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On Set with Flamethrowers: Keith Thomas on Firestarter

Ryan Kiera Armstrong in Firestarter (2022)Ryan Kiera Armstrong in Firestarter

Released in the fall of 1980, while Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining continued to horrify audiences in theaters, Stephen King’s eighth novel, Firestarter, tells the story of Charlie McGee, a young girl struggling to control her pyrokinetic powers. Her parents knew this would be an issue: years earlier, Andy and Vicky McGee participated in a trial run of a new chemical compound, Lot Six, that embedded telekinetic and mind-controlling powers that shady government officials now wish to end. A run in with Rainbird, who had also been experimented on and now acts as a hired assassin wiping out his own kind, leaves mom dead; father and daughter go on the run, with Charlie learning to control and channel her rage as a means for survival. 

Adapted for the screen in a 1984 feature starring Drew Barrymore and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Firestarter returned to theaters (and simultaneously debuted on Peacock) this Friday the 13th in a new version from Blumhouse Productions directed by Keith Thomas (the late Martha De Laurentiis serves as executive producer).  Starring the eleven-year-old Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlie and Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon as her parents, this new Firestarter is leaner and more compact than its previous cinematic incarnation, getting to the core of its themes faster and more succinctly. For Stephen King completists looking to revisit the author’s older works, this will surely satisfy as they await September’s return trip to Salem’s Lot.

A few days before Firestarter’s release, I spoke with Thomas about his personal history with King’s novel, bringing his past directorial experience to a larger-budgeted project, working safely in scenarios that require intense heat, and how he enlisted John Carpenter (who was in talks to direct the first film adaptation almost thirty years ago) to compose the musical score

Filmmaker: We last spoke on the opening day of the theatrical release of your first feature, The Vigil. You were prepping Firestarter at the time, readying to go into production later that summer, and spoke of your personal connection to the material, working in clinical research and conducting drug studies to see what effects they had on people. Now that you’ve made the film, how do you see your background having influenced your interpretation of Firestarter?  

Thomas: That connection was interesting to me when the project first came to my attention. Obviously, the idea of a “Lot Six” chemical compound, and a drug study that results in the unlocking of powers that eventually manifest in the lead character of Charlie, meant that the story possessed some basic historical stuff that resonated. This was a world I knew, and now I’d be able to explore it more fully in our [version of] Firestarter. We actually show the Lot Six experiment in the opening moments of our film, so you get the [backstory] firsthand. Now, I’ve never conducted studies that involved the use of experimental medication on college students [laughs], but the science behind something like that, as well as the ideas that come from it (and the basic way clinical research functions) was fun for me to explore. I wanted to make it as realistic as possible within the confines of the story, and since the story begins with the [experiment] and shows that these are normal people, potentially without powers, who come into this room and undergo an experiment (only for things to go horribly wrong for some and [act as] a birthing of powers for others) provided a fun way for me to ground the story in a reality I knew.

Filmmaker: Firestarter was the first Stephen King novel you ever read. His influences are everywhere in your film adaptation and they’re not strictly confined to the novel. Whenever I see a father and daughter bury a cat, as they do in your film, I immediately think of Pet Sematary, or when Zac Efron’s character tries to get someone to quit smoking, I thought of the segment, “Quitters, Inc.,” in the anthology film, Cat’s Eye. Of course, Charlie also shares several characteristics with Carrie White, the lead character in King’s first published novel, Carrie. King’s influence is obviously huge, but how did you brainstorm implementing those narrative callbacks into your retelling of the material?

Thomas: Yes, Firestarter was the first Stephen King novel I’d read, although I’d read some of his short stories prior. The novel always felt very grounded to me and I wanted to stay true to that. I also had never seen a Stephen King film set in the world in which I wanted to set this film—i.e. a more industrial, blue collar, East Coast city landscape, as opposed to the more bucolic countryside sort of thing I think people first think of when they think of Stephen King.

Stephen King casts quite a shadow over not only horror cinema but horror fiction in particular, certainly over the last thirty or forty years. Sometimes [the references] happen subconsciously and you only notice them after the fact. Fans might notice little Easter eggs and references here and there that are more for, I suppose, hardcore fans to notice—there’s something in the background of that shot that is clearly a reference to another book, or that [character’s] name is a reference to another character in another [book]. You have to balance that stuff out with being true to the novel you’re adapting. I think what [screenwriter] Scott Teems did, in terms of his adaptation, was a great, new approach to the material that also stands on its own. His script is influenced by the world of Stephen King without being encumbered by it.That’s always the trick with adaptations, working with the expectations that come with adapting a popular book. There are obviously certain things that only books can do really well as books, right? When you read a book, you’re seeing things in your head that you can’t necessarily pull off in film, and film can do things you can’t pull off in a book. I think Scott’s adaptation stayed true to the world already established [in the book] while carving something new, aesthetically and athmospherically.

Filmmaker: I saw that Blumhouse tweeted out a video on the first day of production of a person wearing a fire-resistant suit that’s engulfed in flames (it looks similar to the suits we see in the final act of the film). Was that your first official day of principal photography?

