It’s rare to see a good Stephen King movie. That’s about to change, though, as we’re currently amidst a new renaissance surrounding the best-selling author. Blame it on the success of last year’s Stranger Things or attribute it to an economy starving for bold original storytelling, but Maine’s most successful export is back in a big, big way, and adaptations of his work are rolling out faster than ever.
This summer alone we’ve seen two television adaptations — one not so good (The Mist), one better than the source material (Mr. Mercedes) — and the long-awaited arrival of The Dark Tower on the big screen. Okay, maybe the latter didn’t turn out exactly as planned for Sony, but it still happened, and that speaks volumes about Hollywood’s willingness to make his stories happen again.
But the real start of Kingapalooza begins this weekend with Warner Bros.’ and New Line’s It. Anticipation is at an all-time high, with the film having shattered records for YouTube and ticket pre-sales, ensuring a hefty box office weekend for both studios. In other words, this is great news for those looking to see more adaptations of their favorite King stories.
One possible filmmaker to make that a reality is the same person who’s tipping off the era: It‘s own Andy Muschietti. A lifelong fan of King, Muschietti has his sights on a number of King titles, those that extend beyond the confines of Derry, Maine. And seeing how well he did with It, we’re game to have him bring those words to screen.
On Wednesday afternoon, after we published our glowing review of It, Consequence of Sound hopped on the phone with the filmmaker and his sister, producer Barbara Muschietti. Together, the two chewed on their respective upbringings with King and why he’s a great resource for learning how to tell a story.
What were your earliest experiences with Stephen King? Andy, you were 13 when It was published, were you reading King at that age?
Andy Muschietti: Yeah. Actually, when I was 13, I read Pet Sematary.
One of our favorites.
Andy Muschietti: Oh, wow, that’s my favorite, too, and it blew my mind away, and that’s where it all started for me. And then I got very attached to his short stories. I read Skeleton Crew, Night Shift, I read a couple of Bachman Books like Thinner, and then came It.
Barbara Muschietti: I was a huge King fan before even reading him, and it stems from a little before I got access to his books. It was through [Tobe Hooper’s] Salem’s Lot, that just basically did my head in at, I think I must have been, nine or 10 years old. And there are still some of the images, like the guy coming off the black cloth through the kitchen floor in the middle of the family dinner or of course the child flying to the bedroom window, that will remain in my top 10 horror moments for the rest of my life.
Had you two always dreamed of working on a King project together?
Andy Muschietti: Well, for me, Stephen King was such a big influence growing up. I’d reached the literary world at a young age, so I’d learned some stories from him as much or more than the movie experiences I had growing up. We were already attached to horror at an early age, you know, at six or seven years old we were already watching horror movies. But then years later, I started reading Stephen King and the more layered parts of that world opened up, and that’s when I started appreciating the value of characters and story and depth.
Stephen King loves character so much and he appreciates the value of connecting emotionally with the innocence of the reader, whether it’s a drama or a horror movie. So, Stephen King, in my case, is about my upbringing as a storyteller, so it’s not only about adapting his work, but also about my learning experience on how to tell stories.
Barbara Muschietti: I will say though that I remember Andy having a visceral reaction the first time he read that someone, that was not him, was doing Pet Sematary. He actually wrote a scathing letter to a magazine about it… I don’t remember what magazine it was…
Andy Muschietti: I think it was Fangoria, and I was like 15, and it was Mary Lambert directing. I think, at that age, it was so weird to me that a music video director would do Pet Sematary. It didn’t make sense to me.
How do you look back on the film now?
Andy Muschietti: Well, at the time, I wasn’t too impressed because I loved the book so much and I was so, so blown by it, and there were limitations on the movie that made it so they couldn’t mimic the spirit [of the book] in full form. But, I don’t know, it was so ingrained in me, and there are things that just can’t be done in a movie that blew my mind.
I remember after Gage dies, there is this full … probably like five pages … describing the life of Gage growing up, and how he would have been a football player and how he would have been very popular and how he would be on the swim team and everybody loved him, but then on page five it says like, none of that was true and that Gage was dead.
