“Proportionality Of Genre” Carlton Cuse & Meredith Averill Define ‘Locke And Key’
[some spoilers are included in this article]
Is Netflix’s new series Locke And Key a horror? Is it a fantasy? Perhaps even a teen, coming of age drama? Maybe a splash of spine-tingling horror? The correct answer is number two. Sort of. The other answers are also correct according to Locke And Key showrunners Carlton Cuse (Lost, Jack Ryan, Bates Motel) and Meredith Averill (The Haunting Of Hill House, Jane The Virgin, The Good Wife). They spoke to Creative Screenwriting Magazine about the journey of Locke And Key, based on the comic of the same name, to find a home at Netflix.
“Locke And Key was originally developed as a network TV show at Fox in 2010. It would have been okay, but it would have been diminished by time and budget pressures as well the limitations of visual effects technology at the time,” said Cuse. The next incarnation of the story was a feature film. Cuse felt the story was too expansive to cram into two hours. Hulu later showed some interest, but later abandoned the project because it didn’t align with its flagship shows like A Handmaid’s Tale.
Then Netflix came along and a partnership was struck. The binge watching, streaming format of Netflix was appropriate for the story Cuse and Averill wanted to tell. “You can watch the show when and where you wanted.” Netflix also offered a sufficient budget to service their technological vision.
The Fantasy Axis
The various lives of Locke And Key did not involve a clean handover to Cuse and Averill. In fact, they did not read the feature screenplay, although they did watch the FOX network pilot. In 2016, Carlton Cuse joined the team after eight years in development and recruited Meredith Averill two years later.
They shared their ideas of their version of the show with Netflix which focussed on the fantasy axis. “This unlocked the correct path to success,” declared Cuse. Netflix clearly agreed with their take on the material. “The fantasy elements clearly aligned with Stranger Things, also on Netflix. Everything came together.”
Meredith bought an additional story perspective to the show. “Netflix was also interested in these kids [Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott)] and the discovery of the keys, how they might learn more about their father, and what he did when he was their age.” These character elements tilted the show away from its traditional horror elements to make it more of a coming of age story. “It made sense to go with the fantasy axis rather than extreme horror,” she confirmed.
Early conversations with Netflix centered on the kids learning about their dead father, Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) and his friends. This was an aspect that both Cuse and Averill loved from the comic book. Rendell was the holder of the keys which eventually unleashed Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) a demon in the present day and terrorized his kids. “Unlocking this mystery of what mistakes their father and his friends made twenty-five years ago would be the “key” to the kids saving themselves,” said Averill. “In doing so, the kids became the new keepers of the keys. Once we locked in on this emotional story, we decided it was the arc of the first season.”
While Meredith Averill focused on the emotional heartbeat of the story, Carlton Cuse was more interested in the multiple genre elements of the Locke And Key comic book. “I love crossover storytelling. The challenge is to blend those genre elements together cohesively,” he explained. “We spent a long time discussing the proportionality of blending them together.” This texture blend added to the uniqueness of the show.
The showrunners defend their “genre salad” choice. It’s not about an aversion to making a creative decision – they both agree that fantasy is the predominant genre of Locke And Key. “It’s about proportion. Sometimes too many prominent genres can fight one another rather than shake hands,” expounded Averill. This represented a significant aspect of their work in the TV writers’ room.
Cuse and Averill are veteran writers and have distinct voices in their own right. This might be a recipe for creative conflict. Fortunately, this fear never eventuated. The writers had many early conversations before the pilot was even written, so they were very much aligned in terms of the tone and shape of the show.
Averill had just come off The Haunting Of Hill House, a horror TV series about a grieving family. This experience filtered into the creation of Locke And Key. Despite these similarities, Averill wanted Locke And Key “to be an entirely different show tonally. It was a breath of fresh air. It was much lighter. It was helpful to reference these differences during our story meetings.”
Their partnership was more collaborative than combative. Creative differences were cordially discussed and solved in the TV writers’ room. It all came down to what best served the story and character interactions.
The expository execution of the show was critical in ensuring its success. “We were careful in dropping morsels of information about this mystery. When are we dropping them for our kids? When are we dropping them for our audience?” expanded Averill. “On an emotional level, what does it mean for the kids to learn that their father was a murderer?” The team spent the first two weeks in the TV writers’ rooms asking these larger questions. “We decided to reveal that Rendell killed his best friend in the middle of the season,” she continued. That was a bombshell for the Locke kids. They spent the second half of the season dealing with this shocking burden. “Knowing when we delivered crucial plot points meant that we always knew what we were writing towards.”
Locke And Key is filled with a smorgasbord of iconic symbols – keys, basements, demons, shadows, echos. doors, staircases, and mirrors. They worked in tandem to service traveling to the multiple world theme of the show. We asked Cuse and Averill if there were any omissions or additions in the TV series. “The mirror key appeared in the pilot, but not in Joe Hill’s comic,” admitted Cuse. “The idea was initially suggested by Michael Morris, our director, and discussed with Joe Hill. We imagined what it would be like if someone got trapped in a mirror and created a world about that.”
Comic books and TV differ greatly in how they deliver story information. Although you can see simultaneously view multiple image panels in a comic book, they can only provide a limited amount of information. In television, you linearly provide moving images with larger amounts of information. “By necessity, we had to invent, not just translate, additional material,” said Cuse.
Locke And Key covers tremendous thematic terrain. It explores loss, grief, trauma, healing, the discovery of an ugly truth, and identity. The keys, both symbolically and literally, give the kids a way to “change who you are or change your world,” according to Averill. “There’s a lot of wish fulfillment too so audiences could ask where would they go if they could magically go anywhere in the world. If I could go inside my own head, would I? Should I?” They wanted to show both the positive and negative sides of having the ability to transport across worlds.
The !DW Publishing comic of Locke And Key was not the only thing that shaped the TV series. “We were certainly influenced Harry Potter quite a bit,” confessed Averill. “We discussed the movie Inception a lot – the idea of worlds within worlds.” They also had a mood board in the TV writers’ room to contour the stories.
“Good stories are built on stories told before us, shows that have moved and inspired us,” concluded Cuse.
The showrunners shared their final words of wisdom to other writers. “Get it done,” proclaimed Carlton Cuse. “Don’t be precious about the work. You have a job to do. Do it well. If you approach it from a place of craftsmanship and professionalism, the muse will come along.”
“Make it personal,” continued Meredith Averill. “Find the thing within yourself, your experience or your background and make it your own.”
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