By Matthew Holland
CLOWN – Noun: A comic entertainer, especially one in a circus, wearing a traditional costume and exaggerated make-up.
This, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and a pretty accurate description… Of course, for many people ‘comic entertainer’ works rather poorly as a synonymous term for ‘demonic nightmare’. Because the fact of the matter is, clowns are terrifying.
It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly where the innate horror lies, but the one thing that’s certain is that for the last 30 years, that horror has been propagated in popular culture by one figure: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The eponymous character of Stephen King’s (who else?) 1986 epic novel It, Pennywise has been behind many a trepidatious trip to the bathroom, many a hurried walk past an abandoned house and most certainly many a second (and probably third) glance thrown at a storm drain. But why make mention of such an unpleasant manifestation? For the simple fact that the frequency of the occurrences mentioned is only set to skyrocket now that the long and eagerly awaited film adaptation of King’s masterpiece has finally hit cinemas.
Getting The Circus To Town
With a production history almost as long as its source material, the fact that It is actually out seems something of a miracle to fans, because the project has been in a bit of a production hell for the better part of eight years. Plans to bring Pennywise to the big screen have been in place since 2009 – Variety magazine announced on March 12 of that year that Warner Bros. were looking to produce an adaptation, and since then the film has been through two major planning phases, with True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga helming the project from 2012 to 2015, and newish director Andrés Muschietti – who brought us the 2013 horror Mama – taking over from that point onward. This change of direction was almost the death knell for It – Fukunaga had been an integral part of production, having joined not only as director but as co-screenwriter, too. As such, source material notwithstanding, much rested upon his ‘vision’ – a vision which producers apparently weren’t too happy with. Production faltered when Fukunaga and Warner Bros. were at loggerheads about where Fukunaga was taking the script, and seemed dead in the water when he, unwilling to acquiesce to WB’s wishes, abruptly left, despite a near-complete script and an already-begun casting process. Even King himself was doubtful about the whole thing, tweeting, “…It may be dead – or undead…” Thankfully, Argentinean Muschetti stepped in to resurrect the project, and although this meant further delays – with a reworking of the script still required and a new casting call put into motion – the rest of the process was pretty smooth sailing, and on September 8, 2017 (September 15 for us in SA) Pennywise took to the stage in all his g(l)ory.
Just What Is It All About?
It all takes place in the small fictional US town of Derry – a town that, on paper, seems, if not ideal, then at least a comfortable place to grow up. The truth, however, is that something is horribly wrong with Derry, something which only the children there seem to be able to see. A presence lives beneath, lurking in the sewers, occasionally emerging to prey upon the young. It has many forms, able to take the shape of a child’s deepest, darkest dread, but the form It uses most is that of a clown, luring innocents into Its clutches with a supposedly friendly face and promises of balloons that float. This is something illustrated in the very first scene of King’s work, which sees a young boy named Georgie encounter Pennywise in a storm drain. Things don’t turn out all that well for Georgie, whose fate serves as a catalyst for the events of the novel. His older brother Bill, 11, and his best friends, are pushed into a confrontation with It. They come away, scarred but alive, with the evil of the town seemingly defeated. Life resumes in Derry, and the childhood friends move away and grow up, each carving his own particular niche in the safety of adulthood. Almost three decades pass, and the horror of their youth has become something less than a memory…until the killings begin again. Then they’re all called back – to their home, to their childhoods – to face off against the nightmare that lives under Derry once and for all.
Given the limits of the 1990 series, it’s no surprise that the production came off as somewhat tame – most certainly by today’s standards. Nevertheless, its titular character became an inimitable icon in horror film history, and this was due to the unforgettable performance of Tim Curry. The English actor from Cheshire, who was born on April 19, 1946, and was in his 40s, had already achieved somewhat of an iconic status himself with his role of the deranged Dr Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, and so make-up and villainous eccentricity were not new ground for him. In fact only a few years before he’d donned the red skin and massive horns of the Lord Of Darkness in the 1985 fantasy film Legend. However, it was the prospect of another performance in heavy cosmetics and prosthetics that had him initially reluctant to take on the role of the child-eating clown, since it suggested many more excruciating hours buried under paint and sweating rubber. Thankfully director Tommy Lee Wallace agreed to cut down on the amount of make-up Curry would have to wear, which, given his stellar performance, didn’t need to be depended upon too greatly in any case. That’s not to say, though, that appearance of Pennywise was redundant or even close to – the white face, the red hair and the baggy suit were all essential in establishing a generation of coulrophobics, and for this make-up artist Bart Nixon is to be commended. According to Nixon, the essence of Pennywise’s design was a clown treatment of Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of The Opera (1925), especially regarding the ‘shape of the head and the upturned nose’. While Nixon hadn’t actually read the novel, he did go over some of the paragraphs that dealt with Pennywise’s description – however, he admits that most of the work was done according to information he got from the script, rather than the book, stark evidence of which can be seen in the clown’s suit, which involved a garish medley of colours as opposed to the original’s plain silver.
IT goes without saying that finding someone to fill Tim Curry’s clown shoes would be something of a challenge, and indeed a good many names were put down for consideration – a few of them big ones. Richard Armitage, Hugo Weaving and, believe it or not, even Tilda Swinton were all stars given serious consideration. In the end, though, it was rising Swedish star Bill Skarsgard who landed the honour, despite being around 17 years younger that Curry had been. Born August 9, 1990 in Vallingby, Sweden, Bill comes from a family already rooted in the entertainment industry. His father, Stellan Skarsgard, has an impressive filmography to his name, and several of Bill’s siblings are in show business too, the most famous being Alexander, who grabbed attention with his role as vampire Eric Northman in HBO’s True Blood series. Bill Himself has had some involvement in monster horror, having starred in the the werewolf-centric Hemlock Grove series, and so the realm of the weird and wonderful isn’t new to him, just as it wasn’t to his predecessor. But what earned him the role ultimately was his reinterpretation of Pennywise. “I’ll never be able to make a Tim Curry performance as good as Tim Curry,” Skarsgard has said about the role. “His performance was truly great, but it’s important for me to do something different because of that.” He elaborated, “There’s a childishness to the character, because he’s so closely linked to the kids. The clown is the manifestation of children’s imaginations, so there’s something childlike about that.” Director Andres Muschietti echoed this, saying, “Bill Skarsgard caught my attention. The character has a childish and sweet demeanor, but there’s something very off about him. Bill has that balance in him. He can be sweet and cute, but he can be pretty disturbing.” But while this Pennywise was imagined with something childlike to him, his costume was designed to illustrate how old he actually is. Pennywise has existed in the area of Derry for centuries, and his clothing took elements of various ages to show that. Costume designer Janie explained that she drew from the Medieval, Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Victorian eras, commenting on the Fortuny pleating, “It’s a different technique [from] what the Elizabethans would do…it has a whimsical, floppy quality to it. It’s not a direct translation of a ruff or a whisk, which were two of the collars popular during the Elizabethan period.”