So, when I saw the movie, I thought it was well made. I actually appreciated it and sort of realized that I shouldn’t have bitched about it, because I enjoyed the movie and the atmosphere is good and the music is great and the performances are pretty good, give or take a couple of actors, but yeah… It was not as good as the book, of course.
For It, you set the film in 1989, fairly close to when the book was first published and you began reading King. How much of yourself did you put into this film? And did growing up during that time help in your direction with the Losers?
Andy Muschietti: Well, it was a journey back to those years because I’m in my forties now and I don’t have kids. So, I don’t have contact with that generation every day, and like my friends’ kids are younger, so it was suddenly rediscovering a world that has so many similarities of my own experience, but on the other hand, a lot of nuances that just come from this generation. So I became so curious about them and living together with this group of kids was really interesting.
What went into finding the perfect Losers’ Club?
Andy Muschietti: Well, I wanted to find kids that not only matched the physical description, I also wanted to find performers that had the characters inside them, so they shared the DNA with them. Because some of the characters of the Losers’ Club are very, very particular and very specific and, for me, you can’t play Richie Tozier if you’re not Richie Tozier. So, for me that was probably the character where I said, “Man, I have to find Richie Tozier in real life.”
He really sets the tone for the rest of the kids.
Andy Muschietti: Yeah! And then along came Finn [Wolfhard], and I immediately realized this kid had a burning need inside to express himself and be funny and when I saw him, I said, “Yeah, that’s him.”
Which is funny since his role on Stranger Things is much more like Bill Denborough.
Andy Muschietti: Yeah, I know. I actually didn’t know about Stranger Things when we started production because [the show] came out in the middle of the shoot and I didn’t want to see [it] because people were already talking about the similarities. But yeah, they’re very different characters. You cannot judge Finn for Richie Tozier by watching Stranger Things.
One of the characters that really evolved from both the book and the 1990 miniseries in really interesting ways that corresponded with the time a lot was the treatment of Beverly Marsh. There was a real freshness to her character and how much of that was in the script and how much of that came from your work with Sophia Lillis?
Andy Muschietti: Half of it was in the script and half of it from developing the character with her. A lot of things, like the intimacy of her character, came from the shoot. I wanted to translate that loneliness that all of the Losers feel at some point, but Beverly in particular because she’s living her own personal hell of being in a house with an abusive father. So, there’s bits and pieces in the movie where you can feel that intimate loneliness and those were not in the script.
Out of all the Losers she seems most like an adult, and her torrential experiences made her seem even more like a mentor in some ways to her friends. Was that an intentional choice?
Andy Muschietti: You know, what I found in the Palmer screenplay was not focused on that too much. I wanted to bring that quality of leadership that was always given to Bill and Mike in the book. It comes from a different angle because when Beverly erupts into the group, she becomes sort of a guiding light because she’s audacious, and even though she lives a terrible nightmare at home, she has guts. Like that scene where she jumps into the quarry … she’s doing something that nobody had the balls to do.
Did you feel any pressure taking over a pre-existing script? Would you have preferred to start from scratch?
Andy Muschietti: No, because there were things in the existing script that were really good that I thought were worth keeping. But immediately, when I read the script, the ideas and thoughts, they came naturally to me, because it’s easy when you have someone who wrote [their] version of the story and [you] put it together with your ideas, and it’s like, “Oh, I would do this different, I would dig deeper, and do that and this.”
Talking about Beverly, for instance, the whole sequence where she cuts her hair as an act of, not rebellion, but taking control as she’s turning into a woman and her father expresses that weird fixation on her hair … that was something I created. You know, she goes to the bathroom, cuts her hair, the hair goes into the sink — and the hair for her is a symbol of something horrifying — and it comes back. That was an incarnation of the sink scene.
In the book, it’s just the blood that comes out.
You said earlier that one of the things you responded to with King as a kid was a sense of humanity, the emotion, the relationships between the characters. Would you say that’s something you really focused on and brought specifically to the vision?
Andy Muschietti: Absolutely. Again, I learned storytelling from Stephen King, roughly, and for me, it doesn’t matter. If you’re telling a horror story, you have to make people feel engaged with the character. You have to care before you even attempt to put them in danger, you know? So, for me, it was very important, and I really deepened that aspect of the story … or tried at least.
