The enduring legacy of masterwork ‘IT’ scares, thrills and inspires a new generation

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

IT makes you wonder who are the real monsters in the town of Derry, Maine: the apathetic, abusive adults or an actual shape-shifting predator plaguing their children? The fears surrounding coming-of-age have never been made more terrifying than in Stephen King’s novel-turned-feature-film. The author’s vivid words have inspired a new generation to cinematically give voice to the horrors of impending adulthood. And you bet your fur you’ll walk out of director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation with a big ol’ grin on your face.

Every twenty-seven years or so a mysterious, malevolent entity comes to life to feast on the flesh and fears of the picturesque town’s smallest citizens – the kids. However, there are seven teen outcasts – a.k.a. “The Losers Club,” which includes Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Bev (Sophia Lillis), Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) – who’ve noticed strange things a’foot. Over the Summer of 1989, they band together to overcome the town bullies, their own terrors and the monster, manifesting as a clown named “Pennywise” (Bill Skarsgård).

Fans of the King novel will notice one big difference right off the bat. In order to show why this material is so beloved, the filmmakers decided to split up the book into two films – one dealing with the childhood trauma and the follow-up as adults themselves. At the recent Los Angeles press day, producer David Katzenberg stated,

It was important to get this movie right and keep the integrity of the book. For us, that meant breaking it into two separate films essentially.

Seth Grahame-Smith echoed the sentiment.

You feel the pressure that this book is one of the most iconic works by one of the most iconic writers of our time – and for me, the guy who made me want to write books. So how do you take this 1100 plus page tome and adapt it into something that feels seminal and timeless? That was the big challenge in the six years working on this movie. Famously there were stops and starts along the way, but I feel good about the results.

The decision to split IT into two films came about very early on in the pre-production process. Katzenberg said,

There was a lot of thought that went into this and we kept [King] in mind. There was never a version, for us, where we could manage to put 1200 pages into one movie. There were versions of scripts attempting to try to do this.

Grahame-Smith elucidated.

When we came on, there was a draft that attempted to flash back and forth. To us, it was evident that you’re never going to be able to service these characters and these moments if you try to cram it all into one movie. Never! And then, it’s going to be weird if you’re flashing back and forth, which means if the first movie comes out and tanks, you’re never going to get to finish the story and that feels weird. To us, the best way was to separate it out – as was the decision to move it up to ’89.

Co-screenwriter Gary Dauberman – who loves to scare the living shIT (pun intended) out of audiences having written this Summer’s mega-hit ANNABELLE: CREATION – happily approached the project with a specific thematic focus in mind.

I think the fact that I read The Body first is really what influenced and contextualized all the Stephen King stuff that comes after that. For me, it was really about the dynamic of the losers that I really wanted to make sure comes through. I think [coming-of-age] is so universal. We all go through these things and fears, and that was the one thing I wanted to protect.

That doesn’t mean there were specific scenes he felt forced to slavishly adhere to either. Dauberman continued,

There wasn’t one where I was like, ‘We definitely have to have that in there,’ because they’re all great. It just became a question of what are we going to be comfortable losing and not miss it when we read the script. That’s how we tested ourselves.

Dauberman was brought in after co-scripters Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer had already done their draft.

Cary was going to direct and had his vision, but there wasn’t a sense of, ‘We have to tear this thing down and start from scratch,’ right? Because we still used the same source material. It was really taking what’s there – like picking up the ball and running with it.

Bill Skarsgård in IT (2017). Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

2017’s Pennywise re-emerges twenty-seven years after the ABC prime-time mini-series aired. However, this version delves deeper into what they couldn’t explore at that time. Grahame-Smith explained,

What jumps out at you is how much they had to hold back. As great as Tim Curry was, the menace, the intensity, even the language that’s so pervasive in all of King’s work was restrained by the fact they were an ABC prime-time special. We wanted to be truer to the book and that meant that we wanted to delve a little deeper into the moments the mini-series didn’t have time to do, but we wanted to bring the intensity that they couldn’t. We knew we were going to be rated-R from the beginning and we were supported the whole way. That gave us that freedom to explore the darkness of what’s going in Bev’s life and what’s going on at school, to say nothing of the terrifying imagery.

