Student Body Count

Rolling Stone — 18 May 1989

The black comedy ‘Heathers’ is a bloody mess for its producers

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT: Heathers is a tough sell. Yeah it’s a topical teenage comedy but the comedy is black, ant the topic is suicide and murder. True, it has a time-tested movie setting a high school but this is a school in which savagely materialistic students spend more time plotting to destroy one another than worrying about the prom. And yes, its lead is rising young star Winona Ryder, but Ryder, who begins the movie as a popular but sensitive junior, turns borderline psychotic within the first fortyfive minutes

Heathers is a movie in which stylishly dressed high-school girls smile sweetly as they say, “Fuck me gently with a chain saw,” a movie in which a bout of bulimia is greeted with the putdown “God, that’s so ’87,” a movie in which nice girl Veronica (Ryder) falls under the spell of J.D. (Christian Slater), the pistol-packing new kid in town. Not long after that, the school’s most popular kids (three of whom are named Heather, hence the title) begin dying one by one, and Veronica writes, “Dear Diary: My teen angst bullshit has a body count.” It’s hardly surprising that its screenplay was turned down by studios all over Hollywood and that New World Pictures head Bob Rehme according to Heathers producer Denise Di Novi has responded to congratulations on the film by saying, “I didn’t want to make the movie, so I can’t take any credit for it”

And if it wasn’t easy to sell Heathers to Hollywood executives, selling it to the moviegoing public promises to be just as tricky. They’ve brought me in on the ad campaign,” says Heather screenwriter Dan Waters with a laugh “And every week there’s a new direction. It’s like ‘This week we’ll pretend it’s Fatal Attraction, and next week we’ll pretend it’s Beetlejuice.'”

Waters, now twenty-six, began work on Heathers after he moved To Los Angeles three years ago. He’d never write ten a screenplay before. “I was working in a video store,” he says, “and I was gonna write the greatest teen film, and Stanley Kubrick was gonna direct it.” He drew on memories of his Indiana high school (where he was voted Most Unforgettable) but just as often on his younger sister and her friends.

He found his theme after becoming disgusted by the media’s portrayal of teen suicide as noble. You would see all these movies about teenagers wracked with all this pain,” he says, “and then they would commit suicide, and their parents would be sad, all their friends would be sad…. That’s not a deterrent. That’s every person’s ultimate fantasy to see their own funeral.” The screenplay Waters wrote was 200 pages long enough to make a three-and-a-half-hour movie and far darker than the film that was eventually shot. In the original draft, Waters says, Veronica was almost like “a female Travis Bickle,” blowing herself up at the end of the movie and then joining in “a prom in heaven, with all the dead characters coming back to life.”

“It was really, really dense, very, very funny and very difficult to read,” says Heathers director Michael Lehmann, 31,¸ who was given the script by friends he and Waters have in common. He had studied philosophy aa Berkeley Columbia and the University of Tubingen, in West Germany, before landing a job at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. “It was overwritten in both the good sense and the bad sense,” Lehmann says. “I don’t know if anybody could have ever made that movie, but it was great.”

Waters trimmed that script and softened it, and his agent sent the revision to virtually every major movie studio “For about six months it was the hot script in town, the flavor-of-the-month script,” says Di Novi, 32. “There were fans all around town, usually among the younger executives,” says Lehmann. “They all said, ‘Well, we couldn’t really make this movie.’

Finally Waters’s agent began shopping the script to smaller companies. Di Novi showed the New World brass Lehmann’s USC student film Beaver Gets a Boner, which was designed to be a sendup of the typical heart-warming Lucas-and-Spielberg USC studen film New World okayed the thinned-down Heathers screenplay, a bare-bones $3 million budget and a firsttime director. “When we got the green light,” says Di Novi, “we were congratulated by every other studio. They wouldn’t make it themselves, but they all said they were glad the movie was getting made.”

On the set, Lehmann and Waters found they shared a sensibility. “One side of us is kind of pretentious,” says Waters. “And the other side is always willing to undercut the seriousness of the thing for a good cheap laugh.” They also kept trimming the screenplay, lightening the tone and eliminating things like the heavenly prom.

“We were worried,” says Waters, “that if I said, ‘I can’t cut this,’ the powers that be would suddenly stop and say, ‘What is this movie we’re making? Stop it!’ We figured if we can get fifty percent of the script on the screen, we’ll have a very subversive movie”

Once Heathers was finished, Lehmann and Waters screened it for all the studios that had turned it down; they also took it to the U.S. Film FestivaL It quickly became the most controversial Hollywood film since The Last Temptation of Christ. The folks at Disney, for example, who had loved the screenplay though not enough to consider making it didn’t like the movie. “The standard angry response,” says Lehmann, “is that teenage suicide is not a fitting subject for comedy. Which is true to some degree, but we’re not really making fun of teenage suicide. I think the movie does have a moral point of view, it does take a stance, it condones neither murder nor suicide, and it’s so clearly in the realm of absurd comedy and irony and satire…”

“The focus groups we had were really eye-opening,” adds Waters. “You got to meet the people who liked Cocktail, people I never knew really existed. But there they are, and they hated our movie.”

Now all they have to do is sell it to America. New World won’t say how it plans to turn that trick (a spokesman says it’s company policy not to comment on marketing campaigns ahead of time), but Di Novi says the executives at New World, “to their credit, are trying to sell it for what it is. But to be honest, they’ve never had a movie like this. It’s alien to them, and we’ve been struggling with it.”

Dan Waters, though, has an idea. “I listen to Guns n’ Roses, he says, “and I think that somehow we’ve got to market it with that kind of ‘Things are gonna be different now’ subversiveness that they have. I wanted to do a trailer that said, ‘You liked The Breakfast Club, you think 21 Jump Street is a forum for hard-hitting issues…’ Then cut to the scene where J.D. says, ‘Fuck you!’ and gets his fingers shot off. ‘Heathers, coming soon to a theater near you.’ That’d get all of twelve people into the theater.” He laughs. “Or maybe we should just misrepresent the film and make some money.