Stephen King’s mas­ter­piece about a gang of teenagers con­fronting an ul­ti­mate, in­fi­nite evil is Stand By Me with a killer clown. The movie emerges as the hor­ror event of the year, but the blood­i­est bat­tle was wrestling the damn thing to the screen…

Total Film - - Making Of It - Words JAMIE GRA­HAM

“You don’t fuck around with the in­fi­nite,” opines Char­lie (Har­vey Kei­tel) in Mean Streets, a quote that Stephen King used to head up one of the sec­tions of his 1986 mag­num opus It. King em­ploys the quote be­cause the shapeshift­ing evil that ter­rorises the town of Derry, Maine, is an an­cient, in­sa­tiable, cos­mic force, an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble en­tity that, like H.P. Love­craft’s mon­sters, can­not be viewed with­out plung­ing into scream­ing in­san­ity.

But Char­lie’s words of wis­dom might equally be ap­plied to adapt­ing King’s 1,116-page book. Di­rec­tor Tommy Lee Wal­lace and screen­writer Lawrence D. Co­hen tried in 1990, fash­ion­ing an eight-hour minis­eries for US net­work chan­nel ABC that was whit­tled down to a three-hour two-parter; ham­strung by clas­si­fi­ca­tion stric­tures and a gi­ant wob­bly spi­der, it was a pale im­i­ta­tion of King’s heart­felt, heart-stop­ping novel, though it at least boasted a mem­o­rable turn by Tim Curry.

“Don’t fuck around with the in­fi­nite,” must cer­tainly have oc­curred to di­rec­tor Cary Fuku­naga (True De­tec­tive Sea­son 1)

and screen­writer Chase Palmer when they boarded the Warner Bros project, al­ready three years in ges­ta­tion, in June 2012, only for it to mi­grate to Warn­ers’ New Line Cinema divi­sion and un­dergo bud­get cuts. Fuku­naga ex­ited in Fe­bru­ary 2015, say­ing his am­bi­tion was to make an “el­e­vated hor­ror film with ac­tual char­ac­ters” whereas New Line de­sired “archetypes and scares”.

“I im­me­di­ately ap­proached the stu­dio to say what a dream it would be for me to jump in,” says Ar­gen­tine di­rec­tor An­drés ‘Andy’ Muschi­etti (Mama). “As far as I know, they au­di­tioned sev­eral di­rec­tors. So I ba­si­cally read the ex­ist­ing screen­play and pre­pared a pitch. And they loved it.”

Muschi­etti and screen­writer Gary Dauber­man were propos­ing to muck around with King’s source novel, but to hon­our it also. Both men, it should be said, are life­long fans – Muschi­etti read It when he was 13, declar­ing “King shaped my vi­sion of hor­ror”, while Dauber­man cites the au­thor as his “gate­way drug into adult hor­ror”. And yet they wholly em­braced the struc­tural changes in­tro­duced by Fuku­naga and Palmer, for while the book see­saws be­tween 1958 and 1985, with the lat­ter sto­ry­line see­ing the kids of the first nar­ra­tive strand re­turn to Derry as adults to once more take on It, the ex­ist­ing script fo­cused only on the kids. A sec­ond movie would then deal with the adults. And that wasn’t all: to make the ac­tion more ac­ces­si­ble to mod­ern view­ers, the twin time­frames had been bumped for­ward to 1989 and the present day. It was a re­vi­sion Muschi­etti and Dauber­man fully em­braced, though for their own rea­sons, while para­dox­i­cally toil­ing to cleave their own script closer to King’s book.

“I didn’t feel like the ex­ist­ing screen­play was the book that I had read,” says Muschi­etti. “What had re­ally made me iden­tify with the char­ac­ters was the love story be­tween Bill and Bev­erly. It’s that part of your life when hor­mones are go­ing crazy.

It is hyp­no­tis­ing. I was in love with a girl at the time so I re­lated to Bill and Bev­erly. And the bul­ly­ing. Bul­ly­ing was some­thing you didn’t talk about much, back in the ’80s. You just had to go through it. For me it was a cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence to read about char­ac­ters who had jour­neys that were sim­i­lar to mine. I was very in­tro­verted and shy.”

