Not long ago, they sent a bunch of horror writers to go look at a clown up in Canada, and Dread Central was part of the group. He was on a green screen set, crawling out of a children’s book— most likely trying to kill someone. Clowns are like that, especially this clown—Pennywise. Shapeshifter, sewer dweller.
We were at first concerned we would not make it back and these set reports would never reach their readership. But we survived the sewer set—walked along its walls, supervised of course. Then we saw the clown’s chamber, which was piled high with doll babies, toys—stuffed limbs and wheels jutting outwards. Packed in along with the plastic anguish were children’s clothes, of course. Resting at the base, a painted yellow carnival wagon. That’s where IT sleeps, we found out.
Producer Barbara Muschetti (Mama) warns, “Pennywise is definitely evil and the incarnation of the worst of people’s fears.”
And it was a sketch that started it. Director Andrés Muschietti (Mama) explains, “I had a sketch. One sketch. It was like a baby. It was like a Gerber baby. With something very off, because his eyes were wide-eyed – the eyes slightly apart…”
Barbara continues, “I think King’s descriptions of Pennywise in the book were very much in mind, his clothing… We call it ‘the ancestral clown.’ It’s not of any particular era, but you know it’s not ‘present clown.’ It’s beyond, from above, the past and the future. It’s Pennywise.”
Andrés adds, “Well, the fact that this entity has been around for thousands of years… I’m more drawn— I never— aesthetically, I don’t dig the 20th century clown. I think it looks cheap, and it’s too related to social events and circus and stuff. ‘Circus’ is fine, but I’m more aesthetically attracted to the old time, like the 19th century clown. And given that this guy has been around for centuries, I wondered myself why, why not? Having an upgrade that was 1800’s.”
Both Andrés and Barbara looked to the novel as their “bible” but kept the chronology of the script they inherited from Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, “True Detective”), who was first attached to direct.
Barbara says, “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 chance of really understanding the characters in the first part of the movie, rather than spending half of the movie 27 years later… In the book you’re obviously going back-and-forth, but if you clearly separate the storylines, they’re quite contained.”
As for Stephen King, Barbara hopes he is honored by their work on IT, “Andy and I went to Bangor for a couple weeks to just hang and really get a taste of ‘Derry’… The thing we tried to capture the most was the characters, and there is not a character writer like King. That is why we are all so drawn to his books. You fall in love with the earthliness of this little town’s heroes. In the writing, casting, and directing of these kids, you’ll find that King’s style is all over the place. I’m hoping he’ll feel respected and honored.”
Creating Castle Rock and Pennywise’s lair was the work of Production Designer Claude Paré (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Underworld: Awakening), who told us, “…one of the main sets that we worked on – one of them was an evil house. [We were shown this in his office, a dark twisted house, a place of nightmares alongside beautifully rendered sketches of the sewers, also a place of nightmares.] The evil house had three specific moments – there’s the exterior, there’s the interior, and then the basement, where the well is… where Pennywise accesses the sewers and the cisterns where his lair is… I also wanted to have this spooky tree looming at the house so we decided to build it – until a crew member found this tree, driving to the office here one morning. So we bought the tree from the owner after negotiating.” As we walked through the production design space, we saw sketches of Castle Rock and ideas of how they would turn a town into Stephen King’s town. There were foam models designs and vintage reference on the walls. And now down below…
Claude tells us, “The other main component of this movie, of course, is the sewers and the cistern. Andy and I worked every morning for about three months just standing here and looking at the plans and trying to figure out what was the best pattern for us on stages – we had a pretty precise stage that we had access to, so we had to make profit as much as we could, of what we had. So we discussed – we knew we had to have a culvert entrance in ‘The Barrens,’ somewhere here in Toronto or around Toronto.”
“Now the sewers, I wanted them originally to be done in bricks, because it’s more period-accurate, and then we realized that we could not really afford that. So we decided to go with formed concrete that would have been done with planks and plywood sheets, stuff like that.” As we entered the tunnels ourselves, we were shown detail, told this would be only by flashlight, and then the claw marks. “So we looked at the location and then we had the kids climb up and down, so they were going to do the well at the location, but we built the well here on stage. So that it connects Pennywise’s tunnel, which… you’ll see the claw marks when you look at it, so that gives access to the tunnels, which gives access to the cistern, which is the giant set that we’re shooting now, and in which Pennywise has his wagon of Pennywise: The Dancing Clown, and on top of which there’s a pile of all the clothes and toys of the dead kids over the many centuries.”
