TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, filmmaker Dee Rees, directed the new film "Mudbound," which is adapted from the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. It's about two families in the segregated Mississippi Delta just before, during and after World War II. The African-American family are poor sharecroppers. The white family owns their own land, but they're still struggling. Each family has a member who goes off to fight in the war. The white soldier returns emotionally devastated. The black soldier returns to find that although he helped liberate Europe, back home in Mississippi he has no rights. Here's a scene in which the returning black soldier Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell, is shopping in the general store. He's still in uniform, but when he leaves the store by the front door, he's confronted by a couple of white men played by Jason Clarke and Jonathan Banks, who speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")
JONATHAN BANKS: (As Pappy McAllan) You use the backdoor.
JASON CLARKE: (As Henry McAllan) Go on, son. Son, we don't want no trouble here. Go on. Go on.
JASON MITCHELL: (As Ronsel Jackson) You know what? You're absolutely right. When we was overseas, they didn't make us use the backdoor. General Patton put us on the front line. Yes, sir. And you know what we did? We kicked the hell out of Hitler and them Jerries while y'all at home safe and sound.
GROSS: "Mudbound" also stars Mary J. Blige as the black soldier's mother and Carey Mulligan as the sister-in-law of the white soldier. "Mudbound" premieres on Netflix and in movie theaters this Friday. Dee Rees also directed the HBO movie "Bessie" based on the life of Bessie Smith. Her 2011 movie "Pariah" is about a 17-year-old African-American girl coming out and dealing with the resulting complications in her life. Writing about Rees' new movie, "Mudbound," New York Times film critic AO Scott described it as unflinching and unsentimental in its dissection of white supremacy.
Dee Rees, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, some of the story about the kind of overt racism in Mississippi during and after the war, World War II, there's some really horrible things that happen in the film. Without giving anything away, did this film have a different meaning for you after Charlottesville? The film was probably completed by then, but, you know, the march in Charlottesville, that's the kind of, like, overt racism that people had, you know, more or less stopped expressing in marches, in big marches. And to see that was really just, like, shocking and horrifying to so many Americans.
DEE REES: Yeah. I think Charlottesville was shocking for some, but it wasn't for me or for my family, I mean, because I grew up in 1980s Nashville. I grew up next to a Klan member. Like, everyone knew he was a Klan member. My dad was a cop, you know, and I grew up three houses down from people who used Confederate flags as curtains. I remember one summer I played, like, with the granddaughter of this known Klan member. Like, all summer, we caught cicadas. And we had grown close, and so it was, like, time for her birthday party, and I said, oh, like, what time do I come for your party? And she's like, oh, no, you can't come to my house 'cause my parents don't like black people. So it was this thing where, you know, even though we're two kids playing all along, like, still, like, this thing is, like, stated and, like, stated, like, without a blink. And later that night, she came by with a piece of her birthday cake, I remember, to the backdoor. My mom was like, you can keep your cake.
So for me, these attitudes, these beliefs, aren't something that ever died down or ever went away or weren't visible. You know, I grew up being called nigger. Like, this is not new. And so I think the surprise kind of reveals the depths to which we've deluded ourselves, you know, and the depths to which we've kind of, like, denied kind of who we are as a country.
GROSS: So when you have a friend growing up whose father is a member of the Klan, is that something...
REES: Grandfather, yeah.
GROSS: Grandfather - is that something you can talk about with her, or was that something that was, like, off, you know, like, you could not actually bring that up and discuss it?
REES: Well, I would just say, like, oh, why can't I eat - so in terms of our play, like, she would always come to my backyard and play. So she could come to my house to play but never inside, like only in the yard. But I could never go even to her yard to play. And so it was, like, a known thing, and it was just kind of like, you know, my parents don't like black people said with, like, a straight face and with this kind of matter-of-factness. And so that's something that I think kind of sits with you and is one of the things that struck me in this story about this friendship because for the longest time I questioned friendship and what was possible and whether or not, like, you could be friends with someone who is white and that they would really be your friend, you know, throughout, you know, everything.
Or there'd be friends in school where you'd play in school, but if you saw them at the grocery store with their parents, they'd pretend like not to know you. And so, like, that was real. And so those kind of things I think sink into your psyche and kind of, like, draw these very real lines in, like, interactions and in relationships. And, you know, even when, like, no one's calling you a name, like, these experiences are the evidence.
GROSS: So you're directing this movie that's set in the Mississippi Delta, but you grew up in I think a suburb of Nashville. I - you've lived for many years in Brooklyn. So, you know, you're a city and suburb person largely, but now you really had to immerse yourself in country life to understand the characters and the setting of the film. There's a scene that's a voiceover about the violence of day-to-day country life.
