Every twenty-seven years an ancient, unknowable, cosmic evil rises from the sewers of a small town known as Derry to feast of the flesh and fear of children.
The beast mercilessly hunts the kids of the town, delighting in terrifying, taunting, and teasing them in a form specifically chosen for its the ability to inspire fear. The form of a vicious and malicious clown, known as Pennywise.
And as I write this I’m sat in one of the beast’s prime hunting grounds, a place where children flock to escape the hot summer sun, the Derry Public Library. It’s an ancient and imposing building, a place where danger lurks between shelves and red balloons float ominously.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t sweating slightly, that has nothing to do with a killer clown, of course, or how scary the building is, it’s an absolutely baking hot summer day outside and I’m currently locked away in an antechamber with six other journalists at the University of Toronto.
We’re on the set of IT: Chapter Two, the eagerly anticipated sequel to the 2017 film IT based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, and we’ve been here for a few hours now, watching Isaiah Mustafa show James McAvoy around the library.
Andy Muschietti, the film’s director has just taken some time out of his hectic day to explain to us what’s going on. Just like in the book the Losers Club, Bill, Ben, Bev, Richie, Eddie, Mike and Stan, have all gone their separate ways and grown up to become super successful.
27 years after their first run-in with Pennywise though Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only Loser to stay in Derry, has noticed the telltale signs that IT is hunting again, so he summons the grown-up Losers to Derry to deal with the monster once and for all.
Unfortunately for Mike the magic of Derry and Pennywise means the Loser’s memories of their last battle with the creature have faded and he must remind them who they used to be before they stand a chance against the evil clown.
Which brings us to the scene I’m currently watching, where Mike has brought a now grown-up Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) to the town library to show him something that will make him want to stay and finish It.
After running through the library for what must be the tenth time, McAvoy has been brought into the room for us to quiz about the film and he starts by telling us how Jessica Chastain who plays an adult Beverly told him, while filming Dark Phoneix, that Andy Muschetti wanted him to play Bill.
Jessica Chastain goes: ‘You know my buddy Andy Muscietti would like you to play Bill in the movie and I was like: ‘what I just saw the movie last night!’ and honestly my true reaction was ‘I would do that movie in a heartbeat’.
Interestingly Muschietti would later admit he never thought of McAvoy when he started casting the adult Losers, but Jessica Chastain suggested the Scot might be right for the role.
Four months later he got the call confirming he had the part. Since then the X-Men star has embraced the role of ‘Stuttering Bill’, even working with his younger counterpart Jaeden Lieberher (who played Bill in the first film) to make sure he’s matching his mannerisms.
In fact, he tells us he’s become so engrossed in his work he started having nightmares about Pennywise while preparing for the film.
It was weird, when I was a kid I read the book and I loved the book but it didn’t necessarily frighten me.
But as an adult, I’ve reread it and had nightmares about Pennywise as an adult but never as a kid, strangely. But six-seven months ago when I was re-reading it I definitely had four or five different nightmares about Pennywise.
It seems Pennywise has loomed over James’ life for a while and he admits that ‘Tim Curry playing Pennywise was massive for him when he was in primary school’, before adding that he ‘never liked clowns and always found them freaky even before IT’.
Of course, Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård, looms large over this whole production. In the Library antechamber we’re sat in there’s a red balloon we can take photos with, and its presence certainly made me more than just a little uncomfortable.
I’m not the only one physically affected by Pennywise. James McAvoy jokes that despite Bill Skarsgård being one of the nicest men he’s ever met, he struggles to maintain eye contact with him when he’s in costume.
It’s Isaiah Mustafa, however, who seems most intimidated by the shadow of Pennywise, which makes sense considering he’s playing Mike, the only Loser to stay in Derry and maintain his connection to the clown.
He recalled the first time he met Bill on set:
We were shooting a scene in the house so the first time I saw him, and I know Bill, but I had no idea he was that tall and menacing.
You know how some people don’t want to talk to actors because they don’t know their process but I didn’t want to talk to him because I was so scared of him. He was awesome and horrifying.
Later in the day, we get shown Bill’s costumes (including one which seems to imply Pennywise will get seriously burnt) and I get exactly what Isaiah means, the silver silk costume is huge, oddly proportioned and intimidating – reminding me more of a snake’s shed skin than a clown suit – even when it’s empty, so God knows how terrifying it is when Bill dons it.
