On the latest episode of The Big Picture podcast, Sean Fennessey spoke to Andy Muschietti, the director of It, about how he crafted his own vision for a work that has had many adaptations. They also discussed Stephen King’s opinion of the film, the inner workings of Pennywise as a character, and the importance of childhood to this story.
The full podcast can be found here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Sean Fennessey: So It is a [large] production. There’s a lot of characters, a lot of speaking parts. You’re diving into Stephen King’s world. Were there more challenges to doing something this big? Or did you feel prepared to do something at this level?
Andy Muschietti: No I always feel prepared in the sense that, you know, I grew up reading Stephen King which is something that came hand in hand with my film experience.
Fennessey: Yeah, if you fall in love with horror movies, you kind of fall in love with Stephen King at the same time, right?
Muschietti: Yeah, I mean my passion for horror started before, but when I started reading Stephen King around 13, 14 years old, a new world opened — a world that was more layered. And I started thinking of characters and story.
Fennessey: Were you very devoted to the books?
Muschietti: Oh yeah.
Fennessey: When did you first come across It?
Muschietti: Well my first [King] experience was Pet Sematary — I was like 13 or something. And then I went into his short stories like Skeleton Crew and Night Shift. I remember reading some of his Richard Bachman books, like Thinner.
Fennessey: I always had a hard time figuring out how funny he was trying to be in those books. Like how serious they were. Thinner in particular, I was like, “Is this a comedy? Is he…” I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Muschietti: Well but Stephen King is, you know, he doesn’t shy away from [bringing] the reader from one tone to the other. And yeah, it sometimes is weird. …
Fennessey: How do you honor that tonal shift though? Because your movie is very funny. It’s also extraordinarily scary. Plus, it’s sentimental at times. It’s nostalgic. How do you work all those things together? That’s very difficult to pull off.
Muschietti: Well, you know, there is a balance. And it’s not arbitrary. Humor and emotion in a horror movie are there to make you connect emotionally with the characters. I learned love for characters from Stephen King, because he’s fixated with description and the psychology and back stories of the characters. So that sort of came naturally to me. Like even though I love horror movies, I have that counterbalance narrative which is, OK, yeah, you’re trying to scare people, but you also want people to like the characters and care for them before the monster attacks. So you care for them. And so you’re more engaged in the story. That’s roughly what it is. And … that’s not a lesson you are taught from the big bulk of horror movies. …
I learned more storytelling from Stephen King than from movies in general, probably. That’s why when It happened, I sort of understood, OK, we need people to get to the heart of the story and the soul of the characters and really get that emotional connection. An emotional connection to childhood, too. We’ve all been children. It, above all [King’s] work, is probably the most loving letter to childhood. I wanted to bring that to the movie.
Fennessey: What role does King play in something like this? Does he have to approve of you, to bless you to do this? Or does he sort of say “Go and make your film and good luck”?
Muschietti: Yeah, more like the second.
Muschietti: That doesn’t mean he didn’t approve. He did sign off on an early draft, before I was in the project. Because you know this project has been in development for like six years or something.
Fennessey: Yeah, I want to ask you about that, too — what it’s like to come onto something that another filmmaker has left, and how to make it your own, too. That must be a challenge.
Muschietti: Yeah, but I’ll tell you about King and then we can talk about the other filmmaker. So Stephen did not interfere with the production or all the development while I was directing. So it wasn’t until the movie was finished that he asked to see it.
Fennessey: Were you nervous about that? …
Muschietti: No, because for me it was about finding my vision for the story. Because otherwise it’s strange. You have to own it. And of course there’s a recognition of the work and a love for the essence of the story, of the book. But I really wanted to go back to my own emotional experience [of] reading the book for the first time, and translating it to a movie that I would relate to as an adult. I also read the book like 25 years later and I found a lot of things I didn’t remember. They weren’t in my memories, or emotional memories.
