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.
FOR ANDRÉS 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 ten,” 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 still-unexplained 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 ‘comingof-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 ten 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 Grahamesmith, “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 smallscreen 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 firstever 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,
in which a furious maternal ghost at one point unleashes a shower of moths.
Fukuanga has spoken unhappily of the split, telling Variety, “What I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters… They wanted archetypes and scares.” Muschietti, however, has a different take.
“Cary’s script didn’t have much interest in Pennywise being a shape-shifter,” he tells Empire. “It was leaning towards an almost hyper-realistic story, and I felt that something of [King’s] original work wasn’t there.” Which is not to say Muschietti stuck religiously to King’s source material. “We made sure to maintain the emotional tentpoles [of the novel],” he says. “But the book portrays the fears of kids growing up in the ’50s, and I felt we had an opportunity to update it. When Stephen King was growing up, kids were afraid of what they saw in the movies, so ‘It’ becomes a werewolf, a mummy, a creature from the Black Lagoon. But my instinct was that these things aren’t scary anymore. I started exploring fears that were more layered, more profound, more personal to each member of the Losers’ Club.”
Happily, while the old horror stalwarts may have lost their spine-chilling sheen, clowns appear to be agelessly unsettling. “They never used to freak me out,” says 14-year-old Jaeden Lieberher, who plays stuttering Losers’ Club leader Bill Denbrough. “But after working on this movie...” He shakes his head slowly, leaving fellow Loser Jeremy Ray Taylor to put it less ambiguously: “When I first saw [Skarsgård] in costume, I wanted to run away screaming.”
WHICH TAKES US
to the real star of the show, and the favoured incarnation of Derry’s monster: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. His appearances in the book tend to act as starting pistols for the most memorable sections, and, as Grahame-smith rightly points out, “What do people remember about the TV series? Just Tim Curry’s performance.” Despite the crew’s staunch anti-reboot rhetoric, Muschietti admits there was serious pressure involved in following up Curry’s bombastic depiction of the killer clown. “It was a cult moment in horror,” he concedes. “He scared the shit out of a generation.”
The director’s method of combating this pressure was to develop an entirely new take on Pennywise. Rather than Curry’s jowly, bellowing, middle-aged psychopath, he wanted a quietly sinister “baby-faced” clown. Muschietti met with several young actors before casting 26-year-old Skarsgård. “I had a great meeting with Will Poulter,” the director recalls, “but [in the end] I felt he wasn’t fully immersed in the idea of playing Pennywise. He would have been great; he’s very talented and he also has... that face.” He pulls a nightmarish grin — all eyebrows and teeth — then breaks off, laughing. “But there are a dozen actors that could have played Pennywise. There are the obvious choices — someone like Willem Dafoe — but then I found Bill. Bill is... amazing.”
On set in Toronto, Skarsgård’s mad method is in full effect. Having finally been released from the sewers, Empire is de-booted and shepherded towards an unremarkable patch of grassland, where the ghostly white figure of Pennywise gradually becomes visible through the tall reeds. He sits there, half-hidden like some horrible exotic bird, muttering insanely while chewing a child’s severed arm like a chicken drumstick. With his powdered face, Regency-style wig and frilly frock coat, he looks like a nightmarish version of Prince George from Blackadder III.
We have questions. But unfortunately they have to wait; we’re told we won’t be speaking to Skarsgård today, as he is having “toddler blood” sponged from his chin. It is, frankly, the greatest excuse for not speaking to Empire we’ve ever heard. And we’re not about to start arguing.
Almost a year later, the 26-year-old is finally ready to talk. It turns out that the new Pennywise still has fear on the mind. “In order for this movie to be as effective as the book and the series, I have to scare a whole generation,” Skarsgård says. “So yes, there were fears about taking the role. There were ghosts going around my brain. But I had to trust myself, and trust Andy [Muschietti] to get the character right.”
His clown is wild and unpredictable. “My take was that Pennywise functions very simply. Nothing much is going on in terms of what he’s thinking — he’s animalistic and instinctive.” Besides his upsettingly wet lips, his main source of panic-generation is his supremely unsettling voice. “I would go from super-high-pitched to super-low-pitched,” Skarsgård says. “It sounded ridiculous at times. I think we ended up somewhere in the middle. But it was very intense. It always is when you’re playing a character so different from yourself. I really didn’t want to speak to anyone during the shoots.”
All but out-jared-letoing Jared Leto, the actor skulked around It’s sets in grease-paint for weeks on end. His level of intensity is verified by 13-year-old co-star Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays asthmatic Losers’ Club member Eddie Kasprak, and recalls Skarsgård “walking around the room, freaking out, making crazy sounds” between takes. Skarsgård chuckles as he remembers it:
“The laughs and screams were just a way for me to maintain the maniacal essence of the character. I remember one of the kid extras found it very overwhelming. He started crying as soon as they said, ‘Cut.’ I had to be, like, ‘It’s okay, I’m Bill, this is just make-up!’”
not bode well for that particular child’s sleep patterns, but it’s a strong indication that the makers of It have hit the mark. As is the fevered reaction to the trailer. And for Muschietti, the cherry on the creepy sundae is the feedback he’s had from the man behind the original tale, Stephen King, who’s having a banner 2017, what with this, The Dark Tower, and new TV shows The Mist and Castle Rock.
“He sent me an email saying he was really happy,” the director says with a grin. “I thanked him for indulging all the liberties I’d taken creatively, and he actually praised one creature in particular that came from my own childhood fears, rather than the book. So that was great.”
It is a novelty: an R-rated, blood-soaked horror with cussing kid heroes and blockbuster production values. For the same reasons, it’s also a box-office risk. Until he knows whether it’s paid off, Muschietti is remaining tight-lipped on the subject of the second film, which would focus on the adult Losers returning to Derry for another crack at Pennywise. However, he does reveal a storyline is currently being thrashed out, and that, “Everyone wants to make it as soon as possible because we’re so in love with the first one.”
Well, maybe not everyone. As much as he relished the role, Skarsgård has mixed feelings about donning the ginger fright wig once again. “It’s funny,” he says, “I went back to Stockholm after we wrapped, and every night for two weeks, I had these strange recurring Pennywise dreams. I was him, but I was in the wrong setting, somehow. I was upset that people could see my face. It was surreal. I can’t explain it.”
We can: clowns are absolutely terrifying.
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.
Surprise!: Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Grazer) gets the fright of his life.
Right: Director Andy Muschietti on set with Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Bill Denbrough. Far
right: House of horror: Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Grazer) and Bill.
Losers’ Club members Beverly, Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), Bill, Ben Hascomb (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Eddie face their fears.