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Stranger Things’ Duffer Brothers on ’80s Cinema, Fighting Over Kid Actors, and How They Cast Winona Ryder

Matt and Ross Duffer, the twin brothers who created the new Netflix series Stranger Things, are 32-year-old men who came of age primarily in the early 1990s. But the North Carolina natives, who previously co-directed the thriller Hidden and wrote for the Fox series Wayward Pines, fell in love with storytelling by consuming movies and books released in the ‘80s, either before they were born or when they were barely out of diapers. The influence of filmmakers and authors like Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter is all over Stranger Things, an eight-part series that does a superb job of recapturing the feel of the early ‘80s. The Duffer brothers — who sound enough alike on the phone that during an interview, each one had to identify himself before he spoke — recently chatted with Vulture about falling in love with ‘80s films, the challenges involved in casting child actors, and what they learned from series star Winona Ryder.

Are you guys officially fraternal or identical twins?
Matt Duffer: We actually don’t know, which is weird. Back when we were born, they didn’t do those tests and we just looked so similar that everyone assumed we were identical. But we don’t actually have confirmation, and we’re too freaked out to get a test now because finding out that we’re not identical could really screw us up psychologically.

Where did you grow up in North Carolina?
MD: We grew up in Durham, North Carolina, so really close to Duke University. We were in the middle of nowhere in Durham. We’re right by, like, a tobacco farm. But we were in the suburbs and you had to go — you know, a five-minute walk and you’re kind of in the middle of nowhere. Ten more minutes and you’re at the railroad tracks. We didn’t go to any summer camps because we just wanted to be making movies and telling stories. We started doing that very early on. Fourth grade, I think, was our first movie.

Obviously Stranger Things is heavily influenced by so many of the films and Stephen King novels that were coming out in the early ‘80s, when you guys were either not alive or barely cognizant. How did those become your touchstones?
MD: When we were first starting to talk about the idea [for the show], we had talked about a paranormal-missing child story line. Then we were talking about some of the mysterious government experiments that we felt were happening at the tail end of the Cold War, right when rumored [projects] like MKUltra were ramping down.

That was the initial idea, and we thought that made sense either at the tail end of the ‘70s or early ‘80s. Then we hit upon the idea: Oh, this is great because this allows us to also pay homage to the films we grew up on. So many of our greatest moviegoing experiences were actually experienced in our house, on VHS. These were the films that were on our shelves, that we would watch. When you’re a kid, you don’t watch a movie one time. You watch it 10, 20 times. These were the movies we grew up on. It became a part of us.

Ross Duffer: Why we loved this stuff so much is because these movies and books were about very ordinary people we could relate to, that we understood. We’re like, oh, that’s like my mom and that’s like my friend and that person is like me, even though they would encounter these amazing things. That was always our favorite type of story, and that’s the stuff we fell in love with. The peak of those type of ordinary-meets-extraordinary stories was in the ‘80s.

It’s so interesting how those films — movies like E.T. or The Goonies — have become touchstones for generations that are still coming up. I have a son who’s 9, and I was speaking at his elementary-school career day recently. This little 7-year-old girl raised her hand and said, “Have you ever seen this movie? It’s called Back to the Future. It’s really good.” 
MD: That’s amazing. I talk to kids and a lot of them have seen these movies. They all have a sort of timeless quality to them. You know, there’s nothing in E.T. that earmarks it as really ‘80s. I like to think it still holds up. So that’s what  we were going for. Yes, the show will appeal to people who grew up on these movies, and they will see those movies in our show. But it will also work for an entirely new generation.

I read that you originally envisioned doing this show in Montauk. Then you decided to move the setting to Indiana, is that right?
RD: It was set in Montauk. We always loved that idea of the Amity feel in Jaws, in a coastal town. For production reasons and other reasons we ended up moving it. We needed to shoot in Atlanta. We ended up falling in love with this idea that it’s more Anywhere, USA, and also, just being in Atlanta, doubling as Indiana, it reminded us of our childhoods and our homes. These neighborhoods — the woods, the forks — it was all so familiar to us. It’s a world we inherently understood better than the coastal town. But story-wise it remained the same. I think we had one beach scene that had to be adjusted.

