‘It’ Producers Talk Bringing Passion to Set in the Age of the Reboot

Photo Source: Eric Charbonneau

For production team David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith of KatzSmith Productions, bringing Stephen King’s legendary novel “It" to a 2017 audience came with its own set of challenges. “You have to honor the legacy of something," Grahame-Smith says of the book and 1990 television miniseries of the same name. Individually, Katzenberg and Grahame-Smith are television directors and writers, respectively, but together at KatzSmith Productions, they are bringing familiar stories to new viewers with “It" and the upcoming “Beetlejuice" sequel. Here, they share how to build inspiration on set and within their own team.

Are there any challenges that come with bringing a well-known story to life, especially in 2017, when reboots and remakes are common?
Seth Grahame-Smith: One of the challenges is that you have an iconic character and performance that is in the cultural memory in the form of Tim Curry’s Pennywise in the miniseries from 1990. Right there, you have a built-in bar that you have to clear. We’re definitely, for better and for worse, not shy about touching these third rails with these beloved cultural, iconic characters. At the same time, I love that challenge because you are either going to do it right or you’re going to embarrass yourself. That pressure can be really motivating. More than that, it’s a desire to honor a book that we grew up with and love. Stephen King is why I wanted to become a writer. If we can make a film or be a part of making a film that goes down as one of the better adaptations of his work, that’s a huge gratification.

Since the actors were so young, did they have a knowledge of the book’s legacy?
I’m not sure that they felt the legacy as much as they wanted to bring something special. They’re all great actors and they brought out the best in each other. What was so incredible was watching them bond off-camera during the course of the summer in a way that completely mirrored the bond that they were supposed to have on camera. They would have sleepovers when they weren’t shooting, they’d get in trouble together running around the stages. I was 13 in the summer of 1989, and they’re playing these 13-year-olds in the summer of ’89. One of the things that we did before we started filming was I made a booklet: Here are the movies I was interested in; here are the TV shows I was watching; here’s the music I was listening to; here’s what was going on in politics; here’s what a rotary phone looked like. I wanted them to have an encyclopedia of all of the pop culture I was into because when they were building their characters, it’s important that they understood where they were in the world at that point: New England in 1989, which was exactly where I was. It was fun watching them bond and watching them reenact the summer that I had lived through that year.

How did your respective backgrounds contribute to the development of KatzSmith Productions?
David Katzenberg: Ultimately, one of the things that brought Seth and I together is that we have a similar sense of humor and a similar taste in genre films. We’re not only producers; I direct television as well and Seth is a writer. For us, it makes it fun because on set we’re wearing many hats, which I think helps keep the integrity of the projects we’re working on.
SGS: What makes our partnership a little strange, what I love about us being producing partners, is we’re married but we have a slightly open relationship. We love being married but at the same time, if we’re on set and there’s a problem with the script, as producers, I can maybe dive into that and be of help. If there’s a problem with blocking or a production issue, David feels very comfortable diving in and giving some sort of creative help on that side.

What advice would you give others who have a wide range of skills and interests?
SGS: The best advice we ever got before we started our company was “Bet on yourselves." At that point, I was writing books, and like most people who write books, somebody would call and say, “We want to buy the rights," and I would give the rights away and be on the sidelines while things were getting made. It occurred to me: What if I could still have a seat at the table and what if I had a say in who the director was and who did the screenplay? If I’m creating something, I want to stay involved—I don’t want to hand it off. Let’s create an infrastructure for ourselves to create these things and to remain with them throughout the process.
DK: The test is passion. If you look at our latest stuff, it goes from comedy television to “Lego Batman" to “It" and “Beetlejuice." We love the projects that we work on, and we want to keep the integrity of the original stories, but also the vision that we have.

How do you incorporate fresh ideas into genre?
SGS: For me, there’s always a little dash of humor, no matter what—even if it’s a horror movie or an action movie or sci-fi, it has to be either directly or indirectly funny or darkly funny.
DK: It really boils down to the characters. The stuff that we’re doing is all character-driven, and that stems from our work in television. That’s probably the one thing all our projects have in common: they’re great, well thought-out characters, and are driven by the characters.

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