Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Joe Hill On NOS4A2, Locke & Key, And The Future Of Hollywood - Exclusive Interview

Joe Hill made a name for himself in the horror sphere long before most people even realized that he was Stephen King's son, and at this point, the quadruple threat talent has stakes in the TV industry, comic books, the movie biz, and literature. The writer grew up hanging out on his father's sets, giving him a good idea of what to expect when he had sets of his own. Hill even won a role in King's Creepshow — and was basically babysat by Tom Savini, a horror icon who influenced Hill's future work.

Hill told fans during a Comic-Con panel, "I spent a whole week in his trailer, watching him artistically disfigure movie stars and invent these fabulous creatures. He was my first rock star, and by the time I left the Creepshow set, I felt I had discovered what I wanted to do — which was I also wanted to kill people in interesting and memorable ways — and create memorable monsters, which is sort of what I wound up doing."

Hill got his start with short stories but went on to write novels like NOS4A2 and Horns as well as the Locke & Key comic book series. All three, and many of his other works, have appeared in successful TV shows and movies. Hill, a big proponent of honoring his inspirations, frequently references characters from King's and other horror icons' stories in his own works. Several decades after his own Creepshow debut, Hill's short story By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain was turned into an episode of the series' revival for the AMC-owned horror streaming service Shudder. 

Hill spoke to Looper in an exclusive interview to dish on his Stephen King Easter eggs, the futures of NOS4A2 and Locke & Key, what makes his shows successful, and why Hollywood is at a standstill during these uncertain times. 

Slaying the TV game

Both Locke & Key and NOS4A2 have had great success. How do you think you've managed to adapt both to the screen with such great reception and how involved are you in each show's writing and direction?

I think I caught a break and had really brilliant collaborators. I wound up working on the shows with people who are really, really good at this job. In the case of NOS4A2, Jamie O'Brien fell in love with the book and identified with it, [and] saw things in the book that spoke to her about her own childhood. She was really passionate about it, and 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. It just had such deft, subtle character touches.

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, 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, and this is one of her friend's rooms.

And 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. 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 [they were] excited to explore them emotionally and psychologically.

What about Locke & Key?

Well, so Locke & Key had two passes at television before it finally wound up [being released] at Netflix, and in that case, my collaborator was Carlton Cuse — and Carlton figured out how to crack it. 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 like 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. And I was trying to think like, what's Carlton's genre, and it hit me that Carlton Cuse's genre is hit television shows. So good collaborators [are] the secret. The secret to success in TV is good collaborators.

Mother knows best

That's true for anything, really.

Yeah, certainly, 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. And 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.

And 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. I love Maggie Lee, 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, made her a character we are always excited to spend time with.

Vic McQueen's mother is played by Virginia Cole. And someone asked me a while ago, "Who's the scariest character in NOS4A2?" And 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. 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.

That scene was fantastic.

Yeah, it was.

Finishing the season strong

What can we look forward to in season two of NOS4A2?

Well, my view on the two seasons of NOS4A2 was that season one was the first Terminator movie, and season two was the second. The first Terminator sort of set the ground rules and let you know who the characters were and how that world operates. But the second Terminator film is pedal to the floor from the opening scene, and it just accelerates and accelerates. And I think that's what we tried to do here in season 2, is to put the hammer down and keep it there.

As a storyteller, I... I'm a guy who came up through comic books, right? So my whole education [is] in storytelling, [and] my practical education is in trying to figure out how you make a comic book work. And part of what I learned from that is the one thing you can always place faith in is peril. As long as the characters are in peril, people will care. It doesn't have to be physical peril, [it can be] emotional, moral peril. I think, actually, readers and audiences are even more interested in moral peril.

And I think we find some of that here in NOS4A2 [when] we see Vic McQueen wrestling with how to be the best version of herself. And [she's even more comfortable] going toe to toe with a supernatural monster than she is in being a mom and trying to get to the grind of everyday life. She's worried about, will she fail her son, will she fail the man she loves? These are things that haunt her.

In some ways, the best thing that could happen to Vic McQueen is to gloriously die in battle against Charlie Manx because then she can go out a hero, and she doesn't have to worry about the rest of her life, which is hard. And so I think that kind of thing is engaging and makes for a good story. And it seems like so far, people agree.

Navigating the plague

Can you tell us anything about season 2 of Locke & Key?

Well, it's happening. [Laughs]

[Laughs] That's good to know.

Yeah. There'll be some more keys, [and] there'll be some more trouble. I've been reading the scripts, and the scripts are awesome. We've got a killer row of writers. I mean, we'll see what happens because we're all kind of shuffling through the plague days, right?

