From co-showrunners Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel, Lost) and Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House), and adapted from the best-selling comic book series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez, the Netflix original series Locke & Key follows the Locke family, as they move to their ancestral home, Keyhouse, after their father is murdered under mysterious circumstances. Once there, while learning to deal with the grief that they are experiencing, they discover that the house is full of magical keys, each with their own unique powers, and that there’s a demon who will stop at nothing to get its hands on them. The series stars Darby Stanchfield (“Nina Locke”), Connor Jessup (“Tyler Locke”), Emilia Jones (“Kinsey Locke”), Jackson Robert Scott (“Bode Locke”), Bill Heck (“Rendell Locke”), Laysla De Oliveira (“Dodge”) and Sherri Saum (“Ellie Whedon”).
Recently, Collider (along with a few other media outlets) got invited to the Los Angeles HQ for Netflix for a chance to dig deeper into the creation of Locke & Key and the long evolution its taken to finally reach the screen. While there, there was also a Q&A with comic creators Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez, who talked about the process of adapting the comic book for a TV series, the path to finally telling this story at Netflix, how they originally conceived and designed Keyhouse, bringing the magical powers of the keys to life for TV, Easter eggs, cameo appearances, how long they see this series continuing, and whether they’ve had any new ideas in this world for further comics. Hill also talked about whether he’d still like to write a script for Doctor Who, and his previous experience with trying to get hired as a writer for that series.
Question: As far as adapting the comic for a TV series, both narratively and visually, what sort of conversations did you have with co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill about that? How did you figure that out?
GABRIEL RODRIGUEZ: Something that we discussed together, with the people from the publisher and later with Carlton and Meredith, when we got introduced, is that we understand that when you tell a story in a different media, you have to play with different rules, with different logic, and with different storytelling tools. It’s like working in a different language. You have to understand that part of succeeding in an adaptation is to be aware that changes are necessary and it helps you to like exploit the potential of a story. For us, we were never obsessed with any idea of translating, from the page to the screen, the same things, in the same way. In order for our show to be successful, it has to be functional and consistent, on its own terms. So, from the get-go, we were very open to letting them play with this universe and this mythology, with the vision they had for the show.
JOE HILL: We wanted the comic to succeed as a comic, to take advantage of the comic book form and do things that only comic books could do. We did an issue that was a tribute to Bill Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes. We did an issue where two giants fight and every page is a full-page spread. You can’t exactly do that on TV. The TV screen is always the same size, for starters.
RODRIGUEZ: There are mechanics of the storytelling that are completely different. Comics deal with frozen images, put side by side, in which you can see several images, at the same time, in the display of pages. That’s something that you can’t have, in a TV show format, in which you have continuous movement of images and you need not to stop the action, in order to flow properly. And then, there are things like what they did with the Identity Key, which flows very naturally in the narrative of a TV show, but would be so complex to portray, in the same way, in the format of a comic book. Carlton and Meredith really captured what Locke & Key was about and found a creative way to display that on screen, and that’s the ultimate goal. You don’t want to have the same story told twice, in different media. You want to have stories that sustain on their own feet, in each of those different media, exploiting the qualities of it.
HILL: The other thing is that there are things you can only do in TV, that you can’t do in comics, like discover particular moments of human chemistry. One of the things that I really think shines about the TV show is this tremendous sense of fun with the actors. It almost has a fizz to it because the characters click so well together. The other thing is that there are unique properties that are unique to the fact that this is on Netflix. It’s all killer, and no filler. When you do a TV show for network TV, it has to run a certain length, with a certain number of ad beats. But with Netflix, if you’ve got the perfect story, and it’s 35 minutes instead of 45 minutes, you don’t need make it 45 minutes. You don’t need to find 10 minutes of filler to keep it going. You can actually tell the perfect story, at the perfect length, in exactly 35 minutes, or if you need to go a little longer, and it’s an hour and 10 minutes, you can do that, too. That’s unique to the Netflix model, which allows a story to arrive in its best possible form and take advantage of the medium.
It has been a long journey, from Fox to MTV to Hulu to Netflix. Since Netflix wanted a new version of the pilot, was there anything you wished had been kept from the previous versions?
