Wildfires are a far too common occurrence, destroying property and taking lives in the U.S. and abroad, and Peter Facinelli hopes his latest film On Fire will put a more personal spin on the disasters so viewers start thinking about how they could be mitigated.
“It’s meant to be a white knuckling kind of ride that gives you hope and, in the end, also celebrates the heroes that are putting their lives on the line all the time,” Facinelli tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that he hopes the film raises awareness about the increasing frequency of deadly wildfires, like the one that devastated Lahaina in August. “October is Fire Prevention Month, and there are ways to protect your home, but these fires just keep happening and it’s time to think about what we could do about it.”
On Fire was directed by Nick Lyon and Facinelli, and was co-written by Lyon and Ron Peer. The film, which opened in theaters on Sept. 29, centers on a family living in a remote area of Northern California that is struggling to get to safety amid a wildfire that unexpectedly changed course, heading straight for their home. Facinelli stars as Dave Laughlin, along with Fional Dourif as his pregnant wife, Sarah, Asher Angel as their teenage son, and Lance Henriksen as Dave’s ailing father.
“One of the things this film shows is just how fast it happens,” Facinelli says. “People think they might have time, or it’s not going to come this way, and then the wind picks up and all of a sudden it happens fast. [Dave] decided to wait and go to the hardware store and come back and by then it was too late.”
On Fire is being distributed by Cineverse, which made an interim agreement with SAG-AFTRA that allows the cast to promote the project. Facinelli, who recently raised $30,000 for Maui fire relief on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy, spoke with THR via Zoom about unexpectedly stepping up to co-direct the project, the film’s multiple messages, and why he’s trying to correct misconceptions about the interim agreements.
What made you want to take on this project?
Seeing all the fires in the papers, it hit home to me when I read this script. I liked it that it focused on one family that was going through this harrowing experience because you feel like a fly on the wall. This gives an in-depth look at what it is like to be fighting for your life within those fires. Also, our mission was to give hope and to give tribute to the firemen and first responders for their heroism. So that combination of things drew me to this project and I wanted to get that message out, as well as [giving people] pause to think about how we can prevent these fires.
How would you describe the story that you’re telling in this movie without giving too much away?
It’s a suspenseful survival film. Watching this family work together and grow together to overcome this horrible evening of tragedy, and the lessons they learn along the way. There’s a moment where — I don’t want to give away too much, but they do lose their house at one point — there’s a line where the dad says “Things can be replaced, but people can’t.” It’s a reminder that as devastating as it is to lose a home, people are dying in these fires too. At the end of the movie, there’s a message of hope and rebuilding. There are a lot of mini messages in this movie, and then there’s a big overarching, grander message, but at the end of the day it’s meant to be a suspenseful ride.
In real life, you have a one-year-old child. Your character’s wife is pregnant. What that part of the story like for you, because I imagine the timeline had to be pretty similar?
My fiancée was pregnant at the same time I was making this movie. One of the things I think is a great message in this film is Fiona so strong. She’s eight months pregnant, and she’s carrying the baby, and she’s hustling and moving. There’s a moment where all is lost for her and she still musters up the courage and the strength to keep going. That was really wonderful to watch. What I really liked about these characters is it wasn’t like the dad is just there to save the day. Each member of the family has a heroic moment in the film. They’re all working together. But I remember filming it thinking this hits home. This could be me on the run, fighting for my family and fighting for my life and fighting for my newborn to come’s life. So, yeah, I used all of that while we were filming.
When you think back about filming, what memories from set jump out to you?
We worked really hard to make sure that it was safe for everybody because, when you’re making a movie like this, last thing you want to do is be the one that starts a fire within a fire movie. We used a lot of flame bars and CGI. There was one scene where we had to light a stunt person on fire, which was very controlled, and that’s a scary night. Someone’s going to be on fire. I was directing that night too. Making sure that person is safe, and making sure we rehearse it enough times, is important. Thankfully it went off really well, and then everyone was clapping for the stuntman. It’s an exciting moment in the movie.
When I came on, I was meant to just be an actor on the film. Then the director got COVID and I was asked to finish because we’re an independent film. We couldn’t afford to shut down and stop. We decided to share credit and I feel like we worked really hard to put the best movie we could on screen.
It’s challenging to direct yourself when you’re anticipating it, but then to have to do that spontaneously, what was that like?
