Years before the TV mini-series event became the de facto means of adapting Stephen King’s stories, director Tommy Lee Wallace and a massive cast and crew embarked on the imposing task of filming one of the horror giant’s most ambitious novels, ultimately creating what is considered by many to be one of the very best Stephen King movies.
The making of the 1990 mini-series version of King’s It required a huge cast, not to mention numerous technicians and crew members, so it inevitably spawned plenty of stories from behind the scenes. Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Clown managed to instill coulrophobia in a whole generation of TV viewers, and it remains a key iteration of the evil clown archetype. Needless to say, it left Bill Skarsgård some big clown shoes to fill in the 2017 remake of It and its 2019 sequel, It: Chapter Two.
At a glance, Stephen King’s novel about a monstrous clown who lives in a sewer drain terrorizing a group of kids - and then those same kids as adults - seems like the worst idea for a TV mini-series. As writer Lawrence Cohen points out, “The cardinal rule of the Standards and Practices division of a network is not to show kids in jeopardy. Ironically, though, that’s the very basis of It.”
So how did Cohen and director Tommy Lee Wallace manage? It helps that ABC largely didn’t censor the mini-series, but Wallace was also an old hand at both movies and TV by the time he made It; he knew what would fly with the network and what wouldn’t.
As Wallace pointed out in an interview with Heather Wixson, many of the intense moments are "psychological mind-tampering stuff, rather than graphic gore.” This gave the crew free rein to create haunting moments and images without having to worry about running afoul of the network.
From clowns in storm drains to a giant subterranean spider, the 1990 mini-series of Stephen King’s It has plenty of monsters and nightmare fuel moments, as the titular entity haunts first the kids of Derry, ME, then the adults they all become.
Because the creature is a shapeshifter, it can take the form of their worst fears, including a werewolf in a boiler room, a skeleton emerging from a lake, spooky fortune cookies, and of course, Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.
“True horror happens in the mind when a horrific idea is planted,” director Tommy Lee Wallace told Yahoo! Entertainment. While there is plenty of horrific imagery in the 1990 mini-series, much of the horror of It comes from what’s left to the imagination, not what’s shown on screen.
As writer Lawrence Cohen points out, “we couldn’t be explicit about, say, Georgie’s arm being yanked off by Pennywise, but we could talk about it. And we could do things that allowed viewers to fill in the blank with their imaginations.”
Even in the 2017 remake, which was allowed to be much more explicit than the 1990 version, what you don’t see is often just as important as what you do.
Though he rewrote parts of the second half of the film, director Tommy Lee Wallace praised the screenwriting of Lawrence Cohen, especially in the movie’s first section, which deals with the characters as kids. Specifically, Wallace has spoken about how the structure imposed by a TV mini-series was a surprisingly good fit for the story.
“Traditionally, a two-hour structure on television is divided into seven acts,” Wallace explained; this format is used to make room for commercials. “Having your movie chopped up into little pieces is never what a filmmaker really wants, but in this case, Lawrence arranged the requisite act breaks in a way which, for the first and only time I know of in television, actually enhanced the drama.”
Each of the seven acts in the film’s first half follows one of the seven main characters as they learn about the return of It and flashback to their childhood experiences.