Stephen King on killer clowns, 'Stranger Things,' and his secrets for scaring you silly

Stephen King
Stephen King (Photo: AP)

The undisputed master of modern horror, Stephen King remains as vital and prolific today as he was when his first classics — including Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand — were published four decades ago. For proof of the best-selling author’s continuing relevance, look no further than the numerous adaptations of his work currently arriving on screens both big and small. Be it Audience Network’s Mr. Mercedes and Spike TV’s The Mist, Netflix’s upcoming Gerald’s Game and 1922, or cinema’s The Dark Tower, 2017 is a boom year for filmed versions of King’s macabre tales.

That trend will continue come Friday, when director Andrés Muschietti (Mama) delivers a movie based on King’s 1986 opus It, a sprawling saga about a group of self-proclaimed “losers” in Derry, Maine, who are forced to contend with an ancient evil that takes the form of a clown named Pennywise. Already brought to life by a memorable 1990 ABC miniseries — highlighted by Tim Curry’s unforgettable performance as the pasty-faced fiend — it’s a tale of adolescent anxieties and unholy terror that encapsulates much of what makes King’s writing so great. It’s also nothing short of gigantic, its narrative set across two distinct time frames, which is why Muschietti’s film (which at one point was going to be helmed by True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga) will only tackle half of King’s tome, focusing on its protagonists when they’re kids, and leaving their adult experiences for a potential sequel.

Speaking to Yahoo Movies from his home in Maine, King says that Muschietti’s It gets the book right, and after enduring scores of cinematic translations some significantly better than others — he would certainly know. Moreover, he sounds excited about the sudden explosion of TV shows and movies that take his stories as source material as well as the one, Netflix’s Stranger Things, that doesn’t replicate his writing so much as channel its spirit. From last year’s rash of real-life scary-clown sightings, to his collaborations with George A. Romero (Creepshow) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist), to the adaptations that he thinks got short shrift from audiences and critics, the acclaimed author doesn’t hold back in our wide-ranging interview.

Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Lieberher, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Jeremy Ray Taylor star in <i>It</i>. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Lieberher, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Jeremy Ray Taylor star in It. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Yahoo Movies: It is my favorite novel of yours, and I’m in the process of re-reading it for the first time in years…
Stephen King:
I hope it holds up a little bit.

It does, and reading it now is a unique experience, because the book was so important to me as a kid, and yet from an adult perspective, it resonates in all these different ways…
It’s funny, isn’t it — some of them just holler at you across the years.

Obviously, the immediate reason for my re-read is the new adaptation of It. Have you seen the film yet?
Yeah, I saw it in Florida maybe five or six months ago, and then I saw it again last month, when it was pretty well locked up. So yeah, I’ve seen it twice. And I think what I saw the last time was pretty much the finished product. They may have tinkered with it a little more.

Were you involved with the film in any way?

Was that by choice?
They didn’t ask me. At one point, somebody sent me the script do you remember Cary Fukunaga? I read his script, and he was very much on the right track. First of all, what they did in splitting that story right down the middle saying, “We’ll do the kids, and if we’re successful with the kids, we’ll do the grown-ups. We’ll come back and do Chapter 2.” I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but the last thing in the final cut that I saw — the penultimate final cut, anyway — is a title card that says, “The End of Chapter 1.” And depending on how the movie does, they’ll make another one. I think they’re pretty well set on that now. Which will be interesting, because that’s the perfect way to do it. Otherwise, you’re in miniseries territory, where ABC was all those years ago.

I recently revisited the 1990 ABC miniseries, and it traumatized my younger daughter — which, I guess, is the goal.
It traumatized a lot of 8- to 12-year-olds when it came on. And those kids are now grown up. They’re kids of the ’80s, and they’re pretty much at the heart of the target audience for this thing.

Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown in ABC’s <em>It</em> miniseries (Photo: Everett Collection)
Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown in ABC’s It miniseries (Photo: Everett Collection)

After years of adaptations, do you like to be involved in the movies and TV shows based on your work?
Well, I’m primarily a book guy. That’s what I do; that’s what I’m best at. And at the time that It was in preproduction — it was in preproduction, it was out; it was green light, it was yellow light. And that was kind of in the corner of my eye. I usually have something that I’m working on that I can do, and I think you’re best when you concentrate on what you can do.

The other thing is, do they really want the writer in there to screw up what they’re doing? There have been some fantastic movies done that I had nothing to do with. Misery is one. Stand by Me is another one I can’t remember if I saw that script. I saw the script for Frank’s [Darabont] film of The Shawshank Redemption, and my reaction was, “This is a fantastic script and nobody will shoot it, because it’s too much talk.” So that’s how that turned out.

