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…
“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.