With the thriller Flatliners now playing in North American theaters, last week I landed an exclusive interview with director Niels Arden Oplev. He talked about what it was like helming his first big Hollywood movie, what he learned from test screenings, deleted scenes, if he’d want to release an extended cut on Blu-ray, how the put together his cast, and a lot more. In addition, he revealed why he cut a two minute Kiefer Sutherland scene out of the movie and the way it connected this new Flatliners to the first film.
If you’re not familiar with Flatliners, the film follows a group of young med students who purposefully die and bring each other back to life to experience life after death … without actually dying for real. What they find, instead, is a kind of netherworld that ends up opening a portal into their waking lives that incorporates past tragedies. The movie also stars Ellen Page, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons, Nina Dobrev, and Diego Luna.
Collider: I think this is your first big Hollywood movie. Am I mistaken?
Niels Arden Oplev: Yeah, it’s my first, what you would call, a “Hollywood studio film.” That being said, doing a film for one of the big five, right?
Did you have any preconceived notions about what it would be like to work in the Hollywood system? And how did it actually end up being?
OPLEY: Well, I’ve shot a fairly big independent film in US, in 2012, the one called Dead Man Down. That was an interesting experience, because it was financed by so many bits and pieces that one ended up having so many producers that in the end I couldn’t remember all their names, and so my expectations was going in and doing a film for Sony, that I would be dealing with a lot less people that was trying to influence the film in the direction that they wanted it to go, compared to the vision that I had for the film, so that’s been a much more pleasurable experience.
Of course, shooting in the Hollywood studio system compared to shooting films in Europe, where I have final cut … Here, you have to be a little bit more of a politician and extremely good at explaining and keeping your vision for the film straight and convincing people why that is better than another way for instance.
You also have to … kind of have to be open to let the film be an organic kind of material that can alter in the sense that the good advice that you get during the process, that you can incorporate that into your vision and into the film. So that’s a balance.
One of the things that I’ve found in talking to directors who direct here in Hollywood is that the studios are very interested in the test-screening process and focus groups and incorporating that kind of stuff into the movie-making. When you started showing the movie to friends and family or test screenings, whatever, was there anything that you learned while you were test screening that impacted the finished film?
OPLEY: Yeah, there were certain things, and the funny thing is that I’ve actually used to a lesser extent … but even back in Europe for my films there, I’ve definitely used focus groups and test screenings with questionnaires to try to see does people understand what we think they’re going to understand at this point? Are they confused about something? All of that. It is good tools for finishing a film in the editing table, for making it the best possible film for an audience.
Sometimes, people can have a tendency to hang their hat on … that’s a dangerous expression, I suppose … on any little quote that they can pull out from one person in the audience, you know, that one person said, “I was confused about that”, and then that becomes the argument for changing something.
So it’s kind of like a tool, that you have to tread very carefully with this tool, but once you can see that a lot of people are confused about the same thing, you need to adjust. One of the things that we definitely ran into was a very interesting thing that in the old film and the new film, exactly the same concept, that some of the people that are haunting our characters are dead, and some of them are still alive.
We kind of ran into the question that in the 27 years that has passed between the two films, the rules of scariness has become very rigid in the sense that the audience was saying, “Well wait a minute. How can you be haunted by somebody who isn’t dead? That’s not possible.”
So that definitely altered some of the film, where we were taking more of an effort to show that this might all happen inside their own head. If you are … if you took a drug and started hallucinating, then of course you could get haunted by someone who was not dead, because it’s all in your own head, right?
That was one of the things that we went to a greater extent to open that thought up, saying well this film breaks no film rule. This is a psychological thriller. This is much more character-driven, and the scares are … each of them are anchored in the character, in the past of each character, so it’s not just like crazy things falling from the ceiling or something like that. There’s a specific reason why that fear is there and what the impact … and it could be somebody who has died, because part of it is in fact unaired. So that is a good example of what you’re talking about.