Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Hot off his directorial debut, ANNABELLE COMES HOME, screenwriter Gary Dauberman returns to the scares and cares found within the pages of author Stephen King’s novel IT with IT CHAPTER 2. This continuation of the “Losers” Club’s traumatic saga picks up 27 years after the events in the first film that rendered seven teens (played by Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, and Jeremy Ray Taylor) the victors of a battle against shape-shifting entity, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). Now adults, the gang (played byJessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean) must face-off with the evil that emotionally scarred them as children to – once and for all – rid Derry of the menacing spirit.
How many times did you read the novel before you knew what you needed to keep and what you could lose?
I don’t have a number to attach to it, but I’ll say it’s a lot. When I’m writing, I have my kindle app up so I can scroll through what [King] did here and there. It’s great for when you’re just bouncing around the book. What’s the movie and what’s the book blurs for me now.
When you first read this book, what character do you identify with the most – and has that changed over the years?
It didn’t change when I was writing this. As a kid, I identified with Bill, but I don’t have a specific reason for you why. I think the stutter and the sense of being an outsider, trying to find friends and that first bond of finding friends. Beverly coming into the group and the first love of it all.
Working on an adaptation sort of seems like singing a cover song – make it your own or why bother. Was there a part of your work on this where you felt you could take creative liberties that remained true to the spirit of the book – or even improve?
I love your comparison to a cover.
I mean that in a good way.
No, no, no. I love that! Yeah, there were. I try to be so respectful of the source material, but not to a fault where the movie suddenly collapses under its own weight. There are things you have to hold onto that you don’t want to mess with. When it comes to scares, and set pieces, yes, you’re going to have Georgie in the sewer, you’re gonna have Paul Bunyan. But then it’s how do you “plus” that? What’s your interpretation of the things you need to include? Now you can play it what works best for the movie. Everyone who worked on this movie are such fans of the book, so their gonna tell you when you’ve gone way too far, or to bring it back to the book. Not that, that ever happened, but you have barometers around you constantly whether or not you’re running off course.
The first chapter focuses on the childhood portions. However, CHAPTER TWO mimics more of the structure of the book, flipping back and forth on the timeline. How much of a challenge was modulating that balance, connecting the emotional through lines of childhood and adulthood perspectives?
Bringing those kids back on set on the second one is important because it helps tell the story of the adult losers remembering their youth. Otherwise it’s going to be a scene of Ben telling Beverly, “I remember…” and like, great. How did you remember and what did you remember? So early on, we knew we had to bring the kids back to help tell that part of the story.
My challenge was I wanted to preserve was that because of the first movie, you don’t want people to go, “Well I wish we were back with the kids.” This is really the adults movie and the kids are the supporting characters, I feel like. When you have a cast like this, they do a lot of the heavy lifting.
I was so impressed that you made sense of the entity’s origin. It’s such an abstract concept in the book.
That’s a lot of coffee, a lot of conversations with the Muschetti and studio, going what can we do. You start off big and you refine, refine, refine. It’s that putting the clay on the table and sculpting it and hoping it’ll resemble a familiar shape to people. That was one where we really had to take some big swings away from the book to make it work. And you’re nervous about it. That was one area where we went, “How do we tell this visually and it’s going to make sense to people who don’t want to read ten pages of interdimensional time travel?”
You never know when you write these things how it’s going translate visually. Was there anything you were astounded by that Andy did in that respect?
It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process – seeing what people take from your words and make it their own. That goes to Andy, to the set designer, to the cast, to the DP, and everybody, because they’re so great at what they do. In the best case, it makes you look so much better. Across the board, there wasn’t a scene where I thought it looked better in my head. It’s like “Oh my God! They killed it!” I love the collaborative nature of film. I always love walking onto the sets and seeing what the set designer has done – like taking one little thing and gave it life.
What sequence did you find was the most fun to take from book pages to screenplay? I don’t know if you’re a writer who thrives finding creativity in the challenge.
I do like finding creativity in the challenge, but I don’t enjoy it [laughs]. Like I couldn’t wait to get to The Jade of the Orient, but once I’m there, I’m going, “Fuck.” I couldn’t wait to do some of the scares, but when I get there, I’m like, “Fuck.” Once I get there, I’m happy and it’s all going to fall into place.
Overall, it’s being able to be in Derry and work with these iconic characters. Whenever Pennywise is in a scene, I always enjoy writing that. There’s not a specific scene. There were things I couldn’t wait to get to, but then that challenged me having to write it.
Did writing this allow you to cathartically reflect your own fears or lingering feelings of resentment, or grief? Or do you separate your own personal feelings out?
No, I think I reflect on it. I think a lot about being my age and trying to remember things from my youth. I stay in touch with a few friends from when I was 12-years-old. Even though we see each other a few times a year, we can pick it back up where we left off because we’re family. I think about that stuff. It wasn’t on IT, but in ANNABELLE COMES HOME, one of the characters lost their father recently, which is the reason she opens up the case and lets the doll out, I had lost my father within a year of that. Never fucking occurred to me that I was infusing that character with a sort of “What if” of it all until my sister, I was pitching her the story and she goes, “You’re writing about Dad.” I was like, “Oh wow!” It just happens like that. Even the first ANNABELLE – the couple are pregnant and having a baby and I had just had my second daughter. There’s just parallels to whatever you’re dealing with in your own life. So I have that kind of separation. But all the things I think about on the day are reflected in the writing by happenstance – that happens for all of us. Whatever we’re dealing with sort of pores out on the page. I will be curious to see what SALEM’S LOT is going to tell me.
What do you think it says about the enduring legacy of King’s novels that they’ve existed for so long and they’re still attracting new readers and new filmmakers with new takes on the material that now people are consistently nailing?
Not that they’ve not in the past because there have certainly been great King movies in the past. But I think people understand the staying power. Thematically, he deals with things we all deal with. His writing is so accessible, distilling themes I can understand, at least. His characters feel real – small town America. We all have our fears. I think they’re great stories and tells them in a compelling way with compelling characters.
It’s funny, one of my favorite books is his On Writing, where he talks about thematic elements. He doesn’t start from a thematic place – he just tells the story and then he thinks, “Oh this must be…” like what we were discussing in our previous question. Then he goes, “Oh this is what I’m talking about so I’ll draw that out.” It was a real game-changer for me as a writer. As a screenwriter, they say, “Oh you gotta start with a theme.” And I’m like, “I wanna get to the good stuff – I want to get to the horror.” Then you can pull that out later.
IT CHAPTER 2 opens on September 6.