‘Stranger Things’ Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer on Exceeding Fan Expectations: “We Want To Take Big Swings”

‘Stranger Things’ Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer on Exceeding Fan Expectations: “We Want To Take Big Swings”

The fourth season of Netflix’s sci-fi series Stranger Things is the streamer’s biggest yet — not just in scope, but in its run time. Across nine episodes, which were released in two parts on May 27 and July 1, each installment could have been its own stand-alone feature (the season-four finale clocked in at 2 hours and 30 minutes). But showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer say it was not planned that way. As they edited the season’s episodes, they realized there was simply too much story to fit into nine hourlong episodes. TV Academy voters didn’t balk at the undertaking of getting through season four — it has earned the series’ fourth Emmy nom for best drama series — and neither has its rabid fan base. The Duffer brothers spoke with THR about how they developed the season and created their most terrifying horror villain yet.

This season saw your characters separated in different locations. How do you decide which characters work really well together, which characters create tension together and which characters you want to see together?

ROSS DUFFER Sometimes we know going into a season right away: “Well, I really want to see this.” For the first three weeks [in the writers room], we were still shuffling people around — who was going to be in California, does Jonathan go back to Hawkins, does Nancy go to California … It was mixing and matching until [we had] dynamics that Matt and I and the writers were excited about. But you almost don’t want to know exactly what that dynamic is going to bring.

You have a young cast. How did their aging affect how you wrote their characters, particularly after the pause in production because of the pandemic?

MATT DUFFER The pause benefited the writing, because we were able for the first time to see exactly how much the kids had changed. Also, for the first time, we were able to complete all the scripts before shooting. [The aging] was not as dramatic as you would think, even with that six-month gap. The season two to season three jump was the one that jolted us the most.

ROSS DUFFER For season four, we just assumed, “They’re going to be older than whatever we can imagine.” And so we wrote to that, and we aged them up even beyond [their real ages]. As shocking as it is to show up every year, it was less shocking than season three, because that was really when they went through big changes. It was just like, “Who is this?” (Laughs.)

The varying — and lengthy — run times were a talking point this season. Did you always know you would be producing much longer episodes?

MATT DUFFER The run times being as long as they were was something of a surprise to us. Ross and I have been trying to analyze how they ended up that long, because the scripts aren’t even that long. We’ve realized that our writing style has changed a little bit, in terms of how we space out description. I think that added to some length. Also, we had an additional plot with Hopper in Russia. It’s a pretty dense season. We weren’t sure they were that long, really, until we got into edit. But it’s something Ross and I are actually excited about; with streaming, you’re not beholden to advertisers in the way that television used to be. We don’t have to hit this specific 45-minute length, so it can be as short or as long as you want.

ROSS DUFFER Our concern is pacing. If we can hold your interest for an hour and 15 minutes, then that’s a win. We did discuss breaking up [the finale]. We ultimately decided if it’s too long for someone, they can pause it and they can come back. It’s like reading a book. You can watch it at your own pace.

MATT DUFFER I don’t think the run times will be as extreme in season five. We’re trying to return to the simplicity of the structure in season one, with bigger scale and scope. Except for the finale, which I’m expecting will be pretty massive.

Because these episodes were, as you say, more dense, did that change the way you broke the season?

ROSS DUFFER The big change that happened mid-writing was [with] episode seven, which became our big reveal of Vecna’s origins. We realized we needed a lot of time to do that properly, and it required its own episode. We went to Netflix and asked for an additional episode. I don’t think we said, “It’ll be movie length,” but that’s what it ended up being. Otherwise, there was just an additional storyline or two, which in terms of getting the pacing right was always a balancing act. Sometimes we would experiment with pulling a storyline, because we certainly had episodes where we would outline and they were much longer than what you see. There are storylines that we ended up cutting that I still miss. There’s a longer version of this season, but I think we wouldn’t want it any longer than it ended up being.

MATT DUFFER It’s easy to forget now, but fans were getting really anxious and irritated about the length between seasons. I was like, “Well, they’re going to be happy, because it’s almost double the amount of material.” And [maybe that helped] explain what was taking so long.

Do you like playing with fans’ expectations? Do you consider the audience when you’re building the season?

ROSS DUFFER We want to take big swings, because I think you have to for the show to continue to grow, as opposed to just falling into some sort of formula where we’re repeating ourselves — which is one reason we [broke] these characters up, to really push the narrative forward and play with the form of what this show is. Even though elements are similar season to season, the show has changed a lot since season one. That’s on purpose, because I think repeating ourselves would just result in a worse show.

You’ve introduced so many villains. Where did Vecna come from?

ROSS DUFFER We’ve wanted for a very long time to make a villain that was much more psychological in the way that they attacked our heroes. We initially talked about Hellraiser and Freddy Krueger and Pennywise. “Why did that work so well? Why did that scare me when I was growing up?” At a certain point, the villain just became Vecna. He became part of this world, and we had to figure out how to tell his story properly. You try to analyze it, but at a certain point, we stopped talking so much about [the references for Vecna] to try to tell the story, because I don’t think you can just do a collage of references. It’s never going to work.

I have to bring up Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Was there ever the notion that the song would blow up the way it did and see a resurgence?

MATT DUFFER I’ve even seen articles that are like “What will be Stranger Things‘ next Kate Bush moment?” There won’t be another one! If we attempt that with another song, it will fail. Ross, our music supervisor and I all had a list of possible songs we wanted, and “Running Up That Hill” was all of them. I’d be lying if I said I knew it was going to resonate in the way it did. I think the reason why is because she was so ahead of her time. It feels very modern. And so kids are hooked on it. I don’t even really understand what TikTok is. I emailed Kate Bush, “Apparently you’re big on TikTok.” She was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard.” (Laughs.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.