The sub-plots of lovers and fight­ers were re­in­stated. Dauber­man, cer­tainly, was de­lighted to do it, for he too felt that the char­ac­ters needed added nu­ance – odd given Fuku­naga ex­ited over New Line’s re­ported lack of in­ter­est in ex­actly that. “The first thing Andy and I talked about wasn’t Pen­ny­wise, it was The Losers,” he says, re­fer­ring to the gang of seven teenage mis­fits – Bill (Jae­den Lieber­her), Bev­erly (Sophia Lil­lis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Ed­die (Jack Dy­lan Grazer), Ben (Jeremy Ray Tay­lor), Mike (Cho­sen Ja­cobs) and Stan (Wy­att Ol­eff) – who band to­gether. “The book is not all jump scares,” Dauber­man adds. “There’s an un­der­ly­ing sense of dread on ev­ery page. Ton­ally, it goes from Stand By Me, where it’s this group of kids try­ing to grow up, and fight against bul­lies, to un­set­tling hor­ror.”

An­other key change made by Muschi­etti and Dauber­man was to re­turn It to the shapeshifter of the novel rather than sim­ply plump for the 1990 op­tion of mak­ing Pen­ny­wise to It what Freddy is to A Night­mare On Elm Street, Ja­son is to Fri­day The 13th, and Michael is to Hal­loween. But whereas in the book, It takes on the forms of the hor­ror icons that so scared King in the pic­ture palaces of his youth – such as a were­wolf or mummy – Muschi­etti wanted some­thing dif­fer­ent.

“It [takes on] your worst fear,” he says. “The book had the whole ar­ray of Univer­sal mon­sters, and that didn’t feel to me like it would land very well for a movie that takes place in my child­hood, in the ’80s. I wanted to cre­ate fears that

were a lit­tle more lay­ered. Not one of them are based on pop­u­lar cul­ture. They’re more per­sonal.”

So it’s not sim­ply a case of hav­ing It morph into ’80s hor­ror icons such as the xenomorph or Pin­head or Noel Edmonds? “There was de­bate,” he grins. “Like, should we put in Freddy Krueger, who was huge in the ’80s. But it felt to me like a pas­tiche. It would be too meta, also, with Freddy Krueger be­ing New Line. So I went for more ab­stract vi­sions. Some of them are based on trau­mas that the kids have.”

Like those in the novel, these kids have day-to-day demons to con­tend with long be­fore Pen­ny­wise the Danc­ing Clown, the man­i­fes­ta­tion vi­tal for lur­ing It’s food, starts stalk­ing Derry’s sew­ers and storm drains. The adults in It are as cold, cor­rupt and un­car­ing as those in King’s The Body (the source novella for Stand By Me), and It chis­els away at these fault lines as surely as the Over­look Ho­tel ex­ploits Jack Tor­rance’s al­co­holism. That said, Pen­ny­wise re­mains a vi­tal pres­ence, his painted smile spread­ing into the lives of The Losers un­til ev­ery­thing they see is red.

Fuku­naga had se­lected English ac­tor Will Poul­ter (The Maze Runner) as his Pen­ny­wise. The halt in pro­duc­tion and a col­li­sion of sched­ules put paid to that, and Muschi­etti filled the part with 27-year-old Swede Bill Skars­gård, whose chill­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion is to Curry’s Pen­ny­wise what Ledger’s Joker is to Ni­chol­son’s.

“Pen­ny­wise is cre­ated out of the imag­i­na­tion of chil­dren, so it made sense to give Pen­ny­wise a child­like qual­ity,” ex­plains Skars­gård of his rounded face, big eyes and fly­away hair, like an over­sized in­fant. With up to five hours in the make-up chair, he had time to find just the right sing-song voice and tin­kling laugh with which to lay a gos­samer trap­door over the pit of Hell. “Pen­ny­wise’s sense of hu­mour is like noth­ing I’d ex­pe­ri­enced,” he con­tin­ues. “He en­joys fear and mak­ing oth­ers suf­fer, and finds those to be re­ally funny. It’s not about corny punch­lines; it’s un­ex­pected and hor­ri­ble.”

“The first time I saw him, I was pretty ter­ri­fied,” ad­mits Lieber­her, ’80s mon­sters given he’s Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things, a show hugely in­debted to It. “I was proud when I saw [Pen­ny­wise], like, ‘Oh wow, we’re mak­ing some­thing that’s re­ally go­ing to be good…’”

He’s not wrong. From what TF has seen so far, it seems the rich char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion, colour­ful di­a­logue and unerring sense of time and place that dis­tin­guish King’s novel are all present and cor­rect, along with some R-rated gore (“The blood tasted hor­ri­ble, let me tell you, and it got in my eyes,” says Lil­lis of a par­tic­u­larly icky bath­room scene) and a chill fac­tor that runs as deep as Derry’s sew­ers. It de­serves to be a hit, which means the mooted se­quel will get the green light.

There are al­ready ru­mours that Jes­sica Chas­tain is primed to play

class cloWn Bill Skars­gård steps into the over­sized shoes last filled by Tim Curry.

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