'heathers' director michael lehmann dissects the film’s lasting influence as it celebrates its 30th anniversary
Turns out, droll dialogue and colour coded croquet balls are perfect meme fodder.
It’s hard to believe, but the star of Heathers, Winona Ryder was just 16 when she raised a monocle to her eye, put pen to page, and uttered the words: “Dear diary: my teen angst bullshit has a body count.”
That was 30 years ago. Yet we’re still obsessed with Heathers, the bleakly hilarious high school movie about peer pressure, teenage suicide, and a croquet-playing girl clique. Still quoting lines like “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “Veronica, why are you pulling my dick?” Still taking screenshots of its bold wardrobe, heavy on shoulder pads, scrunchies, and socks that colour-coordinate with croquet balls.
Director Michael Lehmann was in his twenties when he made Heathers, his first feature film. When I call him up to celebrate the cult classic turning 30 he admits, “It was a little daunting to step onto the set and realise, ‘Oh shit, I have to make this big movie.’”
Before the cameras rolled, both Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters -- whose scalpel-sharp script is steeped in disconcerting lols -- knew they wanted to bulldoze the conventions of the teen genre as popularised by John Hughes. Lehmann looked at Hughes’s films and thought, No, that’s not true; that’s a slightly more nostalgic view of high school; that’s a more sanitized view.
“I felt there was something really wrong about all those iconic teen movies,” he says. One thing that struck him was the age disparity between the actors and the characters they played. “Most of the lead actors in his films, aside from Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, were in their twenties. I couldn’t understand why most of the popular teen movies of the time didn’t have teenagers in them!” he laughs.
In Heathers, most of the leading actors were under 20 -- Shannen Doherty was 17, Christian Slater was 19. Winona was actually 15 when they started shooting, though she turned 16 during production. “There’s something particularly disturbing about seeing something as hard-edged as Heathers being played by actual teenagers,” he says.
Winona reportedly loved the script so much that she offered to do the role for free. She told Lehmann that she could relate to it because she felt so much an outsider in high school. “I think she felt that it was important to make the movie because it reflected something closer to her experience, emotionally, of high school”
She also grasped the script’s dark yet playful tone. Maybe that had something to do with her experience working with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice, I suggest. “ Beetlejuice was dark in a different way, but yeah, she definitely was not burdened by convention.”
More importantly, Lehmann thinks Winona helped set the tone for the other actors. She recognised that lines like “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” were stylised and that the delivery should be underplayed. And it’s true. When you watch the movie now, the more extreme lines are delivered so casually you almost miss it the first time. She knew these needed to feel naturalistic, he says, “rather than make it seem as if you’re inventing a language every time you open your mouth.”
Of course Heathers is endlessly memeable because of its droll dialogue. But its eye-popping visuals are equally unique. What would the Heathers be without their Power Rangers-worthy colour coordination? Heather McNamara in yellow, Heather Duke in green, Heather Chandler in red -- each with their own matching croquet balls.
These little visual flourishes pop out more when you re-watch the movie. Like in Heather Chandler’s house, every object -- her phone, her fridge magnets -- is in the same exact hue of red. It’s almost painterly. Lehmann says he saw it as “something that would help draw character and resonate in other ways besides just the colour of their dresses.”
I mention that it must have been strange for viewers in the 80s to see a teen movie with an arthouse edge like this. “Most of the teen movies just looked bad,” he says. “I would watch them and think, ‘My God, these people are going out of their way to make these movies look terrible’ -- I felt that most of them failed to be cinematic. I don’t know why. John Hughes was creative as a storyteller, but his movies weren’t all that cinematic.”
Even now, it’s hard to find examples of teen movies that strike a similar tone. Mean Girls is often talked about in the same breath as Lehmann’s movie, with its backstabbing Plastics who clearly owe a debt to the Heathers. Does Lehmann see the influence? “I guess there’s been a subgenre of teen films that play off of the Heathers approach, and Mean Girls is a very mainstream version of it but a good one,” he says. “Aside from that I’m not sure if anyone else has really gone into that arena and come out unscathed.”
We’re now 30 years down the line and a whole new generation is discovering Heathers. Teens post Heather Duke memes on Instagram with #mood and #relatable hashtags. Lehmann wonders if it’s partly an ironic appeal. “I’ve always assumed that people kind of thought it was funny in a nostalgic way, like, look at how funny their haircuts and clothing styles are!” he says. “But maybe the themes have endured a bit, in that the dark humour, the satire and the themes of bullying and violence at high school are very current.”
He points to the strict social structures at high school (“they’re still the same”) as reasons why Heathers is still relevant. But more than anything, he says, it’s Waters’s voice. “The dialogue is still fresh and fun and really, really funny.”
It’s infectious, too. You catch yourself, long after the credits roll, saying lines like “How very” and “You’re such a pillowcase”. Unlike the shoulder pads and voluminous hairdos, lines like these don’t age. Which is why you can guarantee that, decades from now, in certain corners of the Internet, high school kids will still swoon over old gifs of Veronica Sawyer smugly smoking a cigarette, an all-caps caption reading LICK IT UP, BABY. LICK IT UP.
HEATHERS 30th Anniversary will be re-released back in cinemas from 8th August and comes to Digital & On Demand 20th August