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‘Heathers’ Turns 30: Why Winona Ryder’s Agent Begged Her Not to Do the Subversive Teen Movie

Director Michael Lehmann was shocked when he looked at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times entertainment sections and saw there were no ads for the second week of dark high school comedy “Heathers.”

When the film opened on March 31, 1989, the indie film studio New World had taken out ads for the comedy that featured Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in career-defining performances.

“It had played at Sundance and had gotten a lot of attention,” he noted. “We were really looking forward to see what would happen when it hit theaters. The first weekend was great — a good screen average for a little indie movie like that. We were super happy.”

But without more ads they knew their little film would be in trouble.

“In those days, the way you decided on a movie in L.A. or New York was to look I the L.A. Times or New York Times at the ads and at theater times,” said producer Denise Di Novi.

And New World, which was having financial issues, wouldn’t pay for the ads. So, Di Novi stepped up. “I said, I’ve got to pay for them,” she said “Thank God. We did pretty well in cities. At least in L.A., people who mattered in terms of our business, they went to see it.”

But “Heathers” was released in just 54 theaters and only made $1,108,000 during its run.

And like a “A Christmas Story” and “Office Space,” it didn’t achieve cult status until viewers watched it over and over on home video and cable.

It’s a wonder that “Heathers” found a home at all. In a cinematic universe of John Hughes teen comedies and such crude sex farces as “The Last American Virgin,” the pitch-black comedy stood in stark contrast.

Ryder played Veronica, who, though she is part of the high school clique of popular girls all named Heather, disapproves of their cruelty to other students. When the new rebellious boy J.D. (Slater) shows up at school, they accidentally poison the leader and frame it as a suicide. Veronica soon discovers J.D. is out to kill everybody he doesn’t like and even blow up the school.

Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty played the Heathers to perfection replete with massive hair and even more massive shoulder pads.

The major studios turned down “Heathers.” So did countless parents and agents of teen actors who were courted for roles in the cult favorite.

And so, did Doris Day.

It was “Heathers” screenwriter Daniel Waters’ good friend, Emmy Award-winning writer/director Larry Karaszewski, who suggested Sly and the Family Stone’s recording of the Oscar-winning the Day hit “Que Sera Sera” at the film’s conclusion.

So, they tried to get Day’s indelible recording for the title sequence.

Day wasn’t impressed. She didn’t want to have any part of a movie that was filled with F-bombs and nudity.

Lehmann remembers that Day had a policy for her band that, “if anyone swore, they’d have to put money into a pot. She didn’t tolerate foul language. ‘Heathers’ is nothing if not filled with great use of foul language.”

So, Syd Straw filled in quite delightfully for Day.

“The whole thing about ‘Heathers was lulling you into thinking you’re watching a different movie,” said Waters. “[The song] makes them think they’re watching a film about girls, a film about teenagers, rebels and bullies and it’s going to have a nice message at the end. Then you slap everybody in the face in the middle and mess with their minds.”

Cinematographer Francis Kenny also slapped audiences with his color palette.

“I remember my approach was that when people are see a movie when it’s brightly lit, the light looks slightly flatter or artificial and people or the colors are more pastel,” said Kenny. “I think that people automatically feel a little safer. I tried to start ‘Heather” in that tone. People begin to say ‘Oh, this is going to be fine.’ Then if you watch it, it gets darker. The colors get deeper, blues become deep purple. It just gets dark right along with the script.”

If you frequented the Video House video store in Silver Lake in the mid-1980s, you probably rented a VHS from Waters. After graduating from college with aspiration of being a screenwriter, he worked in the “low-rent” store while writing screenplays.

At the video store, “I was inundated with so many kinds of teen films that I said, ‘Well, basically as a viewer, what’s missing from the equation?’ Stanley Kubrick did a war film; he did a science fiction film and he did a horror film. What would his teen film be like?”

And “Heathers” were born.

The first draft of the film, said Waters, was far darker than what is now on screen — there was an ending in which the school was blown up and the dead students attended a prom in heaven.

“Veronica’s character was much more a willing participant in the murders,” said Waters. “I almost called her a female Travis Bickle. Her narration was even spookier. I think the triumph of the film is that Winona brings so much to the role. It’s so endearing. So, any rewrites I did, I ended up, I wouldn’t say softening her, but making her more real. Here I am trying to make a Stanley Kubrick teen film, a cold clinical dissection of teen films and I’ve got this pulsing heartbeat through Winona. So it’s like Wait a minute, she’s making this movie into something better.”

Waters and Lehmann met each other through their mutual friend Karaszewski. “He said ‘Dan Waters wrote this amazing script,’” noted Lehmann.” Larry said ‘Dan needs an agent.’ Larry took it to his agent. And that gent didn’t get it. I had signed with Bobbi Thompson at William Morris. Larry said ‘Do you think she’d get it? I said, ‘oh yeah, Bobbi will totally get this script. I took it to her, and she flipped for it. That was that.”

Di Novi noted Waters’ dialogue was a revelation. “It reminded me of when I first saw the movie ‘Network,’ where the dialogue was not really how people spoke, but how you wish people spoke.” It was a way of kind of showing in this hyper-real way how rough it was to be a teenager.”

Still, said Di Novi, “Everybody thought we were crazy to make the movie.”

Ryder’s agent was adamant she not do the film, because it was so dark. Di Novi said the agent even got down on her knees and begged her not to do it. “Winona Ryder is so smart, very brave and unusual. She was this amazing 15-year-old, if you can believe it. Winona got obsessed with the script.”

And the actress brought Slater into the project. “I’m not sure at that point in his life, he knew what the heck was going on with that movie, but he was just a workhorse. He just worked, worked and worked. He signed on to do it. I figured out a budget and away we went.”

Falk, the former child model who played Heather McNamara, didn’t have any problem with her agents because she was older than the rest of the cast.

“I just got the initial read for one of the Heathers and I loved the dialogue. I didn’t know what the story was — the dialogue was so much fun to read that I basically said, ‘give me any part in this movie.’ I just wanted to be any part of it.”

“Heathers” won the Indie Spirit award for best first feature and spawned a successful musical theater version. But a Paramount Network TV series set in contemporary times was tabled last year because of the rise in high school shootings.

Falk, who lives with her teenage daughter and husband in an English country town, lamented that “the No. 1 teen issue is depression and anxiety which just breaks my heart,” she said. “

“Asking my daughter and her friends, the thing that keeps coming up is that teen life is still the same regardless of the Internet and social media. I think that’s the legacy of the movie and why people go to it.”

“The movie has stayed relevant,” noted Di Novi. “I think it gives people hope. A lot of people say ‘That movie helped me get through high school.”’

Lehmann, Waters and Falk will be attending a special 30th anniversary screening of the 4K restoration of “Heathers” April 18 at the Theater at the Ace Hotel in DTLA. The celebration is being presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Vidiots Foundation.

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