In 2011, a relatively unknown English filmmaker made indie history with a little sci-fi action flick called Attack the Block. Nominated for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer at the BAFTAs, the film follows a group of troublemaking teens in London who find themselves at the center of an alien invasion, using homemade weapons to fend off the extraterrestrial beasts and defend their neighborhood. In the decade since its initial release, Attack the Block has gone from being an underground cult favorite to the equivalent of a mainstream hit, in part thanks to the growing stardom of cast members like John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker – and the increasing notoriety of writer and director Joe Cornish.
With a knack for witty humor, creative action-packed set pieces, and placing young protagonists in extraordinary situations, Joe Cornish has slowly and steadily made his way through the industry ever since he wrote and starred in the UK Channel 4 sketch series The Adam and Joe Show with comedian Adam Buxton in the late ’90s. He would go on to frequently collaborate with longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Edgar Wright, forming their own production company Complete Fiction with producers Rachael Prior and Nira Park. Wright and Cornish also worked alongside Steven Moffat, Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy, and Steven Spielberg to bring The Adventures of Tintin to life. Before Wright infamously left Marvel Studios over creative differences regarding Ant-Man, he and Cornish worked closely together for years to introduce the comic-book character to the big screen. Much of their groundwork still made its way into Ant-Man’s introduction to the MCU.
Cornish finally made his way back into the directing chair with 2019’s The Kid Who Would Be King, a modern update of the classic King Arthur legend. The film solidified his talent for telling empowering youth-centered stories; usually ones that involve kids fighting supernatural entities with swords. So when it was announced that Joe Cornish would be adapting Jonathan Stroud’s popular young adult book series Lockwood & Co. for Netflix, it was a no-brainer. Lockwood & Co. takes place in a world where deadly spirits have become commonplace nuisances, with the story focusing on a psychic ghost-hunting agency run by Anthony Lockwood (Cameron Chapman), George Karim (Ali Hadji-Heshmati) and newcomer Lucy Carlyle (Ruby Stokes). The first eight-episode season of the Netflix original series made its premiere in January to a stellar reception from critics and fans alike, with praise aimed at its genuine thrills, captivating mysteries, and effortless charm.
We sat down with Joe Cornish, who serves as executive producer and showrunner on Lockwood & Co. as well as director for the first and last episodes of season one, to dive into how he took this YA tale of ghost-busting psychic teenagers from page to screen. We find out how much bigger and bolder future seasons could be, what Cornish chose to leave out from the books and why, and what we might expect from the highly anticipated Attack the Block sequel that he is currently working on.
Exclusive Interview with Joe Cornish for Lockwood & Co. on Netflix
Lockwood & Co. may seem like your typical paranormal team going against ghosts, but what really hooked me is the element of a ghost killing you in just one touch. It gives the story a genuine sense of danger.
Joe Cornish: It’s a very clever idea, isn’t it? I think to come up with some sort of idea as simple and revolutionary as that, in terms of its effects on a ghost story after like 200 years of ghost stories, is pretty amazing. And that’s Jonathan Stroud, of course, who wrote the novels.
You became interested in the novel series right at its beginning. There was only one book out at the time. How has your perspective on it changed now that we’re years later and there are more books and you have a wider grasp on the larger story?
Joe Cornish: Well, what’s interesting is that Jonathan admits that he sort of made it up as he went along. The first idea that came to him was the idea of these two young people with this peculiar weaponry approaching this house to cleanse it of a ghost. And the rest of it kind of came to him as he imagined it. So what happens with books three, four, and five is by that point, he’s really thought about the world and where the story is going to go. He’s thought about all the layers of conspiracy, he’s thought about how “The Problem” began. So in the next books – I mean, these elements are already there during Book Two – all these little breadcrumbs start, I don’t know, becoming loaves of bread. That’s a bad metaphor. (Laughs)
All of these elements start developing and expanding. Characters who you think are innocent become much more significant than you think. Characters you think are good turn out not to be so good. Allegiances are divided and the story gets more and more spectacular. It just gets bigger and bigger and better. It was incredibly exciting and rewarding to read that first book all those years ago then go away, do other things, then hear that they were available again and read the next four. It was like “Holy shit!” This is better than we could possibly have imagined, in the way it has developed since. Our first season on Netflix is the first two books. There are three more books left to adapt. We think we could get two more seasons out of it if the gods smile upon us.
