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'Flatliners' Rookie Writer Hits It Big

August 07, 1990|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A rrogant, self-centered, competitive, twenty-something hotshots, five who dared death.

These are the phrases that surface when director Joel Schumacher and first-time screenwriter Peter Filardi talk about "Flatliners," their sci-fi story about after-death experiences opening Friday across the country.

"Flatliners," whose ensemble cast includes Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt, has one of the most unusual plots of the year, one that caused a minor bidding war when the script hit town last year. The movie, released by Columbia Pictures, delves into the lives of five medical students who push the limits of "brain death"--through a semi-real medical experiment--in order to enter an after-death state. The title comes from that moment when a person's vital signs stop registering and, in the movie at least, the adventure begins.

The trick, of course, is to come back to life without brain damage.

"The film is a real paradox," said Filardi, "because it has a life-affirming, upbeat theme and moral to it, yet it's also the darkest film you'll see this summer."

By "life-affirming," Filardi refers to the way the characters resolve their personal demons. And by dark, he means they must first take a "taboo journey" into death.

You don't just come up with a concept like "Flatliners" unless you are somewhat curious about the big questions of Life and Death and, maybe, even a little masochistic. When Filardi and a couple of friends drove out to Los Angeles from Boston, he left behind a fairly secure copywriter's job with a small ad agency. His screen credits? All of two unsold "Miami Vice" scripts that he had done on speculation.

But he carried with him some old-fashioned encouragement from the family back in Mystic, Conn., and a college background in literature and film.

Filardi moved into a West Hollywood apartment and took a job as a writer of commercials for 800-number phone lines. "It was the creme-de-la-creme of late-night schlock," he said, looking back with the amusement of a writer who sold his first script for $400,000.

Looking back further, he remembered that in his first weeks in Los Angeles, he found himself shooting pool one night at Barney's Beanery with . . . Kiefer Sutherland. "But I didn't let on I knew who he was."

Filardi points up another coincidence in the fact that "Flatliners" co-star Julia Roberts came to Hollywood's attention in "Mystic Pizza," a movie about a real-life pizza joint in his home town. ("I've eaten there," he said. "Good pizza.")

Filardi began wondering if he would ever sell a script. "I thought about substitute teaching and began to resign myself mentally to a life of writing and struggling."

But then he sold a screenplay for an episode of TV's "MacGyver," and that, in turn, encouraged him to look for a film subject that would "push frontiers." Filardi recalled that at the time, late 1988, a close friend had a near-death experience from a reaction to medical treatment. His friend's recollections triggered Filardi's thinking about what a person might discover if he survived death.

It was also the time of the last presidential campaign. "The script was written during the Irangate (scandal) and the elections, and it seemed to me and to everyone that the big buzzword around the country was accountability --because there didn't seem to be any . . . not in our lives, not for the politicians. It seemed like wealthy people were getting away with murder."

That led him to conceive of a group of "young, '90s kids who would learn a lesson" by experimenting with death. What they would discover, Filardi decided, would be the "truth of some of the oldest ideas," like honesty and forgiveness.

Filardi said the subject took him back into his own life.

"I was always curious about the metaphysical questions. I was a Protestant growing up, but I declined to join the church at age 13 because I felt I had too many questions still. I took philosophy courses in college and thought that I was really on to something great," the screenwriter recounts. "But then I was disappointed when I found that most philosophies eventually run into the wall of inexperience. Eventually, every (philosophy) can take you up to that wall, and then they ask you to make the leap of faith . . . No matter how logically they get you there . . . they hit that wall."

But, he added, "if you're not willing to make the leap of faith, you're right back where you started.

"When I came upon the idea for 'Flatliners,' it was as if I or the characters had said: 'Wow, finally with today's technology we have the means to go for all the marbles, to give us the answers of life! Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we fit into the universe? Who created us?' "

In the film, Sutherland plays the character that pushes this frontier and convinces his colleagues to go along with the experiment.

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