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), DEMOLITION MAN (1993), VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014, directed by his brother Mark Waters) and the infamous HUDSON HAWK (1991). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). spoke to Dan about writing BATMAN RETURNS, the controversial sequel to the 1989 megahit BATMAN. We covered working with Tim Burton, Dan's vision for the film, being rewritten, his love of the Catwoman character and what went down with the spin-off movie that never happened.   

Why do you think Tim Burton chose you to work on the film? 
It did help that Denise Di Novi, the producer of HEATHERS, was at the time Tim Burton's producer. I had met Tim earlier when I pitched him a sequel to BEETLEJUICE (1988). It was a casual, half-assed meeting where I talked about Betelgeuse working with the First Family in the White House. Tim was mildly amused. We did get along and get each other's sense of humor. Anything I say about BATMAN RETURNS has to be covered in the fairy dust of how different it is now and how little I did to get that job and how little shit shit I had to go through, because nowadays it's crazy. This was pretty much pre-Internet. Both Tim and I were like ''Yeah, Batman, he's interesting. I like that Dark Knight Returns that Frank Miller did. '' The movie inspires anger from 'true' Batman fans to this day. I have a friend who is a big comic book fan and he says to me ''Yeah, BATMAN RETURNS. It's a great movie for people who hate Batman. '' It's a little harsh, but I can see what he means in that the film is a Tim Burton film and not a Batman film. I came in to please Tim Burton fans, not Batman fans, and especially please Tim himself. It was weird how much freedom I had, especially in the first drafts. That said, unlike HEATHERS and some other things we have talked about, when you know you're making a Tim Burton movie, the auteur theory does kick in. When you're writing, you are always wondering ''Is Tim going to like this? Is he going to respond to this?'' 

Did you get the impression that Tim wasn't very interested in doing a direct sequel to the first film? 
Oh, absolutely. He was not crazy about BATMAN (1989). And I wasn't crazy about it either. It had great production design and all that, but I didn't like the movie. One of my issues about the film made it into a line in BATMAN RETURNS – Bruce Wayne saying to Alfred ''And who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave?'' I really didn't like Robert Wuhl's character, the reporter guy, so I had a scene in my script where I had him crucified to the Batsignal, with his dead body flashing all over the city. Tim made a big thing of saying ''Can we just pretend the first one doesn't exist? Let's just not even address it. '' He was always more interested in the characters than in the action or the spectacle, or even the plot. I remember asking him what we should call the movie and he said ''Do we have to give it a title? Everybody is going to know what it is when it comes out. '' 

Why was Tim dissatisfied with the Sam Hamm script? 
His script was fine, and better than his BATMAN script. It's a meat and potatoes mystery, with clues, and statues of owls and so on. It read like a Hardy Boys story. It was a good yarn. That version would have needed an old time director from down in the commissary to direct it. It's not the kind of story that will get you the way to Tim. When I came on board I said ''Who even needs this plot stuff? Let's get Tim interested in this. '' Sam Hamm got story credit merely for the fact he had Catwoman and Penguin in his script. My script had completely different conceptions of the characters. When we were trying to come up with Penguin's story, I came up with the idea that everybody was shredding their papers in the Wall Street offices, and he's down in the sewer taping them all back together. I felt like I was The Huntsman and Tim was The Prince, and that I had to go out into the forest everyday and bring back something for The Prince. It felt less like a normal writing job and more like myjob was simply to try and get Tim intrigued in what I was writing. 

What did Tim respond to the most in your drafts? 
Tim really liked my take on Catwoman. My take had nothing to do with the comics. To this day when people tell me I went away from the comics I tell them ''Fuck the comics. My version is better. '' A lot of men make the mistake that when they try to write a strong female role they just have her kicking ass and being a bad ass saying wicked things the way a man would. I definitely wanted a Catwoman who is a woman with her own psychology. She's hurting people and doing crazy stuff that is emanating from the things that are going through her mind psychologically, instead of just for the sake of having some action in the film. 

What kind of things would you and Tim talk about in your discussions? 
Well, for example, I would talk to Tim about Fellini, and tell him my favourite of his films. One of the keys to Tim's character is that if he likes a director, he doesn't have a favourite of their films. He just loves the worlds they create, and the feel of their movies. Which film has the best characterisation or plot or most meaning is something he isn't interested in. I personally like a little more plot, and it was just after the LA riots, so I liked the element of a politician starting a riot to help him get the incumbent out of office. So I had this political satire of Penguin running for Mayor, which I think Tim could have cared less about. 

Were you conscious of not downplaying the Batman character in your script? 
I definitely was, but at the same time I was absolutely in love with Catwoman. She was what was exciting to me when I was writing. My first draft opened with the Batman logo and then we pull out and you realise you are in a merchandising store for Batman. After that, a grenade gets thrown in and the place blows up. I originally had more elements of Batman being commodified and hating being treated like a celebrity. Tim found stuff like that a little bit too much. 

How challenging was it to write dialogue for Batman? 
Michael Keaton was great to work with. He was such a smart guy. I would give him all these great speeches and what I thought were great lines, and he would say ''Batman should only say this. Bruce Wayne should only say this. '' He was very specific that when Batman is wearing the suit, he shouldn't say three senetences put together at any one time. At the time I was thinking ''I'm giving you gold here! I am going to get into trouble now because Penguin and Catwoman have more lines. '' But he was right. Then when I saw THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), which I loved - Christopher Nolan's work is prose, Tim's is poetry, but they can co-exist in the same stratosphere - there's a scene towards the end where Batman is giving a big speech to The Joker and you could go grab a bottle of water and come back and he would still be talking. Michael was right. Batman shouldn't be giving speeches in the costume with the Batman voice. 

