In 2011, just four years out of film school at Chapman University in Orange County, California, the brothers sold a script to Warner Bros. for a post-apocalyptic thriller called “Hidden”. Suddenly, the Duffers had a real Hollywood budget. “It was this insane situation,” Matt said. “Ross and I are going, ‘Oh, that’s the dream. We did it.'”
The film, about a family trapped underground while shadowy creatures roam the surface, establishes themes familiar to any “Stranger Things” fan: a precocious child, government conspiracies, an exploding rat. What the finished film lacked, the studio decided, was commercial viability. He went straight to video in 2015.
Matt and Ross thought their short careers were over. But then the script made its way to Shyamalan, who was impressed and hired them to write for the Fox puzzle box drama “Wayward Pines.” His confidence helped them get back on track. “Stranger Things” soon followed.
“A lot of me are really grateful for that, to be smitten,” Matt said, reflecting on their experience with “Hidden.” “Because it just made me appreciate it a lot more and not take it for granted.”
Early reviews of “Stranger Things” argued that it was just ’80s karaoke – a greatest hits collection that charms but lacks the genius of the original art. Matt and Ross were never shy about their influences — their original pitch described the show “as if Steven Spielberg was directing a long-lost Stephen King novel,” Ross said. (To come full circle, the Duffers are set to join Spielberg as executive producers of the Netflix series “The Talisman,” a long-awaited adaptation of the novel co-written by King.)
But some critics, like Slate’s Willa Paskin, wondered if comparing “Stranger Things” to Spielberg was missing something essential in Spielberg’s oeuvre. “ET” invokes nostalgia so powerfully today, they claim, because Spielberg captured his own time with precision. Wouldn’t it be better to give today’s children something similar?