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'Firestarter' screenwriter on making a very intimate (but fiery) Stephen King adaptation

The writer and two stars of the new film talk about what makes this Firestarter so hot. 

Firestarter PRESS

The threat of being burned alive is, of course, scary. But, of course, that’s not enough for Stephen King. His 1980 book Firestarter — adapted into a 1984 film and again in a new movie out in theaters and on Peacock next week — is about a young girl who has pyrokinetic powers. The adult fear that makes Firestarter so scary isn’t the flames, but who is causing them, and how this unwanted gift wreaks havoc on the lives of the girl and her parents who love her. 

The basic premise of the new Firestarter, directed by Kieth Thomas (The Vigil), is the same as the book and old movie. Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a young girl, has dangerous but uncontrollable powers that are a result of experiments her parents participated in without knowing their true impact. The government agency behind the experiments discovers Charlie after a flare-up (literally), and her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) dies in an attempt to capture her. Now, Charlie and her dad, Andy (Zac Efron), are on the run. 

However, that’s really just the start of King’s story — the middle, actually, since it begins in medias res after Vicky’s already died — and there are a lot more complications. Screenwriter Scott Teems tells SYFY WIRE that he wanted to do something a little different for this new adaptation — and the fact that the ‘84 film was already quite faithful to the book gave him the liberty to do so. 

“I didn’t feel beholden to the structure of the book or the specifics of the story [King] had told. So that allowed me to make it more personal,” Teems explains, saying he steered closer to what would be the core of the story, the father-daughter relationship. “I just zeroed in on that. And the dissolution of a family. The original book and original movie begin with father and daughter on the run. They begin with the family already destroyed. But I wanted to create the family unit, so that when it was dissolved and broken apart by these folks who were after them, you’d feel that more emotionally than if you met Andy and Charlie already on the road.”

Though Charlie’s mother still meets an untimely end, Lemmon (who jokes that her dad, a huge King fan, was “the proudest of me he’s been in my life” when she got the role) and Effron make it clear that their characters love their daughter and will go to extremes to protect her. It is — and I’m writing this as a new parent of a daughter — upsetting. 

“There’s a fear that, I think, is innate, that’s very very much wrapped up into this story,” Lemmon says. “It’s a primal fear, it’s primitive, it’s older than sand, and it’s the dread of looking after your loved ones and not knowing if they’re safe or will ever be safe.” 

Charlie’s parents are terrified for her — and, perhaps a little bit, of her. In one memorable scene, Charlie accidentally ignites Vicky’s arms while lashing out, horribly burning her mother. 

“It was me, baby!” Lemmon says of the fiery stunt. “When I got [to the set], Daryl Patchett, who was the stunt coordinator, and Keith were like ‘we’re using real fire. Are you ready?’"

"I didn’t think I would be lit up. I will tell you that,” Lemmon admits, after praising the team and the body double who was also set ablaze. “It was a very intense process. Very scary but rewarding, because it looks very good.”

Despite the roaring flames, Firestarter is a fairly constrained movie. It was filmed under strict COVID precautions in the summer of 2021, and Teems, who wasn’t able to be on set due to the restrictions, says the unique shooting environment probably pared down the movie a little bit. 

“There were still so many questions about what theaters would look like, what the industry would look like, and what the market might be for a movie like this,” he says, though he is quick to stress that the changes — especially to the story — were negligible.  

“It was always pretty intimate,” he says. “The key to a good adaptation is finding the heart of the story, what the story’s really about, and staying true to that. To me, it was always this father-daughter story, a father trying to protect his child. And if I could tell that story, and maintain that as the heartbeat of the tale, then that would be Firestarter to me.”

Firestarter

There were, perhaps, some small upsides.

Kurtwood Smith, of Robocop fame, has a small but crucial role in the film. He plays Dr. Joseph Wanless, the man who oversaw the experiments that led to Charlie’s powers. While we hear him in a voiceover during the backstory-heavy opening credits, he’s only on screen in one scene. Now seemingly institutionalized, he tells Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), the person now heading up the hunt for Charlie, that she has no idea what she’s dealing with. 

“I’ve never come into a movie quite this way where I had to sit at a hotel for 14 days before I could work. I wasn’t allowed out of the room I was in at all, I couldn’t even go in the hallway,” Smith says, explaining that the fortnight gave him time to really flesh out Dr. Wanless’ whole life story despite his limited screentime. 

“What happened to him was the result of his ego and what he’s confronted with for the rest of his life. He’s trying to correct his huge error,” he says. “[Now], he’s confronted with other people trying to protect their own egos. It was nice to have stuff to build an extensive background for a character that’s really only on screen for a couple of minutes. By the time we get to where he is in the movie, he would so quickly and eager — not because he’d enjoy it but because he feels it needs to be done — he would just put a bullet in [Charlie’s] head,” Smith continues. “Just like 'Boom.' That’s all he thinks about, that he would do it or that somebody must do it.”

But, of course, Charlie’s protective and telepathic dad — not to mention her own considerable pyrokinetic powers — are going to make that easier said than done. 

Firestarter premieres in theaters and on Peacock on May 13. 

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