Introduction to FLATLINERS (1990) delivered at Widescreen Weekend, Picturehouse at Science & Media Museum, Bradford UK – October 13th 2018 (70mm screening). This is the original full-length version which was cut down for the event for time.
With thanks to the BFI Special Collections, the Margaret Herrick Library and the American Film Institute.
This is a screening a long time in the making. I first discovered the existence of this 70mm print within weeks of Widescreen Weekend 2016, had the proposal accepted only to find Sony pictures had withdrawn the film for 2017 in anticipation of the remake, which came out exactly this time last year.
Flatliners was controversial well before it came under the scrutiny of the medical community and those asking whether it should come with a disclaimer against trying the experiments seen in the film at home. At the end of the 1980s producers scrambled for original concepts to counter the backlash towards the trend for sequels, pre-quels, three-quels and beyond. Studios had begun to engage is bidding wars for scripts with a twist. Shane Black was paid 1.5 million dollars for The Last Boy Scout. Joe Eszterhas beat that in weeks, raking in 3 million for Basic Instinct. The trades also noted a return to the theme of the afterlife, predominant in the 40s and echoed by Speilberg’s Always, a remake of A Guy Named Joe(?) and the success of Paramount’s Ghost. Cinefantastique called Flatliners “representative of the bizarre projects that execs are waging megabuck battles to possess.”
The tail end of the “high concept” era embodied by uber-producers like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and Jon Peters and Peter Guber called for tough play, and Flatliners executive producer Scott Rudin found himself one of the most reported on people in Hollywood when he bid via his own production co, against Columbia Pictures, with whom his company already had a deal.
Rudin learned about Flatliners from a Columbia executive and after two weeks of “wrangling” Rudin left Columbia, who kept Flatliners and 3 other projects while Rudin kept 11 with an option to shop any around town if they went into turnaround. Rudin also allegedly bought a script called Renegades (although not the Kiefer Sutherland / Lou Diamond Phillips cop film) while the Writer’s Guild of America strike was on. Varity asked whether Rudin had violated his contract by bidding against Columbia and he forfeited his previous productions for Columbia leaving them with exclusivity. Flatliners reverted to Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber’s Stonebridge Productions who had a three-year, three picture deal themselves. Douglas never commented on the matter.
Columbia had had some poor years and were keen to resolve internal issues and build a good slate for 1990. The concept of Flatliners stood out amongst titles such as Blind Fury, Loose Cannons, Mountains of the Moon and Revenge, directed by another master of Widescreen, the late Tony Scott. Scott’s next film, Days of Thunder, crashed and burned at the box office, arguably sounding the death knell of 80’s high-octane film making.
Peter Filardi was a 26-year-old graduate of Boston University, who was encouraged by friends to move to Los Angeles from Mystic, Connecticut after becoming the veteran of two unproduced spec scripts for Miami Vice and an episode of MacGyver. Surviving on an income from writing TV commercials for telephone sex lines, Filardi started writing Flatliners in 1988 after a late night phone call about a friend who had lain on the operating table technically dead for 90 seconds. Initially reluctant about a full-length screenplay, by 1989 Filardi had devised the hook later saying “I think every writer tries to do something new and fresh and the idea for The Flatliners came about by seeking a new frontier for people of my generation. The west has been done, space has been pretty well chartered and it seemed as if the only frontiers left would come from within ourselves”.
Written while the Irangate scandal was dominating the news, “accountability” was a buzzword that became Flatliners’ overall theme. Drawing further inspiration from a motivational poster at University showing a sports car and all the trimmings with the slogan “Justification for Higher Education”, the demand on his generation to attain material success became another theme: “It’s essentially an adventure movie,” said Filardi, “and it seemed to me that people my age had yet to step out, make a name for themselves. So that was all part of it.” Sending out his finsihied draft to 4 or 5 producers, within a week 10 producers were interested in one week. Bidding started at $10k. Scott Rudin had finally bid $400,000 for it.
Philip Strick observed in the Monthly Film Bulletin that Joel Schumacher’s work concentrates on “small groups precariously poised on the fringes of existence”. Strick draws a likeness to the post-college characters of St. Elmo’s Fire, the film about which writer David Blum originated the term, Brat Pack, a term detested by Schumacher, who felt it pigeonholed the young actors.