MD: And then it took us like, you know, two months to settle on a town name. Which is easier said than done, really.

Oh, really? Why?
RD: Because there are so many names you can’t call it. If the town actually exists, then you could get sued. You have to find a town that does not exist, and that sounds great, and that we can all live with. It was a challenge, but it was fun. We landed on Hawkins, and a year later, I’m used to it.

With the child actors especially, I know you went through a pretty extensive audition process to find the right kids. Can you talk about that and what you were looking for during that process?
RD: We knew that a bad child performance would kill the show because so much rests on these kids’ shoulders. What you’re looking for are kids that feel real and naturalistic. Of course, watching Stand By Me is, to me, the pinnacle of child performances in movies or shows. It doesn’t get much better than that, and those kids, you feel like you know them instantly and they feel real. So many kids nowadays, it’s almost like they go through this Disney training where they’re taught to be cute and play it up for the camera, and they’re trying to get laughs. What we were looking for were kids that, you just felt like you knew them.

We knew it was going to be difficult so we started right [away]. The minute Netflix gave us a green light we were looking for kids. There were over 1,000 kids we looked at and in the end it wasn’t — it’s not like we had two possible Mikes and two possible Elevens and four Lucases. These four kids were the only ones we felt could work and that could hold up this show on their own, which is something most 12-year-olds can’t do.

I remember when Cary Fukunaga was doing the feature version of It. He was casting around the same time so he had a little head start, and you’re bumping into the same kids and running into scheduling things. The point in what I’m saying is just, there are not many actors we feel are at this level. They are only a few when you’re fighting over them, which is what happens.

Isn’t Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike in Stranger Things, in It? 
MD: I was worried because we’re big fans of It and really big fans of Cary Fukunaga, so we were really excited for that movie. Finn — we decided we wanted to cast him as Mike, and then a day later I got a call saying, Cary wants him in It and they’re already working on the deal. So when that movie fell through, as a movie fan I was devastated. But then we got Finn, so I was ecstatic for our own show. But now I’m happy because Finn got the role again, he won it twice. He’s going to be in It. I think they’re shooting right now. [Note: Fukunaga was originally attached to direct the film, but left the project. Andrés Muschietti took on directing duties and now It is indeed in production, and releasing scary photos of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown.]

In terms of casting Winona and Matthew Modine, there’s the quality they bring to this as actors, but there’s also the subtext of, especially in Winona Ryder’s case, the preexisting relationship the audience has with them as actors who started when they were kids back in the ‘80s. Did you have them in mind specifically?
RD: We didn’t have them in mind, no. But Winona came up very early on and was on one of our first casting lists that our casting director came up with, and we all fell instantly in love with that idea. Certainly there’s nostalgia there, but this is someone we were huge fans of growing up, and it’s someone we just wanted to see more of. And it’s particularly someone we loved seeing in the supernatural genre. Not that she’s not great in other things, like Girl Interrupted or Little Women. But Tim Burton was such a huge inspiration to us growing up and those movies were such a part of our rotation. It was also assigning us the idea of putting a movie star in this role because we always saw this as a big eight-hour summer movie. So to have someone like Winona, who has that movie-star presence where you just point a camera at her and she pops off the screen, it’s not something most people have. So we were excited by the idea of her doing this. And I don’t think even two years ago she would have agreed to it. I do think Matthew McConaughey and his McConaissance was a huge help and opened up the door to some of these people that are more traditionally known for film.