Thomas: That was actually our camera test day, the day before principal photography began. We spent the day testing things out with different lighting and seeing how the fire and flames would look on camera and safely testing out the flame-resistant suits. That was done with a flame gel, flame paste and torches to light our guy up. Later on in production, we ended up using framethrowers, like full-on forty-feet worth of fire, that our guys had to walk directly into.

Filmmaker: Given the amount and blending of in-camera and VFX work, was the entire film extensively storyboarded? Did you go in knowing how you wanted Charlie’s acts of rage to look? For example, in the final act with those men in flame-resistant suits walking down a hallway intent on capturing Charlie, you give us an overhead shot of a long stream of fire that blasts all the way across. Are these shots completely planned and storyboarded before you even arrive on set for a film with as large of a crew as this one? 

Thomas: Yes, one hundred percent. While I always do my own storyboards, on Firestarter I also worked with a storyboard artist, and from there my director of photography, Karim Hussain, and I created a seriously in-depth shotlist. It came down to a combination of things: obviously when you’re doing stunts and bring a flamethrower onto set that can bring a room up to 1,000 degrees (hot enough to melt the masks off our faces), you need that preparation built-in to your schedule so that your set is as safe as possible. In that climactic moment late in the film, we had real people in those suits being hit by real flamethrowers, so everything first had to be about safety. After that, the question becomes, “How can we get the coverage?” Beyond keeping with the aesthetic you’ve set and knowing the specific image you want, you also need to get a lot of coverage for a scene like that. I think we did the flamethrower scene five times in total, and we needed it. We had a limited amount of time, so heavy storyboarding and shotlisting was crucial. At the same time, I’m not a director who’s beholden to that. I like my actors to be able to navigate a space as they wish, to feel comfortable enough to give the performance they wish to give. If we’re not feeling that our mark is working, we’ll adjust and figure it out on set. I like to build in a certain of level of latitude, in terms of storyboarding and shortlisting, so that I know what I’m looking for in my head. Actualizing it becomes a team effort. 

Filmmaker: The film is a scale up for you in terms of production size, but, like The Vigil, still feels very intimate. Of course that’s somewhat due to King’s concept of “pushing” and having to focus tightly on the eyes of your characters to see them access their telekinetic powers. What did you bring over from your indie roots to take on a studio project like this? 

Thomas: Even though the budget was quite a bit larger on Firestarter than The Vigil (which was quite small), the films still felt similar in terms of how we approached things. Yeah, we had more days, gear, sets and locations at our disposal, but the filmmaking itself felt very much the same. I wanted the film to be emotionally intimate, and our plan to achieve that was a combination of how we blocked actors (and the settings we placed them in) with how we shot and framed the space. In The Vigil, the questions were always, “How can we maximize a contained space? How do we build a world inside a house that only has four rooms?” On that film, it came down to using anamorphic lenses and vintage Kowa lenses to go really wide and distort the edges of the frame.

So much of the drama of Firestarter comes from the interactions that play across the cast’s faces. I’m really a sucker for avoiding medium shots—I guess it’s the Sergio Leone approach, but I really like going from the wide to a close or a wide extreme close-up [ECU] to ramp things up. Since the best special effect in this film are the faces—that’s where the emotions are happening—that’s where I want the viewer to be focused. Obviously, sometimes it can get uncomfortable. Sure, we could shoot with longer lenses to give the actors some distance, but I felt that, for the moments to really play out, we needed to be in there with them. A lot of the stuff we did on The Vigil, in terms of staying on [actor] Dave Davis’s face, we did on Firestarter. We’re often on Zac, Ryan, Sydney and Michael Greyeyes’s faces, letting the performances take center stage.

Filmmaker: Thematically, that makes a lot sense given that the characters’ powers require intense focus and concentration. Did that approach also come into play when deciding when and how to use practical, in-camera effects versus VFX? Were you toggling between both while filming? 

Thomas: While I tried to be as practical as possible for every effect on the film, there were some things we just couldn’t do practically for safety reasons. I thought of it as a handshake [between practical effects and VFX]. It was never like, “Oh, we’ll do practical effects first and then VFX will be added and fixed in post.” No, VFX were always involved in the process from the very beginning. We just first needed to get something, tangibly, in a room or on a stage. That was important to me, especially as it pertained to the fire effects, which were well over 95% real. They were, of course, “cleaned up” a bit with VFX, but when [the character, Vicky] has her arms set on fire, Sydney’s arms really were—protectively—set on fire. When Zac has his scene next to the crib with the baby [in the film’s opening moments, an infant Charlie sets herself ablaze], that’s a real stunt Zac is doing. At the end of the film where some [villains’] heads are set on fire (via a flamethrower), that was all real and in-camera.

