Lockwood & Co. Showrunner Joe Cornish Brings Killer Ghosts To Netflix [Exclusive Interview]

Joe Cornish is back with another story about kids fighting for our future. The director of "Attack the Block" and "The Kid Who Would Be King" is the showrunner behind Netflix's "Lockwood & Co." The adaptation of Jonathan Stroud's book series pits young folks against deadly ghosts. In season 1, Anthony Lockwood (Cameron Chapman), George Karim (Ali Hadji-Heshmati), and Lucy Carlyle (Ruby Stokes) join forces as a scrappy team of paranormal investigators in a world haunted by the dead. 

The show is another project from Cornish that pays tribute to '80s movies. It's not nostalgia; the past is a key part of the story, not just an aesthetic or an excuse to have a rocking soundtrack. This world is a bit stuck in the '80s, thanks to the array of deadly ghosts. Cornish, who directed the first and last episodes of the season, recently took us behind the scenes of his new series in an exclusive interview.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'A ghost epidemic started just over 50 years ago'

How long have you been working on the show now?

Well, about three years. We post-produced all last year. We shot the year before and we were writing and developing the year before that. We post-produced '22. We shot '21. We developed in '20.

That's a pretty good production schedule, not at all rushed.

No. Nira Park, who produces my movies and produces all of Edgar [Wright]'s movies, that's one of her things. She is a polisher. She will make things as good as they possibly can be. That's one of her real things — not that Edgar and I are fighting that — but that's one of the things that's extraordinary about her as a producer: the production values and the time.

She will push the shoot. She will extend the post-production. She will push a release because she wants to make the best possible end product. The "Attack The Block" release was delayed, I think, because we all wanted to make it as good as possible. Yeah, nothing's coming out of the oven before the timer goes "ping."

In the case of "Lockwood & Co.," what really benefited from that extra time to polish the show?

Well, there's a ghost shot that literally we dropped in after delivery because we didn't think it was good enough. We kept a skeleton staff of VFX people on way beyond when they should have been kept on to try and get that shot right. The sound, it's so exciting to be able to mix in Atmos and 7.1. We're really proud of the music in the show. A lot of it's played on real instruments and real guitars and real drums, getting all that right. There's a moment at the end of episode 5, I think, where somebody dies in the hallway of Portland Row and Lucy hears — you basically hear him speaking, but then you hear him speaking after he dies in Lucy's head. To get the sonics of that right, it took a long time to do that. Yeah, we really tried to go the extra mile to make it work.

With the music supervisor and composer, how did you want to help define the show with the music?

The world of "Lockwood & Co." is contemporary, but it's a different now. This problem of a ghost epidemic started just over 50 years ago and it's changed the whole way the world evolved. The digital revolution never happened and suddenly all these sorts of industrial materials, like iron and salt, become vital to repelling ghosts. There are no computers, no cell phones, no digital media, no cars designed on computers. Houses are drafty and creaky. There are magazines. There are telephone boxes. There are all these things that the real world left behind in the '80s are still hanging around in this version of the present day.

We wanted that to inform the soundtrack as well. We went back to a lot of post-punk, slightly goth inflected rock music like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure and Bauhaus that have this kind of romantic, doom-laden spookiness to them, and they feel very analog. You can hear the fingers on the guitar strings in a Bauhaus track. You can hear the croak in the voice. They feel alive, they feel haunted, and they have a terrific, beautiful melancholy to them. We had a playlist very early on of those tracks of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and The Cure. A lot of the bands are referenced in posters in Lucy's room or in bits and bobs around the show.

Then, the composers who are called The Flight, who did the music for [the video games] "Horizon Zero Dawn" and "Alien: Isolation," they are two very brilliant young men, and Christoph Bauschinger, who was my music editor on "The Kid Who Would Be King," who's just an amazing guy, built a bridge between composing and inserting it, making it fit the action. They basically picked up a bunch of instruments and played, so you can hear their fingers on the strings. We imagined that there was a kind of "Lockwood & Co." garage band in some smoky basement, in a nightclub off in Soho in London in the mid-'80s who were playing along to the action. Yeah, we're pleased with it. We hope it gives it quite a unique sound and feel.

'I don't want the opening of this show to feel like a geography exam or a history exam'

The first episode isn't loaded with exposition, and the world and rules are gradually explained over the eight episodes. How much did you debate what to say and what not to say in the beginning?

Well, that was a big thing, and when I wrote it, I decided to myself, "Okay, I'm not going to do any exposition," because sometimes these big streaming series can be a nervous guest at a drinks party who comes up to you and just tells you their whole life story in two minutes and you are like, "Okay, thanks, bye." I want it to be the person at the drinks party who tells you something interesting that intrigues you and you want to know more. I don't want the opening of this show to feel like a geography exam or a history exam, like you have to know who's an orc and who's an elf, and which political party so-and-so comes from or whatever.

