Tag Archives: Matt Duffer

Netflix channels 1980s style with Stranger Things

Netflix goes back to the ’80s with Stranger Things, a supernatural, small-screen homage to ET, Stand By Me and Halloween.

When it comes to the 1980s, there have been plenty of recent television dramas set during the iconic period best known for big hair, shoulder pads and power ballads.

From Cold War spy thriller The Americans and period tech piece Halt & Catch Fire to HBO drama Show Me A Hero and short-lived crime series Wicked City, the decade of Madonna and Michael Jackson has provided no end of inspiration to TV writers.

But rather than music or fashion, it is the big screen and the films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter that new Netflix series Stranger Things, which debuts today, uses as its inspiration.

Described as a love letter to 1980s classics, the eight-part series opens with the disappearance of a young boy. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret government experiments, supernatural forces and one strange little girl.

Star Winona Ryder is praised as 'completely fearless' in her approach
Star Winona Ryder is praised as ‘completely fearless’ in her approach

“We have so much nostalgia and love for this era,” explains Matt Duffer, who wrote and directed the series with his brother Ross. “We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up, the Spielbergs, the John Carpenters, as well as the novels of Stephen King. And what makes all of these stories so great to us, and so resonant, is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

“When we were growing up, we were just regular kids, living in the suburbs of North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons with our nerdy friends. But when we watched these films and read these books, we felt transported. Suddenly our lives had the potential for adventure – maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic, maybe my brother would vanish into the TV screen. We really want to capture that feeling with Stranger Things. We want to bring that feeling to people who grew up on those films, and we also want to bring it to a whole new generation.”

To sell the show to Netflix, the Duffers created a mock ‘trailer’ using clips from more than 25 feature films, including ET, Nightmare on Elm Street, Super 8 and Halloween. They also created a ‘look book,’ which was designed in the style of a vintage Stephen King novel.

Then, before starting the show, the writers all watched films including ET, Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Television is becoming more and more cinematic, and we became excited by the potential of making a ‘longform movie,’” Matt explains. “And what better place to do that than Netflix? It was our dream home.”

Stranger Things is described as a love letter to classic 1980s movies
Stranger Things is described as a love letter to classic 1980s movies

Ross continues: “Working with Netflix has been an amazing experiencing. They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

Beyond the storyline, the influence of Spielberg and his ’80s contemporaries is ever-present, particularly in the setting that was chosen for the series: the town of Hawkins, Indiana.

“There’s something Spielbergian Americana about Indiana,” executive producer Shawn Levy states. “Hawkins is a town with history, not only in its buildings and its land but, most importantly, among its characters.”

The show was filmed both on sound stages and on location in Atlanta and its suburbs, with the city providing the producers with the perfect setting to recreate the small-town look of Hawkins.

“Hawkins is an ordinary, idyllic little town filled with relatable, ordinary people and that makes it the perfect place for something supernatural to happen,” adds Ross.

As episode one plays out, what will also strike viewers beyond the setting is the attention to 1980s detail, from the costumes and synthesiser-heavy soundtrack to cultural references such as walkie talkies and playing Dungeons and Dragons.

“We never wanted it to be ‘in-your-face’ ’80s and obvious,” says production designer Chris Trujillo. “The lived-in look was important to us so that it would feel familiar to audiences and not distract them.”

Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer: the new Coens?
Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer: the new Coens?

Levy continues: “It is enjoyably nostalgic for those of us who remember the ’80s, but for a kid or a teenager for whom that is another era, it’s just a great story.”

The music, in particular, adds another layer of nostalgia to the series. The composers, Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, were members of a synth band called Survive which the Duffers discovered after their work featured on the soundtrack of feature film The Guest.

In total, they wrote more than 13 hours of music for the series. Viewers will also hear tracks from artists such as Toto and Joy Division.

Heading the cast is Winona Ryder, best known for big-screen roles in Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands and whose television credits include the aforementioned Show Me A Hero and BBC TV movie Turks & Caicos. In Stranger Things, she plays Joyce, a struggling single mother raising two boys.

“It’s a genre that I hadn’t explored before and was interesting to me,” she reveals. “I’m really lucky in my life that I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and so it was exciting to try something new. I took a lot from performances like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Marsha Mason in Max Dugan Returns and Audrey Rose.”

Matt says of Ryder: “Winona is completely fearless. She jumps in all the way, 100% and that’s what we needed for the Joyce character. She’s on her own for so much of the show, losing her grip on what is real as she goes through an emotional rollercoaster.”

