EXCLUSIVE, SPOILERS ABOUND! If you haven’t watched the final two episodes that wrap Season 4 of Stranger Things on Netflix, you won’t want to read further until you’ve done so. The battle between Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) claimed a few beloved characters, wrecked the town of Hawkins, Indiana, and nearly crashed Netflix servers when the final two installments — nearly four hours worth — premiered Thursday at midnight. In a wide-ranging chat, Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer break down the seismic bombshell storytelling reveals that concluded the season. They also hint at where they’ll take viewers and their cast in the fifth and final season of the groundbreaking series, as they try to stick the landing on the finale of a show that in its way is as groundbreaking as Game of Thrones, True Detective and The Sopranos, all of which are as much touchstones to the possibilities of storytelling in the streaming age as are the ’80s horror film influences that crackle through the episodes.
DEADLINE: Before we get into the Season 4 plot bombshells, what were the biggest inconveniences the pandemic brought to Season 4?
MATT DUFFER: We’re always racing against time with our younger actors, who got six months older than when we initially started. There are actually scenes in this season — because we had all the scripts, so we shot all out of order — there was the scene when they leave Mike’s basement, and they’re outside. And they’re a year and a half older.
ROSS DUFFER: I think a year. I don’t think a year and a half. They do age radically.
MATT DUFFER: We were shooting for about three, four weeks when we got shut down. On a typical season, we’ve written about four or five of the scripts, and Ross and I stop working on the scripts because we’re directing the first two episodes. We direct the first two episodes, and then, we start to frantically try to finish the season up as production continues.
It’s always a little bit frantic and scary. It’s hard to make big pivots and it’s hard to look at the season as a whole. So, this year for the first time, we had six months off and we were able to finish all of the scripts, look at how it all played as a whole and rework some of the earlier scripts to make character moments more resonant in the back half of the episode, I think we were able to go back on a re-read and go, you know what, I’ve always thought that scene could be better. I always felt we could set up Eddie better in Episode One, this scene between him and Chrissy in the woods, the drug deal scene.
There are scenes that move the plot forward, and it was like oh, wait this is a real opportunity to not only set him up as a guitarist who plays a role in the finale, but it’s like oh, we could really enrich his character and Chrissy’s character in a way that I think was super impactful. So, it was an unusual circumstance that we’ll never probably find ourselves in again.
DEADLINE: You answer many of the mysteries about the Upside Down in that moment when Vecna taunts Eleven. He thinks he’s defeated her and Max’s friends, and he’s making her watch him kill Max and unlock the door to Hawkins, where he can send through his monsters. From a plotting standpoint, how long have you been salivating to drop that bombshell on the audience?
ROSS DUFFER: It’s been a long time coming. We’ve always wanted to go back in the lab and the origin of all this stuff, and so, we joked in the writer’s room, this was like Stranger Things revelations. We knew we wanted to get there with this season and that’s obviously the big bombshell in the volume two. We really wanted to give the audience a lot of the big answers. There’s still a few of the question marks that remain.
ROSS DUFFER: The biggest one being we set up in the Volume One finale how the Upside Down is stuck in time on the day of Will’s disappearance. That’s something we don’t answer in volume two, and that is really the key plot point, the key question that is going to drive our final season as we try to wrap up this story and give the rest of the answers out.
MATT DUFFER: We knew this was going to be the penultimate season and so we were able to do a lot of stuff that we haven’t been able to do before, like the four gate collision. We’ve always wanted the Upside Down encroaching into Hawkins in a more massive way. We hinted at it a little bit in Season Two but we want a full blown Upside Down invasion, and that’s something you just can’t hit the rewind on that one.
ROSS DUFFER: Yeah. Once that happens, there’s no going back. So, you could only really do that this deep into the story.
DEADLINE: The interplay is strong between Eleven and Vecna, as he lays all this stuff on her about how it was her and not Dr. Brenner who made his rise possible, from the first fight early on that put him in the alternate universe, to her opening and closing doors to battle demons that were his puppets. Vecna’s sociopath origins, as the little kid who played with black widow spiders and killed his family and blamed his father, kind of remind of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, but his infiltration of his victim’s dreams goes into Freddy Krueger territory, with some Stephen King mixed in there, and Halloween’s Michael Myers, who actually gets a shout out when they steal the Winnebago and you see the spray-painted William Shatner Star Trek mask he wore in the original Halloween. What are the touchstones that inform Henry Creel?
ROSS DUFFER: We’ve always wanted to do this style of villain with Vecna, it was just a matter of when. Part of that was driven by the fact that we wanted to go back to the “man in a suit” monster that we started with in Season One. We wanted our villain to be there, we wanted an actor on the set with the actors, and some of that came from our discussions of the types of horror movies that scared us the most growing up. They are all “man in a suit” horror movies.
Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, Pennywise. Those were the big influences. We talked a lot about those films and why they scared us so much. Not scared us like made us jump in the moment, but that got under our skin to the point I could not sleep. My mom would have to stay in the room with me. That’s how messed up I was by those movies. I saw them way too young. So how do we tap into that? Because our core group of kids were now teenagers, it felt very natural for them to be in a full blown horror movie. They couldn’t be on the Goonies-style adventure anymore, that feels a little odd. We talked about that and also the idea of, how do we infuse this and these ideas and what worked about those characters, with the Stranger Things tone and mythology to create something hopefully that feels fresh and new.
MATT DUFFER: You mentioned Hannibal Lecter. What we do like about this type of villain is, in Season One, a big reference was Jaws and Season Three it’s Jurassic Park, where these are just monsters that you can set on fire and you can blow up and go, smile you son of a bitch. But once you start going into the psychological villains, the Hannibal Lecters or the Freddy Kruegers or the Pinheads, they can outsmart you.