We drop you into the middle of a ghost investigation with these two young people. You don't know who they are and you pick up the rules of the world by watching them behave, listening to them talk, and following their methodology. That was the aim, and every time somebody said to me, "Joe, you really should explain," I said, "No, I'm not going to do it." I want to respect the intelligence of the audience. I want them to be intrigued. Then, I just stood my ground until the very end and then we said, "Okay, well, let's put everything in the opening titles."

All the factual, world-building stuff is in the opening titles. In the first episode of a Netflix show, you can't skip the opening titles. You can on the subsequent episode. You can skip it if you want, even though I think the opening music is really cool and the titles are really cool. Then, we don't have to bother with that in the body of the show. The show can just be about procedure and character and action.

How much do you really think you need to explain the world and the rules to an audience?

Well, in this business, you test, or you have opportunities to do that. People are constantly watching your edit. The editor's watching. It's not like you're watching in isolation. If there's something that's really tripping people up, you start hearing it and you keep hearing it and then you do something about it. You just have to find an organic way to do it.

I always cite the beginning of "Reservoir Dogs" as one of my favorite movie openings where you're just watching a bunch of people. I think you're even looking at their backs, talking about tipping, something entirely inconsequential. I remember seeing that movie for the first time and leaning over to my friend and going, "This is great," because I felt like I was there and this was a real world with real people. The storytelling didn't know I was there. That's so much more interesting than a movie or TV show that is anxious about you being interested, you know what I mean?

Yeah. Your party guest metaphor was good. You gotta know when you've said enough and leave.

Yeah. "The Rings of Power" party guest is definitely coming up to you with a chalice of champagne and telling you an hour of f****** elf history. I don't know about you, but I'm going outside for a cigarette at that point and I don't even smoke.

'We hope this is as close to the books as possible'

What did you find translated very naturally from the books to the show, and what from the first two books was a bit trickier to adapt?

Well, there's some stuff about Lucy's backstory that is skirted over and kind of elliptical in the books. In the first episode, when we flashback to her early years when she first joined an agency, that stuff we had to invent ourselves. Really, I used to read novels as a kid and then see adaptations of them, I would always be like, "Why did they change that? Why did they need to change that? Just film this." I remember when I read Stephen King books, I'd be like, "Man, this is a screenplay. Just film all of this." We tried to do that, but obviously, you can't. It would be a 50-hour show if you filmed everything, so you have to figure out ways to compress. By and large, we just tried to put everything in that we could.

There were places where we had to condense things. There were some things that didn't make total sense when you really analyzed them that we had to streamline. There were some things we didn't necessarily want to spend money on. There were set pieces in the books that didn't necessarily advance the story. We thought, "Okay, let's not shoot that. We'll just have to reference that in dialogue."

We tried to stay as close to the books as we possibly could at all points. When we made changes, we just thought, "Oh, this could be even better." Jonathan Stroud, the author of the books, was very involved and he okayed everything and collaborated with us. We hope this is as close to the books as possible, but the books don't have special effects or music or actors, so we have to do all that stuff, bring it to life.

The visual effects are not hidden by darkness. How important was that for you, your cinematographer, and the visual effects team? And what were some of your rules for the ghosts?

Well, we can't hide our ghosts because one of the brilliant ideas central to "Lockwood & Co." is that ghosts can kill you by touching you. I don't know that anybody has ever thought of that before Jonathan Stroud. It just changes the dynamics. It means you're in an action-adventure combat situation where previously you were in a "Scare me, throw a chair at me, possess my daughter, suck me into the TV" situation. Suddenly you are in an actual fight where this thing is coming for you, and if it touches you, it kills you. We had to think about our ghosts as physical assailants in a space. We had to figure out a way to have something on set that the actors could react to so that eye lines were right, so they could be in combat with them, not dissimilar to "Attack the Block" and "The Kid Who Would Be King."

Our ghosts are made up of a kind of dummy with lights on it that was on a stick on the set. Then, we had a performer on wires to do the physical reference. Then, we had another actress or actor do the facial performance. Then, we had another actor to do the voice. The ghosts are this compendium of one, two, three, four, five different elements, but then there are different types of ghosts in the [show]. The books have a strict set of rules about what a ghost can and can't do, and this very brilliant taxonomy, different species of ghosts and different capabilities.

We had a whole set of rules that our ghosts should follow. They're all made of ectoplasm, so all our ghosts are made of smoke. They can be different densities, different levels of turbulence, different colors, and then our ghosts can only look like what they look like now in the ground or what they look like at the moment of death, anywhere on that slider. Then, they have different strengths and weaknesses. We made a set of rules, we stuck by them, but we made sure they had enough room inside them to get a good variety of different types of ghosts. That feels like a very long answer.

'I just love swords'

There's a sword fight in the finale that's excellent.

The one that goes round all the columns?

