Our interviews with Joe Hill seem to be turning into an ongoing conversation: when we last left off with the author of novels like Horns and The Fireman, as well as comics like Locke & Key, the first season of AMC’s NOS4A2 — based on his third novel — was just wrapping up and a second season was confirmed.
Nearly a year later, we’re picking up with Hill right where we left off, as NOS4A2 begins its second set of episodes under returning showrunner Jami O’Brien. When we last saw paranormally gifted teenager Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), she had defeated the malevolent psychic vampire Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), although the cost was her dearest friend, her ability to bend reality and find lost things, and her life as she knew it.
Season 2 picks up eight years later, with Vic now a mom and living a different life with her eight-year-old son Wayne and her loyal companion Lou (Jonathan Langdon). But Charlie Manx, seemingly dead, has been revived, and both he and the corrupted children of Christmasland are lurking out there, plotting to get hold of Wayne and destroy Vic’s existence once and for all — unless she gets them first.
Den of Geek got on the phone with Hill just before the season 2 premiere to discuss adapting the rest of the book, how the characters have changed, whether there is a path forward for a third season and more. We also delve into whether the coronavirus pandemic has echoed novels written by both Hill and his dad Stephen King, the status of a new movie based on a story they wrote together, plus the future of Locke & Key on Netflix and on the page.
DEN OF GEEK: One of the things we touched on last time is the fact that season 1 got about a little less than halfway through the book. So going into season 2, from your perspective, did it make it easier that you knew that you had enough material there to develop a second season in a very organic way?
JOE HILL: Totally. There’s a couple things there. The first thing is, the break in the story, the season 1/season 2 divide, very much reflects the experience of writing the book, because when I wrote the book and Vic got to Sleigh House, I thought I was approaching the end then, when she arrives at Sleigh House for the first time. At some point in her confrontation with Charlie Manx in Sleigh House, when he lit the house on fire, it began to occur to me that I might only be halfway through the book. The fact there was a lot more story to tell. My spirit quailed for about three minutes, and then I kept writing.
To me, the difference between the first season and the second season is like the difference between the first Terminator film and the second Terminator film. In the first season, we’re sort of discovering the world, and Vic is kind of beginning to explore her powers and discover that she is one of this small group of people that can bend reality and who can take the landscapes of their imagination and manifest them in the real world. She’s kind of freaked out by all that. She’s freaked out by the idea that she might be the only one who can stop this very powerful, strong, creative who has been abducting children for decades. It’s all a lot for a kid to handle, and she spends a lot of season one wrestling with it.
The woman we meet in season 2 has changed a bit. Vic is now a mom, and she’s a mom with a lot of conflicted feelings about being a parent. She has a lot of unresolved issues with her own difficult parents. She loves her kid, but it’s clear she doesn’t quite know how to do the whole mom thing. In some ways, Vic almost yearns to battle with Charlie once again. To tragically battle with Charlie, and maybe even get wiped out by him, would be much easier than wrestling with the exhausting work with trying to be a parent. That’s a sort of an interesting progression for a character to make.
There was also a creative change in season 1 by starting off with Vic as a teenager instead of a young girl. But did that pay off in the fact that now you can believably use the same actress in the second season?
I think so. I think Jami made a lot of really intelligent casting choices and decisions early on. Another choice she made that turned out to be a really spectacular decision, she cast Jahkara Smith as Maggie Leigh, our supernatural librarian. Jahkara’s a real bolt of lightning. Her performance, her take on the character, has so much mischief, is so funny and gutsy and almost joyful. Her scenes are a thrill. She captured the spirit of the character in the book, but she’s also gone beyond it. So in some ways I think that’s almost a more interesting character than anything you get in the novel.
How does that change your own perspective on the character, when somebody takes them in a direction that you maybe didn’t initially conceive of?
The thing is, when you’re writing a story, you are the actor playing all the parts. You have to sort of inhabit each character’s head. Actors are storytellers as well, but they’re telling the story about one specific character, and their attention is entirely focused on that character. That character’s fears, their hopes, their past, their aspirations, their grief, their pain. So a really talented actor can discover nuances, facets of a character, who are maybe barely suggested in the novel or the source material. But then they can take that and they can make something beautiful out of it and expand upon it.
I also think that a TV show has an advantage of a lot more narrative real estate than a novel. Even a very big novel can’t usually offer as much time with each character as a TV show can. It’s just a little more room to breathe in a TV show.
Is your role any different this season? Did you get any more involved and was there any talk of perhaps you writing an episode?
I mean, I made a couple suggestions, and I had an idea for a character and an idea about how he might be used, it was thrown in there, that I think went pretty well. I had some ideas about amping up the sense of menace. For the most part, again, I told my version of the story in the novel. So a lot of my role is to be a sounding board for a bunch of great writers. For Jami O’Brien and Tom Brady and all the other great writers in the room who worked on the show.
A lot of times, the most useful thing I can do is listen, and then say, “I love that,” “I’m not too wild about that,” and, “This doesn’t make sense, but what if we try it this way?” Sometimes that can add a little something. You hope you suggest a couple things that could be useful, and that hopefully everyone is smart enough to ignore a dumb suggestion.
A lot of people don’t make it out of the book alive. We won’t spoil that for anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the show. Does season 2 address that in a way that could possibly leave the door open for season 3? More specifically, does season 2 finish the book?
