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Exclusive Interview: “FIRESTARTER” director Keith Thomas on John Carpenter and his other collaborators

Tuesday, May 10, 2022 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Making his first studio feature with FIRESTARTER (opening this Friday from Universal and Blumhouse) after breaking out with indie fright film THE VIGIL, director Keith Thomas brought a few experienced horror hands on board. These ranged from John Carpenter and his musical collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies on the score and Karim Hussain (WE ARE STILL HERE, POSSESSOR) as cinematographer to preteen star Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who despite her young age already has credits including IT: CHAPTER TWO, BLACK WIDOW and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: DOUBLE FEATURE, among others.

On the other hand, FIRESTARTER (scripted by Scott Teems from Stephen King’s novel) also gives former HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL heartthrob Zac Efron his first lead in a horror feature, playing Andy McGee, father of Armstrong’s Charlie. Thomas spoke to RUE MORGUE about his FIRESTARTER team as part of an exclusive interview; you can read more of it in RM issue #206, now on sale.

Did Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s previous credits in IT: CHAPTER TWO and other horror films play into her casting as Charlie in FIRESTARTER?

You know, not really, honestly. I saw her audition before I looked at any of her credits, and was just blown away by it. She was really powerful in that audition. Then after that, I was like, “Oh wait, this is the little girl from IT, the girl under the bleachers.” And she did AMERICAN HORROR STORY right before she came on to shoot FIRESTARTER, so she had that in her back pocket as well. It was a fun coincidence, but no, our decision was made entirely based on her performance skills, and conversations I had with her and her family, figuring out who our Charlie is. Ryan just got it, right from the top. She’s been doing this a long time, which is funny to say considering she’s 12, but she really understands filmmaking, and what it means to be an actor.

Zac Efron is such against-type casting in this movie, so what made him the right actor to play Andy?

Zac and I had conversations pretty early on, and he was attracted to this role because he’d never played a father before, and he was looking at his past career, looking at his future and picking out what roles he wanted to take and what direction he wanted to go. It was exciting to talk to an actor of his caliber about trying something different. He’d never done this kind of genre movie, and it was exciting to see how excited he was about it, the level of interest he had, and the stuff he wanted to push–the areas he wanted to explore that he hadn’t really explored in other roles. Any opportunity like that is thrilling, and I think Zac knocked it out of the park. You’re going to see a performance unlike what you’ve seen before from him; he really slipped into the skin of a father, and his struggles. There are so many layers to his role in terms of fatherhood and being a spouse and being on the run, and having been part of the Lot 6 experiment, and he has powers of his own, let alone the Charlie of it all. Zac is an incredibly fearless, very physical actor, and obviously there are lots of stunts and fire effects, and he was gung ho for all of them. At the same time, he had a very intimate approach to the way he played his relationship with Charlie, in very subtle and powerful and deep ways.

In this film, unlike the 1984 FIRESTARTER movie, you have an indigenous actor, Michael Greyeyes, in the role of John Rainbird, and you also have a gender-switched Captain Hollister played by Gloria Reuben, so can you talk about that casting?

One of the very first decisions, when I met with Blumhouse and we were getting into this, was the Rainbird character. Obviously in the book, he is Native American, and we wanted to be true to that. And finding Michael Greyeyes, an incredibly storied actor–once we started having conversations, he seemed a perfect fit. Michael and I spent a lot of time talking about Rainbird; in the book, there’s some backstory to him, but a lot of mystery as well to what drives him, and what his ultimate goals are. So we talked a lot about who this guy is, where he came from, how he got there, where he sees himself going, and all those conversations developed this fascinating character that Michael fully inhabited. When he was menacing, he was incredibly menacing, and he was able to convey so much with very few words, just glances. Michael’s a dancer, and he has this physicality that is so perfect for the camera. So his Rainbird feels to me like the Rainbird from the book, the one I imagined when I originally read it many, many years ago.

In terms of Captain Hollister, I felt like I had seen this character before. In fact, I’d seen this character too many times, certainly since the ’80s: the military man who’s running things by the book, and doesn’t like mistakes. I wanted to switch that up a bit. Gloria came in and brought to Hollister a much broader perspective on what this character could be. It was the same thing as with Rainbird; it was figuring out where she comes from, how she got there, where she’s going.

The best villains always think they’re doing the right thing; there may be sacrifices along the way, and collateral damage, but what they’re doing, they need to do, either to protect the country, or protect these people over here, or just for the greater good. I find those characters interesting. If the villains think they’re right, and the hero thinks they’re right, you get into some interesting situations. Gloria and I spent a lot of time talking about that, and bringing a much more nuanced approach to the film.

You had horror specialist Karim Hussain on board as cinematographer; what visual approaches did the two of you come up with?

Even though Karim and I didn’t know each other before we worked on FIRESTARTER, it felt like we’d known each other for decades, because we have a lot of the same influences in terms of film and film appreciation. He and I have a shorthand where I can name any obscure movie as a reference; you know, “I want a shot from x, y or z,” and Karim will know exactly what it is. For this film, in terms of the visuals and the tone and the feel, he and I really wanted to go with something that felt vintage, in a way. We talked a lot about Alan Parker, ANGEL HEART in particular. We discussed the color schemes, the tone, the look of those films, and others like AT CLOSE RANGE that utilized certain types of lighting schemes to achieve a very earthy, real yet beautiful and filmic look–yet one that, when things heated up, so to speak, felt very natural and grounded. We also used a lot of Steadicam, a lot of movement, but very controlled and motivated movement, to immerse the audience as much as possible in the film. It was a great collaboration; I’m very happy with the way the film looks, and all the happy accidents along the way that give us a lot of surprising moments.

What led to the decision to have John Carpenter et al. do the music?

I’m still knocking on wood about that! It actually came up early on, in talking with Karim. One of us suggested it, and I said, “It’ll never happen, there’s no way.” I may have mentioned it to Blumhouse at one point, to executive producer Ryan Turek, who was on set with us. I said, “I know it’s never going to happen, but I just want to throw John’s name out there, because you guys worked with him on the HALLOWEEN films.” There’s a history with him and FIRESTARTER [Carpenter was once attached to direct the ’84 movie], and his vibe, in the scores that he does, is definitely very much my own. So I thought, you know what, I’m going to throw it out there.

It wasn’t until we were pretty far along in production that Ryan pulled me aside and said, “Hey, remember that idea about Carpenter? Well, we actually had a conversation, and it looks possible.” Of course, I almost went full SCANNERS on set; my head almost exploded. And as soon as Karim heard, he freaked out as well. Amazingly, it came together, and it was truly a wonderful experience working with John, Cody and Daniel. What John does best is these incredible themes that are haunting, and stick with you. They’re very driving and so propulsive, and this film is full of them. It’s just wall-to-wall, and pretty spectacular.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.