More Monsters hiding in Hawkins, Indiana

Unknown to many viewers, the hit Netflix show Stranger Things has a strange real-life backstory. The creators of the show, the Duffer Brothers, are now being accused of plagiarism by short film director Charlie Kessler.

Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix, Courtesy of The New York Times/Google Images

North Carolina natives Matt and Ross Duffer (the Duffer brothers), creators of the hit Netflix Series Stranger Things, are being sued by short film director Charlie Kessler for breach of implied contract.  In the lawsuit, Kessler claims that the concept behind the show was his idea, and that the Duffer brothers stole it during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

According to Kessler, he made a short film in 2012 that was going to be made into a feature film titled, The Montauk Project.  In the lawsuit, he notes that when he met the Duffer brothers at the Tribeca Film Festival, he pitched them the idea on an assumption that the “[d]efendants would not disclose, use and/or exploit the Concepts without Plaintiff’s permission.” Kessler’s complaint was filed in Los Angeles State Superior Court.

Beyond merely denying the allegations against the Duffer brothers, attorney Alex Kohner stated, “The Duffer Brothers have neither seen Mr. Kessler’s short film, nor discussed any project with him.  This is just an attempt to profit from other people’s creativity and hard work.”  All of this comes after Stranger Things released two highly successful seasons, with a highly-anticipated third season on the way.

While no details have been released beyond the initial lawsuit, there are some similarities between the two ideas.  First, it is worth noting that when Netflix originally announced the show created by the Duffer brothers, the title was Montauk.  Also, in the complaint, documents note that Stranger Things was originally going to be filmed in Long Island, New York. This is important because both shows are based on a rumored real-life government experiment known as “The Montauk Project” based in Montauk, New York on Long Island.

A group of friends journey to find their missing friend. While they are searching, they connect with a monster that can travel between worlds, an odd girl with telekinetic abilities, and a laboratory that all connect to their friend’s disappearance.

In the final version of the Netflix show, Stranger Things is set in the 1980s in Hawkins, Indiana.  A group of friends journey to find their missing friend.  While they are searching, they connect with a monster that can travel between worlds, an odd girl with telekinetic abilities, and a laboratory that all connect to their friend’s disappearance.

Season one of Stranger Things is built around a mysterious girl named Eleven.  After a group of boys find that their friend Will went missing, they run into Eleven, who reveals that she knows Will’s location.  Eleven begins to describe a parallel universe where a monster roams.  Throughout the season, the boys hide Eleven from Hawkins’ National Laboratory agents who are attempting to find her and return her to their facility for further testing.

In season two, the Duffer Brothers took everything in a new direction.  While season one revolves around the girl Eleven, season two focuses on the group’s journey to take down the monstrous creature around them.  In this season, the Duffer brothers are noted for doing a great job of creating excellent character plots and drawing viewers into the group’s journey to take down the monster that haunts their town.

In comparison, Kessler’s film is based in Montauk, New York.  Near Montauk is a military base that is secretly experimenting on children.  The goal of the experiments is to create psychic abilities and a portal to a different world.  Also included in Kessler’s concept is an inter-dimensional monster, as well as a boy who goes missing after gaining telekinesis.

In regards to Kessler’s film, CNN stated, “Montauk, which won an award at the Hamptons Film Festival in 2012, was a found–footage sci–fi short that told the story of a violent event that took place in the Long Island community.  The premise dealt with conspiracy theories, secret government projects, and the paranormal, as described in the lawsuit.  A cop haunted by his past was among the key characters.”

While the allegations from Charlie Kessler are alarming, beyond the denial, no further information has been released from the Duffer brothers themselves or their attorney.   

Strengthening the Duffer Brothers’ argument are emails revealing that the brothers have been working on Stranger Things since 2010.  If the emails are true, then there is evidence that the concept for the show was created well before 2014, when Kessler claims that he met the Duffer Brothers at the Tribeca Film Festival.  In the emails, the brothers discuss their goal of creating a series revolving around the Montauk project. In regards to the emails, the Duffer Brothers’ attorney Alex Kohner stated, “these documents prove that Mr. Kessler had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of Stranger Things . . . [t]he Duffer Brothers were developing their project years before he claims to have met them.”

While not entirely devastating to Kessler’s claim, the emails certainly do not help.  For Kessler’s claim to succeed, he would need to prove that the Duffer Brothers did not have this idea before their meeting in 2014.

The  Duffer brothers, originally from Durham, have made it well-known that they are from North Carolina.  Throughout Stranger Things, they include numerous references to many North Carolina landmarks.  They have stated in the past that Hawkins, Indiana is based on their connections to North Carolina, as well as filming locations in Georgia, Stephen King books, and other ideas.  Due to tax breaks and incentives, most of the filming is done in Georgia;  however, the Duffer brothers maintain, “it would be a dream to come back one day and shoot [in North Carolina].”  Their success has led them to being nominated for multiple Emmy awards including: Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, Outstanding Drama Series, and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.

This is not the first time the Duffer brothers have been brought into the news this year.  In March, a former crew member alleged that the brothers created a hostile environment including verbal abuse;  however, Netflix reviewed the situation and found no wrongdoing.  Further, the brothers released a statement apologizing for any problems that have arisen on–set and reaffirmed their commitment to providing a safe working environment for all of their production team.

Beyond just the Duffer brothers, there have been many recent accusations of creative plagiarism.  In 2013, Marvin Gaye’s family accused Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. of copyright infringement based on Thicke, Williams, and T.I.’s song “Blurred Lines” resembling Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up.”  After successfully bringing their claim to court in 2015, Gaye’s family now receives ongoing royalties from the song.

Even more recently, according to Deadline, in February 2018, Guillermo del Toro, who wrote the hit movie The Shape of Water, was sued by Paul Zindel’s estate for “appropriating plot elements from Let Me Hear You Whisper.” While these are not the only examples of plagiarism, they serve as examples as to possible outcomes in the Kessler case.

While the allegations from Charlie Kessler are alarming, beyond the denial and release of emails, no further information has been released from the Duffer brothers themselves or their attorney.  It remains to be seen what sort of “stranger things” will be coming next.

Avatar photo
About Landis Barber (4 Articles)
Landis is a third-year student at Campbell Law and currently serves as the Managing Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Pittsboro, North Carolina, Landis majored in History and Political Science at UNC Charlotte. The summer after his first year in law school, Landis interned at the Chatham County District Attorney's Office. This past summer, he served as an intern in the UNC Athletic Department. He is currently serving as the SBA Treasurer and Co-Director of the Peer Mentor Program. He has also been a part of the Campbell Law Trial Team. He is interested in business, corporate, and sports law.