The fourth season of Netflix’s sci-fi series Weird stuff is the streamer’s largest to date – not only in terms of range, but also in terms of run time. In nine episodes, released in two parts on May 27 and July 1, each episode could have been a standalone feature (the season four finale clocked in at 2 hours and 30 minutes). But showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer say it wasn’t planned that way. As they edited the season’s episodes, they realized there was just too much story to fit into nine one-hour episodes. TV Academy voters didn’t hesitate to get through season four — it has earned the series’ fourth Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series — nor has its rabid fan base. The Duffer brothers spoke to THR about how they developed the season and created their most terrifying horror villain ever.
This season, your characters were separated in different locations. How do you determine which characters really work well together, which characters create tension together and which characters you want to see together?
ROSS DUFFER Sometimes we know right away that we’re going into a season: “Well, I really want to see it” this one.” The first three weeks [in the writers room]we were still people shuffling – who would be in California, Jonathan goes back to Hawkins, Nancy goes to California… It was mixing and matching until [we had] dynamic that Matt and I and the writers were excited about. But you almost don’t want to know exactly what that dynamic will bring.
You have a young cast. How did their aging affect how you wrote their characters, especially after the production stoppage due to the pandemic?
MATTE DUFFER The break helped the writing, because for the first time we could see exactly how much the children had changed. Also, for the first time, we were able to complete all the scripts before shooting. [The aging] wasn’t as dramatic as you might think, even with that six month gap. The jump from season two to season three was the one that shocked us the most.
ROSS DUFFER For season four, we just assumed, “They’ll be older than we can imagine.” And so we wrote to them, and we even aged them [their real ages]. Shocking as it is to come out every year, it was less shocking than season three because that was really when they went through big changes. It was like, “Who is this?” (laughs.)
The varying – and long – running times were a topic of conversation this season. Did you always know that you would make much longer episodes?
MATTE DUFFER It was a surprise to us that the run times were as long as they were. Ross and I have been trying to analyze how they got so long because the scripts aren’t even that long. We’ve realized that our writing style has changed a bit, in terms of how we give the description space. I think that added to some length. We also had an extra parcel with Hopper in Russia. It’s a pretty busy season. We weren’t sure if they were that long, really, until we got into editing. But it’s something Ross and I are really excited about; with streaming you are not obligated to advertisers like television used to be. We don’t need to hit this specific 45 minute length, so it can be as short or as long as you want.
ROSS DUFFER Our concern is the pace. If we can hold your interest for an hour and 15 minutes, that’s a win. We’ve talked about breaking up [the finale]. We finally decided that if it’s too long for someone, they can pause it and come back. It’s like reading a book. You can watch it at your own pace.
MATTE DUFFER I don’t think the run times in season five will be that extreme. We’re trying to return to the simplicity of the structure in season one, with greater scale and scope. Except for the final, which I expect will be quite big.
Because, as you said, these episodes were more compact, did that change the way you broke the season?
ROSS DUFFER The big change that happened midway through writing was: [with] episode seven, which became our big reveal of Vecna’s origins. We realized we needed a lot of time to get that right, and it required its own delivery. We went to Netflix and asked for an extra episode. I don’t think we said, “It’s going to be movie length,” but it ended up being that. Otherwise there was just an extra storyline or two, which in terms of the right pace was always a balancing act. Sometimes we experimented with drawing a storyline because we definitely had episodes where we would sketch and they were much longer than what you see. There are storylines that we ended up cutting that I still miss. There is a longer version of this season, but I don’t think we would want it longer than it ended up being.
MATTE DUFFER It’s easy to forget now, but fans got very anxious and annoyed about the length between seasons. I was like, “Well, they’ll be happy because it’s almost double the amount of material.” And [maybe that helped] explain why it took so long.
Do you like to play with the expectations of fans? Do you consider the crowd as you build the season?
ROSS DUFFER We want to make big swings because I think you have to for the show to grow, rather than just fall into some kind of formula where we repeat ourselves – which is one of the reasons we [broke] up these characters, to really move the story forward and play with the mold of what this show is. While elements are similar from season to season, the show has changed a lot since season one. That’s on purpose, because I think repeating ourselves would only result in a worse show.
You have introduced so many villains. Where does Vecna come from?
ROSS DUFFER We’ve long wanted to create a villain that was a lot more psychological in the way 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 some 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 some point we stopped talking about it so much [the references for Vecna] to try to tell the story, because I don’t think you can just make a collage of references. It will never work.
I have to bring up Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’. Was there ever the idea that the song would blow up the way it did and see a resurgence?
MATTE DUFFER I’ve even seen articles that are like “What will be?” Weird stuff‘ next Kate Bush moment?” There won’t be any more! If we try that with another song, it will fail. Ross, our music director, and I all had a list of possible songs we wanted, and “Running Up That Hill she was all. I’d be lying if I said I knew it would resonate the way it did. I think the reason is she was so ahead of her time. It feels very modern. And so kids are addicted to it I don’t even really understand what TikTok is I emailed Kate Bush: “Apparently you’re big on TikTok.” She said, “Yeah, I heard.”(laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a standalone August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.