“It’s cliché to say bigger and darker, but that’s really what we tried to do,” said Stranger Things co-creator Matt Duffer of the second season of the Reagan Era drama that launched today on Netflix.
Back for a nine-episode run and very timely despite being set in 1984, the SAG Award-winning and Emmy- nominated series that Ross and Matt Duffer unleashed back in the summer of 2016 sees the return of Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, the Upside Down and the Byers family and friends of Hawkins, Indiana. In short, nothing was broken in the Winona Ryder and David Harbour led series so the Duffers and the streaming service didn’t try to fix it in ST2. They did, however, add to the show with a bigger visual palette and new cast in Sadie Sink, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser and Dacre Montgomery, with his straight out of Lost Boys ethos.
As ST2 was about to achieve lift-off, I spoke with the Duffer Brothers about their aims for the new season and the challenges of another round of the Upside Down. The duo also hinted as to where and how Stranger Things could all end down the line. Never hesitant to wear their enthusiasms on the screen, the executive producers revealed too how they were inspired by Game of Thrones and James Cameron, among others, this time. The Duffers also explained why they decided to treat Stranger Things 2 more like a big screen sequel and less like another run on the small screen – and why they think that works.
DEADLINE: You guys really decided to go timely with Season 2, literally and figuratively, didn’t you?
ROSS DUFFER: With the Halloween thing you mean? Yeah. I remember we just had a meeting with Netflix and we were just doing the math of how long it took to make Season 1 and how long it would take to get Season 2 out. Obviously we all wanted it as fast as possible, but we were unable to get it within a year. So what we realized is that ‘hey listen, but we can get it in time for Halloween,’ and then it’s when we came up with that date. We thought it would be fun to set it around that and use that date to our advantage since we couldn’t hit the year
DEADLINE: Halloween aside, and it’s a big part of Season 2, there’s a line from David Harbour’s police chief Hopper in ST2 that I quoted in my review where he says “it’s not like it was before, it’s grown.” Feels to me like that is the core of Season 2 for you guys?
MATT DUFFER: It’s cliché to say bigger and darker, but that’s really what we tried to do. We wanted it to feel bigger. I guess the thing is we’re movie guys, I mean, we grew up really only watching, caring about movies. I didn’t really get into television until college, and so I was really late getting into it. And so even though there was some concern from Netflix in terms of calling it Stranger Things 2 and treating it like a sequel, that’s really the only way we know how to do it.
— Stranger Things (@Stranger_Things) October 27, 2017
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
MATT DUFFER: Well, most of the lessons I’ve learned have been from movies. So our reference points were mostly movie sequels. Obviously there are more failed sequels than there are successful ones, which is scary. But you look at the ones that you respect and admire and you try to take the lessons from those and you try to take lessons from the ones that didn’t work as well and avoid the mistakes they made. And our favorite sequels tend to up the ante a little.
DEADLINE: Now, you’ve thrown down – what were the sequels that served as inspirations for ST2?
MATT DUFFER: (laughs) We talked a lot about that.
ROSS DUFFER: A lot.
MATT DUFFER: I feel like James Cameron is the master of it. I mean, The Godfather Part II is a great movie but not a great reference here just because we’re looking at popcorn films and then big summer blockbusters and the successful sequels there.
So we talked a lot about Aliens, we talked a lot about Terminator 2. I also think the Indiana Jones movies are interesting ones to talk about. I actually love a lot about Temple of Doom, even though Spielberg seems to disown that movie. I also love Last Crusade for a very different reason.
DEADLINE: Which is?
MATT DUFFER: Well, something like Last Crusade’s really interesting in that it does hit a lot of the same beats as Raiders and it can get knocked for that. But it also introduces the Sean Connery character, introducing enough new elements that it feels fresh while also feeling very much in like an Indiana Jones movie.
DEADLINE: Where does Cameron and T2 fit in that pantheon?
MATT DUFFER: With James Cameron, he always tends to increase the stakes, doesn’t he? He took it from one alien to many, many aliens. That’s sort of become the sequel cliché now, but it worked and he pivoted genres. I mean, we didn’t do that but I think that’s an interesting thing to do.
And then Terminator kind of went from being like almost a horror movie and he didn’t have a lot of money on that one. I have a real fondness for the original Terminator. I prefer…
DEADLINE: You must be fond of it, there’s a little visual shout out to it in Season 2.
ROSS DUFFER: Yeah, which actually wasn’t that easy to get. I love the original Terminator too but I love T2 also. I think that T2, it’s still the same, takes a lot of the same characters but it does new things with them, that’s important.
MATT DUFFER: So, for us, with a second season, we wanted the sequel debate, you want people to argue about it. That was sort of the goal and I think that honestly we learned a lot doing Season 1, so there was a lot that we felt that we could do better.
DEADLINE: With Season 2 now under your belts and having said you see Stranger Things as four season series, do you have a sense of how this is all going to wrap up?
MATT DUFFER: We have an ending in mind, you know what I mean? We think we know where we want it to end basically, we’re not sure how long it’s going to take to get there. If a lot of people continue to watch the show that’s not reason enough to do another season. There has to be a narrative reason for it to exist. Mostly we have to be excited about it and actors and everyone involved who give so much of their time over the show have to be excited about it.
