Interview with Joe Hill, Writer and Creator of ‘Locke & Key’

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Author Joe Hill spoke to us about the potential Locke & Key TV series, what he’s working on next, and much more.

What makes a great book-to-screen adaptation? Joe Hill has some ideas, both as a fan and a writer. Hill, the author of bestselling horror novels Heart-Shaped Box, Strange Weather, NOS4A2 and Horns, was in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to share his thoughts on horror writing and the Locke & Key comic series he co-created with Eisner award-winning artist Gabriel Rodriguez.

Locke & Key follows the Locke family as they struggle to recoup following a home invasion that left the patriarch of the family dead. The Locke children – Tyler, Kinsey and Bode – uncover keys in the family home that have supernatural powers. Unbeknownst to them, a terrible being is after the keys as well. The children must do everything they can to keep the keys, and each other, safe.

We sat down with Hill to talk about adapting Locke & Key for television, Hill’s vision for the future of the series, what inspires him and what we can look forward to seeing from him next.

Your bestselling comic book series Locke & Key is being developed for television. Could you tell us a little about it?

We’ve already filmed the first hour of the show. The first hour was directed by Andy Muschietti, who is the filmmaker behind last year’s IT. I feel like it’s okay for me to say that the pilot episode is awesome! You know, really scary, really heart-felt. Really satisfying.

How much involvement have you had in the actual filming process of Locke & Key adaptation?

Well, I wrote the script. The funny thing about Locke and Key is that this is the second time they’ve made a pilot out of the comics. So, in 2010, Fox filmed a pilot directed by Mark Romanek. They spent 10 million dollars on it and that came out great too!

That screenplay was written by Joshua Friedman – he was the showrunner on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Terrific guy, terrific writer. That was a great hour of television. It didn’t get on the air because they only had one slot, and they decided to go with Alcatraz, instead. Did you ever see Alcatraz? No. No one did; it was a total bomb!

So, that was in 2010 and after a few years we arranged all the resources to take another shot at it. We filmed up in Toronto about half a year ago… no, it’s not that long, about four months ago or something. And, now the question is, will we get a show or not? We’re gonna see.

The first Locke & Key book is so moving and devastating. The fear that all children have of losing a parent comes through quite solidly. How do the keys in the series build emotion and plot?

One of the things that I tried to do with the keys in this story was… I never wanted to have a key just because it was cool. I always wanted to use it as an opportunity to explore something about character and what the characters are feeling.

You have this moment at the end of the first issue where we’ve seen this boy [Bode Locke] who has lost his father and at the end of that story, he discovers a door, and when he walks through the door, his spirit walks free from his body.

When you’re eight years old [as Bode is in the book], you don’t really understand death. What does it mean if one of your parents die; how can you understand that? And, by using the ghost key, Bode can begin to understand something about what it’s like to leave the house of the body. What it might be like to have your life over with.

With the head key, in the second book, Kinsey uses it to take out her fear. But, that’s like a lot of teenagers who go through a period of time when they’re fearless. When they’ll do anything, they’ll take anything, they’ll smoke anything, they’ll walk across the interstate to prove they’re not scared of cars flying by at 80 miles an hour. I wanted to explore that stage of life where kids get an idea that they’re sort of immortal. And I wanted to show how exciting that is but also how dangerous that can be. To lose sight of your own fear, which is a very useful emotion.

Gabriel and I tried to do that throughout the story; when we introduce a key, it would have a plot aspect. It moves the story, but it also has a character element where you’re asking, what does this mean emotionally for these characters?

What was the experience like working with Gabriel Rodriguez?

Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill - Emirates LitFest 2018
Bromance. Source: Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Gabe and I are like an old married couple [laughs]. We finish each other’s sentences, we finish each other’s jokes. He’s also sort of like my comic book brother.

You know, Locke and Key is not my story; it’s our story. We created the thing, we told the story together. And, when people ask what that means, I usually say, I learned as much about the characters from the way Gabe drew them as he ever learned about them from anything I ever wrote. We discovered those characters and that world together.

