Q&A – Roundtable with Heathers director Michael Lehmann on the teen classic’s 30th anniversary

Michael Lehmann, director of classic teen movie Heathers
Michael Lehmann, director of classic teen movie Heathers

Three decades after it blasted on to screens as a blood-soaked, satirical antidote to the well-meaning fluff of John Hughes and his teen movie bandwagon, Heathers is coming back into cinemas with a new 4K restoration. The 80s classic still hums with rebellious energy as it follows Winona Ryder‘s character, seduced by Christian Slater‘s bad boy into taking revenge against the eponymous group of identikit perfect women. It’s a biting movie that uses high school as a microcosm for the hierarchies of wider society.

The film’s director Michael Lehmann came into London ahead of the re-release to promote the movie. The Popcorn Muncher joined a roundtable discussion, in which Lehmann opened up about the legacy of Heathers, the potential for a sequel and the differences between movies and television.

 

When Heathers first came out 30 years ago, it got a fairly lukewarm box office reception. Did you expect to be talking about it 30 years later, as a classic?

Well, thank you for saying it’s a classic. Obviously, I had no idea. It didn’t do any box office and barely made it into theaters because the company that made it was going out of business. We were lucky we got theatrical release. But it got a fair amount of positive attention from the press at the time and it played at Sundance. It felt like we’d made a movie that, at least to the cinephile audience, would have some sort of effect and that was fine, but we never really thought it would have any life beyond the one or two years around its release. Things get forgotten, so it’s funny 30 years later to think people are still taking a look at it.

I noticed Heathers resonates particularly heavily with my young female friends. Is that something you set out to do when you took Daniel Waters’s script?

Dan’s younger brother is a film director [Mark Waters, who did Mean Girls] and his sister was somebody that he said he played close attention to in high school. We used to ask where he had so much insight into the girls. He was a great observer of his sister and her friends, so it always felt that there was something really particular about the way in which young women relate to each other. With high school girls, it’s how mean they are to each other and how they band together into cliques. Guys do the same thing, but females do develop quicker than males.

In high school, you have very sophisticated social interaction among the girls and the boys are just sitting around being dumb. That’s true! [laughs] I think it’s true in life, and it’s true in the film. So in a way in a makes sense that if you’re going to do a more sophisticated, satirical movie about high school, then you’re going to focus on the girls.

Winona Ryder becomes disillusioned by high school hierarchy in Heathers
Winona Ryder becomes disillusioned by high school hierarchy in Heathers

And it is a satirical, spiky movie with a lot of hard edges. Do you think you could make it now?

Not in the same way. But you have to remember that 30 years ago, there wasn’t this problem of school shootings and violence in schools that we have in the States.

I was going to bring that up because the scene where he first pulls the gun, watching it now, is incredibly horrifying. I’m sure it was horrifying at the time, but was it quite as potent?

The idea that someone would have a gun in school was horrifying, but in a different way than it is now. Back then, you never really thought about anybody ever having a gun at school. The world has changed so much in that regard, but it doesn’t make the movie any less relevant. In some ways, it makes it moreso, I think. But it would be very hard to get the movie made these days. I don’t think you could.

We saw that with the TV show, didn’t we? That kind of fell on its face, in a case of bad timing above all else.

Yes, right. Apparently. I haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know how good or bad it is. But it was all set to go and then they had to pull it because of too many people shooting each other in American high schools.

In the past, you’ve mentioned a remake with Winona Ryder, who has mentioned it a lot over the last 10 or 15 years. With the resurgence of 80s nostalgia and Winona Ryder having a second wind to her career recently with Stranger Things, do you think that could be a reality?

I don’t think so. I haven’t talked to her about it in the last few years. In fact, I haven’t talked to her since Stranger Things. My daughter was working for the company that made Stranger Things and she saw Winona at the premiere of the first season and talked to her. I said to tell her to give me a call, but we never followed up on that. [laughs]

I don’t know what we would do if we were to make a new Heathers or a sequel to Heathers. It’s always been confusing to me when people talk about the idea, because the movie seems so self-contained and seems to be so much a movie of its time and place.

There is mileage, maybe, in doing a similar satirical high school movie now because social media and mobile phones create this whole different social hierarchy. Heathers still speaks to that, I think, but there might be an argument for doing that in a more explicit way?

I also think somebody should be looking at contemporary high school and contemporary adolescence and find a new way to do a satire about that. That’s what I think. I’ve never really understood why you remake movies anyway. You remake them if they didn’t work the first time around. The best remakes are the ones where you say “that was a great idea for a movie and they didn’t get it right”, or they cast it wrong, or it was of its time but it’s universal and could be remade differently. I’m not sure Heathers is quite like that.

So would you change anything about Heathers if you were to make it again today?

