Emmy Watch: The Duffer Brothers on Stranger Things

August 27, 2020 Jeff Goldsmith

For your reading pleasure and in celebration of the Emmy’s, please enjoy this excerpt from our big interview The Duffer Brothers on Netflix’s Stranger Things third season!
If you enjoy what you’ve read in the excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by by subscribing to Backstory Magazine where it can be found in Issue 41!
The subscriber version of this article contains more in-depth info from The Duffer brothers ranging from their obsession and strange coincidences with Stephen King’s It to how the awesome ’80s flick The NeverEnding Story became ingrained in the season finale and more!

Stranger Things
The Duffer Brothers discuss their Emmy nominated third season
By Eric Vespe

The 1980s were an incredible time to be a kid. This pre-Internet era was ripe for childhood adventure because, frankly, there was nothing else to do but go explore your neighborhood. Unless you were a nerd, like me, who constantly had his nose in a Stephen King book or was in the process of wearing out VHS tapes of his favorite movies. Disney, which dominated children’s entertainment for the past two generations, was at a low point in their output, and edgier fare appeared to fill that void. There were ’70s holdouts gaining even more popularity on home video, like Jaws and Star Wars, and then there were the new blockbusters—Ghostbusters, the Indiana Jones films, Gremlins, The Goonies and even an underdog, The Monster Squad. They provided a common language for those who grew up with them—think of it as a nostalgic pop-culture geek version of a fraternity that provided its members an instant bond.
I knew from the very first episode of Stranger Things that whoever made this rad show was on a similar wavelength, and should our paths ever cross, we certainly wouldn’t be lacking for stuff to talk about. That time has finally come, as season three of Stranger Things has earned Matt and Ross Duffer eight Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Drama Series. As expected, we spoke the same language right off the bat, with talk almost immediately turning to “the two Stephens”—King and Spielberg, and yes, we know one uses a “v”—who acted as surrogate dads to all us ’80s kids. In fact, their imagery at times fuels Stranger Things’ entire aesthetic, with scenes and characters that draw eerie parallels to the touchstone movies of the era. Kids on bikes? E.T. Creepy Christmas lights? Gremlins. Girl with psychic powers? Firestarter. But if the Netflix original series was simply a nostalgia parade, it wouldn’t be as big as it is.
The Duffers—look-alike twins who readily say they don’t actually know if they’re fraternal or identical—and their writing staff don’t get the credit they deserve for not just pointing to the era’s classics but understanding the mechanics behind how they worked. “I’ve always liked early on that people wouldn’t be able to label our show as horror or sci-fi or drama or comedy—that it would have a little bit of all of that,” Matt says. “That’s something Jaws does very well. It’s incredibly suspenseful, it’s incredibly scary, but it also has these very human moments. That’s something we’ve been trying to achieve with the show.” To which Ross adds, “Amidst all the chaos in Jaws, you can have a moment where Brody [Roy Scheider] plays a quiet game with his son. Whenever we’re writing, we’re looking for those moments. Yes, we’ve got a plot in motion, we’ve got these crazy life-and-death situations happening, but can we find moments like that to further detail these characters but also feel organic in the moment. That’s a moment where Brody is at a low point, so it’s very organic to the story and the character, but it adds a level of detail that I think is missing from a lot of blockbuster films.”
Matt concurs, noting that many people, studio heads included, took the wrong message from Spielberg’s runaway hit that still scares people away from the sea. It isn’t the moments when you see the killer shark, it’s all the little bits of character work in between. If you care about the characters, then the scares are all the more effective. That was an important lesson the Duffers made sure to take into Stranger Things. “We have the luxury of a kind of sprawling runtime, which helps,” Matt says. “It’s easier to find time for those moments. We don’t have movie executives leaning over us, telling us to get on with it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite at Netflix. More often than not, we’re fighting for the big special-effects sequences, not the character moments. Those are the easy ones to get in! It’s odd. I never thought I’d be in that position: fighting for the CGI set pieces.” He sees those mini-moments as the secret sauce for the other Stephen as well. When people adapt Stephen King poorly, it almost always is because they eschew the quirky character beats in favor of the big scares.
That lesson was so crucial for the Duffer brothers that Stranger Things would literally not exist without it. While it’s hard to think of now, back when they first hit Hollywood the Duffers couldn’t get a meeting at most studios. They were particularly keen to try to pitch themselves for It when Warner Bros. was developing the project, and although their 2015 film, Hidden (coincidentally about a family hiding in a bomb shelter during a pandemic…go), was released by the studio they still weren’t even remotely in the running to helm it despite being quite familiar with the work. “We started thinking, Would It be better as a miniseries? Matt says. “This was before it was produced as a movie, but that was where Stranger Things came from. What would it feel like to do a sprawling Stephen King adaptation with a little bit more of the larger budgets that these streaming companies can afford? So you can really do the special effects—you can have the monsters and all the human elements.”
Like what you’ve read? Continue reading the rest of the article to find out about the strange the Duffer Brothers love for Stephen King’s It and how the beloved ’80s film The NeverEnding Story became a part of finale for Stranger Things and more!
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