The Duffer Brothers - Looking Forward, Looking Back

An excerpt from Duke School's Under the Oak Magazine, Fall 2017.

An excerpt from Duke School's Under the Oak Magazine, Fall 2017.


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<strong>The</strong> <strong>Duffer</strong><br />

<strong>Brothers</strong> –<br />

<strong>Looking</strong><br />

<strong>Forward</strong>,<br />

<strong>Looking</strong><br />

<strong>Back</strong><br />

By Laura Thompson,<br />

Duke School Alumna<br />

It’s early June.<br />

Matt and Ross <strong>Duffer</strong>, Duke School Class of 1999,<br />

have just returned to Los Angeles after spending<br />

much of the spring in and around Atlanta,<br />

Georgia, filming the second season of their hit<br />

Netflix series Stranger Things.<br />

<strong>The</strong> past year has been busy and a bit surreal for<br />

the twins—known professionally as the <strong>Duffer</strong><br />

<strong>Brothers</strong>. <strong>The</strong> first season of their 1980s-inspired<br />

science fiction series gathered a worldwide<br />

following and has collected a bevvy of industry<br />

awards and nominations.<br />

Now the brothers are immersed in editing the<br />

second season’s nine episodes after writing the<br />

scripts and overseeing production days that often<br />

began at 5 or 6 a.m. Visual effects sequences are<br />

being created, and soon sound mixing, coloring,<br />

scoring, and publicity will be in full swing in<br />

advance of the series’ October 27 global release.<br />

But in some ways, not much has changed since<br />

the brothers were kids growing up in Durham.<br />

It’s summer, and the <strong>Duffer</strong>s are making a movie.<br />

‘More than a hobby’<br />

Photo Credit James Minchin/Netflix<br />

Long before the <strong>Duffer</strong> <strong>Brothers</strong> introduced<br />

