Actor Dennis Christopher helps us examine why King’s nostalgic tale of monsters and Motown still resonates.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.
“Maybe, he thought, there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for.”
-Stephen King, IT
While directing 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King was just as busy on set plowing through revisions of his behemoth IT manuscript – and already considering its future as a miniseries. Perhaps it’s appropriate, given how uncontainable the scope of Derry and its characters feel even within the novel itself.
Frequent King collaborator George Romero signed on as director for ABC’s adaptation of said miniseries. Larry D. Cohen, who’d previously penned Brian De Palma’s Carrie, started his screenplay before the book was even published.
When executives grew nervous over committing so much airtime to such an unconventional story, the proposed length was whittled from ten hours to four, prompting Romero to step away. Tommy Lee Wallace, who’d gotten his start alongside John Carpenter, took the reins.
The filmmakers knew who they wanted for each of the seven leads, making auditions unnecessary; much like their on-screen counterparts, every adult Loser was initiated to Derry via phone call.
Dennis Christopher, who’d worked with everyone from Altman to Fellini (but also enjoyed success in cult classics like 1980’s Fade to Black), was cast as hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak. He liked the long drive to the Vancouver set, bringing along his cats; he also brought several houseplants to decorate his temporary lodgings, in an effort to recreate a sense of home.
He was joined by the rest of the Losers – Bill (Richard Thomas), Mike (Tim Reid), Beverly (Annette O’Toole), Ben (John Ritter), Stan (Richard Masur), and Richie (Harry Anderson). It wasn’t difficult for the cast to conjure a sense of history for their characters – most had either already worked with one another, or worked with someone who had.
“I had a great deal of respect for everybody in that cast,” says Christopher.
Wallace set aside a few weeks before filming for his leads to acquaint themselves further, making the vibe more akin to that of theatre improv than rehearsal for a TV miniseries.
“We didn’t really sit around a table and rehearse, so to speak. We did spend a lot of time together.”
It turned into a summer camp of sorts for the adults – not the limp reality of Sloppy Joes and mandatory buddy swims, but the magical experience that Dirty Dancing promises yet never seems to materialize in real life. They went out together for dinner and dancing, even scaring off on-set reporters with their enthusiasm. The resulting on-screen camaraderie was not artificial.
“I know people say this a lot, but it was very kind of instant. We just kind of clicked automatically.” Laughter was a constant on set. Anderson performed his trademark brand of wise-guy magic while Ritter stuck to more traditional joking around.
“They had us in stitches all the time. Ritter, in particular, uses humor to cut through any kind of awkward situation. And it could be a party just to be in the same room with John, he was that kind of energy and that kind of wonderful.”
Although he played their extraterrestrial tormentor, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Tim Curry was also brought into the fold as an honorary Loser. While he kept his distance from the young actors playing his preteen victims (ostensibly for slightly method reasons), he had no trouble palling around with his adult co-stars.
“Tim would stop by my place a lot because he liked the plants I’d set up everywhere. He’d smoke, have a drink, and play with my cats.”
With such a large ensemble of established stars on set, one would think egos were easily bruised, but the kind of trouble Wallace had with his large ensemble was more along the lines of corralling them for blocking – something the cast found amusing.
“We were always trying to come up with new arrangements for where we were standing that was different from the one before.”
Rather than insisting on strict adherence to the script, Wallace encouraged improvisation. During the infamous Chinese restaurant scene, the Losers were told to hit their story beats – but otherwise, go wild. It was a feat made more difficult by the cast having to avoid the crew of puppeteers who brought their grotesque fortune cookies to life; they were all hiding beneath the dinner table.
“We didn’t know where to put our feet without kicking someone!”
Yet aside from this set piece, Christopher says most other improv was along the lines of the characters’ energy and body language: “It was the way we physically interacted with each other.”
After reuniting as adults, the Losers fall right back into their old habits; draping themselves over one another, sharing blankets, and giving (maybe overly intimate) shoulder massages. The relaxed atmosphere on set provided by Wallace’s direction gave Christopher the opportunity to learn new things about his character.
If you remember back to relationships you had with your best friends when you were little, your love for each other manifested in many different ways.
“I went into that situation thinking that my character, Eddie, wasn’t comfortable physically around people. And when he was with the Losers, especially Harry, it was safe for him. I didn’t know Harry’s character was going to be as hands on as he turned out to play the role with me. At first I had to make an adjustment, but then I realized that Eddie got great comfort in Richie’s physical affection with him, and it was a bond they particularly had.