DEADLINE: Vecna sets up these kids, which nearly thwarted their elaborate plan to distract him so Steve, Nancy and Robin could sneak into the Murder House to kill the slumbering demon.
MATT DUFFER: You think you’re one step ahead of him, but he’s also anticipating your moves, so it becomes a little bit of a chess game. That’s scary to us. You think you can win, and well, it turns out they were one step ahead of you, which is the Hannibal Lecter element.
ROSS DUFFER: We do like the Hannibal thing because this guy is nihilistic. He’s highly intelligent. That’s scary. They’ve been dealing with it, but they haven’t been aware of it. So we introduce the idea of there being a voice between the Mind Flayer in Season Three and just not knowing who was behind that voice.
DEADLINE: Did Dr. Martin Brenner not know that this kid killed his family and framed his father, or did this kid’s sociopathic potential offer Brenner an opportunity to really mold a weapon without a conscience?
MATT DUFFER: The second, really. He knew what this kid did and also what he was capable of when he was young. Brenner’s going, how can I mold this character, but not just into a weapon? That’s really how he sold it to the government, but for him as a scientist, it’s like, what other worlds can this kid show me about how our universe works? So, he’s really just that scientist who’s not really thinking about the consequences. He just keeps pushing, pushing, pushing, and he’s using the government’s money by saying hey we can fight the Soviets with this kid. It’s something we will get into in Season 5. What happened to that program once Henry became involved and how Brenner evolved it into including multiple kids. We’re going to go back and see some of that in Season 5.
DEADLINE: Robert Englund shows up in a cameo as Henry Creel. Describe the dynamic between the Duffers and Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
MATT DUFFER: It was basically a fan boy dynamic but what was weird about the Robert Englund thing is, it was not our idea. It was our casting director Carmen Cuba’s idea. He self-submitted a tape for this role, and he did thi s… I think we watched around a dozen tapes. And suddenly, on audition No. 7 it’s Robert, sitting in the bathtub delivering his monologue. I immediately called our casting director Carmen and was like, “It’s Robert Englund. It’s Freddy Krueger. How could you not tell me this?” She wanted it to be a surprise for us.
What was so cool about it was that he had no idea, at the time that he put himself on tape, how heavily influenced this show was from the beginning by Nightmare on Elm Street. Nancy is called Nancy after Heather Langenkamp’s character in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. This season in particular is very much our Nightmare on Elm Street season, and Robert had no way of knowing that. I wish it had been my idea because it’s such a good idea to have him have this cameo role. I just wouldn’t have ever thought to go to him because it’s a big scene but it is just one scene ultimately. The fact he had been watching the show was exciting. When he was on set, I asked him a lot about Freddy Krueger, especially the first Nightmare and the third Nightmare films. I wanted to get everything I could out of him. But he was busy acting.
He’s one of those actors who does not mind talking about his most famous role, which is Freddy. So, he was happy. I got some signed Freddy Krueger posters. I’m a very happy camper. More than anything, we learned what a tremendous actor he is outside of being Freddy. And we really want to work with him again.
DEADLINE: Well, was there anything that he told you about Freddy Krueger mythology that you didn’t know or that was useful?
ROSS DUFFER: I’m sure he did. I don’t remember. Just hearing him even do the Freddy voice just…he’d do the Freddy voice sometimes out of nowhere and it just gives me chills every time. Even though I know he’s a very kind and gentle soul, it still sends those chills down your spine.
DEADLINE: Stranger Things always had a creepy genre vibe, but this is the scariest we’ve seen it. The characters are at that tumultuous sexual awakening stage; some are smoking and dealing marijuana. The language is saltier. Some of them become stoners. How aware were you in how you measured this progression as the cast aged along with your core audience?
MATT DUFFER: I remember particularly Season Three us being surprised because that was the biggest shift in their ages in terms of when they showed up on set versus what we were anticipating as we were writing the season. That was the biggest shock. And so, for Season 4, we really went ahead and were like, whatever is in our head of how old they’re going to be, they’re going to be older than what we’re thinking. That’s really what led ultimately those discussions of Nightmare on Elm Street.
Well, now we can put Max in real danger, and we can make the audience actually afraid for these characters, and we can put them straight into a horror movie. That’s really how this discussion began. I was not anticipating that on Season One. In your head, you’re like oh, they’re always going to be like this, and of course, they’re not. And so, it’s trying to anticipate and we’re even dealing with that with Season 5 as you’re trying to get in your head and anticipate what they’re going to look like once we get into production, which is a little ways away. So, you’re just trying to guess, but I would say Season Two to Three was the most shocking. There has always been that growth spurt time but that’s where it really hit us.
DEADLINE: You dropped another big bombshell in revealing who caused the carnage in that lab and that it was Number One and not Eleven who murdered all those kids. Before, we’d only seen bodies, and a bloodied Dr. Brenner asking a dazed and bleeding Eleven, “What have you done?” Talk a little bit about how that unfolded.
MATT DUFFER: We always knew that the other kids with the exception of Eight were dead. We always wanted to explore that and exactly what happened. It became a challenge because we knew we wanted to tell that story but it’s basically an origin flashback story. How do you keep that feeling relevant to what’s happening in the season, so when you cut to it, you feel like there’s some sort of forward progression and a connection? We knew it was going to connect ultimately to One.
That’s the other big question that we have never answered but we have always known, which is this character of One and how he ties into everything. And so, as far as the writer’s room, I think we probably spent the most time trying to figure out how we were going to weave in this backstory. How we were going to do it with Millie, even though she’s older now, and then, how we would pull off this One reveal.
