Entering the lair of Pennywise the Clown on the set of Stephen King’s It

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FANGORIA #98, Nov. 1990

By Steve Newton

As anyone who’s tackled Stephen King’s It can tell you, the 1986 novel of a shape-shifting, child-chomping monster is not a quick read–that is, unless you happen to be Evelyn Wood’s speadreading coach. Because it’s such an enormous tome, it seems apt that the location where the novel is being transformed into a two-part ABC miniseries is the vast expanse of Vancouver’s Dominion Bridge Studio. This is the same humongous complex where Martin Brundle meted out gooey justice to those who wronged him in The Fly II.

A circuitous walk from the parking lot to Studio 3 puts Fango face to face with George Horie, the project’s affable production manager. While Horie sets off in search of the film’s director, Tommy Lee Wallace of Fright Night–Part 2 and Halloween III fame, a stroll around the studio affords a look at some of the sets that have been constructed under the supervison of production designer Douglas Higgins. There’s one small room decorated as an old-fashioned bathroom; a larger high-school shower room; an authentic-looking sewer chamber with interconnecting pipes and drains; and the most commanding structure, a 60-foot-high cavern of plaster and wood that sports various human skulls and cocooned corpses dangling from heavy-duty spider web.

“We call that ‘the lair’,” says Wallace, once we get connected. “That’s where It makes its home. There are many sets in here; we’ve worked our way through a huge number of locations, and now we’re finally coming back to the stage and doing some of our more intricate monster work, and some of the climax of both stories–the children’s story and the adults’ story.”

For the uninitiated, It tells the tale of a group of small-town kids who face up to a murderous supernatural force, conquer it, and then are called back 30 years later to deal with it again. The grown-up cast for the $11 million-plus show features several current and ex-TV sitcom stars–John Ritter, Richard (“John Boy”) Thomas, Tim (WKRP) Reid, and Harry (Night Court) Anderson–as well as Rocky Horror‘s Tim Curry, Cat People‘s Annette O’Toole, and Dennis (Fade to Black) Christopher. It debuts in November.

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Before long, Wallace is called away to the shower set, where Adam Faraizl–who plays the childhood part of wimpy asthma-sufferer Eddie Kaspbrak–is menaced by half a dozen shower pipes that reach out from the walls like malicious steel flamingos. Clutching a towel around his waist, Faraizl backs away wide-eyed, screams, and hoofs it out of there–but not before Wallace makes sure he’s gotten several takes.

Ten minutes later, the action shifts over to the bathroom set, where Wallace puts the group of six young thespians through their paces for a scene in which heroine Beverly, played by Emily Perkins, shows her pals in the “Losers Club” the blood that has drenched her bathroom–but which only they can see. Numerous takes follow before the youngsters’ performances are satisfactory to Wallace, who prods with gentle instructions and seems terribly patient throughout. But working with all those kids can’t be too easy.

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“Well, it takes more time,” admits Wallace, catching another breather. “And time is one commodity that we don’t have very much of on this shoot. So we get into a crunch point quite often. But they’re giving 100 percent, and some really wonderful things are coming out of it.”

Wallace is again whisked away, this time to oversee the blowing up of a blood balloon in the bathroom sink. A sharp report sends a nicely realistic splash of red stuff up onto the mirror over the sink and across the wall.

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“Anybody with anything to do with the blood come and take a look at this,” instructs Wallace, and while the crew is marveling over the effect of a well-placed blood bomb, Jonathan Brandis, the lead child actor, gives Fango a brief interview in the comfort of his trailer. (A brief aside to the grown-up actors, all of whom–with the exception of Tim Curry [see next issue]–snubbed Fango‘s request for interviews: Hope It gets you!)

Brandis plays the young Bill Denbrough, the stuttering leader of the Losers Club who grows up to become a best-selling horror novelist. Genre fans may recall Brandis for his portrayal of the stepson in Stepfather II; he was the one who put Terry O’Quinn down for the (second) count with a nicely placed hammer-claw. But that was child’s play compared to his work on It.

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“One of the reasons this movie’s harder is that I have to stutter,” explains the 14-year-old actor. “And that’s a really difficult thing–which I never realized when I auditioned for it. They said I had to stutter, and I thought, ‘Hey, that can’t be so hard!’ But I had to get coaching on the set, because it was really tough.”

Back on the set, the long-haired, bespectacled Wallace is once more hunted down between takes. Guessing that he’ll not be available for long, Fango tosses him a real easy question: Was it not  a real bitch for It’s screenwriter to get King’s economy-size novel down to script form?

“Yes,” Wallace states unequivocally. “But Larry Cohen did a wonderful job of restructuring. It’s set up in two parts: the first part is the children’s story, and the second part gets the grown-ups back to the town where they do battle with the beast.”

Lawrence D. Cohen (not to be confused with It’s Alive‘s Larry Cohen), who previously adapted King when he wrote the script for Carrie, knew that the sheer volume of It would make the job a dirty one.

