IT’S MODESTLY BUDGETED AND BASED ON A 30-YEAR-OLD BOOK, YET CREEPY-CLOWN HORROR IT HAS MANAGED TO SCARE UP THE BIGGEST BUZZ OF 2017
Pennywise is here to give creepy killer clowns who live in sewers a bad name.
MUSCHIETTI, 29 March
2017 was a very odd day.
The Argentine director of It was thigh-deep in cold Canadian mud, orchestrating the fly-by of a camera-drone in the sky above.
The vista captured by the drone was to be the final shot required for Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary 1986 novel — in which a deranged supernatural clown named Pennywise torments the children of a small town — before the filmmaker headed to the comparative luxury of an LA edit suite. Then his phone lit up.
His sister Barbara (who also happens to be his producer) was calling. Again and again.
“It was a little crazy,” Muschietti laughs.
“At first it was, ‘We just hit three million views in 15 minutes.’ But then it just kept going and going and going...”
The “it” in question is the staggering reaction that greeted It’s debut trailer on its release on 29 March. Clocking in at two minutes and 33 seconds, and offering the world its first proper glimpse of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, the teaser managed to notch up 197 million views in 24 hours, comfortably shattering the record for the most watched trailer in a single day. Its closest competitor — Fast & Furious 8 — fell nearly 60 million clicks short.
“There’s no other horror movie in that top 10,” says Muschietti, still seeming a touch incredulous as he takes a break from supervising the film’s post-production in that LA edit suite. “I mean, the whole list is almost exclusively big blockbusters...” He opens his mouth to try and explain it, but finds he can’t.
So just what is it about It? The nostalgia factor only explains so much; after all, it powers an engine or two on the Star Wars franchise, and The Force
Awakens’ trailer sits a lowly sixth on Muschietti’s aforementioned chart. And while creepy clowns are in vogue, thanks to last year’s rash of stillunexplained sightings, from Canada to New Zealand, surely even they can only whip up so much internet traffic?
Producer Seth Grahame-smith — who’s been on the project since before Muschietti signed up — has a theory that might just hold water. “We’re different from other horror movies,” he says. “We’re much bigger in scope and wider in tone. We are not a $100 million movie [the budget for It has not been made public, but has been reported as being in the region of $30 million] but in terms of sets and stunts and visual effects, what we’re doing is extremely ambitious. There are moments that feel like Stand By Me, there are moments that feel like The Goonies, and then there are moments that lead to huge, huge scares. The closest I can get to describing it is a ‘coming-of-age horror’.”
Put simply: if the trailer showed that scary movies can still spark mass hysteria, the film itself is out to prove they can also be epic in scale.
IT’S AUGUST 2016,
eight months before Pennywise breaks the internet, when Empire arrives on set at Toronto’s Pinewood Studios. Rather than the usual lanyard, we are presented with a pair of sturdy rubber boots and a small yet powerful flashlight. “Good luck,” grins Muschietti, as we step warily past him onto the soundstage. “Hope you don’t die.”
We are heading, it seems, into the bowels of Derry, Maine; the dank, sprawling sewer network that serves as Pennywise’s chief stomping ground, and the setting for many of the novel’s most important — and horrific — scenes. Following a labyrinth of dark, echoey pipes through 10 inches of stagnant water, we finally emerge into a vast chamber, Pennywise’s lair, the centrepiece of which is a towering totem pole of dead kids’ belongings: rocking horses, Go-karts and bloodied gym shoes stretching up as far as the eye can see. Sprawling and immaculately constructed, this is not your average horror-movie tableau.
But the three huge soundstages that It occupies
here at Pinewood are just a drop in the sewer.
For the creation of above-ground Derry, the film took over the entire town of Port Hope, Ontario, transforming its streets, shops and municipal buildings. Since its timeline spans from 1988 to ’89, the town’s movie-theatre marquee advertises
Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. And then there’s the gigantic Paul Bunyan statue which was erected in the park (an Easter egg for fans of the book, who will gleefully remember the part that plays in proceedings).
If the world-building is impressive, the stuntwork is similarly colossal, as Pennywise unleashes a carnival of horrors in a bid to feed on his young victims’ fear. “There’s more CGI than mechanical effects,” admits Grahame-smith, “but we’re doing a lot of practical stuff. The scene where blood shoots out of the sink — we did that practically and it was... grotesque. I’m talking
The Shining elevator level. The poor stuntwoman got destroyed.”
That set-piece will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen the 1990 It mini-series. However, both cast and crew are anxious to distance their version from that much-loved/feared small-screen outing, which saw Tim Curry traumatise a generation with his rambunctious, Noo Yoik-accented Pennywise. “We don’t call this a ‘remake’ or a ‘reboot’ or a ‘continuation’,” notes Grahame-smith. “This is just the first-ever movie of It. So there’ll be no cameos or references to the series. I mean, I did want there to be a restaurant in Derry called Tim’s Curry, but that got shot down pretty quick...”
In terms of plot, King’s original story is still very much in place. A gang of misfits known as the ‘Losers’ Club’ unite first in childhood, and then again as adults, to battle an ancient, shape-shifting evil (‘It’) that’s menacing their small hometown. The only significant alteration is the structure; while King’s book toggles between the 1950s and ’80s, Muschietti’s tale will be split into two separate films, the first focusing on the pre-teen Losers in the late ’80s, the second (box office allowing) on their grown-up counterparts in 2016. It’s a prodigious and ambitious plan: while planning a two-parter with the Avengers is one thing, planning one with relatively unknown actors and only a sewerdwelling clown as the throughline is quite another.
“The concept of two movies was already on the table when I signed up,” says Muschietti. “I didn’t have a problem with that — I liked it, actually. We have a big cast, and so much backstory. It’s difficult to get all that into two hours.”
Originally, of course, the question of how to distil King’s 1,300-odd pages for the big screen wasn’t Muschietti’s to ponder. In 2012, Warner Bros. brought in True Detective creator Cary Fukunaga to helm the adaptation, only for the director to depart in 2015, citing the old chestnut of ‘creative differences’. (“I know you hear that a lot,” laughs Grahame-smith, “but it truly was the case here...”) Andrés Muschietti was drafted in instead, the producers having been impressed by his 2013 breakout, Mama,
Bill Skarsgård as the demonic supernatural child killer Pennywise.
Concept art for the 2017 film version of It and (left) Bill Skarsgård as the on-screen version.