Friday 6 March 2015



Best Friends, Social Trends and Occasional Murder

Studio: New World Pictures ---------- Release Date: 31st March 1989
Director: Michael Lehmann ---------- Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater
Budget: $3M ---------- 2015 Equivalent: $5.8M
U.S Box Office: $1.1M ---------- 2015 Equivalent: $2.1M

Veronica Sawyer is a reluctant member of the most powerful clique in her high school. Heather Duke, Heather Chandler and Heather McNamara are unrelenting in their judgement of others. But when loner J.D joins the school, Veronica may have just found her ticket out of the popularity game, even if it means murder.

Heathers is a 1989 black comedy that was once described as the 'Anti-John Hughes' movie. Told through the eyes of student Veronica Sawyer, it takes a number of teen-flick clich├ęs and turns them squarely on their head. Yet even with its subversive nature, it's hard to believe that writer Daniel Waters created the script with the idea of getting Stanley Kubrick to direct.

Daniel Waters was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1962 and secured his first writing work on the school newspaper. His contribution, entitled Troubled Waters, consisted of a fictitious story that featured real students. The column became popular and led to Waters embarking on a career in screenwriting. His first credit would be on the Monty Python-esque ensemble Beyond Our Control in the early to mid 1980s. Waters then set about writing what would become Heathers, working on the assumption that Stanley Kubrick would be the only person who could get a three hour high school movie made. At this stage the script was far more ambitious and covered the entire teenage years of the students. He even took cues from Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket for the opening cafeteria sequence.

The admittedly arrogant writer tried and failed a number of times to get the script out to Kubrick, and soon realised the futility of the exercise. In the meantime, it was being passed amongst Water's fellow students at USC, and one in particular, Michael Lehmann, took more than a passing interest in it. However, the two didn't initially hit it off, and in a recent interview given to the Topless Robot website, Waters stated that Lehmann managed to annoy him before the two had even met, by supplying notes and proposed changes to the screenplay. At the time, Lehman hadn't directed a commercial feature but had gained some notoriety for this short film, Beaver Gets a Boner. With Kubrick obviously not interested (it's highly unlikely the director even received the script), Waters partnered up with Lehmann, who took the project to producer Denise Di Novi (the three, Di Novi, Lehmann and Waters would go on to share the same theatrical agent - though some articles state they already did, and it was the agent who put the three of them together).

Denise Di Novi began her career as a copy editor for the National Observer, before taking up a job as publicist on the film, Final Assignment (1980). This led to her joining production company Film Plan, where she worked on Videodrome and Visiting Hours, amongst others. When Film Plan was sold, she took on the role of executive vice president for New World Pictures, a production company originally founded by Roger Corman. After a time in that role, she managed to secure an independent production deal within the company. Heathers would be her first full producer credit - but it wasn't plain sailing. The executives holding the purse strings didn't get the story at all and had concerns about many of its themes. Di Novi persevered and eventually managed to secure a $3M production budget.

 In the meantime, Waters (with Lehmann’s help) began cutting back the script to a workable length, as well as lightening up the tone a little. As the pieces began to fall into place, work began on casting. However, it quickly became apparent that the dark nature of the script turned off a lot of potential actors - if the manuscript managed to get past their agents in the first place. Both Jennifer Connelly and Justine Bateman were sought to play Veronica Sawyer, but rejected the role. Drew Barrymore auditioned, and during an initial read through, Dana Delaney read for the part too. Ultimately, Lehmann went with his third choice, Winona Ryder, who would go against her agent's advice in accepting the role.

Ryder had made her screen debut in the 1986 picture, Lucas, but it was her part in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice that brought her to the public's attention. Daniel Waters wasn't convinced that Ryder was attractive enough for the part. While she tested very well, it was a hastily organised make over at a local mall that convinced the doubters that she had the looks to play the role (at the time of the audition, Ryder still looked very much like her gothic Beetlejuice character). Any remaining doubts were quickly erased once filming started. In the original script, Veronica's morals were little better than J.D's, but thanks to Ryder's sympathetic portrayal, the script was retooled to show her as a more concerned/less willing participant in the schemes.

Christian Slater won the part of the rebellious J.D, beating out the then unknown Brad Pitt. Pitt had impressed during the read through with Dana Delaney, but had been deemed too nice for the role. On the other hand, Slater felt he'd blown his audition and tossed the script as soon as he was out of the building. The actor began his career at seven years of age, appearing in soap opera The Edge of Night, before making his Broadway debut in 1980 alongside Dick Van Dyke in a revival of The Music Man. Further theatre roles followed, and Slater made his film debut in The Legend of Billie Jean. The picture had been expected to be a hit, but sank quickly upon release. Slater followed this up with more soap opera work before appearing opposite Sean Connery in an adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The role of J.D, for which he channeled a young Jack Nicholson, would help him become one of the most popular actors of the late 80s/early 90s.

