Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy the Duffer Brothers
The wait is almost over. On Friday, October 27th Netflix will premiere the second season of Stranger Things, the Spielberg-esque series that took the world by storm in the summer of 2016. Matt and Ross Duffer, the 33-year-old identical twins who created and directed the hit show, are excited and a bit anxious about the impending premiere.
“It’s weird,” says Ross Duffer. “We have expectations now. We also know people will watch…which is a new sensation.”
The Duffer Brothers grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and whether they know it or not, North Carolinians are proud to claim the filmmakers. When I caught up with the Duffers for their 50 for 50 interview, I wanted to know how their life in Durham shaped their craft and whether we could ever hope to see a Duffer Brothers project filmed in North Carolina. The answers lie below.
Where did you grow up?
Matt: We grew up in the suburbs of Durham, kind of in the middle of nowhere by a tobacco farm. We had woods and creeks, tobacco fields [and] train tracks. It was beautiful.
When did you start making movies?
Ross: I think we got a video camera in fourth grade. In fifth grade we made our first “feature-length film” which was an adaptation of this card game called Magic: The Gathering. Our best friend lived right next door to us, so he was our partner in making all these movies. Every summer as soon as we got off from school we would all start brainstorming the next movie to make, and we would spend all summer making it. We never went to camp. We just stuck around the neighborhood and wandered around and made these movies. All we’re trying to do with our lives is just capture that feeling again. That’s really what it is.
I hope you still have that old footage!
Matt: We do. I mean it’s a little embarrassing…you don’t want to show it to people publicly, but it’s nice that we have it because it’s a document of the greatest times of our lives.
Ross: It’s interesting to watch the progression year-by-year. It starts out very crude and becomes a little more sophisticated as we started to learn, and then [our] equipment got better.
What drew you both to film?
Matt: I think it was Tim Burton’s Batman. I remember seeing a TV commercial for it and going, ‘I want to see that.’ It was dark for that age and it took a little convincing, but eventually our mom let us see it, and then we fell in love with Tim Burton. He has such a signature style that even at a very young age – like first grade – we were able to track [from] film to film. We started to learn what it meant to be a director, [and] we started to find other directors we liked…obviously, Steven Spielberg being one of the main ones. From that our love for movies grew. Also, our dad was a big movie goer. He’s not in the arts himself, and none of his friends liked going to the movies particularly, so we were his movie-going partners. We just went to every movie regardless of whether it was appropriate or not for children. We went to everything.
I think by early middle school we were pretty determined that this was something we were going to pursue. Aside from our neighbor Tristan, who did everything with us, we were the only ones really into movies as much as we were. We were weird in that sense. We were certainly the only people making movies, so it felt unique until [we moved] out to Los Angeles.
Ross: We had this plan mapped out very early on. We knew that we were going to go to film school, that we were going to California.
Were there early mentors who helped you figure out how to manifest that dream?
Matt: We went to Duke School for elementary and middle school. The teachers found out I loved making movies, and they were very encouraging. No one was like, ‘Let’s be realistic, maybe you should also study to be a lawyer.’ People said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ No one told us how difficult it was going to be. If anything, we were very deluded when we came out here, but I think that was actually good because I think you have to be a little insane. That’s where we went to school with Charles Frazier’s daughter, and I saw Cold Mountain become a big phenomenon, and that showed me it was possible. We were from this small city in North Carolina, but [we] can still make a cultural impact! That was unbelievable to me.
We [also] had an amazing drama teacher – Hope Hynes (at Jordan High School). She was incredible. She more than anyone influenced us. We’re terrible actors, but I just wanted to be part of the drama department because she is an incredible director. She was fantastic with kids, and fantastic with people who hadn’t acted much. She was brilliant, and I still pull from the lessons I learned from her.
They were doing a big musical [our] junior year. Ross and I cannot sing, so we weren’t really going to be able to be part of it, and we asked her if she would let us do a documentary on her and the process of putting together this musical, and she let us. We really got into documentary films because there was a documentary film festival at the Carolina Theater…Full Frame, and the whole goal was to get into Full Frame. They didn’t let us in.
Matt: We got about 100 rejections. It was only good in the sense that it prepared me for all the rejections that were to come, but it was an amazing experience putting the documentary together. That was when we learned how to edit.
I think Full Frame still really motivates a lot of people locally. There’s a big documentary filmmaker presence here now.
Ross: We loved going.
