Stephen King’s best-selling classic, Firestarter, published in 1980, is celebrated for its complex, character-driven story, which follows a young girl with extraordinary powers who is fleeing a government agency that wants to harness her powers as weapons. The novel was developed into a film in 1984 and starred a young Drew Barrymore, and, now more than 30 years later, when the idea to reimagine it for the 21st century came to producers Jason Blum and Akiva Goldsman, who had previously worked together on the Paranormal Activity films reignited the flames.
Like all reboots, it’s all about timing and while people may have heard about the original Firestarter movie or read the book, a majority of people haven’t seen the movie. This adaptation is an updated version starring some similar and fresh new faces.
For more than a decade, parents Andy (Zac Efron; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; The Greatest Showman) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon; Fear the Walking Dead, Succession) have been on the run, desperate to hide their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong; American Horror Story: Double Feature, The Tomorrow War) from a shadowy federal agency that wants to harness her unprecedented gift for creating fire into a weapon of mass destruction.
In this version from the producers of The Invisible Man, a girl with extraordinary pyrokinetic powers fights to protect her family and herself from sinister forces that seek to capture and control her.
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 Indian, Rutherford Falls) is deployed to hunt down the family and seize Charlie once and for all. Charlie has other plans.
In celebration of the film’s release, we spoke to director Keith Thomas about the movie’s themes, building suspense, how he compares Firestarter to the Alien movies and more.
“I sat down with Jason and the Blumhouse team and we talked about various projects I had written, and at one point, Jason had to step out of the room to take a call,” Thomas says. “Eventually, the door burst back open, and Jason came back in and said, ‘I know what your next movie is. It’s Firestarter.’ And of course, I knew the title and thought it was an awesome idea. So, I read the script on the flight home, and by the time I landed, I knew I wanted to do it.”
As seen in the movie, Thomas has this extraordinary combination of naturalism and genre sense which made Blumhouse such a success today. His ability to create environments where naturalism and genre have to go hand-in-hand is rare and this is further elevated, but every moment (even the fire-y ones) feels grounded and convincing in our reality. This also adds to the tension and uneasiness of the film, which is never forced but always just around the corner.
“[Tension] is something I think a lot about, and I’m really interested in, which is [how] the human mind can come up with something much scarier or more intense than anything we can show you. The longer you can draw out that tension, the more you can make it seem there’s something coming. You get the audience built up, that’s when you have the scare or when you have that moment of reaction. It’s a reflex, it’s a response and it’s actually a release. You build the tension when the scare happens, you get released and you’re relaxed a little bit,” said Thomas.
“I’m much more interested in that moment of building the tension up. For me, it’s like the movie Alien, the less you see it the scarier it is when you start seeing it. [Then] you piece it together, then you’re like, okay, ‘I think, I know what that is.’ I like the mystery of not knowing right,” Thomas continued.
Thomas also had a unique, and unexpected, connection to the story of Firestarter. In the film, Charlie has inherited her powers from her parents, who acquired their own telekinetic powers as the result of top-secret medical experiments that they had participated in years before her birth. “I had a career in drug research before I started filmmaking, and I did clinical research programs just like the one in the story,” Thomas says. “So, I know that world, and it was fun to bring the knowledge that I had from it into the film. “None of the patients in any of my studies developed any telekinetic powers, though.”
At its core, Firestarter is about a family simply trying to survive, and that’s a collective experience all people can all connect with. Even if traditional horror isn’t the audience appeal, this movie is about parents who go to extreme lengths to protect their child, exploring their Mama and Papa Bear instincts. The beauty about his movie is it explores the universal yet personal journey and perils of being a parent.
Through the film’s development process, the producing team was exhilarated to see the themes of King’s novel seamlessly woven into the film. Firestarter, at its core, is about human development, and particularly preadolescence. While the movie doesn’t follow conventional rules of the boundaries between natural and supernatural, it follows a system everyone can recognize.
“I think the most important theme the story explores is how we manage our own pain. In Firestarter, Charlie’s rage can truly kill. And I think the idea of pyrokinesis—that our rage, our love, our fear—can manifest itself physically and, specifically, in the form of fire, is resonant. It’s an extraordinary way to explore how we handle our own despair and suffering.”
Thomas hopes what he’s delivered on the screen is true to the novel and highlights the depth and breadth of King’s storytelling skills, which transcend genre.
“That’s a big one. When we’re 12 years old like Ryan is in this movie and navigating your body changes; you’re trying to figure out who you are, how you relate to everybody else, and its turmoil. How do you release that? What does that look like? Then the other theme is parenthood and how you are as a father. In the case of Zach, how do you be a father, not only to a daughter, said Thomas.
“I’ve got daughters myself and I know what that’s like, but how do you parent a child that is in turmoil and happens to be able to light people’s heads on fire? How do you navigate those waters? For me, I really wanted to speak to these bigger themes of parenthood, of self-discovery, freedom versus protection and what those look like and how we navigate that. [There’s also the] paranoia just [in] the times we’re living in right now. I think people are paranoid about what’s going to happen, where we are going, and I think this story did the script and the book a great job exploring that,” Thomas finished.
To learn more about the movie, check out our full interview with Thomas in the video above.
Universal Pictures’ Firestarter will release on May 13th simultaneously via theatrical release, and on Peacock.