And the Carey Mulligan character is stuck on this, like, dirt farm, and she used to live in a city, and she doesn't really want to be on this farm, but that's where her husband insisted on moving the family. And she's reflecting on the violence of country life, and this happens just after in the African-American family the father has had to shoot the mule because the mule was dying and is lame and can't, you know, it's the humane thing to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")
CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Laura McAllan) Violence is part and parcel of country life. You're forever being assailed by dead things - dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard. You smell them rotting under the house. And then there are the creatures you kill for food - chicken, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels; pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat, start again, kill. I learned how to stitch up a bleeding wound, load and fire a shotgun, reach into the womb of a heaving sow to deliver a breached piglet. My hands did these things, but I was never easy in my mind.
GROSS: So, Dee Rees, what did you have to do to get in that mindset of that kind of violence of country life?
REES: Yeah, so this passage was one of my favorite from Hillary's book because it set such a tone for the world, as you mentioned, like, the easiness of death is just, like, a speed of life. Like, I want the characters and the world to move with the speed of life. And I'm looking at the indifference of nature where, you know, it seems that nature is working against them, but in fact, it's just that nature is indifferent to them.
GROSS: I know one of your grandmothers, or maybe it was your great-grandmother, kept a journal. Tell me who it was and also if you were able to use anything from her to help you understand the characters you were writing about in the era you were writing about.
REES: Absolutely. So my grandmother's name is Earnestine Smith. She was born in 1925 in Ferriday, La., and she wrote this journal or this unpublished book about, you know, her life growing up. And so she wrote about her parents picking cotton, my great-grandmother, Famie. And so she would tell me stories about how she and her little brother, Clarence, would ride on the - her mother's cotton sack and how she herself, you know, vowed she would never pick cotton. She didn't want to chop cotton. She wouldn't work as a domestic worker. She wanted to be a stenographer.
And so that's something I absolutely put in the film visually and intellectually, you know, this shot of this little girl and this little boy kind of riding backwards on a cotton sack and also the character Lilly May, Florence's daughter, I made her want to be a stenographer whereas in the book she's a singer and she can sing. You know, I injected my kind of grandmother's history and transposed that onto her because it gives this little girl a different kind of interest. And so yeah...
GROSS: And one of the characters says to her black people don't become stenographers (laughter) and...
REES: Yeah. And then the father affirms her and says, well, you'll be the first, you know? And I feel like that that was an attitude that was, you know, that pervaded, like, in my family was, like, not about the thing that you could see necessarily. The idea that you could be something that you couldn't even was, like, a huge one.
GROSS: So with your grandmother, like, her grandparents would have been slaves, right?
REES: Exactly, yes, and there's pictures of them. So I have this picture of them, Emma and Bill, and the photograph I have of them is actually taken from a larger photo of a plantation of, like, a group of slaves, so every family stood in their family group and had this picture, and then everyone cut out the square that had their members in it. So the picture I have of them is, like, an excerpt from a larger picture, so it's just a square with just their faces in it.
GROSS: Not everybody has photographs or writing or anything that dates back that far, you know, like, several generations back. What does it mean to you to have that evidence of your family's past?
REES: It's invaluable to have it. Like, my grandmother's a very meticulous, you know, organized person, you know. And the fact that she, you know, even, you know, took the time to sit down and, like, not just write, but, like, type out her experiences - there's, like, anecdotes about going to the market truck or anecdotes about funerals or people being sick. And, like, there's some pages that's, like, biblical. It was, like, you know, it was, like, these begats or who had who and, you know, how they looked. And she gives, like, physical descriptions and demeanors. And it's amazing to have it, and it gives me a sense of connectedness. And it's amazing to look at the pages. It's one thing to hear a voice. It's one thing to have the story. It's another thing to have the actual, like, faces kind of looking back at you, and I definitely had those and relied upon those from "Mudbound" and shared them with department heads, you know. It's just, like, a visual reference because you can see the lives in these people's faces.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dee Rees. She co-wrote, and she directed the new film "Mudbound." She also wrote and directed the earlier film, "Pariah."
We're going to take a short break then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RED HEART THE TICKER'S "SLIGHTLY UNDER WATER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Dee Rees. She wrote and directed the film "Pariah." She directed the HBO movie "Bessie" about Bessie Smith. And she directed and co-wrote the new film "Mudbound."
So, you know, in the movie, family and home are not necessarily safe places. In the African-American family, it's not a safe place because of the location, because it's Mississippi and because, you know, there's so much racism. There are very strict limitations in terms of what they're allowed to do with their lives and what kind of relationships they're allowed to have, where they're allowed to go. And in the white family, the family isn't a safe place because, you know, the grandfather is really a monster. And in terms of Carey Mulligan's character, her husband - you know, he's the husband, so he's going to tell her what to do. And even though she's wiser than he is, she has to take orders from him. So, I mean, family and home are not safe.
It seems to be a theme for you because in "Pariah," you know, your earlier film, it's about a 17-year-old girl who's figuring out that she's a lesbian and is trying to figure out how - like, what does that mean? And who is she? And does she tell her parents? And if so, how does she tell them? And they're not going to be happy about it. And she's going to have to leave home to become who she is. So it seems to be a theme in your work. Was that a theme in your early life, that you had to leave home to become yourself?