Like the casting of Veronica, the search for the three Heathers - Chandler, McNamara and Duke, would bring its own set of issues. Lehmann stated he was blown away by how good an audition Heather Graham gave as Heather Chandler, and quickly offered her the role. The actress initially accepted but due to being under 18 at the time, needed her parent's permission. Unfortunately they found the script offensive and forbade the actress from taking on the role. Even after Lehmann met with them personally, they still refused. At the casting director's suggestion, they met with Kim Walker, who at the time was Slater's girlfriend. Despite a lack of experience, Walker won the role and went on to give a memorable turn as the lead Heather.

Way before she got the role of Heather McNamara, Lisanne Falk was a hugely successful child (and later teenage) model, having worked with Brooke Shields at the Ford Modeling agency. By 1979 she found herself the subject of a book - Lisanne: A Young Model, which followed her day to day life. She also appeared on the cover of the 1980 Foreigner album, Head Games. When she auditioned for the role, she lowered her age to 18 (she was in fact 23). Only after being officially cast, did she let slip her real age over a celebratory dinner with the cast and crew - much to their surprise.

The final Heather - Duke, was played by Shannon Doherty. Out of the main female cast, Doherty had the most experience in front of cameras. She'd begun her career at a young age, appearing in minor roles on Father Murphy and Voyagers! before landing the role of Jenny Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. She stayed with the show up to its cancellation in 1983. Other roles followed, including voice work on The Secret of Nimh and the teen movie, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, with Helen Hunt and Sarah Jessica Parker. Her next major break, and the show she was starring in when she got the Heather's call, was Our House, a drama that ran for two years. Doherty was interested in Heathers, but wanted the role of Veronica Sawyer, even though Winona Ryder was cast by the time she auditioned. Originally the casting team had envisioned Doherty as Heather Chandler, but after reading the script she asked to try out for the role of Heather Duke.

Even at this relatively early stage in her adult career, the actress was gaining a reputation. Prior to her audition, the casting agent warned Lehmann that Doherty was coming in for the part of Veronica Sawyer - she knew the role was taken but had hoped to impress them enough that they'd recast it. Lehmann said she gave a spirited audition but Ryder was already in place, and so Doherty settled for the role of Heather Duke. [In a 2014 look back at the film, Doherty denied she wanted Ryder's job]. The remainder of cast came together, with Lance Fenton and Patrick Labyorteaux playing jocks Kurt and Ram respectively. Renee Estevez, daughter of Martin Sheen, got the role of Veronica's friend Betty Finn (Daniel Water's purposely gave Veronica and Betty their surnames - seeing them as having a Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer-like friendship). Finally, Carrie Lynn was cast as Martha 'Dumptruck' Dunnstock - a role which was a struggle to fill  according to Lehmann, given how casting agents only sent 'cute, slightly plump' girls to audition. Lynn was a 400lb loner - the role of Martha was essentially her playing herself, she would later state.

The film shot in the first half of 1988 on a 32 day schedule. Filming took place at a number of locations, with actual working schools standing in for Westerburg High (named after Paul Westerburg, lead singer of Ryder’s favourite band, The Replacements). Corvales High School was used for some of the interior shots, with external scenes taking place at John Adams Middle School. The gymnasium at John Adams also housed several sets including Veronica's bedroom. In a further cost saving measure, the kitchen set for both Heather Duke and Heather Chandler's house was one and the same - it was dressed and lit differently for each respective scene.

The high school setting and cliques led to many of the same groups hanging out together when not shooting. Slater immersed himself in his character to such a degree that he barely to spoke any of the other cast members, save for Winona Ryder. The Jocks Fenton and Labyorteaux spent their downtime sending suggestive notes to the Heathers - and getting far worse back in return. Ryder spent much of her time at Lisanne Falk's place, but also had to find time to study and attend the premiere of Beetlejuice (which took place the same night as the filming of the J.D/Veronica croquet sequence).

The shoot itself wasn't without its issues.  There were restrictions on the amount of hours Ryder was allowed to work each day, given she was 15 at the time (she would turn 16 during filming). Further conditions were placed on the times of day she could shoot, which would result in at least one proposed night time sequence being re-written to take place at dawn (it was shot late afternoon). If Ryder ran out of filming hours for the day, Lehmann would shoot her double walking down corridors or from the knees down. The actress would then add in her dialogue later.

