Shelved by Fox, Universal, Hulu and taken by Netflix: Locke & Key’s arduous journey from book to screen

The new comic book series has the 'potential to help young people with anxiety', says producer Carlton Cuse

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As one of the most prolific and acclaimed television executives of the past 25 years, it doesn't take long for Carlton Cuse to recognise the potential in a project. So when he started to read Joe Hill's Locke & Key comic book series, about a grieving family whose ancestral home grants them various superpowers, shortly after its release in 2008, he not only connected to the emotional story but realised it had promise.

But instead of immediately hunting down Hill, breaking down how he would adapt Locke & Key and setting out to do so, Cuse told The National his involvement in turning the books into a show was purely by "happenstance".

It wasn't until several years later that Cuse's involvement began, and even then it was only because his agent happened to mention he was meeting Hill. This prompted Cuse to declare his love for the series, a message that was soon relayed to Hill, who shared his mutual admiration for the person behind The Strain, Nash Bridges, Martial Law, Lost, and Bates Motel.

"Shortly thereafter, we started talking," Cuse recalls. "And we found we had a lot of common thoughts about how to turn it into a television series. So we started working on it."

When the pair started work on the adaptation for Hulu back in 2016, Cuse had no idea how arduous this development process would be. Hill, however, was well prepared for the setbacks to come, as he had already seen a 2010 pilot for Locke & Key shot and then dropped by Fox, and a planned feature film trilogy shelved by Universal.

Hill was right to be cautious, because even though Andy Muschietti, who directed It and Mama, oversaw the production on the pilot episode, Hulu decided to pass on Locke & Key. But rather than throwing in the towel, both Hill and Cuse decided to take the series elsewhere, and it was eventually Netflix that greenlit a full first season.

Far from rehashing what they'd already done with Hulu, Cuse and Hill used their experience to make Locke & Key "better" and bolder. "It was a hard one to crack," Cuse says. "But we finally did it."

Central to that success was the addition of Meredith Averill as a co-showrunner, producer and writer. Averill was in high demand, as she had recently finished work on the first season of the acclaimed The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix. Averill decided the show had to dig deeper into the mystery of who Randall Locke, the father of Kinsey, Tyler and Bode, was, as well as the wife of Darby, who is murdered before the events of the first episode.

"We want that mystery to drive the family and the first season," she tells The National. "We want them to discover who Randall is. What he did 25 years ago. Why that's impacting them in the present. How that informs why he was murdered. And why they are being terrorised by a demon in a well. All while also giving them time to grieve their father."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 31: Carlton Cuse attends the "I Have A Dream" Foundation Los Angeles hosts 6th annual Dreamer Dinner Benefit at Skirball Cultural Center on March 31, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.   Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/AFP
Producer Carlton Cuse has previously worked on shows including 'Lost' and 'Bates Motel'. AFP

But while Averill was compelled by the comics and shared the same vision as Cute for what the show could be, one aspect of Locke & Key that resonated with her particularly strongly. "I connected a lot with Kinsey battling her anxiety. I certainly think that is a story that many people will be able to relate to. I thought the way it explores how this fear can play such an important role in our lives was so lovely and unique, and it has the potential to help young people with anxiety and show the lessons that we can all learn from it."

This passion meant that Cuse was more than happy to let Averill and the new creative team both build upon and tear apart his previous work on Locke & Key, as their involvement showed the "potential for how certain things could be better, as well as revealing things that we shouldn't do, too."

All the while, though, Cuse ensured the first 10 episodes of Locke & Key's debut season remained true to Hill's source material. "The challenge in this was getting the cocktail right, because there was a lot going on in Joe's comics," Cuse says.

“There are a lot of genre elements, from its use of horror and fantasy, which then has to blend with really emotional personal stories and then this big murder mystery, too. We spent a lot of time figuring out the proportion to each of these stories and how to tell them together and how to do that in a way where the tone feels seamless."

'Locke & Key' stars Connor Jessup and Emilia Jones. Netflix

Thankfully, this task was made much easier by Hill's constant involvement. Far from being precious and a burden over his graphic novels, Hill was an asset who not only provided notes and thoughts as the series developed but embraced the various changes Cuse and Averill made, with their fellow executive producer Aron Eli Coleite.

"He was just a great collaborator and partner, and was really enthusiastic about seeing his comic get turned into a television show," Cuse says. "He really understood that the process needed translation, invention and reimagining, and he jumped wholeheartedly into that process."

Hill, who is a co-author on the Netflix pilot for Locke & Key, even helped the trio of showrunners invent a brand-new key that makes its debut in season 1 and never appeared in the graphic novels.

Audiences can discover it, as well as celebrate Locke & Key's long journey from print to the small screen, now all 10 episodes of its first season are available to watch on Netflix.