'Perverting the Youth of America': The Oral History of Teen Classic 'Jawbreaker'
Rose McGowan, writer/director Darren Stein, and members of the cast and crew tell the story of the making of the cult film about three girls who accidentally kill their best friend.
Illustration by Juliette Toma
Studios produced disturbing teen movies throughout the 1990s, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Cruel Intentions, and low-budget Jawbreaker capped the decade as the most disturbing film of all. The cult classic tells the story of a teen clique called the "Fabulous Four." Three of the four kill their best friend, Liz, in a prank gone awry: To celebrate Liz' birthday, her friends plan a fake kidnapping, in which they tie her up and toss her in a car trunk. Courtney, the clique leader, played by Rose McGowan, shoves a jawbreaker in her throat, which she chokes on and dies. Fern Mayo, a nerd played by a young Judy Greer, later finds the body and strikes a deal to stay quiet if she can join the girl's clique.
Two of Liz's friends, Marcie (played by Julie Benz) and Julie (played by Rebecca Gayheart), regret the accidental death, but Courtney lives for murder. Writer/director Darren Stein conceived the grotesque film as a comedy. (The girls spend a large portion of the film wearing rubber.) However, older viewers found it more disturbing than funny—the MPAA gave the film's first cut an NC-17 rating, and critics left theaters repulsed. "I knew high school comedies were desperate for new ideas, but Jawbreaker is the first one I've seen where the bad girl is stoned with corsages," Roger Ebert wrote in his review.
Read more: Shonda Rhimes on the Making of 'Crossroads'
The film underwhelmed at the box office, bringing in $3.1 million on a $3.5 million budget, but teens devoured Jawbreaker when Sony released the movie on VHS. Gay boys and punk girls, who understood the dark humor and needed Jawbreaker, found it. Since then, two new generations of teens have discovered the movie: Courtney memes appear on Tumblr, and Rookie mag publishes tributes to the film's signature style.
Over the course of a year, Broadly spoke to Stein, McGowan, and other members of the cast and crew about the making of the film, its legacy, and why they loved disturbing America.
Teen Killers Are Born
Stein began writing the film in the late 1990s. A gay New York University graduate, he had just showed his debut film, a gay road comedy called Sparkler, at festivals. He wanted to write a darker movie for his second film.
Darren Stein: I wanted to make a horror film. I liked the idea of how something seemingly innocuous in life can spiral out of control and become horrifying. Then I started thinking about those girls in the 80s in junior high school who kidnapped their friend on their birthday. I thought, What if there was this hardcore group of girls who are kidnapping their friend as a prank, and something goes wrong, and they kill her? That was supposed to be the set-up for something very dark that could also be a commentary on the world of girls.
As soon as I started writing the dialogue, it became a black comedy. As soon as I thought of a jawbreaker as a murder weapon—such a surreal/absurd candy—that informed the style of the piece and drove the tone. It became more of a blend of dark comedy with an underbelly of horror.
Julie Benz: I thought it was dark and twisted. It read to me like Heathers, and I loved Heathers.
Stein: The producer of [Sparkler] knew these other producers who were looking for a teen comedy. I had already written Jawbreaker, and they helped get it made. They brought it to Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. The studio executive said, "We'll finance the film if you can get either Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet, or Rose McGowan."
Read more: Rose McGowan on Sexism in Hollywood
Rose McGowan: I remember sitting in my backyard reading the script on a porch with my two Boston terriers, Fester and Bug, and I would run the lines with my dog Fester. I would pretend he was answering as the other characters, and then I would read Courtney Shane, and I was like, "OK. It's on. I got this."
Stein: We got Rose. I had seen the Doom Generation. It was Rose's first movie. She plays a speedy goth girl who has a three-way relationship with [two men]. I remember seeing it and [thinking], Who is that girl? She was such a sharp-tongued little vixen: porcelain skin, big eyes. She got the film financed.
McGowan: I've always tried to bring subversion to the masses.
Stein: Everyone else auditioned.
Rebecca Gayheart: I went in, and I auditioned initially for every role in the movie. First, I auditioned for Fern, maybe, and then I auditioned for Julie Benz's role.
Julie Benz: I auditioned, I think, a couple times. I read for casting first. I think I read for an assistant first, and then I read for a casting director, and then I read for Darren, and then I read for producers.
Stein: She had just done [Disturbing Behavior] and Buffy. She was a revelation because she brought a sense of humor to the role that wasn't on the page. [On the page,] she was a naive girl who didn't have the sense of humor that Julie brought—that gave that role some levity.
