Matt and Ross Duffer, the twin brothers behind hit sci-fi series "Stranger Things," wanted to be filmmakers since they were in elementary school, but that dream hit a snag when the Duffers received rejection letters from all their top choices for film school. Then, after they came up with the idea for "Stranger Things," they were rejected over a dozen times before landing on Netflix.
The Duffer brothers, now 35, are the creative minds writing and directing one of Netflix's most hyped shows. The third season of "Stranger Things" debuts Thursday.
But long before the brothers were receiving Emmy nominations for their work, Matt and Ross Duffer were making homemade films in their North Carolina backyard with a Hi8 video camera they received as a gift from their parents in the third grade. Growing up, the brothers fell in love with movies.
Tim Burton's 1989 version of "Batman" was one of the earliest movies the brothers, who were born in 1984, became obsessed with, they told The Guardian. "What we could see was there was someone behind the curtain controlling all of this, and you could see it from one Tim Burton film to the next, that the guy who made Edward Scissorhands also made Batman. You could connect the dots because his style was so distinct," Ross said.
The brothers then started closely following other big-name directors whose work would influence their breakout hit, "Stranger Things," the style and tone of which they've said draws heavily from Steven Spielberg hits like "E.T" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" as well as the horror films of John Carpenter.
"You find a movie you love and you figure out who directed it, then you go to the video store and go through all the John Carpenter stuff and all the Sam Raimi stuff," Matt Duffer told The Guardian. "We fell in love with movies through directors. Very early on we knew that was what we wanted to do."
The next step was film school. "We decided around fourth or fifth grade that we were going," Matt told The Wrap.
There was just one problem: "[A]t the time, it was just USC, USC, USC, maybe NYU. 'Cause that's what you hear about. But we didn't get into either of those schools," Ross Duffer tells The Wrap (referring to University of Southern California and New York University, both of which have prestigious film programs).
Instead, they ended up at another film in Southern California, Chapman University in Orange, which at the time had roughly 7,000 undergraduate students. It was one of two schools that accepted them. (The Duffers chose Chapman over Florida State University because FSU "didn't want us working together," the brothers told The Wrap. "That was a deal-breaker," Ross said. "We don't even know how we work alone," Matt added.)
After graduating in 2007, it still took the brothers several years to catch a break in Hollywood. They made roughly half a dozen short films in their early 20s, but continued to feel the sting of rejection when pitching bigger ideas to producers and studios.
"You go into these rooms and they're so disinterested in anything you have to say before you even open your mouth. That's when you start to feel that it's impossible. There were moments when we thought, 'We're never going to break through, because no one will take us seriously,'" Matt told The Wrap.
In 2011, the brothers did catch a break when Warner Bros. agreed to let them write and direct a small-budget horror movie. Called "Hidden," the film wasn't released until 2015, when it went straight to video-on-demand in the US. But the experience helped them land a writing job on the Fox TV series "Wayward Pines" in 2015, after director M. Night Shyamalan read the script for "Hidden" and offered them jobs.
From there, the Duffers started pitching the idea for "Stranger Things" to studios all over Hollywood.
The show was initially rejected by 15 to 20 networks, the Duffers told Rolling Stone in 2016. Others showed interest but were unwilling to let the virtually unknown brothers direct the project. One of the biggest complaints from prospective studios about the Duffers' idea for "Stranger Things" was the fact that it's a science fiction and horror show that focuses on a group of children as the main characters. Some studio executives even told the brothers that they should either change the tone of the show to make it more kid-friendly, or else shift the focus to one of the adult characters, like Sheriff Hopper, played by actor David Harbour.
"'You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper [detective] character investigating paranormal activity around town,'" one executive told the brothers, they told Rolling Stone. Matt remembers replying that doing so would "lose everything interesting about the show."
The pair nearly gave up on the show before Netflix finally agreed to pick up "Stranger Things" with the Duffers signed on to write, direct and produce. The brothers were introduced to Netflix executives by director-producer Shawn Levy, who runs the production company 21 Laps Entertainment. Levy told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016 that he remembered meeting the Duffers, and hearing their pitch for the show, and "within 10 minutes I knew that these were future major guys."
The Duffer brothers sold Levy on the idea, in part, with their confidence in the show and in themselves, he said: "They had a self-assurance that was self-evident. So, we pitched it to Netflix, and within 24 hours, we had the whole season bought."
In a 2017 interview in front of a crowd at their alma mater, Chapman University, the brothers talked about how they learned to accept failure in their careers and to not allow setbacks to derail their ambitions.
"Those who love it so much that they can't imagine doing anything else? They're the ones who get up and put themselves back out there," Ross told the crowd.
This story has been updated.
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