Michael Lehmann’s most celebrated film, teenage black comedy Heathers turns 30 this year. With it comes a re-release and a short run back in UK cinemas. To only know Lehmann by Heathers would be reductionist, he has made 10 feature films before moving to television, in which he was worked on acclaimed shows including American Horror Story, True Blood, and Dexter.
Earlier this week I sat down with Lehmann for a Q&A in a chilly back room of the BFI. We discussed the lasting legacy of Heathers, the long-talked about potential for a sequel, the rise of television, and the insights that three decades passing give you.
Q: When Heathers first came out 30 years ago and received a fairly lukewarm box office reception at the time, did you expect people to still be talking about it 30 years later?
ML: No I didn’t, I obviously had no idea. You know it’s interesting – it didn’t do any box office and it barely made it into the theatres because the company that made the movie was going out of business and we were lucky that we got a theatrical release. But, it did get a fair amount of positive attention from the press at the time and it played at Sundance. We felt okay, that we’d made a movie, at least to the cinephile audience, that will have some sort of an effect. But we never felt it would have any kind of life beyond the 1 or 2 years around it’s release. Things get forgotten. So it’s funny that people are still looking at it 30 years later, for whatever reasons.
Q: One thing I’ve noticed discussing Heathers with friends, is how heavily it resonates with young women, is that something you set out for with Daniel Waters’ script?
ML: Yeah, you know Dan, his younger brother is a film director, Mark Waters who directed Mean Girls and all that, and he said he paid close attention to his sister and her friends in high school. We would always say where do you get all this insight into the girls live. He was just a great observer of his sister and her friends. It always felt as though there was something particular about the way girls relate to each other. How mean high school girls can be to each other, how they band together in cliques. Guys do the same thing. To be more exact, females do develop quicker than males so you have very sophisticated interaction between them compared to the boys who just sit around being dumb. That’s true and I think that’s true in life and it’s true in the film. It makes sense that if you’re going to do a more sophisticated film about high school then to focus on the girls.
Q: It is a satirical movie with a lot of spiky edges, do you think you could make the same film now?
ML: Not the same way. You have to remember that 30 years ago we didn’t have the same problems with school shootings that we do now.
Q: Yes, and the scene where the gun is pulled in school is truly horrifying now.
ML: The idea that someone would have a gun in school was horrifying but in a different way than it is now. Back then you would have never actually thought someone would have a gun in school. The world has changed so much in that regard but it doesn’t make the film any less relevant, in some ways it makes it more so. It would be very hard to get the movie made these days
Q: And we saw that with the TV show remake, which sort of fell on its face. Was that just a case of bad timing?
ML: I haven’t seen the show so I don’t know how good or bad it was. But it was all set to go but got pulled because of too many people shooting each other.
Q: In the past a remake has been discussed with Winona Ryder. With current fascination with 80’s nostalgia and Winona Ryder’s second wind to her career on the back of Stranger Things, do you think the remake would ever become reality?
ML: I don’t think so. I haven’t talked to her about it in the last few years. I haven’t talked to her since Stranger Things. I need to get in touch. My daughter was working on Stranger Things and talked to her at the preview of the first season and talked to her. She told her to give me a call but we never followed up on it. I don’t know what we would do if we were to make a new Heathers or a sequel to it. It’s always been confusing to me because the movie is so self-contained and very much of its time and place, I’m not sure what we would do.
Q: There is mileage in doing a similar satirical film with modern social media we have a completely new social landscape. Heathers speaks to that to a degree. Is it worth doing it today in a more explicit way?
ML: Somebody should be looking at the contemporary high school and contemporary adolescence and find a new way to express these things. I’ve never understood why you remake movies anyway. You remake them if something didn’t work the first time around. The best remakes are where you say that was a great idea for a movie, but you didn’t get it right and I don’t think that quite suits Heathers.
Q: So with 30 years having passed, you wouldn’t make the same Heathers today?
ML: I would do loads differently. I’m still a director, when I see it I think ‘Oh I shouldn’t have shot it that way, why didn’t I use the other take? Why didn’t I take that line out?’. It’s something that you always do, as a filmmaker you’re always second guessing the choices you make.
Q: Do you think at the time you were making it, it was a response to the other teen movies in the public conscience?
ML: Yes. We weren’t making the movie as a response. But, the John Hughes movies and the teen movies that were playing from the mid 80’s on were so in the culture at the time that we thought we were going to bring a different point of view to the whole thing. I thought John Hughes made great movies, he was very funny and they are very insightful about being a teenager at the time. But, they are also sanitised or romanticised to a certain degree or sentimentalised. No matter how much John Hughes had a rock and roll spirit and was rebellious, those movies play very down the middle. Ferris Beuller is a very good movie, but it is very different from Heathers, it doesn’t go to those dark places.
Q: Do you then think Heathers presents a high school experience closer to your own?
ML: My high school experience had some pretty dark elements. I don’t remember high school as being a fun and happy place to be. I never felt that the John Hughes representation of high school had anything to do with my own experience.