Benz: They had me come in with Rose, and we read with a bunch of girls to play—I think to play Fern or to play Rebecca's role.
Stein: The Julie role, which is played by Rebecca, we had originally cast as Rachael Leigh Cook. She came in and read with Rose and Julie Benz. It wasn't the right [dynamic] between the three of them. Maybe she was too young. I like the ideal of the girls being a little older looking. The whole movie is meant to be heightened.
Gayheart: They had cast someone already for [the character] Julie, and that sort of fell through, and then I think they started putting together the pieces of all the girls, and they said, "We think you're better for Julie." So I came in and read for that and it was sort of a done deal.
Stein: We found Rebecca Gayheart. She just fit with Rose and Julie Benz.
Gayheart: Jawbreaker started off as a smaller movie than Scream and Urban Legend, so it had more of a community feel, like an indie-movie feel to it. Every single person was hand-picked for that movie, right down to every crew member. The extras were handpicked, so it ended up being like my family for a while.
Back to High School
Once Stein landed his girls, he started filming. Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video gave him a direct-to-video budget, but he managed to create an iconic look, and the girls delivered classic performances.
Stein: Courtney's room feels like a boudoir. You want it to feel like a whorehouse: red heart-shaped bed, a lip-shaped phone.
McGowan: I based [Courtney], my character, completely on a 1930s movie called Leave Her to Heaven with a beautiful actress, Gene Tierney. When the new husband is like, "Darling, why did you push Timmy off a cliff?"—[Timmy was] the kid in the wheelchair—she's like, "Darling, we needed more time together." It completely was like, "Yeah, what's the big deal?" I took that attitude and spirit. When I did the line, "It's not like we kill people on purpose," that's my homage to Leave Her to Heaven and Gene Tierney.
Gayheart: My first impression of Rose was, "Wow! She's got very pretty skin." I remember thinking that. I'd never seen someone who was so porcelain and whose skin is so beautiful. I now have two daughters who are that pale and have that kind of skin, so I get it and I get why she was standing under an umbrella and did not want the sun to touch her skin for a moment. I'm different. I love the sun; I'm always in the sun. I'd be like, "Rose, why are you under that umbrella?" She was like, "The sun. I don't want it touching my skin."
McGowan: It was weird because I was set up to be catty with Rebecca Gayheart.
Benz: I was intimidated. Rose McGowan and Rebecca Gayheart—they were stars! I was kind of a nobody at that point, so I was pretty intimidated. I thought they were really cool. Rebecca is, like, the sweetest person on the planet and so lovely and so kind and was really kind and generous towards me, and Rose is a force. I was definitely intimidated by her, and I realized that fit the character. That fit the Marcie-Courtney relationship, so I could just use that in the work.
McGowan: Julie fascinates me as a human being endlessly. I remember she was just somebody who lived a wildly different existence than I had ever lived previous to making Jawbreaker. In her high school she won "best dressed" because she kept a photo or diary of everything she wore every single day in high school and never repeated an outfit once. I was like, "Motherfuck, you are Marcie!"
Benz: I wanted to win the senior superlative. I wanted to be best dressed. I had it in my head since I was a freshman that that was the senior superlative to win, because that meant that you had fashion and style. I never wore the same outfit twice in all of high school. I kept a clothes journal, and I wore a new outfit every single day.
McGowan: I never went to high school because I was homeschooled mostly, but [high school] looked like a miserable fucking place.
Stein: The high school was made up of three different high schools: University High School of West LA; the cafeteria was Notre Dame, a private school in the Valley; and the prom was a school in a more urban neighborhood. They shot the Buffy prom there!
Benz: We released Jawbreaker a month before I was getting married, and I chopped off all my hair on the first day of filming. It was all because Rose convinced me to. The very first scene we shot was us driving in the car freaking out that we killed our friend who was in the trunk, and I had to cry, and every time I just reached up and touched the back of my head, like bawling because I couldn't believe I chopped off all my hair. Then I had to go home and tell my fiancé.
Stein: Julie says that line in the car, "You're a shoo-in for prom queen." She made that funny. When she says, "Maybe she was practicing and she swallowed." Julie came up with that blowjob hand gesture.
Dress to Kill Your Best Friend
Stein grew up watching teen movies like Heathers and John Hughes' classic teen cannon: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club—the list goes on. He wanted Jawbreaker to deliver iconic looks, so he turned to Vikki Barrett, who crafted timeless looks comprised of curvy rubber dresses and bright sweaters that would become iconic as the shoulder pads in Clueless.
