Joe Hill Reveals the Secrets of Netflix’s ‘Locke & Key’ and the Comic Book Series’ Future
The son of Stephen King is a genre force in his own right. He opens up to Nick Schager about the new Netflix series “Locke & Key” and much more.
Joe Hill may be Stephen King’s son, but he’s also an acclaimed genre writer in his own right, and after years of development hell, one of his biggest hits—Locke & Key, a graphic novel series created with artist Gabriel Rodriguez—has finally made it to the screen courtesy of Netflix.
The story of a mother and three kids who move to their ancestral Massachusetts mansion in the wake of their father’s murder, only to discover that the place is filled with magical keys that grant them wondrous powers—be it the ability to transform into ghosts, teleport to anywhere in the world, change their appearances, or manipulate others—it’s a wild and spooky tale about loss, memory, and coping with scarring trauma. It’s also a work that’s been surprisingly tricky to translate for television, as Hill’s saga flamed out first as a series for Fox (in 2010-2011), and then as one for Hulu (in 2017-2018, replete with a premiere helmed by It director Andy Muschietti), before arriving on Netflix last Friday.
For the 47-year-old Hill, whose novels Horns and NOS4A2 have previously received the live-action treatment, Locke & Key’s journey may have been bumpy, but it was the natural result of trying to get it right. And though it makes significant changes to his source material, the new series—spearheaded by Lost’s Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill, with a first episode co-penned by Hill—is something about which the celebrated author is excited, calling it “the most Netflix-y Netflix show that ever Netflixed.”
More of a remix than a diligently straightforward retelling, this Locke & Key plays like a cross between Stranger Things, The Haunting of Hill House, and It, with closely-knit young protagonists navigating an ominous milieu marked by secrets and danger, and confronting a shared past steeped in mystery, suffering, and violence. Establishing a fantastical world that’s at once familiar and distinctive, as well as rich enough to support a potential multi-season franchise, it seems primed to be a breakout hit for the streaming service.
Thus, we couldn’t resist talking to the man behind it all about the show’s major and minor alterations to his graphic novel, what its bombshell surprises mean for potential future seasons, and his childhood experiences on the set of Creepshow alongside “godfather of gore” (and Locke & Key player) Tom Savini.
Locke & Key has certainly had a tumultuous adaptation history.
Much has been made of its long journey to the screen, and the fact that there were two other pilots before it landed on Netflix. At least coming from prose fiction and publishing, the idea that a story needs multiple drafts before you finally hit on its best possible version doesn’t seem that strange to me. I go back to J.J. Abrams working on The Force Awakens. They had this tremendously great stroke of good fortune, which was that Harrison Ford broke a leg while working on the film. On the surface, it seems like if your big star breaks a leg, that’s probably a bad thing—and I’m sure Harrison Ford wasn’t happy about it. But it meant they had been filming for a month, and they could look over what they had done and see what they loved and what they didn’t. Then they had six weeks to revise the script accordingly, to play to the strengths of the material, and to skate away from their weaknesses. I think that as a result, they wound up with a really fresh, exciting return to that universe. I’d say the same thing happened to Locke & Key, in that with every iteration we got a little closer to the best possible version for the story on screen.
Did you ever think it might not be adaptable?
No, I never really did think it was unadaptable. I think the problem was, the graphic novel puts the graphic in graphic novel. It’s a pretty explicit work of horror fiction that happens to feature teenagers and children in peril. In that way, it’s not so different from something like my dad’s book It. But when you’re talking about a TV show, and you have youthful protagonists, the question is, can we really do horror, and how much horror are we talking about, and what’s the nature of this horror, and who’s watching our show? I think the ingenious solution Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill hit upon was to lean into the fantasy elements of the comic, because there are a lot of strong Harry Potter-ish, C.S. Lewis-type fantasy elements in the comic.
Then, you can address the horror elements by making horror part of the conversation of the show. So you have these characters, the Savini Squad, who celebrate the gross-out special effects of Tom Savini. And you have a lot of conversations about how people behave in horror movies when faced with a scary supernatural enemy. It’s not quite as meta as Scream or Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, but it does manage to bridge the divide between fantasy and horror by including horror in the conversation without making the show itself a real hard-R.
