All the Drama That Nearly Kept 'Heathers' from Making It to Theaters
We spoke to the "Heathers" screenwriter, director, and cast to celebrate the cult classic's upcoming 30th anniversary.
If there ever was a Heathers sequel, screenwriter Daniel Waters informs me, it would go like this: Veronica goes to Hollywood and works as an assistant to Heather, an "extremely very" senator who is modelled on 90s-era Hillary Clinton and played by Meryl Streep. Then somehow—because Heather is still an asshole—Veronica winds up killing her before having to cover her tracks due to the inherent problems that come with assassinating a politician.
To be clear, Waters says, there is no Heathers sequel, and nor will there ever be one. But when Winona Ryder recently cornered Waters at some fancy Hollywood party and demanded a sequel for her character Veronica, this is what he came up with. Then he put it out of his mind until he ran into her at another party, a couple of months later. Ryder said, "I spoke to Meryl Streep about the sequel. She’s in."
Heathers is about to turn 30, and Arrow Films is celebrating the anniversary this August by re-releasing the film in UK cinemas and a home release in glorious 4K restoration. It's a good reason to write this piece, but really, I've been looking for a reason to write about Heathers since I first watched it in 1997. Everything about Heathers is perverse and therefore wonderful: blood-drunk teenagers on murderous killing sprees; the outfits, my god; the dialogue; Christian Slater as a dime-store Jack Nicholson; the bracing satire; the croquet.
The 1988 low-budget black comedy follows a clique of four girls—three called Heather, and one called Veronica—in a small-town Ohio high school. The Heathers are capricious, mean bullies. When Veronica begins dating troubled, gun-wielding loner J.D. (Slater), she grows disgusted with the cost of high-school popularity. Together, J.D. and Veronica kill all three Heathers, but in doing so inspire a string of copycat suicides at Westerburg High. After all, if the cool kids are killing themselves, why not try to follow suit?
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Over time, and with repeated viewings, I’ve come to develop a theory about Heathers, which is this: The movie would not be made today. Heathers riffs on gun violence, mental health, teen suicide, self-harm, bullying, and eating disorders with sledgehammer-like satire. In today’s social media age, where outrage is more contagious than a high-school herpes outbreak, would jokes about date-rape and AIDs even survive the cutting floor?
“We were all so young and we kind of felt that if somebody was willing to make the movie, it would get out,” remembers director Michael Lehmann.
Heathers was his directorial debut and Waters’ first feature-length screenplay. The pair's naivety about the rigors of the studio system gave them the courage to stay true to Waters’ pitch-black cinematic vision. “There wasn’t that sense that we have now of a necessity for a certain kind of political correctness,” Lehmann says. “Nobody was saying, ‘You can’t make the movie with this dark tone, we can’t put it out there.’”
Today, things might be different. “You’re so carefully monitored and looked at now,” he explains.
Waters says of his first-time screenwriting effort: “To me, I was just completely naïve to everything. I thought, OK, you write a script and then it gets made into a movie, and you do whatever you want. And I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t teach you—that one of the most powerful forces in the world, especially when you’re a writer that’s just starting out, is naivety.”
Lehmann believes that Heathers was also able to get made partly due to sheer timing. “We hit it at a moment when there was a lot of production being financed due to the beginning of the home-movie business, so we sort of slipped in through the cracks.”
Whether it was good luck or the swaggering bravado that comes with youthful inexperience, Heathers made it to cinemas. Other than the successful off-Broadway show Heathers: The Musical, attempts to revive the film's universe have fallen flat. A TV reboot of the same name has been beset with more difficulties than someone who’s eaten a brain tumor for breakfast. It was originally been scheduled to air on March 7, but Paramount Network pushed the release date to July 10 after the Parkland school shooting out of respect to the victims. After another school shooting in Texas in May, Paramount Network announced that the series was being pulled indefinitely.
Both Lehmann and Waters are saddened by the challenges that have befallen the TV reboot, but believe that satire has an important role to play in exposing how little America’s attitudes towards gun violence have changed in the 30 years since the film’s release. “To me, it’s crazy,” Lehmann says of the cancellation. “These things should be coming out precisely because of that kind of violence. It sheds light on things that are pertinent to the discussion.”
"People come to me a lot and say, ‘The movie couldn’t be made today,’ but my point is that it couldn’t be made then either!"
Still, making Heathers wasn’t easy even back then. “People come to me a lot and say, ‘The movie couldn’t be made today,’ but my point is that it couldn’t be made then either!” Waters laughs. Studio executives demanded that the ending was changed: J.D. was originally scripted to blow up Westerburg High, and the movie ends with a prom in heaven.
