Locke & Key’s journey to the small screen was a long and winding one that culminated in something new for Netflix: a single season of television that somehow managed to pack what was essentially the whole of a comic book series’ plot into 10 tightly-crafted, hour-long episodes. Even more impressive, though, was the way that Locke & Key’s Netflix team brought Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s story to life while also giving the series its own distinct tone and energy.
When Gizmodo spoke with Locke & Key co-showrunner Meredith Averill by phone recently, she explained that her goal was always to do the comics’ original story justice, but doing so required the series to exist in a slightly different space.
As audience’s feelings about horror-driven stories continue to change, Averill said, storytellers have to keep pace. That feeling was a big part of her creative process while working on other series like The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s an element of the Nightmare on Elm Street dream project she’s ready to pitch. It’s also something that’s shaping what might be in store for a potential Locke & Key season two.
Gizmodo: Between Locke & Key and The Haunting of Hill House, you’ve crafted these stories that are both steeped in the supernatural while also being grounded in the very real emotional dynamics of a family, and I’m curious—what’s your personal relationship with magic like? How much of your own feelings about otherworldly things filters into your storytelling process?
Meredith Averill: You know, it’s funny. I remember, like, our first week in the writers’ room of The Haunting of Hill House, we all just talked about whether we believed in ghosts and it was really interesting how that belief seemed to directly correlate with a religious belief. There were people who were atheists who were like, “I don’t believe in ghosts,” and then there were members of the staff who were devout Catholics or that did have a sort of religious beliefs, and they absolutely believed in ghosts.
For me, I find myself more on the kind of agnostic side of things. Have I ever seen a ghost? No. Does that mean that ghosts don’t exist? I can’t say that for sure. But you know, what I love about writing these stories about the supernatural is just being able to use them as metaphor. The Haunting of Hill House is not about a haunted house, it’s about these haunted people.
With Hill House and Locke & Key, we always wanted to approach these stories in a way that emphasised the family and what it is that they’re going through. The supernatural stuff is meant to tell the story of and highlight the emotions at work. We never wanted to just be, like, “Hey, what’s a really super scary thing that we can do in this scene?” or “What’s the craziest key we can think of?” or “What’s the scariest ghost we can imagine?” We were all coming from different places, but we understood that we needed to prioritise the emotional story at hand.
Gizmodo: After Hill House dropped, there was that moment when audiences began to realise that the siblings were all working through the various stages of grief, and you bringing up metaphor makes me curious. Obviously, Locke & Key and Hill House are very different beasts, but what were the ideas you wanted to drive the story?
Averill: A big one for me was the idea of identity, particularly with the teenage characters who we’re telling these coming of age stories with and with high school being a place where you’re kind of trying to figure out who you are. And on top of that, you’ve got these kids who are also dealing with what it is to live without their father and be in a brand new environment where they get to kind of decide who they want to be. There’s this really nice way that the keys allow us to explore that even deeper because each of the keys allows you to change your world in some way—your world or yourself—and you get to see all the ways in which that is exciting and amazing.
At first you think, “Wouldn’t it be great to have the head key in? Wouldn’t it be great to have the identity key?” There are plenty of examples in the season of how they could bring these positive changes into your life, but then each of the kids learns that there are drawbacks as well, and it makes you contemplate, like, if you had this kind of power to change yourself, should you? But also, we were very interested in exploring this idea of the sins of our parents becoming our own sins. That fear [of] whether we’re all doomed to repeat those mistakes.
Gizmodo: And there are moments when the Locke kids don’t even really understand that they’re repeating the same mistakes their father and the original key holders made.
Averill: Exactly. We spend the whole season building to them opening that door and they truly believe that it’s the right thing to do but in reality, it’s the most dangerous thing. That’s their father’s legacy and now it’s theirs, too, but as they discover more about it, we want to begin digging deeper into this dense mythology that Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez first developed together.
Gizmodo: You bringing up a younger generation being afraid of repeating the sins of those who came before them makes me think—I was really sort of surprised at how this story handles the kids mother so much differently than IDW’s comics do. In the books, they have a much more antagonistic relationship with her, whereas in the show she’s very much at a point in her life where she’s addressed her alcoholism and she’s working through it. Was it important for you that Nina have a bit more three-dimensionality in this telling of her story?
Averill: Yeah, that was actually one of the first changes that I pitched when I was brought on to the Netflix version. In the comics, she’s drunk pretty much the entire time, which obviously wasn’t going to work here, but I really liked the idea that we would keep that part of her that was an alcoholic. It’s definitely still part of who Nina is, but when we meet her, she’s six years sober. We wanted to give her an arc that told the story of what that process has been like for her. Nina’s not just looking for a fresh start. She’s on a mission to find out why this boy killed her husband, and it made so much more sense for us to see her begin to spiral because the answer to that question is magical. But as an adult, she’s never able to fully comprehend the truth, which is truly devastating. She can never actually understand what’s happening, and we knew that that would be the sort of thing that would push her to her brink.
It’s almost a weird parallel to alcoholism. It’s the spiral that you find yourself going around and around in circles and you have to really work very hard to kind of get a handle on it. When Sam Lesser shows up, his presence destroys whatever pretense Nina had that things were getting better. All she wants to do is keep her kids safe, but Sam’s presence means they’re all in that much more danger, and that fear’s a big part of what pushes her over the edge and sends her off the wagon.
We really loved this heartbreaking idea that she is not able to fully connect with her kids throughout the whole season because she can’t understand what they’re going through because of the magic—and that the only time that she would be able to connect with them would be when she’s under the influence. It’s not like the kids are like “Maybe she should drink,” but we did want to have them grapple with the reality that they don’t go through this without Nina. The only downside is that she can only be with them by hurting herself. We didn’t want to handle her drinking as this problem that could be magicked away because recovery’s a process, and it’s something that’s making Nina a stronger person.
