Unlocking the LOCKE & KEY Audiobook

"Locke & Key" audio play
Credit: Audible
Credit: IDW Publishing

Locke & Key has been the subject of numerous attempts at TV and movie adaptations, including an unsold TV pilot a few years ago.  But now, it’s finally been adapted…as an audio play?!

Comic books, one of the most visual storytelling mediums, aren’t often thought of as being the subject of sound-only versions. But the new audio take on Locke & Key, available now for free from Audible.com, is an elaborate, full-cast take that adapts the entire series over thirteen and a half hours. The all-star cast includes Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany as the evil spirit Dodge, Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense as the disturbed Sam Lesser, and veteran Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager and Orange is the New Black as one evil grandma, along with a talented group from Upright Citizens Brigade.

Newsarama got a unique look at how this project came about courtesy of AudioComics, the company behind it, and its co-founder Elaine Lee. Lee is a veteran comic book writer from such books as Starstruck and Vamps, and the process of adapting Locke & Key proved a unique challenge – one that involved digging into the material, finding just the right setting to record, and taking scenes with no dialogue and somehow making them work in a version with no visuals.

We spoke with Lee and her partners at AudioComics, getting an exclusive look at the step-by-step process of adapting a scene we’ll play for you here that includes both Osment and Maslany. It’s a unique look into the creative process – and making a very scary comic into a very scary audio play.

Newsarama: Elaine – could you and your colleagues tell us about the origins of the Locke & Key audio play.

Elaine Lee: Here’s basically how the project came to be. One of our partners in AudioComics, Bill Dufris…

Bill Dufris:Hunh? Wha’? Oh, hi ya!

Lee:…and our friend and colleague Fred Greenhalgh from FinalRune…

Fred Greenhalgh: That’s me!

Lee:…had wanted to work together on something by author Joe Hill for some time. We all talked about the possibility of doing Locke & Key as a long-form audio drama and were very excited by that prospect.

But we didn’t have the resources to obtain the rights, cast the people we wanted, as well as to drop everything else for a year to do a super-long production.

Bill had done a lot of work with Audible and IDW had published my Starstruck comics, so we set up a meeting with Beth Anderson from Audible and Ted Adams, CEO of IDW, to talk about that project, as well as some other possibilities for future projects.

Dufris: AudioComics had produced a number of wonderful and – dare I say – high quality audio movies for various graphic novel creators (our very first one was Elaine’s incredible Starstruck!), but they’d never been longer than two and a half hours in length.

We knew we had to start producing longer content, especially after being commissioned by Audible to produce The Starling Project (with Alfred Molina). That was pretty much our wake-up call. And so the search was on.

Greenalgh: I discovered Joe Hill through Stephen Lang’s masterful reading of Heart-Shaped Box. He quickly became one of my favorites – the chilling reality of small town New England in Horns and the delicious devilry of Charlie Manx in NOS4A2 –  masterfully read by Kate Mulgrew.

Bill and I (separate from AudioComics) had been talking about doing something big in the dark fiction space, and suddenly boom! Locke & Key– a marriage of what AudioComics was doing with graphic novels, and Bill and my mutual love for the macabre.

STAGE ONE:THE COMIC

To illustrate just what went into creating the audio version of Locke & Key, we had the AudioComics go through how they translated a single scene into audio form.

Nrama: So, Elaine, let's use this scene as an example of the challenges you faced translating this into an audio-friendly format. Where'd you start with this scene?

Lee: The scene we’re talking about here was from the first book, Welcome to Lovecraft, which was one of the three I adapted (Fred adapted books 4-6).

This is actually one of the more straightforward scenes in Locke & Key, much more so than the scenes with the living shadows, or in the Drowning Caves. We were working from Joe’s original scripts, as well as from the graphic novels.

I like to work from the digital books (from Comixology), as it’s very easy to find scenes, go panel to panel, and to keep the art pages on your desktop, as you write. The first thing I did was to import Joe’s text into a document in my script-writing app.

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

STAGE TWO:THE SCRIPT

Here are Joe Hill’s corresponding script pages to the original comic books.

Nrama: What did you find in Joe's script that helped?

Lee: It helped that story is so inspiring! Then there were Joe’s description of visuals, which Fred and I converted into descriptions of sound effects, music and some additional dialogue.

So, instead of seeing the Woman in the Well toss Kinsey’s bracelet into the water, we hear it. Instead of seeing the business end of Sam’s gun explode, we hear the gunshot. There are some silent scenes in Locke & Key, which you can’t have in audio. There cannot be a silent character, as the only way to establish a character is to have him or her make noise.

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

Our composer, Peter Van Riet, created musical themes for the different keys, a theme to cue flashback sequences, or to indicate a character has entered the spirit realm, that something dangerous is approaching, and so on. The music and bits of additional dialogue help us to understand where the characters are and what they’re doing.

