Lockwood & Co. is a little bit different from your typical teen supernatural series. The new Netflix show from Attack The Block director Joe Cornish is set in an alternate London, overrun by ghosts that adults can’t see. As a result, society has become reliant on psychic teenagers to hunt down and neutralize the threats.
But don’t expect a Gen Z approach – the so-called "ghost epidemic" took place 50 years ago, meaning that the digital revolution we have in modern society never happened. That means there are no mobile phones, no internet, and no TVs in sight in the eight-part drama.
"It's now but not now," Cornish tells Total Film from Netflix HQ. "It's today but there are no mobile phones, nothing's been designed on a computer, magazines are still things you pick up and open. So for me, it's got everything great about the contemporary world and everything interesting about the world of 30 or 40 years ago."
Without the reliance on technology, the series has a vintage feel to it, and Cornish cites ‘80s movies like Poltergeist and Ghostbusters as reference points. "A lot of the time I look at stuff that I don’t want it to be like too," he explains. "We didn’t want it to be silly, we wanted the stakes to feel real. We wanted comedy but we never wanted the comedy to jeopardize the audience's investment in the reality of the thing."
Instead, the focus is on the core trio and their detective agency, Lockwood & Co. Led by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood (Cameron Chapman) along with his hilarious partner George Karim (Ali Hadji-Heshmati), it’s the only ghost-hunting company run without adult supervision. And they have an opening, which is where the brilliant Lucy Carlyle (Ruby Stokes) comes in.
"The ghosts are really frightening and the set pieces are really spectacular," Cornish explains. "But there's nothing that's happening in the supernatural stories that isn't actually advancing the personal stories. These are young characters who have to deal with all these things that young people shouldn't be dealing with, like the reasons why people died, mortality as a whole, and unresolved problems that adults have that mean that they're stuck as ghosts. Everything that happens that's visually spectacular, or scary or suspenseful or exciting, is meaningful in the personal world of the characters."
As the series progresses, this core relationship will go in some unexpected directions, especially for Lucy and Lockwood. There’s a passionate fandom behind these characters, spawned from the show's source material: Jonathan Stroud’s original five-book series of the same name, which ran between 2013 and 2017. This is something that the actors felt a responsibility to get right.
"When we all met, the chemistry clicked straight away," says Ruby Stokes, best known for appearing in Netflix hit Bridgerton. "We wanted to do these characters justice and there was like a line to dance between. But when you work with each other for a prolonged period over X amount of months, X amount of days and hours, I think you naturally develop a relationship outside of set and on set, and understand each other. I think we all trust each other."
"Yes, you get into a rhythm with it," adds Lockwood star Chapman, who was plucked from drama school for the role. "It’s nice working with great actors because you know what you want to bring to a scene and you can trust they’ll bring something that you can react to."
Spooks and scares
Of course, filming a show like this doesn’t come without its challenges, admits Ali Hadji-Heshmati, who plays the eccentric third member of the team George. The actor recalls a particularly difficult set piece filmed in Mentmore Towers, a Buckinghamshire country house. "It was filled with dust, moldy wine, and cobwebs," grimaces Hadji-Heshmati. "Ruby and I were lying on the floor and it was a really messy scene. Especially with the 'Atmos' as well, which is the smoke machine, it really dries your throat out."
While difficult at times, Cornish explains that these practical effects were key to getting the look of Lockwood & Co.'s ghosts right. His team took inspiration from things like Victorian spirit photography, which captured ghoul-like objects in the backgrounds of family portraits through a series of in-camera tricks. These were then enhanced with VFX to create impressive and realistic ghosts. Cornish hopes the chilling result strikes the right balance of what he calls "cozy scary".
"It’s not horrible, sadistic, or trying to freak you out like some contemporary horror is," he says of the tone of the show. "The lovely thing about Lockwood & Co. is for everything that is scary, there's something cozy. For everything that is sort of inhuman and terrifying, there's something very human and personal.
"That's what's really great about the books – they've got this lovely warm home they come home to, they've got these lovely cozy things like the biscuit rule and the doughnuts they regularly order. In a world that's as haunted as Lockwood & Co., those comforts of life are very important. So it’s like ice cream and hot chocolate sauce: it’s a lovely combination of cozy and comforting and terrifying and spooky."
Lockwood & Co. is on Netflix from Friday, January 27. For what else to stream, here are our guides to the best Netflix shows and the best Netflix movies.