We are only hours away before the entire world will be transported to the sleepy little town of Derry, Maine, circa 1989, to witness the horror of Stephen King’s classic novel IT, being brought to life on the big screen for the very first time. And we thought we’d take you behind the scenes with director Andy Muschietti, screenwriter Gary Dauberman, producers Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg, Barbara Muschietti and, of course, Bill Skarsgård who brings the evil presence of Pennywise to your impending nightmares.
The shadow of King and his 1,100+ page tale looms large among the crew—with the exception of the talented teenage cast who weren’t even born at the time of the book’s release in 1986 or when the memorable television miniseries hit the small screen in 1990. As co-producer Seth Grahame-Smith noted during the movie’s press junket: “Stephen King is the most important writer to me, period. So the idea of getting [this movie] wrong scared me more than anything in his books. The idea of not disappointing Stephen King and Stephen King fans was the motivation through the entire process.”
Screenwriter Gary Dauberman echoes the sentiments of his collaborator, recalling when he first read the bestselling novel: “I think I was 12, which was, for me, the right moment to read it. It was the longest book I ever read; it felt like an achievement, but I didn’t want it to end. That was the first [Stephen King] novel I read and it was the springboard to everything else that followed.” The pressure to please the man whose imagination dreamt up this now classic horror story was real for all involved. “There was a huge pressure, a lot of anxiety and a lot of sleepless nights,” says Dauberman, before adding with a laugh, “As I was writing this, I’m looking at his books on my book shelves around my house, thinking, “If he comes out and says he hates [the script], am I gonna have to live with that for the rest of my life?”
Fortunately for all involved, after viewing an early rough cut of the film, King alleviated all the internal fears of those tasked with bringing his story to theaters. “He sent a really sweet email to Andy [Muschietti],” recalls producer David Katzenberg, “and he even tweeted out that he was extremely pleased. For us, it was a huge weight off our shoulders, because we spent so much time getting this right and keeping the integrity of the book and trying to please him and the fans of the book.” For the creative team, getting the thumbs up from “the Maestro,” as Grahame-Smith calls him, was even more important than sensational early reviews the film has already received from the critics. “It was definitely the high-water mark,” the producer adds.
An All-New IT
As horror fans know, this is not the first adaptation of IT—the first being the previously mentioned miniseries. Although, as successful as that two-night airing was back in the day, the new theatrical version pushes the envelope into darker corners. “The miniseries was certainly a touchstone in my life,” explains wordsmith Dauberman, “but [with the “R” rating] we were really able to go balls-to-the-wall with the scares and the language and all that stuff.” But, according to everyone involved, there was no thought to recreating what came before, according to the writer: “We never sat down with the miniseries and say, ‘What didn’t they do?’ or ‘What can we do?’ We didn’t compare or contrast at all. In fact, I didn’t watch it for that very reason. Of course, it did influence me to a great degree when I saw it as a kid, but I didn’t go back and revisit it because I didn’t want to muddy the waters.”
While there aren't many R-rated films featuring a main cast so young, Grahame-Smith notes that the camaraderie among them alleviated any concerns: “It’s already tough when you’re making an R-rated movie starring 13-year-old kids, so they’ve gotta be strong, they’ve gotta be charismatic and you have to believe those relationships. These kids were thick as thieves from the beginning of the shoot. They fell in love with each other, and I know that you’ve heard this before, but it’s the truth. They were best friends instantly and you feel that in the movie.”
The Losers' Club
When it comes to the young cast who take up a majority of the screen time, it was Andy Muschietti’s detailed pitch about the kids that ultimately placed him in the director’s chair, according to the producers: “Andy was the first director who came in and focused solely on the kids,” explains Katzenberg. “Rather than talk about Pennywise and the scares, which a lot of other directors came in talking about, he really focused on the kids. And, for us, that was always the seminal part of the movie that we needed to get right.” Grahame-Smith picks it up from there, saying, “We knew that [Andy] would be able to deliver on the scares and we knew that he was very strong conceptually, so there was no question that he would be able to deliver on the visuals and the scares, but what impressed us was he came in talking about being a 13-year-old in Argentina and reading a translation of the book and how it affected him. He locked in on the relationship between these kids and how important it was to get the kids right, and that was music to our ears because if that didn’t work, then it didn’t matter how cool the clown was and how scary the other stuff was. It was never gonna resonate the way we wanted it to resonate emotionally. So that was really what won Andy the job; he came in focused on that first and then everything else came into place to support that.”
