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A Glib, Cynical, Socially Irresponsible View of High School

April 16th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Heathers (1989)
Written by Daniel Waters
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Produced by Cinemarque Entertainment/ New World Pictures
Running time: 103 minutes

Heathers 1989 poster Heathers DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?

At “Westerberg High School” in Ohio, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has managed to ingratiate herself into the most powerful clique in school, which includes sociopath Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), self-absorbed Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and anorexic Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty). While forging love letters and conducting other administrative duties for the Heathers, Veronica notices a new student named J.D. (Christian Slater), a hellion who unloads a .44 Magnum full of blanks at two jocks on his first day of school. Bumping into each other later at the Snappy Snack Shack, Veronica confides to J.D., “I don’t really like my friends.” “Yeah, uh, I don’t really like your friends either,” he snarls.

After one too many abuses by Heather Chandler, Veronica goes to her house with J.D. to confront her. Their plan to spike her coffee with something disgusting goes awry when Veronica hands her a cup J.D. filled with liquid drain cleaner. Heather keels over and dies, and the couple hastily dress the scene up to make it look like she committed suicide. But in death, Heather ascends to even greater popularity, while the gravity of teen suicide becomes the talk of the town. Further intimidated by the school’s jocks, J.D. uses Veronica to help lure them into the woods, where he shoots them and makes it look like a double suicide. With teen suicide now gathering momentum as a new fad, Veronica discovers that J.D. intends to help the student body along by planting a bomb in the school boiler room during a pep rally.

Heathers 1989 Winona Ryder

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Heathers began at Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, where Daniel Waters wrote a column for the school newspaper he called Troubled Waters. In his spare time, Waters sketched stories starring his classmates. He recalled, ”One weird hobby I had as a kid was that I used to read Seventeen magazine the way other kids would read comic books. I’ve always loved books about angsty young girls, girls who would write in their diaries and complain about life.” His senior year, Waters was exposed to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical study of women published in 1953. “I thought this was great stuff for a movie, the way girls maintain their own oppression. I was always fascinated that other girls are the ones who hate a fat girl, much more than guys do. It was something I’d always observed, and then to actually read it in this philosophy. I’m sure I’m the only person who ever read that book and said, ‘Hey, there’s money to be made.’”

Graduating McGill University in Montreal – where Waters was more interested in Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard than partying – he made his way to Los Angeles in 1985 and found work at a small, unhip video store in Silver Lake. Waters recalled, “Heathers was written purely out of my own consumer need to see a film about teenagers that had the comical sting of real high school. No offense to John Hughes, but your ‘heart dies’ way before you become an adult. As far as a female protagonist is concerned, adult white men may rule the world, but in high school, they’re a bunch of clueless goofballs. The high school power center is female; at that age, boys are checkers and girls are chess.” He added, “I was a worshipper of Stanley Kubrick. Here was someone who always worked in very specific genres and he had a very high and mighty attitude, very super-ego of ‘I will do the last word in each genre. This will be The High School Film.’ You know, I didn’t want to just do a regular high school film, it had to be the most pretentious, the final word in high school films.”

Heathers 1989 Christian Slater, Winona Ryder

Around the same time, Michael Lehmann was already a legend at USC Film School, having run the nascent video department at Zoetrope Studios and directing an enthusiastically received student thesis titled Beaver Gets A Boner in 1985. Lehmann recalled, “It’s about a kid who’s a drug dealer in high school whose drug supply is flushed down the toilet by his mother and he has to get the money back to pay back his supplier. And the only option open to him is to apply for a college scholarship so he can take the money to pay back his drug supplier. This really mocked the form of the standard issue USC student film. A lot of the movies were about kids in high school trying to get that scholarship, trying to get out of town and grow up and go study medicine in Indiana or something like that.” Steve White – president of low budget exploitation company New World Pictures – was impressed enough to sign Lehmann to a development deal.

The good news for Daniel Waters was that at 200 pages – almost twice the length of an average screenplay – the script to his high school suicide epic was getting attention. Waters recalled, “Everyone who read the script really responded to it and loved it and then when it came time to, like, ‘Well, what time do I show up on the set?’ you know, they’d say, ‘Oh my god, no one can ever actually make this movie.’” Waters knew Michael Lehmann through mutual friends. The director recalled, “He was trying to figure out how to get people to read it and gave it to a friend’s agent. The agent said, ‘No one’s ever going to make this movie.’ I had made a short film in school and had a pretty interesting agent with great taste. Dan asked me to show it to her, and I did. She flipped for it. She thought it was the best thing she’d ever read. Dan wanted her to get him hooked to a big director like Stanley Kubrick, so she sent the script out and a lot of people liked it but no one wanted to make it.”