Doherty also gave Lehmann a few headaches, and proved to be a bit of a handful - as did her mother who would often mention how "Shannon is the star of a TV show" when filming issues arose. The actress wasn't used to profanity either, and sometimes struggled to get through dialogue if she was required to swear or say something shocking. The character of Heather Duke is seen throughout the film reading Moby Dick. Originally it was meant to be Catcher in the Rye (which made more sense) but the production was unable to get permission to use the book. Similarly, companies such as 7-11 refused to allow their brands to be used. For his part, Christian Slater kept things mostly professional, but the director recalls at least a couple of times when they had to rouse him from his trailer.

Lehmann began assembling his edit to meet the March 1989 release date. In the meantime, the production team were in talks with representatives of Doris Day, hoping to license her version of Que Sera, Sera for use in the opening and closing sequences of the picture. Producer Denise Di Novi had a link to Doris Day - her musician father Gene had worked with the actress/singer in the 1950s. However the request was refused as Day wouldn't allow the track to be used in any show or film that featured profanity (Gene Di Novi mentioned at the time that Day even organised a swear jar for her recording team when she was working). In the final version of the film, two different versions of the song are heard, one by Syd Straw, the other by Sly and the Family Stone.

Some time after production had ended, Ryder and the Heathers were reassembled to shoot the opening croquet game sequence. Unfortunately, by this point Lisanne Falk had cut her hair, and had to wear a wig while filming. The studio still weren't sure what they had with the finished film, but gave little feedback to Lehmann other than to say Slater’s character didn’t seem evil enough by the end of picture. New World had actually taken issue during the initial funding stage because of the original ending. A much darker finale would see both J.D and Veronica dying, and reuniting in heaven where cliques no longer existed and everyone mingled happily. Daniel Waters claimed the ending went even further, and saw the happy group drinking punch spiked with drain cleaner. New World had refused to fund the film if it wasn't altered, fearing it was simply too dark for audiences to take. [At least one other ending existed, in which Martha stabs Veronica, who then lies bleeding, repeating the phrase “My name’s not Heather”]

As finishing touches were applied, the production received news that New World were on their last legs, and wouldn't be able to promote the film to any great level - if at all. The good news was that critics were impressed with Heathers, and it currently sits on a 95% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The box office of March 1989 was dominated by Rainman, as it had been in January and February. Fletch Lives had knocked it off the top spot earlier in the month but by the time of Heather's release on March 31st, the Dustin Hoffman/Tom Cruise drama was back at number one. While there were no other major releases that weekend, it would have made little difference if there had been - Heathers debuted at just 35 theatres.

Either due to a lack of confidence or funds (perhaps both), New World couldn't get the initial theatre count any higher. It earnt $177K during its first three days, and while it had one of the highest screen-to-taking averages of the top 15, it was of little consolation. A week later and things were worse - Denise Di Novi had to use $1800 of her own money to take out an advert for the film in the LA Times. The picture shed nine of its screens and made $123K; and while word of mouth was strong, not enough of it was reaching the general public. Even if they wanted to see Heathers, there was little chance of them finding a screening outside of Los Angeles. The film expanded to 54 locations during its third weekend and made almost $245K, but the writing was more than on the wall. By the end of its theatrical run three weeks later, Heathers had earnt $1.1M.

It would be a long time before anyone made money off the film. Writer Daniel Waters joked that he made more money from an unproduced treatment for The Parent Trap 3 than he did off Heathers. But like so many misses of the 1980s, the home video market saved it. The picture quickly developed a cult following, and for a time its dialogue and terminology was adopted by a generation of film fans (and high school students). It arguably paved the way for similar movies such as Clueless, Jawbreaker and Mean Girls. If the latter film shares more in common with Heathers than most, it's because it was directed by Daniel Waters' brother, Mark.

Lehmann followed up Heathers with Meet the Applegates, a movie about a group of giant praying mantis who disguise themselves as humans and move to Los Angeles. It actually made less money than his debut theatrical feature. His next project would see him re-teaming with Daniel Waters (who in the interim had written the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) on what was expected to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer of 1991. Hudson Hawk was famously known for being Bruce Willis' vanity project and had a very troubled and messy production. It became one of the biggest failures of the time and all but killed Willis' career until the critical success of Pulp Fiction and the financial smash of Die Hard with a Vengeance in 1994 and 1995 respectively.