How did your first draft differ from the final draft? 
What I like about the Catwoman character and what I like about the movie in general is definitely there in the movie and intact. It makes me feel like I am up there in many ways. When I was contractually done with the movie, another writer, Wesley Strick, was brought on by Warners, to, in Denise Di Novi's words, 'normalise the movie a little bit.'' After I went on and did other movies I came to realise that for another writer coming in, Wesley Strick protected so much of my stuff. He did however bring in a lot of pop culture references that I had tried to keep out of the movie. There's a Love Connection joke that I can't stand. There's a Geraldo reference, and a Norman Bates reference that I don't like. He also added all the stuff about the 'firstborns' of Gotham City and the list of names. I guess it was to make more of a through line to the movie about what Penguin's plan is. Penguin just being a disgruntled bad guy who wanted to get back at the city was good enough for me. Tim didn't really have any feeling one way or the other about such things. There were a lot of things in Wesley's first draft that I hated, and I sent an angry 14-page fax to Tim Burton's office. I got a confirmation that only 13 pages had gone through, so I had to send the whole 14 pages again. It ended up causing way too much drama. That was not good. 

Did you manage to mend fences with Tim and Denise Di Novi? 
Yes, and as the movie was being edited, I got to see various cuts. The one good deed I did on HUDSON HAWK was that I helped get the editor on the movie, Chris Lebenzon, the editing job on BATMAN RETURNS, and now he edits all of Tim's movies. Tim's not an editing room guy. He'll watch a cut and say ''That's good.'' On the two movies I've directed, I'm painfully overwhelmed about making the days, but you can spend all day and all night in the editing room. It's so much fun. 

How many of your drafts did Robin and Two-Face appear in? 
I had one scene of Billy Dee Williams getting injured and then getting a coin, but we didn't do anything with it. We actually cast Marlon Wayans as Robin. We had Batman pull into a garage to get the Batmobile fixed, and there's a kid with an R on his uniform. We never went beyond that. Tim even thought the R on the uniform was too much. ''Can't we just have this kid, and then bring him back later? '' I wasn't that interested in Robin. Even with the Penguin, I was just like ''Can't it just be Catwoman?'' Because we had Catwoman and Penguin, I had to create Chris Walken's character, Max Schreck, just to triangulate everything. The script wasn't working with just Penguin and Catwoman. It needed someone to bring everyone together. 

Whose decision was it to have both Penguin and Catwoman in the film? 
That was so set in stone by Warners that there was never even a conversation about it. They were already in Sam Hamm's drafts. Some Illuminati decision was made way before I was brought on. We were one of the first films to top-load with villains. Nowadays it's par for the course. 

What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing the script for you? 
It was all about Catwoman really. There was a comic book called Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller that I found more compelling than most of the reading I was doing on Batman. Even the people that don't like the movie think that Catwoman is a successful creature. They could tell that was where my passion was. I would meet people and they would say ''Wow, you're getting to do a Batman movie. That must be exciting. '' And I'd be like ''Yeah, I guess so. '' I love Batman in the movie whenever he was with Catwoman. I loved writing the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, like the scene at the costume party where they are the only ones who wear costumes at night but here they are the only ones who don't have a costume. It was a fun scene to write. 

Did Tim encourage the suggestive or subversive humour? Did he get a kick out of it? 
Tim was always about not seeing the character from an action hardware standpoint. He saw Catwoman and Batman as basically dominatrix people who get dressed up and wear costumes and get into some kinky shit. That's the movie he thought he was making, so what you might think are clever bits of subtext were text to Tim. That was the gravy. I think in his mind the ponderous action scenes of people fighting was the tax you had to pay to get to the kooky, quirky stuff. 

Was there ever a moment where you anticipated some of the negative reactions the film eventually received? 
The first film was criticised for being too dark, so often I would think ''Wow, you thought that movie was dark? Wait till you get a load of this!'' The studio was worried, and then when it came out, we took a lot of pain from parents and the media in general. Danny De Vito eating a raw fish? Our film was dark in the sense that it wasn't a kids movie. I would read quotes from parents where they would say things like ''Was it Warner Brothers' intention to make my kids cry?'' The answer is that we actually just never thought about it. Now the PG-13 rating is the sweatiest thing in the world. The needle has been moved so far that it's hilarious to think that we had problems. I mean, look at BATMAN V SUPERMAN (2016), which is the ultimate in going too far. Our movie was considered so dark that they brought in Joel Schumacher. His movies were so giddy that we then got Christopher Nolan. It's all about timing.

I remember that when I was 12 years old I was so appreciative of the stuff that traumatised me. ''I'm still thinking about this. It's great. '' I loved being disturbed. Nowadays when I sit down and watch a horror movie I feel like I'm an old heroin addict who can't find a vein anymore. I want to invent this thing where you can take the DNA of young kids and teenagers and shoot it into your system so you'll be scared again. 