You mean, if I could make the same movie again today? Oh, I’m sure I’d do a lot of things differently. I’m still stuck as a director, if I see the movie, I go “I shouldn’t have shot it quite like that”, “I should have done this or that” or “why didn’t I use that other take?” or “why did I take that line out?” As a filmmaker, you’re always second guessing the choices you’ve made.

Do you think there’s a thing with Heathers that, when you were making it, it was a response to some of the other teen movies at the time, which were very fluffy in a way?

Yeah. We weren’t making the movie as a response, but the John Hughes movies and the kind of teen movies that had been playing in the mid-80s were so in the culture at the time that we definitely thought we were going to bring a different point of view. I think John Hughes made great movies. They’re fun, they’re funny – and he was very funny – and they’re very insightful about the experience of being a teenager, but they’re also sanitised to a certain degree, or romanticised, or sentimentalised. No matter how much John Hughes really did have a strong rock n roll spirit and he was very rebellious, those movies played very down the middle. Ferris Bueller is a pretty great movie, I think, and it probably holds up really well today, but it’s very different to Heathers. It doesn’t go to this dark places. [laughs]

You said John Hughes presents a sentimentalised form of high school. Do you think yours is more like the experience you had – a heightened version?

My high school experience had some pretty dark elements. [laughs] I don’t remember high school as being a fun and happy place to be at all. By the mid-80s, I was already in my mid-to-late twenties, but I never felt that the John Hughes representation of high school had anything to do with my experience of high school at all – but the movies were entertaining.

Christian Slater and Winona Ryder partner for murder in Heathers
Christian Slater and Winona Ryder partner for murder in Heathers

I think one of the things that gives Heathers its punch now, even 30 years later, is that it’s not just about high school. It almost has a stronger political dimension than that. JD’s politics are almost anarchist, while Veronica is more ‘reform from within’ and you see that at the end. How prominent was that politics in the script and did you do anything to enhance it?

It was definitely part of it. Part of what Dan was going for was that the Heathers are very conservative. They represented a conservative point of view. Veronica was morally ambivalent and she could go both ways. She could hang with the Heathers or she could exist with all of the different social elements, so she was the classic liberal social democrat in her politics. JD represented anarchy and wanting to tear it all down, or blow it all up. That was part of the script from the start and something we really fought to maintain to make sure those themes go through.

The ‘James Dean’ thing is no coincidence!

No, no coincidence! The other thing I always thought was very funny in Dan’s script was you have James Dean, but you also have ‘Betty and Veronica’. Even at the time, people would come up to me and say “I never really thought about that. It’s like Archie Comics!” and I’d say “yes!” That’s why her name is Veronica and she has her friend Betty Finn. It’s Veronica Sawyer and Betty Finn, so it’s Sawyer and Finn – that whole thing. [laughs]

How has the directorial stuff you picked up on Heathers fed into your TV stuff? I’m thinking the darker stuff, like American Horror Story and Dexter?

In a funny way, the one thing I did in televison that felt closest in sensibility to Heathers was True Blood. Many people looked at it as a dumb, genre vampire show, but in my mind it was a satire. Alan Ball, who created that show, has a good, strong satirical bent. So what interested me about that show was that it went to those darker places and that a lot of the social satire which is very much present in that show was fed through the genre door, but elevated quite a bit.

American Horror Story was really fun to do and is very dark. Ryan Murphy always told me that Heathers was a huge influence on him. I never really saw that as being a reflection of the Heathers sensibility, but more playing off a long history of horror genre stuff. Dexter has got a pretty good, dark sense of humour and I think that show was great. I came late to the game with Dexter because I didn’t do any of the early years. I really enjoyed doing the show, but it had already established what it was and I was really coming in and executing the show rather than helping create it, whereas True Blood I was involved in from the beginning, so I could bring more to it.

Michael C Hall played the titular meticulous serial killer in Dexter
Michael C Hall played the titular meticulous serial killer in Dexter

A lot of directors are quite sniffy about coming in to an established world and working within parameters that have already being set. Is that something that has ever bothered you?

For years and years, I didn’t do that much television, but I liked going in and doing it because I really like to shoot and I like to be on set. If you’re making movies, you might not be on a set for two full years because you’re in the cutting room or you’re developing. The great thing about television was you could just show up and do the fun part of the work, which is working with actors and making things happen. But the drag with television is that so much of it is set up in advance, at whatever point you get in – unless you’re directing the pilot and even then you don’t quite create it the way you do with a movie.

So in the early years I would never do a show after its first year, unless I had already done it in the first year. That was a rule I had in my head. But now I’m not so sure because there’s a lot of really good stuff being done in television and, if I wasn’t around or was doing other things when it started, I don’t really feel bad about joining season three or something like that.