REES: Yeah, I think for me as someone growing up, you know, in, like, Antioch, Tenn., I definitely felt the desire to, like - I definitely knew there was an elsewhere. I definitely knew that, like, if I were going to be free, I needed to be away from kind of, like, Nashville and kind of get out of the South and get out of the country. And even though, like, - well, like, when I first went to school, it was in Florida, I just knew that I didn't want to go to college in the same place I grew up. I knew that expansiveness was necessary. Like, I think, like as a teenager, I did a program. There's, like, this thing called the lead program in business because I was going to go into business so - and you could apply to which school you wanted to do this kind of, like, summer program at. And so I put down Columbia University as the place I wanted to go.
And so, you know, junior high, like, I had got to go to Columbia University and spent a summer there in New York City. And, like, I knew from that moment on, like, that New York City was a place where I could be. Like, New York City is a place you can be yourself completely. And, you know, as long as it's authentic - like it's kind of like no questions asked and so - there's definitely something I felt like as a teenager and wanted to get away. And I just think getting away from home is just helpful.
GROSS: So you said that when you made "Pariah," your film about the 17-year-old girl who's realizing that she's a lesbian, that you were imagining what would've been like had you come out earlier because you were in your 20s, I think, when you came out. What got you thinking about that? What it would've been like had you come out when you were 17?
REES: I think it was living in Brooklyn and seeing it, you know. So I came out. It was, like, my second year of film school. And so my parents were already freaked out that I'd quit my job and gone to film school. And then this double, like, you know, hit of like and also by the way I love women, so I think they thought I was having a nervous breakdown and tried to have a couple of like interventions. And so for me, it was - and I remember just feeling, like, such guilt, you know, feeling like I'd hurt my parents, feeling like I'd like, you know, I was, like, hurting them in some major way.
And I was a grown person. Like, I wasn't living, you know, under their roof. I was paying my own bills. And so I was surprised of the magnitude of guilt like that I felt and, like, just fear that I was doing the wrong thing. And so, you know, meanwhile I'm living in Brooklyn, I'm seeing teenagers who not only, like, know who they are but are actively being it. And I was just kind of amazed at their bravery, like, amazed that they were able to, like, do this, you know, in any small degree. And so I figured wow. You know, if I - you know, like, what would it have been like if I come out earlier?
GROSS: In the movie, the mother's Christian. That has a lot to do with why she's so upset that her daughter is a lesbian. Are your parents Christian? And did that have to do with their initial reaction to you coming out?
REES: They are, yeah. Yeah, which for me is the other thing I wanted to explore. Like, it's not these mutual exclusive things, like sexuality and spirituality because I would identify as a Christian, and I'm also a lesbian, you know. And so for my parents, it felt like a major exclusive thing. Like, oh, well you can't be a Christian if you're this way. You know, so they had this very kind of, like, finite idea of spirituality and belief. And that didn't ring true for me.
And so, like, I felt like - well, actually, like my grandmother, I remember, like, one Thanksgiving because I'd limited, like, my going home just to holidays. And so we're at Thanksgiving table. It's me, my mother and my grandmother. And so my grandmother, like, says the grace over the table and in her prayer she says you're perfect the way you are. There's not one thing I would change about you. And my mom said, oh, well, there's one thing. And my grandmother said, nope, there's not one thing I would change about you. And, like, that moment on I felt vindicated. Like, I almost cried. Like, I felt like she was telling me in that moment that she accepted me for who I am and that she loved me unconditionally.
And in that same way, it's like she kind of led my mom around. Like, my parents have come around where they love me unconditionally. And, you know, I understand they still might - I do think they still struggle. I think there's, like, not a spirituality. There's like a religiosity, you know, at least that tells them that I'm somehow in the wrong. And I think they probably have moments where that bothers them. But on the whole, you know, I feel loved. And I feel like that they are dealing with their own kind of beliefs about it.
GROSS: When you were 24, you changed your name from Denise to Dee.
REES: That's not true actually.
GROSS: That's not true?
REES: My name was never Denise. No, my name is Diandrea, and I never changed it. But Dee is my screen name.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Why do you prefer Dee?
REES: Just because it's a brand - right? - it's branding. So like, Dee is what my aunties always called me growing up. So it's like a thing that's always been with me. And for the purposes of filmmaking - like in the middle of film school, you know, instead of Diandrea Rees on the screen, Dee Rees. So it's like pithier. It's androgynous. And it's an easier handle to pick you up by. Like, I would probably get far less press coverage as Diandrea Rees than as Dee Rees. And like, when people can't pronounce something, they're less likely to engage with it. And so I feel like all my life I was teaching people how to say my name - how to say Diandrea.
And as I made the transition to being an artist and being a filmmaker, I looked at this history of artists that changed their names. And like, my grandmother had actually changed her name from, like, Auberstine (ph) to Earnestine. And so I kind of took it on as something that was available to me. Like, you can name yourself. Audre Lord took the Y off her name. So to me, it seemed like a noble thing that was possible and accessible and that I should, you know, shouldn't hesitate to do.
