There are certain movies that, as you are witnessing them for the first time, feel like something of an event, and that is precisely my experience with Stephen King’s IT, which first aired on ABC in November 1990. I can remember everything about watching both installments—how terrified I was of Tim Curry as Pennywise, how much I genuinely loved those kids and how awesome it was to see one of my favorite actors, John Ritter, show up in a horror movie (based on a Stephen King novel nonetheless). IT was a landmark in many regards, but to me, as a fan, it's monumental because it truly was one of the first things I ever saw air on network television that genuinely scared the hell out of me.
And since we here at Daily Dead decided to celebrate the Halloween season by paying tribute to many of our favorite King adaptations—and the fact that the film celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year—I couldn’t resist the chance to catch up with the filmmaker behind IT, Tommy Lee Wallace (who also helmed both Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Fright Night Part 2), to hear about his experiences working on the project and so much more.
How did you first get involved—was IT brought to you or did you have to campaign to direct the project?
Tommy Lee Wallace: IT came in through the front door—Hollywood-style, that is—through my agent. I interviewed with the producers and the on-board writer, Larry Cohen, and pretty quickly after that I got the gig without having to campaign for it. It seemed like a good fit all around, though subsequently the producers dropped out, and then later Larry did, too. Fortunately, the new producers (Jim Green/Allen Epstein) and I got on famously, and I was able to do the needed rewrite myself, so things went smoothly after that.
Both you and Lawrence had a huge responsibility as co-writers in adapting King’s novel; how challenging was that process considering the wealth of material you guys had to draw upon?
Tommy Lee Wallace: Well, first some clarification: IT was done as a two-night miniseries. Walking in the door, there was a Larry Cohen script already in existence. I thought Larry's script for Night One was nearly perfect, a well-thought-out teleplay, brilliantly structured (seven characters, seven acts), needing very little to be camera-ready. The writing credit for Night One is Larry's alone.
Night Two was a different story. Larry's version deviated completely from the book, and I didn't like it much. Larry was not enthusiastic about digging deeper, nor did he want to come to Vancouver, where I was by then in pre-production. My revisions of his script were in the interest of better representing the original novel. I believe I succeeded. Some directors rewrite, but don't claim credit. I was proud of what I considered a "save job." I was also pissed off at Larry for what I considered to be unprofessional conduct, so I exercised my claim to credit. As far as I know, he's still miffed about it, but when a writer refuses to show up, what else can you do but get another writer?
In both scripts, the main problem was the same: How do you boil down a thousand-page book into two Movie of the Weeks?
Book-to-screen adaptations must always strive for two things: First, you must find a way to tell the broad story of the original plot; second, you must somehow reflect the spirit and texture of the novel—that is, you must transform a lot of words into a few pictures. All those digressions, inner monologues, thought processes, turns of phrase, all those word pictures, and especially all that un-photographable stuff that made the novel so delicious, must somehow be represented onscreen by use of the filmmaker's tools: moving pictures, dialogue and performance, sets, costumes, music and all the other tricks of the trade. That's the process a writer must go through to create a successful blueprint for a film.
I think both Night One and Night Two scripts for IT were successful, but they succeeded via different paths.
Prior to IT you had directed several feature length films, but nothing that was three hours long; did taking on a miniseries change your approach at all as a filmmaker?
Tommy Lee Wallace: Well, stop and think about it: if you're good at digging ditches, does it really matter whether the ditch is ten feet or ten miles long? It's mostly just a matter of time and stamina, and staying focused on the job at hand.
As a director, you must keep your sense of humor, your patience and, most of all, your ability to funnel the collective energies of a large group of creative people. For that, you must stay well-hydrated, well-fed, and well-rested. It's also crucial that you have a top-notch ensemble.
This is a good time to praise the group of producers, actors and crew who collaborated on IT. Any shoot—long or short—needs to have everyone pulling in the same direction. A director needs producers who know how to support him, a cast who trusts him to make a safe space in which to work, and a crew that not only sticks with the task, but does so cheerfully, efficiently, and with good will to all. I was so lucky to have all three—and God bless Vancouver, B.C.! I was knocked out by the place and the people.
