For his directorial debut, filmmaker Michael Lehmann took on the world of high school comedies with Heathers, the endlessly quotable pitch-black comedy that fearlessly explores the trials and tribulations of the teenage experience. Written by Daniel Waters, Lehmann immediately fell in love with the script from his fellow up-and-comer in Hollywood, and set the wheels in motion to get Heathers into production.
“Dan Waters, who wrote the script, is an amazing screenwriter, and was an acquaintance of mine at the time, and a really good friend of Larry Karaszewski, who was in film school with me at USC. At some point right after I got out of film school, Larry said, ‘You should look at Dan Waters' script. It's really amazing, and he's looking for an agent, and maybe you could help him get one, because I landed an agent coming out of USC with a movie called The Beaver Gets a Boner that I'd made there.”
“So I read Dan's script, and it was amazing. It was unlike anything else I'd ever read. So, I took it to my agent Bobbi Thompson, who read it, and she loved it, too. Then, I was set up to develop projects through New World Pictures, and I brought them a producer named Denise di Novi, who was my friend, and who partnered with me on the stuff I was developing at New World. I brought her Heathers, and we took it to New World, and we were lucky because the executive at New World, a guy named Steve White, really got it. He read the script and he totally got it. He said, ‘I'm going to figure out how we can make this here,’ and that's how that happened.”
“But Dan’s original script was really long; I think it was 200 pages. We talked about it, and he knew he had to make it shorter, so it was up to him to come up with a more manageable length for us to take this and get it made. He understood that, and he did just that.”
According to Lehmann, New World Pictures gave them mostly free rein with Waters’ script, but there was one moment in particular that needed to get changed in order to get the green light.
“New World was pretty on board to make most of what was in there, but we had to change the ending. The ending was too dark for them, and that was a fight that we lost. Originally, Westerburg was supposed to blow up, and there was going to be a prom in Heaven, but Steve White at New World said, ‘I can't make a movie where all these murders happen, and everybody basically just gets killed at the end. We have to make sure that in the movie, as dark as it is, there is at least a message that says you don't go around killing people in high school.’ And he was right."
“Now, this is before people were killing people in high school, and I remember him saying, ‘If one copycat person does a killing like this, it's going to be on us, and we don't want that to happen.’ And of course, we did not want that to happen. So, in hindsight, especially when you look at what’s happening today with high school shootings, I really feel like we did the right thing. Also, New World gave us more opportunities to make the movie the way we wanted it to be made more than anybody else would have, and I have always appreciated that.”
“And you know, getting the tone right on something like this is tough,” Lehmann continued. “If you have murders, and if you have suicides, and if you have all these things happening that would make anybody really deeply uncomfortable, you have to make sure the satire lands and that the humor relieves the tension. So much of Heathers was designed to show ironic situations, to show the difference between what people say and what they do, and it was designed to show the hypocrisy that comes along with authority figures.”
“Dan Waters is very, very funny, too. He’s hilarious as a person and as a writer, and I think he found humor in all that darkness, and it was all poured into the script. It was very hard to execute. We had actors who got it and could do it, and we worked hard to make sure that the tone was right. But I really think that what he wrote was so flat-out funny, and was so insightful in the humor that we had a good starting point.”
When it came time to find his cast for Heathers, Lehmann assembled a quintet of talented young actors who could breathe life into the film’s memorable characters: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, and Shannen Doherty.
“With Veronica, she was written as this super smart character, and you can see that in some of the lines about how smart she is and how self-aware she is, so we needed an actress who could play that and get all the nuance of that. And Winona herself is super bright; that’s just one of her many, many great qualities—she's just terrific. I think she turned 16 before we started shooting, and even though she was young, she just really got everything that was going on in the script. So it's no exaggeration to say that she brought things to the part that I don't think any other young actress of the time could've brought to the screen.
“And with the Heathers, we needed actresses that could tap into these strong personalities, but also, at the same time, you see them suffering. You see them living in conflict. Not so much Heather Chandler, Kim's part, because she disappears early in the film. But the idea is that for all the ways in which these girls are tyrannical and mean and cruel, they also are partly being that way in response to the fact that they all suffer in their lives, and that they take this position of strength because they live with the weakness of having broken families, or being female, which is always more difficult. So even though you're supposed to hate them for what they do, you're also supposed to understand that this is their burden, and I think Kim, Lisanne, and Shannen were all great at tapping into that.”
“With Christian, it was interesting. I don't know what it was exactly that he had, but virtually no other young actor who auditioned for the role—and there were a lot of them—had the qualities that he had. You felt that he perceived things that other people couldn't see, that he had a pain of a different kind. He had a wry sense of humor, but he was also deeply disturbed, and I think he handled all of that very well. Dan wrote some very complicated bits of dialogue for him, but Christian is such a great actor, he was able to pull it off.”
