When it comes to Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, there are a myriad of reasons why the brutally dark comedy works as well as it does, and has more than earned its cult film status over the last three decades, but probably one of its greatest assets is the film’s razor-sharp script penned by a then up-and-coming screenwriter Daniel Waters (who has gone on to work on scripts for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Hudson Hawk, Demolition Man, and Vampire Academy). And while he had always been fueled by his love of cinema, Waters didn’t initially set out to write screenplays in Hollywood.
“Originally, I wanted to be a film critic because I love movies so much,” Daniel explained. “But what I began to realize was that when it came to the movies that were coming out during the ’80s, I just felt like the movies of the ’70s were much better. Also, I was obsessed with the films of Stanley Kubrick, who directed these completely cold and clinical, but brilliant dark comedies like Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. That got me thinking, ‘What if Stanley made a teen comedy?’”
“At the time, there were all these John Hughes movies, and I enjoyed them, but I can feel them clawing at a glass ceiling, and there was something that was missing. So I decided I wasn’t just writing a movie to write a movie, I'm going to write the teen film of all teen films.”
“And the great thing is, I was so naïve. But there's a power in naiveté. I came in with this grand ambition, and my first draft was a three-hour movie because I had been collecting acorns of things missing from teen films throughout history and wanted to incorporate them into something else. I would just scribble them in a notebook here and there, and then try and find some order to them. So when I actually started sitting down and writing, a lot of the goodies were already there. Like a lot of the plot twists, and a lot of the particular lines were already waiting for me, so it was a lot of fun.”
“People around me have always joked that I never met a tone I didn't like, but I like movies where—and this is especially true with Heathers—you get lulled into thinking you're watching one movie, and then it becomes something else. And then every five minutes you are like, 'Oh, so it's definitely not one of those movies,’ because now the story is headed somewhere else. Plus, you have to have an awareness of the clichés in film so that you can break them down as a writer. For me, the origin of Heathers was not autobiographical. It was not like I did it so I could get back at all the jocks who picked on me, or anything like that. It was about breaking down the representation of teenagers in film and finding all those loopholes here, in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way.”
Once he had nailed down his script for Heathers, Waters wasn’t sure exactly what would happen with it, especially because it contained some rather audacious material and at that time in his career, he was just starting off as a screenwriter.
“Honestly, it all begins with getting one person other than yourself to like the script, and trying to build from there. And when I moved out here to Los Angeles, I was living with someone who has now become a big screenwriter himself, Larry Karazewski, who went to USC. I didn't go to USC, but between Larry and a few other guys I knew who also went to USC, somehow I was able to make this USC connection, and so they gave their scripts to agents that they knew. I had a couple interesting talks with agents who could tell that I could write. But some of them said, ‘Okay, we're going to put Heathers in a drawer over here, and it'll be our little secret because it's just too dark and weird. I finally found an agent, though, that loved the dark and weird aspects to it, and it just so happened that she represented Michael Lehmann, too.”
“She sent the script all around town, and I had all these wonderful meetings with people who would tell me how much they loved the script, but no one wanted to make the movie. Like, the idea of making this movie became this kind of joke after a while, because everyone said there was no way it could ever get made. And that’s when I got a call from Michael. He starts off telling me that there was a lot of interesting stuff in it, but the script was unwieldy and it had a lot of problems. And I was like, ‘Who the f--k is this guy?’ [laughs].”
“But the thing about it was, he had some really great notes and strong ideas. So Michael and I went through the script word by word, figuring out what we needed and what we didn’t. There was this moment of panic I had over cutting all this stuff out, but once I realized there was still a basic engine for this movie, that if we can get that across in the end, then it'll still be a pretty amazing film. And as we were working together, I realized that we were on this inside track to getting this movie actually made, and I found myself part of this filmmaking family, too, between our agent, Michael, and our producer Denise Di Novi, who also had the same agent as us.”
While Heathers boasted a wickedly dark sense of humor that set the stage for so many films that would follow in its extremely stylish footsteps, Waters and Lehmann were able to still infuse a bit of humanity to the film’s titular trio, making the film’s often surreal tone and extremely violent scenarios land in a very thoughtful and relatable way, which was no easy feat.
“I think regardless of whatever tone we were playing with in Heathers, there was always something that we were grappling with, a subject matter that you don’t fully understand all at once, but it was something that we constantly got to grapple with throughout the film. And so, even though Heathers is, at its core, a comedy, there are definitely times where it gets really dark, it gets really serious, and that’s when you have to find a particular balance. But because I am who I am, I'm someone who will throw everything away just for a goofy joke—I just can't help it. And Michael was a perfect director to be able to deal with that because he knew the risks of making a dark comedy about teen suicide, but could still embrace those moments of humor that reside in some very dark places.”
