Jan de Bont interview: The man who shot the Nineties from 'Flatliners' to 'Twister'
Jan De Bont is the cinematographer-turned-director who was part of the some of the most iconic movies of the Nineties, from Basic Instinct and Twister to Speed.
To celebrate the 4K UHD release of 1990’s Flatliners, which is out now on Arrow Video, we sat down with the legendary Jan de Bont to talk about some of his greatest hits.
“It’s funny because it was an afterthought,” says Jan de Bont, 78, remembering the meme-tastic flying cow scene from 1996 blockbuster Twister.
“I thought you have to have as bit of relief, give the audience time to breathe.”
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Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton’s bemused faces and witty dialogue seal the moment’s fame, which was made before broadband and social media, but now crops up regularly on the latter.
It’s this mix of dazzling action, practical and CGI effects and wry humour that perhaps best sums up the Dutch cameraman-turned-director’s career, which began with productions in his native Netherlands, before he came to Hollywood and built the looks of such hits as Die Hard, The Hunt for the Red October and Lethal Weapon 3.
Twister was his second turn in the director’s chair following 1994 classic Speed, which became a gigantic hit out of nowhere. “Keanu [Reeves] never brings up Speed,” says de Bont. “He didn’t want to be that movie, he wanted to be seen as a serious stage actor.”
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In fact, Reeves had to be convinced to do some of the film’s stunts himself, mainly by de Bont doing them first to show it wasn’t that dangerous.
“You’re totally in control about whether you’re afraid or not,” says the director. He fulfilled his contract by doing the disappointing Keanu-free sequel, but was already more interested in doing other things.
He worked for some time on a Hollywood-ised Godzilla, but was eventually let go from the project when Roland Emmerich became interested in doing it instead. The de Bont version sounds way more fun than what ended up being released in 1998.
“I really wanted to make Godzilla, I wanted it so badly,” he says. “I loved what he was in Japan. I love that it wasn’t so perfect.”
Emmerich’s film became a rainy CGI-fest but de Bont’s creature would have been a little more handmade.
“It was a guy in a suit!” he reveals. “It was so great. The movements, there was something human about it. The guy in the suit was sweating like a pig and he said he was losing two pounds every minute because it was 125lbs and it was rubber… he said he could only do one take at a time.”
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He continues, “We had a really good script and everybody loved it. [But] the reason they got rid of me is because they said my budget was higher than Roland Emmerich. I said that’s impossible because they’re going to use the same effects people as I do and they’re going to charge exactly the same. Because the guy was in the suit, the motions were very different to what a dinosaur would do and that was very attractive to me.”
Getting dropped from Godzilla meant he was able to do Twister though, coming on to the project in the wake of big-time directors like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.
“Initially, it was a question of whether the movie would be made,” he says.
He argued that he would only do it if they could combine computer effects with real ones in-camera, the way Jurassic Park had done so brilliantly with Stan Winston’s animatronic velociraptors.
“We had these gigantic jet engines on tractor trailers. We needed a lot of wind for it to work,” he remembers. “I could not hear a word. [The actors] all had little earphones that you couldn’t see just to understand what was going to happen. They got hit by debris. We always had flying debris in every scene and some actors don’t like that at all. Their hair totally screwed up and wood sticking out.”
One performer who didn’t mind looking a little dishevelled was the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who made an early film appearance as one of the windchasers.
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“We still had to cast that part, we couldn’t find anyone,” says de Bont. “Finally, the casting director said, ‘I think I have one, but I don’t know if he wants to do it. You have to meet him.’ He came in the room, really sloppy, wild hair and totally not interested…then I talked to him and told him it was a really important part in holding the team together.”
Hoffman auditioned with a scene where he’s singing to his team in the truck and the director ended up giving his character Dustin the same clothes as the actor wore to the audition (“because the way he was dressed was very funny).
Of course, Hoffman wasn’t the first actor de Bont had photographed as they blossomed into stardom. In 1990’s Joel Schumacher-directed Flatliners — a film also starring Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Baldwin and Kevin Bacon — the then-cinematographer was there to witness Julia Roberts tranforming from regular thesp to one of the most famous women on the planet following the release of Pretty Woman.
“You kind of can see why that is happening,” he says. “I always operate [the camera] too because if you don’t operate you have no idea what the hell’s going on. When looking at Julia’s face, I could see it’s all in the eyes. That’s the thing that makes her really famous. Every tiny little emotion in her is immediately visible in the eye.”
In the intervening years, there’s been an anodyne Flatliners’ remake, but the original, which follows a group of friends making each other die for a few minutes to see whether there’s an afterlife, still holds up well, both as a fun watch, but also for its position as a Brat Pack-adjacent cultural moment.
“Joel said [he] wanted to film it like an action movie,” says de Bont. “If you make it too extreme, you get taken out of the movie very quickly. Kiefer[‘s character] is slightly more aggressive, so it’s more like handheld camerawork, getting up very close and with Julia, it’s a little bit more distant, a longer lens…Kevin is slightly more realistic…he’s not very sure if it can happen and why you’d risk your life.”
Almost everything was done practically, admits de Bont. “The moment you [shoot against a green screen], you take the actor away from reality immediately. Any actor in front of a green screen cannot act.”
“Plus,” he laughs, “we didn’t have the money!”
Flatliners is out now on 4K UHD from Arrow Video.
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