Director Nick Lyon has a new 2023 indie disaster film that has opened in theaters across the country, On Fire (Yes! IN theaters). The film concerns a family trapped in a California wildfire trying to make their way to safety. The film stars, Peter Facinelli, Fiona Dourif, Asher Angel, Ashlei Foushee, and Lance Henriksen. Nick has worn many hats as director, writer, cinematographer, and editor for numerous indie action, science fiction, and horror films, predominantly for SYFY and The Asylum.
Thank you so much for talking to me today.
NICK LYON: Thank you for having me.
Sure. I just watched On Fire and really liked it.
It’s a good film, with a family-centric core – no gore, one F-bomb – and a solid cast. I thought the characters were likable and the cast is good. Peter Facinelli, Fiona Dourif, Asher Angel, and Lance Henriksen as the family, they all do solid work, as well as Ashlei Foushee, as their 911 lifeline.
I also appreciate that the film is tight and wastes no time as things rachet up, I really appreciated the lean 80 minute run time. It’s kept at the right scale and always stays focused on the plight of the Laughlin family.
Yeah, I didn’t want the film to outstay it’s welcome. We had a 113-minute version, with a lot more drama, but at the end of the day we’ve got to go faster. I could’ve probably put a few minutes back in, but overall I prefer…
There’s always a director’s cut.
I’d prefer leaner, a little bit leaner. The last film (The Surprise Visit) I did was 86 minutes. We got On Fire down to 80 minutes. Overall, it was just trims. That’s the intent of it. It keeps things moving.
Yeah, I agree. You know I watch a lot of older movies. I’m a big fan of Turner Classic Movies, and I watch a lot of these older, vintage films that are (roughly) 90 minutes and under. They manage to hit every point they need to hit without being overlong, they’re incredibly focused. I’ve always enjoyed watching Lance Henriksen, I’m a longtime fan, and love that his character, George Laughlin, is a kinder, gentler version of his character from his 2020 film, Falling. How did Lance come to be cast in your film.
We were looking for an older actor. When someone suggested him, because I’ve always been a big fan, I suggested him to the casting director. The casting director brought him in, made an offer, and he accepted it. We had one conversation beforehand, I probably shouldn’t say this, he loved the idea that he smokes.
Finally, a character that smokes!”
Was Lance a smoker?
I don’t think it was a dragging factor, but he really let himself go in the character. It was fantastic. I was a little intimidated at first, but Lance the nicest guy in the world. He was so nice. He plays great intimidating characters, but in real life…he’s SO nice.
Have you seen his film, Falling?
I have not seen Falling.
Oh, You’ve got to see that. The relationship in that film between his character and Viggo Mortensen, his son, is similar to what you have between Peter’s Facinelli’s character and Lance in On Fire. It’s more extreme in Falling because Lance’s character is suffering from dementia. Viggo Mortensen’s character is gay, and Lance’s character is racist, homophobic, and a pretty awful person. It’s a tense dynamic.
Oh, I’m gonna watch it.
Do you have Tubi? *I just recently watched Falling on Tubi, and highly recommend it. It’s just a really great performance. Lance is not a very likable guy in that movie. It’s on Tubi right now.
I do have Tubi.
You’re a battle-hardened veteran of SYFY and Asylum movies. One of your collaborators was Ron Peer, who you worked with on The Boy, the Dog, and The Clown, a more family-friendly film. What was the genesis of the script for On Fire? What attracted you to this subject matter of the family escaping a raging wildfire?
