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.

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