Wednesday, May 18, 2016

DANIEL WATERS ON 'HEATHERS' (PART 2 OF 2)

Daniel Waters exploded onto the film scene with his brilliant, perceptive, wickedly funny screenplay for HEATHERS (1988). His subversive, outrageous, satirical sense of fun brought extraordinary qualities to films like BATMAN RETURNS (1992), THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990), HUDSON HAWK (1991), DEMOLITION MAN (1993) and VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014), the latter of which was directed by his brother Mark Waters, the director of MEAN GIRLS (2004). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). In the first part of our two-part interview, I spoke to Dan about the writing, influences and initial reaction of the HEATHERS screenplay, and also the casting of the film.   

Part one of the interview. 

One of the great qualities of the film is that there's real pathos in the film, in the Martha Dumptruck story, for example.
You don't want to have it where everything is a big joke. Having said that, Lehmann and I have that gene where we always want to add humor to a dramatic scene. When he added the 'Fe Fi Fo Fum' music to Martha walking down the corridor I said ''Michael, what are you doing?'' And he answered ''I can't help it!'' We both still have the court jester sides of our personalities that we can't get rid of.

Do the killer lines come easily to you?
The first draft of HEATHERS was done on a typewriter, which was before I could even afford a computer. It makes me feel like I wrote HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). I wasn't walking around my desk going ''I gotta come up with some great lines!'' The great lines come first very slowly, so when I sit down to write a scene I already have this arsenal of stuff that I have come up with. When the actual writing is getting done, I have these weapons that I can use, which are notebooks full of stuff I have come up with. You remember in THE KARATE KID (1984) where Daniel has to learn how to wax on and wax off and paint the fence and all that before he can actually do the karate moves? I think there's a lot of that with my writing. There is a lot of 'pre-writing' – turns of phrases and little ideas like Veronica putting a car lighter into her hand and then J.D. lighting a cigarette off the burn. Something like that doesn't come on the day of the game. It comes way before I start writing.

Did you do extra work on the film during shooting?
Now I often have to do quite an amount of work on a screenplay whilst the movie is shooting, but on HEATHERS once we started shooting I didn't do any work at all.

How did Michael Lehmann get involved?
Michael did this short film when he was at the USC called The Beaver Gets a Boner (1985). Larry Karaszewski worked on it, a friend of mine edited it, and one of my roommates shot it. So it was easy to get the script to him. Michael was the up-and-coming director at USC that all my friends there knew.

Did you immediately think Michael would be a good fit?
I had to go through an evolution. At first I was like ''Who is this schmuck?'' But eventually I realised that he really knew how to make a movie. He had worked at Zoetrope, so when he started dropping Francis Ford Coppola's name I would get into line! We also have such a similar sense of humor too. Sometimes when you work with people you can tell when someone doesn't like something and understand why they don't like it. Maybe their ideas for changes are not better in your opinion, but you know they are not lying when they say they didn't get something, so you go back and rework things. I find a lot of writers when they get notes they just make the changes word for word, and nobody is happy. With Michael I could reinvent what he was saying and he would know exactly what I meant.

In what ways were your visions different?
It goes back to the reviewer saying I was ''chilling for what I saw as common ground''. Michael would bring me back down to Earth. I had the Veronica character much more complicit in what was going on. One of the things that he would always sit on top of me about was that he wanted Veronica to be more of an audience surrogate who is drawn into the homicide of it all, and an unwilling collaborator in the deeply dark stuff. I had her as almost like Travis Bickle with a vagina. I fought with Michael over it at the time, but as I worked with Winona a bit more I could see it working better Michael's way because she is not the slick femme fatale with the cigarette hanging at the corner of her mouth, like Rita Hayworth. She's more Elizabeth Taylor. We can relate to her more. At the time I thought softening anything was a defeat but certainly to this day I appreciate that softening the Veronica character was very helpful.

Do you ever wish that you had directed HEATHERS?
Now that I have directed, I have had fantasies about what it would have been like to have directed HEATHERS, but I also realise how little I knew at that time. Not in the grand scheme of things like coming up with a look for the film and working with actors, but certainly as a 25 year old boy from Indiana I was just not prepared for the grind of it. Back then the idea of me directing it was almost like me doing open heart surgery. There are still things I tease Michael Lehmann about. I went to a screening of it and I hadn't seen it in a while. There's the chase where JD and Veronica are trying to shoot the jocks in the forest, and all of a sudden Christian Slater chases one guy for like 20 minutes. But Michael did a great job on the film.

How do you feel about the ending to the film?
I am more at peace with the 'happy ending' in the finished film than I was before. As a viewer, after you have gone through such pain and hostility, you do want some catharsis at the end. And I don't think the ending is completely on the level. There is something ironic about it. It's a different flavour at the end of the movie, which I don't mind. I don't think anyone wants to see Veronica dead at the end. The ending that I miss never made it into a shooting script. Veronica says to Martha ''Do you want to come over to my house?, and Martha says ''Fuck you, Heather'' and takes a knife and stabs Veronica in the chest. Veronica is lying on the floor bleeding and repeating ''My name is not Heather. My name is not Heather.'' Martha gets up out of the wheelchair, like DR. STRANGELOVE, and says ''I can walk! I can walk!'' I've gone back and forth over the years about which ending would have been the best but now I am just grateful the film got made. Thinking about what could have been just seems silly now.