ROSS DUFFER: It’s funny, because there are various comic books and side merchandise and whenever they come to us with those ideas, we would say, you can take any number but you cannot take One. One is ours. So, that’s been ongoing for the seven years we’ve been working on it, that just don’t do anything with One. We’ve been protecting that [revelation]. It is a relief to finally get him out into the world.
MATT DUFFER: It’s just always nerve wracking when you’re trying to pull off a twist. This isn’t a show that typically relies on or has many twists in it. I mean, that’s actually something I’ve always said to Netflix about the show, that it’s not a show, that it’s about the journey. It’s not about any twist. But this season, for once we actually wanted to do this twist. It was challenging, and a lot of time was spent. Because it’s not like a movie either where you’ve just got two hours to hide the ball. You’ve got to hide the ball for like nine or 10 hours but not in such a way that it feels unfair. The best twists come, and you go oh, my God, of course. How did I not see that? To me, those are the best.
ROSS DUFFER: Of course, Bruce Willis got shot. How did I not know? How did I not see that? He showed me in the opening scene. He told us. He told us.
DEADLINE: The Sixth Sense pulled off that neat trick, where you were grateful to have been fooled. When it’s not done seamlessly, when you can see if coming for miles or there was no way you could guess it until they throw in a plot point that doesn’t fit, it pisses you off. I was glad to have been fooled here.
ROSS DUFFER: That’s exactly right. I get mad if I feel like I got cheated and there was no way of me knowing, and I get mad if I see it coming too far away. I’m sure there’s some people who had figured it out ahead of time, but I think a lot of people figure out that he’s One, but they don’t see the back twist coming. It’s like three twists.
MATT DUFFER: Three twists in a row. Yeah.
ROSS DUFFER: You get one of them. It’s hard to get all three.
MATT DUFFER: That helped us hide the ball. Three twists in one.
DEADLINE: Dr. Brenner’s reaction was one of those twists. Did you always see Matthew Modine’s character as a full out villain? While he teams with Paul Reiser’s Doctor Sam Owens to help El regain her powers and prepare for the fight to save the world, was Brenner’s aim always to regain control? And why didn’t Owen see that?
MATT DUFFER: I don’t see him as a straight up villain, and a lot of that has to do with Matthew Modine. When we were writing Season One, I saw him in a much more sort of black and white way, as just a sheer antagonist. And Matthew was always very defensive of Brenner. If he saw fans criticizing him or him called the villain, he would bristle at it. I wanted to get in Matthew’s head in terms of like…what was interesting to me, and that’s what a great actor does, when they have a villain role.
It’s like they’ll find a way to justify everything that he’s done. He isn’t a bad guy in his head. In Matthew’s head, Brenner is not a bad guy and I thought that’s interesting to explore. So, from an audience perspective and from any reasonable person, you or I are going to look at this guy as a bad guy. He is. He’s done terrible things. He’s not redeemable in any sense, but what I wanted to get into was to try to understand why he did the things he did and how he could justify them. Because unlike Henry, he’s not a psychopath. He’s not a sociopath. There’s logic and reasoning there.
It was a slippery slope for Brenner, and he made too many bad choices, but even at the end…I think a lot of people are going to go well, obviously he went too far. But even by trying to prevent Eleven from leaving the facility, he still loves her and cares for her, and we found that complexity interesting. At the end of the day, Eleven even has these mixed feelings for him because he raised her in so many ways. It’s a very powerful moment in the way Millie portrays it. Where despite those confused feelings that she has, she can never forgive him or pardon him in any way.
DEADLINE: Like she evolved enough to not be stricken with Stockholm syndrome anymore?
MATT DUFFER: Millie gives an awesome performance in that final scene where you see that conflict in her face, and then to see her part and drop his hand and leave him behind, knowing that this man has actually been a terrible influence on her and caused so much pain and anguish in her life and made so many wrong choices. Leaving him behind. Realizing that he is the one who is responsible for this, letting go of that guilt. Anyway, that was a great day in the desert, filming his death scene. I think we did only two takes of Millie. She just killed it. She was unbelievable. I was like oh, you captured it.
DEADLINE: Isn’t that the great thing about being able to allow this to unfold over such a long period of time? Having tasted real life with her friends and a father figure in Hopper, she would finally have the maturity to say hey, this guy I called Papa treated me like a lab rat. Brenner may think he loves her, but she was basically his caged lab rat. There’s no way around it.
MATT DUFFER: Yeah. And that’s a fun thing too about television and seeing something like that unfolds over many, many hours and in this case, many years…is that you’re able to continue to develop these characters. Where if there’s a film, in that scene, Brenner would have been a black and white villain. To be able to spend a little bit of time with him and get in his head certainly does make him a much more interesting character.
ROSS DUFFER: No one is a villain in their own eyes. At the end, Brenner is capable of admitting mistakes but even at the end, I don’t think he sees the wrong that he did. I think he thinks he was doing things for the right reasons.
MATT DUFFER: There was always some level of truth to the things that he’s saying, even at the end where he’s trying to block her from leaving because he says, you’re not ready yet. It turns out he was right. We always find that interesting. Not that his methods were correct but that there’s always a kernel of truth in the things that he’s saying.
DEADLINE: On the subject of foreshadowing, we see Lucas Sinclair reading to his comatose girlfriend Max a passage from The Talisman. How many years down the road will that series adaptation be for you guys? That book by Stephen King and Peter Straub was about a boy jumping between worlds to save his mother, which would be familiar to Stranger Things fans. Why was that book such a formative influence?
MATT DUFFER: Well, if you can believe it, we’re really into Stephen King, and this was the ultimate. Our friend Curtis Gwinn, one of the main writers on Stranger Things actually asked if we’d be interested in getting involved. There was a show that he was talking with Amblin about. We were immediately excited. We loved The Talisman. It may be the last great ’80s Stephen King book that has not been previously adapted, and that’s only because Amblin and Spielberg have held onto it for as long as they have.