With the rise of streaming services and more auteur visions, high-profile directors and bigger budgets on TV, do you think we’re going to see a decline in cinema and a rise in television as the overwhelming artistic medium?

I think we have seen that already and I don’t know where it’s going to go. There’s something so great about going to a theater and sitting with a group of people in a big, dark room. You cannot replace that. It doesn’t matter how high-quality the televison show is, if you’re sitting and watching it in your living room and you can press pause and get up and make popcorn, or make a phone call and come back. It’s a very different kind of viewing experience, so I don’t think it’s going to overtake cinema.

But the problem is there’s not that much being made any more for theaters that isn’t just massively huge. As you know, when you see a small independent film in the theater, it’s a great experience too, so I don’t want that to go away.

Even the massive movies! Even Andy Serkis’s Jungle Book film, which cost at least $150m, is going to Netflix.

Yes! It’s because that’s where the economy is. Companies like Netflix, Amazon or Apple all want to corner the entire media market for the entire world in every way, shape and form.

Winona Ryder descends into violence in Heathers
Winona Ryder descends into violence in Heathers

Do you not think a streaming service where they can dedicate it to things that might not be so succcessful in the theater would be more conducive to having a film like Heathers made today?

Absolutely! That’s really the only place you can do that sort of thing. There has been this huge boom in quality productions being done through these streaming services and American cable – and in Britain. There’s all this great stuff being made that would never have been made in the days when theaters were the only place where you could get stuff done. Television was not a place to do quality work when I was younger. When I first started making movies, if I did television work, it was slumming it. There were so many restrictions that nothing good was being made.

I did The Larry Sanders Show at HBO in the early 90s and, as comedy, that was pretty revolutionary and pretty great. But that was the only thing like that then, and now there’s tonnes of stuff.

Television is so cinematic now, in a way that cinema often even isn’t!

That’s true! [laughs] It used to be that, in television, if you tried to do things that were cinematic, they would get upset. I would direct a television show, they’d say “we need tight close-ups of everything” and I’d say “why?” They’d say “well it’s television; that’s how it plays” and I’d say “not if I’m going to direct it”.

Are there any actors you see now and wish they were around 30 years ago so you could’ve put them in Heathers?

That’s such a good question. I’ve never thought about that and I’m not going to give you an answer. [laughs] There are so many good actors now. I don’t look at actors and wish I had them for something before. It’s really hard to get your head into that. But I’ll look at an actor and say they’re really good. I do think that all the production that has been going on because of this big boom in television has given actors an opportunity they’d never have had before.

In American Horror Story, we had Jessica Lange and it was crazy. On Big Love, I had Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern. Some of these actors get a chance to do work that they wouldn’t have been able to do in features, and that’s true across the board.

Jessica Lange has played several roles in American Horror Story
Jessica Lange has played several roles in American Horror Story

In Heathers, it seems a lot of the time like JD is doing his best young Jack Nicholson impression!

That was something I never really liked. It baffled me at the time. I auditioned all of these young actors and none of them were really original or came in with an original take. They were imitating this one or that one. It felt like the young women who were reading for the girl parts came in and created a part and a persona. The boys were always derivative of something and I couldn’t figure out why. I still to this day can’t figure out why.

When Christian came in, he definitely had that Jack Nicholson twinge to his voice. It was part of what he was and I didn’t know if it would be distracting. During rehearsals, I talked to him about the Nicholson thing and said I didn’t want him to imitate Jack Nicholson. He said: “well, I learned a lot from watching Nicholson” and it was important for him in being able to come to terms with a dark character like that. I said “that’s fine” and he said “besides, this is how I talk”. [laughs] And, by the way, that was true, so there was no getting away from it. That was his natural way of speaking.

We hinted at the 80s nostalgia thing earlier. In order for a film like Heathers to be made now, does it need something to bounce against? Like John Hughes stuff allowed Heathers to happen, does there need to be something light to allow something equally dark to happen?

Well that’s an interesting point. I don’t think it needs to happen. I think the world is filled with stuff that’s ripe for satire, now more than ever. It’s harder now to find where that satire comes from because the world is so strange. The world has always been strange, but the ways in which entertainment characters have filtered into the rest of life because of reality television, it does make it harder. In fact, somebody needs to bounce off of all that and figure out a good avenue for satire but, boy, it’s really tricky!

Satire ages very quickly. Why should people still care about Heathers today?

I think that the social structure of high school has remained pretty much the same. Because of that, it still plays, and that’s the most surprising thing.

Thank you very much, Michael Lehmann!

Poster for the 30th anniversary release of teen classic Heathers
Poster for the 30th anniversary release of teen classic Heathers

Heathers – 30th Anniversary will be re-released in cinemas from August 8 and comes to VOD on August 20.

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