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Director Michael Lehmann talks his cult teen film Heathers, 30 years after its release

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Despite disappointing at the box office on its 1988 release, Heathers impressed critics and found a VHS audience, eventually emerging as a cult classic. And it’s not difficult to see why - cynical, satirical and endlessly quotable, it smashed through mainstream expectations of what a teen film should and could be. Though you can’t always encapsulate a film in a memorable line, Heathers most cherished quote makes a fine attempt: “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa to you?”

Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a reluctant supplement to the most powerful, privileged and despicable clique in school: the Heathers (played by Shannen Doherty, Kim Walker and Lisanne Falk). When mysterious new boyfriend JD (Christian Slater, in full-on creep mode) learns of Veronica’s hated for the Heathers, he proposes framing a murder as suicide to expose the toxicity of high school social structures. But as the reaction to the ‘suicides’ only further aggravates Veronica, it becomes clear that JD’s violent solutions are just getting going.

“The extreme always seems to make an impression,” JD reasons; and it might as well be the philosophy behind Heathers. Decades on, the cult film has lost none of its controversy, nor style. Very dark, very funny and very ’80s, it remains, as a Heather might say, very. With Heathers back in cinemas to celebrate its 30th anniversary, we spoke to director Michael Lehmann about the film’s long-lasting cult status.

On its 30th anniversary Heathers is back in cinemas, and in the last few years it’s also been turned into a musical and a TV show. Where do you think the film’s enduring appeal lies?

I’ve been asking myself this question all week, and the serious answer is that the conflicts of high school and the trials of adolescence and the nature of social life in high school, those problems have remained the same. In spite of the fact that it’s thirty years later, and there are all sorts of things that have changed about life and the way people conduct themselves, there is still some essential truth to the emotional nature of the high school experience. The way it’s presented in this movie, with all the dark humour and all the perverse irony – people don’t go in that direction very often, so this movie still has a life.

You talked about the lasting emotional resonance of the high school experience, but do you see the satirical elements of the film as still being relevant?

More so than I would have ever expected from thirty years ago. The satirical elements that deal with social structure in high school, with the bullying and teasing and interaction between the cliques, that maybe you would have expected. But the social satire having to do with things like the way in which Veronica and JD murder the jocks who are homophobic, and make it look like they were gay lovers – the treatment of other forms of sexuality than the standard heterosexual one, that is still an issue. It’s changed, but it’s still an issue. Somebody was talking about date rape, and I was asked how I feel about the way that was depicted in the movie. I said it’s depicted as a despicable act, and one that was still acceptable, sort of, at the time. It’s still the same way. So, a line where JD says ‘all Kurt and Ram had to offer the world were date rapes and AIDS jokes’, that could be said today about those type of people as well as it could’ve been said then. Interestingly, in relation to violence in high school, the world has changed in a way that makes that satire… it would have to be different now, because the playing field has changed.

So you don’t think the film would be able to be made today in the same way?

No. Another thing that’s different now is social media, and the way in which people relate to one another. It’s a different world and it would change the story of this movie. It was interesting – I showed a videotape of the East Village of New York in 1985, that my sister had made, to my son and his girlfriend. And I said, ‘what looks different about this than the East Village now?’ And the first thing they said was, ‘nobody’s looking at their phones!’ I didn’t really see it that way, but nowadays everybody communicates so differently to how they did then. I wonder, if you watch Heathers now do you see that or do you just accept it was before that time. 

It’s obviously very much got the reputation of a cult film now, and that’s played a part in why it’s lasted as it has. Reading the script, did you immediately know it was cult material, or did that realisation come after the film had been released?

You never really think about those things when you make a movie. Cult… that’s something that happens after you make a movie that works and finds a specific audience. Just from reading the script it was clear that the sensibility of the movie was dark and satirical in a way that usually is only allowed in movies that become cult films. Mainstream movies don’t usually have that.

Do you think mainstream audiences understood the satire that you were intending to put across in the film?

I think at the time, for the most part, they did. It was a question when we made it. The question was more, will young people understand it, will they get where we’re being heavily ironic, or will they take it at face value? And what I found which was very surprising: young people got it completely. There was no question, they understood where we were coming from. But some more responsible adult viewers at the time were offended that the movie was a comedy. They said it was a comedy about teenage suicide, and how dare you do that.

In recent years other 80s teen movies, especially John Hughes’ films, have been re-evaluated and often labelled ‘problematic’ in some way. How do you feel Heathers compares to other films of the period?

It’s interesting that you say problematic, because I like John Hughes’s movies. John Hughes was very, very funny as a writer, and his writing for National Lampoon and all that he did before then was pretty brilliant. Myself and my friends, as we were making Heathers, we didn’t look down on John Hughes. We didn’t say we’re gonna do something better than John Hughes; we wanted to do something different to John Hughes. Those movies, because of their popularity and because they sold a very rosy image of high school – in spite of the fact they dealt with the problems of being an adolescent – they were light and sort of happy in a funny way. We just were more interested in a much darker vision. I don’t know – we probably couldn’t have made Heathers if not for the success of the John Hughes films, but we weren’t doing them in response to them.

Heathers also differs from other contemporary film in terms of style. There’s a lot of bold lighting choices and iconic imagery; I’m thinking particularly of the funeral scenes. What was it like transferring it from script to screen?

These are interesting director questions – it’s like how extreme do you make these things, how naturalistic do you play this. If you have dialogue that’s not naturalistic – and it wasn’t, but it sort of reflected the slang of the times, in an odd way – do you emphasise that or do you underplay it? What’s the best way to get this across? I wanted the movie to have a visual style that was appropriate to the material. I didn’t want it to overshadow the material, or make it too arch. It’s a thin line to walk. I didn’t want to make it so naturalistic; that felt like it wouldn’t enhance the humour, that it wouldn’t help people into this world. In one of the funeral scenes I had everybody wearing those 3-D glasses. That was not in the script, and I remember talking to [screenwriter] Dan Waters about it, saying ‘is this too much?’ But there was a great iconic photograph of an audience watching a 1950s 3-D film wearing those white paper glasses, and I thought that would be great to throw in here in the midst of this funeral. There are a few things that are maybe a little bit self-conscious, but this was part of the choice of how to make the movie stylised in the right way.

The influence of Heathers can be seen in teen films as disparate as Donnie Darko (2002), Mean Girls (2004) and recently Thoroughbreds (2017). What do you make of it?

I haven’t seen Thoroughbreds, so I don’t know. I do have to watch it! But Donnie Darko came from the same sort of sensibility; we were making those movies around the same time. It’s been hard to track the influence of Heathers. There were movies like Jawbreaker (1999) along the way, that were teen films that had a Heathers kind of sensibility but never went to the same place. I always felt that nobody ever got as dark as we did. Donnie Darko did – which is one of the reasons why I like the movie – but people usually restrain themselves from going to certain territories. I think that’s a shame. I think they should go there more often.

HEATHERS 30th Anniversary 4K Restoration is released in UK cinemas from 8th August and on digital and on demand from 20th August. Heathers will also screen at The Prince Charles Cinema - book tickets here.

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