We used VFX only when we needed to balance these things out, at least in terms of removing a paste or a gel. When it comes to the more subtle effects, that’s where the VFX truly shines. That’s certainly true of whenever a character’s pupils become dilated or when a room is literally beginning to heat up. We played a lot with using ECUs to show objects melting, which just consisted of us [blasting] things with heat guns and doing everything practically. When it came to creating a shimmering effect [ripples in the air caused by extreme heat], we originally set out to do that practically, which we did in a few shots in The Vigil, placing Sterno cans on top of a little tray just out of frame so that the air in-camera would begin to ripple. Prepping for Firestarter, we did a bunch of test-shooting to achieve different shimmer effects, even using torches at times, but a huge drawback is that they’re incredibly loud and you can’t capture any diaglogue underneath it. As a result, we ended up kicking shimmering effects over to VFX, where we were able to play with it and move it up and down, scale it, in post. It’s a subtle effect that’s only happening in certain sequences, and half the time I don’t think people will even notice it’s happening until things literally get incredibly heated. That’s where I think VFX plays an interesting role, the subtler ways you can manipulate reality—as long as, of course, you plan for them in advance.

Filmmaker: Is this also true of the home invasion sequence where Michael Greyeyes’s character, Rainbird, is fighting Sydney Lemmon’s character, Vicky? When Vicky is using her powers to fight back, having framed family photos fly off the wall and books fly off shelves and into Rainbird’s face as he stalks her, were you using both practical and VFX? Was the house a rigged set? I believe most of the interiors were shot at ​​Aeon Bayfront Studios in Hamilton, Ontario.

Thomas: Yeah, it was all in there. That sequence, where Sydney’s character has a lamp get thrown against a wall [with her mind] and runs down the hallway into the bathroom as objects are hitting Michael Greyeyes’s character, was all practical. We placed air cannons behind the walls to blast the picture frames off the wall, then crew members threw books at Michael’s face and at his stunt double, Flint. Once we get into the bathroom, there’s a moment where Sydney does her screaming [to summon her character’s powers] and that was practical as well. We had a giant air cannon hidden behind the bathroom and Michael didn’t necessarily see it coming. He didn’t know how big that was going to be and was kind of rocked by it when the blast hit him—that’s a genuine reaction. In post, we added some additional elements with VFX, like objects and debris flying off of the bathroom cabinet, just to enhance the scene. 

The other thing is that most of the time that we wanted to add a fire effect [in post] to boost the enormous size of the fire, those add-ins came from elements we had already shot practically. We lit things on fire in front of a blue screen, filmed the flames, then put those shots into the scene. They’re not computer-generated flames, but rather shots we filmed and then comped in.  

Filmmaker: Was the post-production process very intense given that you were juggling all of these elements and, I assume, had a targeted release date the studio expected you to hit? As opposed to on The Vigil, where you were on the festival circuit for over a year where it was like—

Thomas: “Well, who knows when it’s going to come out?!”

Filmmaker: Exactly.

Thomas: I was lucky in that, while there was excitement in terms of “Hey, when can we see this thing?,” there wasn’t any pressure to have the film ready by a specific date. It was nice to have a lot of time in post-production to tinker with things and keep working. We were always in one of those processes where you’re going down certain roads trying to figure out what works in the edit, then going down another road to figure out what works somewhere else, etc. With every film, even with The Vigil, you never really see the film until those final weeks, when all the elements are delivered. Only then are you looking back at decisions you made in post and saying, “Well that one paid off. This is where we went, this is where we were going, and we weren’t sure it was going to work, but it did.” It’s wonderful having those moments. 

Filmmaker: I was curious how you received the news that John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies were coming aboard to compose the score. I assume, given their connection with Blumhouse [thre three composed the scores for the company’s Halloween and Halloween Kills in 2018 and 2021, respectively], there was already a direct line of communication present.

Thomas: When we were in pre-production and discussing composers, I had mentioned John Carpenter’s name, obviously due to his connection with Blumhouse and the Halloween films. I told them, “that’s my vibe. John’s scores are not only very special to me but also underpin a lot of the kinds of music I like.” Anyway, I brought his name up and was told, “We’ll see.” I didn’t know if that was going to happen but just wanted to float it out there. It wasn’t until we were almost through production that one of the producers on the film, [Blumhouse’s] Ryan Turek, pulled me aside and said, “I’ve got to talk to you. I think we’ve got Carpenter.” Sure enough, two weeks later I’m talking to John Carpenter and having a great conversation. John’s a no bullshitter, very straight shooter and always has been. He asked me “OK, I’m excited to do the movie, but what does the movie sound like to you? What are you thinking?” He then asked me, of his films, what score would I most compare this Firestarter to and I told him [his 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel], Christine. “Okay, I get that, I got it, good,” John told me before asking, “If you can describe it, what kind of music do you want?” I responded, “Dark, rhythmic, percussive…” He was like, “Great, well, that’s what I make! That’s my music.”

Filmmaker: So you found yourself describing a Carpenter score to John Carpenter.

Thomas: That was pretty much exactly the thing. It was a wonderful experience, working with him, [his son and co-composer] Cody Carpenter and [his godson and co-composer] Daniel Davies. We would spend time in post every weekend going over score samples from that week that they would send us and finetune a bit. But it’s Carpenter, so all of it was going to sound amazing, even the cues we didn’t end up using. It was a great experience, he was very easy to work with and their work elevates the material. A score is a hugely important thing to me.

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