Inspired By One of the Most Tragic Wildfires, Peter Facinelli Directs & Stars in On Fire
Inspired by true and harrowing events, On Fire tells the story of an ordinary man, played by Peter Facinelli, that finds his world suddenly torn apart as devastating wildfires rip through the surrounding countryside. With precious moments ticking by, he must flee with his son, played by Asher Angel, and pregnant wife, played by Fiona Dourif, if they have any hope of surviving the rapid forces of mother nature.
We sat down with Facinelli who not only stars, but also directs. We talked family, faith and survival in this thriller that hits theatres Sept. 29.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. You and I have been able to have opportunity and conversation for the years with The Twilight Saga, many Comic-Cons, which has been really fun — but I’m most excited because not only do you star in On Fire, but you also direct. So talk to me about how this project came to be.
Peter Facinelli: Yeah, originally I got the script and Nick Lyon as the director of the film and writer with Ron Peerman, and I sat down with Nick and we talked about the film and I signed on to be the lead actor to play the character of Dave Laughlin. And it was a movie that was about an issue that is very prevalent in the news, even back then when I read it it was something that I thought this could be something interesting that gives you an inside look at what this harrowing experience could look like for you and your family. A bit of a cautionary tale there.
And then working with Nick, I think he really respected me as a filmmaker. I respected him as a filmmaker and we worked together as we were filming to add layers of themes and takeaways and really focus in on getting the scenes elevated with the dialogue. And then he ended up getting covid, which was really upsetting, because it’s like your captain of the ship is gone. But I think because he believed in me and understood that I really understood his vision of what he was trying to do, he kind of passed the baton onto me and said, “Hey, can you finish the film?” And I did. And then we just took that collaborative spirit into the editing room and carved out the movie that you see. And the co-directing credit became more of a celebration of us, of our collaboration together.
RM: I love that. Just like anything in life, you’re able to kind of find the silver lining within any situation. Obviously it’s universally relatable, especially since we’re kind of still holding our arms around Maui right now. But for Californians especially, I lived through the Cedar Fire in 2003. I lived through the 2007 wildfire firestorms that we had. So it brings up all sorts of emotions for me watching it having been through it, not nearly as intense as those characters. But for you, what were some of the emotions you were feeling while filming?
PF: I mean, all of it. It was a very emotionally demanding part. I think one of the challenges also is for us as actors, and I have to give a lot of credit to Fiona Dourif and Asher Angel and Lance Hendrickson too, is we didn’t use any practical fire when we were filming. So all of it is kind of when that happens, we have to use your imagination a lot. It’s a lot of using your imagination and focus and so when you’re doing those kinds of scenes where you’re pretending something’s there that it’s not, it requires 110% commitment. So to have other actors that you could look into their eyes and you know that they’re feeling it as much as you’re feeling what you guys are creating your imagination, it helps. So we were there for each other.
But yeah, it wasn’t like we were in a green screen studio, but when you’re looking up into the trees and you’re pretending that you’re seeing embers flying or you’re running from a house that’s not on fire, but you have to imagine that it is. And imagine that the fire, you got to feel that fire in your imagination on the back of your necks. That’s where the acting comes in to play. So that was a fun challenge to work on.
And so you’re just feeling all the things that these characters are going through, the frustration, the anger that this is happening. One of the things when the movie starts out, my character’s saddled with stress. You meet him and he’s this dad that’s relatable. He’s got a baby on the way, his son going off to college, he’s trying to figure out how to pay for that. He’s got a new business that might or might not make it. He’s got a dad who’s sick, he’s paying the bills for. And all of those mountainous stresses and pressures become anthills in comparison to when he’s faced with trying to survive the night with his family.
And so watching this family go through this journey and grow together and lean on each other, and also to lean on a higher power to be like, Hey, I believe we’re going to get through this. This is bigger than us. And you have to have that belief was also an important takeaway. So within this banner of this family survival drama that we’ve tried to create a lot of takeaways that people could have and one of those themes being family and the family bond and knowing that you can get through anything because you have each other, that was important to me that kind of make sure that message came across.
RM: I love that because you see them have to work together as a family. You see the fear in his eyes when he’s told he cannot maybe be reunited with them without giving anything away. I mean, my husband and I were definitely shouting back at the screen as to what we would have done.