audiences to the residents of Hawkins, Indiana,<br />

and the Upside Down, Matt and Ross told stories<br />

in their own backyard. <strong>The</strong>ir film career began in<br />

the third grade when their parents, Allen <strong>Duffer</strong><br />

and Ann Christensen, gave them a Hi8 video<br />

camera for Christmas. <strong>The</strong>ir earliest efforts mostly<br />

starred their stuffed animals. Soon they moved<br />

on to “feature” films of about an hour long,<br />

filmed over the summer with their Duke School<br />

classmate and neighbor Tristan Smith.<br />

“Our summer movies in middle school were all<br />

generally comedies because we didn’t think we<br />

had the chops to make something serious,” said<br />

Ross.<br />

Editing was rudimentary, with the young<br />

filmmakers cutting scenes together in camera.<br />

<strong>The</strong>y played cassette tapes over the action as a<br />

soundtrack.<br />

26<br />


“<strong>The</strong> movies we made—I mean, they were pretty<br />

bad,” said Matt. “And then in seventh grade we<br />

made a movie that wasn’t so bad. That’s when<br />

the parents in our lives were like, ‘oh, OK.’ <strong>The</strong>y<br />

started to see that we were learning what we<br />

were doing and maybe this was actually going to<br />

be more than a hobby.”<br />

While some of their classmates spent summers<br />

away at camp, the <strong>Duffer</strong>s stayed in Durham to<br />

create their movies. <strong>The</strong>y sometimes engaged in<br />

what Matt called “guerrilla filmmaking,” stealing<br />

shots at locations around their hometown—and<br />

at least once getting shut down by management<br />

at a local mall.<br />

<strong>The</strong>ir parents followed up the gift of the camera<br />

with an iMac computer, with which the boys<br />

learned to edit their movies digitally. <strong>The</strong>y made<br />

movies for school projects in addition to their<br />

summer films.<br />

“In high school, when grades were introduced,<br />

[a video] was an instant ‘A,’ we realized,” said<br />

Matt. <strong>The</strong>ir classmates realized it, too, and soon<br />

the brothers were highly sought-after directors at<br />

Jordan High School. “<strong>The</strong>n it became like every<br />

weekend we were doing a video for somebody.”<br />

In 2001, their short thriller Mad Cell, created<br />

with Tristan, took home top prize in the under-18<br />

category at the “Real to Reel” festival in Shelby,<br />

North Carolina. By now, inspired by some of their<br />

favorite John Carpenter and Stephen Spielberg<br />

movies, they had waded into the horror-suspensescience<br />

fiction genre that has defined much of<br />

their work since.<br />

<strong>The</strong>y also knew they wanted to be professional<br />

storytellers.<br />

‘Extremely determined —<br />

and a little delusional’<br />

After high school, the brothers attended<br />

Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and<br />

Media Arts in Orange, California.<br />

“I remember talking about going to California for<br />

film school back in at least sixth grade,” said Ross.<br />

“So it’s been quite a time that we realized this is<br />

what we want to do.”<br />

“At that point we were just extremely<br />

determined—and a little delusional,” said Matt.<br />

“Which is good. You have to be, a little bit.”<br />

Although filmmaking was an uncommon pastime<br />

among their peers in Durham, the <strong>Duffer</strong>s quickly<br />

realized that was not the case in California.<br />

“You move out here and you realize, ‘Wow, a lot<br />

of people want to do what we want to do,’” said<br />

Matt. “Meaning a lot. So it’s super competitive<br />

and really scary.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Duffer</strong>s studied directing while also writing<br />

and editing film projects. <strong>The</strong>ir senior thesis<br />

film, Eater—about a man-eating, shape-shifting<br />

creature that might foreshadow Stranger Things’<br />

menacing Demogorgon—is full-on horror. <strong>The</strong>ir<br />

parents are credited as executive producers.<br />

“I think our parents always believed that we were<br />

serious,” said Ross. “And we were.”<br />

After leaving the supportive bubble of film school,<br />

however, things got harder.<br />

“We got an agent right out of film school, so<br />

it felt like you’re doing everything right,” said<br />

Ross. “But to actually get paid to tell stories is a<br />

different challenge entirely.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> brothers worked on some short films, but<br />

