Los Angeles — Everyone knew “It” wasn’t going to be easy.
Making a new adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most popular novels came with the undeniable certainty of feedback that would come from loyal readers as to how well the production had captured the superb creepiness of the novel. Fans of the books have never been shy over the years when it comes to how they feel about the way King’s work is handled.
There was also the shadow of the 1990 miniseries that started strong, but fell apart before the closing credits. Just like the book, the television production followed a group of friends — who call themselves the Losers’ Club — as they learn about the importance of friendship and bonding while facing their deepest fears.
And, making a new “It” would require coming up with a version of what is one of King’s most amazing villains in Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The 1990 miniseries had its detractors, but Tim Curry’s performance was so insanely scary that he made Pennywise one of the most iconic horror figures in TV and film history.
Bill Skarsgård (“Atomic Blonde”) had no fears about taking on the role of Pennywise. He didn’t look at his version being an attempt to repeat what Curry had done. He was just taking on the same character someone else had played and breathing his own life into “It.”
“Playing Pennywise is like doing the kind of re-interpretation that you do for plays all the time. You have different actors playing the same role every other year,” Skarsgård says. “Obviously, we didn’t want to do the same thing that had already been done.”
“Tim Curry is Tim Curry and no one will do Tim Curry as good as Tim Curry. But no one will do Bill Skarsgård as good as Bill Skarsgård. I used what tools I have to make this original and a new take on it. Make it my own.”
One of the ways the two versions of Pennywise are different is in the vision director Andy Muschietti had for the clown’s look. The hours of makeup work needed to transform Skarsgård included much rounder cheeks that make Pennywise look younger. Because there were only 10 days between Skarsgård being cast and his starting the project, the Swedish actor wasn’t completely sure how Pennywise was going to look until he sat down in the makeup chair.
As each piece of prosthetic was applied, with the actor testing how well he could move his face, the look became complete. One of the biggest fights Muschietti had in getting his vision approved by the studio was his insistence that Skarsgård wear a fake pair of buck teeth.
Once he had the look, Skarsgård’s approach to finding new life for Pennywise was to go back to the source material. As he read the massive King novel, Skarsgård began to see how the dialogue offered clues to the complexity of the character calling them the “bread crumbs” that he followed to play the role. Skarsgård doesn’t like to talk about the psychology behind the character that he got from the novel because he feels that it’s something he found and he wants the audience to make their own discoveries. Skarsgård says does say that he and Muschietti were in full agreement as to what “It” is that makes Pennywise tick.
Gary Dauberman, who was brought on to rework the original script by Cary Fukunaga (who at one time was going to direct) to be better in line with what Muschietti envisioned, saw the same literary clues King had put in his book and made sure to use as many of Pennywise’s lines from the novel in the script as possible.
Getting to a final script was a long journey as efforts started in 2009 to get a new adaption made. Executive producer David Katzenberg sees the delays as a good thing because it means the new version is being released 27 years after the miniseries, an important time frame in the story.
The delay also allowed for a dramatic turn in direction. King’s book looks at the group of friends when they are teens in the late ’50s and 27 years later when they return home to face the fears that had such a deep impact on their lives. Instead of going back and forth between the time periods, the new version focuses on the group when they are young. And the time period has been shifted to the ’80s.
The cast features a group of young actors: Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs and Nicholas Hamilton. Despite the young actors being put in some terrifying situations, the director says none of them showed any signs of fear except when filming.
To capitalize on the initial surprise each actor would have in seeing Pennywise for the first time, Muschietti didn’t let them see Skarsgård in full makeup until they got in front of the cameras. For Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays the perpetually sick Eddie, the reveal came in a scene where Pennywise unfolds himself out of a small refrigerator.
As the scene played out, Grazer screamed in terror. When the director yelled “cut,” Skarsgård wanted to make sure his young co-star was OK.
“He said, ‘Yeah man! (Expletive deleted) awesome. I love what you’re doing. I love what you’re doing. I love what you’re doing kid’,” Skarsgård says with a big laugh. “I really think the scene freaked him out, but he used it. That’s the key element to being an actor.”
The main thing Muschietti wanted to do was make something that would make King proud. That’s not an easy task. (King has always disliked the way Stanley Kubrick, one of the great directors of the 20th century, adapted “The Shining.”)
“It was about looking into my own emotional experience of reading the book for the first time. It was more about searching and finding those seminal emotions and translating it into a film that would blow my mind as an adult,” Muschietti says.
“Stephen King was such an influence on me growing up, I don’t have to make an effort to tell a story in a way he tells them.”