Very on-brand [for horror].

Yeah. Well, on-brand. [Laughs] We are going through both a global, both a national and global convulsion. And some of that has to do with the coronavirus. And some of that has to do with the economic repercussions [from] the coronavirus. Some of this has to do with an argument about, does democracy still work in the 21st century, or is it time to bring in the thugs? I mean, I still think democracy might be old fashioned... And we're seeing something of a reckoning about race in the country that's overdue.

And I think for all those reasons you just have to be patient about the TV end of things. [Laughs] We'll all get back to having fun doing make-believe soon enough, I'm sure. But for the moment, we've still got to wrestle our way through some sticky passes.

Referencing the King

There was a Charlie Manx reference in Stephen King's Doctor Sleep, and NOS4A2 features a ton of It Easter eggs. Locke & Key even has a major Carrie moment. So how involved are you and Stephen in creating these subtle shout outs to your respective works — and do you ever talk about them to each other ahead of time or after they air?

[Laughs] The most recent book was a collection of stories called Full Throttle. And in the introduction and in the story notes, I talk a lot about influence because the longer I've done this, the more aware I am that most of the stories I'm writing are in conversation with stories that I love.

The last novel, The Fireman, was in a lot of ways a rewrite of [Stephen King's] The Stand — if you soak The Stand in gasoline and throw a match at it. In the case of the overlap between Doctor Sleep and NOS4A2, Doctor Sleep... So I was working, I had been working on NOS4A2 for a year or two, and my dad had been working on Doctor Sleep, and we got [to] discussing them. And almost at the same moment, we realized we had similar bad guys in each book. The True Knot and Doctor Sleep were spiritual vampires, soul vampires, and Charlie Manx is cut from the same cloth.

And so [there are] two things you can do about that when you discover that kind of overlap: One is you can run from it, which I think is an act of cowardice. Or you can embrace it and address it head-on, which I think is the better move. And so I stuck The True Knot in NOS4A2, and he stuck Charlie Manx in Dr. Sleep. [Laughs]

And yeah, it was cool. NOS4A2 has the imaginary worlds called inscapes, and very powerful people can enter their own... People with intense supernatural powers can enter an inscape. And I sometimes think my own inscape is constructed out of all the books I've read and all the movies I fell in love with, and all the stories that I've written have come out of that place.

And so, inevitably you see, here's a little flash of It. Here's a look of Steven Spielberg, here's the influence of Tom Savini. And rather than [trying] to disguise it, I'd rather be open about it. Because I just think that's more interesting.

Veering from the source material

Definitely, it's always fun finding those little references to other things.

You can't escape your influences, so you might as well own them. And ultimately, it's like in music — every musician has always had to make every song out of the same set of chords. There's just only so many chords. And so you can wind up with a thing like there's a James McMurtry song — no wait, sorry, Justin Townes Earle has a song called "I Ain't Got No Money," which is great. But if you listen close, you can hear that it's actually a cover of "Come Together" by the Beatles. But then if you listen to "Come Together" by the Beatles, you can see that, actually, John Lennon was rewriting Chuck Berry. So there you go. It's like three songs that live together like Russian nesting dolls.

[Laughs] The symphony of horror.

Yeah. [Laughs] Well, yeah, exactly. I mean exactly, though! NOS4A2 has echoes of It all through it, but It has echoes of all these other horror stories, that it's very much a horror story about horror stories. Yeah.

So it seems like NOS4A2 will be going beyond the ending that the original novel played out. How do you reconcile the original vision and endings you had for your characters with the alterations made for the screen?

Oh hell, I pitched an idea about a subtle shift in how the novel ends to Jamie O'Brien before we ever even filmed our first episode. The TV show is one thing, and the book is another — both imply a bigger world full of these strong creatives. People like Vic McQueen and Charlie Manx, some of them good, some of them... not so much.

And I think there's a lot more to explore there. The question is, do viewers? Unfortunately, the marketplace always [casts] a shadow over this kind of subject. Do people want it badly enough? Is that something they like, or [are] they happy with just the two seasons and eventually...

But that's not my job to figure out. AMC has to make the decision on that. I think we could do more. I think we could do more if there was an appetite for it. And I also think that we've got two really great seasons here. And if that's all we got, we can all feel like we went out with our heads held high.

The season finale of NOS4A2 aired on August 23, and all episodes are available to stream on AMC. Now you know what to do: If you want a NOS4A2 season 3, go binge the show, and hit up the series, and Joe Hill on Twitter to let them know. They'll be waiting in Christmasland (or their couches, probably).