“If you remember back to relationships you had with your best friends when you were little, your love for each other manifested in many different ways. So I had to release any kind of preconceptions I had about Eddie’s uptightness when it came to Richie, because Harry was not to be stopped – he hugged me, he grabbed me, he messed up my hair, and Eddie took great comfort in that. And it built and made our relationship more unique.
“You have different relationships with all of your friends, depending on how it goes down between you. And while we’re a very tight group, we also had individual relationships.”
The cast was careful to balance the humor with the underlying anxieties of their characters. Such constant reckoning with childhood PTSD was a difficult headspace for any actor to stay in, but working with Ritter brought a necessary levity to set.
“John was like a party and could make humor appear out of the strangest places.” The scene where Eddie tearfully confesses to his friends that he’s a virgin was one such place in particular.
“As soon as I did that scene for the first time and they yelled cut, John was saying, ‘Oh, great, it’s a virgin sacrifice! Bring Eddie in there and everything will work out just fine!’ In the most serious of times, we were rather hysterical, but John could do that to anybody. He had a very strong idea of his character and brought humor in when possible.”
It had been Christopher’s suggestion to include the line – he noticed that every character except Eddie had either made a confession or come to a realization about themselves. Since the miniseries’ length was comparatively slim to the book’s, Christopher thought simplifying his character’s thousand-plus pages’ worth of backstory into “adult virgin” would work well enough to translate a multitude of unspoken traumas and regrets on-screen. Wallace agreed.
“He was very repressed,” says Christopher. “He never had a chance to explore that side of himself. He only felt safe around the other Losers.”
Christopher was grateful to have the freedom to dive into the different facets of his character, sifting through what rung true to him personally and what he would have to create from thin air. He compares the Losers hiding behind their masks of adulthood and stability – shielding themselves from their insecure realities – to the profession of acting itself.
“It’s a safe way to explore different sides of yourself; safer than doing it for real.”
It’s an observation that seemed to intrigue King, considering a line he gives Richie Tozier in the book: “Now he had to go back to being himself, and that was hard… It was easier to be brave when you were someone else.”
King visited the set in its last week of production, during the Losers’ battle with the animatronic spider. Christopher remembers being speechless.
“What do you even say to Stephen King?” King spent time chatting with all of his adult Losers, but Christopher believes he had another agenda for visiting.
“I think he just wanted to hang out with Tim Curry.”
While the prospect of swapping yarns with Curry is indeed incredible, it’s likely King was just as excited to see his revisionist childhood brought to life; it’s no coincidence that the Losers were eleven-years-old during the summer of 1958, just as King himself was. The theme of confronting buried childhood demons is one he would return to throughout his career.
Baby Boomer nostalgia was especially rampant during the miniseries’ 1990 airing, and the idea of returning to childhood to defeat old ghosts is a tempting one. Hey – who needs therapy when you can rip apart the creature embodying all your neuroses with your bare hands?
John Ritter himself dubbed it “The Big Chill with blood.” (Not one but three Motown montages make it hard to shake that comparison.)
The recent 2017 and 2019 reboots yanked the spotlight back onto the miniseries, earning Dennis Christopher a recharged online fanbase. He thinks he knows why the Losers’ Club and their bond still resonate with so many.
“There’s nothing like your first friendships. It means everything to you. [They’re] more important than family, your best friends when you’re growing up – especially if you feel like an outsider. It really was gratifying to bring that across.”
While shapeshifting killer clowns from outer space certainly have their place in horror, it’s the Losers who give the story its heart and keep it beating. They’re always there for each other, both mentally and physically. In its own way, the miniseries remains a rarity in the genre – it’s a story unafraid of being tender.
“It’s refreshing, because we just don’t get enough of that in life, and we don’t get enough of that on stage, or on-screen. It’s always been all right for women to express affection for their friends and affection for each other, hugging and touching, without it necessarily being sexual. I’m very glad that people get that out of the movie and get that about these adults that once were so close as children.”
IT’s proposition that found family takes precedence over your flesh-and-blood one could be part of what makes King’s story so enduringly appealing, particularly for those who might seek comfort from it. This is perhaps why it seems inevitable that we’ll be getting another reboot within (or before) the next twenty-seven years. But how should it be adapted next?
“If anyone out there’s listening? IT: The Musical.”
Would it have the same kind of music as the miniseries?
Here’s hoping for lots of Motown.