”Pennywise is due to be on set after lunch.”
That throwaway bit of information from the unit publicist when we began our press day on the set of IT caused a giant smile to spread across my face.
If you've read much of my stuff you know that I'm a die hard Stephen King fan. My love of movies turned me onto King at an early age. I paid attention to things like directors and writers and “Based On A Novel By” credits, after seeing Cujo, Creepshow, Salems Lot, Cat's Eye, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Stand By Me, The Shining, Pet Sematary and, yes, Maximum Overdrive I knew this Stephen King fellow spoke my language.
Much like the main characters of It, I decided to undertake an epic journey at a way too young age. I wanted to read everything Stephen King wrote. I started in sixth grade with Cujo. It wasn't an intimidatingly large book, I'd seen the movie, so I figured I could dive into a more adult book and not be totally lost.
While there were some words I didn't understand I was hooked by King's incredible ability to write characters and by the sucker punch of an ending. I thought I knew what was coming, but little did 11 year old me know that Cujo: The Book had a much darker ending than Cujo: The Movie.
It's fair to say I devoured King's work. I don't remember the exact age I was when I worked up the courage to tackle the nearly 1200 page tome that is IT, but I'm certain I did it before I left middle school. I know I was pretty much the same age as the kids in the book. I fell into that world in a way I hadn't before. Bill, Bev, Ben, Eddie, Stan, Richie and Mike felt like my friends. Derry felt like my town. The mental image of the horrors on display stuck with me. The dead kids in the standpipe in particular stayed in my mind's eye way after I finished the book.
I'll have more to say about the impact the book had on me in another article I've been chipping away at for months, but suffice it to say I was psyched to get to visit the set of a big, R-rated adaptation of King's book.
Now being a big fan is a double edged sword here. I'm both an easy mark since I'm halfway there already, but the filmmakers also have to prove themselves in a way they don't have to with a casual filmgoer. I'm not the rigid fan that just wants to see a word for word adaptation, but if I see something that goes against the spirit of the story or characters I'm going to call bullshit.
Thankfully I have very little to call bullshit on (from what I saw). There's one thing involving Bev I'm not too sure on, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Just in case you're reading this and haven't read the book or seen the Tim Curry mini-series, the quick set up is this: Seven outcast kids in a small Maine town band together in the face of a slate of child murders. They know what's behind it and it's up to them to stop the supernatural evil killing their friends and neighbors. This evil, this It, can take many forms, but the one it usually chooses is that of a demented clown named Pennywise. Caught up? Good. Let's talk about the cool shit I saw last summer.
My day on the Toronto set took me to Bev's bloody bathroom, the sewers of Derry and deep into Pennywise's Lair. They do all indeed float down there, but once again we'll get to that later.
The first set we saw was Beverly Marsh's bathroom. They were dressing it before bringing in a ridiculous amount of blood. IT fans will know this scene well. Beverly Marsh, one of the key members of the Losers Club, hears the voices of some of Pennywise's victims coming from the sink drain before blood shoots out. They weren't kidding around with this take on it. We're not talking about a gurgling of blood. The walls, ceiling and floor are covered. It shoots out of the sink like a geyser. Director Andy Muschietti would later describe this as “the Shining elevator scene” of this movie.
This was being done by the second unit while the main cast was on the cistern set in the Derry sewers. The shot was an over the shoulder of Beverly who was sitting, curled up as her father rushes in, demanding to know what all the screaming's about.
The problem is IT's antics can't be seen by adults, only children. I'm not sure if that's established earlier in this adaptation, but in the book and mini-series this is the moment the kids realize this fact because Bev's daddy, Al Marsh, doesn't see the blood covering the room and his poor daughter.
We didn't have headphones for the dialogue here, but when Mr. Marsh kneels next to his daughter and gently touches her (bloody) cheek I was watching his lips waiting for the line of dialogue I was sure was coming and low and behold it came. “I worry about you, Bev. I worry a lot.”
The thing I most remember from this scene was seeing the dark blood dripping from the ceiling in this low angle shot.
We weren't there long before we had to relocate to our interview room. We got to chat with all the kids, director Andy Muschietti and producer Barbara Muschietti. All the interviews were so good that I'm running them as their own stories, but I can say without a doubt that the kids all felt perfect for their roles and Andy and Barbara knew the source material inside and out.