Fennessey: I wonder how people will respond to the movie because of that, too. Obviously this movie in some ways is halved because we only get one side of the story — of the losers, this group of young kids. But I think that some people will misremember the book in some ways, or they’ll see something in the movie that they’ll think maybe was in the book but wasn’t. It’ll be interesting to see how people parse it, too.
Muschietti: Some people might miss that dialogue [is] between two timelines. Because in the book it’s clearly present day, and we jump to the past and there are like these interludes which are everything that Mike Hanlon has written in those 27 years of research. But —
Fennessey: You have strictly isolated the story to the kids as kids.
Muschietti: Yup. Yeah, because I think I’m emotionally attached to the losers story — to the losers when they were kids. And I didn’t want to interfere with that journey.
Fennessey: You could credibly see though that there is a version of the book maybe that plays out the way you’ve done it as well. I can see a version of the book where the first half is this and the second half is the adult lives of the losers.
Muschietti: Totally, yeah.
Fennessey: It doesn’t seem forced in any way.
Muschietti: I know. It’s the way that Stephen King chose to tell the story, but it’s still a factor that I want to bring in a second part. The first part for me was like a pure, uninterfered [with] version of their story, but I still think that you know if we get to tell the second half of the movie as adults, there has to be a connection to their childhood. Because the whole story for me is about childhood and the magic of that era; of those years and the end of childhood.
Fennessey: You need those kids to not grow up too fast then.
Muschietti: I know. I’ve been talking to their parents.
Fennessey: [Laughs] Stunt their growth.
Muschietti: I didn’t ask for anything specific, just like, you know how it is.
Fennessey: What’s good for them is good for you.
Muschietti: Yeah. [Laughs]
Fennessey: So as you said, you came on after another filmmaker had been developing the project. How radically does [the film] change and what do you have to do then to make it your project?
Muschietti: Well … it’s not too complex of a project. It’s pretty natural when you’re reading — I mean you have this story in your heart and then you’re given a script that someone else wrote [and] immediately ideas and thoughts surface. Like, “Oh, they’re missing this thing,” or you know, “Oh wow, why isn’t this character in?” or “I’d like to make this incarnation different.” So it was natural. I think, in fact, it’s probably easier than starting from scratch.
Fennessey: You have an outline and then you can pick and choose where you want to build?
Muschietti: Yeah. Yeah.
Fennessey: So tell me about building Pennywise. For many people there’s a vision of Pennywise. There’s the cover of the book, and then there’s the 1990 miniseries — Tim Curry was the clown. So how did you go about building your own Pennywise and casting Bill Skarsgard [in the role]?
Muschietti: I wanted to stay true to the essence of Pennywise, the Stephen King character, but bring something new, more edgy, and more layered to the character which does not oppose [King’s] description of the character at all. Just there’s some spaces left in his creation of the character [and] that’s where I wanted to [dig in]. And there were little crumbles and bits of information that don’t mean a lot for a reader, but you can grab them and make them flourish or blossom.
Fennessey: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to really expand on?
Muschietti: Yeah. Well there’s a bit where Pennywise is described as a creature that is not very good at emulating human emotions. Which is really challenging for a shape-shifter who uses that as a bait. And that’s something that I loved and wanted to bring to the character. I don’t think people really have that in mind when they think of Pennywise, because even in the books he’s described as articulate, and he’s always acting like a clown.
And there’s also these reflections that all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. So as a reader you imagine that the clown is always acting like a clown. But then [King] says that little thing — [Pennywise] wasn’t too good at mimicking human emotions. And I wanted to take that to fruition, and you can see that. If you see the movie, there’s a moment of trickery in the opening scene when Pennywise is talking to Georgie and everything seems to be going alright. And at that point something happens. I don’t want to spoil it but something weird happens, and that’s where everything gets twisted a little bit.
Fennessey: Yeah, a lack of empathy is revealed, right? And then things go blank.