“The book is a behemoth,” says the 42-year-old screenwriter. “To take any 1,130-page book and find a way of condensing it and adapting it–both for television and the amount of time–was truly a challenge. But when the producers approached me I was berserk to do it, having been a big fan of the book. There’s something about the novel that truly feels epic in its nature, and the hope was to preserve that part of the experience–even though we’re not in the tradition of WInds of War anymore.”

At various times, there was talk of making the film as a six-hour–or even an eight-hour–series, before the four-hour format was chosen.

“With the four-hour form, the story fell into place very neatly,” says Cohen. “Because there’s seven characters, and in television format, an evening of two hours is basically divided into seven acts. So telling seven characters’ backstories and getting to meet them as adults in the first two hours was something that was suited to the form itself. The second two hours–Part 2 of the miniseries–finds those seven adults on their home turf with the ghost of what’s happened in the past.

“It is truly a piece about growing up and of coming of age,” adds Cohen. “And what Steve does incredibly well is to tap into something that many of us in our 30s and 40s feel, which is that somewhere underneath all our grown-upness we’re still adolescents in a way.”

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Sounds good, Larry. But what inquiring Fangorians really want to know is whether he had to cut much gore out of the book.

“Well, a fair amount,” Cohen admits, “but I think it’s really a question of how Tommy will end up treating it on the screen. One of the problems dealing in television is that the standards and practices of TV are concerned about children in jeopardy, yet the nature of what this book is about is children in jeopardy–it’s founded on that theme. So what I did was write it without too much in the way of editorial constraint.”

When it comes to the actual blood and gore of It, makeup FX supervisor Bart Mixon is the man to talk to. As well as helping to develop the clown makeup that Tim Curry wears for the pivotal role of Pennywise, Mixon has been overseeing the creation of Pennywise’s various incarnations, which include a werewolf, a mummy, and a rotted corpse that’s been sitting in a lake for a long, long time. The latter creep caused no small amount of hassle where the TV censors were concerned.

“That was our biggest problem,” Mixon groans. “The network would read through it and say, ‘Well, you can do this but you can’t do this, and you gotta be careful with that.’ So with this corpse they’re saying, ‘We don’t want it like American Werewolf in London–we don’t want any meat hanging off.’ They’re saying, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark–that’s OK. Dry. A dry corpse is good.” And Tommy’s saying, ‘Well, the corpse is in water, so regardless of what it looks like it’s gonna be wet!’ So instead of meat, we have mossy seaweedlike stuff hanging off of it.”

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Mixon and visual FX supervisor Gene Warren were joined on It‘s FX chores by several of the same Fantasy II/Make-up FX Unlimited folks who worked on Fright Night–Part 2: Jim McLoughlin, Aaron Sims, Brent Baker, Norman Cabrera, Joey Orosco, Jo-Anne Smith, Sally Ray, and J.C. Matalon also got their licks in on the project, which is Mixon’s first major undertaking since his year-and-a-half stint as Rick Baker’s shop foreman on the massive Gremlins 2. One movie that Mixon wishes he had been able to do more substantial FX work on was Pet Sematary, which was briefly involved with when Fantasy II did the optical FX.

“I would have liked to have done the whole thing,” sighs Mixon, ” ’cause I really like the book. But I was a little disappointed by what they did with it as a movie. There’s this ludicrous bit in there when the guy’s carrying the kid up the hill, and he looks back and this something comes rising up at him. Well, in the original story and in the script it was supposed to be a demon head. So me and Joey Orosco–who sculpted the spider for It–came up with a really nice pentagram-shaped demon. And then the director says, ‘No, no–Fred Gwynne is a lot scarier; let’s have his head lunging up.’ And I’m saying, ‘Why?'”

While he may have missed his calling on Pet Sematary, Mixon has much more riding on this latest King project. One of the things he’s hoping will pay off visually in It is the above-mentioned spider monster. It doesn’t show up in that guise until the end, but is actually responsible for dirty deeds throughout.

“It can be anything,” explains Mixon. “It senses your fears, and it’s always changing, so at the end when you finally see It in its truest form, it’s a huge spider. But we didn’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just a big spider!’, so the first thing I wanted to do was make it real fleshy. Basically, spiders just have the exoskeleton, but what if you put meat on top of that? So instead of looking hard, it’s got folds and muscles all over it.”

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Mold-maker Brent Baker is the lucky guy who gets to crawl inside the 12-foot-long mockup, whose 15-foot legs would make Arachnophobia‘s Big Bob scurry for cover. The creature is radio-controlled, with mechanics installed by Dave Kindlon, and has servo-controlled arm extensions that the puppeteer inside operates. Fantasy II’s Pete Kleinow, who did the full-figure stop-motion robot work for The Terminator, will do the animation for the scenes where the creature really has fun.

As Mixon and his crew roll the main body of the spider over to its lair on a heavy-duty steel roller, one wonders what it is the characters in the movie have to do to kill the monstrous thing. Mixon reminds Fango that it’s the combined faith of the characters that finally rubs It out. And ripping its vile, eternally evil heart out with their bare hands wouldn’t hurt either.

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