How did the one-two punch of HUDSON HAWK and BATMAN RETURNS impact your career? 
I had not yet learned my lessons fom HUDSON HAWK. I was still thinking ''I'm going to do something that's not traditional.'' Not only were we not thinking of pleasing the Batman fans, but we also weren't thinking of pleasing kids or comic-book audiences or whatever they were at that point. We were taking these elements and making our own new thing. If you look at the big history of Batman, there should be some detours and the movies should be different from each other.

I joke about 'failing upwards', but I was smart back then. I escaped the fire of FORD FAIRLANE to get into HUDSON HAWK, and when that caught on fire I escaped to BATMAN RETURNS. The film got mostly good reviews, and it was a Batman movie so whatever sting I was feeling from HUDSON HAWK briefly went away. After HEATHERS, I had a movie coming out every year and every script I wrote was made into a movie, but I finally had to get off that merry-go round. It was not a question of people no longer wanting to hire me. It was just a case of ''This is not what I signed up for. '' I wanted to do more movies like HEATHERS. I convinced myself that I was going to do one for me and one for them but I realised that that wasn't the way it works. I realised that I had really won the lottery when I made HEATHERS. That said, there's nothing that can compare with working on a Batman movie. 

Why did your Catwoman project with Tim not eventually happen? 
It was unfortunately doomed from the start, because even from the beginning, Tim and I had different visions for the project that we comically never resolved or even discussed. I always said the problem with the Burton/ Waters collaboration is that we are Rainman with two Dustin Hoffmans. Two kooks on separate sides of the spectrum – we both want to be the crazy genius in the equation.

Tim made me watch the original CAT PEOPLE (1942) and Ann-Margret in KITTEN WITH A WHIP (1964). I really believe he wanted to make a creepy, low-budget, black-and-white film involving Catwoman ... while I was obsessed with building a better Batman movie, that was crazy, big and ambitious ... and without the Batman character!

I concocted a scenario where Selena Kyle escapes to the opposite of Gotham City - a sun scorched L.A./ Las Vegas/ Phoenix amalgam that is watched over by three macho superheroes of my own creation. Think Trump/ Bruce Wayne cross-pollinations. Selena breaks out of her 'hiding-out-from-society casino worker' shell and goes full Catwoman, becoming a Trickster foil for the secretly villainous and fascistic superheroes.   

I knew there would be a negotiation of our visions – but Tim never gave any feedback to my outline. When I finally finished my draft, everybody said ''It's too much like the outline.'' It was one of my all time enraging notes. I think Tim realised he didn't want to go back into the bombastic superhero realm and further realised that Warner Brothers wouldn't go for his low-budget, atmospheric take. The entire project was dead in less than a week.

Poor Michelle Pfeiffer was a tragic victim of our inertia. She is the one who wanted and needed a Catwoman movie most of all. I ended up next to her at a buffet line at a Hollywood event once and all she could day to me was 'Why? ... Why?''

Years later a truck backed up to my house and dumped a thousand scripts on my driveway for the Halle Berry CATWOMAN (2004) script arbitration. I was the first name on a list of 32 people. Meow-h! I declined to arbitrate. 

What other projects did you work on in the wake of BATMAN RETURNS? 
After DEMOLITION MAN, which was a quick, two week rewrite that I enjoyed, I started looking for different things to do. I had a meeting on SPIDER-MAN (2002) with Amy Pascal at Columbia, and I was thinking ''What am I doing?'' In retrospect, I wouldn't have minded some of that money, but on the other hand, I had moved to Los Angeles and I had never taken a job in the film industry because I didn't want it to affect my writing. I took a menial job in a video store. I realised that by becoming a screenwriter who wrote Batman movies and Joel Silver movies I had been taking jobs that had prevented me from writing - which was everything I had tried not to do. I went through a difficult period. My movies stopped being made. Instead of taking a job doing a superhero movie I would take a job adapting Stranger in a Strange Land with Tom Hanks attached. These were interesting projects but they were more difficult to get made. 

How do you feel about the legacy of BATMAN RETURNS? 
At a screening of THE DARK KNIGHT, Christopher Nolan said ''You know, I liked elements of Tim Burton's first BATMAN. '' He was asked about BATMAN RETURNS, and he repeated ''You know, I liked elements of Tim Burton's first BATMAN. '' I was in the audience thinking ''Thanks a lot Chris!'' I loved his Batman movies and I think he still owns the character really. But it is interesting because now a lot of people have come out of the woodwork to say how much BATMAN RETURNS meant to them in their childhood. It is a great misfit movie. The popular kids and the jocks love Christopher Nolan's Batman movies but the really downtrodden, quirky and imaginative kids growing up love BATMAN RETURNS. 

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.


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), DEMOLITION MAN (1993), VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014, directed by his brother Mark Waters) and the infamous HUDSON HAWK (1991). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). spoke to Dan about HUDSON HAWK, the Bruce Willis action comedy vehicle that baffled and disappointed audiences in 1991, but 25 years later is still talked about and now in much more appreciative terms. It's a wild, silly, subversive treat, imbued with a love of cinema, a great sense of imagination and an infectiously playful tone. I spoke to Dan about the creation, the filming and the legacy of the movie. 

I had taken probably the biggest fall of any screenwriter - I had gone from HEATHERS to THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE. I call it 'failing upwards'. It was originally a good script, and everybody responded to it. It was my first time working with Joel Silver. I have my esoteric, ambitious quality but I am also someone that loves every kind of movie. Nobody sees more movies than I do. Joel is the same way. You can see in his films, even more so than producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, that he has a tangy love of movies. I was watching LETHAL WEAPON with my family at Christmas when Joel called me about FORD FAIRLANE. It probably wasn't the greatest career move I could have made coming off HEATHERS, but I just wanted to work with him.

