One quickly learns, when interviewing director Niels Arden Oplev, that it is not so much interviewing as it is sitting down and listening to him hold court on a number of topics that range from the existential to the historical to the political. I interviewed Oplev at a press day for Flatliners, and the fifteen minutes I spent with the loquacious Danish director were enough to find me leaving with a profound respect for his natural curiosity and sheer delight in learning about, well, just weird shit.
Flatliners, a remake of Joel Schumacher's 1990 original, follows five medical students who become obsessed with the idea of figuring out what's on the other side of death. Is there an afterlife? Do those who have experienced a near-death experience come back profoundly changed? And can they purposely die and then bring themselves back in order to scientifically map their experiences? It's a heady, trippy concept and one for which the cerebral Oplev is well-suited.
But before #NielsArdenOplev dove fully into the world of feature films, he worked in the world of television. Starting in his native Scandinavia, in recent years he's carved out a niche for himself directing the pilots of a number of U.S. television series, including Mr. Robot, Under the Dome, and Midnight, Texas. So that's where we began.
Movie Pilot: U.S. audiences might be surprised to know you've directed so many pilots for television. Was that by design, or did you just naturally fall into it?
Niels Arden Oplev: Even in Europe, I went back and forth between feature films and starting television series. It became my way of being able to play shootings because film is notoriously difficult to pin down when it starts, whereas the TV business is more like the theater business where you plan productions ahead. So when I was living in Copehagen, I could actually plan: "In the fall, I'm going to shoot that, and then my feature will probably land this summer." It was a great way to be on a set and work with the actors all the time. At first I shot some episodes in Copenhagen and then the Danish Channel 1 asked me to start a TV series that became the first Scandinavian TV series to win an International Emmy and kinda launched Mads Mikkelsen into stardom. I actually ended up starting four Scandinavian TV series, and three of them won International Emmys. So it became kind of my thing to do. I was doing features and then over here I was doing startup TV series, and when I came to America, I continued that. Also, just a lot of good stories have moved to television.
MP: They really have. Is it hard to let go of those projects when you were the one to build that world? Or is there a sense of satisfaction there?
NAO: You move in, you do all these things and work on the concept, you work closely with the writer and producer and you form this thing. And it goes out into the world and then I'm out of it again. There’s a certain good thing about it. It's like running a sprint; it's a short, intense run. Whereas a film it's a long stretch.
MP: You're doing the opposite now with Flatliners, where you're taking someone else's original concept and building off that. Were you a fan of the original?
NAO: I saw the original back in the day. It's very funny because one of my former girlfriends from Denmark, who was a model for Eileen Ford in New York, had a small part in the original Flatliners. She's one of the women that Billy Baldwin has a go with. She's actually the one who realizes he's filming them when they're having sex. So it's kind of funny that there's a whole circle with me in a sense. [laughs]
MP: So this is something of a homecoming for you for your first studio film.
NAO: I was looking for what should be my first studio film and I was looking for something that had more layers to it and was more character-driven. Most studio films are in a more cartoonish universe these days, and when Sony approached me with #Flatliners, I was like, this is an outrageous subject. The whole concept of killing yourself and trying to visit behind death and see what’s there and then relying on your friends to bring you back [laughs] – it’s such a crazy concept. So I find that very attractive.
And also the thing about it is that it was clear to me that I could do a reinterpretation that would be respectful to the old film – I love that Kiefer [Sutherland] is in it because it gives that homage feeling to the old film – but I definitely thought I could reinterpret it, like in the theater world you do with a good play: one director takes it in one direction and another director will take the same material and do a completely new take on it. I thought it would be very interesting to do an ultra-realistic version of this with all the medical stuff being totally on the frontier of what you can do. They (the medical students) start out trying to make a serious scientific experiment.
MP: The cast is also more reflective of today's reality.
NAO: Yes. Being female-driven was a major point for me for wanting to do this film. That makes it so much more our time and mirrors the competitiveness of the environment that they're in; two of the most competitive of them are female. I thought I could make this film an example portrait of the world of today. Young people, the immense pressure they’re under to carve out a career and a life for themselves in this crazy world it has become. I thought Flatliners could cut right down to the time and show that. In ways the film is a metaphor for taking drugs, you try to make a drug that makes you brilliant – there is that element in pop culture. But it's also a real element for young people, taking all kinds of shit to stay awake and study more, they get addicted to it with all the pressure. It's a real thing. So in some ways the flatlining is a metaphor for that, and all the hallucinations. They don't know what's real and not real anymore, which is a feeling I think we all have right now. It's very timely. What news is real, what news is not real? I think we all have a fear for going crazy. Did I dream this or actually do this? The film taps into that; it's a very timely, new version.
