Death Of A Great American Horror Film: Cary Fukunaga’s IT

Jacob Knight takes a deep dive into the screenplay for one of the great films that never was.

Caution: This post contains spoilers for Stephen King’s IT.

One of the great pains of cinephilia (and life in general) is wondering what could’ve been. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. David Cronenberg’s Total Recall. Paul Verhoeven’s Return of the Jedi. George A. Romero’s Pet Sematary. These movies are reveries lost in the ether for one reason or another; the motivations for their scrapping falling under the usual non-descript “creative differences” or “scheduling conflicts”. To spend too much time on them is the nerd equivalent of daydreaming about that cute boy or girl you could’ve asked out way back when. You should just enjoy what you’ve got instead, as those chances are gone, and no amount of wishing can bring them back.

Nevertheless, allow me to go against my own advice for a moment and stroll down What Could’ve Been Lane, with a breakdown of Cary Fukunaga’s screenplay adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (which he co-authored with Chase Palmer). Fukunaga reportedly worked on his version for two years at Warner Bros., planning to split the nearly 1200-page spooky Maine epic into two films (one focused on the Losers Club; the other on the grown Losers dealing with a haunted adulthood). Originally blamed on budgetary concerns (the first film was set to cost around $30 million), it was later revealed that WB disagreed with Fukunaga’s dark, character-driven personal vision that was based on both the novel, as well as he and Palmer’s childhood recollections.

Speaking with Variety, the writer/director commented:

“In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.”

He went on to clarify:

“The main difference was making Pennywise more than just the clown. After 30 years of villains that could read the emotional minds of characters and scare them, trying to find really sadistic and intelligent ways he scares children, and also the children had real lives prior to being scared. And all that character work takes time. It’s a slow build, but it’s worth it, especially by the second film. But definitely even in the first film, it pays off.”

This week – almost immediately after the teaser trailer for Andrés Muschietti’s retooled version of the first film in Fukunaga’s proposed dyad dropped – a draft of Fukunaga and Palmer’s script (dated 03/14/14) leaked onto the Internet (and has since been pulled per the studio’s request). Being a sucker for punishment, this writer couldn’t help but download the document and devour it in a matter of hours at his desk. What the script revealed was an incredibly detailed, faithful take on King’s horror classic that not only breathed life into the juvenile Losers’ Club (Will Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Beverly Marsh, Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak, Mike Hanlon and Stan Uris) but fashioned Derry, Maine into a character unto itself via several allusions and flashbacks to the town’s mysterious history. In short, it was the Great American Horror Novel, condensed into 134 riveting pages and ready to be brought to a screen near you.

Though his most famous work to date is helming the First Season of HBO’s gothic crime melodrama, True Detective, Fukunaga drops the investigation into the bigoted murder of young, gay Adrian Mellon (which one figures would’ve opened his second, adult-focused film) in favor of a more traditional, linear narrative following the rain-drenched demise of little Georgie Denbrough. We meet Will (Bill in the book) and his little brother in the now iconic scene Viking Press’ first edition teased on hardback covers. Will gifts his brother a paper boat, and the boy chases it down a flooding street, donning his yellow slicker, before losing it in a storm drain. Of course, the hand-crafted toy isn’t all that’s waiting for poor Georgie in the sewer, as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a/k/a Bob Gray) pops his head up and beckons for the boy to come “float” with him. Those lodging complaints about Muschietti’s final design for the ancient evil may have to take their grievances up with Fukunaga (whose draft is still credited on the finished film, per iMDB, and claims “millions” had already been spent on pre-production prior to his exit), who describes Pennywise as: not Bozo, or Ronald McDonald, but something more old world, freakish, like that of a 19th-century acrobat – bald, lithe, almost child-like.

However, the real revelation here is the tone it sets in regards to the script’s violence. Seen through the window of an old woman’s home as she feeds her cat a plate of tuna, Pennywise doesn’t just rip Georgie’s arm off. He devours him like a wild animal. With a quick rack focus, we watch as Georgie’s rag doll body flung left and right as Pennywise feeds on him and tries to pull him through the metal grate into the sewer.”

The scene is as melancholy as it is brutal, Fukunaga and Palmer equating Pennywise feeding on the poor child with the appetite of a housecat (felines becoming a running leitmotif throughout the document); the indiscriminate devouring of innocence in order to satiate a beast before it goes back into hibernation.

The rest of the screenplay’s narrative sticks rather close to the novel’s, updating its 50s setting to the 80s (Georgie’s murder occurs in October ’87, and the movie concludes the following September). Derry is described as such in June ’88. Moving past mountains, the camera reveals the town as being “settled on a crosscut of the Penobscot River and Kenduskaeg stream. It’s a sturdy, picturesque Northeastern town like any other, its rough-hewn industrial past bleeding through a gentrified, decaying present.”

