Stephen King's It Trailer - Pennywise - It Footage Reaction

Pennywise the Dancing Clown is an unlikely horror movie icon, mainly because he has yet to appear in a horror movie. Many people know him from Stephen King‘s classic horror tome It. Many more know him from the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, where he was played so memorably by the great Tim Curry. So, how does a 2017 big screen version of It take on a character so familiar (and so frightening) to so many people? Simple: you reinvent him/it from the ground up.

With this new version of It, director Andy Muschietti and actor Bill Skarsgård deliberately set out to create a version of Pennywise that feels nothing like Curry’s performance. In many ways, it looks nothing like the version described in King’s work, either. This Pennywise (actually the favorite form of an ancient, shape-shifting monster that preys on children) looks to reinvent the “scary clown” for a new generation of moviegoers.

When I visited the Toronto set of It last year, I saw firsthand just how different this Pennywise will be…and courtesy of the filmmakers and Skarsgård, learned just how this unique take came into being in the first place.

Pennywise in the sewer

Designing Pennywise

While Pennywise remains the dominant face of “It” in the new movie, this creature is a shapeshifter. Like its book counterpart, Pennywise is just one face plastered upon an endless series of horrors. And with the change in time period (this It takes place in 1989 instead of 1957) comes a change in what those horrors will look like. Producer Barbara Muschietti explained:

He’s still very much the glamor creature, and he represents the ’80s fears of these kids, which again, are a lot less iconic than the book, although there are winks to those ’50s fears. But he’s still very much a shapeshifter who basically tunes into a fear and will augment it and present it to you when you least expect it.

And while Pennywise is the character most commonly associated with this tale, she said that they deliberately set out to limit his time onscreen as much as possible to give his appearances more impact:

He appears as Bob Gray [the alternate name for Pennywise] in very specific moments. We see him as little as we possibly can. That’s what we tried to do. But I think everybody will get their fair share of Pennywise if that’s what they’re going to the movie for.

Actor Bill Skarsgård drew from the mythology of King’s novel and realized that this ancient being presumably found a skin that’s worked for the past few centuries and decided to stick with it:

So you could assume that 5,000 years ago it would’ve been something that terrified people at that time, maybe a spirit or something like that. I think in our version, Pennywise is something that’s maybe been around and maybe drew the inspiration from a real person, in Bob Gray or whoever he was, and created this version of a clown that fit the 19th century, judging by the clothes and appearances and then he really enjoyed that version and is stuck with it. So, that’s kinda how I rationalized to see who or what Pennywise is in terms of the form that he is, where he comes from, and who he is.

Unlike the Pennywise from the novel and the 1990 miniseries, who was depicted as Bozo-type, the kind of clown commonly associated with television and birthday parties, this version feels a bit…older. Barbara Muschietti described him as “the ancestral clown…not of any particular era.” Pennywise is “beyond, from above, the past and future.” Plus, she wryly noted that Americans seem to be alone in finding more traditional circus clowns terrifying:

We were talking with other journalists the other day from the international press and they were saying clowns weren’t seen as scary in other parts of the world, they’re more pathetic. In the U.S., they’re terrifying and they’re being made even more terrifying by a couple of loonies who are wandering the forest. We had nothing to do with that and I hope that ends soon because it’s freaking me out.

Director Andy Muschietti (for the record, Barbara’s brother) was a bit more blunt about this shift in Pennywise’s appearance:

Yeah. Well, the fact that this entity has been around for thousands of years… I don’t dig the 20th century clown. I think it looks cheap, and it’s too related to social events, the circus and stuff, but I’m more aesthetically attracted to the old time, like the 19th century clown. And given that this guy has been around for centuries, I wondered to myself why, why not, have an upgrade that was 1800s.