We had a great time. Joel really loved HEATHERS and out of his love of the film, he also attached Michael Lehmann to his project HUDSON HAWK. Michael had me read the script just as a friend and I just didn't get it. It was kind of an action script that was just all over the place. Boy, did I change it! It just didn't click with me. FORD FAIRLANE was coming out and Andrew Dice Clay was taking attention away from the filming of the movie and how the film was perceived. I figured 'I need to make sure I have another movie before this one comes out. '' I went scrambling around looking for a project, and Michael and Joel started ganging up on me to do HUDSON HAWK. When you genuinely don't want to do something, and it's more than playing hard to get, people throw so much money at you, it's crazy. I was like ''You really don't understand. I don't want to do this. '' Joel would say ''OK, we'll double it. '' I took a look at the material again and Joel said I could have a free rein. Bruce Willis said he wasn't interested in doing a traditional action movie. He felt his character from Moonlighting had never been in a movie. He wanted to bring some humor into the proceedings. I started to see this as a chance to do my kind of action movie and take it way out there. 

There's a weird speech in the middle of the movie which is almost verbatim the plot that Bruce Willis told me. It's really just who Hudson Hawk is. He's a cat burglar and he's just out of jail, and he wants to stay clean, but different forces come together to make him rob things. There was the cop, the Italian Mafia guys. I kind of took that and went crazy with it. I brought in the crazy butler and the rich couple.There was talk of cutting down the story to make it more meat and potatoes, but every time I talked about taking out characters I was told ''No, no. You need that character so we can get to this point in the story. '' I don't think there was a treatment by Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft. If there was, I never read it. I think they just had a basic idea. 

I know Steve De Souza, and even he wouldn't say it was his best script. He has some hilarious stories about the industry. The original DIE HARD is almost a perfect movie but he said that so much of that was done on the fly that you wouldn't believe. I was so shocked when he told me that. I said ''OK, I guess this is the way things are run at Silver Pictures. ''

Steve's script had the same plot, and the same opening. It just wasn't as loony or expensive. A guy gets out of jail and is forced by bad guys into doing robberies against his will. But there certainly wasn't a Richard E. Grant or a Sandra Bernhard. You didn't have Rocky and Bullwinkle's William Conrad narrating it. I remember there was a ranch in Texas at one point. It was a learning lesson, working on a big movie like HUDSON HAWK, and being allowed to let my imagination run riot. No other movie I have been on, be it BATMAN RETURNS or a lower budget movie like HEATHERS, has there ever been enough money. 

I could tell Bruce was invested in the character. I liked taking a more down to earth guy and putting him in a crazy environment. Bruce would have all these little ideas and I would have to work them in. First, Bruce wanted to have a pet monkey who he finally gets to see again after he gets out of prison. We realised it was going to be too time intensive having to deal with a monkey. So I thought ''What if the monkey was killed while he was in prison, and it gives him something else to be angry about?'' We had someone putting out a hit on the monkey, who was named Little Eddie. There was a newspaper headline of the Mafia shooting the monkey. The movie at one point was even more nuts than it is now, if you can believe that. So Hudson thinks its the Mafia that killed him, and if you watch the movie, in one scene James Coburn admits he killed Little Eddie. When Coburn dies in the movie, he falls on top of the limousine as it goes over the cliff. If you look at his face, there's a picture of a monkey on his forehead. That's because in the fight scene that lead to it, Bruce Willis had slapped a picture of Little Eddie on his forehead and said ''Say hello to Little Eddie, motherfucker'' and then thrown him off the cliff. We filmed all these little things that made up this relentlessly running story about Little Eddie being killed. Originally, Bruce is excited to meet Little Eddie but after Danny Aiello picks him up from prison, Danny has to break the news to him - ''By the way, Little Eddie is dead. '' 

Everybody I know who has worked with him has horror stories. I sometimes wonder if after the failure of the movie he just clammed up and became unpleasant. He was a happy-go-lucky guy when I was working with him. I felt he put Michael Lehmann through a lot and they didn't click. Like many actors, Bruce wants to be a director too and that is tough on the director of the film. I think Bruce liked riffing with me.

Bruce had a sense of adventure. He liked trying different things. If you look at the movie there's a lot of funny stuff he does, and physical comedy stuff like falling in the Styrofoam and waking up and looking at the Coloseum all in one shot. Bruce and his buddy Carmine Zozzora, who plays one of the Mafia guys, talked to me about another project. It was about a kooky weatherman who goes crazy and runs around New York. It was a dream project of theirs and they said ''Oh, you gotta write it!'' after HUDSON HAWK, Bruce never brought up that project again with anyone. 

On the page my script was certainly not like anything you had ever read. I think people looked at that in a good way as we went into pre-production. I started to know we were in trouble when in dailies Joel and Bruce would say ''You know what this is? This is a Pink Panther movie. '' The next day they'd say ''You know what this is? This is an American James Bond movie. '' Another day they'd say ''You know what this is? This is a Flint movie. Let's get James Coburn in the movie. '' Then it would be ''You know what this is? This is NORTH BY NORTHWEST with David Addison from Moonlighting. '' I even remember someone saying ''You know what, this is CASINO ROYALE (the 1967 version). '' I thought ''Mmmm, I remember that being fun. '' I had someone get it for me in Rome and I watched it and realised ''Oh, my God. It IS CASINO ROYALE, but not in a good way. '' Eventually I realised that if every day at dailies they were saying it was something different, by the time we got to the editing room, we were going to be in trouble.

