'Heathers': An oral history

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

“Do you think there’s ever been another movie like Heathers?” Winona Ryder asks in her tiny, forever-a-kid voice, and then listens quietly. She’s genuinely curious. Your brain races through the obvious choices. Mean Girls, Clueless, Jawbreaker—teen-girl comedies with a drop of caustic in their lip gloss. But in 25 years, no high school movie has ever come close to the bloodthirsty wit and sweet-faced nihilism of Heathers, the 1989 satire about an Ohio high school where suicide becomes a scrunchie-level fad. “I looove this movie—to the point where I talk about it like I’m not even in it,” says Ryder. “If it’s on TV, I watch it. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. Like, I can do it by heart.”

She isn’t the only one who feels that way; fans have turned the box office flop (total gross: $1.1 million) into a cult hit on home video and TV—and even into a tongue-in-cheek musical, now playing Off Broadway. But long before that, a 24-year-old video-store clerk named Daniel Waters had a ­brilliantly ludicrous idea: “What if Stanley Kubrick made a teen film?”

BEGINNING

In 1986, when John Hughes was giving us teen classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, Waters began working on what he calls “a Carson McCullers-style novel of a girl who meets the Antichrist as a teenager.” The project morphed into a screenplay about an angsty popular girl, Veronica (Ryder), who starts secretly killing her classmates with the help of a diabolical new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), and framing the deaths as suicides. The script made its way to producer Denise Di Novi (Edward Scissorhands); a fresh-out-of-film-school director, Michael Lehmann; and Ryder, a relatively unknown 15-year-old who had just wrapped Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.

WINONA RYDER Veronica Sawyer I’ve always held the original script of Heathers among the great literature that I’ve ever read. For me, it’s like, Ezra Pound, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Daniel Waters, you know?

DENISE DI NOVI Producer I had the sense I was reading a masterpiece. I brought it
to the executives at [indie studio] New World, and they were like, “What the hell is this? Are you crazy?”

MICHAEL LEHMANN Director The original ending was that J.D. blew up the high school and they all died, then there was a prom scene in heaven. [New World execs] just said, “No way. We can’t make a satirical movie about teenage suicide in which the people actually kill themselves.”

DANIEL WATERS Writer The teen films of the time, the John Hughes film, were fun. But there’s a whole other wing of the high school they weren’t going into — the dark, Stephen King wing that nobody wanted to look at. And I think Heathers was refreshing. It was the first time a lot of people lost their dark humor virginity. It’s hard to even remember now that going back then, there were so many television shows and documentaries about the horror of teen suicide that just made it so attractive to commit suicide because you got all this love and adulation. Who can resist! It seemed like I was the only one noticing the humor in it. The actual first line I wrote was, “You can’t use that knife, it’s filthy!” when [Veronica and J.D.] are going to stage Heather Duke’s suicide. It took off from that.

Di Novi, Waters, and Lehmann organized an informal read-through of the script with Dana Delany as Veronica and a certain soon-to-be screen legend—then just a teenage n­obody in an acting class—as J.D.

DANIEL WATERS Writer After the reading was over, the pimply faced, blond Brad Pitt came up to me and said, “Hey, man, I know I’m not anybody. But for what it’s worth, that was brilliant.”

CASTING

When casting began, Jennifer Connelly and Justine Bateman both rejected the role of Veronica. Ryder was next on the list. But not everyone thought she was a perfect fit.

WATERS I was like, “The girl from Lucas? She’s just not attractive!” [Laughs.]

RYDER You have to understand, at the time, I didn’t look that different from my character in Beetlejuice. I was very pale. I had blue-black dyed hair. I went to Macy’s at the Beverly Center and had them do a makeover on me.

LEHMANN The first time we shot with her, I turned to the cameraman and said, “This girl is a movie star.”

WATERS You can’t overvalue how much Winona meant to this movie. In my initial drafts, Veronica was much more evil and twisted. I referred to her as a female Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. And suddenly you’re rewriting with Winona in mind, and Veronica becomes more of an audience surrogate.

RYDER My agent at the time ­literally got on her knees and begged me not to do [the movie]. She had her hands together, and she goes, “You will never. Work. Again.” We parted ways later.

DINOVI Winona was so smart. She was fifteen, she turned sixteen on the movie. She was a prodigy. From a very young age, she was an old soul. She really got the words and the imagery. She had watched tons of old movies. She was really sophisticated intellectually. She had the beauty of Veronica. She had the intelligence. She was just the perfect anti-Heather.

The part of the homicidal ­loner J.D. went to Christian ­Slater, 19, known for the 1986 drama The Name of the Rose. After Heather Graham turned down Heather Chandler, the school’s teenage dictatrix, that part was offered to Slater’s then girlfriend, 18-year-old Kim Walker.