Heathers 1989 Winona Ryder

found a fan in Denise Di Novi, who had started the 1980s as a unit publicist before working as an assistant to producer Pierre David. Di Novi recalled, “People said there’s this amazing script and I got a hold of it and read it, and just became so passionate about it, and felt like this is the first movie I want to make as a producer on my own. There was kind of a group of us who were all starting in the business at the same time.” Michael Lehmann phoned Daniel Waters to give the screenwriter notes on his magnum opus. Ultimately, Lehmann offered to take Heathers to New World as his first feature film. “A guy at New World saw my student film and read the script and said, ‘I’ll make this for a price.’ It happened a lot more easily than movies are supposed to happen.” With a budget of roughly $3 million, within a couple of months – in July 1988 – Heathers would begin what became a 32-day shooting schedule in Los Angeles.

Michael Lehmann recalled, “We had really good casting directors, Julie Selzer and Sally Dennison. They had just cast RoboCop and they had a really good sense of who was around in Hollywood. We had no money to pay anyone and basically everybody in the movie came in and read for it – except Winona. She had been in a movie called Square Dance, which had played in one of the very first Sundance festivals and had gotten her a little attention. She had also been in a movie called Lucas. Michael McDowell, who was the co-writer on the movie Beetlejuice and was represented by my agent, read the script, and Winona was shooting Beetlejuice at the time, so Michael said, I have the perfect person to play the lead. Her agents didn’t want her to do it, but she loved the script and came in and we met.”

Heathers 1989 Winona Ryder

Lehmann added, “The funny thing is, New World told me I had to offer the movie to Justine Bateman first. Apparently her dad has a relationship with the studio, and they thought she meant good box office. So we had to wait for Justine Bateman to pass on the script first. The rest of the cast, all the girls who played Heathers – Shannen, Lisanne, and Kim – they just came in and read. We auditioned a lot of people. I wanted to cast Heather Graham in the part of Heather #1, the one who goes through the coffee table. She was perfect for it, but she was under 18. Her parents were extremely conservative and her mother wouldn’t let her.” Denise Di Novi recalled, “In the days that when we made Heathers, teen suicide was an issue. But it was handled so ludicrously by the media and that’s I think what inspired Dan to write the script.”

Before New World Pictures would sign off on Heathers, there was the issue of the ending. Michael Lehmann recalled, “In the original, the high school blew up. It ended with the prom in heaven. It was really good and it’s what the ending should have been. But this guy Steve White – the head of production at New World who was a big supporter of the movie – basically said to us he’d make the movie but he wouldn’t allow the high school to be blown up at the end. He wouldn’t make a movie that was satirizing teen suicide and have this main character who we grew to love actually kill herself at the end. He was worried it would lead to copycat suicides, and he didn’t want that on his head. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I felt like, ‘Come on, this movie is clearly a satire. It’s way out there. The farther you go the better. If somebody’s going to kill themselves because of the movie, then they have a much bigger problem than this movie.’ But he wouldn’t do it.”

Heathers 1989 Winona Ryder

Opening March 1989 in the U.S., Heathers began notching better than expected reviews. Dessson Thomson, the Washington Post: “Wickedly funny. In fact, Heathers may be the nastiest, cruelest fun you can have without actually having to study law or gird leather products. If movies were food, Heathers would be a cynic’s chocolate binge.” Pauline Kael, the New Yorker: “The script, by Daniel Waters, has a lot of prankish, spiky dialogue and some good rowdy slapstick nastiness … the script promises that the picture will lift off into the junior division of Blue Velvetland. But layers of didacticism weigh it down, and the young, inexperienced director, Michael Lehmann (who uses hyper-bright colors for a facetious artificial effect), doesn’t find the right moods for the gags.” Julie Salamon, the Wall Street Journal: “Heathers gave me the creeps but it also made me laugh. This bizarre variation on that Hollywood staple, the teen movie, is one weird original.”

Over at New World Pictures – which had been sold in 1983 by founder Roger Corman – titles like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Return of the Killer Tomatoes had somehow failed to keep the company’s theatrical or video divisions in the black. Heathers would be the last movie the company released to theaters. Denise Di Novi recalled, “The film didn’t really have marketing because New World was going out of business when the film was released.” Michael Lehmann added, “I actually remember talking to the head of distribution at New World and I called him and I said, ‘The movie’s in its second week of release. It’s got great reviews, it’s filling houses in New York and L.A. and other cities. There’s no ad in the L.A. Times on a Saturday. And he says, ‘There isn’t?’” After three weeks in release, New World pulled its advertising. Unable to expand beyond 54 theaters, Heathers would tally $1.1 million at the U.S. box office.

Heathers 1989 Winona Ryder, Christian Slater

As Winona Ryder and Christian Slater went on to considerable stardom in the early 1990s, Heathers built a robust cult following on VHS tape. In September 2006, the list makers at Entertainment Weekly ranked Heathers #5 on their list of the “50 Best High School Movies”. Tim Stack offered, “For those who dream about offing an obnoxious classmate, Heathers is the ultimate fantasy. Full of mordant wit, shocking violence, and savvy performances by Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, the flick was the antithesis of the earnest ’80s John Hughes films – you’d never see Molly Ringwald serving up a kitchen-cleaner cocktail for Ally Sheedy. Even today, Heathers’ spin on cliques, teen suicide, and homosexuality still has bite.” EW reserved the #1 slot for The Breakfast Club.