Matt: We volunteered there. We worked there, and I saw so many documentaries and discovered so many documentary filmmakers through that festival. And now I boycott it because they rejected me (laughs). I’m still very childish about it. I’ll get over it eventually.
I think they might take a film from you now! But let’s back up…when you were growing up, North Carolina’s film industry was booming. Were you aware of that?
Matt: Oh yeah. [It] must’ve been early middle school…this is clearly the most important part of my life…but we went to these studios in Wilmington. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie set. I remember [seeing] a house for this new show called Dawson’s Creek, and then I became an obsessive Dawson’s Creek fan because I knew they shot it here [and] it was about a kid from North Carolina who wanted to be a filmmaker. That was my first real experience with the North Carolina film industry. Honestly it would’ve been great to film in North Carolina.
That would have been awesome. I hope we get a Duffer brothers story set here one day.
Matt: I know! We need some better tax cuts. I love Georgia, but it’d be more fun if the industry were in North Carolina. It’d make it easier for my parents to come to visit. Our first movie was Vancouver doubling for North Carolina, and it just bothered me the whole time because it did not look anything like North Carolina to me. I’m convinced that at some point we’re going to come home and make something.
Ross: Hopefully now that we’ve had a little more success it will be easier to figure out a way to film in North Carolina again.
Matt: Remember when we were [first] doing Stranger Things it was a miracle that anyone was letting us do anything at all.
Do you ever make it back to North Carolina?
Matt: We still get to come to North Carolina. I get my barbecue fix and my Bojangles fix once a year. Realizing there were no Bojangles in California was a big deal for me. It took a lot for me to come to terms with that.
How do you think North Carolina shaped the work you are making today?
Matt: What we wanted to do with the show was to take what it felt like growing up as a kid in North Carolina and translate that onto a screen. I don’t know what it would have felt like growing up in the 90s in any other area, but I just know we had a wonderful childhood. We are the last generation to grow up without cell phones, so in the summer we would just wander off with our friends, and you felt completely disconnected from your parents in a very good way. It felt like you were very much on your own, and [that] anything could happen to you. The possibilities were endless.
There’s a particular feeling that I experienced in those summers in North Carolina that we are attempting to recapture because they were the best times of our lives. The work that really meant a lot to us when we were growing up captured that feeling. The reason something like The Goonies resonated as much as it did with us is because it really felt like us and our friends. As much as Stranger Things is a love letter to these films and books we grew up loving – it’s just as much a love letter to our own childhood in North Carolina.
Ross: The other thing [I think about] is how supportive and friendly everyone was. I remember just wandering around being able to shoot in basically any restaurant or property we wanted to. Everyone loved the idea of us making movies. I remember we did one movie where the opening was shot in an abandoned mall, and we just asked this mall to let us in before it opened at like 5 in the morning, and they said sure. It was just this incredible experience. You can’t go and ask ‘Can I film in a mall before it opens?’ in L.A. That won’t go over very well. We learned that very quickly when we went to film school in California. Everyone in L.A. is jaded about film, but there was just an excitement about it in North Carolina.
You are firmly in the commercial side of the industry, but I wonder has your life and career intersected at all with public funding for the arts?
Ross: You know what’s funny…one of our mom’s friends loved that documentary about the Jordan Drama Department so much that they did a fundraiser using our documentary as a centerpiece to raise money for the Durham Arts Council. It was great for us because that was the first thing we’d done where there was actually a screening that people other than our parents and a few friends attended.
The North Carolina Arts Council’s founding mission was driven by the idea of “arts for all.” Why does that matter?
Ross: I think what inspired us the most about Hope Hynes was seeing how the arts brought everyone together. Everyone in that department was from very different backgrounds. It wasn’t really like that at the rest of the school. That’s the reason we made that documentary. It was so inspiring back then, and it still is.
Matt: Cinema and the arts in general are very powerful. Cinema in particular because of the number of people it can reach on a global scale.
Ross: I think that’s why you want the mass number of voices and the most diverse number of voices watching and communicating with [art]. It’s a very, very powerful tool.
Matt: And if used correctly it can do incredible things. The most powerful thing about art is it can be very relatable. It can reveal things about yourself that you don’t know, but it can also reveal things about other people. It can do a lot in terms of improving general empathy for others. It can certainly bring everyone closer together. That is why it’s so important for the world. That’s why it’s always been a part of every society throughout human history. I think we need it. I think it’s like water. It’s necessary for our own survival.
*This interview was edited and condensed