Stephen King's It

Pennywise Prepares

One recurring theme throughout our set visit was that this team was not remaking the miniseries – they were making a new adaptation of the original novel. Skarsgård took that to heart with his performance and tried to find a voice for his character that would be unique to him. However, it wasn’t until he saw himself in make-up and costume that everything clicked:

I play around with a lot of different versions of what this thing might sound like. The voice had changed a lot from the first time I had auditioned. I explored different versions of it, what would resonate the most with the audience. It was really when we did the full make-up test and see what the character would actually look like…it’s a very abstract way of preparing for something when you have no idea what he will look like. I didn’t know what the make-up would look like, I had no idea what the prosthetics would look like. Then we started exploring different things and I saw different prototypes of what he might look like and I started working with that. My first test with the prosthetics and make-up was where I saw what the character would actually look like with me in it. That’s something I needed to explore to [discover] what this thing would sound like.

And while Skarsgård’s voice will not be tinkered with in any way during post-production, Andy Muschietti said that this version of Pennywise adopts several different voices. He adapts to whatever situation he’s in:

It’s a different approach, but he’s not sticking to one voice. He has different personas. Because it’s a character that is based also on unpredictability, so he has this stagey persona, the more clowny appearance, but then in certain scenes when he turns into this other, which is harder to grasp, and that’s the “other,” you know, the “It.” And he has a different tone, he has a deeper voice, and a different feel to it.

Barbara Muschietti described Pennywise as “definitely evil and the incarnation of the worst of people’s fears.” He exists “to represent fear” and can take on any qualities to achieve his goals. “That is his purpose,” she said, noting that this version of the character “is a different, more active Pennywise” who enjoys the hunt:

This Pennywise plays with his food. He taunts them, and that is of course very amusing but very disturbing at the same time, and very scary.

To bring this creature to life, Skarsgård looked inward:

I only have my own senses to go on so I wanted to make something that I would be scared of [laughs]. So an important thing for me in terms of preparing and creating the character was thinking “What are the things that I would find really unsettling?” And then explore that. Your own kind of fears and what you find disturbing and amplify that in terms of the performance. Essentially, what you’ll end up seeing in the film is my own deepest fears embodied in this character [laughs].

But he also returned to King’s text, with one moment helping him understand why “It” continues to take on the Pennywise form:

Obviously, it’s an extremely abstract character because the character is an entity taking the shape of a clown. I had to first figure out what the entity was and what the thing was that is taking the shape of the clown. The second step is to create the clown itself. I didn’t want the clown to be completely separate from the entity, right? I wanted “It” to really shine through Pennywise as opposed to just Pennywise being the clown. So a lot of what the entity is I wanted to be in the background of who Pennywise is at all times. There’s a line in the original book where it goes something like “the clown was its favorite form.” It really enjoyed being the clown. He preferred to take the shape of the clown. Obviously, that opened ways of thinking. Why does he prefer being the clown? But also there is this sense of enjoyment. The entity that is “It” is enjoying being the clown. There were a lot of abstract ways to look at it. I tried to take all of those in consideration when I embodied the character.

King’s thick, dense novel was especially helpful since the 120-page-screenplay version of Pennywise doesn’t offer an actor much to chew on. That’s by design, of course, to keep “It” mysterious to the audience, but it required some extra homework for Skarsgård:

I had to make Pennywise anything but mysterious because I need to understand him as well as I can. I read the book and I took a lot of notes on anything that described Pennywise in any way or “It” in any way. A lot of great chapters. There’s one chapter in particular where “It,” the entity “It,” is the narrator and you hear his thoughts and what he thinks like. So there was this huge source material to go from. What is this thing? Why is he here? What does he think like? What does he like? What doesn’t he like? I could use all of those things to come up with my own version and my own interpretation of what “It” is and also what Pennywise is. And then using all of that with my own ideas and my own thoughts and conclusions, I could apply them to the more limited version in the script.

pennywise

Pennywise on Set

You may recall that many It fans, both of the book and the miniseries, were unhappy with the first official photo of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. It turns out that Skarsgård was none-too-happy about it either:

So, it’s weird because I hadn’t even begun shooting it yet when that was released. The tactic behind it was the studio wanted to be in control of the images being leaked…It was released the day before we started shooting because my first day of shooting was something that someone would potentially sneak a photo of. So, that was weird. I didn’t like that people saw what the look was before I’d even [started] building the character, you know? For actors, I think, and filmmakers…before it’s actually released, it’s still yours, you know? In the sense that no one has seen it, no one has an opinion on it, it’s still your thing that you’re working on and exploring and it’s a nice feeling that it’s not out in public. Then, once you finished it, there’s an excitement for when it is time and when you’re ready and separated from the thing and go, “Here!”

While the jury is still out on how Pennywise will look and feel in the finished film, I can personally attest that he looks far better in person than he did in those early promotional stills. While visiting the set, we were able to watch Skarsgård film one scene in-character and it’s a moment glimpsed in the first trailer. The young heroes of the film, the “Losers’ Club,” watch a slideshow, only for the projector to go haywire and Pennywise to emerge from the screen to torment them.

But there was no projector on this set. It wasn’t even a living room. The kids weren’t even there. It was a green screen and Skarsgård was peering through a square hole standing in for the projector screen. He will be digitally composited into the actual scene, which has already been shot on a real set with the kids.

It’s a patently ridiculous scenario: a man in a creepy clown costume standing against a brightly lit green background, staring through a green window, surrounded by men and women adjusting lights and prepping cameras. Filmmaking is a silly thing when you glance just off the lens.

Even under these circumstances, this new Pennywise was certainly intriguing. The costume, faded almost to sepia, was more disconcerting in-person. The clown make-up is creepy, but it’s the more subtle prosthetics that give his head an unnatural shape that struck me as more unsettling. Skarsgård is taller and lankier in real life than he looks in any images, which certainly adds to the menace of the character.

We didn’t hear him speak in this scene, but we did hear Pennywise grunt and squeal and laugh and groan — each take brings a different uncomfortable noise as he slithers through the “projector screen” toward his young victims. It’s a jump scare waiting to be born in the editing room — Skarsgård’s Pennywise strikes a pose, listens for a cue (“Stanley!” surely referring to the character of young Stanley Uris) and then launches forward toward the camera.

As we watch filming, Skarsgård brings something a little different to each and every take, some of it creepy, some of it gross, some of it darkly amusing. As he told us:

We did everything in so many different ways. I don’t think I could have done it if I didn’t trust what Andy liked. He would say “This is great, I’m really responding to this” and I would just continue to do it, whatever it was. Essentially, it was the most weird, scary and disturbing thing we could come up with. It was important to me that there was something absurd about the character. Something inexplicable. Why is he doing this? Unpredictable absurdity to the character that will catch people off guard. This kind shock factor where you never know what this guy is going to do next. You have no idea what he’ll do or how he’ll do it. There’s no way of predicting his behavior. Obviously, that meant there was a lot of chaotic scenes and weird explosive things that we did. We’d explore it. If I didn’t have that trust in Andy, I don’t think that I’d ever be able to do it. You need to when you do something that out there.

Before the day was out, we’d get to see exactly where an evil shapeshifting clown calls home.

Continue Reading For a Tour of Pennywise’s Lair >>

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