‘Firestarter’ Director Keith Thomas on Practical Effects, Real Fire, and Working with John Carpenter

This week, the modern reimagining of Stephen King‘s Firestarter releases courtesy of Universal, Blumhouse, and director Keith Thomas (The Vigil).

In Firestarter, “A young girl develops pyrokinetic abilities and is abducted by a secret government agency that wants to harness her powerful gift as a weapon.”

Ahead of its debut in theaters and on Peacock on May 13, Bloody Disgusting spoke with Thomas about the modern update on King’s classic novel. The director revealed the intricate stunt work involved in practical fire effects and what it was like working with horror master John Carpenter for the film’s score.

Because the cinematic landscape has become so saturated with superheroes in the decades since the novel and 1984 film’s release, Thomas wanted to set his version of Firestarter apart by emphasizing the horror. He turned to a body horror master for inspiration.

Thomas explained, “In some ways, Firestarter is like a superhero origin story, but for me, it was trying to make that as grounded and real as possible. We’ve seen somebody shoot fire from their hands, eyes, feet, or whatever it is. What would it be like if you really could create fire with your mind? What would that do to your body? What would that do to other people?

“I wanted to bring it back to the book and go much more in-depth into if this were real, what would this look like? Forget flying. If people had abilities, how would it affect them in a more David Cronenberg way than, say, a big superhero way?

That entailed using fire practically and finding new ways to wield it. The filmmaker sought to capture the grisly effects of fire on the human body. 

Director Keith Thomas and Ryan Kiera Armstrong on the set of Firestarter.

Thomas tells BD, “Almost all the fire in Firestarter is real and practical onset. When it came to Charlie [played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong] using her abilities, I wanted to explore the buildup and what it felt like when a room heats up and things are changing, and she’s getting tense. The fire itself is cathartic, right? It’s just boom; it’s over.

“But I wanted to see the ramifications. If you burned somebody’s arms, what would that look like afterward? It’d be pretty horrible. We see with one other character that if you get bathed in flames, what will happen to your skin and your body? The pain, you can imagine, would be unimaginable. I wanted to show the horror in the way of a monster attack. If you get attacked by somebody throwing fire at you, what would that look like? What would that be like? And for me, that’s the true horror of it. What she does is awful.”

Thomas broke down just how elaborate the stunts get, “All the fire is real. Some of it gets a little enhanced with VFX to clean up things that we couldn’t take care of, but the final act features a 40-foot flamethrower, and those people are really being hit by it. We had built that set specifically to do that stunt. They’ve got oxygen tanks under there, and that fire is hitting them. That room’s a thousand degrees. Flames are coming up out of the roof. Everyone has to clear the set. It’s a major undertaking to do that. But to me, it resonates in a way that CGI can’t. It has to be a handshake between special effects and practical and CG, and they have to work together. Otherwise, one is just sitting on top of the other, and it doesn’t work.”

The director was so committed to the practical effects that he convinced actor Sydney Lemmon, who plays Charlie’s mom Vicky, to get up close and personal with the flames. He tells us, “When Vicky’s arms go on fire, that’s really Sydney with her arms lit on fire. I had to convince Sydney to do it. When I first brought it up, she had read it in the script, and she was like, ‘Keith, what are you doing with this scene?’ I was like, ‘Honestly, Sydney, if you could be on fire, that would be amazing. I don’t want to have to put your face on somebody else.’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’

“She met with our stunt coordinator. He got her comfortable and showed her how it worked, and she did it. In some test rehearsals, she put her arms on fire. She was thrilled. So, then when the day came, she was a real trooper. We did that take. We did probably four or five takes of that, and she’s like, ‘Let it go longer.’ It’s burning on her arms, and it burns for five seconds. She would like, ‘Go eight seconds. Let’s just keep going.’

(from left) Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) and Andy (Zac Efron) in Firestarter, directed by Keith Thomas.

“Then, to complicate it too, you also have Zac [Efron] running in with a blanket to put her out, so you’ve got two actors involved with the fire. It just involves a lot of just safety mechanisms at the ready. Thankfully, it all went without a hitch. There’s a certain element of danger to it that you feel on set and that I hope translates.”

That Thomas’s film includes a score by John Carpenter, who at one time had been tied to helm an adaptation of Firestarter, begged an obvious question of how he got involved. 

“It was an idea that I had floated because I knew Blumhouse’s history with Carpenter, with the Halloween trilogy. I thought no way that was ever going to happen. Then crazily enough, it did. Suddenly, I was on the phone with John and talking about the score and what we wanted from it.”

We didn’t get into his history with Firestarter. John’s a very straight shooter. He’s like, ‘Right now, I’m composing this score, and this is what we’re going to do.’ So I didn’t want to bring it up. But I think it was, in some ways, liberating for him because it was his first score not directly tied to something that he had done. He and Cody [Carpenter] and Daniel [Davies] were able to play in interesting ways. It’s still very Carpenter. It’s still very much what you would expect and what you’d hope for.”

As for what kind of sound Thomas wanted, he cited a specific Carpenter film.

“We had talked about what it’s going to sound like; he wanted references. I said, Christine, in terms of what the sound should feel like and what we’re going for,” Thomas explains. “He watched the film. He gave me his overall notes of ‘here’s what I’m thinking of doing.’ From there, it was pretty much ‘John, do your thing. I’ll listen to it. I’ll give you any notes if I have them, but I trust you a hundred.’ I mean, who am I to say?”

John Carpenter’s ‘Christine’ (1983)

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