Before the new IT, Tim Curry’s iconic look was what people recognized as Pennywise the shapeshifting clown, designed by special effects artist Bart Mixon. Since the TV series premiered in 1990, it has gained in popularity and continues to strike the fear of clowns into American hearts.
Mixon has had a long career spanning from Robocop to more recent work in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. iHorror got to speak with him on his work while promoting a documentary on the 1990s IT in which he he was interviewed about creating the makeup of Pennywise and contributing BTS footage, Pennywise: The Story of IT.
In this interview, Mixon talks his experience when IT was being made, how he thinks it should have ended and his favorite Pennywise action figures. And if you are a fan of the 1990s IT, keep this documentary on your radar.
Bri Spieldenner: I’ve been a huge proponent all my life of practical effects. So it’s awesome to be speaking to someone who has such a vast history in it. As you were saying before, it’s really cool that Pennywise is like your baby.
Bart Mixon: Somebody like Stan Winston obviously has a rich history of a lot of cool characters. So, as I tell Rick Baker, it’s nice to have one. And I guess Pennywise is my one. I’ve applied a lot of cool makeups; I worked on the original Robocop and Hellboy and things like that. But those were designed by other makeup artists and I was applying, but Pennywise was mine from inception. I sculpted it, designed it, so from start to finish I was responsible for all the creature effects on it.
And specifically, maybe selfishly I was like, no, I’m doing that makeup. Although I had a great crew, you’re only as good as your crew. And I certainly had a fantastic crew on that with industry legends like Norman Cabrera and Aaron Sims and Julia Roscoe and Brent Baker and Jim McLaughlin.
BS: What was your favorite aspect of Pennywise’s makeup?
BM: Oh, well, Tim Curry. That might have been the first time I was kind of starstruck, even though I’d worked with like Peter Weller prior to that, I did a movie with Shelley Winters in the mid ‘80s. Between Legend and Rocky Horror, I was just a fan. There was certainly a bit of nervousness as you know, I hope I don’t screw up.
I’m so thankful that we got to do the battery acid look, because we almost didn’t do that. I mean, I sculpted it, took it up to Canada to shoot with it but then we basically ran out of time. And they opted just to shoot the scene in his normal look. In fact, I had to build an 18-inch stop motion puppet for when he goes down the drain that we sculpted to look like regular Pennywise. And literally the day I was making the stone mold on it and I got the front half in the plaster, Jean Warren who was in charge of the visual effects said we’re doing reshoots, and we’re going to use your your battery acid look.
I’d already done the front of the thing in plaster so once I got the puppet ran, I had to take a tiny life cast and then make a tiny appliance to glue on it and to do a likeness makeup on this six scale or quarter six, this tiny Tim Curry. But Tim, to his credit, volunteered to wear the makeup. He had seen the pieces up in Canada and he was very complimentary about about it. He was just a dream but I guess my favorite aspect of that makeup was the battery acid.
BS: I think it works really well, that look is very terrifying.
BM: Unfortunately the movie kind of fizzles out once Tim leaves and I don’t think that’s any fault of Tommy and the storytellers, it’s just Tim was such a strong presence and I thought we built a very cool spider but you still missed Tim Curry in those last 20 minutes. And so I guess once they wound this spider and he wanders off, when they chased him down if he had been turned back to Pennywise at that point, and then they had killed him. I think it would have been a more satisfying ending, but I don’t think 1990s television would have let three or four adults beat the shit out of a clown on TV and rip his heart out.
Everything we did on that show was pretty much pre-censored in terms of like the severed head in the refrigerator, you can’t have meat hanging out of it. So, I don’t know that the censors would have let us. Again, this was 1990s TV. That’s what people ask me about the new one and it’s an R-rated movie in 2017. You know? So yeah, they just weren’t working under the same limitations that we were.
BS: Although I would say from my perspective, I personally prefer the look of the original just because it has a more grimy feel to it, and kind of more realistic. I was wondering if you had any opinions on the prosthetic looks for the newer IT movie.