It’s a thriller in every sense of the word, but then deeper understanding of what does survival looks like? Do I have it within me to dig deeper? Do I trust my son enough to do something or do I still want the control to kind of hand do it all? And that’s where that higher power comes in. So I appreciated seeing that family. What did that look like amongst the three of you as actors in that unit?
PF: Yeah, I feel like we were like that family unit on screen. We were kind of there for each other, especially when, like I talked about, you’re playing these scenes that there’s stuff that’s not there. And so if you and I were imagining that something is there, if you’re not a hundred percent committed, that’s going to bring me out of it. So we have to be there for each other. And so through the journey of this movie as actors, we were there for each other.
And then even at the point where our director got sick and ended up coming to me and asking me to take over because he had covid and we were too far out at sea to go back to port. So he trusted me enough to say, okay, we’ve been working collaboratively together. I know you know what I’m looking for. You’ve directed before and I trust you can do it. And then passing that baton on to me and then becoming somewhat the leader of the family on the bigger aspect kind of was life imitating art and this chaotic moment where you’re running from fires and running and then you’re running a set. So there’s a lot of parallels happening for me and my character. And I just kind of tried to use that stress and added pressure into the role.
But for me, essentially this movie, it’s meant to be a suspenseful ride. It’s based on true events. It’s an inspirational story, but also a cautionary tale. But the core of it to me was always like the family and watching this family grow together, because in these type of movies you have this, usually the patriarch is the hero, and then everybody’s looking at the dad to save them. And the posters, the dad hanging off a building going, follow me, and I’ll save everybody. And then this movie, the dad, just a dad is trying to figure it out. He doesn’t have all the answers. And he leans on his family and his family leans on him. And sometimes when the family can’t go on, they look to him and he musters the courage in them to keep moving forward. And then sometimes they muster the courage in him to keep moving forward. So each one of those characters has a heroic moments.
I think the most heroic in the movie is Fiona Dourif’s character. She’s eight months pregnant, carrying around 30 pounds and running through the woods and fire and smoke, and that takes strength. And then you have my son who’s looking at his parents going, are you guys going to get me out of this and are we going to survive this night? And then he ends up having the heroic moment that helps us. So there’s a beautiful family bond in this journey that you get to witness, and I think that is inspirational.
RM: Absolutely. My father-in-law was a firefighter in New Jersey, in Newark, and we celebrate our first responders because they are so amazing. But to see not only some of the fire response, firefighter response, but then also the 911 dispatch to see what they go through. Are they really being helpful? What is one family making a difference in what family look like? So talk to me a little bit about including a couple other perspectives.
PF: Yeah, I mean, like I said, we had a lot of different takeaways throughout the film and under the umbrella of the suspense film. But one of them at the end was to celebrate firefighters to celebrate their courage and what they do and how they make a difference. But also the 911 operators and first responders who don’t often get a lot of credit, because they’re not the ones running into the building and putting their lives on the line in that way.
But when you watch this film, you realize how courageous and heroic they are. They’re the lifeline on the other end of that phone, and that person’s relying on them, and sometimes they don’t have all the answers, and sometimes they’re doing the best they can, and then sometimes they don’t know what happened to the person on the other line. They have another incoming call coming in, and this movie, the 911 operator is just a young woman who she’s been working for a couple of weeks there in a very sleepy town at the biggest thing that happens is a cat gets caught in a tree and then she all of a sudden becomes the head of this ground zero of this harrowing evening where she’s bombarded with all these calls and just watching her, trying to manage those calls, to manage her emotions, to try to figure out how to best help all these people that shows the amount of stress and pressures that those first responders are under and shows their heroism and courage.
And then we also try to leave off a little bit of hope and regrowth and rebirth at the end of the film, as well as hopefully having a moment of pause at the end of the film where you think, wow, I wouldn’t want that to happen to me or my family, or anybody that I know. So how can we come together as a community and curb these fires that keep on happening? And so hopefully the film, wouldn’t that be nice if we were able to come together to solve this issue? I know we can. The one thing about humanity is when we put our minds to something and we all come together, we can do it.
This timely storyline is inspired by true events from one of Northern California’s most tragic wildfires, On Fire is in theaters beginning Sept 29, 2023