If they ask me to get involved, sometimes I will say OK. But it’s usually reluctant, because it’s basically free work for them. And you don’t know what’s going to be accepted and what’s not. Because I’m sitting here in Maine, they’re out there wherever they are, and they have a team and they don’t necessarily want some guy calling signals from the bleachers, you see what I mean?

The focus of It will undoubtedly fall on Pennywise, who’s now being played by Bill Skarsgård. Does his interpretation of the character more closely align with what you originally envisioned — or does Tim Curry’s miniseries portrayal still reign in your mind?
I thought Tim Curry made the miniseries. He did. If Pennywise doesn’t work, obviously the thing doesn’t work at all, you know? People come to a thing like that because they want to be frightened, and if Pennywise isn’t frightening, the thing falls on its face, obviously. But Tim Curry did scare a lot of kids — you’re probably a case in point!

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown in the new film 'It'
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown in the new film It (Photo: Warner Bros)

Pennywise is scary in the book, he needed to be scary in that miniseries, and he needs to be scary in the movie. And he is. They’re both good. I wouldn’t pick one above the other. I would just say that Andy [Muschietti] had more to work with in terms of modern technology and, for all I know, budget too. I’m sure he must have had more; I can’t remember what the miniseries cost at one time I knew — but it wasn’t that much. It was a TV thing.

After last year’s rash of menacing-clown sightings, you took to Twitter in support of clowns. Were you annoyed that you were being blamed, at least in part, for this phenomenon?
I shrugged it off. Because clowns are scary. There’s just no way around that. Clowns can be as angry as they want, and that’s their right they’re clowns! I mean, obviously they love kids. I came out in support of some clowns in Europe who asked me to say something nice about clowns because they go to hospitals and try to cheer up sick kids. I mean, if I were a sick kid and I saw a f–king clown coming, all the red lines would go off on my gear, because I’d be scared to death! So kids are scared of clowns.

There’s a kind of confluence around this movie. I never felt when it was even in preproduction that Warner Bros.… I didn’t detect any huge enthusiasm for the movie. They had a situation where they were going to have to do something with it or the rights were going to revert. And so they did that, and they made the movie. Obviously, when they slated it and everything, it’s September, it’s a good time for scary movies — witness things like Annabelle. So they did it. But I never sensed any strong enthusiasm for it. And then last year, this kind of clown-phobia broke out here and in England and in Europe, and clowns are by the side of the road, and people started talking about Pennywise. It created a kind of groundswell of interest in the movie when it was announced.

Finn Wolfhard appears in the film as Richie, after having starred in Stranger Things last year. What did you think of that show, which is clearly indebted to your work?
I loved that show. The Duffer brothers have pretty much said that I was an influence on their show, so I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. This is something that they’ve said. But they obviously internalized the idea that the characters count. And they also found that sweet spot in American life, which is sort of middle class, and small town, and there’s a textured feeling to those characters. The small-town bumbling sheriff who stands up for all the things that are good. And Winona Ryder was so goddamn good in that show as the mother. So all those things work, and the kids work.

Millie Bobby Brown in <em>Stranger Things</em> (Photo: Netflix)
Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things (Photo: Netflix)

I’ve said before in various interviews — and it’s true of Tom Taylor in The Dark Tower, too child actors seem a lot better than they were in my own younger days. It’s eerie how good some of them are. Finn is a terrific young actor, and he was perfect to play Ritchie. It’s not the same character that he plays in Stranger Things, but he’s terrific. And the girl, Millie Bobby Brown, she’s terrific. She’s never really done anything before, and she just shines.

As you said, it feels like they’ve internalized your work, rather than just photocopied it.
That’s true of Andy [Muschietti] too. And it’s true of the first screenplay that I saw from Cary Fukunaga. There are a lot of movies where, it seems to me, they bought the rights to something because they’re excited about a central situation or some of the visuals that are in the books. And then they do things to it that don’t really have that much to do with the book. I feel like they’re buying the launching pad but putting their own rocket on it — and a lot of times, the rocket blows up.

This is not that case. They’ve stuck pretty close to the book, and where things have been changed, the changes make sense. They work. The same thing’s true of Mr. Mercedes, which is on TV now.

It’s a great time for adaptations of your work, with The Mist and Mr. Mercedes on TV, The Dark Tower in theaters, and Gerald’s Game coming to Netflix in late September.
Gerald’s Game is terrific, I’ve seen that. The one you want to watch for is, Netflix did an adaptation of 1922 from Full Dark, No Stars. I think that’s going to be out in October or something, and man, I saw a rough cut of that and it won’t leave my mind. That is super creepy!

