It's only three weeks until Stranger Things 2 premieres when I get on a call with Matt and Ross Duffer, the show's creators. They're scrambling to get the last of the visual effects done for the second season of their hit Netflix show, but they seem relatively relaxed despite the short time frame and stupendously high expectations from fans.
I instantly connect with them, and as we chat, I realize why—as well as why Stranger Things has become so wildly successful. Beyond the show's 1980s pop-culture references, wonderful cast, superb visual effects, and attention to detail, passion is at the show's (and, by extension, the Duffer Brothers') core.
And that passion breeds authenticity; though the 1980s aesthetic and pop-culture references help tell the story of Will Byers and the Upside Down, Matt and Ross don't want them to overshadow their ultimate audience takeaway: the joy, wonder, and fear of what it was like to be a kid.
When they were kids, Ross and Matt spent their summers making home movies with their friends. From the fourth grade on, they'd take their Hi8 camcorder and tripod and spend whole days going on adventures around their hometown of Durham, North Carolina, their parents completely unaware of where they were or what they were doing. They and their friends would just disappear into the woods.
"The biggest and most important part of our childhood was making movies," Ross told me. "Our whole drive in life was to do this for a living, and then also to try to recapture that feeling that we had when we were telling those stories in the summer."
They also watched a lot of movies, such as Stand By Me, E.T., and Poltergeist, over and over again on VHS. Watching movies, having adventures, and creating stories were a huge part of the 33-year-old brothers' childhoods. Matt specifically remembers watching The Goonies for the first time: "That movie was so powerful for us, because it really felt like we were watching ourselves go on an adventure. The kids in that movie were so similar to us and our friends, and they were going on this extraordinary adventure."
Matt and Ross want audiences to be as excited for their stories as they were when watching the movies they idolized as kids—and so far, it's working. It's one of Netflix's most marathoned shows, according to Business Insider, and is certified fresh with a 96 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Regarding the incredibly high audience expectations and whether they'll meet them, Ross is pretty grounded about it. "In terms of expectations, you really just try to appeal to yourself or what you think is cool," he said. "The minute you start calculating and trying to figure out what a huge audience is going to think, you're going to fail."
What's continued to stick with them all these years is the kind of storytelling prevalent in a lot of 1980s movies: coming-of-age stories disguised as adventure thrillers. The movies the brothers admired the most were about kids just like them who were thrust into these epic adventures that, in the end, changed them. "It's a type of story that we felt was kind of missing from the marketplace," said Matt.
Ross is quick to chime in, though: "I'd like to think that this type of storytelling can work without being nostalgic. We set it in the 80s for specific reasons, but it wasn't pure nostalgia. I'd like to think that you can tell these types of stories without necessarily rooting it in the 80s, and it would still work well with today's audiences."
"When we were first writing Stranger Things, the first thing we wrote was that Dungeons & Dragons scene," said Matt. "And we wrote it in about two minutes. It just poured out of us because it was so close to us. We just had to tap into that feeling we had when we were kids. That's the first time I ever experienced that, because typically you're trying to capture a voice, that you're trying to emulate—something that's not really who you are. Because it was so personal, it made it so much easier to write."
Ross's hope is that the show feels like it is something that could have been made in 1983, so they were very careful about which references they added and how often. "Yes, the kids will be talking about Star Wars. I mean, in E.T. you have Yoda references, right? That's what kids were obsessed with back then."
Matt interjects with a point about the second season: "In the Halloween episode, they all dress up as Ghostbusters," he said, "But, we dressed up as Ghostbusters for Halloween. So, that's not me going 'Oh my God, you remember Ghostbusters?' I hope that's why it works for people who grew up in that time—because they had friends who dressed up as Ghostbusters. We all grew up with loving Ghostbusters. So of course our kids love Ghostbusters."
Despite their best efforts, though, people love the nostalgia of the show—even those who were born after the 80s, like the Duffers themselves. "I think what's surprising about it to everyone is that it's connecting with a younger generation," Matt explained. "But I feel like there's something appealing about that time to a younger generation, I think—the pre-cell phone freedom, the way that kids were growing up then. I think maybe there's something there that holds a real strong appeal."
With season two, like any good movie sequel, the brothers have taken what they learned from season one—from the story and actors perspectives—and built on them. This season will focus more on Will Byers (Noah Schnapps), now that he's back from the Upside Down, and the repercussions that come out of his return. Unlike last season, Schnapps will be at the forefront of the show. This season will also see new characters: Aliens alum Paul Reiser plays a doctor from the Department of Energy; Goonie Sean Astin plays Bob Newby, who went to school with Joyce Byers and Sheriff Hopper; and also Sadie Sink, Linnea Berthelsen, and Dacre Montgomery.
As far as how many more seasons of Stranger Things we should expect, the brothers agree it's hard to predict. "We just want to make sure we're excited every year and we're not treading water," said Ross. "We do know what that end-point is. So, we know where we're headed, we know the destination. We're just sort of figuring out how long it's going to take to get there."