Jeremy Clarke talks to the director of the film which earned a standing ovation at the Edinburgh Festival (below). Overleaf, Trevor Johnston faces up to the Garbo legend.
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School for Scandal
An ultrablack satire on the high school teenflick, director Michael Lehman’s controversial first feature Heathers looks set to be the surprise cult hit of the year. Jeremy Clarke reports.
Already screened to an audience ovation at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Heathers is that rare animal, a mainstream American movie that manages to equate box office success with artistic merit. Featuring a smart central performance from megastar-in-waiting Wynona Ryder (soon to be seen as Dennis Quaid’s nymphet bride in the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls ofFire). and powered along by a masterly screenplay courtesy of newcomer Daniel Waters. it‘s one ofthose movies that was always going to make an impact even with the most workaday directorial talent at the helm. Having said that. it‘s a tribute that debut boy Michael Lehman makes this dark comedy about teenage suicide snap along with such zing. Heathers isn‘t quite like any movie you’ve seen lately.
It‘s something of a cocktail ofgenres. one part detached satire to two parts American high school teenﬂick. You‘ve waited. no doubt. for Kind Hearts and Coronets meets Pretty in Pink, and here it is. Ms Ryder‘s literate heroine Veronica. succintly describes the set-up herself: ‘Dear Diary. my teenage angst bullshit has a body count. Are we going to the prom. or going to hell?’
Not surprisingly. director Lehman has strong views on the artistic boundaries of the teen genre. ‘When people talk of those movies they seem to think that John Hughes (Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club etc) has a monopoly on that kind of film, he reflects. ‘As it happens. I enjoy his movies but I wouldn‘t want to make one like that myself. I find Tim Hunter‘s movies Over The Edge and River’s Edge much more my kind of thing.‘ In fact. Mr Lehman’s personal tastes in cinema aren‘t at all what you might expect from someone working within the confines of the big bucks studio system: ‘I grew up on foreign movies . . . French, German, Wim Wenders‘ work I love, and Japanese. In my teens. I saw very few
American films. I guess my interests veer more towards the art movie, and it took me a long time to come to terms with how I could make something that did what I wanted it to and be a commercial American product.‘
Generously admitting. that Dan Waters‘ script made Heathers ‘an easy film to direct‘. Lehman also reveals that the end result is only part of a much more expansive original text. ‘Dan had so much material there was tons ofstuff we didn’t use,‘ he enthuses. ‘He told me that he used to observe his little sister and her friends a lot when they were talking. I guess she would have been about the age of Veronica in the film. We‘d been friends a long time, and he gave me this ZOO-odd page thing to read. I was very taken with it and wanted to see it get offthe ground. I hadn‘t directed anything myself at that point. so I was just looking to help it in any way I could. With my agent we took it around all the major studios. but none of them could see it in terms of a commercial proposition. It wasn‘t that they didn‘t like it, it just seemed too dark for them to envisage it actually playing in cinemas.‘
‘We then took it around the smaller companies; and at this point I came on board as director because I felt this might be possible on the lower budget. The film came in for around $3M. That is low. Even though we shot it all in LA. there were a number of larger scenes that had to go because they would have cost too much.‘
‘We had problems in getting them to agree to casting Wynona Ryder. This was before
Beetlejuz'ce. where she plays the depressed adolescent daughter. had come out. so she was not very well noted. I'd seen a movie called Lucas. her first film. where she‘d given a great performance at the age of twelve. and had made a note of her name. Then she was in another movie Squaredance with Rob Lowe. and again very assured. At first the producers wanted some better known teenage actress. but when they discovered she was in Beetle/lace they were quite happy to have her in the cast.‘
‘In fact. I knew someone who was working on Beetlejuice and managed to get a copy of the script to her. She liked it so much that she rang me up and begged her to let me do it — which was nice since she was the person I wanted for the part all along. And besides. I couldn't really imagine any other actress being at all right for it.‘
Lehman is now in pre-produetion on I-ludson Hawk, a slam-bang movie for action specialist producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon. Roadhouse). ‘That‘ll be quite a departure for me. and an interesting one. To do that kind ofbig action movie. I‘m looking forward to it. but. in a way I‘m not looking forward to it. I never saw myself making something like this. Bruce Willis is in a good role. and Joel Silver knows how to produce a big movie. I seem to have a fair amount offreedom. but emotionally I'm just not sure how I‘ll cope with the experience.‘
Heathers ( l 5 ) is at Edinburgh F ilmh ous‘t’ I 9 Nov—2 Dee. and Glasgow Film Theatre 10—24 Dec.
The List 10— 23 November 198913