They own the rights, and they haven’t allowed any version to get made up to hopefully now. It’s a huge book, it’s really long and I don’t think it would ever have really worked effectively as a movie. Until recently, I don’t think it would have worked as television. It’s like we’re in this new era now where there’s a kind of a merging of television shows that feel and look like movies because they’re getting these pretty big budgets behind them.
So, something like Talisman that even five years ago was not doable, is very doable now. It involves a lot of things that are very similar to Stranger Things. It’s about a kid who’s trying to save his dying mother and he travels into another dimension in order to do so. I mean, it’s much more fantasy. It has sci-fi. It has horror elements. It has a lot of heart. It has everything that we love. And it’s got the best werewolf character I think, ever.
ROSS DUFFER: The original pitch for Stranger Things was, what if Stephen Spielberg is filming a long lost Stephen King book you’ve never read? So, how could we turn down a chance where there actually are those two guys working together?
MATT DUFFER: It’s definitely a dream project. In terms of when it’s going to get made. I don’t know. We just had a meeting about it, but it’s just an outline for the first episode. It’s a ways off but we’re really excited about it.
DEADLINE: You said that you would kill some characters this season. Beyond Brenner, we watched Eddie Munson die in the Upside Down, and he was still considered a likely murderer reviled by the hometown he tried to save. All he was was this guitar-playing minor drug dealer who’s into the video games and really cared for his friends. A lot of the polarization we saw in that town is reminiscent of what is going on in this country right now. But you’ve said one inspiration was Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis 3 who were on death row for killing kids, with the verdict rendered with no physical evidence and judgments made on the music and video games the three played. The two documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Peter Jackson freed them. Describe the Eddie character and why making that real person an influence was important?
MATT DUFFER: It’s something we’ve always wanted to do but we teed it up at the end of Season Three. We wanted to explore the idea of “satanic panic” because we have our kids playing Dungeons & Dragons. It was just this fascinating period that seems ridiculous now looking back, but it was very serious at the time. It was like major media. We have Eddie reading Newsweek and we’re demonizing this game and people believe that it was a really bad influence on kids. Bad to the point of causing them to commit murder and all these other heinous acts.
We felt like because D&D was such a core part of our show and we’re set in the 80s that it was something that we needed to explore. It seemed to go really nicely hand in hand with what we thought was going to be kind of our darker horror driven sequence. When you talk about satanic panic, Damien Echols was not 80s, but we thought he was caught up in something very similar, this mass hysteria. Obviously, Damien is alive now, but his is a tragic story we’ve been obsessed with. I think we saw the HBO documentary Paradise Lost. We were in high school when we first caught those, and then, of course we saw West of Memphis. It seemed like a really great character and a means to explore satanic panic, and that’s why that character kind of had tragedy etched all over him. Even had he survived the season, you know it wouldn’t have ended well for him. He would have been demonized and blamed for all this. The minute that Chrissy died in his trailer, it was the end for a character like that. He either ends up dead or in jail, and that’s the tragedy ultimately of Eddie Munson, and there was nothing really our kids would have been able to do for him.
ROSS DUFFER: There’s something so tragic and also baroque in that Eddie is holding out some sort of hope for humanity and even though he knows he’s being condemned by this community, yet at the same time, still fighting for it and finding some ray of hope. Especially in this group of characters that he’s working with this season but also this lost sheep that he talks to Dustin about. It’s the outsiders and all that. That’s who he still has hope in and who he’s fighting for.
MATT DUFFER: It’s like Dustin and Mike represents hope and the potential for things to get better. So, while Eddie won’t live to see that day, you know, very much his hope is that Dustin and Mike will.
DEADLINE: Max is another big development. You ended the season with Max clinging to life, with casts on her broken limbs, she’s blinded and comatose, after dying long enough to be that fourth victim that resulted in that rupture that allowed Vecna to tear apart Hawkins. We saw El — who brought her friend back to life — sitting on Max’s hospital bed. She seemed to go inside Max’s mind. It was a watery empty space. Are you saying there that Max is gone mentally? What are we saying there?
MATT DUFFER: Eleven has the ability generally to find people within their minds. And so, yeah, essentially, we’re saying wherever Max is, if she is still there, Eleven doesn’t know where she is.
ROSS DUFFER: Essentially, right now Max’s mind has completely gone blank. There’s nothing there, and that’s why Eleven has a breakdown there. It was like a minor victory in the sense that she was able to perform something of a miracle and bring her back to life. She’s not really alive in the sense that you and I think of alive. Eleven realizes that and it’s a very hard moment for her.
DEADLINE: While you dispatched a couple of characters, you’ve expanded the overall cast and managed a neat trick this season and in the two final episodes. Every character had a reason for being there, within three parallel storylines.
MATT DUFFER: The season wasn’t that atypical in the sense that we always split our characters off. Even when we were pitching Season One, we were going to have our teens. Jonathan and Nancy, they were going to be dealing with a Demogorgon. We were going to have our kids in a storyline centered on Eleven. We had the adults who were going to be more on a conspiracy tract. So, everyone is always sort of doing their own thing, in their own movie and in their own genre, and then they would all kind of come together at the end.
If there’s a formula in Stranger Things, that’s the formula. This season is not unique in that way. It’s only unique in the sense that they’re in different locations, which we liked for a couple reasons. We liked that it was so aesthetically different. Sometimes I think about it like in Star Wars sense. Like, someone’s on a desert planet Tatooine, and someone’s on Hoth, which is Hopper, and the kids are on Endor, which is Hawkins. Everyone is in their own different movie. Hopper is in a prison escape movie. Ross and I love prison escape movies.
