How 'Flatliners' director Joel Schumacher turned a medical drama into an action movie
Filmmaker Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Falling Down) was in a morbid frame of mind when his agent approached him about directing Flatliners, his 1990 movie about Chicago medical students conducting literally lethal medical experiments to find out if there is life after death.
“Mike Nichols (legendary director of The Graduate) and Cynthia O’Neal (actress) had started an organization called The Crisis Center For Life-Threatening Illness,” says Schumacher. “It was, basically, a program that assisted people with terminal diseases, cancer and then AIDS. They were going to do a weekend which would be all people with AIDS, or HIV, and they could have their families, their loved ones, anyone. It was a wonderful group of people. Doctors, psychiatrists, very uplifting speakers, etcetera. Mike asked if I would film it. So, I got my friends who film commercials and everybody donated their services. As you can imagine, it was very intense. It was three days and three nights, and half the time you’re holding the camera and filming, and crying, and trying to keep focus. There’s a certain point where you must run back to the hotel and get a shower. So, I ran back, and there was an envelope under the door with a note from my agent saying, ‘Read this, they have to have an answer by Monday.’ I called my agent and said, ‘Look, I have five minutes, just tell me what this is about.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s about medical students.’ I said, ‘Is this some soap opera?’ I’m such a little s—. I said, ‘Is this some soap opera about medical students?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s something about death.’ And I said, ‘You have my interest.’ So I read it real fast, and I loved it, and said, ‘Yes’ right away.'”
Schumacher may have loved the script, by Peter Filardi, but he was concerned that audiences might be bored by a movie in which its protagonists repeatedly induce death in each other and then revive them, even with a cast full of young good-looking actors like Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, and up-and-comer Julia Roberts. Schumacher claims the problem was solved by Jan de Bont, the Dutch cinematographer whose credits included Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October, and who would go on to direct Speed and Twister, among other action movies.
“I asked the great Jan de Bont to film it,” says Schumacher, who spoke to EW ahead of a screening of Flatliners at this year’s Cinepocalypse festival in Chicago. “He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Okay, Jan, we’re going to do this, but this is the most non-cinematic script ever written. For about five times, it’s just one actor lying on a table and four other people looking down on them.’ He said, ‘So, we have to shoot this like an action movie!’ And it is. I mean, it is a total director-cinematographer-production designer-costume designer conceit. It was written to be in tiny white rooms in a medical school. Where they do the experiment [in the finished film] is the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago! The set is supposed to be a very old, decrepit part of the hospital with vents with steam coming up, with very ominous statues in the walls. I mean, they would die! It’s the most unsanitary place in the whole world! But it looks good. The movie is a fantasy and I think we had to lift the audience so that they were in a somewhat surreal world. Even the real world in Flatliners is not real.”
Schumacher and de Bont tried to make every scene as visually exciting as possible, even if that meant having Bacon’s character leave his apartment by abseiling down the outside of the building.
“Why is he rappelling instead of using the stairs?” muses Schumacher. “I think I told Kevin, ‘You’re trying to avoid the landlord.’ Then, when he reaches the ground with Kiefer‚ you know how in the fall, when the sun starts to get much lower, there’s a certain time of day where it hits your eyes, at that level, instead of the summer sun which is so high? It’s very autumnal. Okay. Well, Jan, in order to do that — this is his genius — he had these [lights] under the actors. They couldn’t look directly at each other, they were sort of looking to the side. Kiefer said, ‘I’ve never done a close-up where I talk to a lug nut before Joel.’ The whole cast was game, let me tell you.”
Less game? The studio suit tasked with overseeing the movie.
“Next day, I got a call from the beleaguered production executive — the victim, who has to do all the dirty work — who was told to call Joel and tell him, ‘The Film is damaged,'” says Schumacher. “I said, ‘No it’s not.’ And he said, ‘But you know, there’s all these yellow things.’ I said, ‘Please tell your boss, it’s art!'”
Schumacher also credits the film’s producer, Wall Street and Falling Down actor Michael Douglas, for supporting him while he made what would turn out to be a sizable box office hit.
“Michael Douglas, who began his career producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had had so many huge hit movies his stock was so high in Hollywood,” says Schumacher. “Michael and I had been social friends for so long and he backed me all the way. I’m sure that’s why that everybody stayed away from us. We just went on to create more madness! But it all made sense. It wasn’t flotsam and jetsam. It all made sense within the context of Flatliners.”
Flatliners screens June 14 at Cinepocalypse, whose jury is headed by Schumacher this year. More details about the event, which concludes June 20, can be found at the official Cinepocalypse website.
Watch the trailer for Flatliners above.