Stephen King’s IT – Interview With David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith
David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith formed their own production company, KatzSmith, in 2011 and have been going strong ever since. They’ve done some TV series, but horror is their true love. Both have a background in the genre, and coming up they’re producing a sequel to Tim Burton’s classic Beetlejuice, as well as an adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel, Unholy Night (he’s a terrific writer; if you haven’t read How to Survive a Horror Movie yet, correct that ASAP!).
But right now, the pair are focused on the much-anticipated big screen debut of Stephen King’s IT (IT was made into a miniseries in 1990, but there’s been nothing since). The film tells the same story of seven children in Derry, Maine, who are terrorized by the eponymous being (also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown), only to face their own personal demons in the process. But there’s a bit of a twist.
We got the chance to sit down and ask them how it feels to take on such iconic material, and as fans, what they love most about getting to be in Pennywise’s playground.
Dread Central: Seems you already have a huge, built-in fanbase for the movie. And reactions from the screenings have been great.
Seth Grahame-Smith: We don’t take anything for granted. We’re the two most superstitious people in the entertainment industry. I happy that the reactions are favourable so far, I’m encouraged, I know we are proud of the movie, I know we worked hard on the movie. Of course, the number one thing for us is we want to be well received. It’ the number one thing. We want to be part of an enduring, well received Stephen King adaptation, that’s the whole point of this. We started on this journey with this movie over six years ago and we’ve put a lot of sweat and tears into making it and – we grew up reading Stephen King books. I can remember being eleven, twelve, thirteen years old, I was thirteen when I read this book in the summer of 1989 – which is weirdly when our movie takes place – and so Stephen King is for me is why I wanted to become an author. He’s the most important writer to me, period. In my life. So, the idea of getting it wrong, scared me more than anything in any one of his books. The idea of disappointing Stephen King and disappointing Stephen King fans, was the motivation through the entire process.
David Katzenberg: Getting his stamp of approval… we finally took a breath when we got his approval.
Grahame-Smith: When we screened this movie for him and we got his reaction, at this point no matter what else happens, we’re good. As long as I didn’t disappoint the maestro, the creator, then I could live with almost anything else that happens.
DC: Seth, you are such a terrific writer. Didn’t you want to take a crack at the screenplay?
Grahame-Smith: I wasn’t so much handing it over. When we came in, I think that what I wanted to be on this film along with David, is sort of a creative steward. Making sure the material was protected, no matter who the writer was, no matter who the director was, at that early point. Because the book was very special to both of us. I have very specific memories of reading it, very specific memories of reading all of Stephen King’s books that I could get my hands on. When I grew up, my stepfather had a book store for used and rare books. He was a sci-fi guy but he also loved fantasy and he also loved horror and so paperbacks were everywhere in our house and in the store. So he started feeding me these Stephen King books when I was eleven years old, because I was asking for them and so it’s very personal and important part of my life and for David in his life and I think that was the job. To make sure we were keeping – putting together a team that was going to feel the same way about the material and I think that’s what we did.
DC: What does Andy Muschietti bring to the table?
Katzenberg: Andy was one of the very few directors that came in that really solely focused on the kids, on the children. We already knew at that point we were going to break the movie into two parts essentially, because we could not jam everything into one feature. But Andy came in right away and rather than talk about, Pennywise, the clown, the scares, stuff that a lot of other directors came in talking about, he focused on the kids and for us that was always the seminal part of the movie that we needed to get right essentially.
Grahame-Smith: We knew he was going to be able to deliver on the scares. We’d seen his movie, we knew conceptually he was very strong, he’s an incredible – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him illustrate, but he could be a fine artist – he’s a really incredible illustrator on top of everything else. There was no question he was going to deliver on the visuals, on the scares, but what impressed us was, he came in talking about being a thirteen year old in Argentina and reading a translation of the book and how it affected him. And he came in and locked into the relationships of these kids and how important it was to get the kids right and that was music to our ears because to us, the movie we referenced most in the last six year plus was Stand By Me. Because we wanted to recapture in that relationship, that feeling that we felt watching that movie, of the camaraderie, of that sense of time and place. And if that didn’t work, that didn’t matter how cool the clown was and how scary the other stuff was, it was never really going to resonate the way we wanted it to resonate emotionally. It’s already tough you’re making a rated R movie when we were never going to flinch ?? those stern thirteen year old kids. Right, so they’ve got to be strong, they’ve got to be charismatic, you’ve got to believe those relationships, and that really is what won Andy the job, because he came in focused on that first and everything came into place to support that.