DEADLINE: What’s your touchstone?
MATT DUFFER: My favorite prison escape movie is definitely The Great Escape. I love many, many prison escape movies. But Great Escape is the one I’ve seen the most.
ROSS DUFFER: Those movies, when they pop on TV, you don’t stop watching them. That’s one of them for sure. Speaking of different genre, there are also the California kids, they’re almost like in stoner action comedy, which was really fun to write. The Hawkins storyline is obviously a straight up horror film. And then, Eleven is on her own sort of trippy altered states journey into the past. The challenge of trying our hand at different genres is to get them to weave in a way that you don’t get whiplash when you’re going from one to the other. That’s something that we spent a while on in the outline just making sure everything flows and paces okay.
The other thing I really liked about them being spread apart this year was that it added all these additional challenges. There’s something about Eleven being in Hawkins that relieves a little bit of tension because, you know, you’ve got a super power girl. Even having lost power. It’s like this sense of her being as far away as she is that she can’t swoop in, or if she can, how is she going to be able to swoop in and save the day at the last minute? Hopper can’t do that either. We didn’t know the answers immediately, but I liked putting ourselves in those corners.
Like, I always heard Vince Gilligan say on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, they write themselves into these corners and then the challenge is finding a way for the characters to get themselves out of that mess. And if you have to spend a month thinking about it, then the audience is never going to figure it out because they don’t have a month to think about it. In this case, we split the volume into two.
We had a month to think about it, so someone will figure it out but we like putting our characters in really difficult positions and situations and then trying to figure out how the hell are they going to get out of it. It’s a challenge. There are many days in a room where you’re banging your head against the wall, but it’s fun when you actually figure it out.
DEADLINE: Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers got Stranger Things started, by disappearing into the Upside Down. He was this cute little kid, and now he’s a grown up good looking kid. He’s talking to Mike in that Surfer Boy pizza truck scene, telling him why he must fight for El and what she means to him, and then he turns away and cries, making you think he was professing his own love for Mike. Who was oblivious to what was said, beyond trying to get back his girlfriend El. Describe what’s going in Will’s mind there. Is he dealing with the feeling he might be gay?
ROSS DUFFER: Will was sort of still finding himself. He’s young still, even though he has grown up, and he’s afraid to fully express all his feelings to the people he really cares about. First and foremost being Mike. And so, that scene really exactly like you were saying is his way of at least relieving himself of some of that burden of saying some of the things out loud even if he’s not able to fully open up to Mike. He’s able to at least get some of those feelings out.
While Mike may not fully pick up on it, his brother does because he’s got that brotherly bond, which is why we wanted to do that scene in Surfer Boy Pizza in the final episode. Where his brother goes to him and without actually saying it, says I understand and I know, and they’re able to have that moment. Now, that journey of Will’s character is going to continue and that’s really going to be his arc as we move into the final season and complete that journey.
MATT DUFFER: Everything that he is, by describing how Eleven feels for Mike, he is describing his own feelings. It’s just for him it’s his way of, as Ross says, expressing himself and Mike just doesn’t understand, and not in a bad way. He misses it. He doesn’t get it, and I think when Will is crying it’s because he has all these feelings and Mike doesn’t understand and he can’t find a way to express them in a way that Mike can understand.
DEADLINE: In that cathartic scene between brothers, Jonathan talks about how he has always tried to protect his brother, like the time Will got a Lego figure stuck way up his nose. So which one of you as a child got a Lego figure stuck up your nose?
MATT DUFFER: That was Ross. Yeah.
ROSS DUFFER: I guess I was the troubled one because I also crawled backwards.
DEADLINE: That was something Steve said he did, as he was coming clean to Nancy.
ROSS DUFFER: So, I had the issues. [Matt] would go forward, and I would just go right back the other way.
MATT DUFFER: He actually did tumble down some stairs, which explains so many of the problems he has today. I love that you figured out that was true. So many of those childhood stories are real that we put in there.
DEADLINE: What is the biggest benefit of being twins and doing all this stuff together, and what’s the biggest disagreement you had plotting or shooting the series?
MATT DUFFER: I can’t imagine anyone doing a show by themselves. So, what is it like to be a twin or work with your twin? I don’t know what it’s like to do anything else. Ross and I have been making movies together since the third or fourth grade. They weren’t really movies. We pretended they were movies, but we did have a video camera and our friends and ourselves acted in them. We’ve just been working together for as long as I can remember, and I don’t know what it is like to not collaborate with someone. A show of this size, the collaboration moves outside of my brother but a lot of the big decisions do fall on both of us. I remember there was a day on set in Season 4 where Ross had to take an emergency phone call and I was left alone on set. I felt like a lost puppy. I just didn’t know when to stop shooting takes. I shot like 10 takes unnecessarily because Ross and I look at each other and there’s a small nod or just a look in the eyes and we know that we have it and I can let my anxiety drop and I know.
It’s a constant safety net, that someone you can check in with. Gut check that you’re doing the right thing. We try to trust our instincts. If both of us feel the same way, if we both feel the visual effects show looks off, then we know that’s something we should speak up about, and we share the workload in terms of the writing and everything. It makes the show doable. But television and film as a whole, it’s just insanely collaborative.
So, now we have my twin brother, but we have so many other people who feel like family now who are on the show. It’s the actors but it extends to our composers, our production designer, hair, makeup. So many people have been on the show since Season One. Most of us were super green and most of us came from either nothing much at all or indie film and to suddenly find ourselves doing this kind of big budget blockbuster show has just been amazing, but we lean on so many people.
DEADLINE: And the biggest creative disagreement?
