The Duffer Brothers, Matt and Ross, are the creative engine of “Stranger Things.”
They are the ones who created the show and write and direct the most episodes each season. “Stranger Things 4,” the first seven episodes of which are streaming right now on Netflix, is no different. They directed the most episodes this season, and wrote a majority as well. If anybody could answer our questions about this most recent chunk of episodes – which saw Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) regressing to her time in Hawkins Lab; the Hawkins gang go full “Scooby-Doo” as they tried to uncover the mystery surrounding a new foe from the Upside Down; and Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) travel to Russia in a desperate attempt to free Hopper (David Harbour) from a Russian prison – it’d be them.
Ahead of “Stranger Things 4,” Volume 2 release on July 1, we jumped on a Zoom with the Duffers to ask them the big questions we had after watching the first batch of episodes.
Major spoiler warning for “Stranger Things 4,” volume one!
Did Eleven create the Upside Down?
Matt Duffer: That is an answer … We start to get into a little bit of the history of the Upside Down or what the Upside Down is when Nancy discovers that it was frozen in time, and we continue to reveal a little bit more, peel back a few more layers in Volume 2, but you’re not really going to get the full answer until Season 5.
You’re not supposed to fully understand it right now. It’s one of the biggest mysteries of the show. And I don’t want to say too much about it. But that really becomes a huge focus in Season 5, just in terms of what exactly is the Upside Down and where are these monsters coming from? We do hint at it a little bit more in Volume 2, just as we did in volume one, but those are some still big answers that need to happen in Season 5.
How hard was it to bring back Brenner?
Matt Duffer: Well, what’s interesting about the first one, he’s a little bit more of that… He’s like Keys in “E.T.” He has very little dialogue. You don’t get to know him at all. And what was so interesting working with Matthew [Modine] on season 1 and talking to him afterwards was, he did not see himself as the villain. Like any really great actor, he understood where he was coming from and had justified it to himself. And I found that interesting. He actually took offense if people treated him as though he were the villain, or booed when his character came on screen at fan screenings and stuff. And I was like, Well, that’s really interesting.
We always wanted to revisit him, which is why we didn’t show him dying at the end of season 1. We were just waiting for the right time. And what worked for us this year, when we realized that Eleven no longer had her powers, was putting her in this dilemma where she needs her powers in order to save her friends in Hawkins, in order to save Hawkins. And the only person who can provide her or help her rediscover her powers is the person who taught her in the first place, Dr. Brenner. This man she has grown to hate over the years. It felt like a lot of really juicy drama. And then it also allowed us to explore Brenner and, not justifying his behavior, but understanding how he would justify his behavior. That was interesting to us.
A lot of it came through discussions with Matthew, discussions with the writers, and I’m really excited for people to see him in volume two. I think he gives an amazing, both him and Millie are amazing. And you learn a lot more about his motivations.
To that end, does Brenner know that One is still alive?
Ross Duffer: Well, he doesn’t… Well, now, at this point, he does. Because that’s why him and Dr. Owens are doing this program, because they realize when this dead body shows up that, Oh wait, this is reminiscent of what happened. And so, at that point, they weren’t sure prior to this, but once that first kill with Chrissy happens, then their fears are realized and that’s what jump starts their whole storyline. I mean, that is why Owens is collaborating with Brenner, a man he also does not like. He respects him, but despises the man, because he also knows he’s the key to stopping One, to stopping Vecna.
Onto Vecna, there’s a little bit of confusion as to whether Vecna is the big bad or if the Mind Flayer is still in play. Dustin calls Vecna the Mind Flayer’s lieutenant.
Matt Duffer: It’s great actually, because everything that everyone is confused about is mostly addressed in Volume 2. It’s so weird, we’ve never released part of a season before. You know what I mean? Now, Volume 2 is not going to answer every question, but it’s going to answer a lot of the big questions like that. Like I said, the only stuff that is sort of purposely left dangling is some Upside Down questions. But hopefully most of the Vecna questions that people have will be answered in those last two episodes.
That was quite a twist, by the way. How hard was it to pull off?
Ross Duffer: Doing a twist is nerve wracking because just to … We talked about it a lot in the writer’s room and the best twists are ones that you go, “Oh, I should have seen that coming.” As opposed to the twists that go, “Oh, well that just came out of nowhere.” So, “Oh, I missed these clues along the way.” But you get nervous when you’re writing it because you go, “Well, to me it seems obvious that Henry, as a young child, doesn’t die. Why does he not die from Vecna?” And you’re just hoping that those little breadcrumbs that you’re leaving along the way aren’t so obvious that everyone starts to guess it.
But it’s always hard to know. I think that’s the biggest relief for me, at least, of seeing the reactions of the season is that – well, one, that Vecna is working and then two, that the twists work. Because it’s not like a movie. We don’t test screen this stuff. So I would say about, we get feedback from seven people, which is kind of crazy.
