Filmmaker Charlie Kessler has accused “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer of stealing the premise of the Netflix series from his 2012 short film, “Montauk.” Kessler filed a lawsuit — which you can read here, thanks to Deadline — in Los Angeles Superior Court earlier this week and is seeking damages for “breach of implied contract.”
Kessler debuted his short at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2012 and later expanded upon it to write a feature film script called “The Montauk Project.” He claims he met the Duffer Brothers in 2014 at a Tribeca Film Festival party, where the trio allegedly discussed the “script, ideas, story, and film.” The lawsuit states that, in creating “Stranger Things,” the Duffer Brothers defied a “well-established” industry standard of not using someone else’s idea without permission or compensation.
Alex Kohner, the Duffer Brothers’ attorney, shared the following statement with The Washington Post: “Mr. Kessler’s claim is completely meritless. He had no connection to the creation or development of ‘Stranger Things.’ 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.”
(The Post has also contacted Netflix representatives for comment.)
So how similar are the projects?
Kessler’s story, according to the lawsuit, centers on a boy named Michael who wakes up in a trance and walks to Camp Hero, an abandoned military base in Montauk, N.Y., and suddenly disappears. A “cop with a haunted past” vows to find the boy and discovers that the government is experimenting on children at Camp Hero, endeavoring to create “psychic weapons” and “portals to the alien world.” The cop does find Michael eventually, but the boy seems to have been altered by the experiments. He opens a portal above the base, “disrupting the space-time continuum.”
In the 1980s-set “Stranger Things,” which premiered in 2016, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is abducted by a creature called the Demogorgon and taken into an alternate dimension called the Upside Down. The government runs secret experiments on abducted children in Hawkins, Ind., hoping to better understand the otherworldly force. One of the children, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), escapes.
While both appear to have missing kids, monsters and secret experimentation, “cop with a haunted past,” for instance, could refer to dozens of TV characters other than the Netflix series’s Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Variety noted that a 1992 book called “The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time” predates both projects and “tells of repressed memories of secret government experiments at Montauk’s Camp Hero.” Related conspiracy theories have circulated online for years, according to Variety.
The Netflix series was still called “Montauk” when the platform announced in 2015 that it had ordered eight episodes. Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin in “Stranger Things,” mentioned the Camp Hero connection in a November interview with Wired.
The entertainment industry has had many conflicts like this one in recent years. Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. preemptively filed a lawsuit to protect their 2013 song “Blurred Lines” after Marvin Gaye’s family pointed out resemblances to Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The Gayes countered the suit with accusations of copyright infringement, and the trial ended in 2015 with the family receiving $5.3 million and 50 percent interest in ongoing royalties from “Blurred Lines.” (T.I. was not held liable for damages.) In March, a federal appeals court upheld the lower courts’ verdict.
Last week, Variety connected the “Blurred Lines” trial to how artists like the Black Keys, Tame Impala and Beach House have accused ad agencies of using songs that sound like theirs in commercials. In February, director Guillermo del Toro was sued by playwright Paul Zindel’s estate, according to Deadline, for “appropriating plot elements from ‘Let Me Hear You Whisper’” into del Toro’s film “The Shape of Water.” The 1969 play is also about a female custodian who tries to free a sea creature — a dolphin, in this case — from a laboratory using animals as weapons.
Kessler’s lawsuit notes the commercial success of “Stranger Things,” stating that the show has “enriched [the Duffers] to the tune of millions of dollars.” In mid-March, news broke that the cast would be receiving massive raises for the third season. The Hollywood Reporter reported that Harbour and Winona Ryder will make $350,000 per episode, while some of the younger stars — Schnapp, Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard and Caleb McLaughlin — will make $250,000.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Marvin Gaye’s family had filed the lawsuit.