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 first of a two-part interview about HEATHERS, I spoke to Lehmann about the genesis of the film, and his approach to making it.

When did you first hear about HEATHERS?
I had been a student at the USC Film School, and one of my good friends there was the screenwriter Larry Karaszewski. After finishing at USC, Larry brought me the script to HEATHERS, which Dan Waters, his friend since high school, had written. The idea was to help Dan get an agent. Larry's agent had said he thought that there was no way the script could ever get made. I thought it was fantastic, as did my agent, Bobbi Thompson, who after reading it also became Dan's agent.

How did you end up directing the film?
Dan wanted Stanley Kubrick originally, so I told him that once Kubrick had passed on the project, to give me a call because I wanted to get involved. I had a deal with New World Pictures, based on a student film I'd made called Beaver Gets a Boner (1985). The head of production at New World was a guy named Steve White. He had been a member of The Groundlings, an improv group in LA, and he had pretty good taste. Steve was interested in doing movies that were slightly different from what New World had previously been doing, and he had the ability to greenlight movies at a certain budget. The company was taking advantage of the growing home video market and they were able to make low-budget movies without having to do a lot of development work on them and having to ask the filmmakers to make a lot of changes. Steve flipped for the script. He said he would make the movie, but he asked for some script changes, which we didn't like. We ended up making them because we couldn't find anybody else to make the movie. We liked Steve a lot though, and he was very supportive. Denise Di Novi had a producing deal with New World, and was also my friend, so she became the producer. It all fell together in a way that was pretty lucky.

What were the script changes he asked for?
The biggest change we had to make was to the ending. Dan's original ending had JD and Veronica blow up the high school, and they both die along with everybody else. The final sequence was a prom in Heaven. It was funny and ironic, and pretty out there. Steve said he couldn't make that version of the movie because he felt that if we were making a comedy that dealt with teen suicide and the one sympathetic protagonist, Veronica, ended up killing herself, we were running the risk that impressionable kids would watch the movie and decide to kill themselves too. He said ''I know that sounds ridiculous but if we made that version of the movie and one teenager killed himself, I wouldn't want that hanging over my head. '' We did everything we could do to try and convince him that he was wrong, but he wouldn't back down.

Did any other studios express any interest at all?
New Line Pictures, which was different from the New Line that we have today, were making a lot of teen-market horror films at the time, and they said they would make the film but they asked for a whole lot of changes, not just to the ending. We all decided to go back to New World and keep arguing to get Steve to allow us to do something at least close to the original ending. In the end we failed. When the movie came out, a lot of hardcore fans said they were disappointed in the ending – they felt it was a cop-out and that we didn't go all the way. And we agreed with them.

What was your immediate impression of the script?
The version I read was 200 pages long and it took forever to read. It was really complicated but also very funny and perverse. A lot of the characters who show up in the final film and only appear in a couple of scenes had full storylines in the version I read. The script was brilliant and would have made for a great movie, but I thought it was confusing and too long, and that nobody would sit through a three-hour high school comedy about teenage suicide. Dan didn't disagree. The way he writes is that he spends a lot of time making notes and trying things out. He's not very good at editing his own work. When I first read it, I was only really thinking about getting him an agent and I didn't presume I would be directing it. But once I came onboard as director, if for no other reason than to keep our budget reasonable, I knew that we would have to come up with a much leaner version of the script.

What was your working relationship with Dan like during the making of the film?
Dan and I worked very closely together. I felt that he had written a great script, and even though as director, I was going to interpret it and put my own stamp on it, I also felt that my goal was to make a movie that was as good as what he had written. I wanted him there on the set because we were good friends and it was fun to work that way. We pretty much shot the shooting script that we had come to at that point. As a director you find that sometimes there are lines of dialogue that are superfluous because the story is being told visually, and writers sometimes get upset when some detail or line that they wrote isn't there. Dan is amazingly flexible for someone who has such a strong voice and such a specific point of view. We did a lot of work, and he was very good about cutting things down. He also had great notes in post-production.

Dan saw the script as very Kubrickian in style. Did you approach it in any Kubrickian fashion?
Kubrick was my favourite filmmaker and I always felt that DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) were real masterpieces of dark humour. He was always able to walk that line between very silly humour, like in some parts of DR. STRANGELOVE, and dark humour that a lot of people wouldn't even recognise as being humorous. Stylistically I liked the way he used wide lenses, the way he set his scenes up, and his willingness to use all sorts of cinematic devices to tell stories. I didn't go full hog and imitate him but he was certainly an influence. I remember when I was prepping the film with Francis Kenny, the director of photography, I sat him down and we looked at the whole Marine Training sequence from FULL METAL JACKET (1987). We looked at the way the Marine Sergeant moved through the barracks. I thought it would be interesting to have our high school have a look like that.

