It’s not often that you get to describe your afternoon’s work as ‘top secret clown business’. On an angrily sunny bank holiday Monday I pulled my curtains shut, bundled the door closed and prepared to interview director Andy Muschietti about his new film, an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror tale IT. It was spooky clown business of the creepiest order, and embargoed clown business to boot.
In spite of our phone connection, which ran between the UK and LA, being tormented by an evil entity (the signal must have passed through Derry, Maine), it was great fun chatting with the director about watching horror movies, unpredictable clowns and scaring children. Here’s how we got on.
Congratulations on the film.
Thank you very much. Did you enjoy it?
I did. Have you seen it with an audience yet?
I did, I did, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences of all the process. You know, you make a movie, you’re like two years involved in it, putting the pieces together, hoping that it will work. But you’re not fresh, you don’t have a fresh look anymore. At the end of that process you’re watching the movie 200 times and that’s why it’s so thrilling to watch it with an audience, because for the first time you see that it works. And it’s amazing. I think it’s the best part of making a movie.
So the film IT deals a lot with the theme of childhood and monsters and fear. When you were a kid did you watch a lot of horror films?
Yeah, my parents exposed me to horror movies when I was like 6 or 7. I mean exposed me in a good way, they didn’t mean any harm. It was a family fun activity to watch, on Saturday night, a horror movie. It was an anthology presented by this guy, a Spanish actor, and he would present every kind of horror movie, like the Universal monsters and old Hammer movies or cheesey movies, weird movies from the 60s. That’s how I saw Dr. Phibes for the first time. It was one of those classics that blew my mind. The Omega Man was the other one that was very important from that age. And that’s basically how I fell in love with horror.
It was terrifying, it was not a joy experience, but it was something that after seeing a movie you would pray for more and more. So it becomes like an addiction, in a way. And it’s an addiction that you carry on through the rest of your life. So it’s no coincidence that I’m doing this movie, I think this is a bit of quest for recovering those emotions. And the funny part is that you never get to relive those feelings again because you’re not a child anymore.
Did you see the TV adaptation of IT when you were younger?
Yes, I did.
Did you like it?
Yeah, I liked it. To me it happened, I wasn’t a kid anymore so I was a little past that window of impression, of imprint that was so strong when I was at like 7 or 8 or 9. In fact I was much older than that and I saw it after reading the book. A similar thing happened with Pet Semetary, I read the book and it blew my mind and then the movie came and it was good, but in comparison they were a little less of an impact.
I still love the 90s mini-series, I still love Tim Curry’s interpretation, but I always understood that it had all the limitations because it was a TV product. And with all the restrictions that TV had they couldn’t be faithful to the book because the book is very hardcore, very intense, it deals with things that are very adult and very borderline controversial. So I understand that they couldn’t stay faithful to the book. But the good thing is that they tried to rebuild the spirit of the book, and that’s what I appreciate about it.
One of the themes in the film is children’s fear, and one of the things that struck me about the film is that you have a few scenes with visuals that are things, especially Pennywise your clown, chasing children. That seems like the sort of imagery you would conjure as a child when you were afraid. Was that something you were trying consciously to include or was that just from working intuitively and with that material?
Oh, you’re saying that those attacks are particularly disturbing for children?
Yeah. As a kid you would really be afraid of a clown chasing you.
Oh yeah yeah, absolutely. I mean, I didn’t make this movie for children. In fact, what allowed me to be faithful to the intensity of the book is that it’s R rated. So supposedly no children have to see this movie, but…
It’s the way that things are. I think a curious kid, these days the kids are born in view of information, so they know more and they see more and they’re more aware of things happening and they’re more aware of what’s being done in movies and in the genre, so they’re a little more familiar with things. I would show this movie to 12 year olds that love movies and love the thrill of scary movies, but I’m not the one to decide that.
I mean, I would have loved to see this movie when I was 12.
I would have as well.
Have your cast of kids, The Losers’ Club, seen it?
Yeah, they saw it in an early stage. When we were reaching our final stages of edit, so it was a rough final version, not all the effects were there, but we did something up in Toronto and we reunited the cast and it was a great opportunity for them to see the movie. I showed it to them. The conditions weren’t great because we didn’t get a super-good theatre, but at least they saw what it was all about and they all loved it. They were all thrilled.
We all had so much fun doing this. It was summer and for the kids, if you ask them, it was like the best summer of their life doing it, so for them it was all like playing.
It was a really fun experience. Very stressing because the restrictions of time, when you shoot with kids, are terrible. They’re always taking them away!
You need to move fast, but the great thing about the kids is that they are fast. They understood their characters perfectly and they had a lot of help in building them. And also there was a lot of improvisation. A lot of scenes that are funny in the movie are improvisations, departing from the script and basically giving the kids freedom to play with the words and escalate.
What was the casting process for putting the group of kids together? Because they’re excellent.
There is a casting director that sends you individual tapes, some are taped in his office and some are self-taped, and at the end of each day you see a bunch of actors. It wasn’t a short process, it was pretty lengthy and hard, because I wanted to find actors that shared DNA with the character. So it wasn’t only about look and talent, it was about discovering the personality of these actors and if they matched with the character. I think that was the only way to make it true and make it real.
When I was happy with individual actors, then came the process of chemistry. So that was another stage of casting, it was a process where I had a few contenders for each role and so I would mix and match in the casting room, to have a notion of what the group looked like. It’s a chemistry thing. Finally it was easy to see, because it shines through when they all work well in the room. And it was glorious because I was sure that it was an amazing group. I was very lucky.
The other thing that I really wanted to ask you about was Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise, and particularly the physical movement of the character. How did you settle on that?
Well, myself and Bill, we discussed the character a lot, and we really discussed the nature of the monster and everything, all the traits of its personality, and we ended with a concept that, apart from all the visual stuff, we wanted to make Pennywise scary because he’s unpredictable and you never know what he’s gonna do next. In part, it is in the essence of the monster in the book, but it’s not in your face. But I did want to bring out that layer to the newer version, so you see a character that is edgier because he’s unpredictable and he does weird things.
In fact, one of the descriptions of the character in the book is that IT was not very good at replicating human emotions. And that’s something that is overlooked in general. In the 1990 adaptation you see Tim Curry and he is consistently rowdy and loud and pretty human, for a child murderer. And I wanted to bring that sort of glitch, erratic behaviour, with the purpose of making him unsettling.
Then it was Bill, who with that concept started building and building and building. And it came to a point where he was bringing a new thing on each take, because unpredictable means unpredictable. He’s an actor that is not afraid of brining a new thing every time. So each take he would do something different and it blew my mind. It was quite terrifying.
Thank you for talking to me today. I’m hoping you’re gonna do the sequel as well.
Oh, I’m hoping too man!
IT is in UK cinemas from Friday.