How do you explain this sudden outpouring of high-profile adaptations?
It isn’t entirely random. I think some of it had to do with the success Hulu had with 11/22/63. That pushed, I think to some degree, Mr. Mercedes, which is on Audience Network, part of the AT&T Family. They would like to have a kind of showcase that will bring people in and make them aware, “Hey, we’re here.” So that’s part of it. And there’s a huge appetite for material on the streaming services now, so J.J. Abrams is doing this show Castle Rock, which is based on some of the stories.

But I think some of it is just f–king happened, I don’t know [laughs].

Are there any past adaptations that you feel were overlooked, or deserve a second chance?
[Laughs] I don’t know, I don’t know. There are ones that I frankly don’t understand why they reviewed so badly. I guess I’ve got to go back and look at Dreamcatcher, which has just been kind of lashed. I’d like to take a look at that again. And I frankly never understood why people didn’t like Cell, because to me that was a terrific, eccentric movie with some really eccentric, strange performances in it. John Cusack at his best, and Samuel L. Jackson is terrific. So I would say Cell for sure; Dreamcatcher, I don’t know, I better look at it again.

Morgan Freeman in 'Dreamcatcher'
Morgan Freeman in Dreamcatcher (Photo: Warner Bros.)

I thought it was OK at the time. But I’m one of these people where the worst movie I ever saw, I thought it was f–king great! So you know, even things like [1953’s] Robot Monster when I was a kid, I thought, “Oh man, that’s great!”

Are there any books you still wish would receive an adaptation?
I’d like to see Lisey’s Story done as a TV miniseries or a limited series. That’s one I’ve held onto because that’s one I might try to do myself. I might try to float that project if some of these other things are a success, because I’ve always loved that book, and I really thought that I got most of that one. And it’s kind of overlooked. Otherwise, I can’t think of anything in particular that I wish would be done.

At this rate, they’re all going to be adapted.
People will get tired. There’ll be a backlash don’t worry [laughs].

Stephen King co-stars in 1982’s <em>Creepshow</em> (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Stephen King co-stars in 1982’s Creepshow (Photo: Warner Bros.)

You worked together with George A. Romero on both Creepshow films. What was that collaborative relationship like, and why didn’t a third series installment ever materialize?
I think we did it, with Creepshow and Creepshow 2. I think that neither one of us wanted to get into a Children of the Corn franchise. We weren’t in the franchise business. George had things that he wanted to do, and I think there also would have been some legal issues maybe with some of the people that he worked with over the years — I don’t know exactly, I’m just guessing at that. But George was great to collaborate with. Like a lot of really good directors, he had this embracing attitude, so that when you were with him, you felt like you were coming into the sunshine. He was a great guy to collaborate with — he was open to ideas, and his own ideas were terrific. Because, you know what, at the end of the day, what makes a good collaboration is respect for the person that you’re collaborating with. And I always had a lot of respect for George — his ideas were good. They worked.

You mentioned Frank Darabont earlier, and when I spoke with him last year, I brought up the brutal ending to The Mist — which is different from the one found in your original story. How did you feel about that alteration?
When Frank was interested in The Mist, one of the things that he insisted on was that it would have some kind of an ending, which the story doesn’t have — it just sort of peters off into nothing, where these people are stuck in the mist, and they’re out of gas, and the monsters are around, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. When Frank said that he wanted to do the ending that he was going to do, I was totally down with that. I thought that was terrific. And it was so anti-Hollywood — anti-everything, really! It was nihilistic. I liked that. So I said you go ahead and do it.

The critics and fans both kind of excoriated him for that. And now, when you read retrospective pieces about The Mist, people are, “Wow, that’s one of the great ones.” They like it. They just had to get used to it.

William Sadler in <em>The Mist</em> (Photo: Everett Collection)
William Sadler in The Mist (Photo: Everett Collection)

Like It, it traumatized people too.
Yeah, I think it did. I think it did. But sometimes that’s a good thing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a movie that has a nice happy ending, and everybody walks off into the sunset, and Red gets together with what’s-his-name down in Mexico and they build boats together. That’s great — everybody likes that. They go out of the theater, they’re on cloud nine.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It does not have to be that way. Think of Carrie — the hand comes out of the ground, and Sue Snell wakes up and you know that that girl is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life. And that movie was a success.

Watch: Pennywise comes alive in exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at It

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