While they may call Los Angeles their home these days, TV/movie auteurs (and Durham natives) Matt and Ross Duffer will always have the Bull City to thank for giving them plenty of movie memories.
The 32-year-old twins (who refer to themselves professionally as The Duffer Brothers) grew up roaming through the aisles of the now-defunct VisArt Video looking for titles. They were also regulars at the Carolina Theatre, where their dad, a movie buff, would take them to catch the latest art house releases.
“We’re like, 12-year-old kids, and we’re the youngest people in that theater by at least probably 30-40 years,” said Ross. “But it was just so much fun seeing these movies, whether it was ‘Amelie’ or ‘Memento’ or whatever.”
Actually, their love of all things film hit them at an even earlier age. “I think we really fell in love with movies around kindergarten or first grade, and we just kind of became obsessed with them,” said Matt. “I think our first director obsession was Tim Burton. I think it was because his movies, especially when you’re young, are just so distinct visually that we were able to recognize, oh, this is kind of what a director does. Like, we could identify what was a Tim Burton movie. And, so, that got us really interested in what that person does.”
The two were reminiscing about their start in film recently during a phone interview to promote “Stranger Things,” their eight-part supernatural series that premieres on Netflix Friday.
The path to Netflix started with a Hi8video camera – a gift from their parents in the third grade, Matt said. “We just started filming anything and everything. And then, each summer, we made a feature-length movie. The first one was kind of unwatchable, but progressively, they got a little better and better.”
Needless to say, they left Durham and headed to the West Coast, where all the movies are made. They went to film school at Chapman University in California to learn more and make more films, accumulating credits by writing and/or directing a few shorts. After college, they wrote the script for the post-apocalyptic horror flick “Hidden,” which they eventually directed. Director M. Night Shyamalan read the script and dug it enough to give them both jobs as writer-producers on the spooky Fox serial “Wayward Pines” last season. (“Hidden,” which was filmed in 2012, was actually released last fall, shortly after “Pines” aired its first season.) With the TV knowledge they gathered while making “Pines,” they set forth on shopping around “Stranger Things.”
“The dream scenario was always Netflix, so we’re very fortunate that we wound up there,” Matt said.
We really wanted to see something on TV that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up.
For people who grew up during the 1980s, “Things” may feel like your childhood got an eight-episode deal with Netflix. The show revolves around a small Indiana town, circa 1983, and the weird stuff that starts happening after a young boy disappears from his home one night. Some of the stranger things in “Things” include a little girl with telepathic abilities, a sinister organization (led by a white-haired Matthew Modine) doing mind-bending experiments and a nightmare-inciting monster straight from another realm.
If the show reminds audiences of the movies they watched ad nauseam on cable when they were youngsters, the Duffers say that was the intention. “We have so much nostalgia and love for that era,” Matt said. “I think we really wanted to see something on TV that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up – you know, the Steven Spielberg movies, John Carpenter films, Wes Craven films, Stephen King novels. … Even though they’re very tonally different – John Carpenter, obviously, is much darker than the types of films Steven Spielberg usually made – they all sort of explored the point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.”
The Duffers even snagged Winona Ryder – Tim Burton’s former muse – for the lead role of Joyce, the mom dedicated to getting her son back. “I think Winona was the first idea for Joyce,” says Matt. “We immediately fell in love with the idea. ... We grew up steeped in Winona Ryder films. A bunch of her films were kind of in our steady VHS rotation.”
If “Things” becomes yet another popular Netflix title to binge on, then the Duffer bros have a second season (or a “sequel,” as they call it) all lined up for next year. And even though the pair appear to be making a name for themselves as masters of supernatural horror (even the shorts they did in college are in the freaky, frightening vein), they’re not just in this business to scare the bejesus out of people. They’re in the business to tell – to borrow the name of a show Steven Spielberg himself brought to TV in the ’80s – amazing stories.
“I think there’s a lot of movies and shows out there about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Matt said. “And those are really fun to watch but, for us, the most special type of story is about ordinary people, people who we relate to. And, then, you put them into contact with the extraordinary.”