Producer Barbara Muschietti is keen to play up the idea the Pennywise we’ll see in Chapter Two will be a different beast than the monstrous clown we saw in the first film, with Bill ‘giving it his all’ to make the Dancing Clown even more terrifying.
She promises we’ll love seeing how the clown’s evolved over the 27 years since the Losers defeated him and how delightfully hateful he can be. From we saw that day it’s obvious that Pennywise is going to be more evil, frightening and sadistic than ever before.
Intriguingly she also teased the devising of an origin story for Pennywise, and later when we’re walking through the props room there’s an urn which seems to confirm exactly where this monster clown came from.
Andy Muschietti is also keen to emphasise how much more dangerous Pennywise will be this time around, explaining that because he was beaten by children the last time he knows the Losers are a threat to him and he’s going to be much more dangerous because of it.
[Pennywise is] smarter, he’s been beaten by the Losers, and he’s coming back wanting revenge.
He’s angry. He has to step up, so he’s smarter, he’s more perverse – not that he wasn’t in the first – but you see him interacting in situations where he shows an eagerness to play with his victims and outsmart them.
Ultimately playing a bigger game and he’s got a bigger plan [than in the first film].
It’s clear talking to everyone involved with the film that Chapter Two is going to ‘ramp up’ the scares of the first film, which while scary was limited in what it could do by the age of its cast.
James McAvoy puts it best when he says:
We can be a bit more full-on because we’re dealing with a bunch of adults rather than a bunch of kids. Mind you, it’s not like the last one was a PG, so you’ve got a pretty high bar to hit.
Luckily we’ve got a director who wants to outdo himself, not just in terms of thrills and chills but also in terms of the quality and that’s the most important thing if you up the quality the other stuff will come.
I don’t think the aim for him is to scare people more or be more horrific I think is the aim for him is to make an even better movie.
Andy meanwhile says that while the film will definitely be ‘scarier’ than the first it’s also going to be more fun, adding while there’s a crank up in the emotions – including the horror and the humour – it will offer a new perspective on IT as both a story and as a metaphor for the end of childhood.
He promises the audience will learn, alongside the Losers, things they didn’t know about that fateful summer in 1989 when the kids last battled Pennywise.
It’s Teach Grant though who offers the most intriguing insight into how this film will be different from the first. Teach is playing an adult version of Henry Bowers, the sadistic high school bully who tried to carve his name into Ben’s belly.
Teach has spent the whole day outside of the library in full costume, a bloodstained prisoner’s outfit, presumably terrifying anyone foolish enough to wander by the university library.
He tells us the film definitely goes to ‘the next level’, adding ‘it’s as dark as he can possibly take it’, before explaining that in the years following It’s defeat Henry has spent time in an asylum slowly being turned into a ‘Manchurian candidate-style’ agent for Pennywise.
Again, Teach is keen to play up the idea that Chapter Two will be more intense than the first but teases the film will be more physical than its predecessor with Henry being sent out to ‘take care of’ the Losers before they can get to Pennywise.
Chapter Two is geared towards scaring adults, the first is scary but parents can watch it with teens. This one will be darker and more violent and I think it’s as simple as having an adult on adult violence.
Despite all this talk of scares and violence Barabara made it clear while the horror in the film is ramped up, because this is a bigger more eventful story, they’re not sacrificing the quality of the storytelling, telling us the success of the first film hasn’t changed how they approach storytelling.
Not that the film’s success hasn’t had some significant benefits for the production in terms of budget, which is perhaps best reflected when later in the day when we’re taken to Pennywise’s lair (don’t worry we weren’t abducted like the kids of Derry, we went on a bus).
The huge cavern takes up about a quarter of the soundstage and reaches about 30 foot up into the air. The stage manager showing us around explains it’s built so high because it’s supposed to be deep underneath the Neibolt House from the first film.
He did offer to let us climb into the cave but Carlos, the man in charge of keeping the journalists on the set visit safe, won’t allow it because apparently it’s usually flooded with water and he’s worried that we’ll slip and fall.
That’s right Pennywise’s lair is actually dangerous in real life. Still even from the outside looking in it’s a magnificent set soaked (quite literally) with a strange malevolence, like something horrific happened here not too long ago.
In fact, I do know what happened in the cave. It was an ancient ritual that might give the Losers the power to banish Pennywise once and for all. Will the Losers be successful? Well to find out you’ll have to brave the terrors of IT Chapter Two when it hits summer later this year.
IT Chapter Two is released in UK cinemas on September 6, 2019.
More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.