On a visual level, Heathers used a gauzy hyper-pop aesthetic that brightened each frame of the film, further heightening the more surreal aspects of the biting satire in Waters’ script.
“A lot of those elements were already in Dan’s script. The color coding of the three Heathers and Veronica was in the script, and there was a description of JD appearing in a long, black duster coat, so we made sure that we executed in the proper way. The production designer and costume designer, Jon Hutman and Rudy Dillon, they were just super on top of that. They really went with it in a great way.”
“We all worked very closely, too. The thing is when you make movies, there are all these endless meetings and discussions, and things that are put out there, so you’re not always sure how much of those discussions will come through in the end. The good news was, in Jon Hutman's case, he was very young, and he had worked with really great production designers in their art departments, but had never designed a movie on his own. And so he was really intent on doing it right with Heathers, and being very responsible, and being very creative, and he was. He was way on top of everything, and he got it.”
“With Rudy, I don't know if it was her first solo credit as costume designer. I can't remember, but she didn't have a lot of money to work with, and she was really good in finding those ’80s styles that were both ridiculous and also true to the time. Those shoulder pads, and all the crazy outfits, they reflected the styles of the time, but they were a little exaggerated, too, and Rudy was really meticulous about keeping the color pattern consistent.”
When it came time for Heathers’ theatrical release in March 1989, New World Pictures, who primarily specialized in a direct-to-consumer distribution approach, only gave the film a very limited release—35 theaters in its first weekend, to be exact—which meant that Heathers didn’t exactly have a fair shot at lighting up the box office. But despite the odds, the film ended up becoming a huge hit in the markets it played in, earning a staggering $5,064 per screen average (which was more than $1,500 higher than the number one film that weekend, Rain Man).
“The thing is, New World was originally started by Roger Corman as a super low-budget film company, and then Roger sold it to these three guys who ran the company who were basically in business to provide programming for home video. That was their whole thing, and in the mid-’80s, the market for video rentals just started to explode, where there weren't enough movies to put in those video stores. So, these three guys who bought New World from Roger—Larry Kupin, Harry Sloan, and Larry Thompson—were basically looking at what could play in a theater for a week or two so that the movies they wanted to sell on VHS were legitimate theatrical releases. That was really important for the video market at the time.”
“They weren't straight-to-video movies, but they were never designed to be in the theaters for long, either, because nobody ever expected them to perform that well in theaters. And what that meant ultimately was that they didn't have the distribution mechanism in place to really give a movie a big, wide release like the major studios could.”
“In the case of Heathers, we knew that we had a really smart movie on our hands, and Denise di Novi, the producer, told New World this movie could play in the independent film market and the art film world, so we took it to Sundance, which were the early days for Sundance. And our release was based on the fact that the movie was getting these great reviews and all this buzz coming out of Sundance, so they released it in a few major cities—Chicago, L.A., New York, Seattle, and San Francisco—and it did really well in those markets. Back in those days, if a movie went in the theaters, if it was still doing business, it stayed in the theaters. They don't do that so much now and so it played for quite awhile in the bigger cities.”
“But New World went out of business basically the week they released Heathers, and so they were not even paying for advertising. The second week of the movie's release, it was selling out theaters in New York, but there wasn’t even an ad in The New York Times. I went to the head of distribution and asked him why he had a movie that was performing really well in New York, but we didn’t even have an ad in The New York Times. So it could have been better, but now it obviously doesn't matter. If you read about the movie, they always say it didn't perform well at the box office, but it actually did in the cities it played.”
But despite its limited run in cinemas, Heathers continued to connect with audiences once it hit VHS, and eventually made its way onto other home media formats down the line.
“I think we were aware that the movie was doing well on video, but it seems like for years and years now, people still keep finding the movie, even today. I don’t know exactly when we realized we had a cult hit on our hands, but Heathers just became one of those movies that everybody rented, which is great, because the movie would've been forgotten if not for home video.”
“At the time, there was just no way to know if the movie would have any kind of extended life, if kids would get it or if only the people who knew about it when it was first released would remember it. You make something, and you want it to be good, and we were making something that we thought was really pretty funny, and was satirical. We were all very behind it when we made it, but none of us had any idea that, (a), if it would ever really be seen by anybody, and (b), if it would have any life. You never really think about that.”
“But here it is 30 years later, and people are still referencing it and watching it," Lehmann added, "and that’s pretty great because that means you have made some kind of impact on pop culture. In a lot of ways, Heathers influenced a lot of movies, but nobody's made anything quite like it since, so it still holds a pretty good position.”
Stay tuned to Daily Dead all week long for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversary of Heathers, and check here to catch up on all of our special features for "Heathers Week"!