CHRISTIAN SLATER J.D. I remember leaving the audition and feeling like, “Oh God, I really blew it.” I threw the script in the garbage angrily. I had a big tantrum.

LEHMANN I really wanted to cast Heather Graham [as Heather Chandler], and her parents wouldn’t let her do it. She was 16 or 17. I even talked to Heather’s mother at great length to convince her we weren’t tools of Satan, and she would have nothing of it. I really tried. I mean, I begged her. Heather’s reading was just great. Then the casting director said, “Well, Kim Walker might be good. She doesn’t have a lot of experience, but…”

CARRIE LYNN Martha Dumptruck Kim was beautiful. Flawless. I remember looking at her and being like, “Don’t you ever get a zit, bitch?” [Laughs] She was so sweet.

A veteran of the TV series Little House on the Prairie and Our House, Shannen Doherty, 16, read for Heather Duke, Heather Chandler’s conniving second-in-command.

LEHMANN When Shannen came in, [our casting directors] pulled me aside and said, “This girl is really good, but she wants Veronica.” And I said, “We’ve already cast Winona.” And they said, “She knows that. She’s willing to read the Heather Duke part, but she just wants you to know that’s not the part she wants.” She was amazing in the reading. I think she actually came in hoping we’d think she was so good that we’d just give her the Veronica role.

WATERS She wanted to be the lead Heather. And Veronica too. And J.D.

SHANNEN DOHERTY Heather Duke I don’t remember that, because I remember Winona was already hired when I got the script. Originally they wanted me to audition for Heather Chandler. When I read it, I loved Heather Duke. I loved the fact that she started out weak in the group. Bullimic and the dog that you kick. And then she became — their term — a “megabitch.” I loved that. Originally, they wanted me to be blonde. Going blonde would’ve destroyed my hair, so we all settled on me as a redhead.

LEHMANN She had a television career, and she was a really talented actress, but a bit of a handful.

WATERS Shannen’s mother [Rosa] kept throwing Our House in our faces. “Well, you know, Shannen is the star of this TV show.” She was very ambitious.

Lisanne Falk was a megastar child model by age 14. Now she was 23. She kept her age quiet until she was cast as the impressionable Heather McNamara.

LISANNE FALK Heather McNamara I said I was 18 or 19 in the audition. After I got the part, we had this celebration dinner, and I said something about how my boyfriend and I were living right down the street from the set. And they’re like, “Your mom’s okay with that?” And I’m like, “You guys know I’m 23, right?” And they all were like, [gasps]! I could just see the panic. [Laughs]

The filmmakers struggled to cast Martha Dunnstock, a.k.a. Martha Dumptruck, the sweet, overweight girl tortured by the Heathers.

LEHMANN The casting directors brought in actresses who were good-looking but slightly chubby. I said, “No, we need somebody who is really large.” [Carrie] was completely invested in it. She under­stood what it’s like to be teased.

LYNN I was doing standup at the time. That’s how I first met the casting agent. I think most of it was that I looked the part: Where else are you going to find another 400 lb. young person? I think I came out of the womb obese. I had no friends. I was Martha Dumptruck, in real life, growing up in Beverly Hills. And now I’ve got therapy! [Laughs]

WATERS The ending I should’ve fought harder for is where Martha Dumptruck pulls out a knife, stabs Veronica, and says, “F— you, Heather.” And Veronica’s on the ground laughing, with a knife in her stomach, saying, “My name’s not Heather. My name’s not Heather.”

FILMING

With a slim $3 million budget, the filmmakers had just 33 shooting days. Much of the film was shot at a high school in L.A.; sets for Veronica’s and Heather McNamara’s ­bedrooms were built in the gymnasium.

RYDER It was pretty much work, work, work. Then I had to go home and go to sleep. I had a tutor. There was no going out at all for me. Maybe there was for Christian a little bit. [Laughs]

LEHMANN Christian was professional, but there were a couple of times when he slept in late and we had to retrieve him. He said he had a sleeping disorder. I could never tell if that was true or if he was just out partying late.

SLATER Sleeping disorder? Maybe. I don’t know if I was ever late or missed any calls. Whatever I had then, I have since recovered. I sleep very well.

As tends to happen when hormone-­addled teens are thrown together in a
high school (real or fictional), alliances began to form.

PATRICK LABYORTEAUX Ram Sweeney Everyone kind of stayed in their cliques. So I was kind of a jerk jock through the whole shoot. Me and the other guys were sending inappropriate notes to Shannen and the other girls, in character, between takes—sexually inappropriate notes that a high schooler might send. And they sent back something three times grosser. [Laughs]

DOHERTY I just remember thinking Winona was the coolest chick in the world. She dresses cool. She’s beautiful. Very intelligent. Very artsy. It was a little bit of hero worship.

