Director and writer Keith Thomas is no stranger to the horror genre as he was the mastermind behind the 2019 Jewish horror film The Vigil. But the modern reimagining of the 1984 film Firestarter, which is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name and is streaming on Peacock on May 13th, gives Thomas new terrain to explore while seeing him in familiar territory.
Ahead of the release of the ‘Peacock film in a phone conversation, Thomas talks to Substream about reimagining Firestarter for a new generation, directing Zac Efron in his first role as a dad, and more.
What initially drew you to the project and what did you envision when setting out to direct this film?
It was something that came to me, in a way. My first movie, The Vigil, premiered at the Toronto international film festival and Blumhouse had seen it. They had asked me to come in for a meeting with Jason (Blum). I went into a meeting with Jason and we talked about The Vigil and about other ideas. At one point, he said “I have a great idea for your next movie. How about Firestarter?” I had been familiar with the original movie and I read the book when I was in middle school so I knew it. I thought it was an interesting idea. I read the screenplay on my trip back home and I was really impressed with Scott Teem’s script. What this [script] did is that it felt fresh, new, and different to me was that it was still in line with the novel but felt new in terms of a film adaptation.
We already had the 1984 one which follows the book very closely in terms of beat by beat. This version follows the book closely as well, but in a different way that’s more emotional and is more in tune with the family at the heart of it. That’s what attracted me to it and that was the core thing when I came on board and pitched myself as a director at Universal. I wanted to lean into the emotional drama, tension, and familial aspects of the story and really ground it.
The 1984 version of the film stuck to the book very well. How did you go about updating this movie for a new generation?
In the 1984 version, there are a lot of different locations and lots of traveling around and meeting different people, not spending as much time as I wanted with the core characters. I think that was a big piece of it, streamlining the story to give us more time with Charlie as she’s navigating what’s happening and trying to deal with the fact that she’s got these powers. With Zac Efron’s character, Andy, he’s dealing with the [question] of ‘ how do you raise a child who has these abilities?’ and ‘how do you navigate that?’. That’s already hard enough. She’s essentially in middle school which is a difficult age for anybody but if you have a child who has these powers, how do you parent in a situation like that? And then on top of that, you have people after you. You’re literally on the run, underground.
I love the tension of that, a family in crisis, and that’s how it starts, which I thought was really interesting. It was really about leaning into that and letting those moments breathe instead of rushing from scene to scene and letting the characters grow through that and watching them navigate that story.
The retelling of the story of Firestarter seems to be about controlling your impulses and accepting yourself as you are. Is that the message you were going for?
Absolutely. One of the key pieces is parenting but it’s also growing up and maturing and what that means, impulse control but also finding yourself and becoming yourself.
A part of it is these two different sides of Andy, and the mom, Vicki, in terms of their approach. Do you protect your child at all costs from everything and you are the gatekeeper to their life experience? Or do you let them guide themselves and you stand behind and protect them that way? With a girl with these powers, do you train her to use these abilities or do you protect her from having to use them? That’s the big struggle between the parents but then you’ve got Charlie stuck in the middle and she’s someone who’s both already had a tough time adjusting to middle school and has a family who’s essentially on the run, whether she knows it or not, and then is dealing with these powers on top of it. These powers could be very destructive or very enabling. It’s tough for anybody to figure out the balance at the age: you’re coming into your body, your body’s changing, you’re figuring out how it works, and at the same time how you interact with other people who are now aware of you when they weren’t before in addition to bullying and the fact that she already feels weird, and the fact that she has this on top of it. Is it a curse or a blessing?
What we tried to do was allow her to navigate that and have her parents be a part of the conversation, whether they make the right choices or not. What I like is that we’re not saying ‘This is the way it should be’. We’re really opening it up and it’s unclear. For everyone, it’s different, how you parent, how you grow up and explore all the in-betweens.
You directed Zac Efron in his first role-playing a father. What was that experience like?
He’s in his early 30s at this point so he certainly could, in a different life, have had a child this age, so it’s certainly feasible. For him, he really wanted to do a deep dive into being a father and understanding the psychology and dynamics of that. At the same time, this is his first horror film, his first genre piece. I think he was very excited. The first time he and I met, it was all about doing something that had all of this drama behind it, that he was playing a dad, that he was in a genre space that had scares and had some crazy stuff go down. For him, I think it was a vehicle to surprise audiences in some way with a different type of performance. We’re very used to seeing Zac as the world’s greatest showman or the ‘Neighbors’ character with those abs. He hasn’t lost the abs, they’re still there (laughs) but he’s playing the dad with abs, the dad that’s dealing with something that I don’t think we’ve seen in other roles he’s had before. It was a lot of fun and it was a blast to work with him. He’s incredibly easy to get along with and work with, super smart, and very collaborative. It went really, really well in terms of what we both saw for the character and how we realized it.
I was blown away by Ryan Armstrong’s acting in the trailer. What was it like to work with her on this?
Ryan is a real powerhouse. She is really wise beyond her years. It’s really fascinating, she’s been acting since the age of 5. This is her life and what she’s been doing for a long time and despite that, she’s very worldly and she’s also still a kid. She has this great balance of being 12 years old and coming across as a normal 12-year-old but also being a very gifted actor and being able to tap into emotional registers that you don’t expect from a kid. She has so much nuance.
From her very first audition, I think we were all blown away by her. You’ve got this character who’s got this ability that they’re struggling to control, that could have devastating consequences and that’s a heavy thing to put on the shoulders of a kid and Ryan was able to make it believable, not only through dialogue and performance but also her eyes and her being. You bought it. It was so real. That’s rare for any actor, but to have it from a 12-year-old is amazing. On top of it, she was incredibly sweet, very professional, and got along really well with everybody.
How did you instill chemistry among the cast members for this film?
We spent a lot of time talking upfront before pre-production and then in pre-production, just talking on the phone. I spent a lot of time talking with Ryan and her dad and then bringing Zac into it just so they had some kind of communication together, that there was something to build on. I think that was vital, for them to spend time together. We had a COVID-safe barbecue before we started shooting where they were able to hang out and play. I think they were playing table tennis. They were hanging out and finding that vibe and that was crucial to have that early time to do that.
For the film score, I know you worked with the legendary John Carpenter. How did you both come up with a plan for scoring this film?
For me, the sound design and the score are 50% of the movie, sometimes even more, particularly in genre films like this. If you watch a scary scene with your ears plugged, it’s not half as scary, it doesn’t work anymore. So, the sound is so crucial and the score is just as much a part of that. It’s that element that makes or breaks things.
I floated the idea of John Carpenter doing the score just as a wish. I mentioned it because Blumhouse made the Halloween films and they knew John and he’s worked on those. It wasn’t until we were in production that the same producer who was on set every day came over and said ‘ Hey, we’re kind of having conversations with John Carpenter’ and I was like ‘Omg, that’s nuts and it worked out. It was amazing to be able to work directly with John, Cody Carpenter, his son, and Daniel Davies, who works on these scores by watching bits of the film and coming up with ideas.
Before he even saw the film, John asked ‘What does this feel like to you? How would you describe the score?’ I said ‘dark, rhythmic, percussive, and driving.’ He replied ‘Great! That’s the type of music I make.’ He asked ‘Is there a film of mine you would point to?’ for reference and I said ‘Christine.’
He worked on some scores and then on the weekends we’d spend time on a Zoom call going through the footage and the score. It was amazing to see him work and to listen to the score come together.