What if there’s a region of the brain that’s responsible for producing a near-death experience, just like there are regions that cause us to feel anger or to taste a lemon?
The original Flatliners hit the big screen in 1990. An extremely stylized and unsettling film, it immediately struck a nerve with audiences. Now, more than 25 years later, Flatliners returns to the screen in a contemporary reimagining from a screenplay by Ben Ripley and a story by Peter Filardi, and directed by Niels Arden Oplev
“Flatliners is a journey into the unknown – the last unknown, you could say,” says director Niels Arden Oplev, best known for his work as the director of the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the pilot of the acclaimed series “Mr. Robot.” “It’s an outrageous subject, to travel beyond death and have your friends try to bring you back, to explore what’s on the other side.”
In Flatliners, five medical students, obsessed by the mystery of what lies beyond the confines of life, embark on a daring and dangerous experiment: by stopping their hearts for short periods of time, each triggers a near-death experience – giving them a firsthand account of the afterlife. But as their experiments become increasingly perilous, they are each confronted by the sins of their pasts, brought on by the paranormal consequences of trespassing to the other side
Flatliners begins as one medical student – who has her own, carefully guarded motivations – convinces four of her colleagues to embark with her on a dangerous experiment: she wants to stop her heart and experience death for a short period of time, monitoring her brain activity to see if they can find any proof of the afterlife; then, she needs her colleagues to bring her back to life.
What could convince anyone to try something so dangerous? What else but the promise of groundbreaking – and fame-making – results. “Imagine if they found the proof they were looking for: it would be the greatest medical discovery of the century,” says Oplev. “Courtney, played by Ellen Page, appeals to the pressure the other students feel in a cutthroat environment. As one character says: this is not a medical school that is educating country doctors – they are there to push the dial on human knowledge.”
What the medical students find is something they did not expect: having flatlined and faced death, they not only experience what the afterlife might be like – they come back better. “By traveling to the kingdom of death, they come back with enhanced abilities,” says Oplev. “They’re trying to shortcut themselves to greatness. But there’s a bill to be paid for doing that.”
And that bill is steep: as they face their deaths and resurrections, the characters are all forced to confront the regretful actions of their pasts. “All of us, at some point in our lives, have done something we’re either ashamed of or that we regret,” says producer Michael Douglas. As the students in the film face death, he says, it becomes a chance for them to face up to these sins. “As they are haunted by their mistakes, they discover that it’s never too late to try to remedy the past,” he continues.
“They’re confronted with elements from earlier in their lives that they’re not proud of,” adds Oplev. “In essence, they come to a new realization of who they really are.”
To direct the new adaptation, the producers tapped Oplev. “Niels brings a fantastic European author sensibility to a commercial American thriller,” says Safran. “What was important to all of us, and especially to Niels, was that the characters work: he ensured that everything that happens to the characters is rooted in reality, and that their past mistakes and the actions they take to redeem themselves are believable.”
It was also important to Oplev to create a film that stood on its own and spoke to contemporary audiences.
“Of course, it’s a thrilling entertainment, but the subject also has built-in depth to it. We could create a film that has all the good tension and entertainment of a thriller, but also depth, credibility and realism. That’s why I was drawn to this project,” says Oplev.
Mark says it made sense to take a more realistic approach. “Science and technology have changed dramatically over the last quarter century,” says Mark. “We approached this movie in a way that was much more grounded and rooted in medical reality.”
One way that Oplev would ground the thriller was with a commitment to realism. “Flatliners has supernatural elements with fun and scary stuff, but within that, I wanted it to be totally believable,” says Oplev. “When they flatline for the first time, I wanted you to 100% believe that it was really happening.”
Even more importantly, Oplev would ground the film with the strong characters, says Safran. “We wanted to strongly establish the characters early on so that when they experience the supernatural phenomena that occur after they have flatlined, you’re seeing it all through their eyes: you know what they’re going through, you know what they’ve experienced in life, and now you fear for them.”
Says Ripley, “I was in college when the original film came out and I remember thinking it had a very smart premise, so I was intrigued by the idea of a remake. Because the elements were all there – the universal appeal of inquiring into the afterlife, the themes of atonement and redemption – I had the luxury of being able to import a structure that was totally solid. What I did do was update the science, the technology and make the cast much more diverse and competitive, keeping in line with medical schools today.”
Ripley consulted extensively with medical specialists throughout the writing process. “I became interested in the idea of neurology as the driver for the characters’ interest in flatlining,” he explains. “We still don’t really know much about how the brain works; it’s a machine that’s way too complex for us to understand. I began to wonder: what if there’s a region of the brain that’s responsible for producing a near-death experience, just like there are regions that cause us to feel anger or to taste a lemon?”
On numerous occasions throughout the writing process, Ripley was able to accompany a neurologist friend at his work, sitting in on morning presentation meetings and interviewing medical students on neurology rotations. “A lot of that made it into the script,” says Ripley. “We all wanted to keep things as believable as possible, so many of the medical situations you see in the movie are in fact written and executed with a high degree of realism.”
Ellen Page, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her breakout role in Juno, was chosen by the filmmakers to play the role of Courtney, a complicated young woman who convinces her colleagues to follow her in her quest for knowledge of the afterlife.
Page says the project spoke to her on a number of levels. “I was intrigued by the way the film deals with our innate, primal fascination, fear, denial of whatever it is about the inevitable,” says the actress. “The character of Courtney felt like a character I hadn’t really played before. She’s a bit of a mystery and I was interested in the mystery of her – she’s had an extremely difficult, traumatic past, she’s struggling with a horrible guilt and it’s definitely shaped who she is today. To play someone who has been through a lot and to get to explore that was really exciting to me.”
