By Steve Newton
I just finished reading Stephen King’s latest novel, Doctor Sleep, and to be honest–even though it was dedicated to Warren Zevon–I wasn’t that crazy about it. Then again, as much as I adore King’s early work and appreciate all he’s done for the horror genre, I haven’t been that crazy about a few of his books.
Sometimes I think he just really needs to edit himself a bit, especially with those weighty tomes that break the 800-page barrier. Insomnia almost put me to sleep, and I just plumb gave up trying to get through the 1074-page behemoth that became the godawful TV series Under the Dome.
Then again, I remember devouring all 823 pages of The Stand, so I guess I can’t complain about King’s wordiness. I’ve even contemplated tackling my 1152-page copy of The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition, instead of just saving it for when the snow falls and I need something to stick in the trunk for traction.
At 1138 pages, Stephen King’s It was one of those novels that took more patience than I could muster, but that didn’t stop me from getting totally psyched about covering the 1990 filming of its TV miniseries for renowned horror magazine Fangoria.
At the time I was the Vancouver correspondent for the glossy NYC-based mag, and they’d send me out on “set visits” where I’d spend countless hours interviewing the stars, directors, producers, and makeup-FX artists involved.
Fortunately, they paid in American funds.
If I recall correctly, the It mini-series wound up sucking pretty bad, but I still have fond memories of hanging out with star Tim Curry of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. If only Stephen King had been on the set as well; that would have been too much. I would have gotten him to sign my treasured copy of The Dead Zone and thanked him for keeping it under 500 pages.
Here’s my set-visit story as it appeared in Fangoria‘s issue #99.
With its miniature train, petting zoo, and kids’ play areas, Vancouver’s Stanley Park isn’t the last place you’d expect to see a circus clown decked out in full regalia—multicoloured, baggy jumpsuit with large, fluffy buttons, white face, red nose, and all.
But it’s the last place you’d want to meet a clown like Pennywise, the pivotal villain of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It.
British actor Tim Curry plays the shape-shifting, child-killing clown in the two-part miniseries based on King’s work, an $11-million project scheduled to air on ABC-TV this month (November 18 and 20). On the overcast afternoon that Fango comes face to white-face with Curry, he’s sitting in his trailer near Beaver Lake viewing the day’s rushes with make-up FX artist Bart Mixon.
The scene they’re perusing on the trailer’s built-in VCR has Pennywise popping his head out of one of the six graves he’s dug and, in a stuttering voice, taunting the book’s hero, Bill Denbrough (played by Richard “John Boy” Thomas) to take his pick of the holes—except for the one at the end, which is already occupied by one of Denbrough’s childhood buddies.
As we view several takes, a harried production assistant rushes in and hands Curry a tomato and cream cheese sandwich (no crusts), which Curry devours with dainty bites while offering a run-down of his character’s personality—or lack of it.
“Basically he’s just pure evil, really, and he can also metamorphose into various other forms—mostly into the image feared most by whoever he’s appearing to. Or he can also seductively become other people. At one point he turns into somebody’s dead father, at another point he turns into the girl that the hero’s in love with.
“I won’t tell you what he turns into at the end,” adds Curry with a wink. “But basically he’s completely irredeemable; he’s the kind of chap that’s entirely without charm.”
Pennywise commits a number of evil deeds during Its four-hour running time, causing all manner of grief to a cast that includes Thomas, John Ritter, Tim Reid (WKRP), Harry Anderson (Night Court), Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), and Annette O’Toole (Cat People).
“I off quite a few people here and there,” says Curry, “one way or another. But Pennywise turns out not to be that physical, actually—it’s mostly mental cruelty. What’s fun about him is that a clown is traditionally a very cozy, comforting kind of cheery image, and Pennywise is none of these things. I think of him all the time as a smile gone bad—that’s my image for him.”
While Curry ponders the motivations of Pennywise, his piercing dark eyes bulge expressively from the white facial paint surrounding them. Without the normal painted-on smile of a typical clown, Curry’s overall look is eternally sad—even with his fluffy flock of orange hair and brightly painted nose.
