The Twin Brothers Who Brought the 1980s, and Winona Ryder, Back on Screen

The Duffer brothers with Winona Ryder on the set of their new Netflix show, 'Stranger Things'. Credit: Netflix

To say Stranger Things, the new show set to premier July 15 on Netflix, is a love letter to the eighties is something of an understatement. From the John Carpenter–inspired synth soundtrack to the surreal suburban landscape, this show absolutely swims in homages to Steven Spielberg, Wes Craven, Richard Donner, and so many others that it would be impossible to name them all (we’re sure you’ll try). The inspiration behind this comes from the Duffers, twin brothers who grew up on the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons, making movies, and reveling in the cellphone-free world of suburbia in which they grew up.

First, the suburbs in Stranger Things: They’re so picture-perfect 1980s, it’s like a period piece.

We were shooting in Atlanta, and there are just little pockets, these neighborhoods that really haven’t changed at all. They’re little time capsules to the ‘80s. I kind of fell in love with the fact that we did it in Atlanta, just because it looked a lot like the places we grew up in North Carolina, so the neighborhoods where we shot recalled so much of our own childhood.

You grew up in Durham?

We were sort of on the outskirts, right by the county line, the little bit of nowhere. You’d go outdoors, in the backyard with your friends, and you were just in woods, and there was this sense that anything could happen — that you might find a treasure map or something like that. And your mom couldn’t catch you on your cellphone because you didn't have one. You went outside, you went exploring, or we went by the train tracks or whatever, and it really felt like this big adventure, particularly during the summers. That was the feeling we wanted to try to capture.

There’s a lot of '80s nostalgia today. What are so many of us trying to regain?

We were the last generation to grow up without cellphones and without texting, and we’re probably the last to have that kind of experience. If we were going to hang out, it would literally be with our friend next door. Everything took so much longer to organize. So I think there is something exciting to that, that this neighborhood was your little town, and your friends there were just apart of your town, and you would go off on these adventures. I feel like that’s something that’s probably a little bit lost now because everyone is talking all the time and just instantly connected.

So what do you two do to unplug?

Oh man, we do not unplug enough. I know that somebody could be trying to reach me or whatever, and that drives you crazy when you are unplugged. It feels like chopping off another limb. I mean, it is an addiction. We’re just as held by it as everybody else.

The kids, the teens, and the adults all seem to have different worlds, with different cultural reference points.

Yeah. The teens are in that sort of ‘80s horror film like Nightmare on Elm Street — or that John Carpenter film that’s created by the pains and difficulties of high school, loss of innocence is juxtaposed with this super mass of evil. The kids are in a bit more of a Steven King novel, like Stand By Me or It — where nerdy outsiders have to band together to overcome this terrifying horror. Early on, the question of whether this was going to work or was this going to feel coherent was something we were worried about, and so we cut together this trailer where we put in, I think we had 30 something movies, and we had clips from them, and I mean from Let the Right One In to E.T. to — everything that was an inspiration. And then we tried to tell our story with those clips, and then we put John Carpenter music over it, and the minute you had the  music, kind of thread scenes together, and it worked really really well.

Why Winona Ryder?

She was the first idea from our casting director for any role. And we fell in love with it. Because we grew up kind of more, at least in the theaters, we were watching early ‘90s stuff. So we kind of grew up steeped in a lot of her films, and they're kind of staple parts of our VHS collection. We really missed movies with Winona Ryder, and I knew that I would be excited if I saw that coming out in the show. I think we hit her at just the right time. I think two years ago, even, I don’t think she would have done television, but I think when Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson jumped to True Detective, they kind of really opened the doors for other actors, major movie stars, to want to do television.

Where did the crazy synth music come from?

We wanted it fully electronic. These two guys, Kyle and Michael, had never scored anything in their lives, they were part of this Austin synth band called Survive. So we called them and were like, would you quit your jobs and work on this show full time? And they were, like, "Hell yes." So they started scoring music last summer when we were just writing scripts, and now we have, I think 13-and-a-half hours of music from them. [From the start[ we were pulling this vast library of music from them, and scoring the show. No one ever saw episodes of the show without the music, so I don't even know what that would be like.