MATT DUFFER: Was a big disagreement that we had? You’re going to get us in a disagreement right now by revisiting our biggest disagreement.
ROSS DUFFER: It’s hard to remember on this season in particular. Matt will probably bring up that I initially did not like the title Stranger Things.
MATT DUFFER: I was about to bring that up.
ROSS DUFFER: So, I’m just going to bring it up, but we lived so long with it being called Montauk, it became very strange to try to imagine it as anything else. So, I think that was the biggest disagreement. He saw that much earlier than I did.
MATT DUFFER: It’s funny because we could not and would not commit to a title, and I remember Ted Sarandos was like, “Enough! You have until Friday at noon to decide.” We’re like, “That’s not fair; the title is going to represent the show.” But he was absolutely right. Ross and I were just procrastinating, and it forced us to settle on the title Stranger Things. Yeah. It’s a friendly disagreement. Then I can think of some other mistakes I made that I don’t even want to admit to in terms of creative things I’ve pushed that maybe didn’t end up so well.
ROSS DUFFER: But luckily, we did both agree on Kate Bush this year.
MATT DUFFER: Kate Bush was not a disagreement. We instantly agreed upon.
DEADLINE: “Running Up That Hill” might be the best song fit for a movie or series since Cameron Crowe put Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the close of The Sopranos.
ROSS DUFFER: That’s a great compliment.
MATT DUFFER: So, we knew early on that music was going to play a key role. We had The Clash in Season One. We knew that this was going to be playing an even bigger, emotional role for Max and it became about finding out what that song was. Ross and I both separately generated our own ideas for the song we thought Max would be listening to and then our amazing music supervisor Nora Felder had her own list going.
None of us were communicating with each other. We were just viewing it separately, based on what we all felt about Max and what she would like, and knowing the requirement that the song would have to strike an emotional chord.
DEADLINE: What others did you consider?
MATT DUFFER: I don’t think I had many on my list.
ROSS DUFFER: I just pulled mine up. Season 4, Max. One, two, three, four. I only have five songs.
MATT DUFFER: I had six or something like that. I don’t remember how many Nora had, but the only overlapping song, the only song that we all had on our list was Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
DEADLINE: Can you tell me what some of the other choices were?
MATT DUFFER: Yeah, but there’s a reason we didn’t choose them. They’re great songs but they’re not right for…
ROSS DUFFER: I had, “Just Like Honey” from The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Dear Prudence” by The Banshees. “All We Ever Wanted Is Everything” by Bauhaus. So, it’s like we were trying to find…
MATT DUFFER: I only had “Running Up That Hill” from Kate Bush. “Cloud Busting” by Kate Bush. “Just Like Honey,” The Jesus and Mary Chain, and then, “Kids in America.” I don’t remember even having that one on there. So, that’s it. I only had four songs. Two of them were Kate Bush. Kate Bush just felt right. Then “Just Like Honey” I felt had been used a lot.
ROSS DUFFER: It’s too familiar with other things, I think. And I think what Kate Bush did narratively too was it gave the lyrics and her vocals emotionally work with Max, and I even just remember sort of hearing those sorts of drums that she’s doing and going well, I feel like we can have that because we needed it to build during that running sequence. We can take that and run and that on top with her emotional lyrics. There really wasn’t much discussion. Those other songs are all great, but at the end of the day, it was just…
MATT DUFFER: We wrote it into the script, turned it into Netflix and that was it. The thing I love about Nora is she just handles all the business aspect of it without looping us into it. So, I don’t have to hear about all the back and forth. I just know luckily that Kate Bush had seen the show and was a fan and was really supportive of the song being in it. We needed an artist because it’s not just a normal sync, it’s a song that we played a dozen times throughout the show. It required some level of remixing. So, it required cooperation from the artist and Kate Bush has been like amazingly supportive and cooperative. She is super excited about what’s happened, which is that her song, her music that is so brilliant, has resonated and reached a whole new generation for people who weren’t familiar with her.
DEADLINE: Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. After advancing the story in those last two episodes, what elements are you most excited to explore in Season 5?
ROSS DUFFER: One, we’re excited that the gang is back together in a sense. So, we’re excited to see some of our original groupings from that core group from Season One get back together on this journey. We’re excited about just getting into the Upside Down and what is really going on there. We have some things we’re pretty excited about that and I think there are still a few big surprises we have up our sleeves that we purposely held out of this season that we’re excited to bring to people.
MATT DUFFER: One thing I feel good about, we all feel good about, is the ending and where the show is going to end. It was like as soon as we got there and we were talking about it all with our writers, it just felt like it’s one of those ending where okay, that just feels an inevitable that’s it.
DEADLINE: How helpful is it to know your ending, and work backwards?
MATT DUFFER: That’s a huge relief that I feel we have the last whatever, 20 minutes kind of figured out. That’s so much of it. And the rest of it, I don’t know, it’s really exciting and I’m sure it’s going to change now that we’ve shot the fourth season and we’ve learned more about the stuff that’s really working that we’ll lean into on Season 5. What people have really responded to. We’re excited. We’re really excited to get to work on it.
ROSS DUFFER: It is but it’s still nerve wracking, because, this is it. You want to stick the ending not just narratively but with these characters who’ve been changing and growing over the course of all four seasons. You want to make sure that those arcs for everyone feels complete. So, it’s quite a bit of work to do to just get all of those arcs working in conjunction with the narrative.
MATT DUFFER: You can’t end on a cliff hanger anymore. Who’s going to end up with who, you can’t leave something unfinished. We have to tie up all the bows and all the loose ends or as many as we can because it really is the end of this story, and these characters.
DEADLINE: Game of Thrones and The Sopranos were big touchstones for you both. And when they ended, the creators got criticized. Game of Thrones, for wrapping things up hurriedly, and The Sopranos for an ending that left a lot of people confused. How much have those criticisms been on your mind and did you like the way those shows ended?