success did not come easily. <strong>The</strong>y saw many of<br />

their film school classmates leave the industry<br />

after a few years.<br />

“It’s hard to pay your rent, you can’t order a<br />

Coke with your meal,” said Ross. “It’s a bit of a<br />

struggle.”<br />

“It’s kind of like a clubhouse,” Matt said of the Los<br />

Angeles film industry. “It’s really hard for them to<br />

open the door to you to start getting paid work. It<br />



was hard for people to take us seriously, especially<br />

when we were first out of college.”<br />

Finding a new direction<br />

Eventually, after trying unsuccessfully to find<br />

work as directors, the <strong>Duffer</strong>s decided to make<br />

their own opportunity. <strong>The</strong>y wrote the script for<br />

a feature-length film, Hidden, about a family<br />

sheltering in an underground bunker after their<br />

town is devastated by a mysterious outbreak.<br />

<strong>The</strong>y pitched it to film studios with the condition<br />

that they themselves would direct it.<br />

“It was kind of the only path available to us—to<br />

write something original and then not let anyone<br />

else have it,” said Matt. “We basically held the<br />

script hostage.”<br />

Warner Bros. purchased Hidden and filmed it in<br />

2012 with the <strong>Duffer</strong>s directing. However, the<br />

studio decided not to give the finished film a wide<br />

release.<br />

Nevertheless, Hidden’s script had caught<br />

the attention of director-producer M. Night<br />

Shyamalan, creator of contemporary thrillers like<br />

<strong>The</strong> Sixth Sense and Signs. Shyamalan invited the<br />

<strong>Duffer</strong>s to join the writing staff for the Fox scifi<br />

television series Wayward Pines, based on the<br />

novels of Blake Crouch.<br />

“We were really hired to just consult for a few<br />

weeks,” said Ross. “And then a few weeks turned<br />

into like six months of intense work.”<br />

Wayward Pines became a training ground for a<br />

number of young screenwriters and filmmakers<br />

who, like the <strong>Duffer</strong>s, had never worked in<br />

television before.<br />

“It was really just a boot camp for television,<br />

because we didn’t understand television at all,”<br />

said Ross. Being “thrown into the deep end, a little<br />

bit” on a big-budget project for a major network<br />

was an intense experience, “but I remember at<br />

the end of it, Matt and I looked at each other like,<br />

‘We think we can do this on our own now. We<br />

think we can put something together.’”<br />

Ordinary meets extraordinary<br />

Feeling more confident in their abilities and more<br />

secure in their prospects of finding work as writers<br />

in a pinch, the brothers again began to dream of<br />

their own storylines.<br />

“Growing up, we were movie people,” said Matt.<br />

“<strong>The</strong> genre films from the ’80s—the Spielberg<br />

stuff, the John Carpenter stuff—particularly in<br />

high school we became obsessed with some<br />

of the horror films from the ’80s. So we started<br />

talking about what a long-form version of those<br />

movies would feel like. And we got excited about<br />

that.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> idea that eventually grew into Stranger<br />

Things began with a single script. <strong>The</strong> <strong>Duffer</strong>s<br />

