Fear Itself: How Pennywise was brought back to life for a new generation
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It has no name, no face.
It is infinite, ageless, immortal.
It feels only hunger.
But It has a favorite form. And ever since Stephen King first published his epic 1986 novel with the two-letter name, clowns just haven’t been the same.
It — the new film adaptation from director Andy Muschietti, opening Friday — is about to introduce a brand-new audience to the sinister creature known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but the blood-curdling thriller also serves as the crown jewel in a renewed interest in King’s work.
The godfather of horror influenced countless fellow novelists and contemporary filmmakers and screenwriters with his imagination-busting, genre-spanning range of novels, and as he turns 70 this month, those admirers are in the midst of returning the favor.
Not only are new novels published every day that owe him a debt of gratitude, but his classic work is being resurrected on the screen with this movie as well as a Netflix version of Gerald’s Game, the recent big-screen version of The Dark Tower and TV adaptations of Mr. Mercedes, The Mist, and more on the horizon.
King has been publishing consistently for four decades, with barely a blank spot in his bibliography apart from his recovery from a near-fatal crash in 1999, when a reckless driver ran him over while the author took a walk on a rural Maine road. In recent years King’s output has redoubled.
Recently he has taken up sharing the storytelling duties, publishing a return to his dark little town of Castle Rock with Gwendy’s Button Box (cowritten with Cemetery Dance publisher Richard Chizmar) and his brand-new novel Sleeping Beauties (with son Owen King, author of the novel Double Feature and the graphic novel Intro to Alien Invasion).
But It … It is a landmark among King’s work, one of the most chilling (and widely read) books he has ever written. And it’s back to unleash terror, still hungry for more.
Anyone who grew up reading King can recite the plot by heart: For as long as human beings have inhabited the small town of Derry, a shape-shifting supernatural presence has dwelled beneath them, nourishing itself on fear and anger. The creature likes to assume the identity of a sneering, yellow-eyed harlequin that calls itself Pennywise — a predator that uses the trappings of childlike innocence to lure little kids to their doom. In the 1990 TV miniseries, Pennywise was brought to terrifying life by Tim Curry, who is a freakishly hard act to follow.
With the new big-screen adaptation of It, Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan, brother of Alexander and costar of TV’s Hemlock Grove) is stepping into the creature’s comically oversize shoes. Judging by the unsettled reactions of the Internet, he’s already curdling blood around the world.
He even gave director Muschietti the creeps. “He started doing things in the audition that were like … what?” the filmmaker recalls. “His face contorts in very weird ways. He has these eyes that are the scariest thing. He can be very scary.”
The eyes. Yikes. Even though Skarsgård is wearing amber lenses, he has a real-life trick that school kids might use to make one another’s skin crawl. When Muschietti told the actor that he intended to employ visual effects to make Pennywise’s eyes move independently of each other, Skarsgård declared, “I can do it!”
The filmmaker waggled his fingers in front of his eyes, indicating pinwheeling pupils. “I was like, ‘Whoa. I never saw someone do that voluntarily,’” he said.
As we talked in the film’s production office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Muschietti’s sister Barbara Muschietti, a producer of It, jutted out her jaw and contorted her mouth.
“[Skarsgård] does something with his lip that’s freaking impossible,” she said. “I don’t know if people are aware what a great actor he is. Meet him in person and he’s stunningly handsome, but he doesn’t care. He’s completely unaware—and if he is aware, he doesn’t give a sh–. He’s very brave.”
Andy Muschietti agrees, saying many actors were scared off by Pennywise. “This is a role that a lot of people would turn down because they don’t even want to try, since Tim Curry’s performance was iconic,” Muschietti said. “But [Skarsgård] said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
Most people who play antagonists always search for the humanity. They often claim their character isn’t even a “villain” but rather misunderstood or misguided. Skarsgård says the key to Pennywise was ignoring all that empathy. This is a monster, not a man.
“It’s such an extreme character. Inhumane,” Skarsgård says. “It’s beyond even a sociopath because he’s not even human. He’s not even a clown. I’m playing just one of the beings It creates.”
