Horror has had an extraordinary year at the box office. We’ve already seen two of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time in 2017, and Annabelle: Creation is in the midst of an impressive run, but all signs suggest that the biggest horror hit of the year is still to come. The film in question? IT. New Line’s adaptation of the beloved Stephen King novel has a lot going for it — the rampant popularity of King’s books, the 90s nostalgia for the old miniseries adaptation, a killer marketing campaing, and best of all, the buzz is very, very good. Early tracking has pegged IT to open at $50 million, a walloping debut for a horror film. Of course, there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood, but this is about as close as you can get.
Which means things are looking pretty good for Andy Muschietti, the director who took over the project after the studio ran into creative differences with Cary Fukunaga, reworking the material to his vision. Muschietti made his feature debut with Mama, the puppetry-fuelled chiller that earned the support of Guillermo Del Toro and emerged a box office triumph on both a domestic and international scale. Mama landed in theaters four years ago. Along with his sister and creative partner Barbara Muschietti, the director took his time finding the right follow-up project and that’s when IT came into the picture. Some things are worth the wait.
Last year, I visited the set of IT in Toronto, Canada where I joined a small group of journalists to observe filming, tour the sewers of Derry, Maine, and interview the creative team. While there, we had the chance to speak with Muschietti and the director offered insight on his approach to reinventing Pennywise, working with his Losers Club, why IT is meant to be a fun movie, budget constraints, sequel plans, and why Stephen King wasn’t involved in the adaptation process. Check out what he had to say in the full interview below.
You knew you’re making an R rated movie, that being said, still, how did you approach it? Because the book is really grisly. And grisly towards kids, a lot. Approaching the film, was it like, we just want to do all those sequences, or was there a less is more approach?
MUSCHIETTI: It’s great that it’s R, you know, because it’s in the essence and the spirit of the original work, so it was good news that the studio wanted to make an R movie. Which is, you know, infrequent. So it’s rare. So it was a great opportunity to stick to the spirit—
They were on board, right from the jump?
MUSCHIETTI: Yeah. The project was always, from the early development, it was R rated.
It’s hard to get good kid actors anyway, and here you have to get good kid actors that are going to be working in sort of this very R rated, horror environment, so was it especially challenging to sort of find that right balance?
MUSCHIETTI: With the kids?
MUSCHIETTI: No, in general, they’re very, very— we found, apart from very talented actors, they’re very liberal in general. They come from liberal, sort of liberal families, and they have a very open conversation about the themes of the movie, which is not only violence, but also sexual themes and stuff, so I lucky for them to come to it.
How did this project get to you?
MUSCHIETTI: Well, as you know, it was, it had a previous development with Cary Fukunaga and when he left, the project became open, and I just contacted the studio, and I came in and I pitched them my idea, according to the existing script, and they liked it, so.
What were some specific ways that you made it your own, in distinct from what Cary had developed?
MUSCHIETTI: Well, one of the things— It was a good script, in terms of characters and the depth of characters and such, but it didn’t really tap into one of the most attractive traits of the character, which was the shapeshifting qualities. So that’s one of the things that I started talking about.
Is Pennywise a spider?
MUSCHIETTI: There are spiders in the movie, but they’re more sort of wings.
Since you approached them, so was this a book you had already been a big fan of? What was it about the story that really resonated with you?
MUSCHIETTI: I’ve always veen a big fan of Stephen King, especially in my teenage years. It was always one of my favorites. But in years when you grow older and start to appreciate certain things, like friendship, and love, and you know, you go through several experiences in life and you get to know several stages of friendship, like the disintegration of groups and stuff, and that’s why I felt like connected to the story, again, after probably twenty years of reading it for the last time.
I know that there’s the idea of splitting the story pretty evenly in half, with just doing the adults and just doing the kids, came from, originated from Cary’s camp, but when you came on board, can you talk about what benefits you see in not trying to make one long, giant story and intertwining the adult story and the kid story. Like, as a storyteller, how does that appeal to you?
MUSCHIETTI: Well it appealed to me because I always thought that the kids’ storyline was more interesting than the adults, but I also appreciate the fact that there is a dialogue between the two timelines, and that’s where… I came to the project when that was sort of dealt, that it would be about the kids. But I always insisted that if there is a second part, there would be a dialogue between the two timelines, and that it would be approached like the adult life of the losers, there would be flashbacks that sort of illuminate events that are not told in the first one.
Are you shooting those flashbacks now? When the kids are at that age?
MUSCHIETTI: No, I’m just praying that the kids don’t grow up.
Earlier, Barbara said you used the phrase the ancestral clowns to talk about Pennywise. That’s an interesting description, can you talk more about what that means to you?