He was a full participant in developing the story. I remember, we were in Pittsburgh in 2010 – he lives in Chile and I live in New England – and we only get together once or twice a year. We were in Pittsburgh filming the 2010 Fox pilot of Locke and Key, and the best part of getting together – we were still working on the comic then – wasn’t watching them make the TV show, it was going back to the hotel bar to talk afterwards. In those conversations, we worked out the entire last 12 issues of the comic. And Gabe is the one who came up with this incredible twist, which I won’t spoil. He said it as a joke, and I just rocked back in my seat and went: ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to do that’. So yeah, I love Gabe!

Your book Horns was adapted to screen, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. What was the book-to-film process like for you?

Horns-2014-Roger Ebert
Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Horns’. Source: Roger

Horns was my second novel and I had a very difficult time writing it. The first book, Heart-Shaped Box, was a much bigger success than I ever expected I would ever have in my life. And that level of success is tremendously exciting, but also sort of shakes your sense of how the world works and it can be difficult to follow up. Psychologically, you feel a lot of pressure to be good and you have pressures on you that you never felt before.

I wound up divorced and I had a very difficult time for a few years. Horns the novel was – I’m very proud of it and I think it’s a very good book and a fun book to read – it was very hard for me to write. And I don’t like looking at it that much because I remember a not-good time in my life. I love the film [he says, giddily excited] because the film has Daniel Radcliffe in it and Juno Temple and I can’t believe it really happened. I love watching it!

But I don’t know that the last third of it works as well as the rest of the picture. No one had ever made a film on one of my stories before and I thought, I’m just going to stay out of the way and just learn. In retrospect, I sometimes wish I had been a little more active because I was aware that the last third of the film didn’t work all that well. I didn’t push hard enough and I should have jumped in and actively worked to try to steer the film in a different direction and I didn’t. In some ways, I feel that was really my failing because you had these actors come along and give a great performance and they deserved better at the end of the picture. I still think it’s a terrifically fun picture; it’s funny and scary!

With all these experiences behind you, are there any other books of yours which you would like to see on the big screen?

NOS4A2 - Pop Verse
Coming to our screens soon? Source: Pop Verse

Oh, I think any time somebody wants to take a story and make a TV show out of it or adapt it for film, you have to be excited, you know, because it’s very flattering and you think, maybe they’ll make something really interesting. No one will make the book or the comic, because they can’t! And whatever they do won’t change the book or the comic. A really great picture or a really bad picture won’t change a single sentence of any book I’ve ever written.

There are a few things happening though. My novel NOS4A2 is under development as a possible TV series for AMC, who did Breaking Bad. I’d love to see that; that would be great. The new book, Strange Weather – the first short novel is called Snapshot 1988 – and Mike Flanagan, who’s directed some terrific horror pictures, is going to direct Snapshot 1988 as a horror film with Universal. I’ve read his script and his script was really cool. So I’m excited to see that.

So, yeah, any time something like that happens, you feel very lucky.

You have written a number of novels, a comic series and now a screenplay. Does the process of writing change with the medium?

Not too much, actually. The whole point is, every day you’re sitting down and you’re trying to get another 1000 words. If it’s 1000 words of a comic book or 1000 words of a novel or 1000 words of a short story, it’s still just trying to get 1000 words.

I saw a thing on YouTube the other day where Ron Howard was talking about how, ultimately, the only thing that matters when you’re making a film is what’s caught in the box, in the frame, and everything else is beside the point. I kind of feel the same way – ultimately, whatever you’re writing, all that matters is if in that day’s work, you find something emotionally satisfying. You get something that’s exciting, that would make a reader want to read on or an audience continue to watch, and everything else is unimportant.

I do like to shift forms. I like to go from comics to novels to short stories to screenplays. I always sort of compare it to farming. If you’re a farmer, you don’t plant the same crop in the field year after year. Because, if you do, it wipes out the soil. It degrades the nutrients in the soil. So the only way to keep a healthy field is to plant one crop one year and the next year you plant something completely different in a constant cycle. And I do think that working on comics energises me for when it’s time to write a novel and working on a novel energises me for when it’s time to write something else.

I also think you drag skills from one form into another. Comics have to be paced very quickly. You’ve only got 22 pages and readers want action; they want something to happen. Taking the pacing techniques of a comic into a novel can be very interesting and very satisfying. Because, people reading a novel, a big thick novel, love it when it moves. They love when a novel flies along.