Apart from Kubrick, were there any other filmmakers who influenced you when you were making the movie?
I was also a big fan of Roman Polanski and there was an influence certainly in the way I was shooting. I had worked for Francis Coppola on THE OUTSIDERS (1983) and RUMBLE FISH (1983), so I had been around his way of filmmaking, and there was some influence there just in the approach of how to make a movie. When I make a movie it's always about what I think makes the most sense for the film. I feel more comfortable just going with my own gut instinct rather than try to create something that reflects another filmmaker's work. I have never been one to look at the films of a director frame by frame and try to break them down shot by shot. ''How did they do that? What are the cuts there? What kind of angles are they using?'' I prefer to feel as though I am making my own choices. The movies where I didn't follow those rules so much are far less interesting to me. I also feel like I can enjoy other filmmakers' work more if I am not sitting there just figuring out how they did something.

Were you a fan of the high school movies of the period - John Hughes's movies for example?
Like I said, I had worked for Francis on THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH and although I mainly worked on the post-production and I wasn't on the set so much, I was around when some of those so-called 'Brat Pack' actors were coming up. I had mixed feelings about the John Hughes movies. I thought they were well-made and funny, especially SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984), and he did a brilliant job of creating a kind of happy, mythical, experience. But at the time I felt that he basically whitewashed the whole high school experience. I actually feel different now, and I think his movies are pretty great, but at the time, Dan and I wanted to make the anti-Hughes movie.

Do you feel HEATHERS is a more accurate depiction of the high school experience?
The humour of the film is heightened, the way people speak is stylised, and the way everything is presented is outrageous, but nevertheless it has some fundamental truth to it. I realised that you have to be true to what is being satirised. You can't stray from reality so much that it no longer reflects a fundamental reality. I wanted to see if we could do that in a high school setting because I don't think I had ever seen it done before. I also wanted to avoid making everything sentimental with nice, neat resolutions to the kinds of things people go through as students. I felt that was a false vision.

Were you at all apprehensive about making a comedy with teen suicide as one of its themes?
Well, I was young and I didn't give a shit! I knew a lot of people were going to be angry, which did not bother me at all. It would be harder to make HEATHERS today because there have been all these instances of violence in high school and all these crazy shootings. Those hadn't happened back then. In a way it was more of an innocent time so it was easier to make the less innocent movie. There has always been violence in high schools. There was violence in my high school. But it's all escalated now. Now they screen for guns in urban high schools in the US. Another reason the film wouldn't get made today is that nobody would finance something that has that attitude and that sense of humour and that runs the risk of offending so many people. It's amazing that something made over 25 years ago is braver than most films released today. Movies can be made so cheaply and easily nowadays that nobody has an excuse not to make the movies they want to make.

Were there any aspects that you, Dan and Denise Di Novi differed on?
There weren't that many at all. I remember Dan got upset because he had Heather Chandler, the girl who goes through the coffee table, call Veronica a ''stupid cunt'' and I changed it to ''stupid fuck''. I actually think he was right. I wish we had kept it now. We all saw eye-to-eye. It was a good collaboration between the three of us. I think we all wanted to make the same movie.

Between the three of you, were there ever any discussions regarding the morality of the script?
Denise provided the female perspective, which was good because a lot of the characters were girls. She was very good at helping us to manouever that. Dan is a practicing Catholic and he takes his moral point of view pretty seriously. I had studied Ethical and Moral Philosophy. We didn't think we were making something that was immoral or that crossed some line. We felt that we were making art or entertainment, and that we weren't encouraging people to kill themselves or murder anybody.

Now you are older and married with kids, has your attitude towards the content in the film changed at all?
No, not at all. I'm still fine with it. After the Columbine massacre, a reporter rom the New York Times called me and asked if I wanted to comment. I didn't call him back. My movie had nothing to do with what happened, so why call me?

How closely did you personally relate to the script?
I remember from my experience in junior high school how cruel the kids could be to each other, particularly the girls. A good friend of mine was bullied and subjected to some pretty harsh, humiliating stuff. I have an older sister and a younger sister. The girls at junior high were very, very mean to each other. There are a lot of ways in which I felt the HEATHERS script did reflect my experience in high school and in junior high.

How did you see the film, genre-wise?
I saw the film as a comedy with a very dark, serious undertone to it. I wouldn't have wanted it to be anything but funny. It needed to have that humor so that you were almost embarassed about what you were laughing about. Also because it was hitting on truths that normally weren't spoken about or dealt with in a humorous way. I've always felt that there is no subject that is immune to humor. A lot of people said ''You can't make a movie about suicide and have it be funny. That's wrong. '' But actually they were wrong. The more disturbing and dark a subject is, the more it lends itself to being material for comedy.

How important was the look of the movie?
I didn't want the visuals to distract from the storytelling. There was really no reason to draw too much attention to the camera, to camera angles, to lighting. You needed to have a look that allowed the viewer to form solid and real emotional connections with the characters. I like filmmaking that's hyperstilised and uses a lot of tricks and different styles but I am always wary. It's best when all that enhances what the movie is. In the case of HEATHERS I didn't want anything to take away from the movie so I didn't want to draw too much attention to what I was doing directorially. However, I did want the film to look great. The color schemes are very specific. John Huttman, the production designer, was very young and had never designed a movie before. He's gone on to do a lot of good work. He was smart and we worked hard on all the visual details. I have always been a bit of a camera fanatic so I cared about all that. But I was trying to make sure that the movie never became about the visual style and was always about the satire. 

Part two of the interview.  

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.

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