I’m still so highly impressed with this cast, as you managed to find amazing younger actors who all feel so natural in their roles and then their adult counterparts, played by more seasoned actors, who all had a wonderful chemistry together as well. Can you discuss the casting process for what would become the two iterations of “The Losers Club?”
Tommy Lee Wallace: Thanks for the compliment. I believe our cast was our secret weapon, especially the child/adult match-ups; the believability of all that contributed mightily to the success of the show. Casting IT was a pleasurable challenge. We cast the grown-up actors first, as you might imagine, and then went out and found the best matches we could in the kid world. We cast Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis from Los Angeles, but I believe the others were all local to British Columbia. Some, like Emily Perkins as young Beverly, and Jonathan as young Bill, felt uncannily like their grownup counterparts—all seemed convincing to me, and they must have been to our audience.
Stephen King is so often about the rites of childhood friendship, and if you don't nail that, you need not bother with the rest. The other thing is that we made a point of getting the kids and grown-ups together, for a kind of "Losers Club Workshop" for several days, even though, practically speaking, there was no production reason for them to all be together, as they had no scenes in common. Still, I wanted the adult and child actors to interact so they could make observations about each other, and even work on mannerisms and tics they could appear to grow up with, e.g. Stan and Bill both had key gestures that helped ground them and heighten veracity. Most of all, I believed in a kind of intangible magical interaction between child and adult characters, and I believe that showed up onscreen.
Tim Curry is a legendary actor and his work as Pennywise in IT further solidified why he is truly a one-of-a-kind talent, as I can’t imagine anyone else in that role for this series. How was it collaborating with him and how important was it to you to make sure you had the right performer in this role, since Pennywise is truly the horror-fied anchor for everything throughout both films?
Tommy Lee Wallace: I believe it was Hitchcock who said, "Your movie is only as good as its villain." There's no better villain than the evil force of IT, and its semi-human manifestation, Pennywise the Clown, and the actor who brought him to life, Tim Curry. It was inspired casting. Jim Green and Mark Bacino, the primary producers, always had good, solid casting ideas, along with Casting Director Victoria Burrows, and I'm not too shabby myself. Plus, we had the luxury of being able to go with some well-known people in the starring roles. I'm not sure who first mentioned Tim, but it seemed as though once his name came up, there was really nobody else.
Collaborating with Tim was a pleasure. I of course had a lot to do with the Pennywise look, working with Richard Hoburg and Doug Higgins—storyboard artist and Production Designer—and Monique Stranan (costumes), and later, Bart Mixon, SFX Makeup. My ideas included some face rubber, extended chin, exaggerated cheekbones, and the bulbous forehead. Tim had found himself knee-deep in rubber on some previous pictures (Legend for one) and he didn't want to get lost under too many prosthetics. He convinced me they weren't necessary. I held out for the forehead, and I'm glad I did, but he was right about the rest.
Tim brought his great imagination, versatility and wry sense of humor to the role, and whenever he hit the screen, he was fully in charge. I steered a little here and there, but mostly I just stood back and marveled. And you're right: as goes Pennywise, so goes the movie, and Tim has no parallel.
I remember that the original novel is a bit more extreme than the mini-series in terms of the sexual content and violence (it’s been about 15 years since I read it last, so I’m a little fuzzy), but for something on network TV in 1990, it was still scary and very creepy. Was that a difficult line for you to walk, to still keep things terrifying (and often shocking) for viewers while knowing that you couldn’t push things too far because of Standards & Practices?
Tommy Lee Wallace: If there was one moment in the novel I felt was strained, or rang false in some way, it was the episode of all six boys having sex with Beverly, one after the other; I was never much interested in depicting that scene, and just as well, considering Standards & Practices, as you point out. We here in the U.S. of A. allow this ridiculous double standard in TV and movies, where there's almost no limit to the kinds of violence and sadism allowed, but oh dear, sex or nudity? Out of the question! Still, in this case, I already felt the scene was off-target to begin with, it just rang false to me, and therefore was never an issue.
Honestly, I didn't think about TV restrictions at all. Except for the aforementioned, there's not much sex in the novel, and most of the violence is psychological mind-tampering stuff, rather than graphic gore. I got what I wanted out of the scenes I decided to focus on, and left out any (including the cosmic climax battle in deep inner/outer space) which struck me as purely novelistic to begin with, and therefore really difficult to make into pictures.
