'Stranger Things' Creators On Barb, Eleven And How Glitter Delayed Production
The surprise TV hit of the summer is a show that looks like it could have been made 30 years ago. Netflix's Stranger Things is a suspense horror show set in 1983. It takes place in small Indiana town where one night a boy goes missing. There's a mysterious government lab, a monster and boys riding around town on bikes.
If you're hearing echoes of E.T., The Goonies or any number of beloved 1980s classics, that's not a coincidence. Matt and Ross Duffer, the show's twin brother creators, tell NPR's Ari Shapiro that when they pitched Stranger Things, they didn't use a storyboard or a written synopsis; instead, they assembled a trailer made of snippets from '80s films.
On the trailer they made to pitch the show
Matt Duffer: I think it was around 30 different movies — a lot of them were from the '80s, but not entirely from the '80s — movies that we cut together to kind of tell the story of the show. But it was cool because we had a lot of shots from E.T., but we scored it with, like, John Carpenter synth music. So I think it helped us figure out what the show was going to feel like, and I think it helped Netflix, you know, and other companies and producers understand what we wanted to do with the show.
Ross Duffer: To us, actually, this stuff — it didn't feel like this hodgepodge. It all felt like a whole when we all put it together and we put the music over it. And I think the reason is that the Stephen King stuff, the John Carpenter stuff, the Spielberg stuff is all just about these small towns and these very ordinary people. And so when we actually put it together and the music gave it this sort of slightly edgier tone than, you know, than the John Williams music, it sort of tied all these ideas together. And ... that was a relief to us because we realized that this thing might work.
On recreating 1983 for the camera
Ross: We were just trying to find people that wanted to achieve the same feeling that we did. And the minute that [production designer] Chris Trujillo, you know, his look book for us ... the reason we loved what he sent is that to us there felt something very real and very tangible about the worlds that he wanted to create. ... It's less about, you know, Cabbage Patch Kids and more about the wood paneled walls. ... So that's that stuff that instantly brings me back. Or even the little thing like the rainbow blinds in Mike's room, just something very simple like that that when I see [it] that I instantly feel like I'm sort of transported back in time.
On casting Winona Ryder in the role of Joyce Byers, the mother of the boy who disappears in the show's first episode
Matt: Our casting director, Carmen Cuba, it was her very first idea for any role in the show. I just remember getting an email: "Hey, what about Winona Ryder?" And so we were excited about it because you're looking for someone who you miss. And Winona is someone who we really missed. I mean, she hasn't been around that much for the past 10 years, but then she would pop up in things, and then you remember how much you miss her. And we figured that if we missed her this much, I bet a lot of other people miss her. You know, and then we sent her the script and amazingly she responded to it. It clicked really, really quickly with her. And, now, we cast her when we had just one script written, so at the time actually the Joyce character was a little different. I mean she was sort of this cursing, smoking, tough Long Island mom. So when we cast Winona, we did alter the character a little bit and I think Joyce became a lot more interesting because Winona has a very, you know, sort of specific energy about her.
On when they first realized the show had struck a chord with audiences
Matt: The first thing that really messed me up was Stephen King tweeted about it. And then I was like, "What?" No one else had tweeted really at that point and he obviously is one of our idols and was such a big inspiration for us and an influence on the show. That sort of messed me up. You just don't think about it reaching those people. So there was that and then it was the day after the show premiered and just going onto Twitter ... and yeah it was insane.
Ross: I mean, even starting Friday morning, you know, because the thing is released at midnight, so many people had already finished and were tweeting all these great things about it. It's interesting how it sort of snowballs and it keeps growing and growing.
And the way Netflix works, which is interesting, is that they don't need to do a ton of marketing up front. They don't need to create a lot of awareness until it's on the show, because when someone sees an advertisement for Stranger Things they want them to be able to go in the service and watch it. There's no benefit to them to have a big opening weekend. That doesn't matter. It doesn't matter when people watch it as long as they watch it and enjoy it. So it was interesting to see that it would just, through word of mouth, it just started to grow more and more and more. And so even on twitter what starts as a, you know, a few tweets turns into more and more and more and it just kept growing. And then you start seeing all this fan art, amazing fan art, and that's when we started realizing that ... this was becoming something.
On why they think people love Barb so much, even though she only has about 25 lines in the show
Ross: For us it's easy to relate to her because high school was terrible for us and I know it was for a lot of people. You either love it or hate it, and we hated it. And so I think there's a lot of people that feel like they were on the outside looking in, like Barb. All I know is it was very easy for us to write the Barb character and I think that, you know, Shannon Purser — who had never acted before — just did such a brilliant job realizing her. And, again, without very many lines — 25 lines. And I think everyone feels like either they knew this girl or they were this girl.