Muschietti: Yeah it’s a weird moment. But again, he’s a creature that likes to play with his victim. He doesn’t care; he’s mimicking. He’s not perfect [but] he knows he’s got the bait. Then there’s this other thing that stuck to me a lot, and it’s also like this little bit of information, a crumble: The story and the book is told through the eyes of the losers, and so it’s very speculative when it comes to the monster and the nature of the monster. But there’s a passage where Bill is reflecting on the monster and he says, “Maybe it eats children because that’s what we were told that monsters do.” So immediately you connect to the idea that maybe this monster is real, but only if it’s alive in the imagination of children. [That] doesn’t mean that it’s not real.
Fennessey: You artfully don’t totally answer that question all the time. You don’t feel the need to clarify the pure logic of the story because that would kind of ruin what you’re building toward, right?
Muschietti: Oh [it’s] definitely not a subject that is explained to overkill. It’s just mentioned here. Bill, the hero, is always trying to convince his friends that what is happening is not real. …[The] perception that he has — he doesn’t have the certainty that that’s not real, but … it’s about belief, basically.
Fennessey: And what about Bill Skarsgard? What did he bring to the part, and how do you direct an actor that is transforming all the time and that may not be really depending on the interpretation of the character?
Muschietti: Well, this last thing we talked about, you know, the possibility of It being a product of children’s imagination was something that we kept between us, talking about the nature and the psychology of this monster. Because it’s not human. So you have to hold to something. We basically talked for hours about what Pennywise was, and how he behaves. We concluded that we wanted to bring horror through a different angle than people expected. And that came through — the unpredictability and the madness of the character….
Fennessey: Was it difficult for him to stay in that character for a long period of time? I feel like it’s pretty high-level maniacal.
Muschietti: Oh yeah yeah, of course. There were long sequences … but normally he wouldn’t stay in character for a whole day. In fact, when the characters were not [filming] he would just sit down there and catch a breath. Because he’s so physical. He, the character, is so physical —
Fennessey: Yeah, it’s relentless
Muschietti: Yeah, chasing and crawling — and it’s amazing what Bill did. I don’t know if he knew that the character would end up being so physical. It was an exploration, for me and for him working together … on this character. We had a concept, but then it was exploring how that concept will shine through in the movie. And he grabbed that concept and took it to the maximum, and he would surprise me sometimes because he wouldn’t give you the same thing in the next take. That’s what’s so great about Bill — he really took the concept of unpredictability and really brought it to life.
Fennessey: You didn’t tell me what King said when he saw the movie.
Muschietti: I was a little concerned, of course, like two days before because it was very fast. Like, “Stephen King wants to see the movie, we’re sending the DCP to Florida, he’s there, he wants to see it by himself in the movie theatre.”
Fennessey: And he’s been critical in the past of some adaptations. He’s not necessarily an easy critic.
Muschietti: Of course. He’s probably the most adapted writer alive. On the other hand, he has a very open mind about adaptations and he understands that the adaptation is a work on its own. So he embraces adaptations…
[But] he was like, “I’m going to watch it by myself. I don’t need the filmmaker to be next to me.” And I understand, obviously. Because if he disliked the movie, you don’t want to have the filmmaker next to you. And so I wrote a letter with the DCP — a handwritten letter — and it was basically like asking for indulgence and forgiveness for all the liberties that I took. And I wasn’t there, but from what I know, he loved it. And he in fact wrote an email back saying how much he had loved it.
Fennessey: Was that meaningful for you? Were you happy that you got the co-sign?
Muschietti: Oh yeah, because he didn’t need to. It was something that came very spontaneously from him, and immediately after seeing [It], he wrote me an email, and I couldn’t believe that I had an email from Stephen King on my inbox. And the first sentence I read was, “It’s brilliant.” … So it was a feeling of relief and joy at that point. And at the end, like maybe as a joke, he said, “Don’t worry about all the things you’ve changed. All the changes are approved.”