The seminal teen flick “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is celebrating its 35th anniversary on Sunday.
Not only did the coming-of-age tale set in Southern California launch the careers of director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe, the comedy catapulted Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, and Judge Reinhold into stardom.
And in 2005, “Fast Times,” which was based on Crowe’s 1981 book chronicling his adventures going undercover at a San Diego high school, was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Ironically, “Fast Times” had to overcome many obstacles during production and almost failed to get released.
Among the early difficulties the production encountered was finding a director for the comedy, which also featured future best actor Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage — billed as Nicolas Coppola — as well as Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards.
Universal executive Thom Mount surprisingly recommended David Lynch, who had directed the seminal 1977 indie horror film “Eraserhead” about an odd man taking care of a deformed baby and earned an Oscar nomination for “The Elephant Man,” the acclaimed 1980 drama based on the true story of the physically deformed John Merrick who is rescued by a Victorian surgeon from a freak show.
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Not exactly a filmmaker who comes to mind to direct a teen comedy.
“I had a meeting with David Lynch,” recalled Crowe (“Say Anything,” “Jerry Maguire”) who won a screenplay Oscar for his 2000 semi-autobiographical “Almost Famous.”
The iconoclastic filmmaker drove up to Universal in his VW Beetle and took a meeting with Crowe. “He had a very wry smile on his face as I sat talking with him,” noted Crowe. “He went and read it. We met again. He was very, very sweet about it, but slightly perplexed we thought of him. He said this was a really nice story but ‘it’s not really the kind of thing that I do, but good luck.’ He got into the white VW bug and drove off.”
Years later, Crowe ran into Lynch and reminded him of the meeting. “He very much remembered, which was great,” he said.
Heckerling (“Look Who’s Talking”), who made her feature directorial debut with “Fast Times,” didn’t know about the Lynch connection until recently. “I had no idea of that at all,” said Heckerling, who has written the book to the upcoming Broadway musical version of her other hit teen comedy, 1995’s “Clueless.”
Heckerling was all of 27 when she began production on the film in late 1981. “I know Art Linson, the producer,” she noted. “He showed me the script. I gave him my thoughts and then said I should meet with the people at Universal.”
“They said, ‘you should meet Cameron.’ So we started having meetings,” she said. “I love him to death. He’s a genius. We started playing with different ideas. The book, I thought, it had just such an amazing wealth of material. I thought a lot more of it could be incorporated into the script.”
Crowe recalled Heckerling telling him, “‘I love how all the action is centered around the mall in the book. Let’s make the mall an even bigger character for the movie.’ We were like ‘Great idea, we’re on our way.’ Amy completely got it and we were up and running.”
Heckerling, who shot at the old Sherman Oaks Galleria during nights, said that not many films at the time used shopping malls as a location. “Movies I had seen on TV that had teenagers back then would go to what was like the soda shop. There was always a place where people went and they sat … people from school could be together in a non-school atmosphere.”
And there was another big reason Heckerling liked the mall — it was indoors. “I am not an outdoors person.”
When “Fast Times” began filming, the teen film genre had little respect. Though there had been such classic teen dramas as 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Blackboard Jungle,” most teen films were slight and often silly.
“They hadn’t been very good,” noted TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who recently introduced Fathom Events and TCM’s theatrical presentation of “Fast Times.”
Teen flicks “certainly hadn’t been taken very seriously,” he said. “The establishment in Hollywood — and I don’t mean that as derisively as it comes to sound — has always looked askance at young people, their ideas, what’s important to them. So a movie about young people at a major studio seems silly. I suspect to some people, it was a sign of a changing time that they weren’t comfortable with.”
“The hierarchy of the studio never took the movie seriously,” said Crowe. “In fact, they kind of turned a blind eye to it. We barely could get on the lot. I remember there was a guy at the front gate named Scotty. He would remember that we were making a movie there. The other guys were like ‘What are you doing trying to get on the lot?’ We’re like ‘We’re making this movie called ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High.’’ And they said ‘No, the studio’s not making a movie called ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High.’’ We really kind of snuck through.”
Much of the credit for the film’s extraordinary cast, Crowe said, goes to casting director Don Phillips.