Gizmodo: I want to pivot to Bode for a minute. As much as Kinsey and Tyler are clued into the danger around them and what their mother’s dealing with, it felt as if Bode was never exactly aware of how precarious the family’s situation was. It’s not quite as if things for Bode were an absolute joy ride, but he’s definitely having the most fun out of all the Lockes, and what was impressive was how to show managed to convey that without ever feeling as if it was trying to be a “kid’s show.” Talk to me about your approach to centering younger characters in horror. What, in your mind, is really key to making those characters feel like fully-realised people?
Averill: It’s interesting because with the pilot, you feel like you enter Keyhouse through his eyes and he’s very wide-eyed and hopeful and excited. He doesn’t have any of the kind of teen angst that you see with Tyler and Kinsey, who are not thrilled at all to be moving to Keyhouse. Bode’s thrilled by all of it, and it was important to us for him in the pilot to be your eyes because we want you, obviously, as an audience to also be excited to explore this world. You’re still on this journey with him in episode two when he has all the weight of the world on his shoulders because he’s trying to fix this mistake that he’s made, but we made the deliberate choice not to have him so weighted down by grief the same way that Tyler and Kinsey are.
Obviously, he misses his father very much and he’s been impacted by his death. He’s definitely grieving, but he’s also a child, and he’s going to look at things in this sort of childlike way. I think it’s also clear that they shielded him from Nina’s alcoholism. When they’re searching for the liquor bottles in her bedroom, he doesn’t know that they’re looking for her stash because that aspect of their family’s something that they wanted to protect him from.
Gizmodo: There’s such a stark difference in tone between the series and the comics, but you never lose the sense of how DNA is shared between the two of them. The series is more whimsical and filled with wonder, but it’s never too long before someone’s being murdered or bludgeoned over the head in a really brutal way that reminds you how much danger the Locke kids all are. What were the elements of danger that you felt were really important not to shy away from despite the series’ lighter overall vibe?
Averill: For me, it’s really about suspense and tension. I don’t love horror because it’s gory and graphic, I love those moments where I’m crawling out of my skin because I’m anticipating what may or may not happen or what’s lurking around the corner. Our sequences that feel a bit more horror-inspired— like the Crown of Shadows scene—are all about creating an atmosphere of fear that propels everyone forward more than just trying to flat out scare you.
It’s not about seeing a shadow grab a kid and tear them in half the way that happens in the comics, it’s about knowing that it could happen, which is scarier, in my mind. Another really good example, I think was Joe Ridgeway’s murder, which we discussed extensively with director Mark Tonderai who directed that episode. I think it’s far more horrifying to have the camera trained on Ellie, who’s watching Joe being suffocated, rather than making you watch his gasping for breath in a plastic bag. Not only is she witnessing his death, she’s being forced to feel that his death is kind of her fault.
Gizmodo: Horror as a genre’s been having something of a mainstream moment with movies like Us, and new It films, and even things like Parasite that have overt horror influences, and it’s felt as if audiences were almost primed to really start seeing more horror as genre as, you know “prestige” art. You’ve spoken in the past about how horror wasn’t always your chosen mode of storytelling, but what is it about the genre that you feel is making it possible for more of it to crop up?
Averill: I’m thrilled that more people are taking the genre seriously. A movie like Get Out that doesn’t present as what people might consider a stereotypical horror story because it’s tackling these massive societal issues. It was sort of the same situation with Hill House. The show was always a story about guilt and grief and not really about the house actively terrorizing people. That sort of approach is something I think audiences are responding to more and more because it’s almost a kind of a Trojan horse that sneaks these heady, emotional ideas into a place you’re not expecting it.
It’s exciting that my mum can watch something like Hill House because she’d never watch something like Nightmare on Elm Street—my favourite horror franchise of all time.
Gizmodo: You’ve mentioned in the past that you’d be interested in a new spin on Elm Street—what potential is there, in your mind, for a reboot beyond nostalgia? What would a modern-day Nightmare on Elm Street bring to the horror discourse?
Averill: I mean, I have a whole pitch for what I’d want to see in a Nightmare on Elm Street series…which I’m not going to tell you. But, I will say that my dream scenario has a more grounded, reimagined approach that makes sense for 2020 but also stays true to the character that Wes Craven created.
But you can’t just remake a story like Nightmare on Elm Street or pick up where the franchise left off without taking into account how times have changed and these characters would need to evolve some. Audiences are much savvier these days and as much as I love the original movies, it just wouldn’t be right to present audiences with a version of Freddy who hadn’t grown with the times.
Gizmodo: I want to ask you a bit about the future. Though the show hasn’t been picked up for a second season yet, the writing team’s already begun working on scripts, and I’m interested to know whether, going forward, you would want Locke & Key’s tone and style to grow along with the kids? They’re getting older and deeper into the magic they’re surrounded by. And might some of the other themes from the comics like the racism and homophobia from the townsfolk end up being incorporated into the show?
Averill: The first season, we always thought of as being the story of the kids learning that they’re the new Keepers of the Keys. With season two, we want to explore what that responsibility means. What does it mean as they get closer to being 18 years old—the age when you age out of magic—what does that mean? What does that look like? We cover so much of the comics in the first season, but there’s so much of the lore that we held back on and new keys we created for the show that we’re excited to share.
Tonally, I think we intend to keep the show the same, but we do want to deepen the characters’ lives and the issues they’re dealing with. The older kids are moving closer to their graduation, and while grief is something that you never fully let go of, the kids are going to be able to begin moving on because, at least for now, they know the truth of what happened to him. If you can believe it, the Locke kids are going to be dealing with things far heavier than the death of their father in season two.
Locke & Key is now streaming on Netflix.