In comic books, characterisation often suffers. When you’re writing a novel, everything is characterisation. Everything is about examining the characters in a rich, deep, thoughtful way. If you can take that kind of examination of character and plant it in a comic, you can give comic book readers something they are not used to experiencing and that they’ll really enjoy. That’s kind of the other reason why I like shifting through forms – to see the way the experience of working on one form will inform the experience of working on another.

Which books, films and TV shows inspire your writing?

M. Night Shyamalan - IMDB
We really want to see M. Night Shyamalan’s office now. Source: IMDB

In my office, I have all these framed book covers. They’re not my books because I’m just not that into myself! Behind my computer where I write is a framed cover of Watership Down because I just love that book – the way it’s written and the flow of events. Some of the other books that are framed on the walls are Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince, I’ve got the framed cover of that. I’ve got a framed cover of True Grit by Charles Portis and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

I’ve done that ever since I read that M. Night Shyamalan, when he writes his scripts, he writes his scripts in this office with all these movie posters that are framed. And they’re not his movie posters; it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and all the pictures that he finds personally inspiring. And I took that and thought: I’m gonna do that. So I have my set, I have my favourites.”

Will we see any more of the Locke & Key comic books?

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Locke & Key #lockeandkey

A post shared by Barbara Muschietti (@barbaramus) on

If the TV series gets on the air, I’m going to write another six books! If there’s a TV show, it would make sense for there to be more books, and I have some more stories there that I could tell. I’ve got a series called World War Key that we’ve been talking about for years.

World War Key is three prequels and three sequels. The first book is called Locke & Key: Revolution and it’s set during the Revolutionary War. The second book is called World War Key: Resurrection and it’s set in the modern day. I’d love to write those books but it’s a lot of research and a lot of effort – I have to do a lot of research on the revolutionary war and I have to do a lot of research on the Civil War. I would have to feel pretty motivated to do all that work. I’m lazy!

More seriously, Locke & Key already exists as a complete, satisfying story with a beginning, middle and an end. World War Key would be a new story set in that world and that involves a risk. The history of prequels, the history of coming back, is not very good. You look at the terrible prequels to the Star Wars pictures or Peter Jackson’s return to the Lord of the Rings world with The Hobbit pictures, which were just atrocious. Terrible pictures! I love Peter Jackson and it pains me to say that they’re just not good pictures!

So, one of the things you worry about is, if I go back, will I ruin it? Is it a risk worth taking? I think if there is a new TV series, it is a risk worth taking because there will be a new audience for the books and they might want to read more about that world.

Plus, with a comic book, you can flick through it faster than a TV show and get even more of a sense of that world.

Exactly! They can be absorbed so much more quickly.

The funny thing about the Locke & Key comics is that they are a kind of binge-experience, in the sense of you can get all six books and read them in a single day. And that’s cool! You know, when we started on the comic, we never really thought about it that way, but now it’s out there.

When I got into Locke & Key, I wanted to do something that made other people feel the way Sandman made me feel. I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman! In some ways, they’re very different comics [Sandman and Locke & Key]. Sandman is a world you live in. I mean, there’s so much of it! I love that, in some ways, Locke & Key is different because all six books can be read in a single day. If you’ve got a whole day open and you’ve got nothing to do and you’re really into it, you can just sit there and read the whole thing!”

What are you working on at the moment and what will we see from you next?

Joe Hill - Emirates LitFest 2018
Expect a new novel from Joe Hill as early as next year! Source: Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

I’m 100 pages into a new novel but I won’t say anything more about it because I’m superstitious. The next two things that will probably happen is a new novel in 2019 – I’ll finish it this year but it won’t be out till next year. And then, hopefully, the Locke & Key TV show where I wrote the first episode and the second episode. It would great to see that get on the air!

If you have not read Locke & Key yet, you definitely should. It is a completely immersive experience, not just because of the writing but also thanks to the intricate art by Rodriguez. Hill seems excited by the prospect of the TV show but quite wary at the same time considering his hopes have been dashed before. However, I did get to see a few clips from the pilot and it looks unbelievably good – an apt page to screen adaptation. One can only hope it gets picked up because that is the kind of quality television we do not want to miss out on.

For more like this, have a read of our interview with Andy Weir, author of ‘The Martian’.

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