Lehmann didn't direct another feature until Airheads in 1994. He went on to direct 40 Days, 40 Nights, The Truth about Cats and Dogs and Because I Said So, before moving to direct almost exclusively for television. In recent years he's worked on True Blood, Nurse Jackie and Californication. Despite having worked on three back to back failures, Daniel Waters secured the job to provide the screenplay for Tim Burton's Batman Returns. He followed this up with the script for the Sylvester Stallone picture, Demolition Man. In 2001 he made his directorial debut with Happy Campers, and reunited with Winona Ryder on 2007's Sex and Death 101. In more recent times he provided the screenplay for Vampire Academy (directed by his brother) and is currently at work on a Sabrina the Teenage Witch reboot.

Despite the bumpy start to her producing career, Denise Di Novi went from strength to strength. She worked again with Michael Lehmann on Meet The Applegates before going on to produce Tim Burton's next three features, including Batman Returns (she also produced Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach). She reteamed with Winona Ryder on Little Women, after which she began to focus almost exclusively on romantic comedy/dramas, including Message in a Bottle, Life as We Know It and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Her latest project, Focus, stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

Winona Ryder saw great success during the 1990s, though admitted that the role of Veronica Sawyer did initially see her passed over for a number of projects. Post-Heathers she went on to star opposite Cher in Mermaids, reteamed with Tim Burton for Edward Scissorhands and joined the impressive cast of both Dracula (for Francis Ford Coppola) and The Age of Innocence (for Martin Scorcese). Further acclaim followed with Little Women, The Crucible and Girl, Interupted (opposite Angelina Jolie) but her career stalled after a bizarre shoplifting incident in 2001. The actress was given community service and ordered to pay $10,000, but the damage to her career was long lasting. After a brief hiatus, she took on roles in smaller projects, and received critical acclaim for her work on 2010's Black Swan. She also reunited with Tim Burton on the animated feature, Frankenweenie.

Similarly, Christian Slater saw notable success in the 1990s with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Young Guns 2 and arguably his finest role, as Clarence Worley in True Romance. Turns in Interview with the Vampire (replacing River Phoenix), Broken Arrow and Hard Rain all bought him varying degrees of success. But a 1997 arrest, for the assault of his then girlfriend, Michelle Jonas, saw him spend time in rehab and jail. His career never recovered fully and while he has worked consistently in TV, film and theatre since, he has been unable to recapture that earlier success.

Shannon Doherty initially went on to bigger things after Heathers, taking on the role of Brenda Walsh in the hugely successful TV show, Beverly Hills 90210. After leaving in 1994, she worked on a number of TV movies, but appearances in Playboy, brushes with the law and her on-set reputation all hampered her career. She returned to success in the Aaron Spelling show, Charmed. In recent years she has hosted or appeared on a number of reality TV shows. She also reprised the role of Brenda in the new version of Beverly Hills 90210.

Lisanne Falk took on a number of smaller roles throughout the 1990s, notably in Night on Earth (which also featured Winona Ryder in one segment) and Suicide Kings. She retired from acting in 2002. Despite her villainous performance, Kim Walker took on few roles after Heathers, mainly in TV movies or one-off episodes. She died of a brain tumour in 2001, aged just 32.

It’s little surprise that Heathers never got a sequel, despite Winona Ryder pleading with Daniel Waters every few years to write another. At one point there was talk of a follow-up being set in the world of politics that would see Veronica Sawyer murdering her way to the top – egged on by the ghost of J.D. The actress even managed to get Meryl Streep interested while the two worked on The House of Spirits. Two unrelated TV shows were also proposed, in 2009 and again in 2012, but neither developed past the pilot stage. A musical based on the film was produced in 2010 and played a number of small venues. It continued to be performed in the intervening years, and appeared at Off Broadway’s New World Stages in March 2014. It ended its run somewhat abruptly in August of that same year.

Even though Heathers wasn’t one of the most memorable films of the 1980s, many of its themes still resonate today – perhaps more so than at the time of its release. The picture’s darkly comic, cynical tone seems more in line with the modern portrayal of high school life than the movies of John Hughes. Given its late 80s release date, its music and fashion is less jarring than most, and the picture retains the ability to shock – Winona Ryder still finds the film to be incredibly dark and subversive, particularly the closing seconds of the cow-tipping sequence in which you can glimpse in the background, Heater McNamara being date-raped by one of the jocks. One imagines if it were remade today, the comedy would be jettisoned in favour of gritty realism, yet it’s that comedic edge that allowed the film to get away so with much. They might say war is hell, but then so is high school.

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