DC: Will there be a sequel in pretty short order?
Grahame-Smith: I don’t know is the honest answer. We don’t know if we’re making the second one yet, as we sit here and talk to you, we hope we are… but we’ll see.
DC: Will it be the adult’s version of the Loser’s Club portion of the story, or more on the kids?
Katzenberg: Doesn’t help that they’re growing rapidly and their voices are changing. (laughs)
Grahame-Smith: That happened between wrapping main unit – wrapping principal in September and coming in for a little additional in February and March, even in that span of time, they all grew a foot and sounded like squeaky – the only one that looks exactly the same is Sophia [Lillis, who plays Beverly]. I don’t know is the honest answer. Right now, there’s no time line for the second one, that’s just the honest answer. We obviously all hope and want to jump in but right now we’re just focused on the next two weeks – honestly like I’m so nervous about the next two weeks that’s where I’m spending all my energy.
DC: You guys pulled no punches on the R-Rating, language-wise, and being gruesome with Georgie’s death.
Katzenberg: It was tough. We definitely – it was uncomfortable at times for sure, that’s why we’re R rated film, we don’t screw around it by any means.
Grahame-Smith: It got really intense. But the Georgie scene, that was less intense honestly, as it was so technical. There’s so many technical considerations with that Georgie scene, and also it’s broken up over different locations – just the way we shot it, so that felt more technical. What got really intense was when they were all together. The most intense it got was when they were in the cistern and in the sewers. I remember a day when we were on stages and it’s when Wyatt, when Stanley gets almost eaten, the way he shrinks off and disappears, and he comes out of his trance and they’re all surrounding him and, we were filming that – he bursts into tears and every kids bursts into tears, and we’re all sitting off camera and I burst into tears (laughs). I remember there was a take where we had to raise the door of the stage, the whole roll-up door, walk him outside in the air and everybody had to take a minute and just fan their eyes…
Katzenberg: There was a ton of [emotional stuff]. With Beverly and her father, there was a ton of very difficult stuff.
Grahame-Smith: But that gets back to the casting. You have to find these kids that are beyond their years – mature and strong and charismatic and able to hold their own in these incredibly tense situations with adult actors. And that honestly is a testament to Andy and also testament to our kids, that they all held their own. We chose the right Losers Club. These kids were thick as thieves from the beginning of the shoot. They fell in love with each other – I know you guys have heard this before and you’ll hear it again – but it’s the truth. They were best friends instantly, and you feel that in the movie. They spent any time they could together, on or off camera.
Katzenberg: In the dialogue, there’s tons of improv and ad-libs, and really they bonded in such a way that it really shows on screen and stuff that was not in the script.
DC: Your Canadian location for Derry, Maine, is stunning.
Grahame-Smith: It was incredible. First of all, for me I was thirteen in the summer of 1989, in a small town. So watching 1989 come to life in a small town with those same bikes those same movie posters – that was incredible to watch. To say nothing of the fact that we’re building 29 Niebolt, we’re building the cistern, we’re building Bev’s bathroom – all these things you’re watching happening and you can’t believe you’re lucky enough to be a part of this.
Katzenberg: The whole experience was surreal. And it was an extremely difficult shoot. It was all kids essentially, they had to go to school and we were in Toronto – summer, 100 degrees, humidity, locations…
Grahame-Smith: And we’re 70 percent or more on location. We’re not on air-conditioned stages. We’re out there – Neibolt is out in Ottowa and we’re in every conceivable suburb of Toronto making it look like Maine – inside, outside – shooting in an abandoned orphanage…
Katzenberg: It was crazy. We had a very difficult shoot, but we had a blast and everyday presented its own challenges.
Grahame-Smith: The kids made it fun because they were having fun. You can get caught up in the production blahs, but the kids would show up and they’d do something stupid or just remind you how cool it was that we’re actually getting to make It.
Grahame-Smith: It’s just different. It’s a different approach. We’ve heard a lot like, “What do you think it was about the trailer and why did it break all those records?” And all that stuff. To me, the best answer I can give you: It’s different. It feels different. It doesn’t feel like any other movie. The trailer comes out and you’re almost like, “What is this? Is it a coming-of-age thing? It is a period thing? Is it a scary clown thing?” It’s all that. It just cuts through. People, obviously, are fascinated, and I hope they stay fascinated for the two weeks.