One of the key elements to Pennywise/IT as a character is that it can take the form of whatever his victims most fear. In the book, which is set in the '50s, many of these forms were of the pop culture influences of the time. IT takes the form of the Teenage Werewolf, Frankenstein's Monster and The Mummy because those were the horror icons of the time.
I asked if they took the tact when the updated it to take place in the '80s and Barbara Muschietti said there are some nods to the Universal Monsters from the books, but don't expect to see '80s pop culture represented in the same way. I took that to mean no Freddy Krueger IT, for instance. The fears are more personal than iconic horror bad guys.
I also brought up that scene. There's a controversial moment that takes place at the end of the book where the young friends transition into adulthood in a quite literal and sexual way. Of course that isn't going to happen in the movie, but both Barbara and Andy knew the importance of what that moment implied. They just figure the group's coming of age was in their fight with Pennywise and didn't feel the need to push it deeper than that.
Another deep cut nerdy question I asked involved the Turtle. The mythology in the book is pretty weird and it gets into macroverses and stuff, but the simple way to say is that IT is a being of evil far bigger and beyond the comprehension of us lowly humans. The Turtle represents the opposite side of the coin. The turtle is the good side and IT is the dark side. It is the Turtle that draws these seven kids together and subtly guides them in their fight with IT.
Andy said they don't get into all that weirdness too much, but they did include some easter eggs for the hardcore novel fans, the most prominent being a swimming scene in which all the members of the Losers Club gather together for the first time and something is under the water... you think it's something scary and Bill ducks under, comes back saying it was a turtle. It's a nice bit of symbolism for us constant readers. The first time the Losers Club is complete a turtle pops up. That's the kind touch that makes me feel like this story is in the right hands.
Before we headed down into the sewers we met Production Designer Claude Pare in the art department offices. Let me paint you a bit of a word picture here. The offices were like any regular old office buildings, but the corridor leading to the art department was ridiculously long and at the end of the hallway was a 1:1 color print out of the Shining twins holding hands. So when you turn the corner you see the creepy Shining girls at the end of a long hallway. I didn't really know anybody in this office, but I have a feeling we'd get along.
Everything we saw on this day was on stages, but Pare said that a huge amount was shot on location. Port Hope, Ontario was the main stand-in for Derry, Maine, with some location shooting done in Oshawa, just outside of Toronto. Pare estimated 80% of the movie was shot on location.
I'm not embarrassed to say I nerded out quite a bit in this office. There were Missing Child posters for Patrick Hockstetter and Betty Ripsom up on the walls. I saw a miniature model of the Paul Bunyon statue and it looked absolutely perfect. Pare assured me that they built it full scale and it looked even cooler out on location.
A lot of the art around was typical art department stuff... doors with different degrees of aging on it (white door with the words “Not Scary At All” written underneath, kinda dirty door with “Scary” written below and a really dirty door with “Very Scary” written in red underneath) and that kind of thing, but one really caught my eye. It was Pennywise's Lair.
The art had an etherial quality to it. At the center was a mountain of discarded kids toys dating back hundreds of years and floating above were dozens and dozens of little bodies, hanging in a light mist. These dead kids weren't strung up in a spider web, like the mini-series. They were indeed floating. It was super creepy and I got to walk around it! More on that in a bit.
Other nerdy things I noticed: street signs for Jackson St, Kansas St, Witcham St, all major locations for some rather unpleasant events in the story. There was also the postcard on which Ben writes his love poem for Beverly, which happened to have the standpipe on the other side. There was a mural commemorating the “Brady Gang,” a nod to one of the notorious evil events in the history of Derry. In the book they were the Bradley Gang, but apparently they had to change the name for legal reasons for the nod in the movie.
There was also the local Derry movie theater. It's not the Aladdin (like the book), but it was called The Capitol Theater, its perfectly '80s marquee advertising Batman and Lethal Weapon 2, which I guess solidly sets the events of this movie in 1989.
One of the key locations in the story is the house at 29 Neibolt Street. It's an old abandoned house that also happens to be one of Pennywise's entry points into Derry. There were three locations for this one house. The exterior was built some 80 miles outside of Toronto, the interiors were filmed at an abandoned Asylum and then there was a little piece built on stage.
In the basement of this spooky house is an old stone well that leads into the sewers. The production art for this basement is exactly what I pictured from the book. They even had the wall of coal piled up under the ground window!
I was about to see what was at the bottom of that well. Before venturing into the sewers I was required to put on some rubbers because there was indeed some water. With my booties on, I was ready to take a trip to Pennywise's lair.