MUSCHIETTI: Yeah, sure. I don’t use ancestral too much, but again—
Or just how you see Pennywise.
MUSCHIETTI: Yeah. Well, the fact that this entity has been around for thousands of years… I’m more drawn— I never— aesthetically, I don’t dig the 20th century clown. I think it looks cheap, and it’s too related to social events and stuff and circus and stuff, which circus is fine, but I’m more aesthetically attracted to the old time, like the 19th century clown. And given that this guy has been around for centuries, I wondered myself why, why not, having an upgrade that was 1800s.
What do you like more about the 19th century?
MUSCHIETTI: The 19th century? The aesthetics I guess. And it’s also about the need for me to bring something in to the equation, the character. I didn’t think much about it. It was more of an instinctive choice.
What were you looking for when you cast Pennywise? Because Barbara said you auditioned a lot of people, even females.
MUSCHIETTI: I know. Even females. I was basically hoping for someone who would surprise me in any way. I had a pre-existing criteria of someone who looked childlike, and that’s where Bill came in. And I remember I was sort of interested in Will Poulter. He was part of a previous approach, and I had a meeting with him. He wasn’t very interested in doing it at that time. And also his career was starting to take off and I think he got a little scared. So to be honest, I saw a lot of people, but there was very few, a small short list, and Bill was on top of it.
Did you give him specific direction, or was he able to create this entity and you just let it go?
MUSCHIETTI: I gave him some, yeah. I gave him some, but then there was a long conversation.
What was it?
MUSCHIETTI: I won’t tell you [laughs].
Can you talk a bit about how the design of Pennywise is developed? We heard you had sketches from your first meeting with the studio. From that point to now, can you tell us about that evolution?
MUSCHIETTI: In the design?
Of the design of the character, yeah.
MUSCHIETTI: I had a sketch. One sketch. It was like a baby. It was like a Gerber baby. With something very off, because his eyes were wide-eyed – the eyes like, slightly apart. And then, to be honest, it didn’t evolve much from that point. And then the Pennywise you saw today is special because his hair is crazy, but the rest of the movie is different. I’m playing a little bit with his mood, and his mood sometimes in terms of the hair. There’s like two hairs maybe. But the official shape is more like a weird baby.
One of the big things with, at least with the mini-series, was Tim Curry’s performance, but also his voice. It’s a very iconic voice. Are you going to be doing anything to Bill’s voice in post-production, or will it be left as he is performing.
MUSCHIETTI: No, it will be left as he’s performing it.
MUSCHIETTI: It’s a different approach, but also he doesn’t, he’s not sticking to one voice. He has different personas. Because it’s a character that is based also on unpredictability, so he has this stagey persona, the more clowny appearance, but then in certain scenes when he turns into this other, which is harder to grasp, and that’s the “other,” you know, the “It.” And he has a different tone, he has a deeper voice, and a different feel to it.
In the book, the sort of burgeoning sexuality subtext stops being subtext at the end of the book. With the movie, you’re not doing that, but is there something you thought of to replace that or sort of get that feel across?
MUSCHIETTI: Well, I think the whole story is a bit of a— approaches the theme of growing up, and the group sex episode in the book is a bit of a metaphor of the end of childhood and into adulthood. And I don’t think it was really needed in the movie, apart that it was very hard to allow us to shoot an orgy in the movie so, I didn’t think it was necessary because the story itself is a bit of a journey, and it illustrates that. And in the end, the replacement for it is the scene with the blood oath, where everyone sort of says goodbye. Spoiler. The blood oath scene is there and it’s the last time they see each other as a group. It’s unspoken. And they don’t know it, but it’s a bit of a foreboding that this is the last time, and being together was a bit of a necessity to beat the monster. Now that the monster recedes, they don’t need to be together. And also because their childhood is ending, and their adulthood is starting. And that’s the bittersweet moment of that sequence.
How weird did you— was there a line where you were like, I’m not going to go as weird as the book did? Or do you make nod to like, the turtle, or the forest that’s behind what’s drawing them together, kind of equaling the forces behind Pennywise? Because he’s not a clown, there’s something bigger underneath it all.
MUSCHIETTI: I was never too crazy about the mythology, but it is mentioned, and the turtle appears, as a Lego. It’s a Lego turtle. It’s a presence that’s there in the key moments of the story. Especially when— there’s a moment where they’re all together— well, you’ll see in the movie. I won’t spoil you.
Is it referred to, or is it just like an Easter egg in the background?