GROSS: So when you were starting your career in movies, you worked with Spike Lee on "When The Levees Broke," his documentary about New Orleans and Katrina. And you worked with him on "Inside Man." So what are some of the things you learned from working with him? I don't know exactly in what capacity you worked with him.
REES: I was an intern on both sets. So I was in his class at the time at NYU. I don't know. The thing that it allowed was like an access, I mean, like, comfort level in talking to crew and just to observe how to, like, you know, control a set and, like, how to just be - just to be on time and to be sharp and to be on top of the schedule. And so it was just a great experience because it was my first time being on, like, a studio set. You know, before then, I'd interned in people's offices, you know, getting coffee and making copies, you know, writing coverage, reading scripts. But that was my first time being able to intern - like be in physical production and to understand, like, the stamina.
I think that was one of things I learned, like, the stamina, like, that it takes - like, five days of getting up at 4 in the morning is one thing. But, like, 30 days of getting up at 4 in the morning requires this certain kind of strength and this kind of, like, mental strength. And you have to, like, cultivate that.
GROSS: Was it useful for you to be around Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, who starred in "Inside Man," to get to work with them as people as opposed to just seeing them as, like, famous people?
REES: Yeah, I think I still had, like, a healthy distance and just saw them as, like, artists. And so to me, it was great to just be within proximity of a working artist and to just look at the discipline, like, that it takes, you know. And, you know, I mean, and then going forward, you know, it gave me confidence on shadowing other sets. Like Seith Mann was a classmate who, you know, shot "The Wire" and shot a lot of TV. So I got to go and shadow Seith on his sets - and same with, like, Paris Barclay. Paris, who was the president of the DGA, invited me to shadow him on his "Sons Of Anarchy" set.
So it just kind of gave me, like, a feeling for, like, set demeanor, you know, and how to carry oneself. And so it was useful in that way. And then there was Lee Daniels who ultimately got me, like, my first job in TV, like, shooting on "Empire." And it was Len Amato and Michael Lombardo who got me, like, my first kind of TV feature, like, shooting "Bessie" for HBO. So, you know, over the time, like, I've had these kind of guys to look up to and, you know, who've kind of taken me along. And for me, like, that's why I wanted to hire a lot of women on this crew because for me it's been mostly men who've kind of helped me along. And so I wanted to be a woman who's helping other women along.
GROSS: Dee Rees, thank you so much for talking with us.
REES: Thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Dee Rees co-wrote and directed the new film "Mudbound," which opens in select theaters and starts streaming on Netflix Friday. After we take a short break, we'll hear from the Duffer Brothers who created the Netflix sci-fi horror series "Stranger Things." And Maureen Corrigan will review Louise Erdrich's new novel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "ZAHNLUECKE")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guests, the Duffer Brothers, are the creators of the popular Netflix sci-fi horror series "Stranger Things." The show takes place in the 1980s in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Ind., where a group of middle school friends investigate supernatural goings-on, including interdimensional monsters and a secretive lab run by the Department of Energy. "Stranger Things" is in part an homage to the '80s pop culture that the Duffer Brothers loved as kids, like movies by John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg and the novels of Stephen King. In keeping with the sequel-filled '80s, the Duffer Brothers titled the second season of their show "Stranger Things 2."
Matt and Ross Duffer are twins who sound very much alike and tend to finish each other sentences. Before we hear the interview they recorded with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger, let's hear a clip from the new season.
In this scene, Dr. Sam Owens is evaluating Will Byers, a boy who, in the last season, was trapped in another dimension, an evil looking place called the Upside Down. Since then, he's either having flashbacks or new encounters with the Upside Down. The doctor is played by Paul Reiser, and Will is played by Noah Schnapp.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRANGER THINGS")
PAUL REISER: (As Dr. Sam Owens) So how did you feel when you saw this storm?
NOAH SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) I felt frozen.
REISER: (As Dr. Sam Owens) Heart racing?
SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) Just frozen.
REISER: (As Dr. Sam Owens) Like frozen, cold frozen - frozen to the touch?
SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) No, like how you feel when you're scared and you can't breathe or talk or do anything. I felt this evil, like it was looking at me.
REISER: (As Dr. Sam Owens) It was evil? Well, what do you think the evil wanted?
SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) To kill.
REISER: (As Dr. Sam Owens) To kill you?
SCHNAPP: (As Will Byers) Not me. Everyone else.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Matt and Ross Duffer, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ROSS DUFFER: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
BRIGER: So you called the second season "Stranger Things 2," so you're clearly marking it as a sequel. You guys are such big film fans. Did you talk to each other about, like, what are the rules of sequels, and what are sequels supposed to do?
R. DUFFER: Yes, we did. And, you know, you also - I mean, but I think Netflix, when we first mentioned this - that we saw it as a sequel - got worried because most sequels are, you know, generally disappointments. And so a lot of what we did was just sort of looking at the sequels that, you know, we loved so much growing up and seeing how they succeeded and then trying our best to follow in those footsteps and not mess this thing up.
BRIGER: What were some of those sequels that you really loved?