For instance, Tyler appears as a ghost in the comic, floating silently through a number of panels. We had to give him some extra lines to explain what’s happening to him. I’d also like to say that we definitely looked to Gabe’s art, while doing the adaptation, trying to include the emotional timbre of his characters and settings.

Dufris: We had discovered early on that working with the graphic novels as storyboards was the ultimate way of achieving a faithful audio interpretation of the material.

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

STAGE THREE:NEW HAMPSHIRE

With the script ready, the team now had to set up the recording process.

Nrama: How did you choose locations, and what made them work?

Greenalgh: Well Keyhouse is as much a character in Locke & Key as any of the Locke family members, so, how do you incorporate that sense of setting and place in an audio product?

For us, that could only be accomplished through location recording. The principal recording was done in a legitimately haunted home on the New England coast (with debatably as many doors as Keyhouse itself) and also in a set of 19th century subterranean caverns. 

The location recording gives you a sense that you are there, that the story is happening around you and not to some actors in the safe confines of a studio.  There is a sense of urgency and the unexpected because, frankly, we as a cast/crew were experiencing those emotions constantly throughout our production.

Dufris: Working “on location” is a dream… and can occasionally be a daymare! It’s incredibly liberating for all involved, actors, sound recordist and director (me!). I only ever worked outside the studio environs as an actor for Fred’s productions.

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

However, when discussing the fantastical scope of Joe & Gabriel’s imaginary world of Locke & Key, it soon became apparent that recording in this fashion was the only true way of fully realizing its potential as an audio movie.

Working outside those walls frees everyone… the actors are able to ‘breathe’ their characters, moving and interacting with others, all without the constraints of a limited space and fear of making undue noises. They don’t need to ‘imagine’ their scene’s locale either, as each location is ensured to approximate as closely as possible the original space as depicted in the graphic novel.

As a director, this gave me all the freedom I needed in order to pull out the truest performances I could from all of our incredibly talented cast.

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

Lee: When we were first talking about doing Locke & Key, I brought up the idea of having my son, Brennan Lee Mulligan, do a Making of Locke & Key video for us, to use as promotion. Bill replied that he was thinking of casting Brennan as Tyler.

So, no nepotism here! Not beyond the fact that working with me meant knowing my son and his work.

Dufris: As a matter of fact, Elaine actually felt a tad uneasy about using Brennan, doubting that I truly saw him as being the ideal choice, and not wanting to abuse her position as producer. He was perfect!)

Nrama: You have a very multi-talented family!

Lee: My family is chock-full of actors, writers, dancers, painters, musicians and comedians.

Brennan, who plays Tyler in Locke & Key, performs and teaches at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in Manhattan and also writes the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist, and my niece, Stella Maeve, is playing Julia in the new TV series based on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

After Brennan was cast, he helped us put out a casting call through Upright Citizens Brigade, and once we had narrowed down the field by listening to all the MP3s the actors sent us, we set up call-back auditions in NYC.

I went down to run those and Bill and Fred listened in and gave direction over Skype. Those auditions gave us our Tyler, Kinsey, Bode, and Jordan, as well as two more actors who played smaller roles.

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

Nrama: And you also got some pretty big names for the cast...

Dufris: One of our concerns was who were Audible planning to cast in this demanding piece. We had suggested at the outset that Tatiana Maslany would be the perfect voice for the Girl in the Well / Female Dodge, and we were thrilled to be told that she’d agreed to do it.

So it was Sam Lesser who now had to be cast. Audible created a list of potential actors, to which we contributed, and it was a stroke of genius for them to ultimately reach out to Hayley Joel Osment.

These two immediately elevated the overall production to a much higher level. And then

Lee: Thanks to a tip from Chris Ryall, who told us Joe Hill really loved Kate Mulgrew…

Dufris:…Audible reached out to Kate Mulgrew to play Candace Whedon!

Credit: IDW Publishing / AudioComics

And it didn’t stop there. Fred had already made a brief introduction to Stephen King, who graciously accepted a cameo role as a short-lived boat captain, and was a hoot to work with.

We even were blessed to persuade both Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez to slip in as EMTs (their images were actually rendered by Gabriel in the graphic novel!).

 Finally, we brought in Maine humorist, Tim Sample, to play a character set in the 18th century.

All in all, a veritable Who’s Who of incredible talent were employed in this extravagant aural feast.

Greenalgh: Let me for a moment highlight some of our non-“name” actors who provided equally stellar productions. Of course we had our core “Locke Family” contingent from NYC, folks from Los Angeles and Chicago and even an authentic Brit import for Scot Kavanaugh! 

And a stable of some of our finest New England actors who can hang with the best of ‘em. 

