Stranger Things episode 5: The Duffer Brothers explain the show's soundtrack
And working with TV composer newbies
Matt and Ross Duffer (Wayward Pines) are taking EW behind the scenes of every single episode in their thrilling new Netflix drama, Stranger Things, an ’80s-set supernatural show starring Winona Ryder and a slew of fantastic young stars. (You can read the season 1 recap to get caught up.) Here, they talk “Chapter 5: The Flea and the Acrobat”…
We took the directing reigns back again starting with this episode, and it was a fun one. It has our favorite opening sequence, as we crosscut Hop’s lab infiltration with scenes of the boys figuring out about the “Upside Down.” We love the energetic, cinematic quality generated from the crossing of these story lines, but what really holds this sequence together is the propulsive music.
We always wanted the music to play a major role in the show. Very early on, we decided that we needed an entirely electronic score. Electronic music is making a major comeback right now and we’re loving it. Specifically, we’re obsessed with Cliff Martinez’s work on The Knick, as well as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work for David Fincher. Their electronic soundtracks, while very modern and cutting-edge, also inevitably evoke the sounds of ’80s music (most notably Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and John Carpenter). So we felt that having a synth soundtrack would do exactly what we wanted to achieve with the show: It would feel both modern and nostalgic at the same time.
We also thought that a synth soundtrack would nicely play against expectations. When you have kids on bikes, your ears expect to hear a soaring, orchestral John Williams score (the type of score Michael Giacchino wrote so well for the similarly Spielberg-inspired Super 8). Our only concern was: Would synth music play so much against expectation that it becomes jarring or distracting? To test-drive the concept, we threw together a quick mock-trailer for the show, editing together clips from more than 25 classic films. We then scored this fake trailer with John Carpenter music, using some of our favorite songs from The Fog to Escape From New York. As soon as we heard John Carpenter’s eerie synth drones play over shots from E.T., we got major goosebumps. It worked, big time. (For the record, John Carpenter music makes E.T. scary as hell).
Now that we knew our concept worked, we just needed to find great collaborators to write our electronic music. We got lucky. The music for the show is composed by two musicians from Austin: Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon. They are two members of a synth band called S U R V I V E (you have to spread out the letters like that because… it’s more epic). We first discovered them when we heard one of their tracks in Adam Wingard’s similarly throwback-themed film, The Guest. We tested their music out in our fake trailer, and it soared.
There was one small problem: Kyle and Michael had never composed for film or television before. In fact, they were working regular day jobs (Michael was actually selling used synthesizers). As it turns out, there’s not a lot of money in playing in an electronic instrumental band. But we really believed in them. We had them write a few test songs for the show, just to make sure. And they nailed it. We called Kyle and Michael up the next day and asked if they would quit their jobs to work on the show full time. They didn’t hesitate — “Hell yes!”
Kyle and Michael first started composing music last summer. We only had a few episodes written at that time, but they started sending us tracks inspired by the characters, tone, and story. They were really more like sketches than songs, actually, and they all had very strange titles. A few examples: “Jupiter 8 Spirit Winds,” “Soakers Forum 3,” “Lighting Candles and Eggy Pizza.” We honestly still don’t know what any of that means, but these sketches eventually became the basis for the Stranger Things soundtrack (and a sketch called “Prophecy” evolved into our title theme).
Over the course of the year, we accumulated over 13 and a half hours of music from Kyle and Michael. Obviously not all of this music made it into our eight-hour show, but it gave us a huge library to pull from as we edited the episodes together. Sometimes music intended for certain moments worked better for others. For instance, the music we love so much that begins this chapter was originally intended for a scene in “Chapter Six.” But we tested it out here, and it made the opening sequence really come to life in unexpected ways. We hope you love it — and all of their music — as much as we do. There are some amazing new themes and sounds coming up…
Random trivia: For the isolation tank scenes, Millie (Eleven) was fully submerged in an underwater tank. She was able to breathe by wearing a Sea Trek helmet, which is designed for shallow underwater walking. It weighs 70 lbs above the water.
The Duffer Brothers on “Chapter Six” here.