Nobody knew quite what movie they were making. Bruce would say ''Is this funny? Is this working? Is this interesting? Is this good?'' Depending on which actor was working, it would be a different movie. If it was Bruce and Danny Aiello, that was one movie. Bruce being charming with Andie MacDowell was one movie. And then you go on set with Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard and everybody is way out there. Bruce was as confused as everybody else. I think we all would have loved to have had the time to make the script more real. The train left the station before we really answered the big issues. I was on set doing little changes, but the problem wasn't the little things. 

This is definitely parameter-less writing in a parameter-less movie. It's what people like about the movie but it's also what people loathe about the movie too. I have to wear the horns of this movie because I wrote it. It worked on the page, so people just said ''We're just going to go with it.'' Joel Silver and I are not big structure guys. I always think movies today are too structured. It's like they're working from a graph that swells up here and swells up there. Joel and I are of the belief that the climax of the movie should be pushed to the next scene, and then you should keep going beyond that. You have to create the idea that you have no idea what the movie is going to be a half hour from now. Nowadays in movies you know what is going to happen and where the peaks and valleys are. We brought out the best and the worst in each other. To hear people talk, we mostly brought out the most undisciplined side of each other. There was no hall monitor on the set, which I think we needed.

They fed off each other onscreen. We knew what we were getting when we cast them. Between takes, they would get mean, and bring their characters a little bit too much to life. They would have PA's running around getting stuff for them. They were just a little bit too over the line villainous for me! They were in their own little world.

There's a scene in the movie where Sandra Bernhard gets angry and is bossing around not only Richard E Grant but also Bruce Willis, and Bruce says ''Well I guess I know who wears the penis in this family. '' We were shooting the scene and we got to the line and Bruce says ''Who's got the dick?'' I'll never forget Michael Lehmann, like a doctor doing surgery saying to Bruce ''Well, OK Bruce, that's interesting, but the way it is in the script is kind of cool too. '' But take after take, Bruce kept saying ''Who's got the dick?'' They finally did one take the way it was written, just for fun, and it's in the movie. I was like ''Oh, boy. This is the dark side of comic riffing. '' 

The same night that we first met Richard E. Grant in a bar in London, we had met with the actor Steven Berkoff. They wanted to offer him the role of the butler. I said ''He's the villain in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984). He's too big for the part. He's not going to want to do it. '' We met him and he was so insulted that he was offered the part. He spent the entire evening just making fun of us and being evil.

Eventually everybody realised that the script was not based on any kind of reality of how to make a movie. Everything was so big and over the top. There came a point where the budget had to kick in.

Towards the end of shooting, we were supposed to shoot my my favourite scene in the script. I had a spinning safe that was in the Kremlin and had been created by Da Vinci. It spun to a different side every half hour. Coming up on one side you had the CIA people with all their hi-tech equipment, and on the other side where it spun again, you had Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello with their very low-tech tools. It was to be a race to see who could crack the safe first. I saw the designs by Jackson De Govia, who did DIE HARD (1988), and they were great. It was everybody's big scene – the production designer, the director's, and so on. This was where we were going to stop getting goofy and get great. We were going to shoot the scene in Budapest. Then Joel Silver came in and said ''OK. We're crazy over budget. You've got to rewrite the spinning safe scene so hat that we can shoot all of it in one day on the set of Andie MacDowell's apartment in Rome. '' So, in the movie everybody is in Andie MacDowell's apartment, and James Coburn comes in and says ''Hey, we robbed the Louvre last night. '' They did the big robbery offscreen! That was the most outstanding and glaring example of us having to downscale as the budget got too high, and it saved us two weeks of shooting and millions of dollars. 

I was on set in Rome for a bit, and before that, New York. We closed down the Brooklyn Bridge for a week at night. That was fun, walking across Brooklyn Bridge in my socks. I have all these movies that ruin great cities fo me. I can't go back to Rome after HUDSON HAWK. I had a great time in London for VAMPIRE ACADEMY but Harvey Weinstein raped me and my brother so hard that now I get traumatic sweats whenever I think about the city. 

I did HUDSON HAWK out of panic and the fear of FORD FAIRLANE failing, and when I started to get sweaty on this one, I got a call from Tim Burton while I was still in Rome. He wanted me to do the sequel to BATMAN. So I wasn't there for the second half of shooting. When I ran into the still photographer, Stephen Vaughan, he reached out and touched me and said ''Wow, I thought that rats that jumped off ships were still wet. '' Things got crazier after I left. If I ever write a book about HUDSON HAWK, the title should be what Bruce says to Danny Aiello when Danny turns up alive, all burned up, talking about how an airbag saved his life – ''That's probably what happened. '' It somehow that encapsulates the whole movie. Apparently Danny had a quasi-nervous breakdown that day and it was a horrible shoot day.