HILL: I think this is the story in its best possible version. We had fun doing the comic. We always had fun doing the comic. I also feel like this is the most fun version of the story. It has an energy and a fizz to it, which is really exciting and compelling, and makes you want to keep watching. The other thing is that some people have made much about the long process it took to get on Netflix, but I don’t know [if it was really that long]. I’ve had ideas for stories where I took a stab at it, wrote half a novel, and I thought, this doesn’t work and I left it. The idea for my second novel, Horns, developed over eight or nine years, and I had two or three other stabs at it, before I finally got it right. Sometimes the subconscious needs to keep working. You’re turning that pop culture lock. It’s like you’re turning the combination lock and you’re waiting to hear it click, and everything finally clicked, this time out.
RODRIGUEZ: Despite being a continuous process of different attempts, I felt like every one of the attempts has been like building a different sculpture, each with its own qualities and its own beauty. You can’t just take the arm off of one sculpture and put it on another one because it won’t match. All of the creators brought their own vision of it to life, and they all succeeded, in the intention they had with it. Luckily for us, the time in which this is coming to the screen to be shared with the audience, is this iteration of the effort, in which I think they really nailed the combination of the vision that they wanted to have and how they accomplished that with the final work. When I watching the show, I kept thinking about all of the interviews that I read, in which Carlton and Meredith described what they wanted to do with this show, and they so accomplished that. It was great to see. This legion of craftsmen and artists combined their talents to pull it off, and it’s great to realize that it came out in the way they wanted it to. I’m very proud of the final result. I think it’s an incredibly solid base of fiction and narrative, and I’m really hoping that people are going to fall in love with it.
What was your process for designing the look of Keyhouse? What did you want to achieve with its creation?
RODRIGUEZ: I’m an architect by training. That’s where I met my wife, who’s also an architect. So, when I got the chance to work on this story and Joe pitched this idea, we knew, from the get-go that Keyhouse was going to be a fully rendered character in the story. I approached it as an architectural project challenge, so I designed the house, starting with building a 3D model that I used as a reference to shade the house. I had this very unpractical idea of making the house as uneven and asymmetrical as possible, from every point of view, to have like a different vision of the character from each side. And then, I did the entire blueprint of the house, as an actual architectural project, so that we could have a highly detailed battleground for all of the action that was going to happen in the comic later, and to figure out how many like places we could have to explore different parts of this story in this place, as if it was a real place. One of the things that makes Locke & Key such an appealing story is that the grounded elements of the story are very rooted in reality, so that when you add the fantasy elements, it becomes a huge contrast for that. So, I researched the kind of architecture that we were going to use and the kind of house that we were going to try to make, and I did a full detailed design of the blueprints and gave that to Joe.
HILL: He lovingly crafted this blueprint with where everything was, which I actually never bothered to look at it. I would just say, “Okay, they go into the bathroom, off of the kitchen.” And Gabriel would say, “There’s no bathroom, off of the kitchen.” So, he’d sketch it up and modify it. He was going crazy because I kept putting stuff where it didn’t belong. I was shocked to discover, about 20 issues in, that Tyler and Kinsey’s bedrooms were actually on the third floor of the house, in the comic. I didn’t know there was anything up there. Eventually, Gabe connived to put the blueprints in the comic, so the blueprints were published, thus locking me into the actual geography of the house. That’s how they finally trapped me into paying attention to what Gabe designed. I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Watson got shot by an Afghan bullet, in his right shoulder, for the first 15 stories, but then the bullet went over to his left shoulder, about a third of the way into the series. And then, by the end of the series, somehow it migrated to his knee because Arthur Conan Doyle just didn’t care enough to ever look back and see what he had done, four stories ago.
What did you think about the way that the Head Key was translated, from comic to TV series?
RODRIGUEZ: It captures the essence of the idea. Even though the mechanics in which it’s displayed are different in each of the media, in both of them, what you get to see, when you see into someone’s head, is a landscape of how their minds is. That’s what they recreated in the show. You get to it in a different way, but it’s the same concept behind it.
HILL: Carlton was talking about an old TV aphorism to me that I really loved, which is that every scene should have a character purpose and a plot purpose. I thought that was really interesting because, when we did the comic, I always felt that every key needed to have a character purpose and a plot purpose. I feel like that’s something that really clicked. So, for example, Kinsey uses the Head Key to remove her fear from her head, in both comic and TV show, which is a great supernatural idea and creates a terrific antagonist, but it’s also something teenagers do. Teenagers actually go through this period, in their youth, when suddenly they’re fearless and take really stupid, really ridiculous chances. We always wanted the keys to give us a chance to explore something that people actually do experience, and I feel that that carries over to the TV show, in a really satisfying way.