BM: I think the work in there is very good. It’s a different take. I thought it was kind of funny, I did Men in Black 3 with Jemaine Clement. I did his Boris the Animal makeup for Rick Baker, so Jemaine and I are still buddies. So when they revealed the first picture from the new IT, he was like “Have you seen the new Pennywise look? They just copied yours.” And I was like, well, there are inherent similarities just because it’s a clown. And I mean, his hair is more orangish red and mine’s that kind of a bozo red.
Just from a story point, if I have any problems with the makeup, this is an illusion that he’s projecting to lure children in the new IT. I think it’s a cool makeup and I think it looks great, but there’s no way in hell a kid would come within a mile of that Pennywise, he’s just too scary, right out of the gate. And mine, I was trying to make it look like a harmless clown and then let Tim Curry’s performance amp it up.
One of the things I wanted to do that Tommy and I didn’t see eye to eye on, when the kids saw him he would be the Pennywise that we know and love, but when the adults saw him, he would be a horrific caricature of that. So it would be something more in line with the new Pennywise with all the cracks. It’d be rot and stuff like that. Kinda like what the battery acid look was but all over, because just story-wise at that point the adults know that he’s not really a clown, and it knows that they know that he is not a clown. So it was like there’s no real point in maintaining the pretense anymore. And by it being an almost zombie-fied caricature of the clown. Tommy didn’t see it that way.
I think probably in part, Tim didn’t want to wear a lot of makeup. So that would have necessitated a fair amount of the schedule of him being in a heavier makeup. It’s not a bad thing. But the new one being scarier and more horrific is kind of where I was trying to take it for the adults, you know, so I can’t fault them for that. I just think in the scenes when he’s dealing with the kids, he just looks too scary.
BS: That’s a good point. I didn’t think about it that way. Do you have a favorite Pennywise action figure?
BM: All within reach. I think they came out with two of these.
BS: Whoa, that’s awesome.
BM: I waited 30 years for them to come out with some cool Pennywise merchandise and shirts. I mean, I go into Walmart now and they’ve got Pennywise T-shirts.
BS: Do you think that nowadays people are more into the classic IT than they were when it came out?
BM: It seems that way. I mean, it was a huge hit. But again, I wasn’t seeing merchandising and stuff like that. And again, I think the release of the 2017 film as they were merchandising that version, I think they were like, let’s dust off the old one and do stuff from that too. But it’s cool to just go into stores or conventions and stuff that was probably the coolest thing when the movie came out in 1990. I’d go to a bookstore and they had reissued IT and paperback with my Tim Curry makeup on the cover. It was just this big wall of my makeup.
BS: Would you say that Pennywise is the best or your favorite thing that you’ve worked on? Or do you have a favorite practical effect that you’ve done in your career?
BM: Well, reflecting back, I’ve worked on a lot of cool stuff. I mean, Pennywise is certainly of the things that I’ve personally designed and created, unsupervised. But I worked on the original Robocop, I worked on the two Guillermo del Toro Hellboys. I’m a big Marvel comics fan, so I did Paul Bettany for Civil War and Infinity War. And I just worked on Guardians 3, and I did Christian Bale’s makeup for a couple of days of the new Thor movie for reshoots. I got to help with Nebula for the new Thor, Michael Chiklis in the Fantastic Four movies so the fan in me’s gotten to work on a lot of cool bucket list-type shows.
BS: I am interested in your opinion on the time period between when practical special effects started becoming less of a thing in movies and people started moving more towards CGI. Did you ever feel that?
BM: Yeah, I mean, thankfully, I didn’t do stop motion. I think if I was an animator, I would have really felt it. Initially, it was just a gut punch like, oh my god, we’re all out of work. Certainly, the stop motion guys and the animatronic guys felt that.
In Men in Black 3, Ken Ralston was the visual effects supervisor working along with Rick Baker. So that was one of the few times where digital wasn’t trying to screw over the practical guys. They actually worked hand in hand and so Rick would be like, “okay, I’m gonna build this goldfish-like alien, but we’re not gonna put any eye blinks in it. If Barry shows it long enough that it needs to be blinking then you guys can do the blink digitally,” and Ken’s like that’s great. So it was a nice collaboration. And I think the best of this sort of thing is when you have the two. There’s the faun character in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Pale Man, those are cool makeups but there’s digital stuff involved like taking the legs out or making them a little leaner or whatever. Unfortunately, especially back at the beginning, everybody was just shoving all the money into digital. And so you would have a lot of shows that had really shitty digital effects.
