How do you adapt one of the most beloved horror novels of all time? How do you terrify generations anew when a character as iconic as Pennywise the clown has been burned into the minds of audiences for decades? Such were the challenges placed at the feet of IT producer Barbara Muschietti and her creative partner (and brother) Andy Mushietti when they took over New Line’s film adaptation of Stephen King‘s classic novel about the small town of Derry, Maine and the insidious force of evil feasting on its children.
Last year, I had the opportunity to join a small group of journalists on the set of IT in Toronto, Canada. There, we toured the sets and soundstages, observed filming, and spoke with the cast and crew. Our longest interview was with Muschietti, who was on-set consistently as the film’s producer and had a whole heck of a lot of insight to offer into their approach to the material, how the project evolved from Cary Fukunaga‘s draft, why the R-rating is key, capturing what makes Stephen King Stephen King, changes from the book, and a lot more. Check out the full interview below.
In the books and the miniseries, the narratives of the kids and the adults but you guys aren’t doing that right?
BARBARA MUSCHIETTI: We’re not doing for a simple reason, that we didn’t think it was necessary to intertwine them. The book is our bible, for sure, but we thought it would be more interesting to respect the proper chronology, and also, it’s such a massive book. This, I have to say, we inherited it and we could have changed it but we decided not to, to stick to the kids, because I think it gives you a bigger change of really understand the characters in the first part of the movie, rather than spending half of the movie 27 years later.
There’s also that demarcation line if you’re going to do Part II. You can easily make a sequel.
MUSCHIETTI: If ever there was a book that was perfect to be divided, it was IT.
If someone was watching this movie and didn’t know that there would be adult stuff, will you at least hint at it? “To be continued…”? Not that literally, but a framing device.
MUSCHIETTI: There’s not a to be continued. There is a big ass wink in one of the final scenes.
The promise is still there, I assume, that if it comes back, they will return.
MUSCHIETTI: The blood oath, yeah.
Was there a discussion about moving the film forward three decades to the 80s?
MUSCHIETTI: Again, this is something I’m going to be very candid, when we got into the project that’s how it was and we agreed with it completely for two reasons. Try to film what you know. King writes what he knows, we try to film what we know. We grew up in the 80s. We wanted to do a very rounded 80s and not a caricaturesque 80s, and we can do that because we know the period very well. Also, I think the fears in the 50s from the book, that they’re absolutely wonderful but we wanted less tangible fears and more internal. I think part of the adaptation in the 80s is that we could do that without destroying the characters in the 50s. It’s a blank slate for fears, with winks to the 50s fears but a little less naive.
Pennywise in the book plays a lot on what the kids are thinking about. They call him a glamor, so there were a lot of pop culture references. Do you guys have 80s references?
MUSCHIETTI: He’s still very much the glamor creature, and he represents the 80s fears of these kids, which again, are a lot less iconic than the book all though there are winks to those 50s fears. But he’s still very much in that sense a shape-shifter who basically tunes into a fear and will augment it and present it to you when you least expect it.
But we shouldn’t expect crazy 80s pop culture references?
MUSCHIETTI: No. No, no, no. Not at all.
Are there references to the universal monsters?
MUSCHIETTI: Again, there’s winks to them. Those characters are for everybody to use and there is small winks, but they’re not hero fears.
How did you balance the fact that Pennywise in his clown form has become iconic, but in the book he can take so many shapes? How did you determine how much we will see him in the iconic clown form?
MUSCHIETTI: Very much like in the book. He appears as Bob Gray in very specific moments. We see him as little as we possibly can. That’s what we tried to do. But I think everybody will get their fair share of Pennywise if that’s what they’re going to the movie for.
Talk about the casting process, how many people you auditioned, and how you settled on Bill.
MUSCHIETTI: We auditioned literally hundreds of potential Bob Grays or Pennywises and it was an amazing process. We got to audition people that don’t audition anymore and a huge gamut of talent; women, younger age, older age, we really went through the spectrum of actors.
No Tilda Swinton?
MUSCHIETTI: She wasn’t available.