“The clown face was a little mixture of all three of us,” he says, referring to himself, Mixon (who’s best known for his monster creations on Fright Night 2), and director Tommy Lee Wallace, who helmed the latter film as well as Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. “But the first five days of shooting there wasn’t a day when the face was quite the same, because tiny little things evolved, like the shape of the mouth. And the eyebrows are actually the hardest thing to really nail down.”
Curry says that his transformation into Pennywise calls for three hours in the make-up chair, which might seem like a long time to some folks but is nothing compared to the six-and-a-half hours it took to apply Curry’s Lord of Darkness make-up for Ridley Scott’s Legend. So how does he like being a numb-bummed veteran of the make-up chair?
“I don’t think anybody likes it,” he declares, puffing on a post-snack Marlboro. “But it’s great fun when you’re actually working it, making it part of yourself and finding out what it can do. And both with this and Legend, the fun is that it’s very difficult to go too far. These may be famous last words, but to a certain extent you have to work much more broadly in order to register at all, and that’s interesting.
“But the most fun, I have to say, is taking it off. The moment they say I’m wrapped, I pull off the nose.”
Although Curry made a cult superstar of himself with his unforgettable debut film role as The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank N. Furter, and then went on to widen more eyes as the eight-foot-tall, bright-red demon in Legend, the Birmingham University drama and English grad is not a particular horror film buff himself.
“Richard O’Brien, who wrote Rocky, very much was, but it’s his obsession, not mine. I mean, I’m fascinated by movie villains—I enjoyed Lon Chaney—but in some ways I think that horror movies have got a little too far away from the mind. I personally think that what is the most horrifying is the moment of decision behind somebody’s eyes when they decide to kill somebody, rather than a pint of blood and a pound-and-a-half of latex.”
When it comes to the printed page, however, Curry counts himself among the millions who like to curl up and get scared stiff with a Stephen King book. An unabridged copy of The Stand lies within easy reach in his trailer.
“I always get the books,” he says. “I mean, he’s an extremely entertaining writer; I think he’s really good at that stuff. I like The Shining a lot too—I would have liked to have done The Shining. I mean, he certainly gives a lot of actors opportunities.”
Curry expects to have some spare time for reading, since the offers for film roles have not been streaming in lately. His previous job was playing Dr. Nikolay Petrov, a Soviet medical officer in the submarine epic The Hunt for Red October. But that was far from a personal highlight of his career. “It was fairly boring, because Petrov was a very dull person. I tend not to play dull people; I tend to play very over-the-top people.”
Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank N. Furter was definitely one of those. Curry will always be remembered first and foremost for his corset-and-stockings portrayal of the “sweet transvestite from the planet Transsexual”.
Or will he?
“I don’t know!” exhorts Curry. “It’s funny—I get asked that an awful lot, and I really don’t know the answer. Because it’s played for 15 years, it’s very often the way that people get introduced to my work, so they’re either interested enough to watch other things or they’re not. Certainly, from the kinds of letters that I get, people are interested in the range of the work rather than just the character. But you can’t ignore the fact that it was an incredibly strong character, and one that’s pretty difficult to top.”
Although there already exists one Rocky Horror sequel—1981’s Curry-less Shock Treatment—the actor says the name Rocky Horror Picture Show 2 has been registered, and the owners of the title are apparently planning to make another one. But, so far, Curry hasn’t been asked to be in it.
Does he care?
“Not really. Well, you know, I did die in the movie. I’m sure they could get around that, but no—I mean, I have nightmares about getting into that lot again. I think that was a one-shot deal, myself.”
To read the other set-visit piece I wrote on It, including interviews with director Tommy Lee Wallace, screenwriter Lawrence Cohen, and makeup-FX artist Bart Mixon, look here.
And here’s the real treat for Tim Curry freaks: an audio excerpt from my on-set interview in which he explains what Pennywise is all about. This you gotta hear.