Coen. Wachowski. Duplass. There are a lot of famous siblings making movies and TV together, but right now there’s only one name in the identical-twins category: Duffer. That would be Matt and Ross, the 33-year-old North Carolina natives who pitched Netflix the eight-hour Spielberg movie otherwise known as Stranger Things. One year and 18 Emmy nominations later, the writer-directors are heading into season two of the pulp-culture sleeper hit (premiering October 27) with more on their minds than finding an ’80s-shaped stone they haven’t yet overturned. “We’re trying to introduce concepts and ideas that can sustain us for at least a few more seasons,” says Matt. (He’s the one with longer hair.) There’s still plenty of Reagan-era nostalgia on deck, from Ghostbusters to Dragon’s Lair, but the cast is deeper—and the Upside Down upside-downier than ever. “We’re dealing with another dimension,” Matt says, “so anything is possible.” Anything, it turns out, but delaying puberty in your teenage stars.
The internet loves Stranger Things—and it has suggestions. How do you shut out that chatter when it’s time to write?
MATT: I’m so tired of talking about Barb! [Laughs.]
ROSS: I don’t go on Reddit, because I know that’ll be quicksand and I won’t be able to get out. Thankfully, Netflix had green-lit a writer’s room before we officially got renewed, so most of the beats of season two were figured out ahead of time.
Those kids are growing fast. Did you have to work around that?
ROSS: Sometimes I forget until I look back at season one—they were so little and adorable. Like Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin, looked like a little muppet. But now, and even more so into season three, these are full-on teenagers.
MATT: The scary thing is you’re shooting for half a year—and season two takes place over the course of, like, a week, so you can’t have someone have some major growth spurt. You’ll hear changes in their voice, but you can’t do much about puberty. Except maybe shift the pitch.
Writer–Directors: Matt and Ross Duffer
Hometown: Durham, North Carolina
Best Known For: TV series Stranger Things
Less Known For: 2015 horror flick Hidden
Binge-Watch Recommendations: Friday Night Lights, The Last Airbender, Freaks and Geeks, Big Little Lies, Rick and Morty
’80s References in Season Two: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Escape From New York, Temple of Doom, Poltergeist
Scariest Horror Creation of all Time: “Pinhead. Hellraiser scarred us.”
Favorite Food to Stress-eat on Set: Bojangles’ fried chicken biscuits
You’ve said you want the show to run four or five seasons. Where does that leave us?
MATT: It’s getting dangerously close to where Winona Ryder’s character will be able to watch herself!
ROSS: Lucas came out in 1986.
MATT: We do have her watching a Michael Keaton movie this year, so I’m happy about that.
It seems impossible for shows to sneak up on people nowadays—yet Stranger Things did just that. Did you have any anxiety going in that it was going to sink?
MATT: There’s so much content out there, even good shows get lost. Netflix isn’t spending movie-level marketing money—they want people to find this stuff through word of mouth. Mr. Robot season two was premiering like a week before us, and I was just like, "how are we going to get any press?"
ROSS: It’s even worse now. I’m glad we came out last summer, because now there’s something new every week.
How does Netflix’s all-at-once release model affect the way the storyline unfolds?
MATT: We’ve written for network television, where you have to worry about hitting these ad breaks, you have to worry about 42 minutes and 10 seconds exactly.
ROSS: With episode five in the first season, when Nancy goes in the tree, I remember being like, it’s not satisfying to have her saved at the end, the way a network show would. We were joking about leaving her there—but then suddenly that cliffhanger felt right to us.
There was another structural conversation that was happening in TV when the show started—between Fargo and American Horror Story, the anthology model was gathering heat. We even wondered if Stranger Things might have been better as that kind of show.
MATT: That’s how we conceived of it. It was right in that period where people in television were really into the idea … and then were less interested. So we adapted. I think if we were a year earlier—
ROSS: —maybe it would have ended up as an anthology.
MATT: Now I’m really happy that it isn’t, because we found these kids that clicked. It would become a problem if we just continued to treat it like a TV show and just kept going for like seven seasons or something, but if we get out after four seasons or something, then I don’t think it’s going to feel that way.
There are a lot of writing partnerships in entertainment. There aren’t a lot of twins.
MATT: We’ve been making movies since the fourth grade, so it feels pretty natural. Our taste is so identical that we can just share a look and communicate quite a lot.
