IT interview: Director Andy Muschietti on tricky adaptations, Pennywise, and the sequel

Andy Muschietti on set of ‘IT’. (WB)
Andy Muschietti on set of ‘IT’. (WB)

This week sees the release of the long-awaited new adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and it arrives amid a deluge of positive reviews.

Argentinian filmmaker Andy Muschietti was the man tasked with bringing King’s sprawling 1000+ page novel to the big screen, picking up the project after years of development by ‘True Detective’ S1 director Cary Fukunaga, who departed the project in 2015.

It’s only his second feature film after his impressive 2013 debut ‘Mama’ starring Jessica Chastain, but his ‘IT’ succeeds where the previous made-for-TV adaptation in 1990 admirably failed: it’s genuinely terrifying.

We caught up with the director over the phone in LA to find out about his approach to adapting the seminal novel, how his Pennywise differs to Tim Curry’s version, and to get the latest on the film’s present day-set sequel.

Yahoo Movies UK: I’m a big fan of the book, but it’s also a huge book, what was the biggest challenge you faced adapting it as a two-hour movie?

Andy Muschietti: First of all was the technical complexity of squeezing the story into a two-hour movie. First we parted the book in two, and we focussed on the kids’ section for the first movie. But then it’s still huge.

Especially being Stephen King, a writer that loves so much to dig into details and characters and events, and he doesn’t hold back on really, really extensive descriptions to get you into the heart and soul of everything. But the other side of that is that there’s a lot of stuff that you can’t overlook if you do it right.

Mainly the process was about identifying the big emotional beats in the story and bringing them into a two-hour movie. Of course taking licences structurally and story-wise to make it consistent with a two-hour movie, that’s from a technical point of view. Especially introducing so many characters; there are seven main characters, we have to introduce them.

I guess the challenge, technically, also was doing the introductions of each of the heroes, and also trying to move the story forwards at the same time. So doing all of that was a bit challenging, but I think we did a pretty good job at that.

You’ve also dialled back a lot of the cosmic nature of the book. The final third of the book is problematic for many reasons, why did you take the route you chose?

Well that was a conscious decision. I really wanted to focus on the emotional journey of the group of kids. On the other hand, getting in to that other dimension – the other side – was something that we could introduce in the second part.

In the book the perspective of the writing, the perspective is always with the Losers, so everything they know about Pennywise is very speculative and shrouded in absurdity, so I wanted to respect that mystery feeling of not knowing what’s on the other side.

The Losers’ Club track Pennywise to his lair. (WB)
The Losers’ Club track Pennywise to his lair. (WB)

I also wanted to leave something for the second half, so I didn’t want to get in trouble with that – going into the macroverse or that transdimensional stuff – and keep it grounded, from the point of view of the kids. There’s another movie to expand into that.

Also there’s a physical truth that it’s a movie that has a budget. And I didn’t want to get into a depiction of a realm that f*** up our budget. The creation of a world that will basically suck up half of our budget, and would have to sacrifice a lot of things.

So basically it’s a balancing act, but it’s also intricately connected with the content, which is staying true to the emotional aspect of the book.

Bill Skarsgård’s performance is Pennywise is extraordinary…

Thank you very much, I agree.

He’s so otherworldly. I also noticed that he seemed to be digitally manipulated in one way or another in nearly every scene. Was that planned in advance, or was it something you decided in post-production?

Let me talk about performance first. I didn’t want to make a visual description of the fantasy world, or the inter-dimensional aspect. We wanted to put it on him, on Bill as Pennywise.

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. (WB)
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. (WB)

So there’s part of his behaviour that teases a creature that is not human. In fact, a description in the book describes him as an entity is not very good at mimicking human emotions. And that’s something wasn’t performed in the 1990 version.

So people, they loved the clown [played by Tim Curry] because he acted like a rowdy clown. But I wanted to bring that aspect to the performance of Pennywise, and so that weirdness that is infused in the character talks to you about another dimension, but you see it all in Bill’s performance.

Remember when he’s talking to Georgie in the sewer (see clip below) and he’s laughing then suddenly he goes completely limp? There’s like a weird glitch there that is so unsettling. Well, that talks about a creature that is not human, and who is a trickster, and manipulative, but not in a human way. We’re talking about a shape-shifting monster.

For me, I wanted to give Bill the chance to express as much as possible with performance, but I didn’t want to mess with that. So there’s a big practical part of characterisation from Bill.

My original design of the clown is like a baby. So you see that there’s something childlike about him, that’s why his cranium is huge and he has this silly bucky teeth, so there’s a sweet and cute part of him that is obviously balanced by something that is very off, which I wanted to put in the eyes.

The crazy thing is that in my sketches of Pennywise, he had “wall-eyes”. One eye would always be falling off, and that would bring the unsettling “off” part of him. I told Bill, “I’m going to do this in CGI, I’m telling you because I think it’s cool and we’re going to use VFX to put your eye out.”

And he said, “no, no, no, I can do it! I can do it!” And he did it, and he was already cast as Pennywise! He did it, and I was like “what the f***?” “What are the chances that you can do that?”

That’s something that only one in a million people can do, on command like that, and he did it. It’s like the opposite of going cross-eyed.

This film has a ‘80s-esque Spielberg vibe to it, I was curious about what that means for the present day-set sequel, and whether it will differ in tone to match the milieu?

The first part has an ‘80s feeling, but I think it’s very subtle. I think it’s more about content than style. There won’t be a tonal conflict with what I’m doing with the second one. It’s full of nostalgia, of course. It’s part of my style. I didn’t intentionally mimic the style of shooting of Steven Spielberg or anything, it’s just like the way I shoot.

Of course, every story stimulates a different vision, but it won’t be too different when it’s in the present day in the second part. Also, I really can’t talk too much about the second film, but there will be a dialogue between the two timelines, which is something that I love from the book. So it’s not just the adults, we’re going to come back to 1989.

Thanks for your time, please tell me you’re in talks with ‘Mama’ star Jessica Chastain for Beverley or Audra?

Ha! I hope so!

‘IT’ floats in to cinemas nationwide 8 September.

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