Barbara Muschietti: What I will say, though, and I have to clarify this that when we were invited to board the project, we were given one of the drafts that was made before and we were told, “Guys, you take it from where you want. If you want to start from scratch, you can,” so, you know, the pressure to work within an existing script was not really there.
In fact, it was very helpful, but you know, this movie … and I’ll speak for my brother… but it’s such a personal view of It for him that the additions to the script and the modifications came very organically because they’re just a result of his experiences as a 14-year-old reading the book.
That certainly comes across in the film. In fact, it seems that the film capitalizes on the emotional center of the narrative over the actual scares, and you can tell that does come from a personal place. Looking ahead, how do you plan on carrying over those feelings into the second part, and how far along are you in the process?
Andy Muschietti: Yeah, we started the story, and for me, it’s important that this is the second half for me and not the second part to complete the story. There’s something about telling the second story that has to do with the point of view of an adult, and that also sort of mirrors my experience reading the book, you know, 25 years later. You really discover new things about the book because when you read it at 14, you don’t really know what being an adult feels like, and so 25 years later, you understand there are certain things you couldn’t grasp the first time around. Mainly how the story talks about the magic of childhood and also the end of childhood. It’s something that disappears when you turn into a teenager and an adult. And when you’re 14, you don’t really understand that.
Have you started writing the screenplay? Are you almost done with it?
Andy Muschietti: No, no, no, we’re just in story. [Pause.] I want to make it as interesting as possible, and for me, I was always more attached to the Losers’ Club story when they were kids than adults. So I really want to bring that emotional engagement, and if people like this movie and really love the characters, I really want to bring them to the second half and re-establish that dialogue between the two timelines.
Yeah, and the guiding line between those two timelines is really Pennywise himself. Bill Skaarsgard said that the second film will dive more into a Pennywise’s origins. Can you speak to that at all?
Andy Muschietti: Conceptually, it’s things that we mentioned with Bill, and I’m on board totally. The first part is great because it’s sort of mirrors the perspective of the book where everything we know about Pennywise is roughly from the perspective of the Losers and it’s, you know, everything we know about him is pretty speculative and sort of shrouded in uncertainty. I wanted to keep that spirit. The second part is different because I think that it would be cool to expand our understanding of the monster a little bit more. Even though it’s quite cryptic in the book, you never get to understand exactly what It is and that’s one of the freakiest things of the monster.
There were hints of the turtle peppered throughout the movie, though. Was that a little foreshadowing there?
Andy Muschietti: I don’t want to overlook the presence of the turtle as a force of good, but I didn’t want to enter the world of the otherside too much because I don’t want to totally mess up with the journey of these characters. So, introducing the world of a Macroverse and the turtle in the first movie for me was going too far and on the production side it was also prohibitive because we had to abide by budget and to try to portray that otherside of the Macroverse with the turtle would fuck up our budget. [Laughs.] It would suck off like half of the VFX budgets, so for conceptual reasons and technical reasons … I didn’t want to do it, but I’m not ruling it out for the second one.
One last question. We talked earlier about Pet Sematary and your affection for Skeleton Crew. Do you have any interest or plans to pursue any other King productions?
Andy Muschietti: We’ve been developing “The Jaunt”, a short story from Skeleton Crew, which is one of my all time favorite short stories of his, into a feature-length story. It’s pretty cool. I don’t know if you remember the story, but it’s very small, it takes place in a day. So for us, it’s easier to try and crack and figure out the story.”
There’s so much mythology in that one.
Andy Muschietti: “Yeah, all the elements are there for sure, but of course, we want to make an engaging movie and that took us some time, but it’s on its way. [Laughs.]”
Barbara Muschietti: And Pet Sematary, it’s always there. It is one of our favorite books, not only by Stephen King, but one of our favorite books. If there was ever a way to honor it in full force, we’d love to do it.
We would, too. You two clearly have an eye for Stephen King.
Andy Muschietti: There’s a line in movies that you can see where adapting becomes work, and I think it has to do with the love of the original work. Some movies are probably more exploitative in a way, and you can see when there’s a love for the story.
There’s people who see Stephen King as a dollar sign and there are people who see him as a great storyteller.
Andy Muschietti: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
It hits theaters today. Subscribe to The Losers’ Club: A Stephen King Podcast here.