With this “upgrade” in mind, Andy Muschietti started drawing and his early versions were close to what we see on screen:

I had a sketch. One sketch. It was like a baby. It was like a Gerber baby. With something very off, because his eyes were wide-eyed, like slightly apart. […] And then, to be honest, it didn’t evolve much from that point. And then the Pennywise you saw today [on set] is special because his hair is crazy, but the rest of the movie is different. I’m playing a little bit with his mood, and his mood sometimes in terms of the hair. There’s like two [hairstyles] maybe. But the official shape is more like a weird baby.

Despite the differences, Barbara Muschietti said Andy Muschietti continued to be inspired by King’s original descriptions:

He started the design, then we started working with other concept artists to finesse those ideas. Then Bill [Skarsgård] came onto the picture so his physiognomy helped a lot. Then our prosthetics department got involved to mimic what those concepts were. Again, I think King’s descriptions of Pennywise in the book were very much in mind.

pennywise sheen

Casting Pennywise

With this reinvented Pennywise on paper, it was time to find an actor to fill the ancient clown clothing. Barbara Muschietti noted that actor Will Poulter, who was attached to play the role when Cary Fukunaga was attached to direct, did enter the conversation:

He was on the table but there were, to be completely honest, there were scheduling conflicts because he was on The Maze Runner. When we started, we started seeing people right away and the moment Bill popped up, I think we knew it was for us.

As seems to the to be the general gist of their dynamic, Andy Muschietti was far more blunt about this matter than his producer/sibling:

And I remember I was sort of interested in Will Poulter. He was part of a previous approach, and I had a meeting with him. He wasn’t very interested in doing it at that time. And also his career was starting to take off and I think he got a little scared.

So it was back to the drawing board. Barbara Muschietti noted that they auditioned literally hundreds of people for the role and “really went through the spectrum of actors.” No one was off limits: men, women, young, old, known, and unknown. When jokingly asked if Tilda Swinton auditioned, she said no…but only because she wasn’t available. (“But of course, we all thought about it.”)

And then, enter Bill Skarsgård. Said Andy Muschietti:

I was basically hoping for someone who would surprise me in any way. I had a pre-existing criteria of someone who looked childlike, and that’s where Bill came in […] So to be honest, I saw a lot of people, but there was very few, a small short list, and Bill was on top of it.

Barbara Muschietti elaborated further:

We read the novel when we were teens, we saw the miniseries much later in the game, so Tim Curry’s performance is extraordinary, but that is not necessarily what we link to Pennywise immediately. For us, Pennywise is the Pennywise in the book, which is quite different. I think Bill went for that and he did an amazing, amazing performance and we gave him several tests. Again, because he’s a shape shifter, we wanted to make sure that he could play in different grades, right? And he did. he’s amazing. And what’s even more amazing is that he kept the character very unpredictable, and that’s what scares us the most, when you don’t know what way he’s going to go

To prepare for his audition, Skarsgård did his homework by reading the book and watching the miniseries, noting that there are an infinite number of Pennywises – Tim Curry’s onscreen version and the countless interpretations invented by millions of readers over the decades. So it was important for him to not mimic Curry’s performance in any way and embrace the other possibilities:

I watched the miniseries and really appreciated Tim Curry’s take on it, but now I had to do something completely different. Obviously, that’s not something you study. I wouldn’t see the point in making a film that’s similar to the one that’s already been made, so I didn’t try to think too much about that. I just worked really hard to create my own interpretation of Stephen King’s character.

While Pennywise would continue to evolve after Skarsgård was cast, he said he came into the audition with a fully realized version of the character. And since Andy Muschietti embraced his take, they ended up on the same page for much of the production:

Obviously, everyone who went in for it had a character. It’s such a full-on character, you have to come up with, even in the casting process, a very particular character who you think is right. He responded to whatever I came up with. So even going into production, this was a guy who responded to something that I thought the character would be like. We had that connection. We both had similar ideas about what we wanted to do with the character. That started in the casting process, but it was very true throughout the whole production. I don’t think we ever really argued about anything about the character. I think we were always on the same note about what we wanted to do. That’s not as common as you’d hope in actor-director relationships.

Continue Reading How the New Pennywise Came to Be >>

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