Is it just the quality of the source material that gives you the passion and the confidence to make the huge commitment to a full-length series?
Joe Cornish: You know what it is? It’s having read them and, I’m sure like many people, I kind of make the TV show as I read them. You play the action out in your imagination. There are set pieces and moments from those books that I’ve visualized in my mind’s eye, that are unforgettable. And probably like any filmmaker, when you see something in your imagination, you get this burning hunger to make it real. To one day step onto a set with actors and shoot it. The characters are so compulsive in the first two books and Cameron Chapman, Ruby Stokes, and Ali Hadji-Heshmati, the chemistry between them is so brilliant. I want to see their performances when they get to play all this other crazy stuff that happens between them.
I love the way that, during the first test when Lucy meets the boys, she touches an object and there’s this pulse-like sound effect and the camera moves up to her face the same way each time. How did you go about finding the right portrayal for those more subtle supernatural elements in the new Netflix series?
Joe Cornish: My brain is a big melting pot of every movie I’ve ever seen and I see a lot of movies. Sometimes I shoot stuff and only realize later that I’ve kind of borrowed it from something I’ve seen years ago. I guess it comes a little bit from a movie called The Fury, a Brian De Palma movie, where they use big close-ups for psychic moments. The thing where they’re ghost locked and their eyes go a little eggy white comes from The Beyond, a Lucio Fulci movie. My brain is like a massive Rolodex of every film I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I think I’m coming up with an original idea and sometimes I’m subconsciously just recalling something. But most of the time, I just think, “What is the most straightforward, legible way to do this? What’s going to communicate the story best to the audience?”
What’s interesting about [Lucy] is her emotional intelligence and the way her psychic powers are linked to her emotions. So it made sense to go right into her incredibly expressive face. Ruby has the ability to give such a detailed performance, then we wiped out all the sounds so that we were hearing what she heard. It was fun to establish that language as well, what we call the psychic slide that went into her face, and then all the directors on the other episodes could use that same language, you know?
Now that Lockwood & Co. has actually been out on Netflix, have you been able to see reactions from new fans or fans that read the books before?
Joe Cornish: I’ve looked at a bunch of it. I think it’s wonderful that the majority of the fans feel they are seeing what they saw in their minds when they read the books. It’s beautiful, comforting, and incredibly rewarding to see that group of passionate people validate our work. But you also have to be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security. To be a real success, this has to break out beyond that because really what we need is millions of people who’ve never heard of the book to get into it. But if we’re unlucky and we don’t get to further the series, then the books are there. Season one ends on a cliffhanger, quite a serious cliffhanger, and if we don’t get to shoot it, then people can always read it.
In conversations with Jonathan Stroud, were there any aspects of the story or the characters that he wanted emphasis on or that he wasn’t going to compromise on?
Joe Cornish: No, he really understood from the start that the screen adaptation was always going to be a different beast. He was extremely cooperative and extremely generous. He was thrilled that the things he had imagined were being built and was excited to see the costumes, the props, the weaponry. He was an incredibly valuable and supportive companion throughout the whole process. It was very rewarding when he started to see the episodes assembled because he really felt that he recognized his work. I think the things that are critical to the books are the chemistry between the three leads, the skull, and Flo Bones. But as much as we spoke to Jonathan, we also looked at a lot of the fandom that was out there and that told us what the most important elements were to them.
Were there any parts that you wanted to expand on and focus a bit more on in Netflix’s Lockwood & Co. as opposed to cutting?
Joe Cornish: So the first book doesn’t go into Lucy’s childhood in that much detail. It’s quite elliptical in the way it describes it and we wanted to flesh that out. We made a few changes. She has a whole lot of sisters in the book and we felt that it would’ve been a little bit odd to shoot so many characters on screen. We wanted to make it neater and more digestible, so we gave her this relationship with one of her fellow agents in her local agency, this girl called Norrie. We also invented some little missions they go on because that forms the center of the first episode.
You’ve got to be ruthless, you know, some set pieces in the books are really exciting to read but they don’t advance the story. So we see that and go, “Well, let’s not spend our valuable budget on that. Let’s just stick to the bits that really move the characters and story forward.” So we’ve cut some stuff, we expanded some stuff, and we made some little changes. Some things make sense on the page but not when you actually staged them. Like Annabel Ward, the dead woman in the wall from the first episode, in the books she has a locket. We changed that to a ring because a ring is easier to carry around and smuggle about. When you come down to the practicalities of staging some stuff in the books, it doesn’t work as well as it might.