Around 2017, I was out camping one summer with my boys, and there’s alway a lot of fires happening. I was thinking, what would happen where we’re at if a fire were to start close by, as there’s one road in (to the area). So it kind of got me going, “that would be horrifying,” and started thinking, “what would I do?” That was kind of the genesis of everything. as far as wanting to do a film with a family in a forest fire. I’d done a lot of films, bigger and smaller. I’ve done RTL (RTL Group, media company) disaster movies in Germany, that were done on a much bigger scale. I’ve had a run of a lot of disaster movies, and I’m quite accustomed to creating atmosphere and mood for them. So okay, maybe I can do this. First, it could be a little expensive and a little difficult, but with a combination of lighting and fog or smoke with some practical fire, I could pull it off. I had a treatment written, and I was advising on another film and these people were looking for a new concept, and I said I’d like to do a forest fire movie, they really liked the idea. I showed them the treatment, and they loved it, then I called Ron. I was in the middle of one film, and it was the middle of summer already, and there’s no way we’re going to shoot this if we don’t get it the script done by November. Because it’s going to start showing and raining, and it needed to be done before Thanksgiving.
Was that November 2022?
We needed to be done by November 22nd. We did a mad race in August to get a script written, and get all the preproduction done. I said, “Ron, here’s the treatment. Can you write the first draft of this in two weeks?” Because I told them (the producers) I can get it to them in two weeks, and Ron delivered the first draft on time in two weeks, and everybody loved it. At the same time, I’d already started doing locations.
Looking for the *right* location, really. The Sierras, Idaho, and Oregon. Then I looked at the accu-weather, and oh boy, it’s gonna be 30 degrees, and probably raining or snowing in these places. Where can I shoot this where it’s still gonna be semi-warm and dry, because you can’t have a forest fire film if there’s a chance of snow. And funny enough, we were seriously looking at going to Idaho. And before we even started shooting, the first snowfall in the middle of October had already occurred. So the move was to go to Texas, to Bastrop, just outside of Austin, which is one of the only areas around there that had pine trees, and they had a huge history of forest fires, there as well. It just made a lot of sense, it was going to be a lot warmer, which you need for a forest fire movie. Because that’s part of the problem is that the forests are getting dry. When it’s hot it becomes very dangerous, I needed that atmosphere. So we started shooting October 28th, and the film was wrapped by November 21st, 2021. A 19-day shoot.
Wow. That’s pretty quick.
I’ve done lower budget action sci-fi, disaster, and zombie films, where you have to learn to move really fast, and still get quality.
Well, I’ve looked at your IMDB credits and you’ve got a lot of that stuff under your belt.
Yeah. It’s a good training ground. And I shot a World War II movie (D-Day: Battle For Omaha Beach) in 10-days. A lot of action and gunfights, a lot of visual FX combinations. I’m quite accustomed to it, and that’s why I felt I could pull this off, because everybody was telling me, “you can’t pull that off.” A four-star movie without a lot of money. I’d called Joe Lawson, a visual FX guy who I’d worked with on a bunch of previous films, and I asked him, “do you think this would work?” And he said, “you know what? Yes.” He started sending me some samples of visual FX, and we developed this idea; use lighting and smoke for the base layer, I only wanted to shoot it at night, Because during the day, it would be a tougher task due to the visibility, distance and depth. Whereas at night, you can obscure everything with smoke and with light, so it looks like a raging forest fire. We were going to use a lot more practical fire on set, and used gels to have people burn. We didn’t, because, but the floor of the forest was about two feet (deep) of pine needles that had decayed and became like sawdust. When we lit up the fire bars, it put off heat, and the ground started smoking. It would have lit the ground on fire. Okay, we’ll have to use less real fire, but then the visual FX enhancement was planned in the whole time anyway. By having the light and the smoke, normally you don’t want smoke if you’re doing visual FX, but in this case it really helped to blend in the actual fire effects to enhance and give it actual flames. and a lot of the bigger shots were mostly all CG, and aerials, and stuff. And then there was an actual forest fire right after we finished shooting. The D.P. went in and got some 2nd unit footage of an actual forest fire, as well.
I’ve got to say, the digital fire VFX were extremely well done (by Lawson Digital). And to a degree, somewhat simlilar to Backdraft, in that the fire seemed like a living, breathing thing, literally chasing the family at one point. I thought it was really good work (on a modest budget).