Yeah. There's a nice rhythm there with longer and shorter takes. How did you pull that off?

Well, there are a bunch of hidden cuts, and that was devised very closely with our fight coordinators. There are a bunch of hidden cuts where you go around the columns. To be honest, the fight coordinators were so good, and at that point, Cameron [Chapman] was so agile. All the people they're fighting are all trained stunt actors. I just had to shoot it. We shot it very quickly because they were so well-rehearsed and it had been blocked in a precise replication of that space. That was one of those things where they did it, we shot it, cut together, and it kind of worked, but that's not a lot to do with me. It's to do with how much preparation everybody puts into it.

There were s***loads of preparation on this show. There was about six months of rehearsal, fight training, wire training, getting everybody fit, dramatic rehearsal, getting the three lead actors to know each other and know their characters inside out. There was a huge amount of preparation. By the time we got to shoot this stuff in a TV schedule at the quality we wanted to do, we had to be absolutely ready to go and fully prepared every day with what was ahead of us, and that was thanks to the crew and all the work they put in ahead of time.

We're so used to watching people fight with guns. What appeals to you about your heroes fighting with swords?

I don't know. It is true, and people keep remarking on this, that all three of my movies have involved young people fighting these fantasy creatures with swords. In "Attack the Block," because one of the characters, Dennis, happens to have some cheap imitation of a samurai's sword on his bedroom wall that he grabs. In "The Kid Who Would Be King," it's an Arthurian story. They find Excalibur and then replicate it. In this book, it happens to be one of the methods that Jonathan Stroud invented for fighting ghosts.

I trained in fencing when I was at school. That was my sport, fencing. I wasn't very good at it. The teacher used to call me lazy. He was a retired Russian Olympic coach who used to teach us fencing. He would say, "Joe, you have such long legs, you could be so good, but you are lazy, so lazy."

I just love swords. I think they're kind of lethal, but there's also something romantic and stylish about them. You need skill to use them in a way you don't when you just point a gun and shoot somebody. Plus, I'm from London, we don't have that many guns. Luckily, we don't have that many swords either, but it feels like an elegant way to do combat. It feels okay to put a sword in the hand of a kid in a way that it feels a little bit weird to put a gun in the hand of a kid.

It makes for more intimate action scenes, too.

Yeah, yeah. I do put a gun in the hand of a kid in "Attack the Block," but it turns out to be a starter pistol. That doesn't count.

'It was Mark Wahlberg's space suit from Planet of the Apes'

I love "The Adventures of Tintin." Did you ever work on a script for a sequel?

Yeah, yeah. I did. Peter Jackson and I worked on the second film for a couple of months. Was it after the first one was released? Maybe it was just immediately after the first one finished shooting, and it had elements of "Red Rackham's Treasure" and "Prisoners of the Sun," I believe.

I have two memories of that. Me and Peter Jackson were working in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There was a knock on the door, and somebody came in carrying a space suit, and it was Mark Wahlberg's space suit from "Planet of the Apes." It was a gift from him to Peter Jackson, because Peter's obsessed with apes and monkey movies, as you might know. I'm a bit of a Bigfoot obsessive, right?

Oh, really?

Yeah. I love Bigfoot. I love Bigfoot. I love Bigfoot videos, and I love all that stuff. I said to Peter, "Oh, you love monkey stuff. Do you believe in Bigfoot? Do you like Bigfoot?" He looked at me like I was mad, and I felt quite embarrassed, but then unfortunately, I went off to do "Attack the Block" and the sequel never materialized. Did we ever finish the treatment? I'm not sure that we did. Other stuff happened, but I love that movie. I think some of the staging and blocking and action in that movie is extraordinary.

Why haven't you made a Bigfoot movie yet?

You know what? I have an idea for a Bigfoot movie percolating in my head. Sometimes I think about genres that nobody's done well, and the thing about Bigfoot is there are a couple of really good movies, like "The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot." I love that movie. There's a lot of really good stuff in "Legend of Boggy Creek," and there are a lot of really good '70s ones, but nobody's done the really f****** great movie in the way that, do you know what I mean? It's a genre that feels like it's waiting for the prestige, sophisticated, super f****** great movie to come along.

It's such a pervasive myth, and when I watch those things, the good ones really send a shiver up my spine in a way that no other contemporary mythology does. Weirdly, when I was a kid, I went on holiday to California and I stayed with my uncle who worked in a sawmill in Yakima, Washington. It turned out it was the same sawmill that guy Bob Heironimus worked at, who was one of the guys that people say was in the suit in the Roger Patterson film. Anyway, listen, man, you don't want to get me started on this s***. We'll be here all night.

[Laughs] I was really enjoying it, Joe.

Anyway, listen, the short version of this is I love Bigfoot, and I do want to make a Bigfoot movie one day, and I do have one percolating in the back of my head.

"Lockwood & Co." begins streaming on Netflix on January 27, 2023.