Now, who travels these sewers? Who floats down there? Why, children of course! Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben Hascom) mentioned they felt like friends for “20 years, that’s how good our chemistry was.” And Wyatt Oleff (Stan Uris) agrees; they will stay friends forever, and he feels their bond “translates on screen…”
As for group dynamics, Finn Wolfhard (Richie Tozier) tells us, “Bill and Bev are sort of the ringleaders of the group. But every character has their moment in this movie, and the book, so I think that’s cool.”
“It’s very interesting,” Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough) relays. “It’s different than anything else I’ve ever done… it’s been a little tough because sometimes my stutter can go out of control. And now… sometimes I’m stuttering not on purpose, by accident…”
Sophia Lillis (Beverly Marsh) gives us insight on her character and its development: “The first thing I do in an audition, if I ever have to get into the character, is try to find things that are most similar to me in my character. I think she tries to be strong and she tries to… actually, I really like this about her; she doesn’t care what other people think about her. And she’s an outsider, and I can see myself in that, with her. In reality, though, she’s actually a very kind person who just wants to be with a group of friends, and I can relate.”
As does Taylor, “Ben is the smart guy. Not that everybody else isn’t. I guess you could say he’s a nerd, but he’s not the [pretends to push invisible glasses up the bridge of his nose] ‘I’m the nerd and I know everything.’ But he never really had any friends and he thought that was a perfectly fine thing until he met the rest of the Losers’ Club and he thought it was the best thing in the world.”
And then we moved on to Pennywise, who was hidden from his co-stars until it was time to shine. Bill Skarsgård says, “It was fun working with [the kids]. I tried to bring out the best in them as we were shooting. Encourage them. Andy was amazing at encouraging the kids and encouraging them to explore. They would say things; they would come up with ideas. They are very smart and creative people. So that was a lot of fun. The only difference in the cast was working with Georgie, whose name is Jackson. He was 7 years old. That was different because he was way younger than the other kids. We had to work with him a little differently. Shooting that storm drain scene, he was noticeably affected by the sight of me in the storm drain. I’ll just put it that way [laughs]. But we’re good friends in real life!”
Skarsgård did take note of the Master who had come before him. “I watched the miniseries and really appreciated Tim Curry’s take on it,” he enthused, “but now I had to do something completely different. Obviously, that’s not something you study. I wouldn’t see the point in making a film that’s similar to the one that’s already been made, so I didn’t try to think too much about that. I just worked really hard to create my own interpretation of Stephen King’s character.”
So he developed his own feel for the clown. “Essentially, it was the most weird, scary, and disturbing thing we [Andy and Bill] could come up with. It was important to me that there was something absurd about the character. Something inexplicable. Why is he doing this? Unpredictable absurdity to the character that will catch people off-guard. This kind of shock factor where you never know what this guy is going to do next.”
And the voice evolved from the look. Skarsgård explains the process: “My first test with the prosthetics and make-up was where I saw what the character would actually look like with me in it. That’s something I needed to explore to [discover] what this thing would sound like.”
Andrés notes, “…he’s not sticking to one voice. He has different personas. Because it’s a character that is based also on unpredictability, so he has this stagey persona, the more clowny appearance, but then in certain scenes when he turns into this other, which is harder to grasp, and that’s the ‘other,’ you know, the ‘It.’ And he has a different tone, he has a deeper voice, and a different feel to it.”
In the end the clown is fear, and he drew on his own. Skarsgård explains that he asked himself, “’What are the things that I would find really unsettling?’ And then explore that. Your own kind of fears and what you find disturbing and amplify that in terms of the performance. Essentially, what you’ll end up seeing in the film is my own deepest fears embodied in this character [laughs]… I had to first figure out what the entity was and what the thing was that is taking the shape of the clown. The second step is to create the clown itself. I didn’t want the clown to be completely separate from the entity, right? But for me, I had to make Pennywise anything but mysterious because I need to understand him as well as I can.”
We’ll all be able to start understanding Pennywise ourselves when IT hits theaters on September 8th.
Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Sophia Lillis star with Bill Skarsgard, who portrays Pennywise. In addition, creature performer Javier Botet has signed on as The Leper, and Owen Teague plays Patrick Hocksetter, part of a group of bullies who torment The Losers’ Club.
Andrés Muschietti directs; and the behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Chung-Hoon Chung (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), production designer Claude Paré (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), editor Jason Ballantine (The Great Gatsby), and costume designer Janie Bryant (“Mad Men”).