ROSS DUFFER: I did. Both of those endings are representative of those shows. Game of Thrones, the whole show has been pulling the rug out from under the viewers. And Sopranos? David Chase changed the game in terms of what television can do. So, narratively to make a bold choice like that, I thought was brilliant. But again, something like Sopranos, just like the show, it’s not something that in the moment you just stand up and cheer. It’s something that you mull over and you think about and then it resonates with you like a great novel would.
So, in those senses, I think that they did exactly what they needed to do for those shows. Just as Breaking Bad did, and Six Feet Under, another one that we talk about a lot. Friday Night Lights ended terrifically, twice. How do you do that? You know, so it is possible but obviously not every show ends well. Sometimes it’s because they’re trying to wrap it up too quickly because the network goes, you got to finish this, and they quickly have to tie some bows. The hope here is, now that we’ve had time to think about it, not only during the pandemic, but now when we’re going back into it, the hope is that we can land it well. But it certainly is nerve wracking.
MATT DUFFER: We’re trying not to overthink it or get too anxious because I think that will result in a bad ending. Or make us worry too much about oh, my God, how we please every single person? Because that’s simply impossible. We have a small group of writers. We’ll do what feels right to us and then, you have to hope that that will resonate with a wider audience. Is it going to make a hundred percent of people happy? No. I think the ending makes a hundred percent of people happy is probably not a very interesting ending. I feel really good about it. It’s not really comparable as an ending to any of these shows because Stranger Things is not those shows and so it’s not trying to be any of those endings. It’s just trying to be an ending that feels right for Stranger Things. It certainly went over well when we pitched it to Netflix. I saw some executives crying who I’ve never seen cry before. So, that was a good sign.
DEADLINE: They cried just from the pitch?
MATT DUFFER: It was an hour long pitch. Some of it was for the ending and some of it was just like oh, my God, this show that we’ve all been working on, everyone at Netflix has been on it…Matt Thunell, one of our main executives, he pitched Stranger Things to his bosses at Netflix in his first week on the job. He doesn’t know Netflix really outside of Stranger Things. It’s been for so many of us and so many people at Netflix, it’s just been a huge part of our lives. It’s sad not only for this story to be ending but for this show itself to be coming to an end.
DEADLINE: When do you expect to go into production and how many episodes will you need to finish what you’ve got to say here?
MATT DUFFER: You’re stressing me out now, Mike. I don’t know. You sound like Netflix. I want to take a few weeks off right after the Fourth of July. We’ll get back into the writing in August and we should know then. If you had interviewed us pre-Season 4, I would have said it’s nine episodes. But two of those episodes are movie length. That never would have come out of my mouth.
So, some of it is in the process of discovering it. That being said, I don’t think it’ll be quite as long both just in length and narratively as Season 4 was, just because we’re doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of narrative and also that our characters were all split up. I should probably stop talking now because I’m probably going to be wrong.
ROSS DUFFER: I’ve already seen some of our interviews where I’m like oh, wait. It’s inaccurate. Better not to listen to us. Believe it or not, after we do this break, we’ll be working seven days a week to try to get it out to everyone as quickly as possible.
DEADLINE: In the final moments that end Season 4, the characters just practically just got out of their cars, Will says he can feel Vecna, that he’s wounded but determined to return and finish the job unless they kill him first. We look up and we see ominous fires and black clouds. You made a major point about Winona Ryder’s Joyce and David Harbour’s Hopper going on a long-awaited date. It looks like they probably should make the reservation any time soon…
ROSS DUFFER: We’ll see. It’s a little awkward to go on the date right now with a looming apocalypse, but I’m sure they still were hoping for it one day.
MATT DUFFER: I think that’s actually going to be one of the coolest thinks to us, as we work on Season 5. We’ve usually had at least an episode two of regular life, how is high school, how is everyone’s love life? We can’t do any of that. So, what’s cool about 5, I hope the opening scene stays what it is. I don’t want to reveal what it is, but it starts pedal to the metal and we don’t slow down. It’s less of a restart than we normally do. It’s weird. We ended up splitting the season, which was not originally a plan, but we did Volume One and Volume Two. Season 5is more really like Part 2 of Season 4.
DEADLINE: You gone back and tinkered with some details after the episodes aired on Netflix. I recall Stanley Kubrick would do that after his films were in theaters, and they had to make new prints. Why do you do that, and will you need to scrub or add stuff on Season 4?
MATT DUFFER: Well, we don’t scrub stuff. We just improve stuff. Mostly what you’ll see and probably no one but us will notice, we’ll improve some visual effects. I mean, the number of visual effects that we’re trying to get is remarkable and we’re super proud of the visual effects team and what they were able to accomplish. But it is on such a time crunch. I’m sure some shots will gradually trickle in and start to look a little bit better, but it’s not going to be anything radical that anyone notices.
In terms of the other shots where we did what we call George Lucas-ing, we did a little bit of a new color pass on Season One. If you watch when it aired versus when you watch it now, it looks a little different. It sounds a little different. The mix now is what we mixed, it’s the correct mix. It’s not doing anything crazy. We’re not adding CG creatures in the background or anything like that. It’s just subtly trying to put it back to what was originally intended. That is what George Lucas was doing as well. I’m just saying it’s not as radical.
ROSS DUFFER: No. We’re not adding scenes or adding CG monsters, but hopefully just improving it little bit by little bit. But I don’t think in a way that anyone will notice.
MATT DUFFER: I look at it like a video game patch. Video games, they’ll patch them and fix little mistakes or little tech errors. That’s really what it is.