Fukunaga planned to shoot the film in New York (which was going to be quite costly in WB’s eyes), so you can imagine the sort of Upstate feel his IT was going to own. The director and Palmer’s draft also focuses on the blue-collar upbringing the Losers Club experience. We first meet Mike and his father, Leroy (the story’s main African-American characters), working in a slaughterhouse. Bev lives with an abusive handyman father and submissive mother, donning thrift store clothes that are still just as stylish as the threads the popular girls sport. Stan’s a Jewish kid studying up for his first Bar Mitzvah. Eddie’s allergic to the world and carries an Epi-Pen everywhere he goes. Richie’s your classic nerd – bug-eyed behind goofy glasses and able to spout comic book knowledge at will. Ben’s the jolly fat kid. Will’s the most well off in the group, and has been given a “free pass” by the local bully, Travis Bowers, for the last six months due to Georgie’s death.

The Losers run afoul of Travis' gang – oafy Snatch Huggins, firebug Patrick Hockstettler, and vicious Victor Criss – while passively (and then actively, following Patrick’s death at the hands of Pennywise) investigating the numerous child disappearances that have plagued Derry for decades. Where Fukunaga and Palmer’s IT shines is when it delves into the past, sometimes with just a sign at the Kitchener Ironworks, memorializing a disaster.  “On these premises,” it reads, “an explosion took the lives of 102 souls (88 children). Easter Sunday, 1906. May they rest in peace.”

But Fukunaga and Palmer also dive headfirst into flashbacks, such as the one that’s triggered when Leroy relays a story to his son about witnessing the fire at Derry’s only black social club, set by a Northern Klan equivalent, The Maine Legion of Decency.  “I saw what was really responsible for that fire, Mikey” Leroy says. “Not the Legion. See those white boys, they were there, but there was something else, orchestrating ‘em. Had ‘em all in a fit and frenzy, moved to his whims. This thing, I don’t even know how to describe it...”

Suddenly, we jump back in time to the canal that borders the Black Spot, watching as Pennywise pounces, dragging victims under the water. Leroy and his friend Dick swim to shore and watch as the beast feeds, continuing to use the fiery disaster as a cover, its red balloon acting as a kind of buoy that lifts him over the canal’s surface.

The ’90 ABC mini-series adaptation of IT that scarred so many childhoods barely touched on Pennywise’s ability to control minds – a facility that resulted in the ’60 fire at The Black Spot, as well as the 1879 massacre at lumberjack bar “The Silver Dollar” (a bit of Derry lore Ben uncovers). In 1879, Claude Heroux interrupts a card game with his heavy blade, all while the rest of the saloon’s patrons go about their day as if nothing is happening. It’s a demonstration of how laser-focused Pennywise’s powers can be.

Heroux’s ax falls, chopping off Floyd’s hand at the wrist.

Floyd recoils back shrieking, blood spurting from the stump, his severed hand remaining on the table.

At the bar somebody calls for more beer. The bartender takes a casual look back just in time to see...

Heroux bury his ax in Tinker McCutchoen’s head. The big man tries to get up, blood pouring down his face, then sits back down again. A second chop finishes him.

Floyd, writhing under the table, gropes for his hand on the table above it. Heroux chops his other hand off, Floyd screams even louder.

Laughter from the bar as patrons rub the bartender’s bald head for luck. The piano playing only gets more giddy and festive, then we see who’s playing it:

PENNYWISE, fingers dancing across the keys like a virtuoso.

The mythology built into Fukunaga and Palmer’s script would be discarded by lesser writers, but here its inclusion drives home both the idea that we’re dealing with a saga that’s bigger than its central characters, and that speaks to a universal subtext many don’t discuss when analyzing King’s novel. Derry could be any town in America – filled with racial and class divides, plus a legacy that’s passed down from one generation to the next. This barstool historian play on horror strengthens the idea that the places we grow up in mold our minds before trailing us into our adult years. Hometowns are spaces we wish to escape from when we’re children, and King literalized that notion by making Derry a lethal prison for the Losers. They must confront both the past and present of the place in which they were born before moving into their respective futures. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, repurposed into a murder ballad complete with a grinning, bloodthirsty demon.

On a micro level, Fukunaga and Palmer structure the individual scares around each of the Losers’ desires and fears. While practicing readings for his Bar Mitzvah, Stan decides to sneak away and, unable to make it to the bathroom in time, relieves himself in the Mikveh – a cleansing room for the synagogue’s women during their monthlies. As Stan urinates, the Mikveh becomes possessed, and a ghostly naked woman rises up out of it. She tempts Stan (who, during the introductory scenes, extolls his love of ogling models in magazines), going as far as to touch herself in front of him. It’s a wholly unnerving moment, with a crescendo that echoes Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as we reverse to an angle behind her and see that she’s nothing more than a mutilated corpse.

Beverly experiences a similarly sexualized waking nightmare, as Pennywise transforms into her foul father and tries to force himself on her. Where in the book, the demon sets loose fantastical creatures (such as Universal’s Werewolf, Mummy, Dracula and Creature from the Black Lagoon), Fukunaga and Palmer keep the many shapes personalized, adding a layer of maturity to their variation. Pennywise also takes the form of Georgie, in order to try and murder Will in his flooded basement, calling the big brother with a signal only the two of them recognize.

