The screening of the doomed Fox pilot for “Locke & Key” at Comic-Con International in San Diego was bound to be bittersweet, taking placing in a room was packed full of fans for over an hour before the show’s scheduled start time. The popular, acclaimed comic series, written by Eisner award winner Joe Hill, was famously dropped by the network, which made the Comic-Con-only screening all the more exclusive — and contentious.
Executive producer/teleplay writer Josh Friedman anticipated as much. Stepping in front of the crowd to say a few words prior to the screening, he lamented to the audience what most already knew — they were about to see a pilot originally intended to be a TV show, but that was no longer the case. The statement was met with loud boos, with one audience member screaming, “Fox sucks!” Friedman admitted he’d wanted to get the booing out of the way so the post-screening panel session could be a celebration of something everyone involved was very proud of.
And after viewing it, I — like the team behind the “Locke & Key” pilot — hold out hope that it’ll find an audience somehow; whether it be a one-off DVD release, a packaging of Friedman’s script with a special edition of “Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft” or in some other fashion.
The story — which is based on the first six issues of Hill’s comic (known as the “Welcome to Lovecraft” volume) — has heart, mystery, and yes, horror, all wrapped up in director Mark Romanek’s trademark ethereal, gorgeous aesthetic. The viewer is immediately endeared to the Locke family’s plight, following siblings Bode (Skylar Gaertner), Kinsey (Sarah Bolger) and Tyler (Jesse McCartney) as they relocate to Keyhouse with their mother Nina (Miranda Otto) following the tragic murder of their father at the hands of Tyler’s troubled high school classmate Sam Lesser (Harrison Thomas). The intrigue unlocked at their family estate includes out-of-body experiences, surprisingly gory flashbacks and forwards and one seriously creepy girl in the bottom of a well. The make-up and effects are just understated enough to be believable, and the child actors are refreshingly vulnerable and real. Bode, in particular, is amazing as Gaertner perfectly skirts the line between comedy and menace. Fans will particularly enjoy the scene where he pulls the ghost key from the mounted swords.
The chatter in the room, which involved both die-hard fans of the comic and newbies to the material, was resoundingly positive, and when the panelists — including Hill, illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez, Friedman, Romanek and actors McCartney and Thomas — asked what the audience thought, the enthusiastic, drawn-out applause spoke volumes.
Friedman certainly faced a challenge when it came to adapting the material to the small screen, having six issues and over 130 pages to condense into a single episode. Though the director was modest when it came to discussing the task, Hill sung his praises. “I’ve read a lot of scripts, and Josh’s first draft script was about 65 pages long,” he said. “And it was a tremendously, beautifully written piece of work. I had a serious case of writer envy — my first response to reading it was, ‘Damn, he writes teenagers a lot better than I write teenagers!’ I’d love to see the script published someday.”
Romanek discussed his endearment to the unique source material, and the subsequent cinematic bent he put on it — especially his decision to use the comic as more of a rough jumping-off point than a strict bible to rigidly adhere to. “When I got the script from Josh, I went, ‘They’re making this? OK, I’ll do it!’ I thought it was so bizarre and brilliant and different — I could not believe that this was greenlit. It was the main reason I signed up to do it. The comic is so beautifully drawn and the level of imagination is so rich, but when you’re concretizing something in the real world, there’s two ways to approach it — you could do a ‘Sin City’ or ‘300’ thing where you’re really trying to transpose a graphic novel into another medium as faithfully as you possibly can, but I think we all felt that there was an emotional through-line to these stories and these characters that is so engrossing that we…tried to create a tale that was similar to the book but grounded in the real world.” Hill agreed, saying, “I love that the pilot, at moments, would seem right from the comic. But I also like that the show is its own thing and lives on its own reasonable terms.”
And what of the comic-to-show differences? One shot in particular comes to mind as an excellent example (owners of the “Welcome to Lovecraft” hardcover, turn to page 32). The crux of the comic, Bode’s attainment of the ghost key, and his approach to the doorknob is gorgeously illustrated by Rodriguez, showing the reader Bode’s approach to the knob — key in hand — in profile. Romanek’s vision takes a different tact, opening with a stunning front-on shot of the doorknob with Bode’s advancing figure reflected back towards the camera. No material is lost, it’s simply condensed; retranslated.
Discrepancies also lie in the key characters, though none of them are particularly off-putting. As mentioned, Bode is spot-on. Kinsey is played as straight-laced and smart alec-y throughout — no dreadlocks or ever-changing hair colors. She’s also on the swim team, not the track team (the reason, Hill explained, was simply that it was too cold out by the time they began shooting). Also absent is Tyler’s hat. “Mark and I discussed this back and forth at length,” said McCartney. “I like the hat, but visually we were having issues seeing my eyes — that’s like a lighting nightmare, especially for the DP, so we stuck with a hood. In the comic, you see him wearing a hoodie at one point, so we decided to go with that.” Most noticeably different, however, is the cliffhanger ending of the pilot — which (mild spoiler ahead) includes a mysterious tree stocked with jarred memories, added specifically for the show. “That’s totally Josh’s idea,” said Hill. “But it’s so cool, I’ve stolen it for the comic!”
Had the pilot been picked up, Hill and Friedman had some interesting ideas to keep things moving forward episodically. The first season would pull and scatter content from the comics through the conclusion of “Crown of Shadows.” Overall, Hill envisioned “sort of recurring mythology episodes, and then, in-between, there would be individual episodes that would just be about this key or that key, and the keys would operate something like the monsters in ‘X-Files’ — you’d have the key of the week — and then every third or fourth episode…something would go right back to the source material.” Hill lamented, half-joking, “It would’ve been awesome to see Jesse McCartney 40-feet tall!”
Despite the incredibly understanding and positive comments from the panelists regarding Fox’s decision to pass on picking up the pilot, after watching it and learning what could’ve been, the audience was decidedly on board with Romanek’s reaction (however tongue-in-cheek): “This is all too gracious. They should’ve fucking picked it up.”