Interview – Keith Thomas, director of ‘Firestarter’

In a new adaptation of Stephen King’s classic thriller, a girl with extraordinary pyrokinetic powers fights to protect her family and herself from sinister forces that seek to capture and control her. For more than a decade, parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) have been on the run, desperate to hide their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) from a shadowy federal agency that wants to harness her unprecedented gift for creating fire into a weapon of mass destruction. Andy has taught Charlie how to defuse her power, which is triggered by anger or pain. But as Charlie turns 11, the fire becomes harder and harder to control. After an incident reveals the family’s location, a mysterious operative (Michael Greyeyes; Wild IndianRutherford Falls) is deployed to hunt down the family and seize Charlie once and for all. Charlie has other plans.

In the lead up to the release of Firestarter (in Australian cinemas May 12), the great team at Universal Pictures gave me the chance to sit down with the film’s director, Keith Thomas (The Vigil) to get his insight on creating dramatic tension, visual effects and other stories he’d love to tell in this universe!

Nick: Mr. Thomas, thank you so much for your time today!

Keith Thomas: Hey! I like all those DVDs and Bluray’s behind you!

Nick: I used to work at a Blockbuster! So the closing down sale help build that collection a fair bit (laughs).

Keith: There you go, that’s how you get the collection going!

Nick: Over the last decade there has been a resurgence in character focused stories in horror films, rather than just the plain old blood, guts and jump scares, and I felt like Firestarter is really driven by Charlie’s story, and it’s definitely something I noticed in The Vigil too! Could you give your point of view as to why horror is immensely more tense when you care about the characters?

Keith: Yeah, for me the most effective horror stories and films in general are when the scares and tension are rooted directly in a character’s perspective or reaction to things. If it’s a story and you’re just walking in the woods and a bear jumps from out of nowhere, sure, it’s scary. The reaction is “Oh my god, the bear is going to eat us”! But, when you spend time with the characters and you realise that one of them raised a bear cub, and now the bear is loose in the world and that’s why it’s going to attack – there’s suddenly a connection, everything comes together and people care. Horror is a great vehicle to tell those sorts of stories because there’s a gut reaction that people love, it’s like a rollercoaster effect. But, you can smuggle all sorts of interesting emotion in there as well!

Nick: I can only imagine how much you need to flex the creative muscle to portray Charlie’s telekinetic powers on screen – what was the process like for you bringing that to life in a visual sense?

Keith: It’s tricky, right! In the book, technically when you think about it, it’s all mental. She just stares at something and it bursts on fire. Which is fun, but it doesn’t quite have the visual dynamic. In some ways, it’s a homage to the original adaptation with the wind effect, but we really wanted to explore, in this version, not that she just thinks and it’s on fire, but more that her emotions get out of control, the heat begins to rise, the air begins to shimmer, things begin to melt and the air is moving around the room. It was a combination of a lot of practical effects with fans and heat guns, and then it’s hand-in-hand with VFX to do the next step.

Nick: Touching more on your visual and aesthetic choices – I loved how you used the opening credits as the backstory for Andy and Vicky and the origin of their powers  and the intense, visceral style in which you showed it. Is that a story you’d like to further explore within this world?

Keith: (laughs) Yeah, I love the ‘Lot 6’ story! A part of that is a big reason why I was drawn to the project. I come from that world! Before I was a filmmaker, I was in clinical research and did drug studies. I know that world and what that’s like. It was always interesting to me that it was the basis of what created Charlie, essentially. It was a nice opportunity to combine those two. The vision of how a drug study could’ve gone wrong and how you can make it as freaky as possible!

Nick: It was freaky, because for me it threw my right into the film! 

Keith: (laughs)

Nick: You had this nice, family-centric moment and then straight into that! I’d love to see that movie!

Keith: I dig it!

Thanks again to Keith and Universal for the chat, and you can check out Firestarter in Australian cinemas from May 12.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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