Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS TOM ELLEN

Pen­ny­wise is here to give creepy killer clowns who live in sew­ers a bad name.



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,

Clown­ing around:

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.

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