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Interview: The Duffer Brothers & Shawn Levy of “Stranger Things”

Netflix’s latest hit, Stranger Things, seemed to come from nowhere, sort of like the creature lurking at its center. One of the reasons few people saw its success coming (at least in terms of buzz; Netflix notoriously does not release viewer data), is because of the relatively fresh faces behind the series. Creators/writers/directors Matt and Ross Duffer have worked on short films and the TV show Wayward Pines, but didn’t have the same cache as some other showrunners at the streaming service. It’s easy to see why they were given the chance, though. Stranger Things is an entertaining mash-up of 80’s horror and sci-fi influences, throwing in your It with your E.T. and everything in-between. They, along with producer and fellow director Shawn Levy recently spoke with Cut Print Film about the dense mythology, the talented cast of kids and the online phenomenon that is Barb.

CUT PRINT FILM: Barb has become something of a breakout character, with endless fan art and the like devoted to her over the past weeks. Does that surprise you at all, given her minor role in the narrative?

SHAWN LEVY: I will start by saying it thrills us beyond words, that Barb is our breakout fan favorite. It makes us happy every single day when we see a new piece of fan art that is Barb-centric generated out there in the world and sent to us. It was definitely not anticipated, but I think there’s something resonant about this character. She is neither the hero nor the picture-perfect kind of character we’re used to seeing on TV, but she feels incredibly real and incredibly relatable. And her popularity has been so much fun for us all to experience. And for no one more so than Shannon [Purser], who got her first acting role on Stranger Things and is now experiencing life as the suddenly famous Barb.

CUT PRINT FILM: Can you discuss the casting of the children in the show? They’ve garnered a fair amount of acclaim for young actors in a TV series.

ROSS DUFFER: We had five kids, and we knew that even one [bad child performance] would really hurt the show. Shawn knew that, we knew that, Netflix knew that. So they the minute they greenlit the show, and at this point we only had one script written at the time, we started a very intensive worldwide search for these kids. When you boil it down, we saw about a thousand kids in total. And when you boil it down, there’s so few that can operate at this level that it was instantly clear to everyone which were our kids, and which kids could actually do this show. And I think that, at the end of the day they honestly made the characters more interesting. They did influence the scripts moving forward. They caused us to actually go back and rewrite our pilot script.

Because, and I think this goes to our adult actors as well but especially the kids, their characters were a little bit more stereotypical. Dustin was just sort of your typical nerd in the original pilot that we wrote. Then Gaten [Matarazzo] came in and blew us all away, and Dustin sort of became Gaten. They became one and we started writing his voice. Or, for instance, Mike was originally a little bit that Mikey from The Goonies, that Sean Astin soft-spoken dreamer type. But Finn has sort of a weird energy, he’s fidgety and he talks really fast. So we sort of, you know at the end of the day this isn’t how we originally envisioned it but it’s actually much more interesting than we ever could have imagined. So, we went back and we adjusted the voice of Mike and went from there. The kids really did inform these characters. And to us that’s something exciting about television that we can sort of adapt as we’re going.

SHAWN LEVY: Can I jump in here? Because I really want to commend the Duffers, I think they would never credit themselves. There’s two things that are really rare in new filmmakers. The first is, the Duffers were vehemently involved in casting. And even when we saw dozens of talented kids the Duffers insisted on continuing the search until they found the authenticity that they were looking for. And that dogged persistence was incredible and requires tremendous confidence for new filmmakers. As does the second thing they do really well which is, they are not behold to their writing above all else. They will modify the writing to suit the actors and that is a special skill and the performances and the characters feel so organic in the show.

CUT PRINT FILM: You’ve spoken in previous episodes about this 30-page document concerning the mythology of “The Upside Down”. When you were approaching this initial season, how did you decide on the amount of that information that should actually make its way into the show?

ROSS DUFFER: You know, we had a lot of discussions about it early on. At the end of the day, we talked a lot about Poltergeist. Carol Anne goes missing in this other dimension, and what I remember from that movie is that her family has to go through a portal in the closet and get her back. And that’s really what that storyline is, and of course there’s an underlying mythology to it all. But really why it’s so effective is that it’s told from the point-of-view of this ordinary family. So they only understand what they are coming into contact with.

So what we wanted to do was tell this, Stranger Things, from the point-of-view of our characters. And at the end of the day, no, they don’t understand everything. We have that stuff figured out, but we just thought it was too much. In particular, [too much] to put into this season. It would take away from the characters. The last thing we wanted to do in the world was cut to a scene at the laboratory, have a bunch of scientists sitting around explaining it. So, we were just like, what’s important is that Will was in this other terrible place and they have to go in there and get him back. And our hope was that we gave enough information about The Upside Down and the mythology that people would feel satisfied but also there are some lingering questions. Hopefully, that’s not frustrating but more intriguing to the audience.

MATT DUFFER: Well, what’s fun is we’re working on it and we realized these kids were big D&D nerds so they can understand this through the Dungeons & Dragons mythology and terminology. And that makes everything that’s happening easier to understand for the kids than it does for the adults. They have been introduced to these concepts before. And then of course they have their Mr. Clarke, their 1980’s Wikipedia. So it’s fun and it’s challenging for the characters to figure out what’s going on. They have to use what’s at their disposal, which is Dungeons & Dragons and their science teacher.

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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