MUSCHIETTI: No, no I swear to god. She was not. We had a slot to shoot the movie and she wasn’t available so she didn’t even audition. But of course, we all thought about. But Bill came in and blew our socks off. Because he was doing his very own interpretation of Pennywise, very erudite — sometimes my words are a little skewed because this is not my first language, but very very familiar with the novel and with Pennywise in the novel, which for us was a huge help. Because we went in the casting process with the book in mind. We read the novel when we were teens, we saw the miniseries much later in the game, so Tim Curry’s performance is extraordinary but that is not necessarily what we link to Pennywise immediately. For us, the Pennywise is the Pennywise in the book which is quite different. I think Bill went for that and he did an amazing, amazing performance and we gave him several tests. Again, because he’s a shape shifter, we wanted to make sure that he could play in different grades, right? And he did. he’s amazing. And what’s even more amazing is that he kept the character very unpredictable, and that’s what scares us the most, when you don’t know what way he’s going to go.
You said that this version of the character was more like the book than in the mini-series. Can you be more specific about that idea?
MUSCHIETTI: Tim Curry. You see Tim Curry and you already know that he’s an evil clown. There’s never a doubt about this. This Pennywise plays with his food. He taunts them, and that is of course very amusing but very disturbing at the same time, and very scary. I would say that’s one of the main differences.
Will Poulter was attached for Cary’s version, so was that ever on the table for you guys?
MUSCHIETTI: He was on the table but there were, mostly to be completely honest, there were scheduling conflicts because he was on The Maze Runner. When we started, we started seeing people right away and the moment Bill popped up, I think we knew it was for us.
Can you talk about what you inherited from the previous team vs what you brought to the table with your vision?
MUSCHIETTI: What we inherited basically was the two-film structure; 80s and present time. I think what we brought to the table is Andy’s [style] and how he faces fear and how he needs to have very emotional characters. And it’s very easy with this root material. I think those are two aspects, emotions and fear were imprinted in the script that was developed with us with Gary Dauberman, much more to our taste. And then the notion of the power of belief as a resolution, and power in unity. These guys need each other to face Pennywise and to fight him, and they’re alone, they’re losers and they never really — in our movie, there are no resolutions with the outside world, so they don’t necessarily solve the conflicts with their parents. That’s what their real lives are and continue to be, all they have is each other. That’s very much our movie.
So you didn’t use Chase Palmer’s draft at all?
MUSCHIETTI: We didn’t. That was the script we were given, and by the way, it’s a fantastic script but then again, they brought us to do our own take and with Gary Dauberman, using Cary and Chase’s script as a basis for sure, but I think we skewed it to a different place.
The film is rated R but the book is pretty gnarly and a lot of stuff happens to kids. What’s been your approach to what you can and can’t do in a movie?
MUSCHIETTI: Well, to completely honest, it’s good to know that you’re starting with an R — we would have gone an R regardless just out of intensity. The MPAA is absolutely unpredictable, just like Pennywise, you don’t know.
MUSCHIETTI: So you know, at least you don’t have to limit the amount of times you can say “fuck”. You just go for it. We’re not necessarily gory people.
MUSCHIETTI: There are a lot of bloody moments, that’s for sure, but the thing is I think Andy’s a master builder and that’s where we operate better. That’s where we make the fear happen, when you’re just sitting on the edge of your seat shitting your pants rather than being splattered by guts all over.
There’s some pretty ingenious puppetry in Mama, is there any puppetry invoked in this Pennywise creation?
MUSCHIETTI: We did not use the same puppetry as in Mama, although we did work with Javier, Javier is one of our characters. We did not use the actual puppetry, but we worked with Bill physically a lot and he is amazing and his structure. Yesterday, we were working on some scenes and there’s a great choreographer involved in our production and you will see him do some amazing thing. This is a different, more active Pennywise.
You said this film does get bloody at some points, are you going more for practical effects?
MUSCHIETTI: Yes. Yes, as many as possible.
What about when you get to post? Are you going to keep them? A lot of times films say “we did all this practical” but when you get to the end it’s all covered in CGI.