Schumacher told the AFI in 1996 that his career strategy had been to look for actors who “haven’t happened yet,” people he as director of mid to low budget films could get. In another interview he said “Producers who have these types of script come to me first since I’m obviously not n the Hoffman/Streep league. But I really love working with young casts and doing stories that affect their audience. Unlike St Elmo’s Fire these students are highly competitive. It takes their near-death experience to soften and bond them. I want to emphasise that this isn’t a monster picture. This time I wanted to reflect the Yuppie experience. These medical students view their dangerous experiments as an easy way to fame and wealth, yet death brings their blind ambition to its knees.”
Kevin Bacon, who turned down the role of Nelson, played by Kiefer Sutherland in favour of the role of David Labraccio, the film’s voice of reason, said at the time Flatliners went into production “nobody really knew who Iulia Roberts was. Pretty Woman wasn’t out.” Pretty Woman turned into 1990’s number 1 film in both the US and UK in 1990 with Ghost at number 2. Schumacher claimed to have had to fight to get Roberts a modest salary on Flatliners, but by it was released Roberts was commanding $2 million a movie. Meanwhile Empire magazine noted that Bacon had 3 pictures out that month speculating that you if you were to “chuck a stick this month and you’re likely to hit a cinema showing a Kevin Bacon movie”.
For Schumacher the film resonated. “There has always been a tradition of the afterlife in drama” he said, referencing the ghost in Hamlet among others. “We’re living closer to death now, AIDS, drugs, terrorism”. Variety likens the action of Flatliners drug experiments and satanic rituals especially in Juxtaposition with the film’s striking Halloween party tableaux. The director had missed the bidding war due to being in London preparing The Phantom of the Opera, then intended as a four hour mini series with Burt Lancaster but which he finally brought to the screen 14 years later with Gerard Butler. When he read Flatliners Schumacher had just come from filming a three day, three night weekend event for people with various stages of HIV and their friends and families at the Centre for Living in New York City. The only A-List Hollywood director of his generation to be openly LGBT, this as a subject close to Schumacher’s heart and after a weekend of discussion about relationships, death, fear of death, amends and the completion of relationships, he signed up for Flatliners before finishing reading the script saying it was the most original he had ever read.
Looking to hundreds of books from The Tibetan Book of the Dead to Phone Calls from the Dead, Schumacher said he was not sure if the brilliant white light frequently reported is “brain tricks”, but thinks we should believe and hope for some sort of life after death. Considering the experiences in film conflict with the euphoria reported in real cases of near-death Schumacher observed that “suicide attempters report horrible experiences, and this is what they Flatliners technically do. We could have had a didactic scene explain that,” he said, “but I don’t think it would have made a better movie. This is science fiction not fact. The medical processes are fact and accurate, but I thought audiences would get bored if we were in little white rooms. The great American universities are so gothic and European. I wanted it to be sexy. I wanted to give it a sharp ironic edge, because if you screw with death it screws you back. The purpose of Flatliners is to give you a visual and visceral experience that you haven’t had before in a movie. What I try and do in making movies is to open up a window and a world, what you take away from it is yours. I’m not an intellectual. I’m not an artist. I’m a pop culture sponge”.
After a brief rehearsal period, principal photography began in Chicago on 23rd October 1989 with a 15 million-dollar budget. 12 Chicago locations were used, including Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus for exteriors. Two nights of shooting saw the Museum of Science and Industry play the Taft building. After Chicago the production moved to three soundstages at Warner Bros in Burbank where an iron grid floor was laid so their images of the underworld could be lit from below. The shoot lasted 57 days, with remaining exteriors shooting on the Columbia lot. Principal photography wrapped on 22nd January 1990.
When Flatliners opened, Alan Jones proclaimed in Starburst “Forget Dick Tracy. Flatliners has the most exciting visual look any film has dared to present this year”. A magnificent example of Schumacher coming into his own as a master of widescreen, Flatliner’s continuous 35 second helicopter shot firmly establishes Kiefer Sutherland as the head of this new group of Lost Children and the comparable themes of Schumacher’s Brat Pack hits. With half a giant head of Mercury, a painting of Prometheus, incurring divine displease by stealing more than his fair share of knowledge amidst a combination of Greek, Roman and Renaissance art the design was either praised as a high concept Hammer flick or dismissed as MTV gothic. In interviews Schumacher enjoyed retelling a question asked of him by a male attendant at a hospital in Miami where he was visiting a friend: “Where was it shot? Rome?”
