‘Heathers’: 30 years on – how the dark teen comedy predicted everything

The 1989 dark teen comedy starring Winona Ryder is still up-to-the-minute 30 years later

Shannen Doherty,  Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker and Winona Ryder in Heathers

Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker and Winona Ryder in Heathers

 

Heathers advocates for a global economy over Ronald Reagan’s more imperialist interests. Heathers uses reds and blues in order to replay the American Civil War and illustrate how that conflict still informs US realpolitik. Heathers foreshadows the fall of the Soviet Union; that’s why Veronica wears something blue in every scene. Heathers is Moby Dick; Veronica is Ishmael and the Heathers are the whale. Thus, Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is actually reading Moby-Dick during the famous croquet sequence. Heathers is an allegory for the troubled artistic relationship between lead singer Paul Westerberg and guitarist Bob Stinson in the band The Replacements; that’s why the school in the movie is named Westerberg High.

How very.

“I’ve read that theory,” says Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters. “And obviously I was into The Replacements and had a reference, but they went so deep with that. I’m a big Civil War not and Cold War nut but I never actually thought: hey, I’ve always wanted to do a movie about the Cold War, why not do it about three girls in high school?”

Just as Rodney Asher’s 2012 documentary Room 237 mines Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for deeper meanings, there is no shortage of Heathers fan theories. That’s all the more appropriate when one considers that Heathers was conceived as a Kubrick project.

“My first draft was 196 pages,” says Waters. “The goal was to get the script to Stanley Kubrick so he could make it as a three-hour film. He had done his science fiction film, his war film, his period film, his horror film. So this was going to be Stanley Kubrick’s teen film.”

He laughs: “You can’t say I wasn’t highfalutin and pretentious from the get-go.”  

Eerily prescient

The Ohio-born Waters was just 23 when he wrote the script for Heathers. Never mind the fate of the Soviet bloc. The spiky black comedy, which is reissued in restored form this week to mark its 30th anniversary, now feels eerily prescient in its anthropological takedown of the popular elite.

The plot sees 17-year-old Veronica (Winona Ryder) turning against her three alpha mean girl pals – all named Heather; all wearing shoulder-pads – and accidentally falling in with murderous new kid JD (Christian Slater). Along the way, there are dark jokes about bulimia and even darker themes. JD is an entitled white boy in a long coat who carries weapons to school. Veronica self-harms with matches and with a car cigarette lighter. Three men attempt to rape Veronica at different times: JD, a drunken frat boy, and a high-school jock. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is pressurised into oral sex by a college guy. She’s also far smarter than her vacuous “I shop therefore I am” sticker would indicate: her locker contains a copy of Harold Voth’s The Castrated Family and she dies beside the Cliffs Notes for The Bell Jar and a magazine with the cover story “The Fall of the American Teen”.

Elsewhere, rumours destroy reputations overnight, a plot device that works even better re-watched from the internet age. Final scenes include JD detonating a suicide bomber vest. That’s still marginally milder than the alternate ending in which the entire school blows up and they all go to prom, as social equals, in heaven. Or the unfilmed scene that would have seen Martha stab Veronica and call her Heather, leaving Veronica to gasp her dying words: “My name’s not Heather, you bitch!”  

“It’s funny that what was kind of satirical fantasy, almost borderline science fiction, has got now the blood of reality,” says Waters. “It’s kind of terrifying and kind of amazing too. I didn’t know I was Nostradamus. I was helped by my little sister. She was definitely a Veronica. Although every Heather you meet in their adult life thinks they were the Veronica. She had forged notes and handed them in so I stole that from her.

“People always say you must have hated high school as much as I did. But I actually liked high school. I was already an observational figure. I had a column in the school newspaper, so I was like the ambassador of the geeks and got involved with all of the cliques. It was so much more interesting being among the girls. When men are assholes they are pretty straightforward and stupid about it. When women are mean to other women it’s completely fascinating. And I was stepping back from the teen movies we were getting at that time, especially the John Hughes films which were fun and are still fun. But at school there was all this weird Machiavellian energy that was never in the movies about high school.”

Novelty

Lisanne Falk, who played Heather McNamara, had just graduated from high school when she auditioned for Heathers. Years before Clueless or Mean Girls, she still remembers the novelty of the material.

To me it’s all about Winona and how casting can transcend material. The role I wrote was more like a female Travis Bickle

“I didn’t get a whole script, I got four or five pages,” says Falk. “At that point, everybody came in and read for Heather number one, as she was called. And for me, as an actress, I was looking at these pages and thinking: Wow, this dialogue is amazing. I have never read anything like this. I really wanted to be a part of it.”

Meanwhile, a young Brad Pitt auditioned for JD but was judged to be “too nice” for the role. Heather Graham was offered the part of Heather Chandler, but her parents didn’t approve of the script.

