A brand new documentary diving into Derry and the stories behind bringing Tommy Lee Wallace's 1990 miniseries adaptation of It to life is now streaming on Screambox. We caught up with the man behind the horrifying Pennywise design that has brought a lifetime of nightmares to so many (myself included!) Makeup effects master Bart Mixon (A Nightmare On Elm Street 2, Sinister 2) has over 150 credits to his name, we were lucky enough to chat about the many incarnations of It and bringing the worst fears of the beloved Losers Club to life.
For your inspiration of this iconic look, were you drawing from the novel's description, the script, a combination, neither?
Probably neither. I never read the book. My brother read the book, so I had him find the passage when they mentioned Pennywise. I think the passage in the book is pretty basic. They talk about a silver suit, white face and red hair, I think. I think the script didn't have too much more detail than that. It was kind of a blank slate and me just working with Tommy [Lee Wallace]. Specifically for the look that Tommy chose, in the back of my head, I was trying to channel Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. Not being blatant, but if you look at pictures of the original design, it had cheekbones with an upturned nose and balding head. Not a line-for-line copy, but an inspiration. I drew more from that than anything written in the script.
The shape of the forehead is very distinct and makes the whole thing feel just ever so slightly "off", can you speak on that a bit?
I was going for, I don't want to say a cartoony look, but at one point I wanted it to feel like a living cartoon. That's why the colors are very primary and stark. There are no spatter colors or veins. I didn't want him to look monstery, I wanted him to just look like a clown. I think early on, Tommy and I talked about bulbing his head. I think that was something we settled on pretty early. I wanted a lightbulb-shaped head. I did need some depth in the prosthetic to hide the rigging for when he gets hit in the head with a rock and blows a chunk of his head off. So I think that was my excuse to Tim, because at one point, Tim just wanted a regular latex cap that a regular circus clown would wear. Tim, for whatever reason, saw it as just a guy in makeup, but I looked at it as more an illusion that this creature is projecting to lure the kids in. Again, that's why I leaned more toward a living cartoon look, to make it as harmless and friendly as possible. I don't recall any specific requests from Tommy at the time saying 'I want a lightbulb head', but he probably responded to that in the early sketches I submitted.
One of my original concepts that didn't go much further than a sketch was that I wanted his cranium to be extended. Almost twice the height of what your skull would be, where it almost looked like a big balloon. That was something I abandoned quickly. I probably didn't present this idea for technical reasons.
The eyes are horrifying. From afar, he's a clown.. An unsettling clown, but then we also have these shots where the eyes really drive it home, there's something else happening here. And the razor-sharp teeth, of course! Can you talk a bit about incorporating those elements? Building the horror on top of the clown base.
Both Tommy and I agreed that it was important he looked harmless when he had to. Then he could become menacing when he had to. I think about 90% of that was Tim's performance. We did have tools to help him with that. We had exorcist lenses, yellow with the red rims. At select moments we would pop those in to give his eyes a creeper look. At one point, I wanted to have pale blue eyes to enhance the cartoon aspect, but I think we dropped that idea for budgetary issues. We had three sets of teeth — pointed ones, really pointed ones, and the corpse teeth. I always had those with me, so if Tommy felt he wanted to punctuate a scene, like Tim in the open grave. He plays that whole scene normally, then at the end, pops in the corpse teeth for an exclamation point. I think we also used them when the gas station attendant abducts Audra. I don't think that cut made it in the movie, though. We just looked at these as tools for Tim to enhance his performance. Again, it was 90%, 99% Tim. We never went in and drew on the eyebrows to make him look more menacing. The only time we altered the makeup was for kissing the fat boy shot, when his makeup is smudging after kissing John Ritter. In my mind, this wasn't makeup, it wasn't something you could smudge. It was just an illusion. It was projecting. I put it all on Tim Curry's feet. He was the master. We were just there to help when we could.
"This is battery acid, you slime!" The "battery acid" prosthetics are great, can you walk us through that?
I like them too! I'm very flattered when I get compliments about this. Some backstory on the look — I believe, the way it was originally scripted, once the rock hits him in the head, instead of a deadlight coming out, it was going to be spider hairs coming out and some hint of the spider. In my mind, the spider wasn't his final look. That was just another illusion he was projecting to scare the people as adults. I latched on to the idea of deadlights, that was my idea. That's how that became a light instead of some spider hairs. As a result, since we weren't doing that I was probably playing on the line where the kid says it's battery acid. Since It believes him at that point, I thought there should have been some disfigurement from that.
Backing up even further, originally, I wanted two looks for Pennywise. When the kids saw him, he was a nice, harmless clown. When the adults saw him, I wanted him to be a horrific character of the clown because the adults know he isn't really a clown, and It knew they were on to him. Once that idea was discarded, I took some of that concept into the battery acid look. The disfigured part would be this monstery character of the normal clown look. When the battery acid look was designed and approved, the paint patterns for the normal Pennywise that had been approved were different than what we used in the final film. Like around his eye, we were going to have a big blue oval eyeshadow that would suggest a skull eye socket. When you look at the battery acid burn side with the big arched eyebrow, that was to emulate what was painted on the other side, but since the paint design changed, that changed after I sculpted the prosthetics. So I didn't really have time to resculpt it, and for the longest time we weren't going to use it. We didn't have time to switch over the makeup. Once we left Canada, the battery acid look wasn't going to be used.
