Back to Reality

July 1994

Winona Ryder finally drops the period costume in Reality Bites, a likable film about twenty something angst and romance in Texas.

Ellen Von Unwerth photographs the actress at play, while Jonathan Bernstein reports from the set and explains why generation X hype hurt the movie in the US.

“I would throw up if somebody said to me, ‘Here,’ this is the movie that defines a generation,’ because then you think they’re trying to sell you something.” Ben Stiller was right. Even at its shooting stage the Reality Bites co-star and debuting director was aware of the perils of niche marketing. “People who are 60 or 50 or 40 have also been 20 and have had to deal with coming out of school and into the job market “, he emphasized.

But still, on the film’s set in Houston last year he had cause for confidence. His comedy about the romantic and economic travails of a quartet of aimless Texan twenty something collage graduates had, as its lead, Winona Ryder, who not only pulled the movie out of a morass of studio indecision and into production, but persuaded Ethan Hawke to Co-star.

Playing the sporadically unemployed Lelaina Pierce, spawn of a dysfunctional family and centre of the movie’s emotional triangle, Ryder has her best – in fact, her first – contemporary role since the heady days of Heathers. She picked her costume for the role after a Corinne Day photo shoot in this magazine, and was happy to jettison the crinolines.

“The last three movies I did were period pieces, two of which were wearing corsets in the 1800s [Dracula, The Age Of Innocence], and then the last one I did House Of Spirits, I played a political prisoner who was tortured and it was a very different shoot. So I had kinda had it with those kind of movies, I felt that I had just OD’d. Even though, in general, I’m attracted to those movies because they’re a challenge – to work with accents and periods and etiquette, it makes me work harder – I needed a break. I wanted to … I don’t know, I’ve been trying to find the right term for it … ‘loosen up’ is not the right term, but I wanted to do something about people my age and in my generation growing up in today’s society. Part of that came from young people coming up to me and saying, ‘ Why don’t you make movies about us?”

A loosely autobiographical screenplay by 23-year-old Houston native Helen Childress proved the most appropriate vehicle. Unable to deal with the legacy left to them by the previous generation, the four specimens under examination in Reality Bites slouch through a world of lowered expectations, mumbling dialogue peppered with references to seventies sitcoms, cheery commercials and fondly recalled New Wave time-capsule classics.

Lelaina’s bubble bursts when, fired from her cushy job on a local morning talk show, she finds herself in a world where’s she’s over-qualified for fast food work but under-prepared for more ambitious ventures. (When a newspaper editor asks her to define irony, she finally blurts out, “I can’t define irony … but I know it when I see it.”) Stumbling into a romance with glib, successful but sincere cable TV exec Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), Lelaina raises the ire of best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), a sneering, bestubbled slouch rock guitarist who reads Descartes, f**** cheerleaders and is, of course, agonising over his sublimated love for Lelaina.

But following a series of swanky features with highfalutin’ talent on both sides of the camera, isn’t a film about four kids sitting around moaning and watching old TV shows a curious career choice for Ryder ? “People tend to think that t[—] a comedy, it’s not a serious thing. When you’re this age, these movies are just as important as when you’re 40. Your feelings are just as strong as when you’re older. So to me, it wasn’t like a career decision. Basically, what happened was I read it and I liked it and it made me laugh and it was very familiar to me – the way they talk, the attitude they have towards each other, the places they go. These were things I could relate to and I always deliberately don’t take movies if I can relate to them because I usually think that would be too easy. I thought I would try it this time. I had come to a point in my life where I felt like trying something that I usually don’t try.”

Ethan Hawke’s rationale for signing on were similar. “The parts I usually get to do are moral centers,” said the star of Alive and Dead Poets Society. “So I was kind of intrigued by not having to do that.” Given to terse bumper-sticker pronouncements like “Life sucks but does not swallow”, Hawke’s sardonic stubble boy (described by Winona’s character as “a master of time suckage”) isn’t too far from the actor’s off-screen demeanor. “Hawke agrees, adding, “It’s more difficult to play. If you have some [—] these kind of movies aren’t important or that they’re not serious,” he retorts. ” If you do a thing that is distinctly different from you, it’s very easy to tap into the character. Whereas, if it’s very close to you, you end up feeling like, ‘Hell, whatever I do is fine because I am this guy,’ which isn’t always true.”

He’s also cool about being personally selected by one of the biggest stars of his generation as a smooching and sparring partner. “What does something like that mean? It has absolutely no meaning. But for someone Winona’s age, she’s worked with incredible people and, you know, I doubt they would have made this movie with anyone else but her. If she didn’t do it, the movie would not have been made. It’s an interesting power for someone her age to have. I’m the same age but I don’t have any power.”

Filling out the equation are Sammy (Steve Zahn), a monosyllabic closeted gay and Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a deadpan, seventies dressed Gap manageress with a man-a-night habit she finds hard to break. It was Janeane who first set alarm bells clanging about the film and its possible possible perception problems when, during a TV appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, she startled the host by declaiming, “They’re trying to market it as a Generation X film. This is not a Generation X film!” Letterman had no clue as to what she was talking about. The target audience, however, did. They saw the posters (Ryder, Hawke and Stiller posed against a backdrop of buzzwords: “jobs, sex, money”), heard the soundtrack, read the press and stayed away in numbers large enough to prevent the film performing to its expected high levels.

Script developed by Never Enough Design