The pilot for a proposed Fox television series, "Locke & Key," began production in Pittsburgh this week, but this time the Steel City is not playing Pittsburgh on film. Instead, the show's setting is Lovecraft, Mass., which also was the setting for the comic book upon which "Locke & Key" is based.
"Locke & Key" begins with a tragedy when family patriarch Rendell Locke is murdered. His widow, Nina (Miranda Otto, "Cashmere Mafia," "Lord of the Rings"), moves her three children -- 6-year-old Bode (Skylar Gaertner) and teenagers Kinsey (Sarah Bolger, "The Tudors") and Ty (Jesse McCartney, "Summerland," "Greek") -- to the Locke family mansion in Massachusetts, home to the kids' uncle (Nick Stahl, "Carnivale"). Once there, evil continues to haunt the family from across the miles and in their midst. The kids discover supernatural keys that unlock doors in Key House. The first key opens a door, and when Bode walks through it, he turns into a ghost.
Originally "Locke & Key" was developed with the possibility of a summer launch, but last month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly said the production just didn't come together fast enough. Now the show is in contention for a fall berth and a decision on its future will be made in May.
Fox made a series "commitment" for "Locke & Key," which is just shy of a series "order." Basically, it's like an insurance policy. If Fox doesn't like the "Locke & Key" pilot, it has the right not to order subsequent episodes. But if Fox fails to order a series, Fox Broadcasting (the network) will have to pay 20th Century Fox (the studio) a significant penalty (millions of dollars) to the point that it might almost make more sense to order the series.
Odds are good a series will happen and it will film in Pittsburgh, but only the pilot will shoot for about 14 days this month and if the series order follows, production on additional episodes likely will resume in Pittsburgh in July.
"It's a unique piece of material, and we like the idea of doing something scary right now," said Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly at the Television Critics Association winter press tour last month. "We just think that that could be a really good alternative."
"At the center of it, it's a family," added Peter Rice, Entertainment chairman, Fox Networks Group. "So we feel that it can both be accessible, relatable, and yet scary."
Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo") is directing the pilot from a script by showrunner Josh Friedman ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"). Filming will take place around the region, including on the grounds at Hartwood Acres -- using the mansion and stables -- and on sets built at the 31st Street Studios (formerly Mogul Mind Studios) in the Strip District.
"We went on a big search to find the perfect house that would sustain the series and we found it in Pittsburgh," said Michael Thorn, senior vice president of creative affairs. The combination of the location and Pennsylvania tax incentives for film productions made Pittsburgh a strong contender throughout pre-production, Mr. Thorn said, adding that the pilot will have a typical "pilot budget" -- those can average $5 million to $10 million.
Mr. Hill, author of the comic book upon which "Locke & Key" is based (with illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez), is in Pittsburgh on the set this week. In a phone interview late last month, he praised the script for the pilot episode.
"I actually came away from it a little envious. Josh Friedman writes such great teenagers. I'm always struggling to make my teenagers sound like teenagers and not adults. Josh has a feel for it," Mr. Hill said. "I thought [the pilot script] was very faithful to the ideas and characters in the comic. I think the TV show has an opportunity to use all the best ideas in the comic and build a story around these characters but still be its own thing and not be enslaved to the comic. It has the freedom to breathe and go in its own direction."
Mr. Hill, 38, described his first conversation with Mr. Friedman as one of the best he has ever had with someone who works in the entertainment industry.
"We talked about how to use the source material that's in the comics, how many episodes you have there, how do you pace the material," Mr. Hill said, declining to get specific about how much ground the pilot episode covers. "All of the material in all of the comics should mostly make it into the show with some creative changes, but there is a plan for spacing that material out and for how to use that material. If the TV show was nothing but the comic, it would burn through the material in the comic pretty quickly, so there is a plan."
He's optimistic that "Locke & Key" will find an audience just as AMC's "The Walking Dead" has. "Walking Dead" also is based on a comic book.
"It's a tremendously exciting TV show and the two comics have a lot of the same values," Mr. Hill said. "They take somewhat familiar horror tropes -- the zombie apocalypse in 'Walking Dead' and a creepy, old mansion in 'Locke & Key' -- and examines them in a methodical, post-modern way.
"I think the strength to 'Walking Dead' and 'Locke & Key' is they're less about the bizarre concepts and more about the characters. When you have fully formed characters, it makes the horror a lot more emotionally persuasive. A lot of horror stinks because the characters are like bowling pins to be knocked over by the monster but you don't feel anything for them."
Mr. Hill has been to Pittsburgh in the past and he's hoping to pull the "Locke & Key" cast and crew together for a pilgrimage to Monroeville Mall, filming location for George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead." His return to Pittsburgh also marks his second time in town for a film production. He played a little boy named Billy in 1982's "Creepshow," which was shot in Pittsburgh, directed by Mr. Romero and written by novelist Stephen King, Mr. Hill's father.
Mr. Hill also wrote the short story "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," a love story set in Pittsburgh during the production of "Dawn of the Dead" at Monroeville Mall.
Read more about "Locke & Key" in Wednesday's Tuned In Journal blog post.
Fox's second summer concert tour of the cast of "Glee" won't make it to Pittsburgh, but it will have a stop in Cleveland June 14 at the Quicken Loans Arena as part of a 16-city North American tour. Ticket sales for American Express cardholders begin today and open to the general public at 10 a.m. Feb. 19 at Ticketmaster.com or by phone at 1-800-745-3000.
Cast members participating in "Glee Live! In Concert!" will include Lea Michele, Cory Montieth, Amber Riley, Chris Colfer, Kevin McHale, Jenna Ushkowitz, Mark Salling, Dianna Agron, Naya Rivera, Heather Morris, Harry Shum Jr., Chord Overstreet and Darren Criss.
New seasons of USA's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "In Plain Sight" debut May 1. ... "Ruby" returns to Style on March 6 at 8 p.m. ... The CW's "Smallville" will have its two-hour series finale on May 13. ... NBC has put "Chase" on hiatus and replaced it with "Minute to Win It." ... Hallmark Channel has acquired "Frasier" reruns and will air them beginning April 4. ... FX has ordered a 13-episode third season of "The League" to air this fall. ... Comedian Russell Brand hosts "Saturday Night Live" this weekend with musical guest Chris Brown. ... Discovery Channel's "Cash Cab" returns with new episodes at 6 p.m. Monday followed by spin-off "Cash Cab Chicago" at 6:30. ... Nickelodeon's "Nick News with Linda Ellerbee" offers a Black History Month-themed episode at 9 p.m. Sunday. Titled "Beyond I Have a Dream," the show explores what else the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said and what it might mean to today's children. ... Comcast has made special Black History Month programming available through on demand and online at XfinityTV.com, including biographies, documentaries, films, music and sports specials. ... Amber Buell of South Park, who first appeared on Oxygen's "Bad Girls Club" in December 2008, returns for "Love Games: Bad Girls Need Love Too" (10 p.m. April 18), a reality competition where three past "Bad Girls" cast members fight over men to win the title "Head Bad Girl In Charge." I am not making this up.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news. First Published February 11, 2011 5:00 AM