I’ve directed before, I’ve produced, I’ve written and I’ve acted. So wherever I feel like I’m most needed is where I jump in. The movie I directed before this I purposely took a smaller role. I wanted to make sure I focused on directing. In this one, I was actually playing the lead. If they had come to me in the beginning and said, “Do you want to be the lead and direct it?” I would’ve thought it was too much. When you’re forced to jump in and do it, you really don’t have time to overthink it. I realized this is something I actually could do. I could direct and be the lead in something if I needed to.
I felt like in a lot of ways it helped me as an actor. When you’re directing, you’re focused on what you need for the scene. When you’re acting, you’re focused on your role and you’re sitting there going, “I hope the director likes what I did in this take.” There’s always a part of you that wants to be patted on the back. When I was acting and directing, there was nobody to look to for approval. I just knew I had to get what I needed. I was [using] two parts of my brain. All of my focus when I was acting was always on the other actors, trying to give as much as I can to get what I needed [from them] as the director, and then all of a sudden you’re just giving so much more color and feeling. In a weird way, it made me better in the scenes because I was so much more focused on their stuff instead of mine.
After Twilight, you decided to re-evaluate taking jobs too far from home. How did you arrive at that decision and how did it change your career?
There was a moment where I just didn’t want to take jobs that would take me away from my family. I remember getting offered a TV series and it was in Chicago and my kids were all settled here in school. The more I said no, the more money they seemed to keep throwing at me. My agents were not happy that I kept saying no. But I thought, look, the best case scenario when you’re an actor is that the show goes seven or eight years. If it’s a successful run and I’m doing 22 episodes in Chicago — not seeing my kids for 10 months out of the year, or seeing them sporadically — by the time I finish that job my kids will all be older and I won’t have spent time with them. I’d have missed their whole lives. I really started focusing in on projects that felt creatively challenging, but didn’t take me away from home for too long.
Now the kids are all older and I could travel. So now wherever the job is is great. I could take my one-year-old son and go. But, when my kids were in grade school, I just didn’t want to travel for long periods of time. There were jobs that turned down and I don’t regret it. I’ve done some fantastic projects that I’ve loved. The litmus test for me has always been am I going to be excited on my way to work in the morning? If I could say yes to that, then I’ll do the job because at the end of the day you can’t control anything else. You can’t control if that project is successful or not successful. On the ride to work, if I’m excited, then I know that I did the right thing by picking that job.
Because of the film receiving an interim agreement, you’re in the minority of actors who can talk about their work amid the SAG-AFTRA strike. What’s it like to have a movie release during all of this?
It is a confusing time for a lot of people, and it’s a sad time for a lot of people. I have a lot of friends that are losing homes or being evicted, not just actors. It’s a trickle down effect and there’s a lot of collateral damage that’s happening. I think we got off on the wrong foot with the interim agreements. They were calling them waivers, and I hate when people say “waivers” because it sounds like we’re getting around something and it’s just not true. The interim agreements are a positive thing. The interim agreements are giving us everything we are asking for. So when someone signs that, like the producers of my film On Fire, I want to support them because they’re supporting me and they’re supporting us as actors.
They could have released this movie under the old contract and said, “No, you don’t have to do press,” but that would’ve affected the theatrical release. And then they could have released it to Netflix or another streamer. Now that they’ve signed [the interim agreement], they’re taking a risk. Streamers can’t pick this movie up unless they abide by the agreement that they don’t want to sign. So the more that we as artists and actors and independent filmmakers can go out and make great stuff and celebrate that we’re making that under the new interim agreements, then it puts pressure on the AMPTP because they’re not getting the content but we’re still making it. Then their supply starts to dry up and we are creating new supply that’ll go to the places that are in support of our new contracts.
Is there anything else that you especially want people to know right now?
As far as the strike goes, it is important for me that people understand [the interim agreements]. People that did interim agreement movies felt they might not look like they were supporting their union. We are standing in solidarity with our union and sending the message that if these smaller independent films are signing these agreements they’re not unreasonable asks.
Helping to change that message is important because if we’re able to carve out these movies under the interim agreements, then we’re minimizing collateral damage. We’re putting agents to work, managers to work, PR people to work. We’re putting IATSE members to work, crew members to work.
I’m all for not promoting studio films. I have one in the can right now and, obviously, if that came out I can’t support that. But these films that are supporting our new contracts are super important. So that’s an important message for me to try to get out there with this film, especially being one of the first that’s being promoted. This is a positive thing to do, a positive thing to promote. It’s a movie with a good message and also it’s a fun ride.
Interview edited for length and clarity.