MATT DUFFER: Oh, well, I mean, we always go to, like, James Cameron as sort of the master of it. You know, he did two of the greatest sequels of all time, which was one of - you know, a sequel to his own movie, which was "T2" - "Terminator 2."
BRIGER: And "Aliens" too.
M. DUFFER: And he also did "Aliens." And so we kind of looked at, you know, how he was able to do that. It's, like, they're arguably better than the originals. It retained a lot of the mythology of the originals and the feeling of it, but then it expanded on it in a really exciting way. So it felt like there was a reason for it to exist. And they scaled up, and that was something we talked about. We wanted to scale it up a little bit.
BRIGER: Right, more monsters.
M. DUFFER: More - I know it's the cliche. It's, like, one monster - multiple monsters. But yeah, I mean, like, there - so there's something, like, very childish about us, you know, if you get to know us. It's, like, so we wanted to do that even though we knew we'd get some flak for it. But it's, like - it's fun, and we wanted it to feel bigger, you know, than Season 1.
BRIGER: Yeah, what were you interested in expanding in the storyline?
M. DUFFER: Well, I mean, first of all, there were a lot of characters we introduced in Season 1, so we wanted to get into them a little bit more and to the - learn about who they are. We have the character of Dustin and Lucas, who were kind of, like - the people loved them last year, but we didn't get into their houses. We didn't get to meet their families. So it was, like, suddenly, you have all this additional time to explore these characters because we fell in love with these actors and what they're able to do. And, like, so you get to expand in the - on the character level. And then you also get to expand it in terms of, we wanted some of these big, spectacular, blockbuster visual effects and put those into the show. I mean, that was something I was really excited about doing, and it's something you don't often see in TV. You know, "Game Of Thrones" has been doing it, and I thought that some of that stuff is really revolutionary because you're taking these spectacular visual-effects sequences that you see in the movies, but right now, you know, in the movies, that's all you're seeing. So you don't actually care about what's happening, so your eyes are, like, really wowed, but, like, you don't feel anything. There's something soulless about it. You know, when "Game Of Thrones" applies those sort of visuals to sequences involving characters that you're really, super invested in because you've spent so many hours with them, getting to know them, then that's, like, really, really powerful. So, you know, we wanted to do some of that this year.
BRIGER: So the Upside Down is the name that the kids give this alternate universe that all these scary monsters come out of. Can you just describe it a little bit?
M. DUFFER: Yeah, I mean, we really saw it as sort of a nightmare version of our world. But as we started breaking this story and we realized we needed to go in there - but we didn't have the money to turn it into a visual effects extravaganza and we didn't - we just thought that would take you right out of the story. And so we ended up just sort of grounding it and using our locations but then just, sort of, you know adding vines on it and then adding these - a version of snow, which is these - what we called spores. And so what happens then is - this is actually a very easy thing for us to achieve, but it just sort of creates this horrific version of what already exists.
BRIGER: Yeah. It's like the town sort of got covered up with vines and these scary, plantlike things. The - oh, monsters are very plantlike. Did you find plants creepy growing up? Like, even the monsters, like, they have these mouths that, like, open up and they're, like, flower petals covered in teeth.
M. DUFFER: No, I don't have a plant problem.
M. DUFFER: You know, I don't. You know, it's just, like - no, I found snakes creepy. That's why we have all these vines and stuff
BRIGER: Yeah, that move.
M. DUFFER: In - yeah, in Season 2 that move and grab people and stuff. So that really bothers me. Like, I have a real snake phobia. No, but there's something gross - like, all these - like, the classic sci-fi stuff - there's always something very organic about some of the supernatural environments. I mean, "Alien" did it. That's a - like, very plantlike organisms. And then I was just watching, like, the 1978 "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers," which is one of my favorite. And they've got those pods that shoot out these, like, disgusting duplicates. They're, like, flower petals, like, spewing out, like, a baby Jeff Goldblum. It's the worst/best. So I don't - I know. I'm sure we're pulling from all of that.
BRIGER: Well, the kids are just so great in the shows. Is it true that when you were casting, you looked at a thousand auditions, and what were you looking for? And did you want to cast, like, one of the kids first or you just found one, and then it all fell into place or...
R. DUFFER: I mean, I actually - it's our - one of our favorite things is sort of the casting of these kids just because - yeah, I mean, it was certainly over a thousand. And some of that gets weeded out by our casting director. And then otherwise, you can generally tell instantly with this stuff. You don't need to watch a full audition and debate whether this kid is right or not. It was generally - with all of our main kids, you knew within a few seconds of them speaking because what you - what we were looking for is just something that felt authentic because there's this sort of - you would call it sort of, like, the Disney Channel-kid, which is, they're just overdoing it. They're, like, trying to be cute, whereas our kids all, to us, just felt - there was just something authentic about it. I remember Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, was just - he was, like, sick when he filmed his audition. And he was just, like, lying on the bed, and his dad filmed him with his crappy phone, and it just looked terrible. But it didn't matter because it just felt real. And even though Finn wasn't how we imagined Mike at all originally - he has much more of a manic, fidgety energy than we ever expected for Mike, but it doesn't matter. Once we found this group of kids, we then ended up shaping the characters around them.