Yes, it’s a survival/disaster film, but the creature, or the dragon, is the fire.
Or you make a film about an approaching army that’s gonna come and take over the village. The fire is much the in same way. So it is the villain of the film.
Yeah. Exactly. In fact, one of the things I noted about your film. I’ve watched a few disaster movies lately that dealt with fire. One of them was a 1977 Irwin Allen TV movie, Fire! with Ernest Borgnine and Vera Miles. Have you seen that one?
Well, basically it’s a bunch of characters caught up in a fire situation in a forest. All the various characters and their threads and how they intersect. And what’re talking about, what I liked about your film, is you didn’t need the conceit of a human villain to drive the action. Like showing somebody starting the fire, or the family running into looters, or growers, as they flee the fire. Whenever I thought the film might go that way, the script sidestepped it really well. The fire is clearly the villain, and the various situations the fire creates that the Laughlin family have to overcome.
Yeah. The intent was to do that, to make it as real as possible. Show the real struggles of these people, and show what it’s like for them to be affected when their homes are destroyed by fires, that they have to flee the fires. I wanted people to experience that, because then you can understand what’s happening to them, and you remember it. But it’ll help later on, when maybe someone’s in the forest setting off fireworks. You know, maybe this might affect someone several miles away.
Oh yeah, definitely.
Or the Electric Companies, to update their infrastructure. I just wanted to show the effects of fires on real people, and on a normal American who doesn’t have all the money in the world, probably doesn’t have insurance if the fire takes their home. They lose absolutely everything.
And a really important thing I’ve thought about, most natural disasters you can’t so anything about, but forest fires are unlike all the other natural disasters, because we can actually prevent them. 85% of all forest fires are caused by humans. By being aware of these things, we can help prevent and mitigate the growing fire problem, especially as the climate gets dryer and things become more flammable
Right. It’s funny, with all the current concern around the country with the rampant wildfires, and climate change, it’s ironic in your film, an argument about climate change causes a car crash.
It’s kind of a polarizing topic. Was that your intent?
Well, the intent for grumpy old George arguing…it would be real. It would be like, god, this is an argument that people have. It wasn’t an intent to say anything political, but it demonstrates the division between people who believe in climate change, and people who don’t. But I didn’t want anything political, other than these forest fires are happening, and this is what these people are going through. No matter what the cause is, this is what they’re experiencing.
And I’ve known several people, I know seven people who had their houses burned down in forest fires. I asked one friend if he wanted to come and watch this movie, he was like, “dude, I don’t know if I can deal with it. I lost everything.” He doesn’t want to go there, there’s still a little bit of PTSD.
Absolutely. Places like Maui and Paradise, and other California fires. Some of those towns like Paradise were completely destroyed and people lost everything.
One more thing I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned the film was shot in Texas. Bastrop County (and Smithville) Nice that the film was shot in the States, and not someplace like Serbia. I watched a film a while back (Crawl) that substituted someplace like Serbia for Florida (Crawl). Not that there’s anything wrong with Serbia. but I’m sure having a film crew in Texas was probably better for the local economy.
Well, personally, I’ve shot films over in Eastern Europe, and I saw this film recently, a movie with a river, a remake of an old classic, I forget what it’s called…? (The River Wild). I was like, “this doesn’t look like Idaho?” It looks somewhat like Idaho, but it doesn’t. So I looked at the credits, and it was made in Latvia, or someplace like that (Hungary, Bosnia, and Slovakia). Beautiful landscapes, well done film, but it was made over there. Less expensive, I would say, less regulations?
Probably better tax incentives?
That’s why a lot of people shoot over there. I’ve lived in Europe for years, I’ve shot movies overseas, and I’ve shot a lot of movies here in the states in L.A. Personally, for me, it had to be here. I didn’t think and about taking it overseas. I suppose, Canada? A lot of people with a bigger budget can get the incentives and stuff. People do go to Canada for the incentives, you know. It would have made sense to do it in Canada.