Who were the seven people?
Matt Duffer: It’s mostly Netflix. And our producers, and so it’s a really small group of people and they’ve all read the script so they can’t gauge the twist. You just don’t know. And, of course, some people guessed it. But the other thing that really helped, of course, was we knew we needed an amazing actor. And we had that in Jamie and we actually had him… It was some of the most challenging sides [usually lines of dialogue from other scripts to use for chemistry tests or screen tests] we’ve ever given any actors because we had him doing lines from ”Hellraiser,” which are really hard to sell. How do you sell, sincerely, in a very sincere, real way, “I’ll tear your soul apart”?
No one could do it. Jamie was the only one out of hundreds who could sell that line and make me believe it and not have it be kitschy. And then we also gave him sides from, and every actor who auditioned for the role, sides from “Primal Fear.” There’s that scene where Edward Norton, he tells Richard Gere and he flips. And that’s also, it’s a great scene, but a hard scene to pull off.
Jamie was the only actor who could do that and perform that monologue beautifully and Pinhead.
Ross Duffer: We’re really the first of anything that requires actors to read from both “Primal Fear” and “Hellraiser” for a single role. And I’m excited to know that people are finally seeing, because I think sometimes he’s so different as Vecna that now that people are seeing what… I mean, just in terms of both his performance as Vecna under those prosthetics was amazing. And his stamina, in terms of that is a very physical thing, to be under this weight of all these prosthetics.
Matt Duffer: But so it was almost like he was basically playing three roles. And he’s a tremendous actor. And an even better person.
He’s got those cheeks too which must be really great to put some goop on.
Matt Duffer: He’s got a great jawline to play a monster. He does, we did have a height requirement for anyone auditioning for the Vecna role, because he wouldn’t be too scary if he’s smaller than some of our actors. So that was the only requirement. And then you had to be able to do Edward Norton and “Hellraiser.”
Well, you talked about not having a test audience. Are you watching the reactions from people online and going, “Maybe we did spend too much time in Russia?” Or whatever the response is?
Matt Duffer: Right. I do go… I mean, I look online but I try not to do it too much. It’s not the easiest thing to… I’m not sure using Twitter as a gauge or Reddit as a gauge for general audience reaction is a good idea. It’s fun. It is fun to see and it’s fun to get some feedback, for sure. But I would not use that to adjust our storytelling. It’s hard to know. We also get data from Netflix, which is interesting.
Ross Duffer: The honest truth is usually we learn a lot, for instance, we have an outline for Season 5 that we wrote during hiatus due to the pandemic. We have a full outline, but we said this even at the time to Netflix, we said, “This is going to change a lot because every season, both during production and then in post, Matt and I are learning so much – what is really working, what’s not?”
Season 2, you go, “Well, Steven and Dustin, this is magic.” But you don’t know that. You can say, “I think this is going to work on script.” But sometimes stuff works, just really pops in a way that you’re not expecting on screen. We learn so much by just filming it and editing it. And then we take those lessons and try to apply it on a new season. But one thing we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it next season, is we’re going to try very different things. It’s trying our best not to repeat ourselves and to keep trying to push the show into new directions.
You had Season 4 written ahead of time. Did that ever do the show a disservice? Like, “well, we should have had more Eddie” or whatever? Because you’ve talked about adjusting thing as you go before.
Matt Duffer: It’s interesting. I think it probably… that’s a good point. I think overall it was more of a benefit than anything. It is nice that we’re able to watch what’s happening and adjust. But we had filmed enough to know things, like Joe Quinn is amazing and it’s going to pop and we knew Jamie was going to pop. We knew enough to lean into it. How? I don’t know, it’s so interesting. I wish there was an alternate universe where we had done it how we’d always done it, and just seen how different the results would be. But overall, I think the plus of it was that we were able to look at it, as a whole, for the first time ever and adjust accordingly.
Ross Duffer: I think that was the biggest thing. It was mostly character, not plot that was adjusted. You’re able to go, “Well, we always set up with goals that we want character get from A to B.” But it changes as we’re writing, inevitably, just because we don’t have as much time as we thought, or we have more time than we thought with this character. The fact that we were able to write Episode 9 and go, “Well, this is where this character lands and this is where this character lands.” To then be able to go back and adjust. I mean, that is the majority of what we did when we went back into the scripts, is we’re going, “Okay, well this scene doesn’t really… With these two characters isn’t quite tracking with where they end up.”
And so just to be able to do that was a luxury that we just haven’t had. We’ve never even done a re-shoot on this show before. We’ve never gone back and re-shot anything because even though it takes a while between seasons, I mean, this is a lot of content and so we’re really sprinting from the minute we start writing that first script to the end. There’s not a lot of time to go back and adjust things. This was a rare luxury, that we had that time.
“Stranger Things 4,” part one is on Netflix now and part two debuts on July 1.