Don't Say a Word - Production Notes

Last Update: 24 September 2001

Novelist Andrew Klavan, who received the Mystery Writers of America's "Edgar" award for best mystery novel of the year, for Don't Say A Word, draws inspiration for his nerve-shattering adventure tales from a variety of sources - even a new-born baby. After his daughter's birth, he would awaken every few hours each night to check on her. "One night," Klavan remembers, "I wondered, 'What if I looked in … and she was gone?'"

From that disturbing thought - representing every parent's nightmare - "the basics of the story unrolled in front of me." Much to the chagrin of his wife, Klavan set the story in his own New York apartment.

When Klavan completed Don't Say A Word, the motion picture rights were grabbed by producers Arnold and Anne Kopelson. One of the industry's most distinguished and successful producers, Arnold Kopelson, a former art and music student, is recognized for his abilities to visualize a film's look, from reading a novel or script. "In my mind, I see the scenes, move the actors around, envision the locations and hear the music."

What Kopelson saw in Klavan's novel led him to risk putting up his own money to option it. "I couldn't turn the pages fast enough," Kopelson recalls. "My skin was crawling and my heart was thumping."

The Kopelsons spent the next two years developing the project independently. It was the beginning of a lengthy process. While the novel was hailed for its relentless pacing and tersely graphic prose, adapting it for the screen presented formidable challenges. Notes screenwriter Anthony Peckham: "The book is a great page-turner, but it's non-linear structure was difficult to translate to the screen."

Peckham and screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly, working separately, opened up the story through various methods: inventing a broken leg for the character of Nathan's wife, Aggie ("justifying her immobility after her daughter is kidnapped," says Peckham); adding the character of a police lieutenant whose investigation of a murder ultimately intersects with Nathan's predicament; enhancing the novel's voyeurism angle (the kidnappers, situated above the Conrad apartment, always have their eye on the bedridden Aggie) and setting the story during the Thanksgiving holiday. The latter provided the foundation for one of the film's key action scenes, which sees Nathan desperately trying to make his way to Elisabeth by going through Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

As development on the project continued through various studio management changes, the Kopelsons remained steadfast in their commitment to and faith in the material. So, too, did another fan of the novel: Michael Douglas, who expressed interest in the project and in the role of Nathan Conrad; in fact, the role was written with Douglas in mind, says Anthony Peckham.

"DON'T SAY A WORD is a thriller in the classic tradition," says Douglas. "Its strength lies in the unexpected qualities of its characters. For example, Nathan Conrad is someone who appears to have everything. Suddenly, what he loves most is taken away from him - and he struggles against a ticking clock to get her back."

Nathan must traverse the worlds of the insane (the fictional Bridgeview Psychiatric Hospital, closely modeled after New York's famed Bellevue Hospital) and the dead (an enormous graveyard), to save his daughter. His journey leads him to undergo radical changes. "Nathan never had to get his hands dirty," notes Patrick Smith Kelly. By the end, he's become like a primal man, determined to get his daughter back at all costs. He's thinking that he'd be better off dead than letting his child be killed."

Nathan, like the classic Hitchcockian hero, finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time - thrust into extreme circumstances beyond his control and forced to reach within himself for the strength to overcome his adversaries. This notion holds strong appeal for director Gary Fleder, and provides a thematic through-line with his previous films. In Fleder's stylish thriller "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," Andy Garcia must save members of his gang from extermination by the mob; in the box-office hit "Kiss the Girls," Ashley Judd, who has been targeted by a killer, must transform herself from victim to hero; and in Fleder's recent science fiction thriller "Imposter," Gary Sinise plays a man who goes off to work one day, only to be forced to go on the run after being accused of being a synthetic version of himself.

Fleder's affinity for the these kinds of stories, as well as his strong visual style - "Gary's a true student of film and a master of his craft," notes Arnold Kopelson - made him an obvious choice to direct DON'T SAY A WORD. Working with co-screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly and the film's consultant, famed forensic psychiatrist Dr. Robert Berger (whom producer Arnold Kopelson had brought on to the project years earlier), Fleder sought to gain a greater understanding of the character of Elisabeth Burrows. "I didn't understand how she'd become a fragmented psychiatric mess," says Fleder. "I looked to Dr. Berger to give us a real person, if you will, an honest pathology of a disturbed, threatened young woman."

Berger also helped Fleder flesh out the evolving dynamic between Nathan and Elisabeth. "Relevant to her mental state is how Nathan might be skilled enough to do for her what no doctor had been able to do: gain her trust," says Fleder. "Berger showed me that one way Nathan might gain her confidence would be by showing her his own vulnerability. By persuading her to help him and his kidnapped child, Nathan is helping Elisabeth help herself. It demonstrated to me that the relationship between Burrows and Conrad could be circular."

This circular relationship is brought out in a pivotal sequence set in a subway station in New York's Chinatown district. There, a decade earlier, Elisabeth had witnessed her father's murder at the hands of the man who has now kidnapped Nathan's daughter. Nathan tells Elisabeth that by facing this event again, she can make peace with it. "She finally confronts the past and in doing so, helps Nathan," notes Fleder. Nathan, while trying to rescue his daughter, is also saving Elisabeth.

The scene is a tour de force of performance (by Michael Douglas and actress Brittany Murphy, who plays Elisabeth), shooting, editing (it is composed of over 250 shots) and sound. Existing in both the past and the present, the scene recreates the events that triggered Elisabeth's illness. "It straddles the line of being neither flashback nor present day," Fleder explains. "It blurs the lines, moving through time and space at that particular moment."

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