Joe Cornish’s teen ghosthunter drama Lockwood and Co. launches on Netflix globally today. The show, the streamer’s latest young-adult scripted series from the UK, stars Ruby Stokes (Bridgerton) and newcomers Cameron Chapman and Ali Hadji-Heshmati as a teen trio who run an independent ghost fighting agency in London while competing with adult-run corporate rivals.
The eight-part series, from Cornish’s Complete Fiction banner, is based on Jonathan Stroud’s books about an alternate modern world in which murderous ghosts have been attacking people since the 1960s, and only teenagers have the ability to see and repeal them. Netflix ordered it as one of seven British originals announced in December 2020. Several of these have been canned but anticipation around Lockwood has grown and reviews this week have been sparkling.
“We have these brilliant books to draw on,” said Cornish in an interview with Deadline this week. “The challenge is to get it on screen with the scale, energy and detail we want, with the time and money to do it, and to polish it and honor the books.”
Cornish sat down with us to talk through his ambitions for the show and update on the progress of hotly anticipated sci-fi action horror sequel Attack the Block 2, which is currently in development alongside John Boyega’s UpperRoom Productions, Film4 and Studiocanal.
The original Attack the Block, now over a decade old, followed Boyega and a gang of inner city kids battling against extra-terrestrial aliens in a London tower block. It was a sleeper hit, won Audience Awards at SXSW and the Los Angeles Film Festival and launched Cornish’s career as an in-demand director.
“It took a very long time between Attack the Block and my second movie so I’m trying to be a bit more focused on keeping other projects in development while I make stuff,” he said. “The first Attack the Block was made in complete secrecy so we had time to make it as good as it needed to be. We’re now in the middle of that process.
“John and I have a really detailed outline and are doing the research to figure out the reality that we then merge with sci-fi fantasy. We go out in the real world with brilliant researchers and find people whose lives intersect with those characters to get the detail and realism. It’s a co-production and we’re going to take our time to get it exactly right.”
Lockwood and Co. marks Cornish’s first longform scripted series and his first as a showrunner, although he dislikes the term. “I have resisted using that term as ‘show’ sounds like a West End musical and ‘runner’ sounds like sports, and those are not fields I want to work in,” he quipped. “I was more of a producer and executive producer. It was a group effort of me, Nira, [Complete Fiction co-founder and Head of Film & TV] Rachael Prior and [Head of Development] Bradley Down.”
Cornish directed episodes one and eight and oversaw the rest of the scripts and shoot. His focus was on building a picture of a world based on four elements Stroud created for the books: Ghosts kill by touching people, young people can sense them before adults, agencies were set up by adults to employ young people to deal with ghosts, and salt and metal in different forms can repels the apparitions.
“We really tried to avoid gratuitous exposition,” he said. “I tried to approach it like a procedural with detectives going about their business you understand their methodology. By and large, we’re just trying to create an interesting atmosphere.
“We want to drop the audience into the story and let them fend for themselves. You should respect your audience and their intelligence and make the assumption they are watching with both eyes, and not one looking at their phones. So far, it’s worked.”
Casting and production took place under lockdown conditions during the pandemic under trying conditions and a budget limited at a certain level meant having to be sparing with ghost scenes. However, the apparitions’ aggressive nature in the show lends itself to their presence being limited, said Cornish.
“You can’t have spectral figures hanging in the shadows when they’re attacking. They’re like assailants so we don’t have the luxury of a glimpse or something ambiguous. They have to be right here, lunging at you. We have to put ghosts in your face.”
Cornish was also at pains to stress that while Lockwood and Co. falls into the YA category in theory, the ambition is much broader.
“The books and world building are so clever, and the rules Jonathan has created for the ghosting and ghost fighting are unusually sophisticated for the material,” he said. “We tried to make the stakes real so it’s not knowing, quippy or meta. It’s not a reboot or a franchise; It’s an original piece of earnest, scary and funny storytelling with three lovely characters at the center of it.”
Cornish first came to attention along with comedy partner and podcaster Adam Buxton by making the cult 1990s Channel 4 comedy sketch series The Adam & Joe Show, in which they made toy figurine versions of Star Wars and created iconic characters such as British director Ken Korda. They followed that with whimsical and popular radio shows on the BBC and XFM, before Cornish broke through globally after directing Attack the Block in 2011. He then worked in Hollywood as writer on The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man, although he exited the latter before its release. In 2019, he directed his second film, The Boy Who Would be King, and now he’s slated to write and direct an adaptation of Mark Millar’s Starlight comic. However, most attention is currently on Lockwood and Co. and Attack the Block 2, news of which Deadline broke back in 2021.
The show is Netflix’s first with Complete Fiction — the company Cornish co-founded with Spaced and Sean of the Dead producer Parks, Prior and Last Night in Soho director Edgar Wright. “We have a bunch of projects in active development with them, but to be honest my head is so far into Lockwood I couldn’t tell you what they are,” he said. Writers rooms for several projects are underway, though details are scant.
Sadly, Cornish dulled the notion of reuniting with comedy partner Buxton for a new series or film — something many fans have called sporadically for over the years — instead saying they will continue to unite for The Adam Buxton Podcast Christmas specials.
“What is so great about the radio show and podcasts is when we’re together we find it very comfortable just to waffle and make stuff up,” he said. “What evolved naturally in the TV and the radio shows is we go away, make toy movies, write songs, do silly skits and then come together and do completely improvisational chat and present gifts to each other. Is there a way to that on telly?”
Tongue firmly in cheek, he said BBC’s slow paced ob doc series Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing had inspired him to think up Baaad Dads, a notional series in which he and Buxton would escape their families and shoot the breeze on a park bench. “It would be lovely to do that but it would have to be formulated by a lovely behavioural psychologist working in TV development who could understand all our foibles.”