Pennywise’s hypnosis is also not relegated to flashbacks and major Derry calamities.  Taking a page straight from King, Fukunaga and Palmer have the Dancing Clown place Travis Bowers under a trance, causing him to murder his father. Yet where King’s IT saw the boy slitting his piss poor papa’s throat, the crime scene in Fukunaga’s IT reads like something out of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Snatch and Victor sneak into the Bowers home, only to find Butch bowers stabbed multiple times and with a knife in his eye. In the living room, Travis watches an episode of Pennywise the Clown Show, completely disconnected from all reality as he grips his father’s blood-slicked .45 and mutters “it’s my gun now.”

Despite the unpleasant violence, Fukunaga and Palmer make a point of constantly reminding us that the Losers are still children, battling this enigmatic evil with the only weapons and armor they can find – fireworks, hairspray, hockey pads, a hubcap as a shield, a satchel full of car flares. These aren’t seasoned warriors, but prepubescent runts, fighting for their lives with every ounce of strength Pennywise hasn’t already exhausted. Their showdowns in the creepy old house on Neibolt Street and in the Clown’s sewer lair read like something out of an R-rated version of The Monster Squad (or John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End, depending on your splatterpunk acumen). The set pieces are intense and written with a clear sense of geography, as Pennywise will appear out of nowhere (or attack the Losers as a flock of killer crows), yet the real kicker is in the final twenty pages, where Fukunaga and Palmer achieve vertigo-inducing heights of surrealism, as Pennywise reveals his true self after the Losers stumble upon an inter-dimensional portal beneath Derry.

In the center of the floor is a massive OCULUS, open to what appears to be the edge of INFINITE SPACE. The water from the sewers flows down into seven channels around this opening, ending at...

SEVEN WATERFALLS THAT FALL UPWARDS into a reflecting pool that covers much of the ceiling, surrounding a stone island with a CRYPT TYPE STRUCTURE.

The whole cavern seems to be lit from within, a sickly, pulsing ambient light coming from everywhere and nowhere.

Being the Losers’ bravest member, Beverly jumps into one of the waterfalls, and it carries her up to the ceiling’s reflecting pool.  The boys follow, and find a glowing oasis where gravity adheres to no recognizable Earthly laws. Reality is now only how the children perceive it. Beneath them, Pennywise takes the shape of an otherworldly sea creature – a far cry from the gigantic female spider* in the book (though the monster’s essence – the dreaded Deadlights – remains):

WE PULL BACK WIDE TO SEE a monstrously big, faintly outlined starfish-like creature with an orange glowing eye, lurking in the depths of the reflecting pool.

Will, then Bev, then Richie dodge a tentacle and all get to the island. Stan is not far behind, with Mike, Eddie and Ben taking the rear, swatting back more tentacles.

From under Stan the ORANGE EYE APPEARS, the dark water around him suddenly aglow. He looks down into it and it becomes clear the eye is really a mouth, and the orange is coming from deep inside its bowels -- THE DEADLIGHTS.

The final battle between the Losers and Pennywise takes place in a crypt that’s sealed with a child-sized door, labeled with an ancient marking (for fans of King’s work, this could be a nod to his extended Dark Tower universe, or simply a visualization of the book’s “trap door”). But even after they’ve seemingly defeated Derry’s greatest evil with homemade weapons, Fukunaga and Palmer tease the next chapter with a doozy of a final image.

After seeing Will off on a family camping trip (and gifting him with a vintage Pentax camera), our view of this idyllic moment is obscured by a simplistically ominous object. We drift up over the intersection where Georgie was killed and then higher into the clouds that hang over Derry. Waiting for us there is a red balloon, which quickly pops, submerging us into darkness.

Now – does this necessarily mean that Fukunaga and Palmer’s IT screenplay would’ve automatically resulted in a cinematic classic? Absolutely not. There are many moving parts that still needed to be put into place (cast, crew, location finalization, etc.) to realize this document’s full potential. But if you’re going to build a house, it’s best to have a sturdy blueprint. Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s IT screenplay is that design – an outline for what could’ve been one of the great American horror films of our time. Based on the teaser, Andrés Muschietti’s movie looks to have a legitimate set of strengths all its own (the footage is rich with aesthetic texture and teases scares from the book that didn’t make it into this draft). If the finished film turns out to be great, that’ll be a treat for King fans (who still have the upcoming, abysmal-sounding Dark Tower adaptation to fear). But it’s going to be hard to let Fukunaga’s vision go, as what could’ve been is now nothing more than a wistfully recalled nightmare.

*However, an earlier scene in Pennywise’s lair features multiple tiny flesh-eating spiders contained in a mucus membrane, which swarm and eat Victor alive after the sac is punctured. Pennywise’s movements in the final showdown with the Losers are also described as “spider-like”; both being obvious nods to King’s original vision.

(Header Photo: unused concept art for Cary Fukunaga’s Pennywise.)