As for the Duffers, Levy admits they “came out of nowhere” with the idea for a show and he believes they will become a new force in filmmaking.

“Stranger Things marks the arrival of a new vision, and a new filmmaking partnership and brotherhood that is really noteworthy,” he adds. “We’re going to be talking about the Duffer brothers the way we talked early on about the Coen brothers.”

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Netflix nurtures writing talent

Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is one of Netflix’s most recognisable titles

Earlier this week, SVoD platform Netflix announced the launch dates for a raft of scripted shows. Among them is season four of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), which will premiere on Friday June 17. With Netflix now in so many countries around the world, the series is likely to be one of the global TV highlights of the year.

Adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, this acutely observed comedy-drama tells the story of a 30-something PR executive who unexpectedly winds up in a women’s prison.

While no one really has a clue how the show does in terms of ratings, it is widely regarded as a success story for Netflix (based on fan adulation, critical acclaim and an 8.3 rating on IMDb).

The TV series is written by Jenji Kohan, whose career credits read like a millennial generation dinner-party discussion.

Jenji Kohan
Jenji Kohan

In the 1990s, she wrote a handful of episodes for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Boston Common, Mad About You and Sex and the City – though her biggest gig at the time was Tracey Takes On. Lift off came during the last decade when she had a lengthy association with Gilmore Girls, a brief flirtation with Will & Grace and, most significantly, created dark comedy Weeds, which ran for eight seasons (102 episodes) on premium pay TV network Showtime.

Weeds told the story of Nancy Botwin, a widowed mother of two boys who begins selling marijuana to support her family after her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack. As creator, writer and executive producer of that show, Kohan firmly established her reputation as one of the US market’s most talented comedy drama writers.

OITNB plays in a similar space – an area Kohan is clearly drawn to. In a 2013 interview, she said: “I’m always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other. There are very few crossroads anymore. We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other but they’re not necessarily mixing. I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix – and prison just happens to be a terrific one.”

OITNB was an immediate hit when it launched in the US in July 2013, and also proved popular with European audiences. Its appeal was reflected during the 2014 award season, when the show was nominated for 12 Emmys and Kohan was named one of Time’s Most Influential People.

Weeds
Kohan previously met success with Weeds

The latter may seem a strange accolade for a TV writer, but there’s a general acknowledgement that the show moved the dial on how the LGBT community is portrayed on screen and perceived in wider society.

While OITNB remains her primary project, Kohan has an overall deal with Lionsgate TV (which backed her on both this show and Weeds). Under this arrangement she made a pilot called The Devil You Know for HBO.

Co-written by Kohan, Bruce Miller and Tracy Miller, the pilot was a provocative period drama set around the times of the Salem Witch Trials in 17th century New England. There’s not much in the public domain about the show but the lack of any additional news suggests it might not have got past the pilot stage – though there’s no confirmation of this. (Click here to see a video of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsden talking about his role in the programme.)

Among new Netflix drama titles that look interesting is Stranger Things, which premieres globally on July 15.

The Duffer twins
The Duffer twins, know for horror film Hidden, are showrunners on Stranger Things

In this eight-hour series, a young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family, and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl. Set in 1980s Indiana, it stars movie icon Winona Ryder and is written by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer.

The Duffer twins are currently on a very rapid upwards trajectory. They first caught the industry’s attention in 2011 when, straight from college, they had numerous studios competing for their horror script Hidden. That was ultimately made into a movie by Warner Bros, released in September last year. In the meantime, they also became involved in M Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, working on episodes five, six, nine and 10. With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers will also be directing and showrunning.

Another new Netflix title sure to attract a lot of attention is Baz Luhrmann’s music-driven drama The Get Down, which focuses on 1970s New York City: “broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped – dying.”

Guirgis
Stephen Adly Guirgis

According to Netflix, the six-parter is “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the south Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world, forever.”

Luhrmann’s creative team includes Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George and writer Stephen Adly Guirgis.

To date, Guirgis is best known as a playwright, having won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Between Riverside and Crazy. His involvement in this new project reflects a trend of stage writers moving to television.

However, he does have a few screenwriting credits to his name, including an episode of NYPD Blue from 2002 and a couple of short-lived dramas called Big Apple (CBS) and UC: Undercover (NBC). He is also an actor, having appeared in movies such as Birdman. A regular feature on Broadway, Guirgis’s intimate knowledge of New York is sure to be a big benefit to Luhrmann’s Netflix show.

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