Katzenberg: At least.
Grahame-Smith: At least. Yeah. But, again, we’ve caught so many lucky breaks in this, like two years ago when people started seeing clowns everywhere. Yeah, all-of-the-sudden random clowns were terrorizing the United States. Which, by the way…
Katzenberg: …Was not us.
Grahame-Smith: Not us. We had nothing to do with it.
Katzenberg: We did hear from a lot of people though, “Hey, great viral, long-lead marketing.
Grahame-Smith: “No, no, no that’s not us scaring kids in the woods.” [laughs]
Katzenberg: It’s crazy. We got extremely lucky with that. And, no one was hurt or injured.
Grahame-Smith: No, but we got lucky a lot of times in this movie. We got lucky with Andy. We got lucky with the kids. We got lucky with the crew. People go, “Oh, you planned it for 27 years after the miniseries?” Yeah, yeah, “Sure, we planned that. We’re geniuses. We sat on this for twenty-six years to make it. Right, we definitely didn’t want it to go until now.” No, most of all we’re just nervous and proud of the movie and proud of the kids. I hope it’s well received. I just want it to be well received, that’s number one for me.
DC: I understand you got some feedback from Stephen King already.
Katzenberg: Yeah, he watched a rough cut early on when we were back in editorial. Yeah. Honestly, I remember exactly the day when we got the feedback. He sent a really sweet email to Andy. He put a message up on his [website] and he tweeted out that he was extremely pleased. For us, it was just a huge weight off our shoulders because that was first and foremost always. We spent so much time and energy getting this movie right and keeping the integrity of the book and, essentially, trying to please him and the fans. It really meant a lot.
Grahame-Smith: That for me was the one thing I would not have been able to surmount is if he had been disappointed or had just even not been enthusiastic, then I would have been moping in front of you right now; but getting his stamp of approval, as it were, high-water mark of the process, for me. I can deal with anything that happens from this point on. It’s like I pleased the maestro. I some small part of playing in this adaptation that he’s pleased with, so I’ll take it.
DC: Can you guys talk about Bill [Skarsgård] as Pennywise?
Katzenberg: Yeah. We were never trying to outdo Tim Curry. We knew that we needed to bring something fresh and new and kind of reimagine what our Pennywise was going to be. We have to give a ton of credit to Andy because Andy … I talk about early on, I remember him coming in with these little sketches of horseshoes [the makeup design] essentially, and we didn’t know quite what they were, but they eventually turned into the mouth, they went through the eyes. Early on, Andy was sketching and he had these visions in terms of what Pennywise’s voice would sound like. He worked with Bill hours and hours and hours kind of really getting the mannerisms and the facial features. Bill, it’s incredible what that guy can do with his face, but it was not easy.
Grahame-Smith: It’s weird what he can do with his face.
Katzenberg: I will say that we definitely were not trying to touch the Tim Curry version.
Grahame-Smith: I would give this credit to Bill, and Andy too. We all agreed, Tim Curry’s performance is iconic, and we’re going to do something different. We’re going to try to put our own stamp on it. In the casting process, Andy sort of singled out Bill pretty early on, as I remember, and started having him come back and doing more reads and working with him, already refining the character and refining the facial expressions and refining the physicality and refining the voice. By the way, that continued through production. The way that the schedule worked out, we were all kids the first month. Bill was in Toronto but not really shooting and he and Andy would meet and Bill would sit there and look in his mirror and practice voices. It continued-
Katzenberg: One of the greatest things too, is the kids had not seen Pennywise for a long time. They had been shooting for a month before they had even seen Pennywise. I’ll never forget the first day that Pennywise walked on set. It was terrifying for all of us. That was a decision Andy made early on, is he wanted to keep Pennywise away from those guys as long as possible so that they could really be scared of him.
Grahame-Smith: If you’re curious about when that actually happened, it’s the interior of the Neibolt House kitchen where he’s hovering over Jack [Dylan Grazer] with his broken arm, about to bite his face off. That’s the first scene we shot, when he comes out of the refrigerator and menaces. You’re seeing The Loser’s Club experience Pennywise for the first time.
Stephen King’s IT has been rated R for “violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.”
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.
IT hits theaters on September 8th. Andrés Muschietti directs.
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”).
When children begin to disappear in the town of Derry, Maine, a group of young kids are faced with their biggest fears when they square off against an evil clown named Pennywise, whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries.