'It' Producers on Creepy Clowns and Why 'Stranger Things' Is "King and Spielberg Karaoke"
Seth Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg discuss the likelihood of a sequel for their new Stephen King adaptation, the power of '80s nostalgia and the solution for the summer's box-office slump: "Make better movies."
Seth Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg first met in 2006 when they were working at CBS Digital, where together they produced one of the first web series, Clark and Michael, starring Michael Cera and Clark Duke. They followed that up in 2010 with MTV's first scripted comedy, The Hard Times of RJ Berger, and made their partnership formal with the launch of KatzSmith Productions in 2011.
Katzenberg, son of former DreamWorks mogul and current WndrCo chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, has become an in-demand TV director (The Goldbergs, Ballers), while Grahame-Smith, who grew up in Connecticut and moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Emerson College, has proved adept as a writer of genre-busting books (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies) and movies (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Their first film production, director Andy Muschietti's $35 million-plus adaptation of Stephen King's seminal kids-battling-evil novel, It, hits theaters Sept. 8 via Warner Bros.' New Line. They're also developing a Beetlejuice sequel at Warners and just signed an overall TV deal with Fox.
Grahame-Smith, 41, and his wife, Erin, raise two sons, ages 8 and 5, in Cheviot Hills, while Katzenberg, 34, who married Stellina Bickers in 2016, has a home in West Hollywood, where the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter, a few months ago — which is why Katzenberg, who usually attends Burning Man with his dad, decided to forgo the desert trip this year.
Why are so many of your current projects rooted in the '80s?
KATZENBERG The easy response is that we both grew up in the '80s. I go to work every day on The Goldbergs and [feel] the nostalgia from that in terms of all the clothing and production design.
GRAHAME-SMITH I came of age watching Steven Spielberg movies and reading Stephen King books. They were the most influential creators of my young life, and I'm certainly not alone in that. They're part of the popular culture, and I work in a pop culture space.
KATZENBERG We don't set out to find this stuff. I just think we're drawn to it.
How do you explain the current audience appetite for the '80s?
GRAHAME-SMITH For people in their late 30s, early 40s, who grew up in the '80s, those people now have kids that they're taking to the movies or they're going to the movies by themselves, and they have nostaglia for the time and the culture they grew up in. At the same time, younger kids who don't have that connection to the '80s, they look at it the way that we used to look at the '60s, when I was growing up — like, oh, what a crazy, turbulent time. That's very interesting. The young are fascinated with culture they don't have a connection with, and the older are sentimental about it.
As you were filming It, Stranger Things hit big on Netflix. Do you worry that it has infringed on your territory?
GRAHAME-SMITH It was fun watching it. First of all, there's never been a show that was tailored more to my interests. It's like King and Spielberg karaoke, that show. And it was fun watching Finn [Wolfhard, who stars in both Stranger Things and It] go from 70 Instagram followers to over 1 million in the time we were shooting the movie.
KATZENBERG We welcome the comparison. It's definitely funny because some people will think we copied Stranger Things, but this movie has been in the works for a very long time.
What did you think of the weird clown sightings last summer while you were filming It? Warners even had to deny it was a publicity stunt.
GRAHAME-SMITH We were all kind of mortified when that started happening, because God forbid it goes beyond a prank and somebody gets hurt. But that said, there's clearly a resurgence of some kind with clowns that has nothing to do with It. I've learned that you cannot plan around the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist happens by itself.
KATZENBERG People either love clowns, hate them or are terrified of them. To me, it made people see clowns in a different way. Clowns are probably the most popular Halloween costume.
GRAHAME-SMITH Well, we'll see about that this year.
Years ago, Stephen King adaptations like Carrie and The Shining were genuine hits. Why do you think recent King movie adaptations, like The Dark Tower, haven't fared as well?
GRAHAME-SMITH I’m the wrong person to ask, because I still love a lot of the less successful ones. I love Creep Show, I love Cujo, The Dead Zone. But I also recognize that there are the seminal King adaptations: Carrie, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption. I guess because there have also been so many Stephen King adaptations, and he’s so prolific, if you believe in the rule that, “If you make 100 movies, only a handful are going to be really great,” then he’s still pretty good on the law of averages.
Why do you think the box office has been down so much this summer?
KATZENBERG Movies used to be events, and now there's this oversaturation of films and people don't always trust what they're being sold. Because there's so much of it, there are weekends that are massive misses.
GRAHAME-SMITH I don't get on the bandwagon of, "Movies are doomed; people won't go to the movies anymore." If people have a reason to come, they'll come. Why has the box office been depressed? Because the movies haven't been as good. Plain and simple. But there have been some that have shined through — Get Out and Baby Driver and Wonder Woman and Dunkirk and Annabelle. Make better movies and people will come to see them.
In your It, you decide to focus on the the younger versions of the characters and save the older version of the characters for another movie. Why?
GRAHAME-SMITH It's a roughly 1,200-page book that examines the adult and the kid personalities of six, seven, eight very complicated individuals. You're either going to make a four-and-a-half-hour movie that's going to be insufferably long, or you're going to have to split it into two movies. Our feeling was: let the kids story be the kids story. Let the adults story be the adults story. Let’s really give these characters and these scenes the time that they deserve to really develop and flourish, rather than try to condense a seminal Stephen King book down into one movie.
What is the status of the sequel?
GRAHAME-SMITH The script for part two is being written as we sit here. In the age of "nothing is for certain," we can't take anything for granted. We haven't been greenlighted yet for a sequel, but I feel pretty good about that.
The movie was developed at Warners but then moved over to New Line. Did that make a difference on the project?
GRAHAME-SMITH There are two big, immediate things that happened. One, now you're making a movie that is the very outer edges of what a horror movie is [budgeted] for at New Line. It feels like a big swing in their minds. The second thing is, you're working with execs who really specialize in horror day in and day out. Especially in [production execs] Walter Hamada and Dave Neustadter, who have a tried-and-true, time-tested process for how these movies get put together. For David and me, it was a great learning experience for us as producers — really watching them say, "Well, a regular movie might be this, but this is horror, so this is what we do."
KATZENBERG We felt we were getting a lot more attention.
After Cary Fukunaga left the project as director, how did you decide on Andy Muschietti, who'd never done a studio feature, to direct?
GRAHAME-SMITH He found us, honestly. We met with a lot of really talented directors, heard a lot of different takes. What I remember about our first meeting with Andy was that he talked about being a kid, growing up in Argentina and reading a translation of the book and how the book had affected him. He talked just as much about the kids as he did about the clown. You felt like here’s someone who’s taking a holistic approach to the material, and not just coming in and focusing on, "I’m going to build these great scares, it’s going to be so bloody." He really immediately focused in on the kids. For us, that was always the lynchpin. The movie was either going to succeed or fail based on [the kids who call themselves] the Losers’ Club, and that’s where he put his energy. That and he’s a great collaborator —
KATZENBERG Fantastic storyteller and visionary —
GRAHAME-SMITH He story-boarded every frame of this movie by hand, because he’s an exceptional illustrator.
KATZENBERG In one of our very early meetings, he had pretty much already nailed the smile of Pennywise [the demonic clown in It] and the way the line goes through his eye and connects to his mouth. He had drawn that on almost everything. He doodles quite a bit. That ended up being pretty much exactly the basis of what Pennywise was going to look like.
GRAHAME-SMITH And we loved his movies, too. We loved Mama, and it didn’t hurt that he came with a producing partner in his sister Barbara, who’s now a dear friend, and who made it very easy.
Why did you go for an R rating? Aren’t you shutting out part of a young potential audience?
GRAHAME-SMITH It was never going to be anything but an R. There’s stuff that happens that, contextually, were it happening to adults, may not cross a threshold of severity, but the fact [is] that these are kids being terrorized, being sexualized, smoking cigarettes, saying "fuck." In terms of the gore, it’s not necessarily an R, with the possible exception of Little Georgie’s arm getting ripped off, which is pretty disturbing. It’s really just about the fact that we didn’t want to have to flinch from any of the intensity of the terror.
You have a new TV deal with Fox, but you don't have a first-look deal for films. Why not?
GRAHAME-SMITH We were at Warner Bros. for two years [for film] and then decided we wanted to be flexible because we were forging relationships with other studios and we wanted to have maneuverability and be able to work in a lot of different places.
KATZENBERG Also, rather than being put on these movies that we were not extremely passionate about, we recognized that if material that we were passionate about was elsewhere, then we couldn't do it because of our deal. And we started developing less material so that we could focus on actually moving forward projects that we were more passionate about.
GRAHAME-SMITH We started paying for the company out of pocket, and in the four years we've been doing that, David's become a very eclectic and prolific TV director, and I've been lucky enough to keep busy writing movies for studios. That let us pay for the company. Our philosophy was, if we're creating these things, it's not that we have to dictate every single step, that David has to direct or I have to write every single adaptation, but we preserve our seat at the table so at least we have influence over how it gets made.
On the flip side, when you're working solely as producers, do you find you have to reassure a prospective writer or director that you won't step in and bigfoot them?
GRAHAME-SMITH As producers, we’re bringing filmmaker specialty skills to the job of producing, but we also understand and respect that the job of producing is its own job, with its own set of responsibilities.
KATZENBERG We pride ourselves on being great collaborators. We like the people we’re working with to know these tools exist if and when we need them, but this is not something we push on to other filmmakers we’re working with or other writers that we’re working with.
GRAHAME-SMITH Really, what we have learned so far is when people bring stuff to us, they want us there solving problems and being creative partners in the movie, and that’s what we’re happy to do. That’s something we pride ourselves on. We’re present and accounted for.
Does that fact that you grew up on the East Coast, Seth, and David, you're from the West Coast, have any effect on your partnership?
GRAHAME-SMITH I think it does in strange ways. We have diverse skill sets, which is part our diverse backgrounds. David grew up surrounded by the business, and that has made him exceptional at relationships, knowing how to handle himself professionally, which was something that took me trial-and-error along the way. And, being from Connecticut, I'm just full of home-spun Yankee wisdom, so it makes for an interesting partnership.
Growing up in Hollywood, David, did you know you wanted to go into the business?
KATZENBERG I was fascinated with it from a very young age. I was one of those guys running around with my friends with a camera, trying to make movies and stuff. We visited the set of Saving Private Ryan. My dad used to come home every night and watch dailies, and I was fascinated by the process, but I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do until after I went to film school at Boston University. But I knew I wanted to be involved in storytelling.
How did your dad react to you wanting to go into the business?
KATZENBERG He was reluctant at first, but once I figured out I wanted to be more a part of the creative world, he was definitely supportive. He was going to be supportive no matter what I did. But I definitely got, "Are you sure?" a couple of times.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.