BRIGER: What were you guys like as kids? Did you have a close-knit group of friends like this?
R. DUFFER: We did, especially through, you know - in elementary and middle school. And our best friend that lived right next door to us - you know, every summer we would make a movie together. He would be our co-director and co-writer. And we didn't really write. It was more like rough outlines that then we'd improv together but - and, you know, then we would get all of our friends together, and we would make these movies. So a lot of "Stranger Things" is actually pulling from that and just trying to recapture a bit of what those summers felt like because even though we weren't fighting monsters or discovering telepathic girls, we - it...
M. DUFFER: In our heads, we were.
R. DUFFER: Well...
M. DUFFER: I mean, that - we were imagining all of that.
BRIGER: That's what you're hoping for, probably.
M. DUFFER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
R. DUFFER: We were hoping for, like, these big adventures. And yes, are we referencing "Stand By Me" when we have our characters walking down train tracks? Yes, but also, we were walking down train tracks as kids. And so, you know, a lot of it is trying our best to recapture those summer childhood experiences.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with the Duffer brothers, the creators of the Netflix series "Stranger Things." The second season, "Stranger Things 2," is now streaming on Netflix. They'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "THE SAGA OF RITA JOE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with the Duffer brothers, Matt and Ross Duffer, who created the Netflix sci-fi horror series "Stranger Things." It's about a group of middle school friends investigating supernatural goings on.
BRIGER: You know, monsters aside, the kids in your show are going through some really tough times in terms of - they're going through adolescence.
R. DUFFER: Yeah.
BRIGER: I mean, and they're - it's an incredibly intense time. They're dealing with their first crush. That's testing their friendships. People are moody, and they're jealous. They're pulling away from their parents. I think you really capture that really well. Did you have a good sense memory of how fraught those times were?
M. DUFFER: I just remember being incredibly insecure, you know, especially moving into high school, being extremely anxious, not really knowing...
BRIGER: Just socially, or...
M. DUFFER: Socially, yeah. I mean, we were socially - we struggled a lot. And it started out because - it started out even really, really young, like, 'cause we wouldn't hang out with anyone aside from each other. Like so it was only just me and Ross. And you know, the teachers got concerned because they were like, we weren't developing the proper social skills to function in society, basically. It was like, they're not prepared to function.
So we were actually - we - they were like, they need to repeat kindergarten, which we did. So I've been behind a year my entire life, which always made me feel weird. We're twins. There are a lot more twins now. When we were growing up in North Carolina, there were no twins. And everyone's like, it must be so great to be a twin. But I hated it because it was like, even though I loved my brother and our - you just - it made you feel weird and different and like you didn't fit in. And really, when you're that age, all you want to do is fit in.
BRIGER: You guys are making movies, like, starting in third grade.
M. DUFFER: Yeah.
BRIGER: I think the first one was based on a card game called Magic the Gathering, which is kind of like a second- or third-generation D&D kind of game in terms of, like, fantasy.
R. DUFFER: Right.
M. DUFFER: Yeah.
BRIGER: So you would get your friends to star in these roles, and then you have some big production valued pieces (laughter).
M. DUFFER: I mean, we didn't have another actor, so we would also act.
R. DUFFER: And editing is more than anything what started to teach us how to be filmmakers - that you can shoot a scene. I mean, it was very crude and basic. But to us, it really altered our little films - which is, you can film a scene multiple times, and then we can splice this together. And then we can put the music underneath. And suddenly our projects became much more sophisticated. And so...
M. DUFFER: By that, he means watchable.
M. DUFFER: Yeah.
M. DUFFER: I will say, though, that there was one moment where, you know, we flirted with popularity in high school, which was when people realized that our videos, if used for a class assignment, would get you an automatic A.
M. DUFFER: And so it took me, like, a few months to realize I was just being used. They would only hang out with us while we were making the film for them. And then they would - once they got their A, then I would never hear from them again until they needed another video. And at some point, I was like, why am I doing this?
R. DUFFER: I remember it was - I got a call from a cool kid, and he's like, we're - for history class, we want to, you know, film the storming of Normandy.
R. DUFFER: And I was like, OK, 'cause "Saving Private Ryan," you know, had been out recently. I was like, OK, when do you want to do this storming of Normandy? And they were like, this afternoon at Jordan Lake. And so I was like, well, I guess I should hang out with the cool kids. So I went out there with our camera and...
M. DUFFER: Yeah. I wasn't there, actually.
R. DUFFER: No, and we - I just, I was like - you know, I adjusted the colors on the camera. And I adjusted the shutter speed. And I just shook it a lot. And these kids are coming with their, like, squirt guns in rafts. But I shook the camera a lot. And then when I got back and put in my - into iMovie, I just - and I ripped the sound effects from "Saving Private Ryan," which really is like a huge part of the - I mean, those are Oscar-winning...
BRIGER: Yeah. That's a great sound.