Was there any reticence on her part about the project? Not because it’s TV necessarily, but because some people don’t like the idea of revisiting decades when their careers first began. 
MD: For Winona, those roles [from the ‘80s] were so very different. She was a kid, or she was the ingenue, she was the love interest, whatever. This was a very different role for her. Also, Winona is an obsessive movie fanatic, And she’s particularly knowledgeable in terms of movies from the ‘80s. She loves that era. She grew up there. She has a deeper knowledge of those movies than we do, actually. That was one of the things that attracted her to us. Any sort of reticence had more to do with — and what’s scary to a lot of actors in television — is the time commitment. If you’re on a movie, it’s not that big of a deal if you’re not happy with it. But she was going off one script and signing on for a potentially long time.

You mentioned that she’s knowledgeable about films from that era, understandably. Did she provide any particular insight to you that was useful, especially since she was in the business at the time? 
MD: She has incredible stories. You mention any star or director and chances are she knows them or has worked with them. I could talk to her all day and listen to her all day. Her references are not what you expect. She’s obsessed with this movie Audrey Rose, which no one really ever talked about, this obscure Anthony Hopkins movie. Or you know, her haircut. She really wanted it like Meryl Streep’s in Silkwood. She has these very specific …

Photo: Netflix, Twentieth Century Fox

I hadn’t thought about that, but that is totally what that haircut is.
MD: Yeah it is, right? We got that picture from her early on. She said, This is Joyce. This is what she’s gotta look like. She’s very knowledgeable in general about cinema, about how it’s going to be edited together. She has almost a photographic memory of all the takes that she did. She has this incredible, really unique type of intelligence.

RD: She’s been doing this for so long. She has such an understanding of the camera and her relationship to the camera. She can play up any scene and milk it as much as she can. Even a scene where she’s plugging in the new phone. She can really turn it into something great, that’s much funnier and more unexpected than what’s on the page. That’s something else you get with someone of her experience level.

One of the things I like about the show is that it feels like there was a lot of care on your part, and everyone’s, to create a world that felt authentically from that time, down to the opening titles. Did you have a role in what those were going to look and sound like? 
RD: There was a two-fold inspiration. One was, in terms of the font and the title design, going back to those old vintage Stephen King books. We sent 12 different old covers to Imaginary Forces, who were designing the titles — we wanted it to be in the style of these novels. There’s something about when we were kids, when you would open up one of these big fat Stephen King novels that we loved. We wanted the show to have that sort of feeling every time you got to a new chapter.

So that was for the font. Then for the actual design, we’re pretty obsessed with this designer Richard Greenberg who did so many great title sequences back in the day, whether it was Alien or The Untouchables or The Goonies or Superman. Altered States. What he specialized in was using just graphics: title graphics, titles over titles. That’s something we really wanted to do. Part of it was, it felt it represented the show well. Title sequences are so great nowadays, but it’s almost like they’re getting more and more elaborate and trying to top each other. As opposed to trying to top these amazing title sequences, what if we just go back to the simplicity of these great titles we loved growing up? There’s something to us that feels epic about those titles. Something like The Untouchables which is just basically just a font. It’s so epic and memorable, so we wanted to go back to that simplicity.

It seems like there are a lot of shows set in the ‘80s. They’re different kinds of shows, but there are a lot of them right now, from The Americans to Halt and Catch Fire. Why is that? Is it purely because the creators and the people greenlighting these shows have affection for that era?
MD: People have asked us about this, and I’m wondering about it. As much as possible you’re just trying to write what you want to see, but I do think a lot of it has to do with, yeah, the people who are making this stuff now either grew up in that era or grew up on film and TV during that time and were inspired by that type of storytelling.

We were in the last generation to grow up without a cell phone being a part of our lives at all, without tech things and having any of that. For us, we like going back to a time — and I’m sure nostalgia is feeding into that — where cell phones and the internet weren’t around. If you went off with friends, it felt like you really could get lost on a grand adventure. There is some nostalgia to it. For us, it was specifically missing that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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