I hadn't realised that I had acted as a buffer on set in many ways. The most sterling example is that David Caruso, who plays a mute in the movie, wouldn't talk to anybody except me. He wouldn't talk to Joel, Michael, Bruce or any of the cast members. He would communicate with cards, like his character Kit-Kat did. He would give me notes because he thought I was behind the scenes enough. When I left and he realised they would be shooting a month over schedule, he just started talking to everybody. 

It was a different kind of project and I could feel his pain. I had worked with Joel before so I definitely helped him understand Joel. For example, if Joel screams at you, you can't treat it like if a normal person screams at you. Thats just his mode. I gave Michael the lay of the land on working with him. I think I'm more comfortable in the bombastic Joel Silver world. I ended up doing another film with Joel, DEMOLITION MAN. I think Michael learned his lesson on HUDSON HAWK that it just wasn't his kind of movie. Personally we had a great time together working on a project this big and we just picked up where we had left off on HEATHERS. It was exciting. I do feel that I let him down most of all when I went off to do BATMAN RETURNS. 

The first test screening was one of the great nightmare nights of my life. Bruce insisted that we try out all the jokes, so the movie was about 2 hours and 40 minutes long. The best part was that there was a woman in a motorised wheelchair who tried to leave but her wheelchair got caught on a piece of the carpet and kept making this huge noise. I remember Joel saying ''Somebody get that woman out of here!'' Mike Medavoy had just taken over Tri-Star, and inherited the movie. As he wrote in his book, he was sitting there thinking ''What the hell is this?'' 

Up until the movie's release I thought there were going to be some people who would get the movie, and some people that wouldn't. I didn't think the response was going to be as angry as it was. There was something unprecedented about it. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert on TV. They always liked some movies and didn't like others. They started their show by saying ''We are going to review THELMA AND LOUISE (1991), we are going to review BACKDRAFT (1991), and then what we are going to talk about what happened with HUDSON HAWK. '' James Lipton, on The Actor's Studio, sucks up to every actor about every movie. He brought Martin Lawrence on the show and talked about BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE 2 (2006) as if it was a great film. Then he had Bruce Willis on the show and he said to him ''So... HUDSON HAWK. What would you like to say about it?'' I was thinking ''Wait a minute, James Lipton can't even take the movie?'' 

I remember kneeling in my backyard praying that the reviews wouldn't be too bad. I picked up the New York Times and the opening paragraph of Janet Maslin's review went 'This is one of the special ones. This is one of the ones we will be talking about for a very long time. '' I thought ''OK, this sounds promising. '' But the review didn't go well after that. I think the scenes where Bruce and Danny do robberies timed to certain songs work perfectly well, and the people who love the movie love those scenes, but I recall that Owen Gleiberman wrote ''And then they just start singing. For no reason. It's appalling. ''There was a reason! Even if it was a silly one.

We got two good reviews. One from Richard Schickel in Time magazine, and one from Hal Hinson in the Washington Times. I didn't shy away from saying that whatever didn't work about the movie was my fault. I made sure it wasn't going to mediocre. You can say many things about the movie but it isn't boring and it's not a typical action movie. People in countries outside the States, like Germany, Japan and especially Denmark. seem to love the movie. I joke that they must have good subtitles or dubbing. They have no problem with the tonal shifts. Maybe it's an American thing. The premiere screening was memorable. You cannot fake laughter. Nobody knew what the movie was. I saw it in a repertory theater recently and it played well. Nowadays the synapses of people's movie watching is much better. They can handle people going off on these tangents. It works so much better now. The film certainly wasn't great for my career but I always knew it was misunderstood. For all the hate I got for it , I never thought it was that bad of a movie. The people that talk about the movie nowadays don't talk of it as bad anymore. 

Bruce Willis used to be funny. I feel like I killed the humour in him with this movie. He's pretty good in it and you get to see his comic chops. But after the film, if you look at his movie career, he did the most serious and solemn films, with a few exceptions. Something inside of him died after HUDSON HAWK. I'll say this about the film. If I hadn't been involved it would have just been another STRIKING DISTANCE (1993) or MERCURY RISING (1998) kind of failed action movie that we never really heard about again. It took me to make it ''one of the worst films ever made''. The tonal shifts were baked into the cake. Certainly I am a lot to blame for the film but I can't say the alchemy of it was well balanced. What I have always said about my participation in action films in general is that I like to cut the head off of a rhinoceros and put a giraffe's head on it. For some people, a rhinoceros with a giraffe's head on it is interesting and something to look at. ''Wow, you don't see that every day!'' Other people will say ''That is wrong! That is an abomination against nature! Kill it now! Get it out of my sight!'' 

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.


Michael Lehmann made an astounding debut with the subversive high school satire HEATHERS (1988), written by Daniel Waters. He is also known for the Bruce Willis action comedy HUDSON HAWK (1991), a film that, like much of Lehmann's ouevre, is ripe for reappraisal. Lehmann's films exhibit subversiveness, wild imagination, intelligence and often a concern for issues that affect us all. His filmography also includes the sublime and ridiculously funny environmental satire MEET THE APPLEGATES (1990); the hilarious AIRHEADS (1994) featuring a pre-fame Adam Sandler, Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi; the romantic comedy THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS (1996) with Uma Thurman and Janeane Garofalo; and the sex comedy 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS (2002) with Josh Hartnett. Lehmann is now one of the most in-demand and prolific television directors, working on shows such as True Blood, Dexter, Nurse Jackie, American Horror Story and Californication. In the final part of a two-part interview about HEATHERS, I spoke to Lehmann about some of the challenges of making the film, working with teenage actors, his favorite memories of the shoot, and the film's legacy.