And it’s not like a typical show in that it wasn’t really built to sustain like 10 seasons. I don’t know how long it goes but it can’t go on for that long. At a certain point it’s just going to be absurd, in terms of like why are these people leaving town? (laughs)
ROSS DUFFER: How many bad things can happen to them? So there’s a lot of stuff we have to figure out from a narrative point of view and I don’t want to run out of things, you don’t want to start repeating yourself. One of the things I like is I do love that you’re able to track these kids as they get older. People always are asking about the challenges of the fact those kids are growing. I actually love that they’re growing because it forces the show to evolve, and so even if we wanted it to feel the same every year, we wouldn’t be able to. We’re forced to change it. The characters are naturally evolving and they’re going to go into high school and so every year it’s going to feel very different and that’s exciting for me.
DEADLINE: The first season seemed to come out of nowhere but for Season 2 you guys really made sure things were kept under lock and key. So what do think will surprise people the most about ST2?
ROSS DUFFER: Well, there’s Sean Astin’s death, the Barb closure, but God, I don’t know. Do you know?
MATT DUFFER: I don’t know either but I think we’ve done a pretty good job in the marketing, especially keeping Eleven’s storylines behind the curtain. I don’t think anyone even knows that she’s now with Hopper.
That was something that very early on we had to have a discussion with Netflix about it and it made everyone a little nervous. Because Season 1 was successful in a lot of ways because of her dynamic with the kids, with the boys, and we were saying we’re not going to do that all year basically.
I think that was important for us, that immediately started to define what Season 2 was going to be and that was going to be. That this year she was going to have her own separate journey of self-discovery and she isn’t going to rely on the boys at all. That she’s going to be completely cut off from them and she’s going to have to figure things out completely on her own. So that was something that was really exciting for us, so I think that’s going to be surprising for people.
DEADLINE: You talked about lessons learned from Season 1, what are the lessons learned from Season 2?
MATT DUFFER: Season 2’s too fresh for me to know still, I’m still processing things. For Season 1, I think for us it was mostly writing and just figuring out how to structure an eight-hour story in a way that it felt like it had a constant build to it and was never treading water at all. So I thought we did a better job of that this year. I was happier with it this year. I felt we got the structure just right, and also having the climax crescendo in a way where you’re having everyone involved in a very meaningful way. I really thought we did a better job with the climax this year.
ROSS DUFFER: The hardest thing with this story is that we were tracking these multiple storylines and having them sort of build about at the same pace as to crescendo at the same time. It’s always the hardest part as we move into writing.
Like we’re starting on Season 3 now, it’s always the most difficult thing just to get those to build simultaneously. It’s always a challenge, and so we’re still learning. I mean, we’re trying to do this eight-hour, nine-hour movie so to get that pacing just right, you know, it’s always hard.
MATT DUFFER: And we’ve learned a lot about visual effects. The first year we were like we’re going to do everything practically. We really wanted to be old school about it. You know, being those kind of obnoxious movie guys that you know complains about too much CG.
DEADLINE: There is certainly a lot more visual effects this year, looks like that’s where a lot of having a bigger budget went…
MATT DUFFER: I know there were concerns where everyone was like we want it to still feel like Stranger Things. We don’t want to rely on these big visual effects to drive anything. But what’s interesting about it is like if you count up the number of visual effect shots, it kind of adds up to the same amount of visual effects that are in a two-hour movie, a big budget two-hour movie but spread out over nine hours.
DEADLINE: Was that intentional?
MATT DUFFER: What I was excited about pitching to Netflix was we had built a foundation. We have these characters who are continuing to develop, who people care about, but let’s start to put in some movie style visual effects.
Because I saw Game of Thrones do it and I thought that that was to me pretty eye opening and revolutionary. It was really the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode, where you have this spectacular battle sequence. But the thing is unlike a lot of big budget movies nowadays you’re very invested in the people who are in the middle of that battle. Which, to me, takes it to a whole other level. So what’s exciting to me is to take all these incredible tools and apply them to this sort of character-driven storytelling that’s happening right now.
DEADLINE: Obviously one thing that struck a lot of us when the first season launched was how almost effortlessly you guys hung the Reagan Era trappings not around but really through your story. I usually get tired of in-jokes and homages pretty quick, but I really felt Stranger Things referenced the 1980s, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and other movies and music from a place of real heart as it was set in that time. Even with a bigger palette, you didn’t feel a need to back off from that?
ROSS DUFFER: Well, I think end of the day, though, the show is kind of defined by our taste and what we like and it’s got going to align with everybody tastes. And you can’t start adjusting or lying to yourself about what you like just because someone else says it’s not cool.
I will say I was pretty naïve when Season 1 came out, though. I was shocked when those first reviews came out by how much was focused on the references, and I was not expecting that people were going to be talking about references to the extent that they ended up talking about it. But I try not to worry about it, it’s honestly what we love and we’re just trying to write and make something that we would like and try to stay true to our taste as much as possible.
DEADLINE: Taking movies again ,have you guys ever heard from Spielberg or John Carpenter about the series and their clear influence?
ROSS DUFFER: (laughs) I’ll plead the Fifth on that. There are some things I’m not supposed to talk about.
MATT DUFFR: I will say that we have not heard from everybody. But the ones that we have spoken to, and I can say Stephen King just because he has Tweeted about it, you know, they’ve been so generous with both in terms of offering advice and mentoring. Everyone that we’ve met whether they’re A-list or not have been so incredibly generous. Also the ones that we have, like I’ve been inspired by, they’ve been very flattered by it and very positive.
ROSS DUFFER: Yeah, no one’s mad about it, which is great.