MUSCHIETTI: It’s a bit of an Easter egg. There’s a scene where they’re screaming and it’s the first time the group comes together, and they’re in a quarry and they’re having fun, and you think there’s something under the water… Bill— I think Richie says “Who the fuck was that?” And Bill goes under the water and says “It’s a turtle.” We don’t see it. And that’s it.
Some directors have a very whimsical, nostalgic perspective on childhood. Others have a much harsher viewpoint. Where do you sort of stand between say like, Steven Spielberg and Larry Clark?
MUSCHIETTI: That’s a great question. But it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s not like idealized vision of it. And it’s a wide range. The movie, the tone of the movie regarding what childhood is and experiences of childhood is pretty wide. There’s the Spielberg moments and there’s the Larry Clark moments.
I know Barbara was talking about you guys— I think you reached out to Stephen King but you weren’t able to talk to him, right?
Is his sort of seal of approval maybe important to you guys, maybe down the line?
MUSCHIETTI: I’m very happy making an adaptation, my interpretation of the story, and I would be thrilled to meet Stephen King, but there comes a time in the process where you start feeling good with your interpretation of it, and your contribution to the story, and it doesn’t feel like I want to discuss my ideas with him, you know? I don’t know. It feels like something that I would be embarrassed to tell him, you know? “Your words and your moments don’t work,” right? [laughs].
What part of Stephen King do you feel is the most cinematic?
MUSCHIETTI: The elements that are cinematic?
Yes, in his work. Because I assume you’re a fan of more than It, right?
MUSCHIETTI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I am a fan of his broad tone in general. But sometimes I think that he’s— he goes— there’s some extremes that I’m not crazy about. When he gets too scatalogical, it throws me off. Scenes like the orgy, the end, I never felt like the story needed it. But I don’t know what to say.
How are you approaching the like, scenes with Georgie getting killed, and I think you have Patrick Hockstetter in the movie as well, those are pretty graphic in the book. How are you approaching that in terms of making it fun for a horror audience, while still going, boy, we’re killing little kids here, you know, and making it horrifying?
MUSCHIETTI: Well, the Georgie death is pretty gruesome.
In your movie?
MUSCHIETTI: Yeah. And it’s a bit of, this is how it happened. But you have to know something, which is, maybe that you shouldn’t publish it, but in this story, there is no confirmation that Georgie is dead. He’s attacked by Pennywise, and he’s missing an arm, and he tries to get away from the sewer, like he’s dragged into it again, leaving a trail of blood, but his body is never found. And that’s what prompts Bill, that’s basically Bill’s motivation in the story, is finding Georgie alive.
So, what Eric just said, you know, how do you make a movie that’s fun for horror fans, but let me ask, is this movie supposed to be fun?
MUSCHIETTI: It is fun.
It’s a good time?
MUSCHIETTI: Yeah. It is fun. It’s a horror movie, but it’s quite emotional too, and there’s a lot of humor. And I’m not saying this in a Hollywood way. It’s just part of the essence of the mood that I wanted to stick to, and the characters themselves, Richie and Henry and Ben, these are characters that are colorful, and Stanley with OCD, there’s all kinds of neuroses in the group, that if you don’t show them the way they are, with certain lightness, it gets too dour. And also, I have to say, the actors that I’m working with, they share the DNA of their own characters. In a way that there’s a point where I like to make them improvise, and the stuff that comes out of that freedom is amazing.
Barbara mentioned a few things that you just couldn’t do for budgetary reasons. What is a moment from the book that you really, really wanted to do, but couldn’t do it? For that reason, too expensive.
MUSCHIETTI: So there’s not anything from the book that I couldn’t do for budgetary reasons, but there are two sequences that I thought of that I had to postpone until more money comes. One is a flashback, that sort of portrays the first encounter of It and humans, which is an amazing scene. And the other is a dream, where Bill sees— he’s leaning on a bridge, in Derry, and he’s spitting on the Kenduskeag Stream, and suddenly he sees the reflection of a balloon. And he looks up and it’s not one balloon, but a bunch of balloons, and then he starts to see body parts, and the shot goes wider and it’s a multitude of dead kids floating. I couldn’t afford it.
Can we talk about the black spot? Is that what you’re referencing? Because Barbara mentioned like opening the next movie with that would be pretty awesome, and I tend to agree.
MUSCHIETTI: The next one is a little warped, in the story. The ones who are going to die in a fire in this adaptation are Mike’s parents. And this tragic event is directly in relation with his fear, which is a traumatic image of his parents dying. And he witnessed this as a baby, and it’s an image that’s in his head, and comes back when Pennywise basically incarnates and this image, which is white, abstract, it’s not a monster, it’s just an image. It’s terrifying.