If we used the Head Key on you guys, what would we find?
HILL: The inside of my head would probably be like one of those dusty used bookstores, where they’ve got the kitty litter box that they aren’t quite keeping up with.
RODRIGUEZ: My head, on the other hand, would be all schedules and clocks. I’m behind schedule, all of the time, and I need reminders.
Diving into the keys and the mythology of the keys, you’ve said that you want them to be rooted in the narrative and ask an interesting question. What’s it been like to watch that brought to life?
HILL: It’s wild. We never could have imagined, 15 years ago when we started the comic, that those designs would be leaping onto TV. They’re great, and they’re so iconic.
RODRIGUEZ: When we started working on the comic, we had the idea of making all of the plausible elements of the story plausible as possible. So, when Joe started sending me the concepts for the key, I designed them as if they were actually an industrial design problem. I designed each of the keys in a scale of five to one, to be able to draw all of the details, so that we could get a blueprint for the keys to actually be made. And then, a couple of years later, when we were doing the comic, Skeleton Crew Studios started offering to make the actual keys, based on the comic designs, and they came to life. So, the idea of making these real objects that could exist in the world helped a lot, for people to feel that this magic was possible. There’s also a very powerful thing in these small icons that you can handle, as the secret openers of special skills and abilities that let you discover something about yourself. It’s incredibly engaging, as a storytelling tool. Seeing them come to life through the hands and minds of other creators, and making them work so wonderfully, on screen in the show, is literally a dream come true. When you realize that all of the effort and thought that we put into that, when we conceived the story, and then translating that to another medium, it still works, and it’s still magic and fresh and appealing. That’s a really great experience to behold.
Are there any Easter eggs in the series, that we should look for?
HILL: The comic leans a little more into horror, and the show is more of a work of dark fantasy that also comments on horror a lot, in a way that’s really interesting. It isn’t horror, but it talks about horror a little bit. The Savini Squad, which is a gang of horror enthusiasts, talk a lot about final girls. It’s not as meta as Scream or Cabin in the Woods, but there’s definitely a thread of conversation about fantasy and horror in films, and using what people have learned from pop culture to adapt to the situation that they find themselves in, in Keyhouse, which to me makes sense. Whenever you watch a zombie TV show or movie, the biggest problem is accepting that no one has any idea what’s happening. It’s like, “Where have you been for the last 20 years of pop culture? Zombies are on the move. What’s your plan?”
RODRIGUEZ: With Keyhouse being a welcoming place and the way in which they dealt with magic in the show, despite having these magic and horror elements, the truly horrible things that you have to be scared about come from the way in which people treat each other. That’s in the bottom line of Locke & Key. Despite the magic and the horror, the truly horrible things that people have to overcome throughout this story are things that we human beings do to each other. That’s something really powerful to explore, from the point of view of a fantasy or horror story. These are just mirrors to see ourselves and the way we deal with each other. Beyond anything that could be out of this world, that we could face, or problems that would be bigger than life, it’s the way in which we manage our own relationships.
There are some exciting cameos in the season. How was it to have Tom Savini make an appearance?
HILL: I don’t remember how I came up with the idea for the Savini Squad. We were talking about Kinsey falling in with a group of eccentric, fun geeks. And so, then the question was, well, what do they geek out about? In the comic, there are some characters – Scot Kavanaugh and Jamal Saturday – who are clearly really into horror. And I thought, what if we did that, but on a broader scale, and had a whole club that was into horror filmmaking, which allows for that meta commentary. And then, I was thinking, well, who would they dedicate their time to? A person that has meant a lot to me, over the years, that I’ve gone back to, again and again, is Tom Savini. A little digressive story here is that I was a child actor, and I spent eight days on the set of Creepshow in 1982, where I played the kid, Billy, who gets even with his dad, with a voodoo doll. It was shot in Pittsburgh by the great indie filmmaker George A. Romero, and it was a different era of filmmaking. They didn’t really have the same child labor laws, for how long kids could work or on set care. They didn’t have an on set babysitter, or anything like that. There was no one to really look after me. So, they put me in Tom Savini’s trailer, and Tom Savini was my babysitter, for eight days. It was great. He was my first rock star ‘cause he had this cool leather jacket and eyebrows like Spock. I spent a week watching him creatively disfigure movie stars and invent these amazing monsters, and by the time I left, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, too. I wanted to kill people in inventive ways and invent really remarkable monsters, which is kind of what I wound up doing. So, it seemed natural to give a shout out to Tom Savini in the show.