Is the Netflix streaming model, where every episode is dropped all at once instead of a weekly release, taken into consideration when making this?
Joe Cornish: We always knew it was going to be dropped all at once. So, at the script stage, you’re trying to make one episode roll into another episode. You always leave an episode with some unanswered questions and some with unresolved drama. The biggest challenge there was to make Book One flow into Book Two, because Book One ends and then Two kind of just starts. So we had to find a way to make sure all the plotlines weren’t tied off too neatly after the end of Book One. Really, you’re just trying to shape each episode with the beginning, the middle, and an end. We approach them like mini-movies.
To be honest, I left the other directors [William McGregor and Catherine Morshead] alone because I didn’t want to be there next to them and hassling them. Otherwise, I would have just taken over. The only way for me to do this is just not to be there. I’ll be available if they need me and I’ll visit the set every few days, but other than that, they have control. I advised wherever I could, and then once they finished shooting, I came in and helped to shape the edits, music, sound, VFX, and stuff like that. But in terms of binge-watching, you do your best to make it binge-able. You want to make a delicious box of chocolates; the packet of Pringles you can’t stop poppin’. You got Pringles over there [in the U.S.] right?
We do have Pringles.
Joe Cornish: You remember that Pringles marketing slogan? “Once you pop, you just can’t stop!” That’s what we want it to be like. Cheese and chives flavored, or maybe my favorite, barbecue-flavored Pringles.
I love the pizza-flavored ones if you’ve ever had those.
Joe Cornish: Oh yes, too good. It’s the way they’re the shape of your tongue that is the most brilliant thing.
Pringles deserve more praise than they get, perhaps. Or maybe they get enough.
Joe Cornish: Not in terms of nutrition.
You became a father during the making of Netflix’s Lockwood & Co.. Ever since I had my first kid, seeing children in some kind of danger in movies and television has become much more affecting to me. How has your work and the way you tell stories changed now that you have a child of your own?
Joe Cornish: When I was growing up, I liked nothing more than seeing kids of my age in movies. I was pretty much the same age as Elliott in E.T., the kid in The Black Stallion, or the characters in John Hughes movies. Every decade of my life, I was served with movies that appeared to have people like me in them, and that was very exciting. I think it just depends on the type of jeopardy you put them in, right? And it depends on the tone as well. I think my movies are fantasy – usually fantasy that intrudes on reality. So hopefully, there’s always a sense of outlandishness and there’s a sense of scale to the storytelling that means that it’s fundamentally escapist, right?
What I don’t like – I didn’t love the beginning of the new Bond film [No Time to Die] when the little girl was in danger with the gun. I don’t like realistic, real-world, slightly sadistic jeopardy for children. I think when it’s aliens, zombie knights, ghosts, swords, and fireworks, it’s okay. I mean, there’s a gun in Lockwood & Co. but it appears once very briefly and the baddie has it and those kids are much older. There’s a gun in Attack the Block, but it turns out to be a starter pistol. There are obviously no guns in The Kid Who Would Be King. I think it’s a matter of tone and what the dramatic elements are. And my kid is only three and a half, maybe I’ll change. Maybe I will be horrified by my own work.
With Attack the Block 2 now officially announced, what are your rules for what makes a good sequel, especially one coming over a decade after the original?
Joe Cornish: My rule for what makes a good sequel is to make a good film. I think what makes a bad sequel is when you’re doing it just to cash in on the first movie and no one can accuse us of doing that. By the time it comes out, it’ll probably be like 15 years later. Make a really good movie and have a story you really want to tell. The story we want to tell has to do with Moses as a man as opposed to Moses as a boy. The time that has passed is integral to the story. We couldn’t have told this story five years ago but we can tell it five years ahead.
Attack the Block is more or less a coming-of-age tale for Moses. I feel like this sequel could be a similar story for a different yet equally pivotal age.
Joe Cornish: Exactly that, that’s what we want to do. And I’m very lucky that the 18-year-old newcomer [Boyega] is now, you know, a 30-year-old international movie star.