If you've ever seen behind the scenes footage from movie shoots you know what a big set looks like from the back. It's just bare plywood, but when you're on the other side suddenly you're transported into the story in a bizarre way.
My first experience with this was checking out the bottom of the Neibolt House well. Their was a big hole in the wall, a tunnel that was about as tall as a child or a hunched over adult. This tunnel led into the cistern, which in turn led into the sewers and, eventually, the cistern, which is where Pennywise resides.
I saw some creepy stuff on this visit, but ducking under the plywood and popping up at eye level with this tunnel was the only time something turned in my stomach. I went from the real world to inside one of my favorite books in a flash. When I stood up I was completely surrounded but the well set and looking straight through this earthen tunnel, which was crudely hand-carved by Pennywise itself. You could see the claw marks in the dirt walls. That combined with the view of the sewers beyond and the children's shoes and clothes that were on the floor of the tunnel really skeeved me out.
They gave me a flashlight for my trip into the sewer sets and shining it down this fucked up tunnel brought up conflicting emotions. Half of my brain was so giddy to be seeing this brought to life and the other half was telling me to get the hell out of there.
When I ducked under and back into the real world the first thing I saw was Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis and Jeremy Ray Taylor sitting in costume with their parents in deep conversation with each other. So, I went from Pennywise's tunnel to seeing Stuttering Bill Denborough, Beverly Marsh and Haystack Ben Hanscom.
What was even more surreal was seeing Jackson Robert Scott while walking to the sewer set. Young master Scott plays Georgie and there he was, in his yellow raincoat, just sitting there playing video games on his iPad while his parents chatted away.
The sewers were exactly what you'd imagine they'd be, which is astounding when you consider they were new, freshly built and not actually filled with graywater. Everything was aged, rusty and wet. The walls glistened, real water ran through. It never ceases to amaze me what a talented crew can build.
That brings us to Pennywise's lair.
The cistern is a huge, circular space, a hub where all the sewers lead. Imagine it like the center of a wheel with all the spokes being the sewer tunnels leading to it. At the center of it is a massive mini-mountain of discarded children's toys. This was built up about 30 feet, the rest either added digitally or with a miniature. I saw the miniature they will use for wide shots and it's kind of like a wizard's hat, with the newer toys at the top of the stack. The idea is that these are the toys of Pennywise's victims going back hundreds of years, so the older toys are at the bottom and the newer stuff stacked on top.
Built into this creepy doll and bicycle and wooden toy pile was an old caravan with a clown painted on it. Our clown. The old timey painting advertises Pennywise the Dancing Clown. This looked like something out of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus from the outside and then I got to go INSIDE and it was even more creepy.
Apparently at some point in the finale the wooden doors open on this caravan and reveals the interior, which is like old vaudeville stuff. Waves built out of wood that can move by pulling a rope, a sun on a painted backdrop, that kind of thing.
Remember way back at the beginning of this novella-sized set report when I said there was something I might call bullshit on. Well, we've come to it, but I must warn you. It's a bit of a spoiler. The scene they were shooting itself isn't that spoilerific, but something in the background is and if you don't want to know, then I'd suggest scrolling down a few paragraphs. I've marked the beginning and ending of this spoiler talk, so a quick scroll should work!
BEGIN SPOILER TALK
For those that stuck around, let me tell you about this shot before I get into the nitty gritty of what it could imply.
The shot was on Jaeden Lieberher as he cautiously walked around the circumference of the toy pile. He's holding one of those hard yellow plastic flashlights that were everywhere in the '80s. He wore a backpack with something sticking out of it. It was hard to tell what it was, but it looked vaguely like a quiver of arrows to me. Around his neck, hanging by a string, was a silver toy laser gun.
Stuttering Bill sees a box on the ground, next to some dirty dolls, and looks at it before looking up sharply at some sound. He investigates, leaving frame. That's the shot. Nothing too spoilery, right? Well, behind him was Sophia Lillis' Beverly Marsh... who was floating about 6 feet off the ground, looking straight up with a blank stare.
I'm pretty sure Pennywise captures Bev at some point and that's what prompts the rest of the Losers Club into the sewers, to rescue her. That's a big change from the book and one I'm not particularly fond of. On paper it turns Bev into a damsel in distress, which is exactly the opposite of who that character is.
I'll give these guys the benefit of the doubt, but this was the one big thing I saw during my trip that hit the wrong chord with me. It's possible I'm guessing wrong and Bev was simply caught in Its Deadlights (ie she gets a glimpse of the real entity behind the clown and is mesmerized by it), but I'm pretty sure she gets grabbed at some point.