“The thing about it too is that we never treat these serious issues like they’re a joke. We knew that there would be this weight that we would need to carry, but I think we do it well here. To me, when you’re making a dark comedy, you can’t just be dark for dark’s sake. You should be saying something in those moments, and draw real blood, because if these things aren’t coming from a real place, then there’s no weight to them.”
“Like the moment where Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is in the bathroom after hanging out with that gross college guy, and she spits water at herself in the mirror. That was a tough moment because I didn’t want to sit there and think about whether or not giving her that moment of humanity would make it harder for audiences to laugh at her later. I’m not a puppet master, and I'm not trying to tell you how to think, either. But for the comedy and the story to work, there has to be a little bit of flesh and blood to your characters for it to all mean something in the end.”
“There’s also that line that Veronica’s (Winona Ryder) mom says, with how teenagers who complain about never being treated like adults are, in fact, being treated like adults, and guess what? It is unfair and that’s life. That line in particular was a response to all the John Hughes movies, where most of the times, parents are almost caricatures. And I think we start off that way in Heathers, too, but in that moment, Veronica is bringing her problems to her parents, but complaining that they don’t understand her, when maybe they do actually understand it more than she knows. And the truth is that when you’re a teenager, there's so much other shit going on in your life that parents are almost irrelevant, but they’re still there. So I just wanted to have that moment where Veronica is challenging them in a way, but it turns out that maybe they ‘get it’ after all.”
“But what ends up making the material so good are the actors,” Waters continued. “Everyone who came into Heathers wholly invested themselves in these characters, and it shows in their performances. On the page, some of the characters felt chilly, but when you actually see someone step in this world and really put everything into their character, it changes everything. I can write scenes of Heather spitting in the water, but actually seeing her do it and feel it, and what's going through her face, it changes everything. It's fascinating because they were all putting their hearts on the line, and the effect it had on me was so overwhelming.”
Even though Heathers has gone on to firmly establish itself as not only one of the best teen films of the 1980s, but one of the most influential comedies to be released in the last 30 years to boot, there’s still one aspect of the film that tends to weigh on Waters to this very day.
“Over the years, I've gone through an evolution with my feelings about the ending. There was a period when the movie was released, and for some time after, I couldn’t believe that they would dare to whitewash the ending, because everyone felt like we needed a ‘happy’ ending. And there are things that I miss about the different endings we never got to use. There’s one where Veronica wears the bomb and the school doesn't blow up, but she just blows up. I thought that was so nihilistic and cool."
“Sometimes, my brother (Mark Waters, who directed Mean Girls) brings up the ending that I wrote and didn't show to anybody but him. It’s when Veronica goes up to Martha Dunnstock at the end, and says that they should hang out and rent some new releases. And Martha stabs her and says, ‘F--k you, Heather.’ She stands up and in a salute to the end of Dr. Strangelove says, ‘I can walk. I can walk.’ Then she falls down next to Veronica on the ground, with the knife in her stomach. And Veronica goes, ‘My name is not Heather, you bitch. And then they both start laughing, fade to black, that's the movie.”
“Whenever I watch Heathers, I'm still always thinking of things I might have done differently. But I do see now that the ending that is there now really does work, because I think a lot people needed that release at the end, and they needed to see Veronica come out all right in the end,” Daniel added.
Three decades since its release by New World Pictures, Heathers remains a defiant piece of art that still wields its wickedly subversive influence over pop culture and continues to resonate with audiences (both new and old) to this very day. And for Waters, he’s enjoyed seeing how his very first professional screenplay has made the profound impact that it has over the years.
“To me, Heathers is still a punk rock badass event, and even recently it gets referred to as this touchstone. Last year, I saw a poster for Assassination Nation, and it made a reference to Heathers which blew me away. It’s like, how does this one movie that I wrote 30 years ago end up being the part of an ad line for a movie that’s being released now? That’s still hard for me to believe.”
“I can remember when the movie first came out, or even when it played Sundance, a lot of the reviews mentioned me in them, and I couldn’t believe it because no one ever remembers the writer [laughs]. Nobody ever talks about the writer, so it all just felt like it was too good to be true, but I was proud of that. And now, over time, I have heard so many stories from so many people about what Heathers meant to them, and I think what’s also fun about it is that it’s become this ‘handshake movie,’ too.”
“Somebody once told me how they had just started at a new school and didn’t know anyone, but heard a couple of girls quoting Heathers, and they quickly became friends. It's not a film that is universally beloved, but the people who do love it, love it with the fire of a thousand suns, and there is something so very cool about that. But sometimes, I go through this depression, where I wonder to myself, ‘Will I ever write something as good as Heathers again?’ But then, when I think about it, I realize that I was lucky enough to write something like Heathers in the first place, so at least I got my ‘one’ in.”
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"!