Part one of the interview. 

What were some of the frustrations you endured making the film?
In the film they go to a convenience store called Snappy's Snack Shack, and JD talks about being able to go from town to town in the United States and there's always a Slurpy. They were meant to be in a Seven-Eleven, but the Southland Corporation, which owns Seven-Eleven, would absolutely not let us use their name. Dan had to manufacture a new convenience store name. That was a disappointment. It's fine. I think people kind of get the idea. The book that Heather Duke is reading is Moby Dick, but it was meant to be Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger would never let anybody refer to the book in a movie. We fought hard to try and get the rights, but we couldn't. It would have been more fun to play off another high school story that had its own undercurrent of dark humor, but Moby Dick is also funny in its own way.

Was it challenging for the actors to deliver such precise, stylised dialogue?
Some actors had easier times with it than others. I was very on top of it, making sure that the lines were delivered with just the right level of knowingness. I wanted to make sure the performances didn't become arch. They had to deliver the dialogue as though that was how they would normally speak, even when Dan had created this new language for them. Some of the actors got it and had no problem and went with it, and others had to be walked through it, line by line.

How did Winona Ryder find the dialogue?
Winona was great. She got it completely. She understood how to do it, and she understood the tone of the movie. Winona was incredibly enthusiastic about everything and a real dream to work with. I don't know what Shannon Doherty thought the film was. In a weird way, she just sort of went for it and it worked incredibly well. She played the truth of her character. Shannon had been an actress on television, and so she was capable of delivering the lines and taking direction. Kim Walker was terrific and did a great job but she had a lot of tough stuff to say and do, which took a little bit of work. Christian Slater sometimes found it tricky, but he did his best, and he did very well in the part.

Was it important for you to cast real teenagers?
One of the things that I was very conscious of was that the John Hughes movies didn't have teenagers in them. There were 25-year olds playing those parts. I wanted to cast real teenagers, which is an issue because if they are under 18, you can't work a full day with them because of the big labor law restrictions. There was a lot of resistance to casting young actors but I did get Winona, who was 16; Shannon who was 15 when we started filming; and Kim Walker and Christian Slater, who were both 19. Lizanne Faulk was probably 21. For the most part, I had teenage actors, and I think it made a difference. It's funny because if you look in the background at the extras you can see they are a little older. That was because you couldn't work with a big number of 16 year olds, as our working hours would have been too limited.

Was it challenging working with teenagers?
I have always had a good time working with them. I was 29 when I made HEATHERS, so high school was a bit away from me. I think teenagers have a very pure view of the world. They are just starting to become aware of how hypocritical adult life is. They are still children in many ways, so they are still outraged at what they are seeing. We all get used to everything over time and just accept everything for what it is. When I work with teenagers, I feel like they are closer to the truth than the rest of us are. You have to cast teenagers who are willing to just go with that and are not too self-conscious. If they have talent, you can get really great performances from them.

How do you think you managed to get such great performances from everybody?
Well, Winona already had it. I worked with her a lot, but she was very bright. She understood what the script was about and all the nuances. Sometimes it took a while to figure out how to play it, but she was capable of playing it a number of different ways, and very game to try. I had a little more trouble with Shannon. I remember I would just hang in there and make her do extra takes to try to get her away from being too precise and mechanical. She would say things as written, but there was an element of surprise missing. I wanted her to loosen up and just be a little bit sloppier. She never liked that and I had to work with her on doing that. Because she had been on a television show, she thought she should be treated better because she had more experience. But nobody was a problem. We really lucked out on a cast that was well-behaved and professional, especially at that young age.

Which is the more challenging, working with teenagers or big movie stars like you later did?
As every director will tell you, there's nothing more difficult than working with big Hollywood actors. They're tough. The problem with movie stars is that they are the most important people on the set, and they know it. As a director, you have to figure out how to make them happy but you also have to maintain the fact that you are directing the movie and that you are going to make choices that they may or may not agree with. Sometimes you let them in on the choices and if their ideas are different than yours, it can get complicated. Sometimes you want to keep them away from those choices because you need to direct the film and if they don't like that, then that's another complicated situation. Most of my best experiences have been with actors who haven't yet become big, and some of them went on to have big careers later. I could see that they had that talent. With teenagers, you have to cast carefully. If you do that, you're kind of okay, but you know going into it with young actors that it's going to take some extra work. You don't always get exactly what you want first time out. But I'm pretty patient with teenagers most of the time and I've had good experiences.

HEATHERS was the first film, or the first major film, for quite a few of the cast and crew. What do you think that brought to the film?
There's a level of enthusiasm that people don't necesarily maintain throughout their career. You want it to be great, you're working harder. If you've never failed, you don't know what happens when you fail. You're not so much afraid of it. At the end of the day when it comes to HEATHERS it all came down to the fact that the script was good, and that people knew that. If someone was in the movie, it meant they got that. We had plenty of people who read the script and hated it and didn't want to have anything to do with the film. There were plenty who didn't get the script and auditioned for parts and weren't any good. Moon Unit Zappa came into read for one of the Heather parts and gave a deliberately terrible reading. We all sat there stunned and we asked her ''What do you think of the script?'' She replied ''I hate it. It's the worst script I have ever read. I cannot tell you how much I hate it. '' We asked her why she even bothered coming in to audition, and she said ''I wanted to see what kind of people would make this movie.''

