Firestarter Reboot Writer Details Capturing the Voice of Stephen King

For nearly 50 years, Stephen King has been delivering audiences all manner of captivating stories, spanning the worlds of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and drama, inspiring other storytellers to adapt those tales into other mediums. The latest example of this is the new adaptation of Firestarter, a novel that King released in 1980. A film based on the book was released in 1984, with Scott Teems having written this latest incarnation of the iconic story. The inherent challenge with such an effort is finding a way to honor previous versions of the story without merely regurgitating them, while also finding new perspectives that don't deviate too far from expectations. The new Firestarter lands in theaters and on Peacock on May 13th.

The film is described, "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. 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." caught up with Teems to talk his approach to the project, the spirit of Stephen King, and future projects.

(Photo: Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures) Throughout your history as a horror fan, before Firestarter officially moved forward, what was your connection with King? Do you have a favorite memory or movie or story of his?

Scott Teems: The first book I ever read of King's was Different Seasons, and my dad had it when I was a kid. I just picked it off the shelf one day and started reading it, so my intro to King was actually not through the more traditional horror stories, but it was through "Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me" and "Apt Pupil" and "The Breathing Method," which is a horror story. But that was my first intro and it resonated deeply with me. I never became like ... I didn't read all the books. I only read a handful of King before I started working on his material, I've adapted a couple of his stories now, but I was always an admirer and Different Seasons definitely had a place in my heart.

You are obviously no stranger to entering franchises or adapting iconic works, having co-written Halloween Kills, where there might be some pressure on it that doesn't come with a completely unique or original story. How did you feel bringing Firestarter to life compared to something like Halloween? Having that in your background, did that make you feel a little more confident or was Stephen King a whole different ballgame?

It is a whole different ballgame to do King, but the thing for me, what gave me confidence, was that there had already been a movie made and that movie was pretty faithful to the book. I'd say it had the same structure and the same story, especially the first half. It's very faithful to how the book is told non-linearly, all that, and so knowing we already had seen a pretty faithful adaptation, it didn't need to just repeat that.

So that gave me freedom to just try to find a new way to tell the story and it became a more linear story. I wanted to just get deeper into the family unit before it's destroyed. Andy, Vicky, and Charlie, as opposed to just Andy and Charlie on the run, which in the book and the original film, that's the majority of it and you see Vicky in flashbacks. But I wanted to establish the family and spend time with them so that when they're broken apart, it had more emotional impact, one would hope. But I didn't feel the need to be super faithful because they'd already done that previously and that gave me a lot of freedom. 

You're not going to write this movie unless you're passionate about this story, so that passion is going to motivate what you actually put in the script and the dialogue. Were there times where, as you're writing, you actively think, "This feels too similar to the movie that was already made, how can I make this a little bit different?" or was that not even a blip on your radar and you just constantly followed that passion that you have for the story?

I don't think of it that way, because I don't mind it if ... I want it to feel like the book. I want it to be the King story brought to life in a new way, but I don't want to just push away from what's been done before just for the sake of pushing away from that. I really want to just find the truth of the story and find a way in, and, for me, that was the father-daughter relationship.

And any time I'm able to bring in stuff from the story, I gladly did. I mean, there's lots of little pieces and things like, for example, in the opening credits, when we see the flashbacks of the video of them in college, a lot of that's right from the book. And there's moments of homage inside the story, but really it's just following the honest, emotional path of the characters and whenever that could converge with what was written before, great, and if it took its own path, that was fine, too.

I feel like a good adaptation finds the truth, finds the core emotional story, and sticks to that. And that was always, in the book and in this film, hopefully, a father-daughter love and a father trying to protect his daughter both from the outside world and from herself.

Do you try to capture or evoke King's writing or his prose in how you're writing the script or is it more about the core concepts that you want to touch upon and if people draw parallels to his writing, that's up to them?

I think what I try to do is just soak in the book, for lack of a better term. I just spend a lot of time with the source material and I read it several times. And I'm pretty good at picking up an ear. I try to just get the language of King and the way he uses prose in my head, his voice in my head, and then I just write the thing. Sometimes I am trying to channel his voice in a way, I guess, and sometimes just finding my own way through it.

But, like I said, I will often pull pieces of dialogue or description from his book directly into the story whenever I can just to ground it. And it's almost like it's a little bit of a course correction. It guides us, puts us back on the path, and makes sure that we're trying to be true to his voice and his story and the way he tells stories.

This is a lean, mean, 90-minute story. There's no real fat on this story or in this movie. The history, the backstory of a lot of this stuff is intentionally omitted because you don't need it. You're keeping the momentum going. Were there many sequences that you wrote in the script that didn't make their way into the final cut?

Well, over the course of about six years and three directors, there's lots of different things that came in and out of the script. Each director would bring his own vision for it, his own ideas for scenes, stories. I wrote several different ones. Originally there was this prologue of Rainbird in the mountains of Peru, assassinating someone. I ran the gamut. Which was a cool idea, but then it was like, "Oh yeah, we're making a small movie. I forgot about that."

And so every director from Akiva Goldsman to Fatih Akin to Keith Thomas had his own ideas for what it could be, and my job was to ride that wave. So what's cool was the final product had ideas from everyone, really, and a lot of each director's ideas survived and coalesced, and then Keith took that and made it his own vision. But my job was just to keep us on track. Each new set of ideas would come in and I was just trying to keep us on the right track. 

You continue to plunge into franchises that come with a lot of pressure with the story of the new The Exorcist with David Gordon Green. Is there anything you can tease about that, of finding that balance of the greatest horror film of all time, honoring the original, but also updating it for a new generation?

It's a different beast than Halloween because of the way it's revered in a different way. They both are massively successful and massively popular films, but there's something about The Exorcist that, for whatever reason, people look at it a little more like it's more of a "film" as opposed to a "movie," or however you might want to say it. I feel more pressure in The Exorcist, but I also just, end of the day, we all vowed not to tell this story unless we could tell it in a way that we felt honored.

So we were breaking the story and trying to figure it all out well before there was any deal. Before we even tried to make a deal or to figure out the rights and all that, we wanted to be sure we could figure out a story. So that was our early COVID project, is every Friday morning during the beginning of COVID in early 2020 we would meet over Zoom, me and David [Gordon Green] and Danny [McBride], Jason Blum, and we would pitch ideas and we would bounce ideas around and I'd go off and write and David would go off and write and we'd come back together and pitch ideas and spent a couple of months doing that. And then we got this story we were excited about and presented it. So it wasn't until we were really sure ... We didn't want to just do it to do it. We knew it had to be something we all believed in. And we did, we found it.


Firestarter lands in theaters and on Peacock on May 13th.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.