There is no escaping your greatest fear in the horror thriller IT.
“Fear is universal; it’s something we can all relate to. And what could be more terrifying than something that doesn’t just attack you, but attacks you with what frightens you most?” says acclaimed director Andy Muschietti, who made his feature debut with the horror hit Mama, based on his own short film of the same name, and now brings Stephen King’s seminal bestseller IT to the big screen for the first time.
The enigmatically short title refers to the story’s central villain, an ancient shapeshifter that takes the form of its victims’ deepest fears and comes out of hibernation every 27 years to feed on the most vulnerable residents of Derry, Maine: the children.
For as long as their town has existed, Derry has been the entity’s hunting ground, emerging from the sewers every 27 years to feed on the terrors of its chosen prey: Derry’s children. Banding together over one horrifying and exhilarating summer, the Losers form a close bond to help them overcome their own fears and stop a new killing cycle that began on a rainy day, with a small boy chasing a paper boat as it swept down a storm drain…and into the hands of Pennywise the Clown.
The terror of “IT” is embodied in the malevolent clown, Pennywise—devourer of children, connoisseur of fear.
Bill Skarsgård, who took on the villainous role, says, “I was very familiar with IT and the character of Pennywise growing up. The way I look at it, he needs children to believe in what they’re seeing and to be afraid in order to consume them because fear seasons the flesh. To me, as a kid and even now, that is the most frightening concept ever.”
The filmmakers knew the actor cast as Pennywise would have a significant impact on virtually every aspect of the film. After an extensive process, Bill Skarsgård landed the coveted role. “What we found with Bill,” Barbara Muschietti says, “was that his instincts were totally aligned with how Andy saw Pennywise.”
When Skarsgård’s incarnation of the mythic character was complete, the filmmakers were intent on sequestering their Pennywise away from the seven actors forming the Losers’ Club, at least initially, not wanting to diminish their first reactions.
Katzenberg attests, “We kept the kids from seeing Pennywise until they were actually in a scene with him. I think it just added another layer to their process in terms of learning who Pennywise is and being really scared.”
Muschietti gave a great deal of thought to how he was going to reveal Pennywise onscreen. “It’s an iconic moment in the book that many people will be waiting to see,” the director acknowledges. “The scene is mesmerizing; the first appearance of Pennywise is intriguing and charismatic, but at the same time, you know there’s something wrong about him. But he’s also shrouded in a kind of magic that is quite unsettling.”
That unsettling feeling is something to which Barbara Muschietti could relate. “Clearly, the first time we see Pennywise is an incredibly important scene and, speaking for myself, it’s something that stays with you. From the first time I read the book, it was very difficult for me to look at a storm drain and not think of Pennywise lurking,” she smiles. “We wanted to create an image you will never forget.”
In the film, seven young outcasts, who dub themselves “the Losers’ Club,” band together to do battle with the mysterious being they call by the all-encompassing pronoun: It. But It goes by another name…a name that has become iconic in the annals of horror: Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
The septet of middle schoolers who call themselves the Losers’ Club are the heart and soul of “IT.” Individually, these adolescents are ill-equipped to handle school bullies, much less a powerful, shapeshifting entity. But together they possess a special courage that is forged by their friendship and determination to save one another, and their town, by standing up to a horrific threat that has gone unchallenged for centuries.
The director affirms, “The Losers find strength in being together, and it’s interesting to watch how the dynamic of the group changes throughout the film—alternating leadership roles and positions of strength. They all have their moment. It’s a beautiful story, and especially in times of adversity, you see humanity, trust and love rise to the surface.”
An Instant Classic
First published in 1986, IT became an instant classic and the top-selling book of that year. Captivating readers for more than three decades, the perennial bestseller continues to be counted among the best and most influential works of the undisputed master of literary horror, inspiring numerous film and television projects in the years that have followed.
“I am a big fan of Stephen King, who was my favorite author growing up, so ‘IT’ was a dream project for me,” states Muschietti, who studied at the prestigious FUC in Buenos Aires and worked in Argentina as a story-boarder, a task he combined with script writing, before he began his career as a commercial director in Buenos Aires with the iconic production company Cuatro Cabezas.
“As someone who loves making scary movies, I have always been fascinated by fear, and probably the time when you’re the most terrified is when you’re a child watching your first horror movie. It’s a feeling you won’t have again for the rest of your life, so it’s become a bit of a chimeric quest for me to bring that sensation back. That helps me create because I believe you can only scare other people with what scares you, too.”
There is another layer to the story that is trademark Stephen King. There is arguably no writer who is better at juxtaposing unmitigated horror with the experience of growing up—and perhaps never more perfectly than in the tender coming-of-age tale at the heart of “IT.”