“We fought very hard to keep that in,” Lehmann remembers, “but the head of New World Pictures, who had given the go-ahead for the movie and was very much in support of it, looked at us and said, ‘If you don’t change the ending, we won’t make the movie.’”
His reasoning? “If the school goes up,” Lehmann says, mimicking the executive in question, “essentially we’re saying it’s OK to blow up a school, and it’s OK to commit suicide, and if one teenager goes out and commits suicide after seeing the film, the blood is on our hands.”
Lehmann and Waters rolled their eyes at the time, but eventually gave in to the demands. In the final version, Veronica thwarts J.D.’s plans to blow up the school, and he detonates a suicide vest and kills himself instead. “I would have liked to have seen the original ending with its full irony out there, with a darker feel and a kind of odd, perverse sense of optimism,” Lehmann says.
Over time, the behind-the-scenes story of Heathers has acquired the mythic quality of one of Veronica’s dream sequences. One larger-than-life tale is that Ryder’s agent got on her knees and begged her not to take the role (Ryder confirmed this in an interview with Entertainment Weekly). “We were first-time film-writers and it was a low-budget film,” Lehmann explains.
Another is that Lisanne Falk, who played Heather McNamara, lied about her age. When I call Falk up to ask her about this, she laughs: “I did lie about my age!" She was 23 at the time, and McNamara's character was meant to be 18. "The reason was because at that time they were casting a lot of teen movies with 30 year olds, and it looked ridiculous," Falk explains. "You’d go and see the movie and think, please, that person is not a teenager.”
Lehmann cycled through what felt like half of the teen actresses in Hollywood in his attempt to cast Veronica. “Heather Graham was my first choice to play the role,” he explains. “And I really wanted her, but her parents wouldn’t let her do the film.” Waters favored Jennifer Connelly, but her parents also wouldn’t let her take the role. Kim Walker, who played queen of the Heathers, Heather Chandler, put in a good audition, but Lehmann was reluctant to cast her as Veronica because she was dating Slater and he was concerned it would impact her performance. (The couple broke up during the shoot, and Slater and Ryder briefly dated afterwards.)
"I’ve gone through different stages of thinking, Goddamn it, I’ll never write another film as good as Heathers."
Things fell into place once Ryder came in for her audition. “She was perfect for it,” Lehmann explains. “You know, Winona was an extraordinary young girl, she was really smart and socially aware, and she had suffered. She was an odd kid from a hippie family in northern California, she had been bullied, and because she was unusual and her family was strange, she had a strong personal connection with the character. But at the same time, she was beautiful and talented and smart. So, like Veronica, she could identify with the victims, and identify with the torturers.”
In part, the reason that Heathers is so compelling is because—attempted bombing and murder aside—it’s actually pretty accurate. Some teenage girls are just plain evil evil, and high school can feel like a brutal prison with its own jail-like slang. In fact, Waters created a specific vernacular for Heathers that is still quoted by fans today: Things are "very" or individuals are "jealous much?".
“We committed to a certain stylization, and everyone talks in a certain rhythm, and I think it works,” he says. “A mistake a lot of people make is that they turn on tape recorders and go into high schools and capture how teens are talking. But I wanted a certain timelessness, and I could guarantee that by coming up with my own slang.”
Language aside, Falk credits the continued popularity of the film to the enduring relevance of its themes. What teenager hasn’t, at some point, fantasized about seeking revenge on their bullies? “It was the first movie of its time to take these issues like teen suicide and bullying and body image and self-harm and gun violence, and have a sense of humor and perspective on them, so you can really look at them and figure out what they mean,” she observes. “At the end of the day, especially for the teens watching Heathers today, I think these things still exist, and this sense of wanting to figure out who you are and where you fit in and what you’re made of and how you come out of this. So it’s almost timeless in the questions it’s asking and looking at.”
Whether or not the Heathers reboot ever comes out (it is currently being shopped around to other TV networks), Waters is happy that a 30-year-old film made by a fledgling crew on a shoestring budget is still pulling in audiences. “I’m still marvelling at the fact it’s still somehow in the public conversation,” he says.
But creating a genre-defining cult film on your first-ever attempt doesn’t come without some growing pains. “I’ve gone through different stages of thinking, Goddamn it, I’ll never write another film as good as Heathers, and now I’m at the more enlightened stage of thinking, Hey, at least I got to write Heathers," Waters says candidly. “Because it’s so hard to get a movie made, especially in the way you want it to be made. Maybe it came too early in my career, though. It might have been more pleasurable coming after 10 years of trauma.”
Heathers 30th Anniversary will be re-released back in UK cinemas from 8 August and comes to digital and on demand 20 August.