drafted a pilot episode with a rough outline for an<br />

eight-hour, single-season series. Recognizing that<br />

the television industry was trending away from<br />

limited series, they later revised their outline into<br />

a story that could sustain multiple seasons. <strong>The</strong>y<br />

began to pitch the series to studios.<br />

“It was not an easy sell,” said Matt. More than a<br />

dozen studios passed on the project in a week<br />

of pitches. “We came away from the first week<br />

feeling like this was not going to work.”<br />

“It was hard. We were very inexperienced. We<br />

didn’t have a track record. <strong>The</strong> one movie we had<br />

was dumped by its studio. Our producers had<br />

never done television before. It was an ensemble<br />

of kids, but it wasn’t for kids. <strong>The</strong>se executives are<br />

looking for reasons to say no, and we had about<br />

10 to 20 reasons for them to say no.”<br />

When the brothers heard that the online video<br />

streaming service Netflix might be interested in<br />

their series, they brushed up their pitch and went<br />

in for a meeting.<br />

28<br />


“It’s kind of scary,” said Matt. “<strong>The</strong>y don’t give a<br />

lot of reaction in the room, so we actually came<br />

out of that pitch having no idea.”<br />

But Netflix called the following day with an offer<br />

to make the full first season. “We just were beyond<br />

ecstatic when we got that phone call,” said Matt.<br />

Stand By Me had such an impact on us. That’s why<br />

the Spielberg stuff and Stephen King stuff had an<br />

impact on us, because it felt like they were stories<br />

about us and our friends.”<br />

Despite the nostalgia factor, 1980s film buffs are<br />

just one part of the show’s fan base.<br />

Stranger Things, a tapestry of 1983 suburban<br />

childhood threaded with otherworldly creatures,<br />

supernatural power and Cold War-tinged<br />

government conspiracy, clearly showcases the<br />

<strong>Duffer</strong>s’ cinematic influences.<br />

“<strong>The</strong> meeting of the ordinary and the extraordinary<br />

is our favorite thing<br />

in the world,”<br />

said Ross. “When<br />

you’re a kid in the<br />

suburbs of North<br />

Carolina, when<br />

you see movies<br />

about kids in the<br />

suburbs going on<br />

these extraordinary<br />

adventures, that<br />

just really opened<br />

our minds and<br />

excited us because<br />

we’re like, ‘oh<br />

my God, my life could be amazing.’ You start<br />

daydreaming about finding that treasure map in<br />

the attic or whatnot.”<br />

When Netflix released the first season of Stranger<br />

Things in July 2016, early reviewers were quick to<br />

point out homages to films like E.T.: <strong>The</strong> Extra-<br />

Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind<br />

and Firestarter. For the <strong>Duffer</strong>s, the story also<br />

echoes real life.<br />

“People go, oh, when we have the kids walking<br />

down train tracks, we’re referencing Stand By<br />

Me,” said Matt. “Which, yes, but we also walked<br />

down train tracks with our friends. That’s why<br />

“What was really nice and surprising was that it<br />

found an audience way beyond that, especially<br />

younger audiences who did not even know<br />

those films, who did not grow up on them, that it<br />

worked for them” said Matt. “And it worked for<br />

even older people who don’t have a fondness for<br />

those films. You don’t have to have those films as<br />

reference to enjoy<br />

the show. And that<br />

was always our<br />

hope.”<br />

With the show’s<br />

rapid success,<br />

Netflix confirmed<br />

a second season<br />

of Stranger Things<br />

within weeks of<br />

the first season’s<br />

Photo Credit James Minchin/Netflix<br />

On the set of Stranger Things, Season 1<br />

release.<br />

“We were just<br />

hoping some people were going to watch it<br />

and we could keep telling this story,” said Ross.<br />

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine<br />

what was going to happen with it.”<br />

“It’s funny—when you’re in the middle of making<br />

the show, it’s just this little family and we all<br />

thought we were making something cool that we<br />

were excited to show people. You sort of forget<br />

that you’re making this for a wide audience until<br />

suddenly it goes out there in the world. All eight<br />

episodes dropped, and then suddenly people are<br />

binging it. It was a really sort of surreal experience<br />

as the audience grew and the word of mouth<br />

spread.”<br />



Since then, the <strong>Duffer</strong>s have been immersed in<br />

expanding the story, taking their characters to<br />

new places and trying to improve on their own<br />

work.<br />

“It’s not like you watch season one and you’re<br />

like ‘Wow, we knocked that out of the park,’”<br />

said Matt. “Even when we first finished it, you<br />

basically just see everything that’s wrong with it.<br />

<strong>The</strong> good thing about being successful is you get<br />

another chance at bat, and the hope is that you<br />

do it better.”<br />

said Matt. “It’s starting to happen. You get the<br />

kernel of an idea—wouldn’t this be cool, wouldn’t<br />

this be interesting, wouldn’t this type of a world or<br />

concept or setting lend itself to a cool story? And<br />

then you just kind of dream about it. Eventually<br />

we’ll sit down together and start hashing out<br />

what it would look like.”<br />

“But that’s so far off right now because Stranger<br />

Things is our lives—it’s our weekends, it’s often<br />

our nights. So you don’t have a lot of time to think<br />

about other things.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Duffer</strong>s estimate they have story ideas to fill<br />

at least four seasons. For now, though, they are<br />

focused on season two.<br />

“We really just try<br />

to do what we did<br />

first season, which<br />

is block everything<br />

out and all the<br />

noise and just try<br />

to focus on telling<br />

a story we thought<br />

was cool and put<br />

everything into it,”<br />

said Ross. “I don’t<br />

think we’re going<br />

to keep doing this<br />

if we think we’ve<br />

nailed it. I think the<br />

hope is that we can<br />

keep doing it better and better.”<br />

<strong>Looking</strong> forward, looking back<br />

<strong>The</strong> process of writing, directing and producing<br />

an original story can be all consuming, but the<br />

<strong>Duffer</strong>s still want to make room for the kind<br />

of spontaneity,<br />

excitement and<br />

wonder that first<br />

drew them to<br />

filmmaking.<br />

“I think there’s<br />

a sense of fun<br />

where it’s not<br />

overly planned,<br />

where there’s an<br />

opportunity to<br />

surprise yourself<br />

Photo Credit James Minchin/Netflix<br />

On the set of Stranger Things, Season 1<br />

every day and<br />

to try to have as<br />

much fun as we can<br />

making it,” said<br />

Ross. “That’s what it was when we were making<br />

those movies back in middle school and high<br />

school.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> success of Stranger Things has opened doors<br />

for the <strong>Duffer</strong>s to continue expanding their career<br />

possibilities. Offers to direct other projects have<br />

started coming in, and the brothers are also<br />

thinking about new stories they want to create<br />

themselves.<br />

“You just start to daydream about other ideas,”<br />

<strong>The</strong> world of Stranger Things draws a number of<br />

details from the <strong>Duffer</strong>s’ early life. Viewers familiar<br />

with the brothers’ hometown will notice that the<br />

fictional Hawkins bears some resemblance to<br />

Durham. <strong>The</strong> Byers family, for example, lives near<br />

the corner of Cornwallis and Kerley roads, a reallife<br />

intersection not far from Duke School and<br />

from the brothers’ childhood home.<br />

30<br />


“I like that we actually ended up shooting down<br />

in Atlanta because a lot of the landscape, a lot of<br />

the neighborhoods—it looks like where we grew<br />

up,” said Matt. “So it makes it feel more personal,<br />

in a way. <strong>The</strong> woods look like the woods we grew<br />

up with.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> show’s 1980s horror-film atmosphere<br />

