Twenty-seven years after the Emmy-winning TV mini-series IT realised our irrational fear of clowns, director Andy Muschietti ushers in a new vision of Stephen King’s best-seller to haunt our nightmares.
If Tim Curry immortalised Pennywise, a clown whose scary mask hides a heart of pure evil, then today Bill Skarsgård accepts the mantle – scaring himself in the process during the three-month shoot in Toronto.
“I’d rented a house and had two friends staying with me, although for the final week I was by myself. One morning I got up to go to work and on the concrete wall opposite, someone had sprayed in red an upside-down Satanist cross but with a dot over it. I was thinking it was weird, but then I’m like: Holy sh-t, it spells ‘it’ – literally across from my house. Does some crazy fan know where I’m living?”
“I’ve been a rabid Stephen King fan all my life, so it’s a huge responsibility…”
At 6’ 3”, Skarsgård, 26, doesn’t scare easily. “But because I was by myself, naturally you start thinking, ‘Is this how it ends? I get killed?’ Then on my last day, I step outside and find a pair of white women’s shoes with red tips on my doorstep. They looked like tiny clown shoes.”
Meeting with Skarsgård in West Hollywood, STACK can’t help but wonder why this ridiculously handsome actor would want to play a scary clown in the first place?
“I was just really passionate about the role,” says Skarsgård, who wasn’t even born when the original TV mini-series aired.
“Bill can make that handsome face look not so handsome,” adds co-producer David Katzenberg. “Even while we were shooting, I kept forgetting that there’s this very lovely, handsome Swede under all that makeup. I’m still astonished that it’s the same person.”
For director Andy Muschietti, Skarsgård stood out for one distinct reason. “Bill has this thing where one of his eyes sometimes goes out, so he has this really extravagant look which we might have had to use CG to create. But he can actually do it on cue – he is one in ten million humans that can do that!” he laughs. “He saved us a lot of money on CG effects.”
Skarsgård made a point of shunning the cast of kids so they would never lose their fear of him. “Not only does Pennywise scare and eat children, he hates them too, so it got pretty dark for me fast. It feels weird after you’ve done a full day of terrorising children and you come home and you’re like, ‘phew’,” recalls the actor whose clown make-up originally took five hours, later whittling down the process to half the time.
One of Stephen King’s scariest books, IT is a shape-shifter who takes on the form of a demonic clown, scaring the socks off a group of school kids whose outsider status leads them to befriend one another.
With the film set in the 1980s, Muschietti confiscated all iPhones on set. “It was important that the kids jell very quickly, so we brought them to Canada three weeks earlier and did all these bonding exercises to learn how to be kids in the ‘80s, which is different than being kids with iPhones – a couple of them didn’t even know how to ride bikes. Kids nowadays don’t even climb trees,” says the director, whose hit horror movie Mama served as his calling card to Horrorwood.
“My main interest in making horror movies is to reconnect to childhood fears because the strongest impressions are from when you are six or seven, watching horror movies or reading scary stories. You don’t get that level of intensity again in your life.”
King fans will understand the significance of this film being released 27 years after the original aired on TV, although co-producer Seth Grahame-Green says it was serendipity. “We’ve actually been working on this for six years. I only wish we were smart enough to plan exactly for the 27 years since 1990. I’ve been a rabid Stephen King fan my whole adult life so its a huge responsibility to Stephen King, his fans, the legacy of the book, and even honouring the mini-series that came before us, to find things to do differently while using the advantage of us having a movie – and not a primetime TV show. Our [US] R-rating means we could go to more intense dark places than in 1990.”
The cherry on the top came when King saw an early screening, and tweeted his approval.
IT is in cinemas on September 7
With the first of the two-part IT feature film adaptation floating into cinemas this month, what better time to look back at the 1990 mini-series version of Stephen King’s small town tale of terror.
Directed by sometime John Carpenter associate Tommy Lee Wallace (production designer and editor on Halloween and The Fog), IT follows the exploits of a bunch of young outcasts; the self-proclaimed “Loser’s Club” (including SeaQuest’s Jonathan Brandis and Buffy’s Seth Green), who united in the ’60s to defeat an unspeakable evil lurking beneath the town of Derry, Maine. But did they end IT’s reign of terror? Nope. 27 years later IT returns, and the seven friends must now honour their pledge to return to Derry for the ultimate showdown.
IT predominantly draws on King’s signature Stand By Me obsessions with the bonds of friendship, innocence lost and small town ambience (since appropriated by Stranger Things), but this time throws the ultimate evil into the mix in the form of Pennywise the clown (Tim Curry).
For its first half, the mini-series sticks closely to King’s novel, but sadly its climactic trump card turns out to be a joker instead of an ace. Dispensing with the mind-bending metaphysics and cosmic relevance of the book’s climax for a more literal manifestation of the titular evil, IT’s monster payoff resembles a cheesy looking refugee from a cheap Roger Corman flick.
The second IT film isn’t likely to make the same mistake.
What’s scarier than the prospect of The Waltons’ John-Boy (Richard Thomas) and Three’s Company’s John Ritter together in the same mini-series? How about Rocky Horror‘s Tim Curry as the eponymous, shapeshifting creature of Stephen King’s chunky bestseller?
As Legend will attest, Curry’s hammy performances are directly proportionate to the amount of latex and makeup he’s buried under at the time. But as the malevolent, child-snatching clown Pennywise, the actor delivered perhaps his finest performance since the tour de force that was Frankenfurter. Oozing malevolence (and let’s face it, what clown doesn’t), Curry got all the best lines –”I am immortal child. I am the eater of worlds and of children, and you are next” – making him the undisputed highlight of the tele-version of King’s epic.
Refusing to lean on Curry’s original 1990 performance, movie Pennywise Bill Skarsgård says, “It was important for people who are big fans of the original and Tim Curry’s Pennywise to go see [the film] and say: ‘Oh, I also like this’. It’s apples and oranges. Two different takes and two different versions – I think you can appreciate both.”