The new It arrives in theaters today, but it’s been a long and winding road to the big screen. The TV miniseries came out nearly 27 years ago. Back in 2012, Cary Fukunaga wrote a script for the first film version, and was once attached to direct, but he departed the project over creative differences. His Pennywise was Will Poulter, who was still part of the project when director Andy Muschietti and his sister and producing partner, Barbara, took over; eventually, Bill Skarsgård replaced Poulter as the titular demonic entity. Now, more than 30 years after Stephen King’s original novel, our favorite freaky clown is finally ready to terrorize America once more.
The Muschiettis, who broke out in 2013 with the Jessica Chastain–starring Mama, didn’t want to make the It adaptation of your nightmares. The Argentinian siblings wanted to make the It of their nightmares — the ones that traumatized Andy ever since he fell in love with the stories of Stephen King as a child. So they ditched the kitschy 1980s aesthetic of Pennywise in favor of a dirty, more Victorian look (“I don’t dig the 20th-century clown. I think it looks cheap,” Muschietti’s said), and created the screen adaptation they’ve always wanted to see. Vulture caught up with the siblings before the movie’s premiere — and a few days after the sequel was green-lit — about how hard it is to make original films, bullies who are “expressionist” in the art of cruelty, and why it’s so appealing to keep terrorizing kids.
When you guys boarded the project after Cary Fukunaga left, how familiar were you with his script, and did you incorporate any of what was already there? Or was it a total fresh start?
Andy Muschietti: I read the script, and there were things that were cool about it, and we kept those. But mainly, I brought my vision to the movie. For me, it was pretty easy to detect things that I wanted to change in the big picture and structurally and in the characters. So there’s stuff from the original script that we used, but in big part, it is the result of the ideas that I brought to the table.
Coming off an original picture like Mama, why did you want to pursue a legacy property like It, with all the possible reward and inherent risk that goes along with a project so ingrained in the popular consciousness already?
AS: Because it means a lot to us. I’m a huge fan of the book and Stephen King is one of my big heroes, literary heroes, and I am a fan, and I want to see a movie of It. I was excited with the previous iterations and developments of the movie. I was really excited about watching a good, faithful reimagination of the story. As it happens, I turned out to direct it, but either way I was very excited about the idea of the movie. I’m glad that we turned out to do it.
Barbara Muschietti: I do believe that he is the filmmaker he is, in great part, for having been influenced at an early age by Stephen King. And you can see vestiges of that in Mama — having a creature that, at times, you can empathize with and a horror story that has huge emotional roots. So even if it seems like a departure, it really isn’t. That said, we really hope we can continue to do original material as often as possible, because there’s less fingers in the pie.
The news broke recently that you’re attached to direct an upcoming sanctioned prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and you’ve said, too, that your primary commitment is to the second part of It, which has also been confirmed. Which is a lot more work on other people’s properties.
AM: Well, the experience that we had in Mama is something that we really want to go back to. We started this conversation talking about what attracted us to It, but I like to write stories and tell stories from scratch. I like to create characters and worlds, and there’s nothing like telling your own stories. It’s really exciting, and makes the whole process a higher experience in my opinion. Right now the priority for us is to make the second half of It, because I wouldn’t leave it unfinished and it’s really exciting for me to complete the story.
BM: We’re also realistic in the sense that we are in a business. Taking original material to the screen is harder and harder, and it is easier to work with IP that’s preexisting. So I think the ideal is to basically have a balance, and be able to do projects you love that come from existing IP, and then create your own projects, and that will allow you to have a stream of projects. It was hard for us not shooting for four years, from Mama to this, and in part it was because we were a little stubborn with original material. So we’ve slowly learned in this business.
You guys are Argentinian, and one of the things I appreciate most about horror that comes out of Latin countries is its relationship with the supernatural and the fantastic. Filmmakers like Alejandro Amenábar, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and of course Guillermo Del Toro create such beautiful ghost stories and tales of the surreal. I’m wondering if there was anything you brought from your cultural experience with the genre to this American property.
AM: I think mainly my devotion to horror comes from international horror movies and literature. It all started with Stephen King. Of course, there’s other sides to my storytelling influences that comes from of course [Jorge Luis] Borges and Bioy Casares and writers like [Horacio] Quiroga, which probably adds different flavors to the genre, and are definitely a part of the influence. But you know, my love for horror comes from movies that were mainly English [language].
BM: As people who were raised in a Latin culture, the family ties are so overwhelming culturally that it is difficult to write away from that. Conflicts tend to come from those roots.
Something that really stood out to me in the movie was the pure cruelty of the bully Henry Bowers. The attention we pay here in the States to messaging around bullying and childhood cruelty tends to result in a softening of those characters in film and TV now. Did you have to push to make Bowers so heinous, and was that just an automatic character choice for you?
AM: I agree. This story takes place in the ’80s, and my experiences in the ’80s with bullies was pretty faithful to what you see there. Bullies were like overacting bullies. They were very mean and very expressionist in their art of bullying, and I wanted to bring that. On one hand, I think it’s a bit of an homage to personal experience, and on the other hand, there are two deleted scenes that bring some humanity to Henry Bowers. Basically, [the scenes] explain the conflict that he has at home with his father, how and why Henry Bowers is a monster — because he was abused physically by his dad. It’s also in the book — there’s a moment when Stephen King describes the life of Henry Bowers and his relationship with his dad, and his dad is a fucking scumbag, and he beats him up. But what we discovered, putting the movie together, is that people did not react at all to that humanization of Bowers. They didn’t want to see that Henry Bowers has a human side, basically, and even though I like to explore that depth in all the characters, for functional purposes we decided to leave it out, because we do test screenings of the movie and nobody reacted to that. It felt like nobody wanted to know what happened to Henry Bowers behind closed doors.
From Mama to It, what is it about children in peril that creatively inspires you?
AM: Well, I think childhood is something that we all go through [laughs]. So that’s the first thing. It sounds funny, but it’s years of our lives that are like a treasure, in a way. In fact, going back to It: It was like a love letter to childhood with a parable of the death of childhood, the death of that world of magic and imagination and belief in things that don’t exist. So it’s basically a farewell homage to childhood, and it’s recurrent in Stephen King’s world. It’s also something that’s recurring in every artist’s inner-universe, because it’s the best years of creation, where imagination runs free and you really build stuff from scratch. When you’re a writer and you’re an adult, that’s something you crave — that limitless imagination and love for worlds that don’t exist that you can create. And I think that, ultimately, Stephen King was writing also about being an artist, and the pain of trying to connect to that inner child.
But from our angle, childhood and teenage years are the age where you feel things with most intensity. It’s the age where you experience things for the first time. The first love or the first situation of bullying or violence, infatuations with things and people, and it doesn’t happen again in adult life. It’s also connected to my passion with horror. It’s something I experienced as a child, and I want to re-create those intense emotions, and I know I will never feel the way I felt when I was 8 or 9 years old and I was shocked by a horror movie. But it’s like an addiction, you know?
BM: I’ll never be more influenced or get over the experience of the books and films I saw as a child or as an early teen, and still the memories of those emotions are what keep me going, and keep me working in this business. So it is very natural that our heroes are children. It’s going to be interesting to see us having heroes that are not children, actually [laughs].