourth grade, the brothers began making movies with Smith, whose parents had a VHS camcorder. Their first was based on the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering. In one scene, a character shoots another with a Nerf bow-and-arrow. In another, a boy in a Freddy Krueger mask seasons a severed hand with salt. “It was all improvised,” Ross explained. The music “was mostly Danny Elfman playing out of a boom box.”

Their father laughed when he recalled those early movies. “You know, they were kind of painful to watch because they would go on forever — mostly it was kids running around fighting each other with swords,” he said. But “then the process matured over time.” The technology got better too. With digital camcorders and iMacs, they were able to edit and add music without a boom box.

In 2011, just four years out of film school at Chapman University, in Orange County, California, the brothers sold a script to Warner Bros. for a post-apocalyptic thriller called “Hidden.” Suddenly the Duffers had a real Hollywood budget. “It was this insane situation,” Matt said. “Ross and I are going: ‘Oh, this is the dream. We did it.’”

The film, about a family trapped underground while shadowy creatures roam the surface, establishes themes familiar to any “Stranger Things” fan: a precocious child, government conspiracies, an exploding rat. What the completed film didn’t have, the studio decided, was commercial viability. It went straight to video in 2015.

Matt and Ross thought their short career was over. But then the script made its way to Shyamalan, who was impressed and hired them to write for the Fox puzzle-box drama “Wayward Pines.” His confidence helped get them back on track. “Stranger Things” soon followed.

“A lot of me is really grateful for that, for getting smacked,” Matt said, reflecting back on their experience with “Hidden.” “Because it’s just made me appreciate this so much more and not take it for granted.”

Early criticism of “Stranger Things” argued that it was little more than ’80s karaoke — a greatest-hits collection that charms but lacks the genius of original art. Matt and Ross have never been coy about their influences — their original pitch described the show “as if Steven Spielberg was directing a long lost Stephen King novel,” Ross said. (Completing the circle, the Duffers are expected to join Spielberg as executive producers of the Netflix series “The Talisman,” a long-awaited adaptation of the novel co-written by King.)

But some critics, like Willa Paskin at Slate, have wondered whether comparing “Stranger Things” to Spielberg missed something essential about Spielberg’s work. “E.T.” invokes nostalgia so powerfully today, they argue, because Spielberg captured his own time precisely. Wouldn’t it be better to give today’s kids something similar?

Matt pointed to the show’s popularity among young viewers who know nothing of “War Games” as proof that “Stranger Things” is greater than the sum of its references.

“If the show was only working because of the nostalgia you feel for bringing back that particular piece of music or referencing that moment in a film that you love,” he said, “then yeah, it wouldn’t be working with a 10-year-old.” They don’t deny the many tributes to their influences. “But at a certain point,” Ross added, “you just have to figure out how to tell this story and tell it well.”

Shyamalan noted the humour of “Stranger Things” and its success in capturing the innocence of children as evidence that the Duffers had transcended mere imitation. But he didn’t think the brothers had yet evinced what might be called a Duffer Style. I understood this as less a critique than an acknowledgment of the constraints that can come with success — in this case, the continuing demands of what began as a concept steeped in homage.

“I think their style is going to continue to evolve,” he said. “I think they became super successful by doing this story,” he added, “but it wouldn’t shock me if we see something after this that doesn’t sound like this.”

WINONA RYDER, WHO PLAYS JOYCE, IS CANDID about what “Stranger Things” has meant for her. “It completely changed my life,” she said by phone.

In Season 4, Joyce, a single mom to Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who has taken in Eleven (Brown), remains central as they try to start over in Southern California, still mourning the loss of their beloved Hopper (David Harbour). (Fans have known since an early trailer dropped in 2020 that Hopper is alive in a Russian prison camp.)

The role has drawn metatextual power from Ryder’s roles in movies like “Edward Scissorhands,” which were a huge influence on the Duffers. It has also had a powerful impact on her career.

“In all honesty, I don’t think that there would be this kind of amazing, incredible warmth or, like, embrace of me that I’ve felt without this show,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot going on with me.”

Everyone I interviewed from the production called the Duffers generous, hardworking and unpretentious. That has been important, young cast members said, for fostering an environment in which they could flourish. For a bunch of actors who became very famous as children, they appear exceptionally well balanced.

Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, said that he had struggled with anxiety. But he said the stable work environment the Duffers had created and maintained had helped him and other cast members immensely.

“When we get on the set, we feel like we’re 12 years old again,” Wolfhard said. “And that is a huge reason, I’m sure, why a lot of us haven’t gone crazy.”

Season 4 will be the show’s second-to-last, which means it has to get the characters and themes well positioned for the denouement. The long COVID delay, which arrived several weeks into shooting, gave the Duffers and their writers plenty of time to figure out where they wanted Season 5 to end. But it also ratcheted up the pressure on a show packed with teenage stars, whose surging hormones and heights place the production on a limited timeline in even the best of situations.

Lucky for them, they had the support of a cast and crew that had come to feel like family. As Sink and Wolfhard pointed out, there were was no one who understood what they had experienced better than the people who had gone through it with them, and the Duffers were at the centre.

“They’re our big brothers,” Sink said. “It’s really that kind of relationship. And they’ll always be a huge part of all of our lives because of this.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company