It wasn't until post-production when they were doing reshoots in LA, that they wanted to use the battery acid look. If Tim didn't suggest it, it was Tim agreeing to wear it. I think they approached him about it, and since it was only going to be one day, he decided to wear it. I'm eternally grateful to Tim for that because he could have said no to wearing it because it covered his entire face. Then it wouldn't be in the movie at all.
The horrifying thing about IT is that it can take any form to embody an intended prey's worst fears, outside of its favorite go-to "harmless" clown form, what were some of the other horrors you got to bring to life, and do you have a favorite amongst those?
As the makeup effects supervisor, I was in charge of all the creature effects on the show, except the fortune cookie scene. I think I felt we just had enough work to do, and the physical effects guys in Canada wanted to have some fun, so we let them take it. We did the mummy, the zombie Al Marsh, the werewolf, Stan's head in the fridge, the corpse on the lake, and of course, the spider.
I'm a big fan of Michael Landon's 1950's I Was A Teenage Werewolf. I think that was a really cool werewolf design. I gave that to Norman Cabrera to do because he's Mr. Werewolf. I met him a few years earlier at Rick Baker's and knew the level of quality in his work. I knew if I just told him to give me a cool, teenage werewolf, that's the only guidance he would need. That one was very successful. I think that's a great scene with Seth Green and how all that plays out.
Norman also did the Al Marsh [Beverly's father] with Annette O' Toole. My only regret with that, I wish we would have gotten him out of the drag. He's wearing a white dress and the wig for the whole scene. I think for the shot where he says, "I worry about you, Bev," it makes sense there because that is the transitional shot. But the other shot of him chasing her to the door, we should have gotten rid of the wig and the dress. That should have just been the father, in his wardrobe, but with the zombie look. Again, because of the whole illusion nature of It, that would have helped people realize these are just all illusions.
Despite all the grief my spider continues to get, I thought Joey Orosco and Aaron Sims did a fantastic job building that. Just from a technical standpoint, I had never built anything as big as that spider. I won't say I'm amazed we pulled it off, but I am very proud that we did pull that off because we had a modest budget. I had a good team, but that was the biggest thing any of us had ever tackled with such a small group. I don't know if I have a favorite, I'm proud of them all.
What were some of the challenges you faced on IT?
Budget is always the biggest challenge. Logistics on this one was a new wrinkle I hadn't faced before. Just in that we were prepping the show in Burbank and shooting in British Columbia. Those two overlapped. I didn't have 12 weeks to build it, and then started filming. I think we had about four weeks of prep, then shooting started for eight weeks. So, every week, even before we started filming, I had to fly up to Vancouver for production meetings and makeup tests. I was constantly traveling at least once or twice a week. I was there to supervise and oversee my group. Thankfully I had a good group, I would fly to Vancouver, and they would still get stuff done while I was away. When I was gone for a day or two, I knew they weren't screwing around.
The spider too. There was probably some apprehension about building something that big, when none of us had really done that. I have done two 40-hour days in my career. One was on Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and the other on It.
How was it working with Tim Curry, and what was it like watching him act in your design for the first time?
I can't say enough good things about Tim. He is the best. I just saw him recently at a convention, and we got to catch up a bit. This might have been the first time I was star-struck. This was 1990, I had worked with Shelley Winters in '84 and Peter Weller in '86 on RoboCop. I had worked with name actors before, but when they said Tim Curry was going to be Pennywise, I thought 'oh my gosh, the guy from Legend who wore one of the greatest prosthetic makeups ever.' I knew he knew what good makeup was. I loved him in Rocky Horror and countless other things. I'm sure there was some nervousness on my part, but after the first couple of meetings, he put us at ease, and we put him at ease with our professionalism. He knew we weren't just some dopey kids there to torture him.
Working with him in the makeup test, he had some thoughts and input on what Pennywise was and should be. So that was a good collaboration with him and Tommy. Making movies is a collaborative art anyways. He was a great partner in that regard. There was a thrill the first time doing the makeup test and getting him out on camera with that. Up to that point, it had just been static prosthetics and clay sketches. Of course, when it's all assembled, and you are starting to dial it in and finalize the final look of the character, that's always exciting. Then add to that an actor of Tim's caliber and what he brought to it. The way Tim could take the character with just his expression and body language to a scary place was all him. Makeup like this is very performance-driven. It's all meaningless until you have an actor because you want to incorporate makeup like this into an actor's features. Seeing Tim bring it to life was just amazing. He was the right choice. He IS Pennywise. In my mind, it's all him.
Any fun anecdotes you'd like to share from your time on set?
I do remember Madonna's "Vogue" was big at the time, and we would be listening to that in the trailer. I remember my assistant, JoAnne and Tim would be Vogueing in the trailer, having a good time. That was amusing.
When we were putting the spider together, there was a kind of show and tell day when Tommy and some of the other crew, were looking at it. John Ritter was playing with it and mugging for the camera and pretending he was scared. That was fun. I'm glad the documentary shows a lot of this. Unfortunately, I only shot two hours of home video. I wish I would have shot more, especially in the makeup chair. A lot of the behind-the-scenes footage that is shown in the doc, I shot. We did film some of the spider test, with John Ritter going up to it and making the spider snap at him. Again, I'm so happy I got to share this footage in the doc.
Pennywise: The Story Of It is now streaming on Screambox.