FALK I hung out with Winona. She stayed at my house a lot. Kim Walker was really sweet. I barely knew Christian. He’d always be in his trailer or smoking cigarettes.

DOHERTY Christian was a tiny bit aloof. He definitely was embracing J.D., for sure.

SLATER I got so into working with Winona that I had blinders on to everyone else. It was almost like J.D. didn’t have patience for any of those people, either. I stayed away from Shannen. She seemed to not have any interest in me, so I just kept my distance.

LYNN The only one in the cast who stuck out like a sore thumb was Shannen. It’s like when you get a paper cut, and someone just purposely squeezes a lemon on it. She was the lemon. She was just so bitchy.

Though Slater was dating Walker, his onscreen rapport with Ryder was undeniable. But the actors don’t exactly agree on whether they ended up dating after the shoot.

SLATER Yeah, yeah. We tried.

RYDER We never went out! He was dating Kim Walker. And I had, like, such a big crush on him.

SLATER It’s one of those early lessons. It’s better to keep things professional than to try to mix them as far as emotions go.

RYDER It’s funny, the last time I watched the movie, I was like, “God, we have really great chemistry!” And I wonder if it was partly to do with the fact that, you know, I wished I could. There were a couple of times where we tried to go out, but there was always some sort of drama. Nothing happened until after the movie. Then I do remember, like, making out with him a few times after he broke up with Kim.

SLATER You end up at times crossing boundaries and confusing things.

RYDER I felt a real closeness to him. Maybe it was because—I’ll just say it—I was a virgin. I remember getting the talk from my mom: “When you make out with someone, it doesn’t mean they’re your boyfriend.” I was like, “Really?” [Laughs] I was always trying to figure out if we were actually dating, and he would never really answer me. I remember when we were on the college [publicity] tour, he told the audience we were getting married, which of course sent me into this giggling thing. But I remember always thinking, “What’s going on? Like are we…?” And he never really answered me.

SLATER I definitely love her today. She’s a great actress. And that was a unique time for both of us.

The script’s acidic dialogue was sometimes a challenge for the young cast—­especially Doherty, whose conservative upbringing didn’t mix well with lines about, for example, figurative power-tool intercourse.

WATERS It’s embarrassing, because I stole a lot of my lines. “What’s your damage” I stole from when I was a camp counselor and one of my little camper girls, Jamie, used to say “What’s your damage?” I just completely stole that from her. And one of my college friends used to say “F— me gently with a crowbar.” And then I realized crowbar sounded too masculine. Chainsaw was more feminine. And apparently “f— me gently” was at one time a common expression in England. This is the evolution of nasty language. That’s where my friend extrapolated “F— me gently” into “F— me gently with a crowbar.” And then I had to have him killed so I could take credit.

RYDER Shannen had problems with the swearing. There’s a moment when we’re in the hallway and she’s just shown me the petition, and then she walks away and you can notice that I put my hand through my hair but I stop and look at her. She was supposed to say, “F— me gently with a chain saw.” But she refused to say it.

DOHERTY It could’ve been any of the lines. “Why are you pulling my [pauses] d - - -?” I still have a hard time saying that!

RYDER In her defense, she had come off of, like, Little House on the Prairie. That was how she was raised.

DOHERTY It was definitely the first time I had ever, ever spoken like that in my entire life. I was a very sheltered 17-year-old. My mom was on set with me. I definitely had moments where I was blushing through my makeup.

RYDER She got such a bad-girl image later on, and I was always like, “She was such a sweet girl, and she didn’t want to swear!”

FALK Shannen didn’t have much of a sense of humor and she took herself a little seriously. What’s funny is, watching [the film], I do think she did a really good job.

DI NOVI I don’t think [Shannen] at the time quite got what Heathers was, and that actually worked for us. She made that character real.

DOHERTY The first time I saw the movie I was definitely a little bit in shock. It was so dark and so funny, and maybe a little over my head.

FALK People would laugh at things that you didn’t think were that funny. I do remember Shannen just kind of going, like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She didn’t realize it was a comedy, or maybe know what a dark comedy meant.

RYDER I remember [Shannen] got interviewed 10 years later, and she was trying to say how dark and funny and cool it was. You can’t blame her. She doesn’t want to be remembered as the one who ran out sobbing, “No one told me it was a comedy!”

DOHERTY There might’ve been some tears in the eyes. [Laughs] I was worried ­people wouldn’t take it the right way. I was worried about social responsibility and what we were saying. Then I watched it again, and I was like, “Wait, this is really good and cutting-edge.”

RELEASE AND LEGACY

Heathers hit theaters on March 31, 1989, as New World Pictures was going bankrupt.

DI NOVI It was a nightmare. I paid for the ad in the L.A. Times myself for the ­second week. It was $1,800, which to me was like $18,000.

