Exclusive: John Campopiano on Pennywise: The Story of IT
After a hugely successful IndieGoGo campaign, Pennywise: The Story of IT is officially under way! The documentary will be an in-depth examination of the legacy of Tim Curry’s iconic role, as well as of coulrophobia –the fear of clowns– from a historical and pop cultural perspective.
Production for Pennywise: The Story of IT begins next month, but we’re too excited to wait around for the release. Writer and co-producer John Campopiano (who was also behind Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary) was kind enough to give us as many details as he could about the project, which is a collaboration between him and the UK-based Dead Mouse Productions and UK Cult Screenings.
Dread Central: What is the intention of the documentary? What are your goals for it?
John Campopiano: For me, the documentary has three major components: examining and celebrating Tim Curry and his portrayal of Pennywise the Clown and the legacy of that character; the ripple effect the film and portrayal had on the public consciousness of clowns, the fear of clowns, and the reliance of the horror genre on the image of the clown as a villainous entity; and the significance of The Lucky Seven and [Stephen] King’s interest and ability to write so beautifully to the adolescent experience.
[As for] goals, [I want to] fill a void in the horror world with respect to behind-the-scenes stories, production photos and archival footage, and first hand accounts from cast and crew about their experience making the miniseries. I feel that fans have been given so little insight into IT, so it’s our hope (as fans ourselves) that we can fill that void.
DC: What would you say the inspiration behind this project was?
JC: I’ve been a super fan of IT since I was little. In many ways, making this documentary is like bringing myself closer to the film and maybe even facing some demons that I encountered as a kid after seeing the film for the first time…and being scared to death of Pennywise.
DC: What are some of those demons? Nightmares about Pennywise?
JC: Intense Pennywise nightmares! The first time I saw IT, I didn’t even make it past Georgie’s funeral scene. The sewer grate scene with Pennywise and Georgie was just so odd and off-color that it really haunted me. I think had Pennywise popped out of a closet or from under the bed, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. I was afraid of drains in my bathroom for a short period of time after first seeing the film (laughs). I’ve never admitted this to anyone, but after seeing [IT], whenever I showered, I used to stand as physically far from the drain in the tub as I could.
DC: Well, that just seems like good sense! Who initiated the documentary, and how did everyone in the crew come together to make it happen?
JC: I’ve always wanted to make a film about the miniseries, but because the source material (the book and the film adaptation) is so huge, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Last summer, as my work on the Pet Sematary documentary began to really slow down, I started working on an oral history series for Dread Central focused solely on the 1990 miniseries. After publishing my fourth or fifth interview, I jumped on a phone call with the IT special effects makeup artist Bart Mixon. He mentioned having tons of behind-the-scenes set footage from IT and that some other filmmakers had expressed interest in the footage and even in making an IT documentary.
I knew at that moment I had to reach out to those guys. I wrote director Chris Griffith on Facebook and dropped him a quick note saying something like, “Hey, I love IT as well and would love to make a film with you if you were ever interested.” A while went by, and then I heard from Gary Smart, who had an idea about us all collaborating on a film. That was back in November 2016, and now in June 2017, we’re gearing up for production next month. It’s all really exciting!
DC: How quickly were you all able to get the original cast and crew together?
JC: The amazing thing is that I had been reaching out to cast and crew members and collecting production photos for my oral history series as early as last May, so once I teamed up with the guys in the UK, I had done a lot of the preliminary work.
DC: How did you approach Tim Curry about participating in the project?
JC: I had connected with one of his public appearances reps in New Jersey last October and maintained communication with him. He was instrumental in helping us connect with the right people on Tim’s team.
DC: So you’re starting production next month– is everything all set to go?
JC: We’re still ironing out all of the details. It’s actually a fairly complicated process of getting the guys over here from the UK, meeting in California, and then traveling around LA, Seattle, and ultimately Vancouver.
DC: Can you speak a little more on the cultural impact of IT? You’ve mentioned that it brought coulrophobia to the public consciousness, but do you think it was more than that?
JC: I think clowns have been viewed as scary long before Tim Curry and IT. However, I think his portrayal of Pennywise was such a landmark role [and] catapulted the fear of clowns to the general mainstream. Real life people, like John Wayne Gacy, are certainly pieces of this weird puzzle, but I think even all these years later, Pennywise has lingered in the general consciousness of horror fans, and maybe even film fans in general. Pennywise has become as recognizable as the shark in Jaws and Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask.
I think the role of Pennywise also gave people a tangible example to point to when admitting their fear of clowns. After IT, I think lots of people could start referencing a direct trigger for their fears. In our documentary, we’re going to explore all of these things from a psychological, historical, and even slightly academic angles. There have been lots of really interesting research and reporting on the subject of coulrophobia.
DC: How do you think Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise compare to the literary Pennywise?
JC: I think it’s always a Herculean task trying to trim King’s longer books down to feature film length, or even miniseries length, as the case is here. There were so many elements of the book that I think were next to impossible to recreate for the small screen. That said, I think Tim’s intensity matched the way Pennywise was described in the book. For me, Tim’s brilliance in this role was all in his eyes. He’s not actually on camera much, but when he is on screen, his eyes guide the scenes every time.
DC: Have you learned anything new so far about the making of IT?
JC: Something that stands out is the fact that, in many ways, the film was a local Vancouver production, so many of the cast and crew were Vancouver locals. It’s reminding me of my Pet Sematary documentary when we discovered that so many from the cast and crew were local Maine people– many of whom got their first break in the business on that film. The more we dig deeper, the more I’m beginning to feel like that telling the story of the miniseries will also be telling the story of the Vancouver film scene in the late 1980’s. As someone who loves local history and oral histories in general, I’m definitely game for letting that side topic take me wherever it will.
DC: Who are you most excited to interview?
JC: Tim Curry is definitely at the top of the list. I have met him in person and spoken with him on the phone, so I’ve already had that starstruck moment (laughs). I’m also really excited to interview the [Losers’ Club] kids. Growing up, I really identified with those kids. Connecting with them as adults is going to be really surreal, but so fun.
DC: So what’s the first order of business once production starts?
JC: We need to finish mapping out when and where our interviews are happening, and setting up a travel schedule for British Columbia (where the filming locations are). It’s no easy task when we’re looking at at least twenty interviews and dozens of filming locations scattered around Northwest Canada. But the production challenges are part of the fun!
For more on Pennywise: The Story of IT, be sure to keep an eye on the official Dead Mouse Facebook page.