Well, you know, there is certainly room to continue the story. There is certainly room for more story as the season closes. Whether or not there will be more story, I mean, I don’t know. No one can say that. If there seems to be demand for it, I think that we’ll return and spend more time in that world. If there isn’t, we can satisfy ourselves with two really great seasons of something that tells a complete story. So we’ll see what happens.
The other thing is, you and I are talking in the height of the plague days, and who knows when and if anyone will be able to make a TV show again. I’ve heard a lot of tentative talk about people beginning to shoot again, but so far it sounds to me a lot more like wishful thinking than actual effective strategy to make a TV show.
Was filming completed on this before everything shut down?
Yes it was. I want to say maybe by a month. We got lucky. We were ahead of everything, all the lights being switched off and all the people putting all the chairs up on the tables, when the plague came down.
Is it kind of strange and surreal, for you, to live in a scenario that both you and your dad have written about?
I mean, COVID-19 is not Captain Trips from The Stand, and it’s not Dragonscale from The Fireman. If people wear masks, if they practice good social distancing and follow good medical advice, we can cut the rate of transmission. We can keep a lot of people healthy. Even when people get it, the rate of fatality is much, much higher, much, much more alarming than even the worst flu seasons, but it’s still 5% of society, not 50% of society. It’s been an interesting moment to live through in history.
I think that people feel pressurized, emotionally pressurized by social distancing and by the lockdowns. There’s a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety. In some ways, we’re battling the anxiety almost as much as we’re battling a runaway pathogen. It’s been alarming to see. I also think it’s hard. Social distancing is hard. Locking down a society is hard. I think that’s one of the reasons, unfortunately, we’re starting to see COVID return and scale up in some states, because after a few months of practicing social distancing, people have started to feel a certain amount of fatigue. They want it to be over. They want to go back and resume their lives and, of course, COVID doesn’t care what you want.
What is next in Joe Hill’s world? I heard fleeting rumors of a new novel possibly coming out this year?
Oh wow. There won’t be a new novel this year. I’m writing a new novel, so that’s exciting. I wasn’t sure there was going to be another novel after The Fireman. I was pretty spent. I was writing some good short stories and novellas and stuff, but I hadn’t quite settled on anything where I felt like I could go long.
I continue to do comics with D.C. through the Hill House imprint, and that’s been pretty fun. We’re wrapping up a series called Plunge, which is kind of in the vein of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s a little bit of a riff on Aliens, as well. For years, we’ve been talking about doing a Locke & Key/Sandman crossover, and we’re finally doing it. That’s actually finally happening.
There’s a new Locke & Key story coming out called Locke & Key: In Pale Battalions Go, about World War One. I think the first issue of that comes out in August. There’s three issues in all, and it sets off the Locke & Key/Sandman crossover, which is called Hell and Gone. That’s coming along in the pipeline. There’s some more comics I’ve got planned. But the primary focus is the novel. Of course, hopefully we’ll get to go back and start filming season two of Netflix’s Locke & Key soon too.
Is Neil Gaiman involved in the crossover at all, or consulting on it?
He’s definitely consulting, whether he likes it or not, since I email him whenever I have a question. It’s funny about Locke & Key, because it’s been so exciting to develop the TV show and work with Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill. They’re amazing writers and they’ve got an amazing team of writers. About the comic though, I’m very jealous. I haven’t really let anyone fool around in the Locke & Key space. It’s just me and Gabe. It will just be me and (artist) Gabriel Rodriguez on the Sandman crossover.
Any timeline on when we would see the crossover itself come out?
You know how comics work. The fantasy was the first issue of Hell and Gone would come out in October. More realistically, I think we’ll probably see it in December. It will be two issues and probably oversized — 32 pages or 48 pages, something like that.
Earlier this year we also heard that there was a film being developed from Throttle, a story which you and your dad wrote together. Is that still an active project?
Absolutely. It’s being written by Dana Leigh Jackson. In a bizarre piece of trivia, Dana and I went to high school together. I haven’t talked to him since I was like 18, until we started talking about Throttle. But I knew Dana when I was like 18. I thought he was basically the coolest person I had ever met, so it’s kind of mind-bending that he’s going to be adapting this story that I wrote with my dad for HBO Max.
Also, the last time we talked, The Fireman was still at Fox and you thought that could still have a shot to get made even after Disney bought the company.
I think that’s one of about a half dozen projects where I think it’s still possible. In the case of The Fireman, I was hired to do a polish, and then actually kind of wound up rewriting the script. I think there’s a chance we might get that movie. Right here in the middle of a pandemic, I would imagine there might be some question about whether there’s an appetite for it. Do people want to watch a movie about a deadly pandemic with COVID-19 fresh in their minds? Maybe. Maybe that’s more of a reason to make it, or maybe not. I’m not sure.
You mentioned Locke & Key season 2 earlier.
I can tell you the entire second season is written. The real question is, when can we get back to Key House? And I think that depends entirely on the situation with COVID-19. I think in a worst case scenario with Locke & Key, we could do the second season with sock puppets and call it Sock & Key. Actually, now that I think about it, Netflix might like the savings, in terms of the budget, as well. Anyway, we’ll hope to get to the other side of the plague and back in the business of professional make believe.
The second season of NOS4A2 airs Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET on AMC.