What was your role in this adaptation, and did you enjoy reworking—or remixing—your own material in this unique way?
I think that, in the same way HBO’s Watchmen isn’t an adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic, but they took elements of the comic and shook them up into a new configuration, this is one way to keep the material fresh for fans of the source material, while still giving yourself the freedom to do something that’s optimal for that particular form. TV has a set of strengths and weaknesses, just like comic books have their unique strengths and weaknesses. When you do an adaptation, you want to play to your form; you want to make something that’s great TV, not a flat, straight, fixed adaptation of what’s on the comic-book page.
In terms of my role, I took a hand in writing the pilot, and I worked with the whole team on the pilot. I introduced a couple of new keys into the storyline, to get some exciting magical conflict around the keys right up front. I thought we could use the Matchstick Key in a really cool way to get Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet) out of prison. When we see Sam in prison in the comic book, he uses a method of escape that’s not that supernatural, and I thought it would be more interesting [in the show] to base his breakout on using the supernatural tools of Keyhouse. I did my best to help imagine some good beats and moments and scenes over the course of the season that we could use, that would be fun to see, and that either reflected things that were in the comic in an interesting way, or went in a new direction, but still felt true to the characters and the situation. That said, I was just one hand among many! I was working with some of the best writers in the business. You had Carlton, Meredith, Michael Fuller, Liz Phang—I mean, it was a really tremendous room of creative people who were out to make Netflix candy. That was the goal: to make the most Netflix-y Netflix show that ever Netflixed.
The alteration to Sam’s breakout epitomizes the show’s shift from fantasy to horror.
He originally puts a pair of scissors through a security guard’s eyeballs [laughs], which I think is a great example of the kind of thing that we didn’t need to do in the TV show. And it’s OK! If people want that harder, more graphic, hard-R version of the story, the graphic novels aren’t going anywhere. But that horror always existed, hand-in-hand in the comic, with more whimsical, almost young-adult fantasy elements. One of our more memorable issues was “Sparrow,” which played with the comic-strip language of Bill Watterson, and is a little bit like a dark-fantasy version of Calvin and Hobbes. I think the show tapped into some of that mood in a really exciting way.
One of the most upfront changes is the name of the town itself, which has been switched from Lovecraft (a nod to H.P. Lovecraft) to Matheson (in tribute to Richard Matheson). Was that to suggest a different type of horror-ish tone for this Netflix version?
A little bit, but the other thing is, over the last decade, I’ve become more aware. When I started writing Locke & Key, I think I roughed out the pitch all the way back in 2006. I was working on Locke & Key before I had locked down the sale of my first novel, because it started as a pitch for Marvel Comics. And I knew that the source of the menace would be an otherworldly Lovecraftian thing. Lovecraft’s insight into what’s really scary is tremendously powerful and still useful.
I think I learned a lot about the guy over the last fifteen years that I didn’t know when I started the graphic novel, and I didn’t really want to celebrate the racist asshole in a TV show! And I’m not a George Lucas kind of guy; I wouldn’t go back and change things in the graphic novel, because it reflects what I knew at the time I wrote it, and says something about the culture it came out of. But I think, with the TV show, I realized we didn’t need to do that. We can change the name of the town, and celebrate someone else.
Can you speak about the Tom Savini references and cameo, which also feel like part of this desire to pay tribute to great horror icons?
I’ve told this story in a few other places, including in the introduction to Full Throttle, my book of stories. I was a child actor on the set of Creepshow—I played the little kid with the voodoo doll. It was an independent film that was shot in Pittsburgh in 1981, and child labor laws were different. We didn’t have the same kind of rules about having a tutor or babysitter on set. I don’t think it had really occurred to anyone that they’d actually have to do something with me when I wasn’t filming. So they didn’t have a babysitter, and made Tom Savini my babysitter.