We developed a great sense of camaraderie during the two crazy weeks of recording, and that spirit – sense of freshness, of a cast really working off each other and leading each other to their greatest performances- shines through.  Plus, none of us really had the gall to ask Haley Joel Osment to climb in the trunk of a car. (See video!)

STAGE FOUR: THE STAR SELL

Nrama: So again, you have some well-known acclaimed actors and genre names, Tatiana Maslany and Haley Joel Osment in this scene. What was it like working with them?

Lee: Bill worked with Tatiana and Haley Joel, but I got to be in the studio while Kate Mulgrew was working. What an incredible talent! A true one-take wonder! Candace is so horrible!

Greenalgh: It was really fun to kill off Stephen King – in the radio station that I listened to while I grew up as a kid. One hell of a homecoming.

Dufris: One of the challenges of working with our high-profile actors was that they had to be “dropped” into the scenes they appeared in, since they were recorded later in remote studios. So we had assigned actors to portray their characters, providing us with a “scratch-track,” thereby allowing the other actors to work with/against an actual person during the main location recording.

The “scratch track” is a tricky thing to achieve. Since it has to be clean, meaning no other character lines can “step” on theirs, we had to ensure that there was always a tiny beat between their deliveries. This then allowed us unencumbered empty spaces to drop the studio-recorded lines into.

In addition to this, it was necessary to ensure that they sounded like they’d been with us all the time in the same location (beachfront / cavern / room / truck), all of which have their own unique spatial sound qualities. Fred achieved this by recording ambient sound at the start and end of every scene / take, after which our gifted sound designer, Rory O’Shea, did his magic!

STAGE FIVE:BIT BY BIT, PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Nrama: So how did you cut this all together into the final product?

Greenalgh: Very carefully? [laughs] It takes a huge amount of attention to detail and some really cryptic spreadsheets that involve blood sacrifice to Cthulhu. Oh, and hours and hours of ProTools.

Dufris: As I mentioned earlier, we have a sound designer genius – “Give it up, everyone, for Rory O'Shea… Shea… shea… shea!”

Lee: Bill even puts sound effects in his interviews.

Dufris: Rory hails from Toronto, and currently works in Dubai as a sound designer on films. He came highly recommended by a producer/actor friend of ours, and we’ve never looked back. Rory took the finished edited vocal tracks, and set to placing music and fx for a 13.5 hour production, comprised of six different Books (or Acts).

The way we worked: I would wake up each morning, to find a mixed file in my folder, on average about two to two and a half hours long. I would then sit down with a digital notepad, don headphones, and listen through the entire mix, making copious notes – bring in music earlier or later / bring in a different sound effect / tighten dialogue / lower or raise volume / etc / etc.

Upon completing each listen-thru, usually double the running time, I’d send him the notes. Since Dubai is seven hours later than here on the East Coast, he would have ample time to work with those notes, make whatever changes, and submit new mix for me to have ready upon the start of the following day.

This process went on for nearly two months, with a few days off here and there. I had to have listened to each book 15-20 times! Because our expectations and demand for quality are so high, I was extremely precise with each note.

And we got there! The reward is that any one of us can listen through a scene, Book, or the whole dang thing, and not once go “Arrrrrrgggghhhhh, I can’t believe I missed that!”

We’re proud of our whoppin’ baby!

STAGE SIX:AND IN THE END...

And here’s the final product sample…

Nrama: How does it feel to have this all done?

Dufris: I finally finished it in March of this year, followed by a few months of post-production / pre-release demands.

There’s a slight empty feeling when completing any production because, for weeks and months before, all of your thoughts and energy are devoted to that one endeavor.

It’s not easy to simply jump into another one… there needs to be time to let it float off and find its way to – hopefully – appreciative listeners.

Greenalgh: Like Bill said. The week it wrapped, I was like, “Oh thank god I have my life back” and then I was filled with this vast feeling of emptiness. I can’t wait to go back to Lovecraft again as a listener.

Lee: I’m still working on our media campaign every day, so I don’t feel like it is done! You’ll have to ask me next month.

Credit: Audible

Nrama: What do you hope people take away from this project?

Greenalgh: The kind of feeling you’d get if you woke up one day and found out that movies existed, and that you only just discovered them this day because of Joe Hill.

Lee: I want listeners to have the same feeling I get, when I listen to Locke & Key and hear my own son screaming “Mom!” in a terrified voice. Yikes!

Dufris: I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. The world of Locke & Key, as created by the ever-so-talented Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, gave me the chance to stretch myself to the limits as a producer/director. Not only were there no limits to their vision, there were none allowed in our aural interpretation of it!

Nrama: Any other comic books you're adapting into audio form -- or would like to adapt?

Lee: AudioComics does have plans to adapt more comics, but just which ones will have to remain a secret for now!

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Greenalgh: The existence of extraterrestrials?

Dufris: Do these jeans make my butt look big?

Lee: I’ve been meaning to say something about that, Bill.

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