LEHMANN The movie didn’t do a lot of box office, but it did stay in the theaters for a while. It never made a profit.

WATERS I made more money writing a treatment for Parent Trap 3 for the Disney Channel that never happened.

RYDER I didn’t even really know that it didn’t do well, to be honest. I was just so damn excited that it was so good. It just reminds me of a wonderful time in an actor’s life when all that mattered is that you were really good in a movie.

DOHERTY It’s so funny how times are different and how innocent I was at that age. I don’t think it ever dawned on me to track the movie’s business. All I knew is that I went from Heathers to 90210, and then it didn’t even dawn on me until people were like “That’s my favorite movie!” Then you start realizing the impact that it had. Most people still come up to me about 90210 or Charmed. So when people do stop me about Heathers, I think I give them extra time because I’m so proud of the movie.

Eventually Heathers built a fan base on home video and drew interest in follow-ups, including a TV series.

LEHMANN There was a new network called the Fox network that was starting up, and we pitched a Heathers TV show to Peter Chernin.

WATERS He said, “This is a great script. It’s down to this or Beverly Hills High.” Which, of course, ended up being called 90210. Doherty wins in the end after all!

The movie also paved the way for other high-school-set dark comedies, including 2004’s Mean Girls, directed by Waters’ brother Mark.

LEHMANN I like Mean Girls. Dan’s brother directed that. I liked it a lot. I don’t know if the movie was offered to me, but they inquired to me about directing it. And I was like, “No, why would I want to do that? I already made that movie!” So I laughed really hard when Mark got it. I think Mean Girls is terrific. It’s not Heathers; it’s Heathers-esque. We were invested in going as dark as we could. That was our sense of humor, and it was the reason for making the movie: to take it to the extremes. Mean Girls isn’t that kind of humor. It’s definitely influenced by Heathers and borrows a lot of stuff from Heathers, but it’s closer to the John Hughes world.

WATERS I think I did elevate the [teen movie] genre, but there came a point where in every high school thing people were talking above their IQ level, and it got a little grating. It’s a weird thing. That’s fine that those movies come from Heathers. But I feel like even back in the day, movies about doctors and lawyers and journalists would be much more nuts and bolts about their job. Now I feel like all movies are high school movies. All TV shows about doctors and lawyers are the high school template put in a job setting. I feel like it’s the one experience everyone knows. There’s almost too much high school stuff going on. The Heathers template has gone into every genre. You can look at any TV show at a law firm and there’s, “Ok, these are the Heathers, this is the Veronica, this is the JD.”

There was also talk of a Heathers sequel.

LEHMANN There was a long time in which Winona would say she wanted to do a sequel. It just didn’t seem to lend itself to a sequel.

WATERS I did come up with this crazy, cockamamy Heathers 2 where Veronica becomes a page for a senator named Heather, played by Meryl Streep. The ending is her assassinating the president and getting away with it — and it’s a good thing.

RYDER First of all, I don’t know what their problem is with not wanting to make a sequel. I mean, I get that it’s a special movie, and the pressure of a sequel, and it’s a moment in time that you can’t recapture. But my theory was: There are Heathers after high school. And there are Kurts and Rams. Dan came up with: It’s Veronica, years later, she’s in Washington. She’s somehow erased her past. And she’s being blackmailed, there’s like men in suits who know about the Westerberg murders. And I’m like, “What if Christian comes in as the Obi-Wan guy and explains to me…” And I remember the First Lady was Meryl Streep. I’m like, “Guys, this is genius!” Every time I [mentioned it to] Michael and Dan and Denise, they would snicker! Like, “Aww, that’s so cute.” I’m like, “Guys, this is genius! This is such a good idea!”

WATERS I told Winona the idea without any more elaboration than I’m giving you, and a year later I hear from her: “So I talked to Meryl. She’s in!” I’m like, “What?!

RYDER I was working with Meryl on The House of the Spirits. I was pitching her the whole thing in the makeup chair one day. She was very sweet about it, and she was like, “Oh, that sounds really great!” But what else are you going to tell a panting 19-year-old? She could’ve been just waiting for me to shut up. [Laughs] You have to understand: We were in rural Portugal living in huts, playing Chilean refugees. There were only dirt roads. I’m like, this looks like those Agnes B ads —you know where they’re in a field and there’s a farmer with like a pitchfork?

FALK If they said they were doing a sequel, I’d say, “Tell me when and where, I’ll be there. No questions asked.”

DOHERTY I would love to see a treatment or script about what a sequel would be.

RYDER I was onto [the idea of a sequel] all through my 20s, way through my 30s—when everyone wanted to work with me, when not a lot of people wanted to work with me. I’m 42 now, and Veronica is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. I never, ever felt finished with her.


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