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The Duffer Brothers: Showrunners on Netflix’s Stranger Things

By Iain Blair

Kids in jeopardy! The Demogorgon! The Hawkins Lab! The Upside Down! Thrills and chills! Since they first pitched their idea for Stranger Things, a love letter to 1980’s genre films set in 1983 Indiana, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer have quickly established themselves as masters of suspense in the science-fiction and horror genres.

The series was picked up by Netflix, premiered in the summer of 2016, and went on to become a global phenomenon, with the brothers at the helm as writers, directors and executive producers.

The Duffer Brothers

The atmospheric drama, about a group of nerdy misfits and strange events in an outwardly average small town, nailed its early ’80s vibe and overt homages to that decade’s master pop storytellers: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. It quickly made stars out of its young ensemble cast — Millie Bobby Brown, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink and Finn Wolfhard.

It also quickly attracted a huge, dedicated fan base, critical plaudits and has won a ton of awards, including Emmys, a SAG Award for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series and two Critics Choice Awards for Best Drama Series and Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. The show has also been nominated for a number of Golden Globes.

I recently talked with the Duffers, who are already hard at work on the highly anticipated third season (which will premiere on Netflix in 2019) about making the ambitious hit series, their love of post and editing, and VFX.

How’s the new season going?
Matt Duffer: We’re two weeks into shooting, and it’s going great. We’re very excited about it as there are some new tones and it’s good to be back on the ground with everyone. We know all the actors better and better, the kids are getting older and are becoming these amazing performers — and they were great before. So we’re having a lot of fun.

Are you shooting in Atlanta again?
Ross Duffer: We are, and we love it there. It’s really our home base now, and we love all these pockets of neighborhoods that have not changed at all since the ‘80s, and there is an incredible variety of locations. We’re also spreading out a lot more this season and not spending so much time on stages. We have more locations to play with.

Will all the episodes be released together next year, like last time? That would make binge-watchers very happy.
Matt: Yes, but we like to think of it more as like a big movie release. To release one episode per week feels so antiquated now.

The show has a very cinematic look and feel, so how do you balance that with the demands of TV?
Ross: It’s interesting, because we started out wanting to make movies and we love genre, but with a horror film they want big scares every few minutes. That leaves less room for character development. But with TV, it’s always more about character, as you just can’t sustain hours and hours of a show if you don’t care about the people. So ‘Stranger Things’ was a world where we could tell a genre story, complete with the monster, but also explore character in far more depth than we could in a movie.

Matt: Movies and TV are almost opposites in that way. In movies, it’s all plot and no character, and in TV it’s about character and you have to fight for plot. We wanted this to have pace and feel more like a movie, but still have all the character arcs. So it’s a constant balancing act, and we always try and favor character.

Where do you post the show?
Matt: All in Hollywood, and the editors start working while we’re shooting. After we shoot in Atlanta, we come back to our offices and do all the post and VFX work right there. We do all the sound mix and all the color timing at Technicolor down the road. We love post. You never have enough time on the set, and there’s all this pressure if you want to redo a shot or scene, but in post if a scene isn’t working we can take time to figure it out.

Tell us about the editing. I assume you’re very involved?
Ross: Very. We have two editors this season. We brought back one of our original editors, Dean Zimmerman, from season one. We are also using Nat Fuller, who was on season two. He was Dean’s assistant originally and then moved up, so they’ve been with us since the start. Editing’s our favorite part of the whole process, and we’re right there with them because we love editing. We’re very hands on and don’t just give notes and walk away. We’re there the whole time.

Aren’t you self-taught in terms of editing?
Matt: (Laughs) I suppose. We were taught the fundamentals of Avid at film school, but you’re right. We basically taught ourselves to edit as kids, and we started off just editing in-camera, stopping and starting, and playing the music from a tape recorder. They weren’t very good, but we got better.

When iMovie came out we learned how to put scenes together, so in college the transition to Avid wasn’t that hard. We fell in love with editing and just how much you can elevate your material in post. It’s magical what you can do with the pace, performances, music and sound design, and then you add all the visual effects and see it all come together in post. We love seeing the power of post as you work to make your story better and better.

How early on do you integrate post and VFX with the production?
Ross: On day one now. The biggest change from season one to two was that we integrated post far earlier in the second season — even in the writing stage. We had concept artists and the VFX guys with us the whole time on set, and they were all super-involved. So now it all kind of happens together.

All the VFX are a much bigger deal. For last season we had a lot more VFX than the first year — about 1,400 shots, which is a huge amount, like a big movie. The first season it wasn’t a big deal. It was a very old-school approach, with mainly practical effects, and then in the middle we realized we were being a bit naïve, so we brought in Paul Graff as our VFX supervisor on season two, and he’s very experienced. He’s worked on big movies like The Wolf of Wall Street as well as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, and he’s doing this season too. He’s in Atlanta with us on the shoot.

We have two main VFX houses on the show — Atomic Fiction and Rodeo — they’re both incredible, and I think all the VFX are really cinematic now.

But isn’t it a big challenge in terms of a TV show’s schedule?
Ross: You’re right, and it’s always a big time crunch. Last year we had to meet that Halloween worldwide release date and we were cutting it so close trying to finish all the shots in time.

Matt: Everyone expects movie-quality VFX — just in a quarter of the time, or less. So it’s all accelerated.

The show has a very distinct, eerie, synth-heavy score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the Grammy nominated duo. How important is the music and sound, which won several Emmys last year?
Ross: It’s huge. We use it so much for transitions, and we have great sound designers — including Brad North and Craig Henighan — and great mixers, and we pay a lot of attention to all of it. I think TV has always put less emphasis on great sound compared to film, and again, you’re always up against the scheduling, so it’s always this balancing act.

You can’t mix it for a movie theater as very few people have that set up at home, so you have to design it for most people who’re watching on iPhones, iPads and so on, and optimize it for that, so we mostly mix in stereo. We want the big movie sound, but it’s a compromise.

The DI must be vital?
Matt: Yes, and we work very closely with colorist Skip Kimball (who recently joined Efilm), who’s been with us since the start. He was very influential in terms of how the show ended up looking. We’d discussed the kind of aesthetic we wanted, and things we wanted to reference and then he played around with the look and palette. We’ve developed a look we’re all really happy with. We have three different LUTs on set designed by Skip and the DP Tim Ives will choose the best one for each location.

Everyone’s calling this the golden age of TV. Do you like being showrunners?
Ross: We do, and I feel we’re very lucky to have the chance to do this show — it feels like a big family. Yes, we originally wanted to be movie directors, but we didn’t come into this industry at the right time, and Netflix has been so great and given us so much creative freedom. I think we’ll do a few more seasons of this, and then maybe wrap it up. We don’t want to repeat ourselves.