Stein: Vikki was Mona May's costumer on Clueless and Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion—she was perfect. The thing about Vikki is she brought that eye-popping color, but she's also a bit more punk rock. She brought a real sense of fashion to the film. We really wanted to pull from all time periods: 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. Everyone's like, "It's so 90s!" But it's not. If it were, the fashion wouldn't be iconic.
Barrett: I knew I could do a lot with fashion in it.
Stein: We talked about mixing 80s and 50s. It was the collision of Grease and an 80s punk latex aesthetic. Vicki found a bright purple skirt for Rebecca Gayheart. It was made of latex. We wanted hints of fetish in there because goth is just as inspiring to me as any film genre. I've always loved punk rock: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood. I wanted the influences in there in a candy color way—it was one of the first candy color goth examples.
Gayheart: The wardrobe in the movie was as big of a character as any written character, so we all spent an enormous amount of time together and really gelled and really hung out and really had dialogue and conversations. That's different. You don't always get that on a movie.
Barrett: Meeting [the actresses] actually helps your costume design because you may have one thing in mind, but then you meet the actress and they inspire you to go in a certain direction—like the dark hair or the light skin on Rose. Definitely casting has a lot to do with your design.
Benz: I was in my 20s when we did Jawbreaker, but I could totally relate to Marcie because it was all about fashion. It was all about the surface—there was no depth with her.
We had so much subversive fun.
Gayheart: Once we had the first fitting I was still confused.
Benz: I was married to my first husband at the time and he'd look at me and be like, "Where are you? You're talking like you're in high school." I'm like, "I know; I can't help it."
Gayheart: The second fitting I was like, Okay, I get what he's doing. From there it just got really fun. That department was strong, and they didn't let any detail go unnoticed.
McGowan: The costumes weren't hard [to wear] at all. They were amazing. Vikki Barrett, she is fucking stellar. She was putting Gautier on extras—on no budget. She's a total punk and is the coolest stylist.
Barrett: They weren't plastic [dresses]. I think I used a little bit of rubber, but it was mostly shiny lycra. My general mood for the movie was kind of the 50s pencil skirt but more contemporary: a little edgier, a little sexier, but incorporating the 50s meets the 80s thing—the 80s colors, not so much silhouettes.
Gayheart: Oh, my skirt was, like, a rubber vinyl, yeah. It was intense. It's not really my fabric of choice, but it was a great choice for that movie and that character, and it just made it all so funny. It's all so brilliant, you know?
McGowan: The irony [is] my brain is this kind of tough guy, but my body is a super feminine curvy and slim pin-up doll thing. The great irony that I was born into this hyper-feminine body has always cracked me up, and certainly they did typecasting and all that stuff, but I fit into Vikki's clothes very well. She designed them with my shape in mind.
Lifting Dead Weight (Literally)
The clothes caused the girls a massive problem. Stein required them to wear heels while carrying Charlotte Ayanna, the girl playing their dead friend, up and down the stairs.
Benz: They chose, like, the lightest girl on the planet for us to carry, because we were all in heels and high skirts, and we had to carry her for quite a distance. It was easy, but we were afraid of dropping her the whole time. When we were carrying her up the stairs, at one point we fell because it's hard to walk up stairs carrying a dead body in high heels. She was so cool. She was like, "I'm fine."
Gayheart: It was almost impossible to do. I think we all left with injuries. We'd never be the same from then on. My knees have never been the same. Really, she was dead weight—we were wearing high-heels, and it was a hundred degrees outside.
McGowan: She wasn't heavy. It was just because she was another human being and we're still girls. She was playing a dead weight. Maybe I'm stronger than Julie.
Stein: I remember Rose faking it. She was in the middle. She pretended she was carrying her. Julie and Rebecca said, "Rose is faking it. We had to carry her weight."
Gayheart: I think myself and Julie actually carried her. I think Rose pretended. It was too much work for her.
Stein: Whenever you have three girls and they're playing the three bitches of the school and they're shooting a film in a compressed four weeks to shoot a movie—that tone affects the dynamic of the girls.
The Hallway Scene
After they commit murder, the three girls strut down the hallway, swinging their handbags at their hips in slow motion, while Imperial Teen's "Yoo Hoo" plays. This scene inspired memes and other films that bear striking similarities to Jawbreaker—most notably Mean Girls. The girls knew they were making history as they filmed.
Stein: I knew it was exciting. I wanted to take a gangster motif, a slow motion Western motif, where the heroes walk in slow motion with their horses as a gang. You've seen that in Reservoir Dogs. I turned that into a high school girl gang moment. I knew the fashion was important. I wanted it to be a slow-motion thing. I knew the costumes were important. The floor is gleaming. They were backlit by the windows.
