Brothers Matt and Ross Duffer still vividly remember growing up on the Orange County line, in the suburbs of Durham. Each "sticky, humid summer," when they were on break from Duke School, they'd make a movie with their friends.
"Some of our fondest memories are of the movies we made during the fourth grade," Matt says. "They're rough, but it was the most fun we ever had. A lot of what we do is trying to recapture what we had growing up."
The Duffers are now poised for a breakthrough with a love letter to the era of their childhoods. They created the eight-episode series Stranger Things, which recently went up on Netflix. Equal parts horror and nostalgia-fest, the series concerns the disappearance of a young boy in the 1980s, which prompts his friends and family to investigate as sinister forces descend on the town.
Fans of the era's genre films will spot plenty of visual and narrative homages in Stranger Things, from the synthesizer-driven score and the Stephen King-style title card to the presence of eighties mainstays Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine in major roles. There are shout-outs to movies such as Poltergeist, The Goonies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Less Than Zero, and to pop-culture touchstones from X-Men comics to Dungeons & Dragons.
"What we responded to when we saw films like that as kids was that they didn't talk down to us, that the stakes were really high," Ross says by phone from Los Angeles, the day after the last episode of Stranger Things is finalized. "If you read something like It or watch that train coming at them in Stand by Me, you're afraid they could die. The kids felt real, and reminded us of us and our friends."
After producing several shorts, the Duffers initially got attention for their 2015 feature film, Hidden, and for writing a few episodes of TV's Wayward Pines. Later that year, they signed the deal with Netflix for Stranger Things.
"We're more movie guys than TV guys," Ross says. "But we realized it's getting harder to make movies of a certain style, and this story felt like it needed much more than two hours. Plus, TV is becoming much more like movies, with Steven Soderbergh doing The Knick and Cary Fukunaga doing the first season of True Detective."
The Duffers built the series on the elements they remembered best from Stephen King's stories. They wanted to tell a story focused on young characters who are allowed to swear and face real danger.
"They're genre tales, and there are supernatural and horror elements, but you get a chance to spend some time with the characters and get to know the town," Matt says of King's work. "There aren't that many examples of stories that have meaty leading roles for kids, but aren't aimed at children."
When you're trying to put kids in danger, there's an advantage in going retro: Before the Internet and cell phones, it's easier to get them lost and in trouble.
"You're young, you go out on your bikes or into the woods, and your parents can't reach you," Ross says. "There's a sense of freedom, that maybe we'll stumble upon a treasure map. It doesn't feel like you can get lost in the same way as you could back then. It's nostalgia for that type of storytelling, and for our own childhoods, hanging out with our friends and getting into trouble."
The Duffers say their childhoods were relatively untroubled. The most disturbing things they saw in Durham were at the movies, and not just in Stand by Me.
"Our dad loved movies, but none of his friends did, so we were the movie-going partners," Matt says. "We were seeing R-rated stuff before we should have."
"The Carolina Theatre was a big part of our movie-going experience," Ross adds. "Amélie and Memento—seeing films like those were a big deal, and we were the youngest there by thirty or forty years."
Stranger Things is already earning positive reviews from outlets such as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and while the eight episodes complete a self-contained story, the Duffers hope to continue the series with their young actors.
"We fell in love with them and want to tell more stories with them as we watch them grow up," Matt says. And why wouldn't they? The Duffers have successfully resurrected their childhoods. That's not something many people would easily let go.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Kids Those Days"