I’ve been told your film is getting a theatrical release on 700 screens. It that accurate? If so, congratulations.
Thanks. I was told 700, and I think they’re going to be updating the list of theaters, if you go to the AMC website. there are a lot of screens. I haven’t actually done a count of how many. I’m hoping there’s a theater near me, there’s Universal, and there’s The Grove. I’m waiting to see if it’ll play at The Grove, and I’ve been told the list will be updated on Wednesday. I mean, I can’t really plan anything till I know exactly which theaters. <laughs> There are posters all over the place, people are seeing the trailers…I was out at a movie theater, and there’s a poster. So, it’s a nice surprise, because normally you get a miniature theatrical (run) of 12 theaters. Just to be able to have placement on the video-on-demand programming, on Dish, to say “In theaters now.” And this one is actually, “in theaters now!” So it’s quite a surprise. I almost thought that you can’t do that anymore.
Like four-walling it, in the old days?
I’m very happy with it and surprised that Cineverse is going this big theatrically
This is great news for exhibitors as theaters will be content-starved due to the still ongoing WGA/SAG strike, which I support. (at this time, the WGA portion of the strike is now resolved)
Also, I’ve had some conversations about this, that’s what happening as well, is that the streamers, (Netflix, Amazon, etc) they’re making these massive movies, Right?
They’re putting a lot of money into them and throwing them up on their platforms, and nobody knows what they are. So they’re realizing we need to have a theatrical because otherwise our film might be sitting there right next to a 5-year old film, and the five-year old film is doing just as good as our brand new film we just spent a lot of money on. So, as part of the whole marketing, there is the realization there’s a lot of value in a theatrical release.
Seems sound to me. Do you have a release date for On Fire.
It’s next Friday, the 29th. I’ve found 12 theaters here in L.A. already, and the list is growing. I’ll probably go watch it at the Universal, or if it’s at one of the other theaters around me. It’s kinda neat. I don’t need a red carpet premiere. For me, going to the movies and paying for a ticket is the best red carpet I can get. <laughs>
But the other nice thing is you’ll get to see it with a crowd.
Yeah! It’s different than some screening, you know? Literally, it’s the real thing. And as an indie kind of filmmaker it doesn’t happen very often that you make a movie that makes it to a pretty sizable release in theaters.
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.
One last thing. I’m a soundtrack junkie and I liked Sacha Chabon’s score. It gets triumphant in a good Zimmer-esque way by the end of the film. Is the score going to be available as a download?
You know what? I don’t know? Usually these thing are, it depends on where they go with the film’s release. I don’t know for sure yet, that’s a thing that’ll come later on. Usually that’ll happen, but I haven’t really thought about it. Sorry. <laughs>
I think it probably will though.
What’s coming up for you next, Nick?
I’m going to do a little earthquake movie that I was already signed on for, and then I have another one called The Vessel. It’s an arctic research vessel, action sci-fi thriller. I would describe it maybe as a mix of genres: Species, The Thing…on a ship.
Alright. Well, I’m a sucker for those kinds of movies. I’ll look forward to seeing that.
Yeah. We’re going to try to shoot that in 2024. And as always, we’re always developing new things. I have another smaller thriller that I’m gonna do, as well.
Very cool. Well, I’ve got to run. I’m going to let you go. It’s been great.
Thank you. Thanks so much. It’s been nice talking to you.
It’s been great talking to you again, Nick, and thanks so much for your time.
Thank you, and thanks for watching On Fire, I’m glad you liked it. Hope to talk to you again someday soon.
I will gladly help get the word out. Good luck with the film.
Thanks. Appreciate it.
Greg Espinoza has worked as an artist and writer in comics, gaming, animation, and illustration for more than 40 years, most recently writing retrospective articles for Famous Monsters Of Filmland, and contributing art to The Thing 35th Anniversary Art Book, from Printed In Blood.