Q: One of the things that gives Heathers a punch is that it’s not just a high school film, it has very political dimensions to it. How prominent were the politics in Water’s script and did you do anything to heighten them?
ML: It was definitely part of it. Part of what Dan was going for was that the Heathers were actually very conservative. They had a conservative point of view. Veronica was morally ambivalent and could exist in all social elements. I suppose she was a classic liberal social democrat. J.D. represented anarchy, let’s blow it all up. That was part of the script from the start and something we really fought to maintain.
Q: The James Dean allusion is no coincidence then, I guess?
ML: No. The other thing I felt was very funny in Dan’s script was you have the James Dean but also Betty and Veronica. Even at the time people would come up to me and be like ‘I never really thought about that, that’s Archie comics’. Like, yes! That’s why her name’s Betty and she has her friend Veronica! Well it was like Veronica Sawyer and Betty Finn, so there’s also the whole Sawyer and Finn thing too.
Q: You picked up Heathers as a director. How has that fed into the things you’ve done on television since, the darker stuff: Dexter, American Horror Story?
ML: The thing is, in a funny way, the one thing I did in television that felt closest in sensibility to Heathers was True Blood. True Blood, which many people look at as a dumb genre vampire show, was not in my mind a dumb genre vampire show. It was a satire. Alan Ball, who created the show, has a good strong satirical bend. What interested me about that show was that it went to those darker places. A lot of the satire that was in the show came through genre. American Horror Story was a lot of fun to do. Ryan Murphy, the creator, always said Heathers was a great influence on him. I never saw that influence though. Dexter too has a pretty good dark sense of humour. I came late to the game with Dexter, by the time I got there it had already established that though.
Q: A lot of directors are quite sniffy about coming into an established show with its parameters already set, is that something that bothers you?
ML: For years and years, I didn’t do much television. But I liked to because I liked to shoot, with film you may not be on set for 2 years at a time. The drag in television, is that unless you do the pilot, you will never have the show you want. So for a long time I didn’t do it. But now, I don’t feel so bad about coming into a show at season 3, for example.
Q: With the rise of streaming services and television series getting greater budgets and auteurial voices attached, do you think we will see a decline of cinema and a rise of television?
ML: I we’ve seen that already. But, there’s something so great about going to a theatre with a group of people in a big dark room. You cannot replace that. It doesn’t matter how good the television show is, if you’re sitting in your living room and can press pause and make a phone call or a snack, it’s a very different viewing experience. It’s not going to replace cinema.
The problem is that there isn’t much being made for theatres that isn’t massively huge. When you see a small independent film in the theatre, that’s a great experience. I don’t want that to go away.
Q: Do you not think that a streaming platform, which can finance films that won’t be so successful in theatre runs, are more conducive to having a film like Heathers made today?
ML: Absolutely. That’s really the only place you can have this kind of thing being done. There’s all this great stuff being made that would have never been made before. Television was not a place to do quality work when I was younger, to do television work was slumming it. It used to be that if you tried to do something cinematic when making television the producers wouldn’t be happy. Now, if you turn up to direct, it may be writer driven still, but there’s a lot more freedom.
Q: When you watch television now, are there any actors you see and think ‘wow, I wish I could have put them in Heathers?’
ML: That’s such a good question, I’ve never thought about that. *Lehmann laughs* I’m not going to give you an answer to that now.
I don’t look at actors and think I wish I had them for something I’ve done before, it’s really hard to get your head into that. I look at an actor and admire their work. Because of this big boom in television, many actors have opportunities they would have never had before. In television I’ve worked with Jessica Lang, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bruce Dern to name a few. These actors are doing work they wouldn’t have been doing in features.
Q: You say that you wouldn’t want to work with other actors, but in Heathers it seems Christian Slater is doing his best young Jack Nicholson impression, do you not think?
ML: That was something I never really liked. It baffled me at the time. I auditioned all these young actors and none of them came in with an original take. They were all imitating other actors. The young women came in and created a part and a persona but the boys were always derivative of something. I couldn’t and still can’t figure out why.
When Christian came in he definitely had that Jack Nicholson twinge to his voice and I wasn’t sure about it, I was worried it would be distracting. During rehearsals, I told him not to imitate Jack Nicholson. But he learned a lot from Nicholson especially when coming to terms with his dark character. And he said, ‘besides, this is how I talk’. There was no way of getting away from It because that was his natural way of speaking.
Q: If Heathers was partly reactionary to John Hughes films. Do you think that films made today must also be reactionary?
ML: I don’t think so. I think there is always time for satire, especially now as the world is so strange. Entertainment characters seem to filter into real life with reality television and it is harder to find where satire is actually coming from. In fact, somebody needs to figure their way round this and find a good avenue for new satire.
Q: Satire ages quickly, why do you think people should still care about Heathers today?
ML: I think the social structure of high school is much the same. Because of that it still plays fine, that’s the most surprising thing.
Thank you Michael Lehmann!
Heathers 30th anniversary re-release is in UK cinemas from 8th August.