END SPOILER TALK
I knew Pennywise was shooting on this day, but Bill Skarsgard was not involved in the cistern shooting. He was off on a smaller stage shooting an effects scene.
You know that scene in the trailer when the kids are watching the slide projector and Pennywise shows up on the screen?
As you can imagine the scene doesn't there. The kids knock over the projector in their panic and it lands skewed on the ground, the projection at a Dutch Angle on the basement wall. Well, guess what? Pennywise crawls off that screen and into the basement with them... but at the scale he was while projected, which means we're getting about a 3x bigger Pennywise crawling out of the wall and going for the children.
To achieve this they had Bill Skarsgard in full Pennywise makeup and costume crouched on a greenscreen set, with a green outline of the canted screen built out of wood in front of him. On action he was motionless, matching the still of his face that is frozen on the projector. After a beat he gives an animalistic, high pitched yelp and comes to life, laughing maniacally.
Andy Muschietti called out “Stanley” and Pennywise jerked his head to his left before beginning his crawl out of the screen with a growl. Stan obviously runs and grabs Pennywise's attention and he's coming for him.
Pennywise's hair was more wild than it has appeared in the marketing materials. It actually reminded me a little of Jack Torrance's hairline from Kubrick's The Shining. Skarsgard gave multiple different versions this take, trying something new and different every time. The last take up was my favorite because he did this little animalistic head shake as he moved through the screen, right at camera, which made the ruffles around his neck shake in a weird way that reminded me of a large wolf for some reason. He also made a crazy sound in his throat that kinda sounded like a creepy Three Stooges sound effect.
After getting the head-on shot they moved to profile against greenscreen, which had Pennywise on his hands and knees halfway out of the screen. While they were setting this up I was able to check out the miniature of the creepy toy pile at Pennywise's lair, which was sitting in the corner of this studio, waiting for a miniature shoot against greenscreen. I was told they were going to comp this into a shot and put some dead floating kids above it with VFX, just like the production art I saw earlier.
While I was admiring this “bigature” Bill Skarsgard was called back to the set. I happened to be standing next to his tent, so out Pennywise walks, orange puff buttons bouncing as he walked. Not for nothin' but in person this thing was super intimidating. It helps that Bill Skarsgard is very, very tall. He glanced in my direction, looked me in the eye, gave me a nod and said “Hey, how're you doing?” before moving on. So, I guess I can say Pennywise talked to me. Not Bill Skarsgard, but Pennywise the Dancing Clown. That's pretty cool.
The profile shot had to be lined up with another shot they already got, so I watched as they compared the blocking of Pennywise with the scene they already shot. They were able to put a rough comp of their live feed over the footage on the monitor (which is how I figured out we're getting a 3x bigger Pennywise) which had the clown reaching out for one of the kids (Stanley, I presume) like Kong reaching for Fay Wray.
When they got the angle right and started shooting Skarsgard once again gave them many different options in how he played the scene. He had a line this time, but still played it all very animalistic. As he reaches out for the kid he yells out some variation of “I want a banana!” or “Monkey wants a banana!”
I noticed he kept fluctuating his voice, alternating between high and low when he yelled this line. It always had an insane quality to the tone, but the pitch fluctuating made it even more unsettling.
Off camera, Muschietti called out a countdown “3... 2... 1... Door!” and a light would shine on Pennywise's face, which surprises him and makes him freeze. I'm guessing it's daylight as someone opens a door, and, likely saving the Losers Club from being crushed by this extra large Pennywise.
And there you have it, my brief visit to the world of Stephen King's IT. Ever since I was a kid I daydreamed about walking around Derry and getting to meet these characters. While that is never going to happen I was able to do the next best thing during this set visit and had a blast.
I liked most of what I saw and I hope you guys got to feel like you were able to join me on this little adventure. Lord knows I wrote a long enough story for you to immerse yourself in.
You can never tell how a movie will turn out from just one day on the set, but you can tell if they're on the right track and have the right priorities. I know I walked away from this set visit a lot more hopeful for this movie than before I set foot on set. In the time since the visit the posters and trailer have emboldened that optimistic outlook even more.
If you dug this report and want to know more, I highly suggest reading all the extensive interviews I'm publishing from this set visit. Bill Skarsgard and all the kids are must reads for any King fan wanting to know how seriously they're taking on the task of adapting this classic book.