Of course, with the story of IT, the part of the evil Pennywise will always be the focal point. Tim Curry gave a memorable performance in the miniseries more than 25 years ago, while Bill Skarsgård has brought his own take to the character. Producer Barbara Muschietti, also the wife of the film’s director, pointed out how Skarsgård stood out from the pack of hopefuls: “We literally saw hundreds of people for this role and I’m sure for actors there was a strong temptation—and we saw it with a lot of actors auditioning for this role—to emulate Tim Curry. [Bill] was a complete original and that’s what blew us away. He was a Pennywise that we never even dreamt about.”
The actor himself described the process this way: “For me, it was about doing my own interpretation of Pennywise with Andy designing the look and everything. I think it’s a completely new take on it. We weren’t trying to do this middle-aged Pennywise that Tim Curry did so well.” The meticulous talks about who this clown from hell really was continued through the production, according to the film’s director: “We talked for hours about what the character was, but ‘talks’ are just the beginning,” relates Muschietti. “And because we talked about Pennywise and his impact as a monster, and because [Bill] is committed and fearless he took the concept of this monster and was embracing that concept of unpredictability and really giving something new at every point. I was shocked and so gratified to see what he was doing. He was not only surprising the audience, he was surprising me at every point and maybe even surprising himself.”
Producer Katzenberg agrees, noting, “We were never trying to outdo Tim Curry. We knew that we needed to bring something fresh and new, and kind of reimagine what our Pennywise was gonna be. We have to give a ton of credit to Andy who was bringing us sketches and he had visions of what Pennywise’s voice would sound like. He worked with Bill for hours and hours and hours, working to get the mannerisms and facial features, and it’s incredible what Bill can do with his face.” Grahame-Smith continues the thought process, saying, “During the casting process, Andy singled out Bill pretty early on and having him come back for more reads and working with him on refining the character and the facial expressions and the physicality and finding the voice. And that actually continued through production because the way the schedule worked out, it was all kids for the first month. Bill was in Toronto [during that time], but not really shooting. So Bill would sit there and look in his mirror and practice voices.”
Interestingly enough, none of the kids in the cast were even allowed to see Pennywise until he showed up on the set to film his first scene. “That was Andy’s decision early on,” explains Katzenberg. “He wanted to keep them away from Pennywise for as long as possible, so they could really be scared of him. I’ll never forget the day when Pennywise first walked on set; it was terrifying for all of us.” For those interested in film trivia, Grahame-Smith revealed that this first appearance of Pennywise on the set was the scene in the kitchen of the haunted Neibolt house when the diabolical clown twists himself out of the refrigerator. This scene was shot, literally, within five minutes of the young cast seeing him for the very first time.
Offsetting the Horror
Another mainstay of Stephen King stories is the brilliant blending of humor with horror, something not lost on the film’s writer Gary Dauberman: “It’s all about rhythm and timing with the horror and the comedy. It was nice to write some jokes, but, again, going back to the cast, they just worked so well off each other that they found their own sense of timing. While I can find the right timing on the page, Andy has to find the right timing within a scene and he did that beautifully. It’s difficult, but it’s a lot of fun to find that rhythm. That’s what Stephen King does so well. He has those moments of levity so that when the darkness comes, it’s even darker because he had those moments of brightness.”
Perhaps Grahame-Smith summed things up for all involved when he said, “We started on this journey with the movie over six years ago and we’ve put a lot of sweat and tears into making it. I was 13 years old when I read this book in the summer of 1989 in a small New England town, which is, weirdly enough, when our movie takes place, and we were in every conceivable suburb of Toronto making it look like Maine. Watching 1989 come to life in a small New England town with those same bikes and those same posters; that was incredible to watch. Not to mention that we were building 29 Neibolt [the haunted house pictured above] and the cistern. You’re watching all these things happening and you can’t believe how lucky you are to be a part of it.”
Katzenberg echoes his partner’s sentiments, saying, “The whole experience was surreal, but it was an extremely difficult shoot. [The cast] was all kids essentially and they had to go to school too. It was in Toronto during the summer, 100 degrees, humidity, and every day presented its own challenges.” But Grahame-Smith put it all into perspective with this final statement: “The kids made it fun though. You can get caught up in all the production blahs, but then the kids would show up and just remind you how cool it was that we’re actually getting to make IT.”
IT begins haunting theaters around the world tomorrow. Buy tickets now.