The world is going through a lot of changes right now, particularly scary changes, which makes it harder to scare an audience. What’s different about writing scary stories today?
HILL: Is there anything different? Isn’t it always about getting some characters you love, and then backing them into the dark basement and seeing if they can fight their way out. It’s always about that. That’s not good horror fiction. That’s just good fiction.
RODRIGUEZ: I can think of something scarier than growing up, and that’s something so universal, so visceral and so real, for everyone. I remember that the creepiest moment in my life, as a child, was when I realized that adults don’t behave like adults. That was like opening the floor under my feet, realizing that that’s what adulthood is about. It’s that these people are supposed to behave in a certain way, and they don’t. They’re still trapped in their fears and their unwillingness to do the thing they need to do to be better, and to be better to each other. So, maybe the way in which we’re facing these scares are different, throughout time, but I think we’re all rooted to some basic sense of fear that’s about growing and facing problems, and also about getting out of ourselves. It’s so easy, these days, to sit and look at ourselves through the way in which others perceive us. The thing that affects me the most with the modern technologies is that we are surrounded by these tools that are supposed to build windows to relate to each other, and we’ve turned those windows into mirrors to look at ourselves. That’s one of the traps that we need to break. Creativity is an excellent tool to turn those mirrors into windows again, and to open portals to connect people.
HILL: Every kid is scared of the darkness under the bed, and in Locke & Key, the darkness literally comes out from under the bed, springs off of the walls, and chases you around the house. The two weapons that you can use to push back against fear are a sense of wonder and a sense of curiosity, and those are things that the show really leans into. The imaginative possibilities of being a child with these keys is also amazing, so we explore that a little bit . . . We didn’t attempt very ironic or sarcastic storytelling. The goal was to do something that felt heartfelt and that emphasized the values of being connected and being curious.
You’ve talked about replacing the horror elements with fantasy elements, but what did you carry over from previous iterations, for this version of the show?
HILL: Fox took a pass at this in 2010, and there was this, “Do we really want to tell a story about the kids?” And the answer is, yes, we do. That didn’t seem to really click, early on.
Are there any specific comic book pages or panels that you would have loved to have seen in the series, but that didn’t make it in, for any logistical or narrative reason?
HILL: We appear as paramedics in the comic, and I would have preferred if the TV show had captured me as thin. The comic managed to capture my true svelte form, but on TV, I don’t know if they used a wide lens or what they, but it puffed me up, in a way that I don’t quite understand. Beyond that, no. I think the inner worlds that we get for the kids is beautifully depicted for TV and works in the medium of TV. In the comic, it’s like looking into an aquarium, which works great on the comic book page and is funny. It’s almost like a comic book site gag, but you can’t play that same thing on TV. The question was more about how to make that portal magic work and be vivid on the screen, which I thought they did.
RODRIGUEZ: For me, rather than watching specific things from the comic, on screen, what has been really interesting, as a creator, to see is how they actually have been exploring things that we weren’t able to do in the comics. One of the things that was fascinating, in watching the season, was to have the chance to explore the character of Nina Locke, in ways that we weren’t able to do in the comic. We knew that she was going to be a very important character and would have really significant moments in the story, but we also knew, from the get-go, that we would never be able to give her space to develop more, rather than just in key scenes throughout the story, because we already had a lot with, with the kids’ story. So, having the chance to see these characters develop, in a different way, and with more depth and substance, throughout the season, was really interesting to me.
HILL: Same with the school and the other kids at school, too. There’s so much more narrative real estate in a TV show, so you can flush out the environment, and show relationships, friendships, and romantic entanglements. That’s just all great TV.
RODRIGUEZ: You have the space to just drop casual stuff, here and there, and develop the world, even more. To see this grow in different ways has been really fascinating.
The storyline with Zack Wells, in the comics, plays out very differently on the show. How did that change come about?
HILL: This was something that we all talked about in the writers’ room, way, way back. There’s this great reveal in the comic about one character, being Dodge, and we thought, how do we keep the people who read the comic off balance? So, the show goes in a different direction, which I’m just not going to say anything about because it’s a totally radioactive spoiler. You want people who read and love the comic to enjoy the show, on its own terms, and to feel like the comic was honored and that all of the good stuff from the comic is there, but you don’t want them to have the complacency of feeling like they know what’s going to happen ‘cause that’s just not fun.
