IT

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

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS TOM ELLEN

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!’”

THISSTORY MIGHT

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.

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