CS Interview: Heathers’ Michael Lehmann & Daniel Waters discuss cult classic
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the acclaimed dark comedy, ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to catch up with Heathers‘ director Daniel Waters and writer Michael Lehmann to discuss the cult following the film has gathered over the years and the journey to bring the script to life.
Heathers was released in 1988 and was written by Waters and directed by Lehmann. The film starred Winona Rider (Stranger Things), Christian Slater (Mr. Robot), Shannen Doherty (BH90210), Lisanne Falk and Kim Walker. It also spawned a rock musical adaptation which opened Off-Broadway in 2014 and a short-lived TV adaptation on Paramount Network. The original film was a commercial failure, earning only $177,247 in its opening weekend. It has become a cult classic over time and fans still quote lines like, “What’s your damage, Heather?”
Surrounding a high school junior (Ryder) as she teams up with a mysterious newcomer (Slater) to bring down the titular clique, the attempt at bringing the film back to life on the small screen was plagued with controversy as it came at the time of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and had to be delayed. Though it has the cult following, Lehmann did feel “nervous” about aspects of its long-lasting legacy.
“I have gone up and down about it over the years in terms of what I thought its relevance was, and we had a great time making the movie,” Lehmann said. “I’m totally delighted that anybody is even still paying attention at all 30 years later, so that’s all good. When all those high school shootings started happening around the Littleton thing it got me nervous. Not because I thought our movie had anything to do with that, but because I just felt it’s always tricky when there are events that happen that are horrible and indefensible and some people point their fingers at media because they saw it in the movie. But you know, at that time I thought well these guys weren’t copying Heathers, it has nothing to do with what they were doing.”
Despite some of its more risque material for modern society, Lehmann does feel the “humor still plays” and stands by the work “because of all this crazy stuff that is happening in the world, a lot of the satire still plays exactly the way it did 30 years ago.”
While it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles they filled in the original film, both in front of and behind the camera, there were original plans to have Labyrinth‘s Jennifer Connelly star in the lead role.
“Winona’s never let me forgotten it,” Waters said. “I had only seen Winona in this movie Square Dance, where she’s really dressed down, and so I said to Mike, ‘Well, she’s just not hot enough to be Veronica.’ Mike of course went and passed that onto Winona, so she’s obviously hanging that over me, too.”
In addition to Connelly, the original plan was also to try and get A Clockwork Orange‘s Stanley Kubrick to helm the dark comedy.
“When people ask about the origin of Heathers, they always want to hear a story about how I was picked on in high school and how I was writing this from the depths of my soul,” Waters said. “Really I just wanted to make a Stanley Kubrick teen film. This was almost a complete intellectual exercise of stepping back like, ‘Okay, we’ve got John Hughes. John Hughes has covered that side of the waterfront. John was special in giving out the goods. Who’s someone that’s going to look in the dark underbelly and not forget to make you laugh, too? Where’s that movie?’ Instead of waiting around for it, I’m like, I guess I just better write it.”
“I love Stanley Kubrick’s work, he’s one of my absolute favorite directors,” Lehmann said “If I could get one tenth of one percent of his filmmaking abilities into a film, I’d be happy. So you know, I’m sorry for Dan. I really wish he could’ve gotten Stanley Kubrick to direct, I feel really badly for Dan. But yes, I love Kubrick films. They were very influential for me, I still think they’re great. Everybody who makes movies should be looking at all of his work and praying at the altar. But I did look at the training camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket, and weirdly thought that I was going to shoot the cafeteria totally like that.”
Though the film began moving smoothly once Lehmann signed on to direct, there were still a few hurdles the two had to overcome, namely its original ending, which saw Slater’s JD successfully blow up the high school and transition to a surreal prom in Heaven for the final scene. Executives at New World Pictures were prepared to finance the film as long as the ending was changed, which Waters was originally against.
“It was like a three-hour version and it was a much more apocalyptic, darker, nastier ending,” Waters describes. “I would say Veronica’s diary entries were almost Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and she was more willing of a participant, especially in the later deaths, where we have that school yearbook editor who’s just a nice guy in the film and he becomes a raging asshole so he’s got to be killed. It did end with her killing JD, but then at the end deciding she’s going to let the bomb go off anyway and ending with prom in heaven. It had to come down from that and I think a lot of that stuff had to do with just the natural process of let’s make this movie. I’ve come around on the ending. I remember my arms were crossed when the movie came out like ‘That’s not my ending.’ But my brother talks about an ending that I only showed him that could’ve been great where Veronica comes up to Martha Dumptruck and says ‘Hey, you want to hang out tonight?” and she stabs Veronica in the stomach and says ‘Fuck you, Heather.’ Winona’s lying on the ground bleeding saying ‘My name’s not Heather, my name’s not Heather.’ I thought that could be fun too, but the ending we ended up with is the ending that gave the guys who wrote the musical the idea to write it and I love it.”
“I always loved what Dan wrote, but there were some things that were going to be harder to realize budgetarily, and there were some things that were not going to be approved by the people who were making the movie,” Lehmann said. “The prom in heaven at the end would’ve been great, but the guy who ran New World Pictures who was financing the movie and who got it endorsed and was very supportive sat us down in a room and said ‘I won’t make the movie if you don’t change that end.’ We said, ‘Why not?’ and he said. ‘Well you can’t make a movie that deals with the issue of teenage suicide in which essentially the one positive character you identified with kills herself at the end and blows up the school. I won’t do it because as the responsible head of a movie company, all it takes is for one kid to commit suicide after seeing this and I’ve got that hanging on my head forever.’ Dan and I rolled our eyes, we were young, we were like ‘Come on, it’s a movie.’ But he basically drew that line and wasn’t going to let us cross it.”