RODRIGUEZ: It’s a very smart way in which they did something in the spirit of the comic and gave their own spin, for this show to have it in its own way. That’s why it works. I watched it with my son, who read the comic, five or six years ago, and when you got to that part, it really surprised him, in the way that it’s supposed to work. This is an adaptation, and not a transcription. That’s why it’s succeeds. This is not a show that relies too heavily on special effects. It’s more about storytelling. The special effects don’t damage the story because the tension and the drama is driven by other tools.
Joe, what about Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork that originally convinced you to work with him on Locke & Key?
HILL: A good series succeeds when you fall in love with the characters. You have to have that feeling of investment in the heroes, or none of the suspense works, when they’re in danger. I always talk about the ‘80s slasher films, as an example of ineffective horror and fantasy storytelling. When Freddy Krueger would go after the teenagers, they were just one-note types. There was the jock, the cheerleader, and the pot smoker. The person who had the most depth to his character was Freddy Krueger. And so, you wind up actually rooting for the serial killer, and who wants to do that? I’d rather root for a hero. I would say that the ‘80s slasher films generally didn’t really work as horror or fantasy, but did work as slapstick comedy. So, when we were trying to find an artist for Locke & Key, and I looked at some artists who could really draw flying intestines, that didn’t really interest me. What I liked about Gabe’s art was that his characters had luminous eyes and micro-expressions, and the real fine subtleties that revealed what they were feeling, and the way that they stood and their body language. I thought that I could fly with him and that he could be a pair of twins. That’s how I wound up working with Gabriel Rodriguez. Not because he draws great monsters, although he does, but because he draws great humans.
Between developing this show and World War Key, are any new ideas popping up?
HILL: I’m writing one now. It’s called Locke & Key: Pale Battalions, and it’s set at the beginning of the 20th century and will take the comic in a really interesting direction that it’s never gone before. And then, there’s a plan for another six book series, called World War Key, which we’ve been mapping out. I had an idea for it, just this morning over breakfast.
RODRIGUEZ: We’ve been discussing concepts and ideas for a new story, since we finished the first one. It’s a such an engaging universe. I didn’t expect it to be as good, as intense, and as engaging as it ended up being, and I really feel a sense of responsibility toward it. If you’re going to go back to this world and these characters again, it’s because there’s a meaningful story to tell. After a process of discussing and pitching each other ideas, for years now, it’s been great to finally feel like we’re both ready to get back to this and tell something that’s going to be engaging.
HILL: I feel like the show and the comic are like a DNA helix. It’s really cool that we started with the Mirror Key because, in some ways, the show is a different reflection of what’s in the comic. You have the same characters and the same ideas, but it’s been Rubik’s cubed into a new configuration, which makes it satisfying for people who are fans. That’s the tough thing to do, and Carlton and Meredith are so good at it. It has the elements that I think people who love the comic will want, but it’s also not safe because you’ve read the comic. With the show, occasionally, we’ll rip the rug out from under you and take you in a direction that you never saw coming. You read the comic and thought you were prepared, but it turned left when you expected it to go right, which I also think is important because you want to keep people off balance.
Joe, on an entirely separate note, now that there’s a new showrunner for Doctor Who, would you be interested in trying to write another script?
HILL: I watched all of the David Tennant episodes of Doctor Who with my kids, and we just absolutely loved it. I have a TARDIS in my living room, that’s a life-size TARDIS that’s in my wall. I really wanted to write for Doctor Who, and I worked up some pitches. I had three great pitches. Weirdly, I wound up hanging out with Neil Gaiman for a night, and Neil edited my pitches. He went through them and was like, “I love this. I hate that. I’d like to see this. I don’t want to see that. No one wants to see that.” And so, he helped me sculpt my pitches. I sent them in to Doctor Who, and the rejection that I got, 48 hours later was, “We have never let an American write for this show, and if we were going to, we wouldn’t start with you.” That was the most smoking hot rejection of my career. So, would I write for the show? I’ve never written for British television, and if I was going to, I wouldn’t start with that [show].
Have you thought about how many seasons of storytelling are in this TV show?
HILL: You stick around, as long as you’ve got good stories to tell. When you run out, it’s time to get off stage.
Locke & Key is available to stream at Netflix.