Considering the idea of four people standing around another person being dead as uncinematic, Schumacher requested Jan De Bont, photographer of Die Hard, and told him to make Flatliners look like an action movie. “Let’s just go for it. Let’s make an opera,” he told production designer Eugenio Zanetti, as respected designer of theatre and opera. “It’s the content shaping my form,” said Schumacher, “not the style. Instead of having Flatliners come across like a special effects film I went for an unusual and distinctive look. Sometimes we’re got 65mm, 35, 16 and 8mm footage going off all at once that makes the journey into death fun and visually fascinating.” Many effects that might have been done using opticals were created in camera by Greg Cannom and Ve Neill who had had great success with these methods on The Lost Boys and Beetlejuice. Quantel Paintbox editor Steve Purcell assembled some rough effects on video and made up some more of his own. Schumacher liked them and transferred them straight to film rather than recreate them. A sequence going into an eye was created using the then state of the art Quantel “Harry” effects compositing system and the Paintbox is still in use. On 35mm Flatliners was the debut of CDS (Cinema Digital Sound).
An economical director with a reputation for bringing in A-List films on time and within modest budgets, Schumacher only storyboards action and effects sequences, preferring to stay spontaneous on set. Rather than shoot multiple options and have long rough assemblies he doesn’t like to cut thing. “You struggle, you shoot all night. And a scene’s just gone. And sometimes they’re good scenes” he told the AFI audience in 1996.
Premiere magazine ran a shot by shot feature on one of Flatliner’s notable night shoots, affectionately dubbed the “Descent into Hell Sequence” by the cast and crew. “The production manager got a little worried,” said Jan De Bont who shot most of the film’s anamorphic Panavision images himself handheld, “He said he’d never had to use so many different colours of gels in any movie he’d ever worked on before.” Nelson’s descent begins on Chicago street dubbed “The Five Corners”. Kiefer Sutherland approaches the audience via a slightly ominous long lens dolly move. Cut to a crane shot as the El Ttrain and a police car screech by, taking us up to a high angle of the Blade Runner-esque cyclists inspired by a near miss for the director in Central Park, as Nelson lights a cigarette. Sutherland had envisaged Nelson as a true academic with a beard and walrus moustache with baggy, patched corduroy clothes. “I’d love to see that,” Schumacher, with whom he has collaborated five times int heir careers, “but not in this movie”. An De Bont loves Kiefer this type of shot: “He’s so good at telling his emotions in big tight close ups without doing a lot” he enthuses.
Cut to the next location as Nelson enters an alley on the same street. The camera goes from 24fps to 30, 36 and then 40 drawing you into his nightmare. Nelson passes vagrants, addicts and a bag lady who has the film’s key line, something Schumacher also insisted really happened to him in Central Park. One camera dollies behind Sutherland with a parallel Steadicam capturing his point of view then turning back in on him.
The City of Chicago wouldn’t let the production start fires near the tracks of the elevated train so when Nelson passes through the golden smoke he emerges at yet another location many blocks away. Murals feature prominently in Schumacher’s aesthetic and interest in environment, and the descent to Hell features one by LA street artist Julian Ingals on one side with the opposite wall covered in polyester film Mylar for blue sheen. Nelson the crosses the haze to another location, a subway many miles away. “He’s cleared that nightmarish alley and he wants to get out of that world so we see him running down the stairs” said De Bont, “but the stairs look strange because they’re blood red”. Contrasted by blue gels over fluorescent lights and a water slicked floor the camera pans to the hind legs of dog, the d/p’s most problematic aspect for this scene. “It was a nightmare. How do you train a dog to move forward like that? We had to do many takes”. When around 4am he says “let’s get a doll” they got the shot. The American Humane Association approved the film, with a representative on set to document the animal’s treatment, noting that the scene was shot in cuts and edited together for the total effect with the dog portraying Champ also unharmed by a lightweight branch dropped from a short height for a shot completed in one take.