ROSS DUFFER: Easier for us than it was in Kubrick’s day. Netflix just uploads a little file. It’s really incredible. I mean, we’re going to be dropping in shots tomorrow that will be up by Friday. I mean, it’s pretty incredible what you’re able to do. I don’t understand any of how Netflix does it. They put it on the site, and it just takes a while to upload, and they never know exactly how long it’s going to take. It’s all a big mystery.
DEADLINE: Digital media works much the same way. Back in my days at Variety, you screw up someone’s name spelling and it’s forever. Now, someone asks for a fix, and you say, give me 30 seconds. Last question: Stranger Things has all these ‘80s movie touchstones. Which are your favorites from that decade?
MATT DUFFER: Gosh, how long do we have? Early on it was Goonies. We were the age of the kids when we saw that and it felt like me and my friends on an adventure and that was a first time I felt that so powerfully. Then there was ET. Really, everything freaking Amblin and Spielberg did in the ’80s. It’s that style of storytelling that Spielberg perfected in the ’80s that probably has the biggest influence on us. It’s a style of storytelling that people weren’t doing anymore. I guess it had kind of gone out of fashion. Everyone was more into the grounded, edgy, dark Chris Nolan vibe, at least when we kind of came up with this idea.
JJ Abrams had done Super 8, which we loved, but that was it, and certainly nothing else like it in the TV landscape. I was like, I still love that style of storytelling and we wanted to get back to that. Then there’s all the horror influences. Ross and I, we’re actually more 90s kids. We saw Scream when it came out. It scared the shit out of us, and then, it inspired us to go back and watch all the movies they were referencing. That started a fascination and obsession with John Carpenter and all his films but specifically Halloween, and The Thing and Wes Craven and the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The Nightmare on Elm Street series in particular, and then, we went a little darker when we got a bit older and we did Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2. Hellraiser. That was another one. I’m sure I’m missing a ton.
John Hughes was a big influence on us. I’m wearing my Home Alone shirt right now. Chris Columbus had a huge influence on the way we think of story and the types of stories that…
ROSS DUFFER: I don’t know if you’ve read that transcript where Lucas and Spielberg are figuring out Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s incredible, but a lot of what they’re talking about is the movies that they grew up watching and loving. So, one generation influences the next, that influences the next. It’s like the masters are influencing that new generation. When we think about it or even think about Stranger Things, for us, that’s what it is. These are the movies that made us want to do this. And so, when we’re looking for inspiration, that’s obviously the first stop.
MATT DUFFER: You think Star Wars is that first blockbuster movie that opens with a spectacular sequence before you even get to know the characters and it just draws you in with this huge music. But then you go watching like a Michael Curtiz film like The Sea Hawk. And the opening and the score sound remarkably similar. I love the idea of taking inspiration from these films that moved us when we were kids and basically transplanting that into now, into something a little more modern, which is streaming. Streaming didn’t exist back then. So, what is that? That’s what excites us. What does that type of story look like with the technology we have now and specifically what this new storytelling form in the medium of streaming.
DEADLINE: Your touchstones are movies, and you concluded Stranger Things’ fourth season with what feels like a four-hour movie. What you’ve done in genre storytelling is unprecedented in the way that the first season of True Detective, this slow peel of complex characters with a chilling murder in the background. Like, whoa, you can do that?
MATT DUFFER: I don’t think this show would exist without True Detective. I remember seeing the ad for it, and it was like, this is not TV…I don’t know what this is. This is a movie, right? It’s got movie stars in it. We’re part of this wave but that was a thing. Game of Thrones really helped move the ball down the field. I’ll always be grateful and look up to Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] for what they did for television. Sopranos obviously changed television.
I remember seeing that pilot when it came out on HBO and going, this is not television. David Chase grew up not wanting to do television. We were the same way. He wanted to do movies. And so, basically, he made a massive movie, and in the process, inadvertently changed television forever. So, it’s been exciting to see that happening in real time in our lifetimes, seeing television change so radically.
We’re just as inspired by everyone we’re seeing, and you want to keep pushing that. What can TV be, both in terms of spectacle like a Game of Thrones and another one for us was The Knick with Soderbergh, which is criminally underseen. This is a tour de force filmmaking, essentially an eight-hour movie and not by committee. It is an auteur attempt at making an art piece as an eight-hour film, from the vision of a singular person. So, that’s the kind of stuff that we see that inspires us and makes us want to keep doing this.
DEADLINE: Writers like you, Taylor Sheridan and others, are breaking TV ground by making what you consider to be eight- to 10-hour movies. Movie influences aside, isn’t this longform television in a golden age and the best way to tell a complicated story?
MATT DUFFER: It’s kind of. There are time and budgetary limitations. You have certain ambitions and I think people think we’re able to do everything we want to do. That’s just not the case. But you have 13 hours, right, and that’s just massive. Ross and I are control freaks and it’s hard to control that much material. That is the appeal of doing a shorter story as a movie, but the benefits you get from having a larger canvas to paint on, I don’t know, it’s probably worth it.
Ross and I started off being not interested in television. Now? It’s like well, this affords us so many more possibilities, and it’s also really fun to look at some of the stories that inspired us and go, wait, what does that look like in a long form, because it’s been done as a movie? I don’t think Stranger Things as a movie is particularly interesting. What’s interesting about it is that the first season is eight hours. That’s what’s interesting. We’re able to tell this story of Hopper the cop, and the kids and the teens. That’s what makes it new and interesting. Each of those storylines on their own, you’ve seen variations of it before but haven’t seen it often woven together over that length of time. So, it feels like a new world. It feels like, endless possibilities. We’re attracted to both things. We’re still movie lovers at heart but we’re excited by the possibilities.
ROSS DUFFER: It’s part of a wave of something that’s new.
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