BS: Why would you want to make something that costs way more money look worse than it used to?
BM: The one thing that I really don’t like about digital stuff, is that people don’t have to make a commitment. You designed the same thing you shot, so you had to decide, and you had to commit to something and even with a makeup effect you had to commit to a design and build it so that you can have it on set. Now with the digital stuff. You just got the guy in the motion capture pajamas, and then you can change the design repeatedly up until you just run out of time and the things got to be in the theater.
When I was working on Civil War, we’re doing the airport fight. And that was the first time I saw the MCU Spider Man. The suit was completely different than what’s in the movie. Same thing with the Black Panther, I think his suit was similar, but the stunt double that they had wearing it was totally different proportions than Chadwick. So both of those are just completely replaced digitally in that final sequence and it’s just they didn’t have to commit to making the perfect Spider Man suit before we were filming, because we’re going to have a year of post and were going to change it. There’s amazing things you can do with it. There’s stuff that you could never do practically or frees you up. And I think that’s just the aesthetics of the director.
Like what Guillermo del Toro likes. He came from a makeup effects background so he likes seeing practicals, although he still has a lot of cool digital stuff in the show, too, but at least he’s got a good balance. When you’re doing aliens and monsters, obviously digital stuff offers things, just anatomically you can do things that you can’t do with a human head, but when you’re doing characters and age makeups and stuff like that, if you’ve got an actor who’s willing to do it, like Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour, then you can get some really amazing stuff. So there’s still some great work being done.
BS: I’ve noticed definitely in the last 10 years or so, a lot more renewed interest in practical effects mostly from a nostalgia point of view. Have you noticed any new special effects artists that you think are really impressive these days?
BM: It is pretty impressive that there are people worldwide that are doing it. Like I just saw the new Elvis movie and that Tom Hanks, Colonel Parker makeup is pretty cool. Kazu who I worked with going back to The Grinch. He did The Darkest Hour and Bombshell. I worked with Arjen Tuiten who did Wonder, he did Maleficent. He did the new Ghostbusters. Vincent Van Dyke, he does amazing stuff. There’s Mike Marino on the east coast. He did the new Coming 2 America from a couple years ago. I did Bad Grandpa with Steve Prody and he rightfully had an Oscar nomination for that. And again, it’s not just a guy’s game anymore. There’s a lot of talented women doing it too.
There’s a lot of good generations yet to come. A lot of my contemporaries either have retired or are looking at retiring. I just had lunch with Rick Baker today and he’s been retired for about eight years now and so, it is comforting to know that there’s these waves of people coming up behind me to carry on.
BS: Do you have any cool new projects coming up that you are excited about?
BM: Well, I just worked on not only Guardians of the Galaxy 3, but the holiday special that’ll be out Christmas time. I just worked on the new Haunted Mansion that Disney’s doing, which I think looks pretty cool. There’s a Jeffrey Dahmer thing that Ryan Murphy’s doing called Monster that I worked on a little bit. That’ll be out before the end of the year. I did Obi-Wan Kenobi, but that’s already out and I worked on the new Thor, but that’s out now.
BS: What would be your dream special effects to do that you haven’t yet?
BM: Hopefully before I hang it up, I’d love to do like the Mole Man or something for the Fantastic Four. Or if DC ever gets around to doing The New Gods, I’d love to do a Jack Kirby accurate Darkseid makeup.
There’s not like a monster. Oh, I’ve never gotten to do a gill man. If I could only do that. I’ve worked on Freddy movies. I never did any Friday the 13th. I was never a big Jason guy anyway, but I’ve done my show of Rob Zombie stuff and whatnot. I’ve had a pretty good, varied career.
Mixon still working in FX makeup makes for a great continuation of his legacy over the decades and how makeup has changed. It doesn’t seem like he’s stopping anytime soon, either. If you are interested in hearing more about his process creating and working on Pennywise from the 1990 IT, keep your eyes out for Pennywise: The Story of IT.