At the time Heathers was released, Michael Lehmann commented, “There are people who thought it a glib, cynical, socially irresponsible view of high school. I believe we treat the moral issues responsibly. Teenagers don’t have any problem with it; it’s always adults who are shocked.” Looking back at Heathers a decade after the air had cleared, Daniel Waters mused, “That was definitely a slight dig at John Hughes films, which, John Hughes films seemed, I have a lot of fun with John Hughes films. I adore them in many ways – Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink – they all seem to have this underlying motif that all teenagers are controlled by their parents and their biggest attribute, the biggest thing running their lives is their hatred of their parents and what I found growing up is it’s more like I hadn’t given the matter much thought, that evil happens among you.”

Heathers 1989 Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Winona Ryder, Kim Walker

Why Should I Care?
With drive-ins crumbling, fly-by-night outfits like New World Pictures restructuring and the books on the 1980s closing, exploitation pictures would slowly go the way of the spotted owl, kicked out of their native habitat by big budget studio fare, with movies like True Romance or Kalifornia borrowing the same sleazy plotlines, but having the nerve to throw in name actors and spiff themselves up with production values. The only thing missing from the mainstream B-movies would be that socially irresponsible, renegade spirit that Heathers dishes out in spades. But at the end of the day, a pirate flag is all this really is. It’s got the skull and crossbones, but no one involved in the production seems capable of taking a ship anywhere.

The most notable feature of Heathers is the teen slang cooked up by Daniel Waters. While not as extreme as the futurespeak Anthony Burgess created in A Clockwork Orange, lines like “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” indicates plenty of energy went into the writing. But for all its wit, the jokes don’t really have punchlines, and the movie bowls forward with little organizing intelligence. If a good satire skillfully skirts the line between reality and exaggeration, Michael Lehmann weaves all over the material like a drunk driver. With everything in the movie blown out and exaggerated, nothing feels remotely compelling. The inexperience displayed behind the camera – with the film looking much cheaper than it actually was – shows up most in the casting, with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater registering in two dimensions at best. When Shannen Doherty gives the best performance – and she’s good in this – your high school movie has serious issues.

© Joe Valdez

Heathers 1989 Lisanne Falk, Shannen Doherty, Winona Ryder

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?

Heathers: Light Look at a Dark Topic” The New York Times, 26 March 1989

“Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads” Heathers (THX Version). Anchor Bay Entertainment (2001)

“Heroes: HeathersBy Christopher Bollen. V Magazine, September 2006

“Michael Lehmann ’78: Satire and Subversion on the Silver Screen”
By Jennifer Preissel. Columbia College Today, November/December 2007

“Dan Waters: Heathers 20th Anniversary Interview with Screenwriter”
By Heidi Martinuzzi. Pretty Scary, 1 July 2008

Tags: Black comedy · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Famous line · High school · Paranoia

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Apr 17, 2009 at 6:30 am

    You know, I had always wondered if the film originally ended with the school blowing up (a la ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL?) and it’s a shame that the filmmaker were forced to change it – it would have certainly kept in tone with the rest of the film. As it stands now, the happy ending feels a tad tacked on. Still, it does nothing to diminish the power of the rest of the film.

  • 2 Moviezzz // Apr 17, 2009 at 7:14 am

    “But at the end of the day, a pirate flag is all this really is. It’s got the skull and crossbones, but no one involved in the production seems capable of taking a ship anywhere.”

    I’ve got to disagree with that. HEATHERS was and has always been one of my favorites of the decade.

    I never really felt the budget limitations. The film, I always thought, looked great. The music score is one of my favorites.

    As for the performances, Kim Walker’s performance was wonderful. Same with the rest of the cast.

    I did read the original screenplay and the ending wasn’t THAT great. I did always feel the final shot with Martha Dumptruck was wrong. If it ended at the “There’s a new sheriff in town” line, it would have been a better film.

    But, other than that, great piece!

  • 3 Megan // Apr 20, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Interesting. For some reason, I’ve always had this nagging feeling that I should have a greater connection to this film than I actually do.

    You have dispelled that feeling a bit, for which I thank you!

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Apr 21, 2009 at 11:25 am

    J.D.: Thanks for visiting and commenting on the black comedy of the week. Since I have such an intense dislike for Heathers, the controversy over the ending is like discussing the napkin designs on the Hindenburg.

    Jim: I have no problem with the acting of any of the actresses who played Heathers. Ryder and Slater are really limited in what they bring to a movie. Bad acting is always the director’s fault though, and if I had to draw up a list of the worst working directors, Michael Lehmann would be on it. He actually had a very diverse, intellectual background that seems better suited to art films than comedies – which to a fault – have been incompetent. I know many people who have a nostalgic attachment to Heathers though. Thanks for commenting!

    Megan: I have a great connection to A Flock of Seagulls because they were part of the music of my teenage years. That doesn’t mean A Flock of Seagulls is necessarily a good band. Thank you for sharing your nagging feelings with the rest of the class!

  • 5 nana // Sep 28, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Veronica should have said at the end ti J.D. when he set the bom of thaa she loved him so he no sone one loved him and i think he should not have died because he’s HOT!

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