Speaking to Interview magazine in 2016, Winona Ryder revealed that they almost didn’t cast her: “They thought I wasn’t pretty enough,” she said. “They were trying to get Jennifer Connelly.” Ryder, who was 16 during the shoot, had to beg to be chosen ahead of Connelly and Family Ties’ Justine Bateman. 

“To me it’s all about Winona and how casting can transcend material,” says Waters. “The role I wrote was more like a female Travis Bickle. Winona got the darkness and the humour of it, but Winona being Winona just gave a lilt to the character. She worked in a way I never imagined. She made it so much more human and funny. She’s not a Carol Burnett or Alicia Silverstone. She’s not trying to get laughs. But that makes it more satirically interesting. You couldn’t overstate her contribution.”

Christian Slater as JD and Winona Ryder as Veronica in Heathers
Christian Slater as JD and Winona Ryder as Veronica in Heathers

Christian Slater was, as Lisanne Falk recalls, Winona’s discovery. His then girlfriend, Kim Walker, played Heather Chandler. The Heathers were rounded off with Shannen Doherty, the future star of Beverly Hills 90210.

“Shannen was from this whole other world,” says Falk. “She had grown up on sets. She was a TV actress. She had been acting a long time. This was her job. I look at her role now and I appreciate it much more than ever. There’s that infamous story about how she came out of the screening and said: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise this was a comedy.’ But I think that served that part and the movie really well. She played it completely straight.”

Demonic

The only note that Waters and director Michael Lehmann received back from the studio was that Slater wasn’t demonic enough during his last scene. He was, however, Jack Nicholson enough. A contemporaneous portrait of Slater in Rolling Stone magazine noted that the actor “seems to have learned to talk by watching Jack Nicholson movies”.

“Both Michael Lehmann and I thought he was hitting this Jack Nicholson thing a little bit hard,” says Waters. “So we sat down with the editor Norman Holly and did a lot of work. By the time were we done, we thought no one is ever going to know that he was doing Jack Nicholson. We’ve done such a great job. Turned out we didn’t do that great of a job. But it’s funny. You look at it now and that historical meta-kabuki mesh of Nicholson and Slater makes the film work. Critics made fun of him at the time. But it’s a phenomenal performance.”

I look at the original poster and I can’t stand it. It’s so cute

If only more people had caught it in the cinema. Heathers made just $1.1 million back on its $3 million budget. It was the last film released by New World Pictures, which closed weeks after the film’s release.

“They put no money into marketing the movie because they didn’t have any money,” says Falk. “And they didn’t understand how to market it anyway. They were trying to pitch it as a kind of thriller. In parts of Europe it was called Lethal Attraction. But 10 years later I got the call to do a DVD. And then along came streaming. So the cult aspect has progressed more and more.”

“I look at the original poster and I can’t stand it,” says Waters. “It’s so cute. I hated the ad campaign because I’m a snobby, pretentious writer, but at the same time I appreciated it because it was so soft and shitty that kids could rent it in video stores. Because it had this lame dorky picture of Winona and Christian hugging on the cover, no one would check the rating.”

Jasmine Mathews, Melanie Field and Brendan Scannell in Heathers the TV series
Jasmine Mathews, Melanie Field and Brendan Scannell in Heathers the TV series

Heathers: The Musical premiered in 2014 and will transfer to London’s West End this September. A TV reboot was scrapped by the Paramount Network last June following the Parkland shootings. In this new version, which is now expected to land with one of the streaming sites, Heather McNamara (originally played by Lisanne Falk) is now portrayed by Jasmine Mathews and is written as a black lesbian. Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is played by Brendan Scannell, who identifies as genderqueer and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is now played by Melanie Field – a plus-sized actress.

Conflated

Critics have argued that Heathers the TV show has mistakenly conflated diversity and positive representation.

“I love the musical,” says Waters. “I wasn’t consulted on the TV show because it dates back to a hilariously medieval TV contract I signed in the 80s. But they reached out to me after and sent me the first five episodes. The basic thesis – the unpopular people are popular now – is a little esoteric but by the fourth episode they’ve moved away from the movie altogether and it’s actually really good. So I was kind of sad that it was strangled at birth. I’ve read it’s still going to show in Europe so I suspect it’ll make its way out into the world.”

There is, too, the faint possibility of a sequel. Winona Ryder has been hoping for one since 1989.

“From the day we finished shooting,” laughs Falk. “Winona has wanted to do another one. We all laughed at her saying ‘I want a sequel’. But now because the film has had such an amazing life over the years, that it might be amazing.”

“Every year that goes by makes the sequel question more ridiculous,” says Waters. “You look at movies like The Matrix and Back to the Future, and the sequels almost hurt the original’s reputation. There is definitely something that could be done around Winona as a teacher or principal dealing with today’s generation because there’s a wealth of things to satirise about today’s teenagers. But I can feel the troll in myself making nasty comments on the internet already.”

Heathers opens in cinemas on August 10th 

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.