During the pre-production period, the actors worked with Medical Technical Adviser Ruth F. Ekholm, who tutored them on the proper medical procedures for the scenes where the students flatline on the EKG and EEG machines, signaling heart and brain death, respectively. They also took advantage of Screenwriter Peter Filardi's research of published accounts concerning those who had had near-death experiences. Among these people, accident victims nearly all reported positive experiences of a tunnel leading to a beautiful white light and friendly voices. In contrast, people who had attempted suicide had troubled, and emotionally painful near-death experiences.
One of a handful of films in a mini-cycle of Hollywood pictures all released in 1990, that dealt with the theme of after-life and near-death experiences which all got released seven years after Brainstorm (1983). The films include Ghost (1990), Flatliners (1990), and Jacob's Ladder (1990).
Kevin Bacon was cast as the idealistic, yet pragmatic David Labraccio, who provides the voice of reason for the other experimenters, and who tries to right an old wrong committed in his childhood. Joel Schumacher said: "Labraccio is the opposite of Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland). As the movie progresses, everyone becomes dependent on Labraccio, as a kind of center to hold them all together, especially Nelson."
Kiefer Sutherland said of his Nelson Wright character in this movie: "My attraction to the character, was that he had an incredible passion for what he did, and for what he believed, and that kind of conviction is always a very appealing thing to play."
Although they appear to be playing medical students at the same stage of their studies, Kevin Bacon was in fact many years older than the rest of the main cast, which is okay, since a person can go to college at any adult age.
Joel Schumacher was intrigued by the spiritual and horrific aspects of "Flatliners", and enthusiastic about the possibilities of creating a visually exciting film. Schumacher said: "Flatliners (1990) is a story about atonement and forgiveness involving these students who, in a sense, violate the gods and pay a price. I think we would all like to know what's in store for us after we die. There have been thousands of reports from all over the world from those who have encountered 'near death', and most of them have reported pleasant experiences. Our movie, however, is saying that you're not to tamper with death. If there is anything we're supposed to learn about it, it will be revealed when we die."
Julia Roberts said of her Dr. Rachel Mannus character in this film: "All five people in this movie have a different reason for wanting to do this. My character is almost obsessed with the idea of death, and making sure that when you die you're going to a good place." Moreover, Roberts said of the film: "Everybody has experienced loss, and wished they had said something, or done something they didn't get a chance to. This movie is about finding those opportunities".
Rick Bieber said of this movie: "I think this film is going to be very provocative. There's no question that we're dealing with a subject matter that does have religious overtones. From the first moment that we saw the script, we were committed to depicting the story responsibly."
Following a brief period of rehearsals, Joel Schumacher assembled the film's cast and crew in Chicago on October 23, 1989. For two nights, the Museum of Science and Industry was used as the ominous exterior of the Taft Building. For the exterior of the university campus, the production selected the scenic Lake Shore campus of Loyola University.
After two weeks of shooting in more than twelve locations in Chicago, Illinois, the production traveled to Burbank, California, to film on the Burbank studios lot. Principal photography was completed on January 22, 1990.
To bring visual life to Peter Filardi's screenplay, Joel Schumacher, and the Producers, Rick Bieber and Michael Douglas, enlisted Production Designer Eugenio Zanetti, and Director of Photography Jan De Bont. Schumacher said: "I told Eugenio and Jan that I wanted us all to take risks, to create our own world. This isn't a documentary. It's a fable and a fantasy, and in some ways a science fiction movie. So I wanted to surround it with a very visually exciting and interesting world." The intention was to design sets and atmosphere that would symbolically represent man's eternal struggle with death. To invent this world, the collaborative team of Schumacher, De Bont, and Zanetti, all combined a variety of historical architectural styles, such as Greek, Roman, Gothic, and Renaissance, with innovative and dramatic lighting.
The picture was the first film to be produced as part of the three-year exclusive agreement between Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber's Stonebridge Entertainment and Columbia Pictures. The subsequent titles in the three-picture deal were Radio Flyer (1992) and Made in America (1993), with Douglas acting as Executive Producer and Producer respectively.
Rick Bieber and Michael Douglas were impressed with the unique qualities of the "Flatliners" story, which began to evolve in the mind of Peter Filardi after a friend had a near-death experience on the operating table. Filardi said: "I think every writer tries to do something new and fresh, and the idea for 'Flatliners' came about by seeking a new frontier for people of my generation. The West has been done, space has been pretty well charted, and it seemed as though the only frontiers left would come from within ourselves."
Among the many sets constructed on three sound stages at the Burbank studios, was the interior of the university's Taft Building, a huge, elaborate structure that contained an ornate hallway, and the dog lab in which the five students conduct their experiments. Joel Schumacher, Jan De Bont, and Eugenio Zanetti, all created a Gothically stylized atmosphere in the lab, by incorporating ominous lighting beneath an iron-grid floor, all to evoke images of the underworld, while angels and guardians above the columns suggest divine protection.
Oliver Platt, who plays Randy Steckle, uses his ever-present tape recorder to keep a self-serving chronicle of the experiment for his book about his life as a doctor. Platt said of his character: "Steckle starts out as the naysayer, but then he becomes a real cheerleader, making lofty statements about the experiment being the conquest of our generation."
Though the movie featured a cast of young American actors, none of them were members of the so-called group of 1980s actors and actresses known as "The Brat Pack", many of whom had starred in Joel Schumacher's earlier picture St. Elmo's Fire (1985).
The movie features the up-tempo rock song "Party Town", which was written and performed by Dave Stewart (David A. Stewart) of rock band Eurythmics fame. Arista Records released the song as the first single on Stewart's debut solo album, and as a music video directed by Joel Schumacher, containing footage from this movie.
Billy Mahoney's (Joshua Rudoy's) death is an in-joke to filmmakers, where the three acts of a story are frequently described as: 1) You put a character in a tree. 2) You throw rocks at him. 3) He somehow gets down from the tree.
When David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) goes to visit Winnie Hicks (Kimberly Scott) to atone for taunting her, he mentions that they both went to S.B. Butler School as kids, to remind her who he was. Peter Filardi included this as a nod to his hometown in southeastern Connecticut, where there is a real S.B. Butler Elementary School, near downtown Mystic, Connecticut.
William Baldwin played Joe Hurley, the handsome lady killer whose sexual conquests come back to haunt him, and who must "face what he has done to the young women who have trusted him" Joel Schumacher said.