ROSS: Up through college, we saw every movie together. We have the same life, many of the same life experiences, so we’re—
MATT: —as synced up as you can possibly be. That doesn’t mean we don’t have major disagreements.
ROSS: Because someone is wrong about something occasionally.
Does that mind meld have its limits in the creative process?
MATT: The writing for us is the hardest, but also the most important. You want to get to the next part of it, to production, but it doesn’t matter how beautifully made it is if something’s wrong with the story arc.
ROSS: That’s the best thing about having someone else—it’s like a constant bullshit filter.
MATT: It helps you catch issues before you start spending a ton of money making it. There was one sequence in season two where I felt we messed it up in the writing stage, and we went back and redid it. But you really need to not do that. [Laughs.]
ROSS: We’re still editing all these scenes now, so there’s not time to fix it—once we see it, it’s going on the next stage, and there’s not time to try to fix things beyond what you can do in post-production. So hopefully we get it all right in the writing stage.
After season one, a lot of people made side-by-side montages showing all the influences and easter eggs.
ROSS: I think they caught it all. I mean, we’re not trying to be clever. It’s not always just ‘80s stuff, either—we just love movies.
MATT: We don’t necessarily pull from genre movies. Sometimes you're like, “how do I shoot this?” and you try to think of a comparable scene. And so we’ll look at Peter Weir’s stuff, sometimes—he can use a zoom really well, and you have to be really careful how you use zooms.
ROSS: We have a dancing scene this year and we were talking about Steadicamming around the kids. Then we watched that scene in Witness in the barn where they’re just dancing to oldies—it’s so good, but the filmmaking is so simple. And it was just like, "let’s just let the scene be what it is."
Speaking of dancing in a barn, you guys were born the month Footloose hit theaters, which means you weren’t seeing it—or Ghostbusters, or any of those Carpenter and King movies you love so much. What was your point of entry to this stuff?
ROSS: All of it was VHS. Our dad is a big movie buff—
MATT: —yeah, but he didn’t like Ghostbusters. We were really into Batman and Ghostbusters and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and I don’t remember how we got hooked on each of those movies individually. We would just go wander around the video store.
ROSS: Word of mouth from your friends. I remember it took us so long to see Gremlins 2—all my friends had seen it, but our mom was just like, “no PG-13.”
MATT: I don’t remember that.
ROSS: You don’t remember that? The first Gremlins was PG because I think it was before Spielberg scarred people with Temple of Doom. And the second one came out after that—
MATT: —but it’s just as violent.
So how do you top season one?
MATT: Before this, we had never really done anything that anybody seemed to care about. So it’s like, OK, we can do something that people like, and that gives you confidence. But then it also gives you a little bit of ammunition to push for things.
ROSS: Not that we’re more difficult, but we push harder for the things that we want.
MATT: We’re a big pain in the ass.
What kinds of things are you pushing for?
MATT: It’s been much easier this year, but just getting profanity into the show was a big argument.
ROSS: When Netflix saw the first two episodes, they realized this is fine, it’s not going to turn off families—
MATT: —but first, we actually gave in and took out all of the bad language, and the kids got really upset. Then I wrote Netflix saying I’ve got this army of 11- and 12-year-olds and they’re pissed off that we cut all the language. At least let us shoot alternate takes. That was, like, the day before we started shooting. And then Netflix said OK.
ROSS: They’re much more foulmouthed in season two than in season one, but in real life it’s far worse. I’m like, I cannot believe that came out of your mouth.
This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.
Styling by Anna Su/Art Department, assisting by Andrea Mehefko; Grooming by Simon Rihana/Art Department; Prop Styling by Ward Robinson; Top portrait: Matt Duffer: jacket by Billy Reid, shirt by Burberry, denim by Paige, shoes by Nike, watch by Tudor. Ross Duffer: jacket by Louis W. for A.P.C., shirt by Billy Reid, trousers by Billy Reid, shoes by Nike, watch by Tudor. Bottom portrait: Ross Duffer: sweater by A.P.C., jeans by A.P.C., shoes by New Balance, watch by Tudor. Matt Duffer: shirt by A.P.C., trousers by Billy Reid, watch by Tudor in Heritage Black Bay S & G on brown aged leather strap
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