I'd like to make another point: there's such a distinction between that which is truly scary or suspenseful, and that which is merely vivid and/or violent. In present-day cinema, the former is increasingly hard to come by, while we have a glut of the latter. I believe present-day writers and directors have tended to confuse the two. My point is that it didn't take spectacular effects and opticals to make IT scary; Stephen King did most of the work by building a very frightening concept into a skillfully-told tale.
For my own part, I can almost always review my own work and see a way to make it better, and that includes "scarier." Would I have liked a bit more time and money to make the IT visuals sexier and more believable? Of course. What director wouldn't? But the limitations placed on a filmmaker by budgetary constraints can sometimes become an advantage. There are not that many mega-budget horror movies that really work, whereas you can point to countless great examples of cheapies that scare the pants off you.
The practical effects in IT still hold up incredibly well; how closely did you work with Bart Mixon on those effects or did you just let him have free rein over the project?
Tommy Lee Wallace: Moi? Free rein? Surely you jest! Does any film director do that? Seriously, I hope I have learned when to back off and let an artist do their magic, but I was trained in design and cut my teeth in the movies as an Art Director, so you know I was deeply involved in all design aspects of IT, especially the Special Visual Effects. And while I'm at it, I want to recognize the on-set Special Effects team, an altogether different group, who came up with so many goodies, like the eerie wandering yellow balloon, or the expanding red nose in the sink, or the exploding library— these are prime examples of "practical effects," as opposed to Special Visual FX (SVFX). I took a look at my crew list during this interview process—there are so many people who contributed to IT in so many ways, it's mind-boggling, and I was lucky to have such a skilled Special Effects team.
I worked very closely with Bart Mixon, even though the shoot was in Vancouver, and he was mostly in Hollywood. A special shout-out also goes to his brother Brett, and to his mentor, Gene Warren, who also created a lot of opticals, models, animations and on-set FX for the show.
Did you guys face any unexpected bumps in the road throughout production on IT, or was it smooth sailing?
Tommy Lee Wallace: I couldn't have asked for a better shoot. Everything fell together, even the weather, which, in Vancouver, is really saying something. And when it did rain, the crew was so amphibiously adapted, one didn't even notice when the ponchos appeared, and a huge silk floated in to protect us from above. A smooth shoot is mostly thanks to adequate prep time, a well-prepared cast and a solid crew (thanks especially to Matthew O'Conner and Patrice Leung, Line Producer and 1st Assistant Director). I was lucky; it doesn't always happen that way.
Do you have any favorite moments from set?
Tommy Lee Wallace: Many. I had been worried that the big ensemble scenes with the adult actors might be difficult, and that these veterans might eat me for lunch. It was gratifying, during rehearsals, and then on set, to see how easy and generous these top professionals were with each other, and with me. Funnily enough, it was the kid actors who were more disruptive, with even occasional diva-type squabbles about off-screen b.s. like trailer size and such; nothing very serious, and most of that pure energy was captured onscreen, I believe.
I enjoyed when Tim made friends with my kids, giving them clown noses and the like. Harry Anderson is an amazing magician; having him do even one card tricks always inspired me. After all, magic is the true business of show business. Executing various tricky shots always brought special pleasure, e.g. the epic opening shot of Richie Tozier's adult segment.
Was there anything that you guys shot that didn’t make it into the final version of the miniseries?
Tommy Lee Wallace: You know how sports figures like to talk about giving the ultimate effort, "leaving it all on the field"? IT was like that, and I believe we used every scene we shot.
Looking back at IT, after almost 25 years now since it first aired, what would say was the biggest thing you took away from that experience, both personally and professionally?
Tommy Lee Wallace: IT has been a real career high point for me, needless to say. Everything went so well, in a way it kinda spoiled me for more typical shows, where the compromises and the committee/network/studio interference can be stifling. That being said, the experience gave me a shining example of the right, professional way to go about making a movie.
IT’s greatest gift to me personally was to allow me to really believe I am good at this line of work, so I could go out there and try for any project I care to pursue. Although I'm a lot older now, I still feel that way, and hope to do more.