His look is meant to suggest bygone times, among them the medieval, Renaissance, Elizabethan and Victorian eras. His neck is frilled by a thick, puffy collar, like a ruff from the late 16th century, and his sleeves and pantaloons dangle with orange ball fringe.
“I wanted it to have an organic, gourd or pumpkin kind of effect,” says costume designer Janie Bryant (Deadwood, Mad Men). That includes the peplum at his waist, which is the flared, skirtlike fabric blossoming below his doublet. “It helps exaggerate certain parts of the body,” Bryant says. “The costume is very nipped in the waist, and with the peplum and bloomers it has an expansive silhouette.”
It’s all aimed at creating a subliminal suggestion of a creature with long, lanky limbs, a head and neck like a cephalothorax and a bulbous, arachnoid abdomen. But this creature is walking upright and calling to you with a fistful of balloons. “There is almost a doll-like quality to the costume,” Bryant says. “The pants being short, the high waistline of the jacket and the fit of the costume is a very important element. It gives the character a childlike quality.” The gloves are so tight and seamless they make his hands look like porcelain.
Even Pennywise’s creator finds this version creepy. “It’s a scary clown,” King tells EW. “But to me they’re all scary.”
In King’s story Pennywise faces down a team of outcast kids known as the Losers.
They’re the ones in Derry who — against all odds — have developed a sensitivity and compassion from years of abuse. That allows them to see clearly what the rest of the townsfolk cannot: There’s something bad in Derry. Or maybe the creature has taken up residence because Derry itself is bad — a place where everyday cruelties are overlooked or excused.
While It takes many forms — a leper hiding in an abandoned house, an abusive parent — It’s favorite guise is a manifestation of its true nature. “It truly enjoys the shape of the clown Pennywise and enjoys the game and the hunt,” Skarsgård says. “What’s funny to this evil entity might not be funny to everyone else. But he thinks it’s funny.”
The group of Losers who confront this goliath of evil is led by Bill Denbrough (Midnight Special’s Jaeden Lieberher), who lost his little brother Georgie during a torrential autumn downpour. Little Georgie went out to float a paper boat that Bill had made for him and encountered a curious sight: a clown. Inside the mouth of a storm drain.
In King’s book the boy is found with his arm torn off. In the movie … he’s never found at all. “That’s something Andy came up with because of the need to have Bill be proactive and not just act out of vengeance or fear,” says Barbara Muschietti. “He has a real quest, and in that quest, he brings the Losers.”
The novel alternates between timelines — the experiences of the Losers as children in the years 1957 and ’58, and their return to the town as adults to confront the monster again in the mid-’80s. Muschietti’s film cuts the narrative in half and tells only the tale of the children, updating it all to the year 1989. A second film, following the experiences of the Losers as adults, will be set in the present day.
“The dialogue between timelines is one of the most interesting things in the book, but we came into the project when the idea of making two separate movies was already dealt,” says Muschietti (best known for the 2013 horror film Mama). He came aboard It after the previous director, Beasts of No Nation’s Cary Fukunaga, parted ways over creative differences with the studio.
“I just rolled with it,” Muschietti says. “But with the promise that on the second movie, dialogue between timelines will be more present.”
Each of the Losers is someone you know from school — or someone you saw across the cafeteria, sitting alone. Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is one of the few black kids in the otherwise all-white town, and he faces racism and hatred every day. Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is the only girl in the group — her abusive father is a constant threat. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) endures no end of fat jokes but nonetheless considers himself a romantic, harboring a secret crush on Beverly.
Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, of Stranger Things) is the class clown who uses his smart-ass routine to mask his crushing insecurity. The smallest of the bunch, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), has a hypochondriac mother who keeps him in a constant state of anxiety. Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is tormented for being Jewish.
While casting the roles, the filmmakers looked for young performers who had some sense of what it might be like to be the character they’re playing. “All of the kids, apart from being really good actors, they’re brilliant children,” says Barbara Muschietti. “You can see characteristics in them that you would see in the Losers. They all come with baggage but in a fantastic way. And in that same way, when they met this last summer, they just attached to each other like they had been together their whole lives.”
The filmmakers hosted bonding sessions for the kids: bike rides, swimming trips, hikes through the woods. Only one actor was excluded.
You know who.
From Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to Stephen King. Buy it here.