After night shoots for the Descent into Hell sequence finished Kiefer still had to complete the sequence at one last location, a 60 foot long tunnel on the railyards side of downtown LA. Despite the nightmarish storyline and images, Julia Roberts enthused that “Joel created such a warm working set that everyone wanted to do their best for him and his vision. I’d make the phone book with Joel”. “When you work with such young stars you get no respect whatsoever” Schumacher told Premiere magazine in an on-set interview where he had found a KICK ME sign stuck to his back, jovially threatening Roberts that he’ll tell the journalist what a raving bitch she is. Kevin Bacon disrupted takes by making Roberts break into her infectious, raucous laugh, making it hard to do serious scenes and shocking the Jesuit fathers of the campus at Loyola.
Flatliners opened on 10th August 1990, the date pushed back as originally slated opposite Arachnophobia. It played in 70mm at the Odeon Westwood, the AMC Century City and Grauman’s Chinese. The premiere at the Chinese theatre was among the events in the summer with press focus on the ill-fated engagement of Sutherland and Roberts, and by the woman passed out at the premiere, although this was unrelated to the film. In the UK Flatliners played on 70mm at the Odeon West End (or Leicester Square Theatre). What we’re about to see may be the same print.
Variety reported on 15 of August 1990 a gross of $10,034,685 for its first three days, a total which rose to $23,017,517 after another week. Legendary distribution executive Jimmy Spitz, who died in 2017, had a reaction of “revelation and pleasure” to the film’s success. The industry credited a “superior marketing campaign” and looked to Columbia’s success for inspiration. Flatliners expanded to over 1,500 screens and was the opening night film of the 1990 Deauville Film Festival where (director) had presented Schumacher with an award for his remake of Cousin Cousine the year before. In Germany it made over 2 million Deutschmark and played in 245 screens. It was also big in the Antipodes, although Empire Magazine stated that no one knew why. The Columbia exec who oversaw Flatliners, Michael Nathanson, was promoted from Executive VP to President of Worldwide Production. The LA Times called it the “hottest movie in town” on “everybody’s favourite subject”. The Episcopalian News said it “may even accomplish some evangelising of its own” and that they had been shaken by the film’s message. Duane Byrne of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “One could service several hundred werewolf movies with the amount of steam that rises from this set.
Flatliners went on to take $65m worldwide. Filardi responded to the “love or hate” critical response by saying “If the movie is pissing people off then it’s pissing them off on a personal level and that’s good”. Joel Schumacher is a filmmaker always willing to take criticism on the chin: “We’re very overpaid, over privileged, overstimulated, overamped,” he said of being a movie director. “The guards at the studio gates aren’t there to keep us in. I think whenever you’re dealing with pop culture you’re always going to get a certain group of critics and audience it doesn’t appeal to. There are people who are attracted to very fine art and not pop art. Sometimes people just go to have a really good time”.
Flatliners 2 was announced in a Variety article by Will Tusher on February 4th 1991, and described as following the “second wave” of students continuing the experiments. The remake never materialised but Columbia had a good year’s slate with, A League of Their Own, Single White Female, and A Few Good Men which featured Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon. 2017’s Flatliners remake featured Kiefer Sutherland but in a different role, with no ties to the original film and disappeared very quickly from screens.
During the filming of Flatliners a San Diego doctor was arrested for faking near death experiences on patients brought in for operations whose hearts he would stop, just like the students in the film. A mild flurry of concern added to the buzz. Schumacher responded to Empire’s question as to whether a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer should be added with what the author described as “a look of complete blankness”. “Well…” Schumacher considered, “Maybe someone insane….” Dr FS Anwar’s piece in Empire noted the accuracy of the procedures but how they were largely unnecessary but “more dramatic” than those that would more likely be followed. Mainly Dr Anwar was impressed by the access the medical students have to state of the art technology at all times, never mind the “almost mythical” heart starting drug Bretylium.
Asked about whether Flatliners contains a deliberate homage to Don’t Look Now, Schumacher explained that the original costume to be worn by a key character was a dark suit, but that this blended into the backgrounds, so a convenient bright item floating around the costume department was picked as it stood out. “But having thought about it a lot,” he went on, “I’m sure it was somewhere in the recesses of my burnt-out brain. Both feature spiritual and physical karma and both feature scaffolding”. Considering the coincidence of Donald Sutherland starring in Nic Roeg’s classic, and his son’s topline credit for Flatliners as just an added irony the self-effacing director of some of the best mainstream movies of three decades calls himself “just a demented old director at work. If you see in my next film a camel going across a desert with a man in white clothes on chances are I’d forgotten I saw Lawrence of Arabia. But you’ll ‘remind me’”