Jennifer Connelly was Dan's first choice for Veronica. Did she ever come in and test for the role?
She was our first choice. We did get the script to her agent, but I don't know if she ever read it. She was 17 and I think her parents had to approve everything she did. Even Winona's agent didn't want her to do the film. I recall Heather Graham read for the Heather Chandler part and was great, but her mother wouldn't let her do it. One of the great things Winona brought to the movie was that she really got the humour so she was able to play the part with the proper kind of attitude. I don't know if someone like Jennifer Connelly would have fallen in on that because I haven't seen her do much in the way of humour. Winona was a very mature 16 year old. She was very complex in a good way and does not have a mean bone in her body. She brought a kind of innocence to the role that was great because it was combined with sharp wit and a sharp perspective. She's a good observer of people.

What were the most enjoyable elements of the shoot?
HEATHERS was an unbelievably happy shoot. We were a good group of people. Everybody got along, and we had fun. There were no fights that I can remember at all. Doing the high school scenes was a lot more complicated than we expected because some of them had a lot of extras in them, but the more intimate scenes with Christian and Winona were really fun and they were great together. I have a memory of showing up to the first day of filming. We were shooting the croquet scenes in the garden. Those were not easy scenes to shoot. We had all three Heathers and Veronica, and we shot the scenes with the parents at the same time. It was my first day directing a feature film and I remember walking onto the set up in the Palisades in Los Angeles and not believing the trucks were there. It was really a first time filmmaker's experience. I was very happy. At one point in the day there was a huge windstorm and some of the silks that the lighting guys had hung up to get even lighting in an outdoor space were blown away and some of them got ripped. We lost a few hours and even though I felt like I should have been really upset, I still felt like the performances I was getting from these girls were great, that the location looked good and that we were doing a great job. We made up for the lost hours of shooting over the next day or two and we were back on track.

Was it the happiest shoot you've ever been on?
It was as happy as I have ever had. I like to have a happy set. I've learned even more in the meantime how important it is to always have that. I also had a great time making MEET THE APPLEGATES and AIRHEADS, for example. There were fun days on HUDSON HAWK but for the most part it wasn't that much fun. Once we were about a week into shooting HEATHERS we realised that our cast was as good as we thought it was, and that the tone was coming together. We were pretty confident that we were making a movie that would work. Once you have that confidence then you just move forward.

How did you feel about the way the film was received?
It was complicated for me because on the one hand I knew that a lot of people would be angered by it and I kind of relished that, but at the same time I got angry about the reviews that weren't good. And there were some. But for the most part the movie was really well received so I had nothing to complain about. It was very good for me because that meant I was able to make more movies. You make a movie and you hope to God that it is successful so that you will be able to make another one.

How much do you consider your potential audience when you're making a film?
I do it for myself, not anybody else. I really want other people to like my work and I make things to be enjoyed by everybody but I'm not sitting there making calculations based on what other people might think. I'm not capable of doing that so I just make the movies I like. Sometimes I might make a certain choice because I feel it goes counter to what everybody might expect and it amuses me. I certainly don't have any interest in making safe decisions. Every once in a while I think of the work as a whole because I have directed for a while now, and if anybody bothered to take a look they would see a continuous thread throughout the films I have directed. Nowadays, just from experience, I've learned how to just be a pro and just take something and run with it. I did an episode of Dexter and I had never done anything like that before but it was good, dark humour. I felt it would be a natural for me and fun and challenging. It was someone else's vision but it was one that I could certainly stand behind and be happy to do.

Has HEATHERS cast a shadow over your career?
It hasn't cast a shadow in any bad sense. I don't feel like I have to live up to it. It's been a long time since I made the film. I would be the first person to say that I have never made a movie that I liked better, but I have done a lot of other work that I think is really good. I think I am a much better director now than I was when I made the film, but I haven't had everything come together in quite the same way. Some days I get up and I wish I was out making another independent movie with a strong point of view and getting my vision out there again. I haven't really done that in a long time and I miss that, but I've been doing a lot of cable TV for HBO and Showtime and I'm having a great time. It's hard for me to stop because the world I'm in right now is the best thing going.

Do you think HEATHERS changed the high school movie genre after it came out?
I know there have been a bunch of films influenced by it, like JAWBREAKER (1999) and my personal favorite high school movie, Alexander Payne's ELECTION (1999). I think HEATHERS showed people that you could make dark humour work in a genre where it would be uunexpected. It wasn't the first movie to do that by any means but it got caught up in a good time and it became a model for people in a good way. I am really happy about that.

Have you watched the movie much over the years?
I've watched it with Dan Waters at a couple of screenings. It's amusing for me to watch it now because I feel like I am watching a document from a different time in our culture. It's like watching REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) when I was a teenager.

How do you feel about a sequel to HEATHERS?
It's been talked about a lot, but it doesn't make any sense to me. One time Winona was so nostalgic for the fun we had making the film that she started talking to Dan and I about making a sequel. But we could never figure out how to make it work. I never really thought HEATHERS lent itself to a sequel.

What advice would the present Michael Lehmann give to the Michael Lehmann about to make HEATHERS?
I'd say ''Don't pay attention to me. Do what it is that you wanna do.'' I still approach what I do the same way I did back then. 
I spoke to Michael by telephone and would like to thank him for his time.  

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