“We knew from the very beginning of this process that ‘IT’ was more than just a horror story and the movie had to reflect the different tones of the novel. It’s set at a certain time in these young characters’ lives when they are truly coming of age, so we wanted the film to capture the charm of those character-driven moments, but in turn be utterly petrifying,” says producer Seth Grahame-Smith emphasizes, a New York Times best-selling author, screenwriter, and producer of film and television, whose novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies debuted at #3 on The New York Times bestseller list, and led to him being credited as the master of the mash-up literary genre.
Producer David Katzenberg agrees. “Over the course of the film, there are times when each of those elements comes to the fore, so it’s an interesting balance between emotion and fear. It was important for the pacing of the film and the storytelling to get both aspects right.”
Andy Muschietti’s sister and creative partner, producer Barbara Muschietti, who produced the smash hit “Mama,” and co-wrote the feature along with director Andy Muschietti and Neil Gross, credits the screenwriters of IT with finding that balance.
“Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman were able to capture the touching facets of friendship between the Losers’ Club and even a brush with the first love of adolescence. But make no mistake: you are going to be scared,” she smiles.
Chase Palmer is a Brooklyn-based writer/director. His current projects include writing/directing the psychological horror film Black Lung; adapting the New York Times series The Outlaw Ocean for Netflix and Appian Way; the Gotham Group-produced bio-hacker drama series “Biopunk, which he created; and the Hitchcockian fantasia Number Thirteen, about young Alfred Hitchcock’s lost first film.
Cary Fukunaga’s work as a writer, director, and cinematographer has taken him from the Arctic Circle to Haiti and East Africa. His television work includes directing and executive producing the first season of HBO’s acclaimed mystery drama True Detective, for which he won an Emmy for outstanding directing. Fukunaga made his feature film writing and directing debut with the critically acclaimed Sin Nombre, followed by the film adaptation of Jane Eyre. His third film, Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, was an official selection at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals. Fukunaga is currently in production on Maniac, set to premiere in late 2018.
Gary Dauberman wrote the screenplay for Annabelle and the sequel Annabelle: Creation, based on the terrifyingly creepy doll that first appeared in James Wan’s hugely successful horror thriller The Conjuring. Staying in The Conjuring universe, Dauberman wrote the screenplay for the upcoming horror thriller The Nun, from a story he wrote with Wan. He also serves as an executive producer on the film, which is slated for release on July 13, 2018. For television, Dauberman is currently adapting the Valiant graphic novel Dr. Mirage into a one-hour series for the CW
In developing the project, the filmmaking team—which also included producers Roy Lee and Dan Lin—knew that bringing such a richly told, thousand-plus-page book to the screen would be an enormous challenge, so the decision was made to focus on the first half, when the Losers’ Club are all still children…and Pennywise’s prime prey. Nevertheless, Dauberman remarks,
“The biggest challenge of adapting even half of a novel as beloved as IT comes from trying to pick from among the many indelible passages that have stayed with us since we first read the book.”
Grahame-Smith says, “We all felt a great responsibility to be true to the spirit of the novel because it’s a book that has been very important to Stephen King fans—and that includes everyone who worked so hard to finally bring it to the big screen.”
“It was a truly collaborative process,” Dauberman recalls, “and Andy was very forthcoming with ideas. One of the things we discussed most was how the individual scares the Losers face define who they are. He thought a lot about how that informed their actions, extrapolating everything, of course, from seeds he found in the novel.”
“Andy had a clear vision for the film,” Katzenberg attests. “He obviously knows horror,” the producer continues, referencing Muschietti’s work on the hit film ‘Mama,’ “but he also nailed the contrasting tones and how to bring them together in a cohesive way. He was a fantastic choice to direct this project.”
There was one more important change the filmmakers agreed upon in adapting the screenplay. Though King had set the first part of his novel in the 1950s, the decision was made to move the timeframe of the story to the 1980s.
Barbara Muschietti explains, “The `50s is when Stephen King grew up, so that was his generation and the book reflects the fears of his formative years. Stephen always says, ‘Write what you know.’ So we wanted to make the film about what we know—growing up in the 80s—and to evoke the kind of things we were afraid of then.”
Andy Muschietti offers, “In the `50s, kids were frightened of very different things, like the classic monsters they saw in the movies of that time, and those are some of the forms Pennywise takes in the original story. The reimagining of fears in this movie is very layered and deep and even fans of the book might be surprised where we go in the film.”
King reveals he had a very specific reason for introducing the heroes in his novel as children.
“There is a borderline, a zone, between kids who are too old to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but they are still afraid there could be something under the bed when the lights are out. I wanted to take these kids and put them in this situation where they are the only ones who have the capacity to see and actually battle this creature because they still believe in monsters. And yet, at the same time, they are older than little kids who are totally powerless, so they are able to take some action.”
Author Stephen King notes, “The filmmakers went in a direction that’s a little different from the novel, but the important thing is they kept the core idea that Pennywise gets to these kids by finding out what they’re most afraid of and being that thing. Andy understood that; he understood that completely, and I think he did us proud.”