You're 'It': Stephen King's Pennywise returns creepier than ever in Andy Muschietti's new take on the horror classic

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There must have been a time, far back in the annals of human history, when the majority of people actually liked clowns. Or at least, if they had no feelings towards clowns at all, didn’t find them creepy. But then along came Stephen King’s Pennywise, a shape-shifting demon from another dimension who takes the shape of a clown to best prey on the poor children of Derry, Maine. “They float. They float, Georgie,” says Pennywise in the opening chapter of King’s It, using balloons and a paper boat to lure little Georgie Denbrough to his gruesome death. “And when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too.”

Pennywise—aka “Mr. Bob Gray,” aka all your nightmares rolled into one—makes his big-screen debut in Andy Muschietti’s It, out Sept. 8 from Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. Muschietti is no stranger to putting children in dangerous (fictional) situations; his first feature, 2013’s Mama, centered on two young girls who were raised out in the forest by an evil spirit. But there’s a big jump from that to tackling one of the most iconic horror villains—written by one of the most iconic horror authors—of all time.

Post-Mama, Muschietti signed on to direct Universal’s The Mummy reboot, eventually to be helmed by Alex Kurtzman. “I was doing a scary action movie that was different from what it turned out to be,” Muschietti recalls. “They didn’t want to scare people, basically. So after nine months of work, I was film-less.” Muschietti being film-less coincided with It being director-less; the original director, Cary Fukunaga, left the project, though he’s still credited as one of its screenwriters. “I immediately called my agent and set up a meeting with New Line, because of my love for the book,” says Muschietti. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t let go.”

Muschietti first read It when he was in his mid-teens. As such, he was just a few years older than the book’s “Losers Club,” the group of misfits who square up against Pennywise and then return to Derry 27 years later to finish the job. (In King’s book and its 1990 mini-series adaptation, the perspective shifts back and forth between the child and adult versions of the Losers Club; this time around, the adult plotline is happening separately, in a sequel. Muschietti has assured me that adult Bill Denbrough, yet to be cast, will ditch the awful ponytail he had in the mini-series.)

King’s book has caused generations of readers to sleep with their lights on…but ask Muschietti what it is about It that first drew him in, and the answer surprisingly isn’t its horror elements. Rather, Muschietti most responded to It’s story of young love. “It’s that time in your life when you idealize love and romance. It’s your first contact with the opposite sex. I really related to the love story,” he explains. Other non-fantastical elements resonated as well, like the bullying the Losers Club has to put up with. Strip away the shape-shifting antagonist, after all, and these are normal kids. “It’s a really rich story. Really, the emotional element of it made me identify with the characters.”

But It still is a horror novel, after all, and that side of things was “something that really shook” Muschietti as well. Pennywise is “such a fascinating monster—the idea that he can shape-shift and become your worst fear was really something.” At various points, Pennywise becomes a leper, a werewolf, a mummy…but that damn clown is what he always seems to come back to.

In casting Pennywise, Muschietti wanted someone who could bring a “childlike side” to the character. “In my opinion, it is very important that the nature of the character is that he’s based in children’s imagination. So I want to transpose that into the character.” He calls it a “twisted balance”—you want Pennywise to be frightening, of course, but also the sort of character you can believe a child initially trusting. Hundreds of actors were considered, spanning genders, ages and looks. Finding the right person wasn’t easy, Muschietti recalls, “because a lot of actors came with a very defined performance on one side or the other of that balance.”

Bill Skarsgård (“Hemlock Grove”) “came out of nowhere,” Muschietti says, “and really, really surprised me with that crazy balance I was looking for,” shifting back and forth between (seemingly) innocent and childlike and “something that is much more dark. He has this intense look to him. Intense eyes. And, of course, all the nuances of performance that he brings are mind-blowing.”

Of course, before the release of this new It, there’s one actor most people associate with Pennywise: Tim Curry, who so memorably played the deadly clown in the aforementioned 1990 mini-series that served as an entry point to It for an entire generation. Muschietti isn’t one of those people. He was a book guy. “I was older when I saw [the mini-series],” he notes, “so it didn’t leave such a deep impact on me.” Further, he cites Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise, though “very important, very iconic,” as also somewhat “one-layered.” And really, it’s hard to argue. The first time we see Pennywise in the book, his voice is described as “pleasant.” Curry, on the other hand, sounds something like a gruff, chain-smoking Brooklyn mobster. It’s not exactly a voice that screams, “Don’t worry, kid, I would never rip your arm off and leave you to bleed out in a puddle.” (RIP, Georgie Denbrough.)

For Muschietti’s part, it was important that that opening scene strike a calculated balance between the friendly and the frightening, the familiar and the horrific, achieved through carefully modulated performance, camerawork, lighting and music. After all, if a kid comes across an obviously bad-news person hanging out in the sewers, he “would probably be scared and run away. But the fact that Pennywise has [Georgie’s toy boat] in his hands, and also the fact that he looks sort of sweet and cute, makes Georgie stay. This is where the character becomes a little more layered. He’s a trickster. But he also does some things in that scene that visually tell us that Pennywise is playing with the kid and that, ultimately, he doesn’t give a shit what he thinks, whether he’s convincing or not. He knows he’s got him. That’s what makes the scene unnerving, is that you know where it’s going.”

Another key difference between the mini-series and Muschietti’s movie: the former, airing on ABC in 1990, couldn’t exactly go all-in on the violence and gore from King’s original book. We’re talking decidedly PG scares…maybe PG-13, if you push it. But with this It, it’s R-rated all the way. In his first conversation with New Line, Muschietti recalls, “I said, ‘I think it’s an R-rated movie,’ and they all agreed. And they were going for that before I was involved.” For all the mini-series’ endearment to so many, Muschietti says, “I don’t think that anyone would think that it’s a faithful adaptation of the book”—both in terms of violence and specific plot elements that had to be cut. (Assuming the It sequel has approximately the same running time as this film, we’re looking at roughly four and a half hours to tell King’s whopping 1,138-page story, compared to the mini-series’ three hours and 12 minutes.) The 1990 It having been toned down, Muschietti argues, “is great for our version, because the desire for [a faithful version of the book] has accumulated for years and years.”