After ‘Stranger Things,’ the Duffer Brothers of Durham find their world has been turned upside down

Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin during the taping of season 2 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin during the taping of season 2 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”

It’s been more than a year since Matt and Ross Duffer, the Durham-born twin wunderkinds, were making the media rounds to promote their new Netflix series, “Stranger Things.”

Then, they were just a couple of aspiring filmmakers with a little-seen film (their claustrophobic 2015 thriller “Hidden”) and a TV writing credit (the first season of the M. Night Shyamalan-produced, Fox mystery “Wayward Pines”) under their belts.

But then “Stranger Things” premiered in July. Much like when a godawful-looking monster starts taking some of the show’s young, small-town characters to another dimension – aka the “Upside Down” – that’s when all hell broke loose.

The ’80s-referencing mix of supernatural sci-fi, period drama and kid-friendly adventure not only became popular to watch on the streaming-video platform, but it transformed into an Emmy-winning pop-culture juggernaut.

“I mean, you don’t know if anyone is gonna watch it,” says Matt Duffer, now 33, in a phone interview with his brother at the Netflix offices in Los Angeles. “It feels now like it was very sudden, but I think it was sort of a – it snowballed into something last year.”

The Duffer Brothers, as they’re professionally known, are making the media rounds again, this time for “Stranger Things 2,” the second season of nine episodes that will unfurl Friday on Netflix.

This time, everyone seems to know them, or at least their show, and they’re still kind of blown away by how quickly they’ve reached this level of success.

“You kept thinking it was gonna slow down, and it never seemed to slow down in quite a while,” said Matt Duffer, who like his brother, graduated from Durham’s Jordan High School and film school at Chapman University in California. “We’ve never done anything before that’s connected with anyone in that way, and I think it surprised everyone – including Netflix – honestly.”

Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, Ross Duffer, Matt Duffer and Caleb McLaughlin on the set of “Stranger Things.” Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix

Instant obsession

“Things,” set in a sleepy, secret-filled Indiana town during the Reagan era, managed to attract a wide swath of viewers – obsessive fanboys, binge-watching millennials and entertainment-starved kids who are similar to the investigating kids on the show. Those viewers went on to rave about the series on social media as well as kibbitz and kvetch about the show’s details and mysteries (Dude, what about Barb?).

While Winona Ryder was the most recognizable actor when the series began, the young cast members, especially Millie Bobby Brown, who plays telekinetic, monosyllabic Eleven, were immediately seen as up-and-coming sensations. They even handed out peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at the 2016 Emmy Awards ceremony.

In 2017, the cast and the Duffers attended the Emmy Awards ceremony as nominees. The show earned several major nominations for Outstanding Drama Series, Supporting Actor for David Harbour, Supporting Actress for Brown, writing and directing. While they didn’t take those awards home, they won five Creative Arts Emmys, including for casting, sound editing and the theme music.

The critical love also came with some MTV Movie & TV Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. You can even buy Funko Pop! vinyl figures of the characters at Target.

While Netflix declines to release ratings for its original programs, Variety reports that it was the third most-watched series on the platform, according to Symphony Advanced Media, behind “Orange is the New Black” and “Fuller House.” It was renewed for a second season in August, not long after it premiered.

Before “Stranger Things 2” even begins, the brothers say “Things” most likely will continue for another two seasons.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in season 2 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Netflix

Great expectations

Needless to say, when a show gets that successful from the start, everyone is keeping an eye on Season 2, which the Duffers have referred to as a sequel.

Those expectations were on display when production resumed, the brothers said. They added they weren’t the only ones who wanted to bring their A-games to the new season.

“I think everyone was more aware, now than ever, how many people were gonna be watching this,” Matt Duffer says. “So everyone brought their best to it, and everyone put a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver something even better – or to try to. At the same time, it was a very, sort of fun, safe experience because we’re all so close now.”

The season’s storyline has been mostly kept under wraps. The brothers have copped to shredding the scripts during production.

But the Duffers say they have amped up the terror and the suspense, but also the character development.

“As they’re uncovering this mystery, we get to know all of our characters a little bit better,” Ross Duffer said. “The hope is that we’re dealing with the mystery and the big stakes of the supernatural horror but, at the same time, through this, we’re getting to know our characters as they are growing up and also working through the trauma of what happened in Season 1.”

As they look to hopefully two more seasons, the possibility is raised about filming in their Durham hometown – instead of its current Atlanta location.

“It really comes down to the incentives,” Ross Duffer said. “That’s why people are drawn to Atlanta. So, I would love to come back to North Carolina, but it all has to deal with in terms of just the tax breaks and stuff, really.

“But, you know, it would be a dream to come back one day and shoot there.”