This also meant reinvigorating the more nefarious iteration of Pennywise. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop auditioning actors from coming in to read for the role, having clearly been influenced by Curry’s milestone performance. Katzenberg said,

People did come in with very similar takes to the Tim Curry version. It was definitely not the direction we were looking to go in, but we were surprised to see certain auditions with similar voices.

Grahame-Smith augmented,

The biggest tell was also the New York accent – the gruff [imitates Curry’s Pennywise voice], ‘Hiya, Georgie!’ The minute anyone came in doin’ this, that was the end of that.

Eagle-eyed audiences might even catch Curry’s cameo. Grahame-Smith said,

He’s in the clown room. It’s our little Easter Egg – we put him in there.

Nailing the new Pennywise did prove to be a challenge. Muschietti found a spark in star Bill Skarsgård’s audition tape.

He brought something that I was looking for – the sense of madness and unpredictability. Bill is wired like that. The performance he chose to bring to his reading already contained that.

Grahame-Smith said of Skarsgård,

What jumped out about Bill was that he was clearly gonna commit to it in a total mind, body and spirit manner. The things that he can do with his face and his body that he showed us early on… the things he can do with his voice. Andy saw something in him that it took the rest of us an extra beat to see. Andy keyed in on him immediately, working with him, getting him to a place where it became undeniable.

Through a fortuitous turn of smart scheduling, the kids were able to bond prior to their first nightmare-inducing introduction of Skarsgård’s Pennywise creation. Grahame-Smith stated the talented actor even scared grown crew members.

The way the scheduling worked out, the first month was all kids. Bill didn’t really work the first month, but he was in Toronto. He and Andy continued to work on the physicality, on the voice, on the mannerisms up until we started shooting. It took the crew a whole week before we could settle down.

Katzenberg picked up,

One of the coolest things is that the kids had not seen him until the first day of shooting. The first day Bill was on set was Eddie when he hurts his arm. You can imagine the day the bus drops Bill off and walks on the set – Bill is already a massive guy and in the boots, he’s even taller. It was menacing. It also felt like we were making a totally different movie until he came.

Grahame-Smith quickly added,

Like we were making STAND BY ME! The first day we shot with Pennywise was in the kitchen and he’s hovering over Jack [Grazer] and he’s about to bite his face off and drooling. When he was drooling on Jack’s face he just went, [mimics hocking a loogie] and spit right in his face. These kids were not afraid! They give as good as they get.

This Pennywise also has a different aesthetic than clowns past. Muschietti drew inspiration from predator and prey incorporating those into his look. He said of his design,

There’s different faces of Pennywise – he’s a shape-shifting monster. I did a sketch early on that looks very much like the final incarnation. It doesn’t have the smile, but apart from that, it’s a baby-horrifying looking monster with wall-eyes. We wanted to bring that contrast of someone who is luring, sweet and cute with little bunny teeth with something that is child-like and that darkness that is waiting to surface. There were some references to animal anatomy thrown in too, but not in a classical way. It never looks consistent. It’s always surrealistic.

Pennywise’s physicality is also much more imposing than you can ever imagine. Skarsgård said,

When I was thinking about a concept of what scares me, it’s unpredictability that’s scary. There’s a change. If you have explosiveness and quick changes is something that’s very unsettling. I wanted to incorporate that, but also have the character to be like when you’re about to pop a balloon – this tension of explosiveness that’s about to happen. At any moment it might snap. But also the goofy, weirdness was important to find the balance between something that’s strange and off, but scary and affecting.

An underlying layer almost undetectable is that Muschietti had his actor incorporate King’s surrealist concepts of the macro-verse into his performance rather than choose to actually speak to it.

I didn’t want to go into that in the story because I didn’t want to make it a fantasy so much as the emotional journey of these kids and the magic of childhood against the horrors of growing up incarnated in this monster. The way he incorporated the presence of the other side into the performance is fantastic. We talked about what is the macro-verse and how do we express it without showing it. It was always present. There was a balance – alluring behavior that’s not human at all.

As for the second part to this chilling tale, Grahame-Smith spilled,

We are locked, loaded and ready to go! The script is not done, but it’s being worked on. Obviously all the filmmakers are chomping at the bit to get started and we have a very exciting shape and Gary is working away. I feel somewhat optimistic we’ll be able to make it, but there’s been no decision.

IT opens on September 8.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, 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.