MP: Another difference is that it definitely has more of a horror vibe than the original.
NAO: It's more scary. I'm sure the first one was very scary back in the day, but that has changed.
MP: Why do you think horror, particularly horror mixed with other genres, is working so well right now?
NAO: In scary times, in times of great uncertainty, we're getting pounded with scary stuff from reality. I think that we need to sit in a dark room with other people and relieve that energy out of us. By jumping and being scared and holding onto our girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, that brings some of that out. It's a fact that in countries with more repressive sexuality, more repressive religion, horror films do better business. In Catholic countries it's huge. Repressiveness can also come from fear, and I think that people in this world in general have a lot of fear right now. Global warming, nuclear war, you know. Crazy people being our leaders and all of that. So we need that release.
Flatliners is definitely a supernatural #thriller, a psychological thriller, and I think that the scares are more fun scares. They're not blood dripping, head cutting off. All the scares are rooted in something specific to each one of the characters.
MP: You did a lot of research on near-death experiences and the afterlife. Is that something that's always interested you?
NAO: One very interesting thing that happened when I met #BenRipley, who wrote the new version, was that Ben grew up in a family that was very interested in this Swedish spiritualist named Emanuel Swedenborg. He was a mountain engineer who started getting visions in the 17th century and became clairvoyant. He was an advisor to the Swedish queen and he wrote a lot of books, one of which was called Heaven and Hell. Twenty-five years ago, being Danish, I wanted to make a film about it. Max von Sydow was supposed to play him. I shot a short film in Copenhagen with Sydow. It never became a film, but it's a fascinating story. So when I met Ben and I started quoting Swedenborg, Ben nearly fell out of his chair. There's this whole mysticism about, "Does this really exist or does it not?" Of course, we've been talking through all of that.
MP: So what of that in particular did you put into your version of Flatliners?
NAO: In the flatlines, there is a progression. In Courtney's flatline there is almost a ‘70s LSD kind of craziness to it. I totally love that; it's such a thrill ride. It's like in the ‘80s, there was this man named Stanislav Grof, he used to put people in tanks where they would lie in darkness floating in salt water and bring them to this state where they'd be out of body and fly and all of that shit that we read in the ‘80s. It was super fun to try to put that into [the movie] and then suddenly something starts to develop and comes at them, where the flatline takes them. That's nearly like Solaris, under Tarkovsky—the Russian filmmaker—where the planet brings back to you elements hat you are not finished with in your life. I think the film in a fun way taps into that whole conscious level of seeking in that mysticism.
MP: But more grounded.
NAO: [nodding] And then with the medical accuracy, you could kill someone and bring them back. The film is recipe for it. It's very accurate. [laughing] It's probably 97% correct, even down to the point that you can’t shock someone without a heart rhythm. If you shock someone who is flatlining, it's like shocking a dead horse; nothing is going to happen. Of course, the defib is your friend, but it's 15 years old. Now they use pads but we just loved that close contact and we thought, "Well, down in that old bunker hospital, they could have left old equipment."
MP: And yet, the reason they're experiencing these visions, these hauntings, so to speak—it's left very open, a very The Lady or the Tiger explanation.
NAO: [Flatliners] doesn't answer definitively what it is. In my mind it is mostly something that happens inside their own heads. But you could say, well, then when they are dead, why is all of this happening? We definitely bring that up to make the audience think about all of these possibilities. One of the very difficult concepts of this film is that two of the people haunting them are actually still alive, whereas two of them are dead. It would be unrealistic if all of them were dead, if all of our medical students had caused someone to die. And some of their sins had to be "lighter," so to speak, like sending naked pictures out or getting a girl pregnant. So it was a balance of making the audience understand that if things are in your head; you can actually be haunted by someone who isn't actually dead. Because the audience has such rigid rules for these films and we're making a film that challenges all of that. It's actually a quite different take. Flatliners doesn't follow a normal genre and neither did the old one, and that's why it's so thought-provoking.
MB: Do you think that's why the original Flatliners didn't quite achieve the same status as other Brat Pack-era movies?
NAO: Nowadays, the #horror genre is so much more powerful. I actually think that the old Flatliners has a bit of a cult status, whereas something like the other Brat Pack films, they were more mainstream. Flatliners back in the day was more of the oddball. Now I think it's moved more towards the mainstream because we, the audience, has shifted in those twenty-five years. Back then, it was kind of a niche for weird people and now it's shifted.
Flatliners is in theaters on Friday, September 29.