Two years ago, It floated into theaters on a river of red balloons and money. With its $700.3 million worldwide gross, the film would become the highest-grossing horror movie and fourth highest-grossing R-rated movie to date, earning director Andy Muschietti a secured spot at the helm of its sequel. Getting moviegoers primed and prepped for horror movie season, It Chapter 2 (in theaters in North America now) raises the stakes for the now-adult Losers Club as they return to their hometown of Derry, Maine, to (hopefully) take out Pennywise the evil, kid-eating clown for good.
Pennywise, as those who saw the first film will remember—unless they’ve blocked out the nightmare fuel—is a shape-shifter who taunts the members of the Losers Club by embodying their inner fears and deep-seated traumas. It uses the medium of horror to paint an affecting portrait of the highs (friendship, first love) and lows (guilt, abuse, grief … killer murder clown) of childhood, giving the movie depth far beyond its scares.
The same is true of It Chapter 2, in which the reunion of the Losers Club—most of whom have lost all memory of each other and Pennywise, a particular quirk of the supernaturally tainted Derry—brings to the fore the ways in which the traumas of youth manifest into adulthood.
“The core of this story is very much about feelings,” Muschietti explains. “There’s not a single plot in the movie that doesn’t deal with drama or romance or some kind of deep feeling.” Getting down to the core of each character required sloughing off a bit from King’s book—notably, a plotline where the wife of Losers Club leader Bill Denbrough (played in his adult incarnation by James McAvoy) and Beverly Marsh’s (Jessica Chastain) abusive husband follow their spouses to Derry.
“There are tangents and repetitions” in King’s book, Muschietti explains. “The book is a great experience, but in a movie, you can’t afford repetition.” After establishing that Bill has married a woman who reminds him of Beverly, his first love, and that Beverly herself is locked in a pattern of loving men who abuse her (first her father, then her husband), “you don’t really need [Bill’s wife or Beverly’s husband]. With Bill, I really wanted to focus on the trauma of guilt,” stemming from his inability to save his little brother Georgie. “I think you have to pick your battles. You only have certain scenes [with which to] explore and express the arc of the characters, and you want to be concise and not diffuse those arcs.”
Winnowing down the story to its essentials is something Muschietti learned from the first It. There, as if being hunted by a killer clown isn’t bad enough, the Losers Club is also tormented by local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his cronies. Test audiences “barely connected with the Henry Bowers subplot,” Muschietti recalls. “In my first version of It, we explored Henry Bowers much more. We saw Henry at his house, dealing with his own misery, with his own abuse, his own trauma of being abused by his dad. We see him lash out [because of that]. We screened that, but people really wanted to cut to the chase. That’s one of the symptoms of a movie where there are a lot of secondary characters. I knew that if we had that problem with Henry Bowers in It, we would probably have that problem with Tom [Beverly’s husband] and Audra [Bill’s wife] coming back to Derry. In the book, they’re exciting. But reading a book, it’s different. Watching a movie stimulates a different part of the brain. The audience doesn’t want to waste time with characters who are accessories.”
Keeping the story moving “forward faster” was key for It Chapter 2, which in its final cut creeps toward three hours. “My first cut was four hours, but that was fresh from production,” Muschietti says. “I knew from the beginning that a four-hour movie wasn’t feasible, not only for studio requirements, but you don’t want an audience sitting there for four hours. I know from experience that the faster the pace this movie has, the better.”
Even with its run time just shy of the behemoth that was Avengers: Endgame, It Chapter 2 does march along quite swiftly, in part due to the cutting back and forth between scenes with the younger Losers Club and their adult counterparts. Filming the former group required digital de-aging to make the child actors look the same as they did two years ago. This was particularly important, Muschietti notes, because the flashback scenes in It Chapter 2 are interspersed with scenes from Chapter 1; having actors look noticeably older between one scene and the next would “throw people out of the movie.”
Muschietti personally oversaw every part of the de-aging process. “The first version of the aging was good in a technical sense, but the proportions weren’t quite right. I knew where the nose was two years ago. I knew where the eyes were compared to the mouth. I was a bit of a ballbreaker in that sense!” The VFX team “was able to do a great job”—and a particularly big one (or small one?) in the case of Richie Tozier, played by “Stranger Things”’ Finn Wolfhard, who hit a growth spurt between filming It and Chapter 2. “Finn is a giant now! He’s very, very tall. …. [The VFX team] managed to squeeze him into the kid he was two years ago.”
The success of It gave Muschietti a bigger budget this time around—some of which went to beefing up the cast’s A-list contingent. In addition to McAvoy and Chastain, It Chapter 2 boasts Bill Hader (“Barry”), who turns in the best film performance of his career to date. TV-wise, it’s tough to top HBO’s “Barry,” which Muschietti is a fan of: “Oh, ‘Barry’ is amazing. The thing about ‘Barry’ is that [Hader] doesn’t even play funny! He plays straight. Everything that happens around him is so ridiculous. That tells you that he has a great mind. He’s not just a comedian. He’s a great storyteller.” It Chapter 2 gives Hader, playing the loudmouthed class-clown-grown-up Richie, the chance to show off his dramatic chops as well as his comedic genius. “His character in the movie goes through a lot,” Muschietti notes cryptically. “It was great. I knew Bill could do it. He fucking nailed it. I’m so happy I cast him.”
Drama and romance—the latter between Beverly and Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), who’s been nursing unrequited love since his Derry days—are essential components of It Chapter 2 … but this is a horror movie, after all, and it does have to be scary. To that end, Muschietti was determined that Pennywise not be the exact same killer clown he was in the first film. Here, still expertly played by Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise is smarter, with a villain M.O. that’s tilted just a smidge away from murdering people and toward psychologically torturing them. (Before murdering them, of course.)
“Pennywise is still nice when he wants,” Muschietti explains. “Everyone knows that something wrong is going to happen, just like in the first movie. What we did is raise his ability to manipulate.” This reaches its peak in a particularly harrowing scene between Pennywise and a young girl—meant as a mirror for the Georgie storm drain scene in Chapter 1. “The kid that he’s talking to is smarter than Georgie. But Pennywise breaks her. It’s a horrible moment in the movie. We’ve brought a Pennywise that is smarter and poses a bigger threat this time.”