“There were a lot of wonderful people out there,” added Heckerling.
In fact, Matthew Broderick was an actor they really liked, Crowe recalled, but “We couldn’t find a part for Mathew Broderick. There were so many of that whole era of young actors. They were all available because there were no movies for them, so we had our choice of everybody.”
Like Penn, who steals the film as the ultimate stoner surfer dude Jeff Spicoli. “He came in and did not necessarily give the best reading of all the people, but there’s something so amazingly compelling about him,” said Heckerling. “Just talking to him, seeing him. He was fascinating.”
Penn was so committed to his role, he actually showed up for shooting wearing the checkerboard Vans shoes he sports in the film, which became a huge hit for the company. “He didn’t let us call him by his name until the last day when he gave Amy, Art, and I each a ceremonial shoe and said ‘My name is Sean,’” Crowe quipped.
Save for Ray Walston, as the acerbic history teacher and Spicoli’s nemesis, Mr. Hand, there are very few adults in “Fast Times,” including the characters’ parents.
“I hate parents,” said Heckerling. “Parents open a whole box of stuff I didn’t want to get into. I just wanted to say ‘Here’s the world of kids in their own universe. This is real. This is this particular time and place. These are real characters and what they were going through.’”
Crowe recalled being told that if you make a movie just for kids, it will fail because not enough kids will come to the movie. “That was strange to all of us,” he said. “So we banded together to make this movie where parents barely existed. It was raw in what it was showing. There was pot smoking and abortion and all of this stuff.”
In fact, it was a little too raw for the MPAA, which initially gave it an X rating due to a brief glimpse of Robert Romanus’ private parts when he strips down to make love to Leigh.
When Heckerling was old enough to see foreign films and X-rated movies, she was appalled that “it was only women that were naked, especially in American films. Men weren’t. I thought that’s not right. It just seemed unfair. You could see a naked lady but you couldn’t see a naked man?”
So she wanted to have genital equality in her sex scene and immediately was slapped with the rating that would keep teens away from the film.
“‘Jaws’ editor Verna Fields, who was then an executive at Universal, even offered to go to Washington, D.C., to try to fight the rating. Eventually, though, Heckerling blurred the shot. “You don’t see anything and then it had an R-rating.”
Despite its out-sized cult status now, “Fast Times” grossed a disappointing $27 million at the box office.
“They weren’t going to release it,” said Heckerling.
According to Crowe, “What happened is somebody wrote a memo shortly before the movie was released. They wrote a letter to [Universal executives] Ned Tanen and Sid Sheinberg that said the future of the studio was in doubt if we are making movies like this high school movie.”
“No question that movies like ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ were another reminder that certainly the studio system was dead, and old Hollywood was dead,” said Mankiewicz.
Crowe credits Tanen for not scrapping the release. “He stood up and said ‘I’m putting the movie out, but we’re cutting the theaters down to 200.’ But what happened is the weekend the movie came out, the kids who went to see it loved Sean Penn so much, the word got out that there was this movie with this character who wore checkerboard Vans, called the teacher a d— and ordered pizza into the room. They started showing up. The studio never caught up to the demand to see it. They were always scrambling to try and get into more theaters, but it never worked out until the movie came out on VHS and was a big hit.”
Ultimately, Sheinberg and Universal executives knew they underestimated the appeal of “Fast Times,” Crowe said.
“He said ‘How did we blow it on the high school movie,’” noted Crowe. “He did a post-mortem to find out how they had messed up. Out of it came this desire to do more movies like ‘Fast Times’ and I think the next thing that happened is that they gave John Hughes a deal and greenlit like three of his movies pretty quickly out of that. [‘Fast Times’] created a new cottage industry at Universal.”
Though Crowe described the film as a “snapshot” of certain era in teen life, the characters and their situations are still very fresh and identifiable.
“It holds up remarkably well because it feels honest,” offered Mankiewicz. “The pain that they feel, the humiliation that these kids feel, the frustration, the doubt ,and insecurities that all feels authentic. That’s mostly attributed to Cameron — that script and the book — and also to Amy ,who never at one point went for silly.”