Who you gonna call?
Writer-director Joe Cornish and executive producer Rachael Prior take DQ into the world of Lockwood & Co, Netflix’s adaptation of Jonathan Stroud’s teen ghost-hunter fantasy novels.
With credits including Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver, Sightseers and Attack the Block, the team behind fledgling UK producer Complete Fiction has a particularly impressive resume. Comprising longtime friends and collaborators Nira Park, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Rachael Prior, the company was forged in 2020 as a home for original films and series.
So far, its name has appeared on director Wright’s Last Night in Soho and music documentary The Sparks Brothers. But now, Complete Fiction is stepping into television for the first time with Netflix fantasy drama Lockwood & Co.
Based on the novels by Jonathan Stroud, the series is set in a world plagued by ghosts, where giant corporations employ psychic teens to battle the supernatural. But only one company operates without adult supervision: Lockwood & Co. When gifted ‘listener’ Lucy Carlyle is forced to flee her home in northern England and arrives in London, she finds herself teaming up with charismatic psychic Anthony Lockwood and eccentric genius George Karim to unravel a terrifying mystery that will change the course of history.
The cast is led by Ruby Stokes (Lucy), Cameron Chapman (Lockwood) and Ali Hadji-Heshmati (George), while Lockwood & Co marks the first scripted television drama for lead writer and director Cornish, who is best known for taking up both roles on feature films Attack the Block and The Kid Who Would Be King. He also starred in front of the camera alongside Adam Buxton on their long-running comedy The Adam & Joe Show.
“It’s a new experience for me not directing part of a story I’m very attached to, but it’s been really interesting to be the default showrunner on it, to be able to take material other people shot and help make the best of it with the effects, sound and editing,” he tells DQ. “I feel really invested in the other episodes, but I enjoy them in a way I don’t enjoy my own stuff. I keep finding an excuse to watch them again because there’s something very addictive about the three actors, their performances and their relationships. Hopefully the outside world will feel that same.”
Prior had previously worked alongside Park at Big Talk Productions, the company Park founded in 1995 and where Prior first came across Lockwood & Co when it was an unpublished manuscript in 2013.
“I read it and I fell in love with the worldbuilding and the characters instantaneously,” she says. “I read a lot of books, so you really get a very quick instinct for whether something’s just kind of good or exceptional. I thought it was exceptional.”
She also thought there was a lot in it that would appeal to Cornish, and he became equally excited about adapting the material. That meant that even when the rights ended up going to a company in the US, the pair wouldn’t let go of their love of the book and would repeatedly check in with Stroud’s agent to see if there were any further developments.
Their persistence eventually paid off when the rights reverted to Stroud and Prior and Cornish were able to snap them up in 2017 – the same time the author was publishing the fifth book in the series.
“By that time, so much had changed in the landscape for television,” Prior says. “We were originally thinking, ‘Maybe it could be a movie,’ but Jonathan, and certainly Joe, felt like TV was the natural space to tell this incredible story.”
Cornish acknowledges there are numerous similarities between Lockwood & Co and his previous film projects, though he says his decision to work on another story about “young people fighting supernatural creatures with swords” is purely coincidental.
“But it does have all the themes that I love,” he says. “Any good story with young people at its centre is usually one where they’re somehow separated from the safety of home, the safety of loving parents and they’re thrown out into a situation that feels like it has the stakes of the adult world. That’s such a strong template for a really lasting story about young people.
“Then this felt particularly clever in the way it explores the world of the supernatural, and the central idea – that ghosts can kill you when they touch you – is so simple and so brilliant. I’ve never seen it before in a supernatural show. Ghosts usually have to scare you, throw furniture at you, suck you into the television, possess your daughter. The idea that you can actually be in physical conflict with them is really quite brilliant.”
Lockwood & Co is also a careful balance of suspense, fantasy and action-adventure – a concoction Cornish says he has never encountered before. That and the relationships at the centre of the story meant he had a foundation of “brilliant” material on which to build a show.
The resulting eight-part series is based on Stroud’s first two Lockwood novels, The Screaming Staircase and The Whispering Skull, as Prior and Cornish didn’t want to eek out a single novel over an entire season. Instead, “we wanted every episode to be jam-packed full of great story and great character development,” Prior says.