He had a makeup effects trailer, and I hung out with him the whole week. He had three or four worktables, and I had a spot where I would sit under one of his worktables. I had a boardgame called The Awful Green Things From Outer Space, and I would play that game against myself and check out what he was doing. And what he was usually doing was disfiguring a movie star or crafting one of his monsters. He was like my first rock star. He was just so cool! And he didn’t really seem to know how to talk to a kid as a kid, so he just talked to me like one of the grown-ups. He had a big book of autopsy photos, and I remember looking over it during lunch several times. I was too young to really be grossed out or scared; at a certain age, everything is just information. I thought it was fascinating.
One of the series’ other crucial deviations from the graphic novel is its cliffhanger ending. How much did you contribute to the reconfigured finale, which makes a second season possible? [SPOILERS FOLLOW]
I don’t know how far into the weeds I want to go, only because I don’t want to say I did this and others did that. You don’t want to run around patting yourself on the back or anything! It’s a collaborative thing, and we all put our shoulder to the yoke. I know that, in the room, we talked about how, in the graphic novel, there’s a figure—it’s no big secret—named Zack Wells who is, in fact, Dodge in disguise. He becomes friends with Tyler, and becomes Kinsey’s boyfriend, and infiltrates the family as a trusted confederate. That’s in the comic, and one of the things we talked about early on that was exciting was, no Zack Wells. We didn’t want people who have read the graphic novel to know everything that’s going on; we wanted to be able to surprise them in places. We get a couple of big reveals about Dodge’s plan, but hopefully, if we did our job right, we’ll surprise some folks.
In terms of the season’s ending and the cliffhanger, I would say two things: It was in keeping with the character of the rest of the show, because every episode ends with a cliffhanger, and it sort of goes back to our idea of making the most Netflix-y show on Netflix, because you want people to stay tuned when that little box appears in the lower right corner and says, “Next episode starting in five seconds.” But the other thing is, the graphic novels covered a lot of material, and I think there was a feeling like, there’s too much to exhaust in one season. If you look at the show, it is different from the comics, and yet at the same time, it is the same elements of the comic reconfigured in a new order. And what you’re really getting is the first three books: “Welcome to Lovecraft,” “Head Games,” and “Crown of Shadows.” Presumably, a second season would then begin to exploit more of the material in the second half of the comic series.
Have you Carlton and Meredith mapped out a possible second season, and are there particular keys (say, the Hercules Key) that didn’t make it into this season that you’d like to introduce going forward?
The most exciting thing for me in the first season is seeing the shadows come to life. For me, that was so thrilling. I feel like, when you’re a kid, the scariest thing in the world is the darkness under the bed, and seeing that darkness animate and come crawling after you—that’s awesome! So we made it work with the key to the Crown of Shadows. In a second season, I’d love to see the Angel Key, which powers a pair of angel-like wings. That was an iconic part of the comic, and I’d love to see those employed so long as we can do it so it looks great. The other one that you can almost definitely count on is the Timeshift Key, which was instrumental to the penultimate book, “Clockworks.” We’ve got that grandfather clock in the front hall—it’s right there in that first episode—and I think it’s a safe bet that the first time someone bumps into that clock, the Timeshift Key is going to come bouncing off the top of it.
Has working on the show inspired new ideas for future comics installments, and if so, how might they dovetail with the Netflix version?
There are two answers to that. The short answer is I’m writing a Locke & Key story right now that is set in the very beginning of the twentieth century and involves some characters that were introduced in various one-shots: the family of Chamberlain Locke. I’m working on a story with them right now, and that story will segue into a special Locke & Key event—this sort of crazy thing we’re doing, that we’ve been talking about for years. So in the next year, there should be two or three more Locke & Key issues that do some really exciting stuff that I’m pretty confident no one will see coming.
But the other thing is, Gabe and I have plotted out another six-book arc. The original arc was six books long, beginning with “Welcome to Lovecraft” and ending with “Alpha and Omega,” and we’ve got another series that would match the first series in length called “World War Key.” I’m hoping to be working on the first book of “World War Key” by the end of this summer, and with luck, that’s the kind of thing that would be coming out around the same time as a potential season two—if we get a season two, knock on wood!