Gayheart: The wardrobe was very important.
Benz: I was still kind of learning how to walk in high heels, and my shoes would make this awful quaking noise. They were so loud. I don't know if it's 'cause I didn't know how to walk. I felt so awkward walking in those scenes, and everybody would laugh at my shoes because they would make so much noise. I don't know if it was me or if it was the shoe. I was so mortified because I'm so not cool—I'm just not a cool girl.
Gayheart: It was pretty much like what you see in the movie. We felt that way. We felt that way that day. We felt cool.
McGowan: That was everything that it looked like. I owned that shit. We all did, and I still would at this day.
The Sex Scene Too Disturbing for Movie Theatres
The MPAA wanted to give Jawbreaker an NC-17 rating because of the film's gross sex scene. While her dead friend's corpse lays under a bed, Courtney, McGowan's character, fucks a man she wants to frame for the murder. Marilyn Manson plays her victim. He dated McGowan at the time, and she asked him to have a cameo in the film.
Stein: I asked her, "Do you think he might play the character who you seduce and who you bring home and frame?" She said, "I can ask him! I'm happy to ask him." She asked him, and he said yes. It was that easy.
McGowan: We had so much subversive fun.
Stein: It was fun shooting that scene because she's in a bejeweled dog collar—punk rock. She's wearing a bustier. You're not really meant to feel like she's being victimized by that man. She's the one in control. She's framing him—with a dead body under the bed.
McGowan: Perverting the youth of America in that way—it's awesome. Think about it: That's definitely not in Can't Hardly Wait.
Gayheart: [Manson was] the exact opposite of what you would think. I actually had a birthday party around the time we were filming Jawbreaker, and Rose and Marilyn came—everyone from the movie came. He was so normal. You were kinda disappointed because there was no strangeness there. The conversations were normal, he looked normal, he acted normal, [and] he ate normal.
Stein: The movie was originally rated NC-17. One of the cuts we had to make to get an R was to cut out the number of thrusts. It was shot in slow motion. It was really sleazy. I guess too sleazy for the MPAA.
Darren Stein should be directing movie after movie.
How VHS Saved a Movie and Birthed a Cult Classic
Jawbreaker opened on February 19, 1999 on 800 screens. Sony hooked up an MTV special but otherwise refrained from marketing the film. The movie failed to recoup its budget in theatre, but then it found a very long second life on VHS, and later, DVD.
Benz: [The premiere] was fun. I got to borrow a dress. It was the first time I had a stylist. I had my hair and makeup done. It was one of my first big premieres. It was magical, it was fun, it was crazy—it was cool.
Gayheart: We did a whole Sundance thing. We went to New York. We did MTV. We did a lot of promotion for the movie, and Rose and I did a lot of stuff together and that was really fun. We got to experience all of that.
Stein: [Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters] thought that I was ripping him off. I was clearly inspired by it, but the only thing that's similar about the two films is there are three high school bitches and murder. Heathers is really about Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater's love story. In this, you have a devious girl who's running the show.
Benz: I was disappointed with how it did in the theaters, and it was only because it wasn't in the theaters for very long and I didn't understand at that time the business as I understand it now. I didn't fully understand that it was meant to be a limited release and then go on DVD. That was really what it was made for because it was done by Sony home video. I thought we were going to be this big blockbuster hit in the theaters, but our numbers were just so-so.
McGowan: When that movie came out, it was Sony screen gem, and they had to decide to put their money for advertising behind Jawbreaker or Can't Hardly Wait, and they fucked up and chose Can't Hardly Wait. I'm sure it's remembered affectionately for people that liked it, but please! Which is the superior film? Let's be real. One had cultural impact.
Stein: When everyone says it only made three million opening weekend, what did you expect? It didn't have the marketing other movies had, and it was only on 800 screens, and the critics killed it. That didn't help. The [Roger Ebert review] pisses me off. He co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which is one of the most amoral movies of all time, but it's stylized. That was a huge influence on Jawbreaker: A girl group was in it; it had all that fashion; it had the sexual irreverence.
The good thing is he hated it with a virile-ness that I liked. A true cult movie has to have people who love it and hate it—it elicits extreme responses.
McGowan: Holy motherfucking shit are [Hollywood people] stupid. Something gets into their brain where they're like, "It is OK to be dumb all the time." No, actually it's not. Now, there's a difference between Los Angeles and Hollywood, but the problem is there's a monoculture, so it all serves one God, and that God is, like, semi-retarded. I know you're not supposed to say that word, but it's a really fucking good word. No insult to anybody, but it's a goddamn good word, and I hate that I can't use it.