What did you learn about filmmaking from the whole HEATHERS experience?
At the time I was the screenwriter who said ''I never wanna direct. '' I was embracing my status as a crazy, eccentric writer guy who doesn't have to work with people.'' The first day of shooting was Ash Wednesday and I came to the set with a black ash cross on my forehead. None of the cast had met me so they thought I was this crazy monk who wrote the script and comes out three days a year. I embraced that, and Michael Lehmann enjoyed it because he got to be the sane guy that everybody talked to. It was more my other movies where I realised I had to start paying attention. Michael did such a seamless job on HEATHERS. He was plugged in and he knew what I wanted. I thought ''Great. I obviously write scripts that direct themselves. '' It was only on my second film, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, which Renny Harlin directed, that I realised that you really had to pay attention and make sure that the right tone was being gone after. I saw that directing was really like writing in a way in terms of crafting something into a movie.

Was HEATHERS your happiest experience making a film?
Yes, I'd say so, although I had a great time making SEX AND DEATH 101, which I also directed, even though it seems everyone was out of the town the weekend it opened. The first film I directed, HAPPY CAMPERS, was almost like me going to film school. I spent most of the 90s at Sony developing a project called The Model Daughter. It was an original script of mine and much more HEATHERS in tone. I spent so much time on a film that never saw the light of day that I realised how lucky I had been to get HEATHERS made.

Were you ever worried about the reaction to HEATHERS?
Now I realise that I should have been more worried than I was! I didn't know how precarious a script was and how precarious making a movie was. I really thought nothing could go wrong with HEATHERS because Michael really seemed to get the script. If it was today I would be freaking out a bit more.

What did you hope teenagers would get from the movie?
I thought that the movie was like showing a funhouse mirror of themselves back to them, and that it would be too close to home for them to be tickled by it. There are a lot of people who come up to me and tell me that they saw HEATHERS as a teenager and hated it, but that they now love it. I think my films get more of that kind of response than other writers or filmmakers. I've learned to wear it as a badge of honor that the first time you see my movie you're going to be queasy and uncomfortable but with a little more perspective you're really going to like it. It's never my initial intention but I'll take it.

How did you feel about the reaction HEATHERS got at Sundance?
The first review the film ever got was by Variety and you couldn't have written a better review. That said, there were people in the audience who found the film very insulting and irresponsible, but even that was like a minor victory and the best negative experience you could ask for. I remember that the writer Anthony Shaffer said ''Is HEATHERS a movie that people are watching and really liking? This is amazing. America is much different than I thought it was.'' I had to explain to him that although he got the movie, the rest of America was not going to see it in droves. Part of it also was that New World didn't have much money to release the movie and so it didn't do as well as we hoped.

How did the film impact on your career?
There were people that didn't like the movie, but even those had to reckon with me as a force. I established myself as an original voice but I was still living in Silver Lake, barely out of the video store. When I went out to get work after HEATHERS, it was clear nobody wanted me to do something dark and original. They wanted me to bring my fresh voice to something they had developed. The plan was to do one for me and one for them. I remember getting pitched a comedy with Whitney Houston as a genie who moves in with a suburban family. People who read my original script for FORD FAIRLANE thought it was a really great dark comedy that was a parody of the detective movie and a satire of the music industry, but once Andrew Dice Clay and others got involved, it was never going to be that movie. I remember the first day of shooting and the comedian Gilbert Gottfried came to the set. He was sweaty and nervous, and hadn't read the script. He just started ad-libbing, and I realised ''What have I done?''

Do you see the legacy of HEATHERS in other movies?
All of the teenagers suddenly became more articulate and slangy after HEATHERS. It was a very influential movie for younger writers. It's like I'm the guy who wrote CASABLANCA (1942) and HIS GIRL FRIDAY to them. In some ways the film has been too influential because now we have adult characters in movies speaking like high school characters. The story might be set in a law firm but the dialogue has that HEATHERS cruelty and cadence to it. The fact though, is that what sounds cool for teenagers to say just comes across as glib when adults speak that way.

Is HEATHERS a film that you feel comfortable sitting down to watch?
I've been to a couple of screenings over the years and I always try to remember it as my Stanley Kubrick film, but it's more of a cultish 80s movie than I remember. It has a lot of cheap humour that makes me think ''I can't believe we were so shamelessly vulgar there.'' I always think of it as more of a hoity toity movie than it actually is. There's a lot of silliness in it which I always seem to have amnesia about. I think Michael and I's need to constantly entertain protected us from being too pretentious.

The movie hasn't lost its power, either.
It still has bite to it. It makes me realise that especially in music now, instead of it getting harsher and more out there, its starting to draw back. We had Joy Division and HEATHERS in the 80s, and now its going back the other way. At the time there were a lot of R-rated teen films but now they are so rare. The PG-13 rating has ruined everything. Things that should have just been family fun now have pointless blowjob jokes, and films that should have been rated R are now just watered down.

Would you ever want to write a sequel?
Right after the movie came out, when Winona was really bugging me about doing a sequel, I came up with the idea of Veronica being a page working for a Senator played by Meryl Streep and having to kill the President by the end of the story. I remember that a year later Winona came up to me and said ''I talked to Meryl and she's in. '' Even that wasn't enough to make me want to write it. 


I spoke to Dan by telephone and would like to thank him for his time. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.