Cornish, who directed the first and last episodes, describes each one as a mini-movie, with big set pieces, special effects and dramatic action sequences. As head writer, he also penned the scripts with Joy Wilkinson (Doctor Who), Ed Hime (The Watch) and Kara Smith (The Baby), with Prior and senior development executive Bradly Down also inside the writers’ room, which first opened in February 2020.
“We really broke the first season in that first room; that was our development phase,” says Prior, who is Complete Fiction’s head of film & TV. “We wrote three scripts out of that room and that was the package that went to Netflix for a yes or no. If the pandemic hadn’t hit, we would have been shooting at the end of that year, but the pandemic did hit, so we ended up shooting in the summer of the following year.”
But the first thing the writers did, after Stroud had given them a talk that introduced them to the world of Lockwood & Co, was tell each other ghost stories.
“We went around the room and said, ‘OK, has anyone ever seen a ghost?’ or ‘What is the spookiest thing that’s ever happened to you?’” Cornish recalls. “And it’s very odd. As soon as you ask that question, a new atmosphere comes into the room and we all got goosebumps. We tried to really hold on to that sense of togetherness, which the characters in the story have, but also that sense of fear and danger around everything.
“I’m never the only person pushing the story up the hill, but on my two movies I’ve been the sole writer and sole director. It’s just wonderful to have such talented people as Ed, Joy and Kara to help carry the load. It was all very collaborative and at all times we were just serving the books and serving the stories.”
But as with any adaptation, “the fun stuff is figuring out what stays or what goes,” Prior says. “You’ve also got to be mindful of your budget and where you want to spend it.” That meant there are more ghosts in Stroud’s novels than appear in the series. “But I genuinely think it’s been one of the most fun and rewarding creative exercises of my career, just simply because, as a team of people, we had such fun hanging out with these characters in this world and we’re really proud of the show.”
Cornish remembers reading Stephen King novels when he was a kid and wondering why, when they were adapted for screen, everything on the page wasn’t just shot exactly as it had been written. “That was obviously my naïve kid brain,” he jokes.
Even so, when it came to adapting Lockwood & Co, he imagined what fans of the books might want to see and tried to faithfully replicate that.
“We really did, in a very straightforward way, just try to carry as much of the page on to the screen as possible,” he explains. “But if you just set about to do that, it was interesting how naturally certain things fall away. You quite quickly start to see the overall shape of the story, and then you have to make certain sacrifices when it comes to budgeting and how much can you shoot, but always trying to keep that honesty to the book.”
The young actors – picked from “thousands and thousands” by casting director Kharmel Cochrane (The End of the F***ing World) – worked together during rehearsals over many months so that by the time they started shooting, they knew each other and their characters extremely well.
Then on set, there was almost no green screen used as the cast – which also includes Morven Christie (The Bay) and Luke Treadaway (Fortitude) – completed scenes using practical, in-camera effects as much as possible. One notable example is the ghosts that frequently appear and are digitally realised using numerous performers responsible for their physical movement, facial movement and their voice.
Covid also proved to be a challenge during production. On one occasion, as Cornish was preparing to shoot the first fight between Lockwood and a ghost in episode one, the entire grips department went down with the illness. “So I had no grips. I had no dollies. I had no camera arms. I had to completely rethink how we were going to shoot that fight on the day,” he says.
“I decided to shoot it all hand-held and I remember the stunt coordinator who had choreographed the whole thing just looking at me – I couldn’t see his mouth, but I could see that concern in his eyes that we were not doing all the lovely shots that he had spent months designing. But weirdly, it’s a better, more visceral, more grounded sequence because it’s shot handheld and it’s more rough and ready.
“But filmmaking is always a spur-of-the-moment group effort. And the best filmmaking is always reactive. You plan everything as tightly as you can, but then you step away from the plan and see what your resources are on the day and think of something even better. We were forced to do that a lot.”
Following its launch on Netflix last month, Lockwood & Co will be fighting for attention among a number of other fantasy series on the streamer, not least The Sandman, The Witcher and Shadow & Bone. But Cornish, who is reteaming with actor John Boyega to develop Attack The Block 2, sums up the “absorbing, addictive” show’s appeal when he says: “It’s scary and cosy, which is a very unusual combination. It’s like ice cream with hot chocolate sauce, and let’s face it, that is delicious.”
tagged in: Ali Hadji-Heshmati, Attack the Block, Cameron Chapman, Complete Fiction, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Jonathan Stroud, Lockwood & Co, Netflix, Nira Park, Rachael Prior, Ruby Stokes