Stein: The cool thing is people found it. It's a thing of pride people have today. They'll come up to me today and say, "I saw that in the theatre. I took work off." It was a thing.
Benz: Then I was surprised that it ended up having the legs that it did afterwards because I didn't understand at the time how the industry worked. Now I am so pleasantly surprised when people come up and quote lines from it and ask me to sign their Jawbreaker DVDs.
McGowan: People are smarter than they're given credit for. Audience members are smarter than they're given credit for by Hollywood men. They generally, most of the time, throw slop on a stick. Now, movies, if they're not shitty, are considered good because we're so used to just shit. Darren really brought it. He had a really punk spirit—we all did. That was really essential to that production.
Fetch Is Never Going to Happen, Tina Fey
Since Jawbreaker, Stein has continued to make teen movies. McGowan, meanwhile, has become a feminist critic of Hollywood. Benz stars on Dexter and what feels like a million other hilarious, dark TV shows, and Gayheart continues to act. They all look fondly back on Jawbreaker. It has influenced fashion, music, and Hollywood over the past 17 years, from Alexander Wang ads to Tumblr posts.
Most notably, Tina Fey wrote a movie called Mean Girls that also told the story about a clique of four girls who walk down a hallway in slow motion. Stein and the cast praise the writing—and especially the performance of a Lindsay Lohan at her prime—but take issue with the similarities.
Stein: We had three days to shoot an entire prom. We had a whole slow motion of Courtney's undoing. It's just as iconic as the slow motion walk. We literally strapped her to the galley—the wheels on the camera—so it looks like she floats through the crowd. That got me [a job directing] an Alexander Wang fashion film. Alex is a fan of the movie; he used that scene as a reference. So many designers and filmmakers have said it's the collision of beauty and the grotesque—that's the whole aesthetic of the movie. Everyone's throwing their corsages, and then you have Rose pulling her hair out of that silver band and her massacre running.
I was inspired by Courtney Love and Hole's Live Through This cover, which is a prom queen with smeared mascara at the prom. I remember Francis Cobain once tweeted out "Veruca Salt," [a song that plays in the movie] and I responded to her [something like], "You should know your mom is one of the inspirations for naming [the character] Courtney."
There are three different makeup brands with lipsticks called Jawbreaker. I think the original was Jeffree Star. (Back in the early 2000s, his MySpace moniker was "I killed the teen dream," so he was ahead of the curve.) He talks about how Jawbreaker is his favorite movie, and that's what inspired that shade. Now Urban Decay has a jawbreaker [named makeup type]. I was inspired by Urban Decay. Back in the 90s, they had colors called, like, decay. In Jawbreaker, the girls talk about, "I have a nail polish called decay." It's all come full circle.
Gayheart: I'm a mom. I have two kids—the generation that's like ten years younger than me, they are still flipped out by this movie. I posted something on my Instagram, a flashback Friday or throwback Thursday or something a few months ago, and it was a funny little Jawbreaker thing, and the comments I got from various people—other actors, other [people]—they loved this movie.
McGowan: Darren Stein should be directing movie after movie, and they're too stupid to see that. It's like they couch him as "queer filmmaker" (if they even can use that word). They're like, "gay filmmaker." What the fuck does that have to do with anything? He's a rad filmmaker. I don't see a lot of those around. I don't want to act anymore, but it would be so easy to do a [Jawbreaker] sequel. It would be really fun.
Stein: The cool thing about teen movies is there's always a new crop of kids becoming teenagers. They all want to seek out the movies that speak to them, and Jawbreaker is still so under the radar. Every decade, teens feel like they're discovering this film. Most likely their older sister and brother only knew about Mean Girls.
Gayheart: I watched that movie and I just prefer Jawbreaker, but I'm sure I'm biased.
Stein: It annoyed me at first because it was clear to me that Tina Fey had watched Jawbreaker. Structurally, there are similarities. Tina Fey is brilliant. Mean Girls is hilarious. It fully deserves its recognition. That being said, I think Jawbreaker is way bitchier and more stylish, and it's a more honest version than Mean Girls. Let's be honest: The mean girls aren't that mean. On Tuesday they wear pink—who cares? Fetch, really? You're gonna make fetch happen? Fetch is so silly to begin with.
Benz: I didn't see Mean Girls. I'm sorry!
McGowan: I've never seen Mean Girls. I probably would've just gotten annoyed because I really don't like things that are derivative. The whole thing—the hallway walk—and I've seen it so many times since then, but it's like, do something original. Maybe they could be doing the worm down the hallway. I don't know. Fuck it up!