R. DUFFER: ...Effects.
M. DUFFER: Some of the best sound design ever, actually.
R. DUFFER: And if you put that with shaky camera of kids, like, suddenly this thing came alive. I mean, they - for 10 years, history class still showed that project. I'm sure maybe now they've stopped, but for a while...
M. DUFFER: Why would they have stopped now?
R. DUFFER: But that was the catalyst for then, after that, every weekend we had to film a movie for people just 'cause it's really all "Saving Private Ryan's" fault. It made us look better than we were.
BRIGER: All right, so you made a movie in 2015, "Hidden," and you wrote a few episodes of the show "Wayward Pines." But, you know, "Stranger Things," being in charge of your own multimillion-dollar movie, seems like a huge step forward. When you got on the set, did you feel like you were over your head at some point?
M. DUFFER: Yeah.
R. DUFFER: It was...
M. DUFFER: Always, always.
R. DUFFER: Not as over the head as on our first movie, which was just - that was - felt like you're just being thrown into the deep end. It was more like that experience was so traumatizing for us and we were so nervous going on to "Stranger Things," it was less about running the set and more about getting it finished in time. My least favorite thing about filming is that you're always running out of time. You never have time to get it right. You never have time to do as many takes is you want, to get the scene just right. So it's always from the second you step on set, you're just - you're racing.
M. DUFFER: And like, I remember at our first movie - I guess we were 27. You know, and then you're like on this multimillion-dollar Warner Brothers movie with movie stars and stuff. And you need to convince people that you know what you're doing, but you don't totally know what you're doing. And I think that because of that you have this thing called playback, which we don't have on "Stranger Things," by the way, just to protect ourselves. But most movies and most TV shows have playback where you can - you know, once you shoot a scene, you can watch it. You can watch what you just did.
BRIGER: You said that you don't have playback on the set of "Stranger Things" to protect yourself. So what do you mean?
M. DUFFER: So we have so little time on "Stranger Things" that if you're unsure whether you got something or not, by the time you watch to check whether you had it, you could have just shot it again.
BRIGER: So you just shoot it again?
M. DUFFER: So you just shoot it again.
R. DUFFER: And the beauty of digital - and some people complain about it that it's hurting sort of discipline on film sets, which I can understand that. But especially in something with kids is we don't even have to cut the camera. We just go, go again. Go again just one more time. Say this line one more time. And then just say, say douche bag or just whatever it is. And then - and that can help sort of get the energy up of a scene. And then you're just like, OK, we got it - moving on.
M. DUFFER: But usually you can't just shout at actors off-screen, or they get really irritated at you.
R. DUFFER: (Laughter) That's true.
M. DUFFER: Like I can't shout at Winona. Like, Winona, do it again but this way. With kids, you can shout at them from off-screen. They won't get offended. You can literally grab them and move them if they're not on their mark. You know, if they're not where they're supposed to be, you can physically move them. You know, you can't do that with David Harbour. You cannot do that with Winona without getting smacked.
BRIGER: So how do you guys work together? Do you split up the writing and directing, or is it all collaborative? Do you feel like one of you is better - like Matt's better at writing dialogue and Ross is better at writing plot, or...
R. DUFFER: We usually get annoyed at each other when we answer these questions.
M. DUFFER: Yeah, yeah.
R. DUFFER: I'm like, I'm better at this. And you're like, wait a minute. You really think that? So that I may dodge. But I think that the benefit of two - you're really working as one voice when you're on set because most of the decisions that we're making comes in the writing. And so on set, it's just executing it, whereas the writing is - you know, it's very collaborative as we're breaking story and breaking outlines with each other and other writers. But then as we're writing scenes, you know, we each write a scene separately. We pass it to each other. Someone - the other one does a pass, and we pass it back. I don't think we'd be able to do this otherwise. It speeds everything up dramatically - times two.
M. DUFFER: But the funny thing is to write scripts you use this program Final Draft. You're not able to be on there at the same time. So a lot of our work is actually done on Google Docs. And so we don't speak to each other. It's a really weird thing where we're, like, both on headphones, not talking and just typing kind of on the same document at the same time. And sometimes we'll get in, like, little Google Docs wars where, like...
BRIGER: Are you seated next to each other? Are you in the same office?
M. DUFFER: Oh, we're...
R. DUFFER: In the same room.
M. DUFFER: ...In the same room - in the same office. Desks - we have separate desks. We're not, like, literally right next to each other because then we'd probably punch each other every once in a while. So it's good there's a little bit of physical distance. But we'll get into, like, Google Docs wars - you know what I mean? - like, where I type a line a dialogue or an idea for the scene. He'll delete it. I'll go write it back in. He'll delete it again. And then the headphones come off, and we get into - then we actually have to have a conversation about it. So it's a little ridiculous.
BRIGER: So when Netflix released Season 1, were you surprised by the success and the popularity of the show?
M. DUFFER: Oh, yeah.
R. DUFFER: For sure, yeah. I mean, there's so much content out there in the world that the fear was you're just going to get lost even if people do like it. And then we thought best-case scenario, though, is you were appealing to people like us that are nostalgic for this style of storytelling. So, you know, the surprise to us came when - especially, you know, the younger generation started to fall in love with these characters and start tweeting about it. And then word started to spread.