Matt: I think the other reason people really connect to her is because ... I just think no one casts anyone like her. And that was something important to us and important to [casting director Carmen Cuba] was that we're casting kids and teens who feel very real. ... She looks like someone you might really go to school with. ...
Ross: Our teens have like acne. ... I'm glad we didn't, you know, cover it up.
Matt: Then there's been a push to like, "Oh, let's clean them up. Let's have them go to a dermatologist." It's like, no! Because the kids in [Stranger Things], they can't afford to go see a dermatologist on a weekly basis. ...
Ross: Nowadays you can digitally fix all those flaws. But to me it's important to try to keep that and make it feel as real as possible.
Matt: And I think that's helped the show.
On how much of the show is a reflection of their own childhoods
Ross: We weren't playing much Dungeons and Dragons, we were mostly playing Magic the Gathering, but very similar. And we would go out in the woods and you felt like you were on these adventures. So that was all very much we're just ripping from our childhood there. ...
Matt: We grew up in Durham, N.C., ... and we actually are shooting in Atlanta, Ga., so it looks very much like North Carolina, very much like the neighborhood we grew up in. We weren't monster hunting, but we were mostly going off and making movies with, you know, a very small group of nerdy friends. Not a lot of people wanted to be making movies with us.
On Millie Bobby Brown's performance as Eleven
... you know, Millie, it's almost freaky how good she is.
Ross: The thing about Millie and what makes her so incredible is most child actors, even the good ones – even, we're talking, like top 1 percent or top 0.5 percent, like the best of the best — what they're still not great at is listening. Because that's a very difficult thing, to stay engaged in a scene when it's not your line, because a lot of child actors are just waiting for the next line. And obviously that does not work with Eleven because this is a girl ... who doesn't have, she has no lines, and so all of it has to come off of reaction. So to find someone that is able to convey that sense of character and really to be talking without talking, that's a hard enough thing for an adult actor to do, a trained adult actor. But for someone who's, you know, 11 years old is just — you know, Millie, it's almost freaky how good she is. ...
I remember when Shawn Levy was directing his mind was blown because she went up to him and was like, "Can I do another take?" No other kids are doing that. And then you're like, "OK, but the last two were great." And she's like, "No, let me do one more." ... And then she does one more and she just takes it to another level. And that's something that, yes, I might expect from David Harbour, who's been acting his whole life, or Winona Ryder, but for that to come from this 11-year-old girl is truly incredible.
Matt: Well, I mean, it's funny because with the adult actors you're basically hiring these people, they're better at what they do than you are. So you put a lot of trust into them. You know, for someone like David, who's as experienced as he is, we're relying on him a lot because you're shooting a lot. So you go up to him and you ask him what he wants to do. He's got ideas, you know, his instinct is just absolutely incredible, so you're relying on him a lot, you're putting a lot of trust in him to make really interesting creative decisions. And then what was interesting was by the end of the shoot, without me even realizing, I was treating Millie the same way. This is an 11-year-old girl, I'm going up to her and going, "How do you feel? What do you want to be doing?" Like, I was treating her like she was a 41-year-old Shakespearean actor.
Ross: And also because she's very — which is something else that most child actors don't have — she's very aware of the camera. So someone like Winona or David, they know how to play to the camera. They know when it's in close-up, they know when it's not. But most child actors, they're doing the same thing take after take after take. They're not adjusting their performance to lens or they're not adjusting it to camera position. But Millie absolutely is able to do that, which is another reason why she's so incredible and I think why she's able to communicate so much without saying very much.
Matt: But at the same time she's a little girl, too, you forget. You know, like the kiss with Finn [Wolfhard], who plays Mike, you know, there was a two-month buildup to that about how disgusting it's going to be, about how horrible and why did you write this in? So yeah, she's still 11.
Ross: Or one day she showed up on set and she [was] just covered head to toe in glitter. And she's like, "I don't know where this glitter came from." And it's like I'm not having this problem with any of my adult actors. David Harbour is not coming in covered in glitter.
Matt: That was a 45 minute delay.
Ross: I don't know if you've tried to get glitter off someone but it's very difficult. So yeah, we fell behind.
On the Department of Energy's reaction to being cast as a villain in the show
Matt: I love that the Department of Energy issued a public statement that they're not evil. That's my favorite thing.
Ross: Out of thousands of scientists, none of them are evil.
Matt: I bet there's one evil one.
Ross: Someone in there is evil. Of a thousand people, someone's not a good guy. ...
Matt: I love how they pretend [in the statement] like they know how an interdimensional monster works. Like, I love that they're claiming that it couldn't be affecting the electricity in our world. That it wouldn't be messing with the electromagnetic field. Like, what do they know? How do they know that? That's interesting.
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