and predominantly school-aged cast further<br />

underscores the connection to the brothers’<br />

childhood.<br />

“I think that’s why the show’s been so fun for us<br />

and so much easier for us to write than other<br />

things, because so much of it is so personal,”<br />

said Matt. “<strong>The</strong> first thing we wrote was the kids<br />

playing Dungeons & Dragons [in episode one],<br />

and it just wrote itself in like 10 minutes. It was<br />

so much fun because we grew up playing fantasy<br />

games with our friends.”<br />

(A second Dungeons & Dragons scene in season<br />

one’s final episode includes a shout out to the<br />

brothers’ early filmmaking partner Tristan Smith,<br />

as the characters complete a mission for “King<br />

Tristan.”)<br />

Minor characters and locations in the <strong>Duffer</strong><br />

<strong>Brothers</strong> productions often take the names of<br />

people and places the brothers know. In their<br />

feature film Hidden, the young protagonist Zoe<br />

wears a maroon jacket featuring her school’s<br />

dragon mascot—a reference to Duke School. <strong>The</strong><br />

<strong>Duffer</strong>s attended Duke School from kindergarten<br />

through eighth grade.<br />

“It’s interesting to think about if any of this<br />

would have happened without Duke School, just<br />

because it’s a place that allowed you to explore<br />

your interests and really use your imagination,”<br />

said Ross. “Obviously a lot of it came from our<br />

parents—our dad’s a movie buff, and they’re both<br />

so supportive of this—but certainly Duke School,<br />

I’m sure, helped lead to this.”<br />

Filmmaking is essentially “doing something<br />

creative with a group of people, which is basically<br />

what Duke School trained us to be able to do,”<br />

said Matt. He also recalled one of his teachers<br />

telling him he could do and be whatever he<br />

wanted.<br />

“That always stuck with me,” he said. “I have<br />

this dream, and I want to be a director, and this<br />

teacher is telling me that I can actually do that.<br />

And I think it’s important to hear that when you’re<br />

a kid.”<br />

Wherever their future leads them, the brothers<br />

continue to be driven by their backyard filmmaking<br />

roots. Above all, they said, they hope to continue<br />

doing what they have done since they were in the<br />

third grade—telling stories that excite them.<br />

“It’s so much work that you have to have fun<br />

doing it, or else why are you doing it?” said Matt.<br />

“Sometimes you forget though, and then you<br />

take a step back and take it in and you’re like,<br />

OK, we’re basically a bunch of children playing<br />

with expensive toys. And all these actors, all these<br />

kids, everyone—it’s just make believe. It’s sort of<br />

silly in a way.”<br />

“But, you know, it’s been a lot of fun.”<br />

Laura Thompson ’98, attended Duke<br />

School from second through eighth<br />

grade. She began her journalism career<br />

as a writer and co-editor for the Middle<br />

School newspaper, “<strong>The</strong> Dragon’s<br />

Roar.” She is now a writer and graphic<br />

designer living in northern Virginia.<br />

In 2001, Matt, Ross and their friend<br />

Tristan Smith, made a short film, the Smuffer<br />

<strong>Brothers</strong>, and entered it in a film festival in Shelby,<br />

NC. Laura, an aspiring journalist at that time, saw the<br />

potential for a “hometown boys make good” feature, so she<br />

traveled to the film’s showing and awards ceremony. Not<br />

only did the film win first place in its division, but Laura’s<br />

article also won a national youth journalism award. Now, 16<br />

years later, Duke School wanted to rekindle this magic by<br />

having Laura—once again, write a feature story about her<br />

Duke School friends!<br />



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