I mean, Netflix was always behind the show, and they always loved it. But what they thought and what they told us is that, you know, they were hoping that word of mouth would spread, but it's going to take some time. That was sort of what it was. And word of mouth certainly is what got the show its popularity, but I think everyone was taken aback by how quickly that word of mouth spread.
BRIGER: That's great.
M. DUFFER: So, yeah, no, it's exciting. But it's exciting now. Like, the most exciting thing I'm seeing is that people are discovering the show who hadn't - you know, who had never watched it in the first place. They're, like, starting to get annoyed about hearing about it. And they're like, fine, I guess I'll watch it...
R. DUFFER: Right.
M. DUFFER: ...Which is great. You know, I mean, that's what happened with "Game Of Thrones." I mean, "Game Of Thrones" was something that's like - it's just - fine. You know, I hate dragons. And I would never watch anything like this, right? And then they watched it, and they ended up falling in love with the characters and the world. So, you know, you want someone who's like, I find kids annoying. I don't like monsters. I don't watch anything sci-fi. And then suddenly they're watching it.
R. DUFFER: That's the hope.
M. DUFFER: That's the hope. That's the goal.
BRIGER: Matt and Ross Duffer, thanks so much for being on the show.
R. DUFFER: Oh, thank you. This is great.
M. DUFFER: Yeah, thanks for having us.
GROSS: The Duffer Brothers created the Netflix series "Stranger Things." They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel by Louise Erdrich. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES'S "DOODLIN'")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Over her long career, Louise Erdrich has written 16 novels. Lately, she's been on a real roll. Three of her recent novels have won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that Erdrich's new novel is something to celebrate as well. Here's her review of "Future Home Of The Living God."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Before I finally picked up and read Louise Erdrich's new novel called "Future Home Of The Living God," there was a mighty obstacle that had to be faced, an obstacle called "The Handmaid's Tale." After Margaret Atwood's magisterial achievement is there really room for another dystopian feminist novel about the overthrow of democracy by a Christian fundamentalist regime that enslaves fertile women and reduces them to simple vessels of procreation? The somewhat unsettling answer is sure. Erdrich reminds us here that the unthinkable could happen in a variety of ways. Rather than standing in the shadow of Atwood's classic, Erdrich's tense and lyrical new work of speculative fiction stands shoulder to braced shoulder right alongside it.
"Future Home Of The Living God" is loosely structured as a series of letters that our heroine, a 26-year-old woman named Cedar Hawk Songmaker, writes to her unborn child. Cedar is impelled to write these letters because, well, something weird is going on. Nature has doubled back on itself, and plants and animals and fetuses seem to be randomly devolving. Pregnant women are being rounded up by agents of the new religious government called The Church of the New Constitution. The women give birth in prison-like maternity hospitals. And afterwards, it seems they may face a future of enforced serial pregnancies, but no one is certain because, as one character shrewdly comments, the first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening.
Complicating the already fraught subject of motherhood in this novel is the fact that Ceder was born to an Ojibwe woman but was adopted as an infant by a couple whom she refers to as white Minnesota liberals, parents whom Ceder loves as much as she mocks. Ironically, Cedar Hawk Songmaker has recently found out that her name at birth was plain old Mary Potts. Because she's pregnant, Cedar feels an urgency about connecting with her birth mother. She takes to the road on an odyssey into a panicked America where people are starting to hoard cigarettes and liquor for barter and are dumping their cellphones and laptops. They're returning to un-hackable modes of communication, like passing handwritten notes and sending word via the Native American network known as the moccasin telegraph.
In some of her more recent novels, like "The Plague Of Doves" and "The Round House," Erdrich has been edging over into literary suspense and, boy, does her achieved mastery of pacing, cliffhangers and depictions of physical violence come in handy here. The only thing that's ungainly about "Future Home Of The Living God" is its title. Otherwise, it's a streamlined dystopian thriller.
Along with a series of jittery escape and fight scenes, Erdrich conjures up a 12-page description in which a pregnant friend of Cedar's, who is hiding out in a cave, goes into labor. It's a scene that's matchless in its precision and terror. Also scattered throughout this breathless novel are beautiful meditative passages where Cedar, in those letters to her baby, considers the world gone wrong and the approaching apocalypse. Here's one. (Reading) We are so brief, Cedar writes, a one-day dandelion, a seed pod skittering across the ice. We are a feather falling from the wing of a bird. I don't know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick and glorious.
In a postscript, Erdrich tells her readers that she first hatched the idea for "Future Home Of The Living God" on a road trip with her daughters in 2001. Clearly, as the widespread heightened appreciation of "The Handmaid's Tale" indicates, this is the right cultural moment for feminist dystopian fiction. That's good news, at least for literature.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Future Home Of The Living God" by Louise Erdrich. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. They broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Twohey also reported on the sexual misconduct allegations against Donald Trump. Kantor reported on the sexual misconduct allegations against Louis C.K. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
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