That wide range continues as Page’s character begins her dangerous experiments. “Before she flatlines, she’s very closed off from the intensity of her feelings about her past – she protects herself from those feelings,” says Page. “Right after she flatlines, she has a moment of bliss – that euphoria you feel just after you’ve gone through a difficult time. She cracks open – she starts to feel strength and freedom, but she also starts to tap into everything she’s feeling inside, and her façade starts to unravel.”
To play the role of the intensely private and complex character of Ray, the filmmakers turned to Diego Luna.
Luna, well-known for roles in such films as Y tu Mama Tambien, Milk and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, says he immediately connected with the character. “Ray is a very pragmatic character,” explains Luna. “He’s a guy that is in school for a reason and he doesn’t want to risk that at all. But, at the same time, he’s a doctor and his curiosity gets the better of him, the idea of being part of a project that is so risky intrigues him. Ray has no interest in flatlining, but bringing these people back from death is exciting to him; it makes him feel powerful – he gets hooked. This film is all about playing with fire, playing with something you can’t control.”
Nina Dobrev plays Marlo, a character she says spoke to her immediately upon reading the script. “I listed the pros and cons of the character on two pieces of paper,” says Dobrev. “By the time I finished, I realized there were really no cons – I had just written down so many things I loved about her and her arc throughout the film.”
British actor James Norton plays the fun-loving and charismatic Jamie. “Jamie is a loveable rogue,” says Norton of his character. “He’s not the most serious of students, he likes to party, he likes the girls, he’s full of bravado and confidence and makes no bones about the fact that what he’s really after is recognition – he wants to be a celebrity doctor.”
“There’s a recklessness to his character,” says Oplev. “He’s a trust fund kid, more interested in girls and parties than in medical school. There’s a reason why Courtney chooses him: yeah, I think he’d be the one that would press the button and start the whole thing up.”
Kiersey Clemons, best known for her breakout role in the critically acclaimed Sundance hit Dope, was chosen by the filmmakers to play the role of Sophia.
“I think for Sophia it was always about being the best and the smartest and the top of her class because it was what was expected of her,” says Clemons of her character. “So when she decides to flatline she has this experience of liberation, she’s claimed her own identity by doing something her mom would never want her to do.”
From the very beginning the chemistry and camaraderie between the five actors was strong both on and off screen. “We all got along from the moment we met,” says Dobrev. “Everyone has such a different personality but together it’s like a puzzle – we all kind of fit and everyone brings something new to the table.”
Adds Norton, “In any movie, any performance, the trust involved between a group of actors is immense. You have to open yourself up and within a few days show your soul and become incredibly vulnerable with strangers. And that takes an enormous amount of trust. So it’s no surprise that actors generally become very close very quickly. And that was what happened on this movie, which was great because this movie is all about trust. These characters are literally putting their lives in each other’s hands and saying, ‘Get me back, take me back from death.’ So the fact that we all got on so well, that we all trusted each other off camera meant that the relationships and the stories of our friendships on camera was much easier.”
Following Oplev’s direction to ground the thriller and supernatural elements by making the medical procedures as real as possible, the filmmakers focused on getting it right. “It was important that anything we were exploring in terms of medicine and flatlining be accurate and medically correct,” says executive producer Michael Bederman. “The action had to be believable.”
The filmmakers brought on medical consultant Lindsay Somers to ensure that the material and action be as medically accurate and believable as possible. Before the cameras rolled, and throughout production, Somers worked closely with Oplev and Ripley as well as her network of nurses, radiologists, neurologists and neurosurgeons to try to ensure that every diagnosis was correct and every drug prescribed was the right one, that the actors were carrying their equipment correctly and giving injections and intubations the way a real physician would.
“Right from the beginning, Niels said he wanted medical authenticity in the film, so the first thing I did was to go through the script and bring any medical inaccuracies to his and Ben’s attention,” says Somers. “For instance, in many films and television shows, you see people shocking the flatline, which is completely inaccurate because you can’t shock a flatline. Ben added a scene that explains this to the audience in medically accurate terms by having Kiersey’s character explain that you can’t shock a flatline, that ‘paddles are useless without a heartbeat.’ Obviously, because we’re making a Hollywood film and not a documentary, we took small liberties with some things, but overall we tried to keep it as accurate as possible.”
One area of research, of course, was how long the flatlining sequences should be. “We did research on how long a person could actually be dead – how long your brain could survive without oxygen,” says Oplev. “Most doctors would say it’s about three or four minutes – but it’s actually an individual thing. There are some very interesting examples of people who lived for many minutes and came back under certain circumstances.”
To bring the necessary verisimilitude to their portrayal of third year medical students, Somers put the cast through an intensive course that she describes as “medical boot camp.”
Somers explains, “We started with a bit of theory to help them understand exactly why they were going to do all the actions they were going to do, especially in the flatline scenarios. Like, why does CPR work? What do compressions do to the heart and body? What does administering oxygen do? After that, we worked on skills — I had an ER nurse come in to help me teach them how to do CPR, how to work with IVs and oxygen masks. Then, we began to focus on the flatlining scenes themselves, as these were going to be the most physically intense scenes to shoot and were the biggest concerns for Niels and the actors.”
The cast all agree that the medical training was integral to their performances. “The terminology, theory and using the equipment was a lot to learn and choreograph, but it made it so much more enjoyable to shoot,” says Page. “Having the opportunity to train together made us feel so much more connected and comfortable when we were shooting the flatlining scenes.”
Adds Luna, “Hopefully, doctors will see this film and say ‘Ahh, I see that they did their research.’ It was a lot of work, but I’m very proud of the fact that we all took it as seriously as we did.”