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Locke & Key and NOS4A2 creator on what's behind the series' success - Exclusive

To put it in supernatural terms, Joe Hill is slaying the TV game these days. The prolific writer carved out his own little corner of both horror and fantasy genres, producing compelling, badass characters that not only translate well to the page but also on screen. Between Netflix's Locke & Key (adapted from his comic series of the same name) and AMC's NOS4A2 (the gripping supernatural series transformed from Hill's novel of the same name), it's been quite a successful few years for Hill — and deservedly so.

You can't go wrong when casting Zachary Quinto (Charlie Manx) as an immortal being who feeds on holiday fear in his chilling Christmas-themed inscape. Luckily for Hill, AMC agreed and signed a straight-to-series order for the show. While NOS4A2 and Locke & Key couldn't be more different from one another, each project has amassed a dedicated following; whether you're looking for a mild Hogwarts vibe or prefer a twisted take on tried-and-true Hallmark Christmas stories, Hill has a story for everyone.

Hill spoke to Looper in an exclusive interview to humbly dish about the success of NOS4A2 and Locke & Key.

AMC gives NOS4A2 a fresh spin

"I think I caught a break and had really brilliant collaborators," Hill noted on the reason for NOS4A2's success. "I wound up working on the shows with people who are really, really good at this job. In the case of NOS4A2, [showrunner, writer, and executive producer] Jamie O'Brien fell in love with the book and identified with it. [She] saw things in the book that spoke to her about her own childhood, and she was really passionate about it."

Hill was enamored with O'Brien's take before she even put any words to the screen. As he told Looper, "She wrote a pilot script for the first episode for season 1, and she sent it along to me, and I was just blown away. I thought it was one of the most perfect scripts that I had read for an hour of television. And it just had such deft, subtle character touches."

Hill recalled one scene in particular. "There's a moment in the first episode when we meet Vic McQueen, and she's looking over her brochures for all these elite colleges in this beautiful, well-decorated room," he said. "And then suddenly, a girl walks into the room and says, 'Vic, what are you doing here?' And we suddenly realize that Vic is working as a house cleaner with her mother, [which] is one of her friend's rooms." He continued on the defining moment of Vic's initial characterization, noting, "That complete seesaw, that moment of having all our first impressions upended, struck me as just completely masterful. And the first script was full of that."

While writers often feel like their books are their children, Hill knew from the start that NOS4A2 was not only safe with O'Brien and AMC but also given room to grow beyond his vibrant imagination. He said, "I felt really good about going forward with the show. I felt like it was in good hands with someone who knew who these people were and [who were] excited to explore them emotionally and psychologically." 

It's safe to say he made the right call on that one.

Real talk: Moms can be scarier than demons

Working on a TV show is much different than the lone wolf image that comes to mind of a writer taking pen to paper in a cabin in the middle of the woods. Hill noted the contrast, saying, "I think, when you're writing a novel, it's an isolating experience. I spent three years working on NOS4A2 [the novel], and that's like three years underwater before you finally come up for air. One of the pleasures of working in film or TV is that chance to bring in other perspectives, other ideas about the story and about the characters."

If fans have ever wondered why people in the movie industry always get their 'thank you' speeches cut off during award shows, the sheer number of collaborators who work together to bring a series or movie to life is reason enough. The perk of a writer adapting their novel to the screen allows for an entirely new and different experience that — while it may not be an entire replication of the source material — takes on a life of its own.

Hill touched on this, reasoning, "I would just say that your actors are collaborators, too. And one of the things that's really sort of lit a spark under NOS4A2 is the intelligence and inventiveness of some of these performances." He added, "I would just think I love Maggie Leigh, who is my psychic librarian in NOS4A2, but Jahkara Smith is just ... She's taken everything that was at the spiritual core of the character — the emotional core of the character — and just made it so much more exciting, stayed true to it, but also made it pop. [Jahkara] made her a character we are always excited to spend time with."

For anyone wondering if Hill has a character from NOS4A2 that scares him the most, he does — and it's definitely not who fans may guess. (Step aside, Charlie Manx.) 

"Vic McQueen's mother is played by Virginia Cole. And someone asked me a while ago, 'Who's the scariest character in NOS4A2?' In episode six, Vic's mother goes up one side of an FBI agent and down the other, trying to protect her daughter, and she does it in that thick New England accent and stuff," recalled Hill. "I said, 'I think probably Linda McQueen is the scariest character in the story.'"

"If I ever got yelled at like that, I'd dissolve into tears," Hill admitted.

The keys to success

On the total contrary to NOS4A2, Locke & Key experienced a decade of production purgatory. It was nearly a feature film, discarded by two heavily invested networks, picked up as a pilot on Hulu (with a full cast different from the one on the series we know and love today), then tossed out again before finding a home on Netflix. After so many tries, Netflix finally found the key to make the series an instant success.

"Locke & Key had two passes at television before it finally wound up at Netflix and being released, and in that case, my collaborator was Carlton Cuse, and Carlton figured out how to crack it," said Hill. "It was really each of the pilots that were filmed for, there was one filmed for Fox, and there was one filmed for Hulu, and each of those pilots was helpful in the sense of moving the show closer towards what it wanted to be."

"But I think Carlton is very, very good at puzzling this kind of thing out — and his track record proves it, from Lost to Bates Motel to The Strain to Jack Ryan. I was thinking about how different showrunners have genres, like [Community and Rick and Morty creator] Dan Harmon has comedy, right? [NYPD Blue and L.A. Law's] Steven Bochco had, like, cop shows and stuff," Hill went on to muse. "I was trying to think, 'What's Carlton's genre?' And it hit me that Carlton Cuse's genre is hit television shows."

In short, for Hill, "good collaborators [are] the secret — the secret to success in TV is good collaborators." 

Hill certainly isn't coming up short in that department. Locke & Key season 2 is officially a go on Netflix, and NOS4A2 is finishing up its successful season 2 on August 23.

NOS4A2 airs new episodes of season 2 on Sundays at 10/9c on AMC. Episode 9, "Welcome to Christmasland," will premiere on Sunday, August 16. All ten episodes of season 1 and the first eight episodes of season 2 are available to stream now.