When you think of teen movies from the 1980s most people would recall the John Hughes classics starring Molly Ringwald, but none from that era quite stood out as much as Heathers.
The film tells the story of Heather Chandler, Heather Duke and Heather McNamara, the most popular girls in school as well as the cruelest, and their friend Veronica Sawyer who is fed up with the ennui and guilt of being a part of their clique. Then arrives JD, an anarchic outsider who seduces Veronica into helping him dismantle the social hierarchy of Westerberg High, by murdering the key players and making each death look like a suicide.
Made in 1988, the high school-set black comedy redefined the genre and rebelled against the more clean-cut teen movie offerings by delivering a witty and darkly resonant commentary on the issues young people were facing. Eating disorders, sexual assault, bullying and, of course, teen suicide are all explored in Dan Waters’ film and told from the “morally ambiguous” perspective of Veronica, played by Winona Ryder.
“Dan really hit on something in conceiving this character,” director Michael Lehmann tells Yahoo Movies UK. “She could be on either side of the fence. She can hang with the geeks and hang with the people that were not being included, but could also fit in with the group of powerful girls who rule the roost. The whole point was that she was morally ambiguous and morally ambivalent.”
The ambiguity over Veronica’s character is exactly why she has been a cult icon for the last 30 years; she’s relatable in the fact that she exists in the grey area of being good and bad, like most of us did when we were young and trying to fit in at school, but ultimately chooses authentic friendship over boys and popularity.
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“[Heathers] was about friendship and discovering who you are and what it means to be a friend,” Lisanne Falk, who played Heather McNamara, explains. “And then there’s the thing of her falling for a guy, the teen crush, whether it happens or you lust from afar.
“I do love that at the end of the movie it wasn’t about how [JD] broke [Veronica’s] heart but rather how she found her voice and realised she has a choice.”
Lisanne had appeared in the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, opposite Robert Downey Jr, before she came across the script for Heathers. Her agent didn’t want her to take the first part she was offered, a small role called Courtney, as he felt she should be getting bigger gigs but Lisanne wouldn’t hear of it.
“I said I’d do any part in this movie, I was determined because it was so different to most of the auditions I was going on,” she says. “My agent tried to dissuade me from taking the small role, but I didn’t listen and literally a week after they booked me they asked me to do Heather McNamara.
“I guess it was my destiny to be ‘Yellow’ Heather.”
Kim Walker played “Red” Heather Chandler, Shannen Doherty played “Green” Heather Duke, and Christian Slater took the male lead as JD, but it was Veronica, AKA Winona, that Lisanne was the closest with.
“Kim was dating Christian so when she was on the set he’d be hanging around but I didn’t get to know him well at all,” the actress explains. “The person that I bonded with the most was Winona as we had similar sensibilities, and laughed a lot, just had the same passion for the movie and interest in filmmaking.”
No one on the film could have expected the enduring love people would have for the movie in the years after, especially as it was a box office flop when it was first released. “I remember at the time it was the beginning of regular people paying attention to box office reports,” Lehmann recalls, “before then nobody knew or cared.”
The company who produced the film was known for making exploitation genre movies but went out of business so, as the director explains, there was “no money being spent on advertisement,” which meant that despite it getting good reviews and earning a place at Sundance Film Festival, it failed to make the money it obviously deserved. However, like The Shawshank Redemption and Blade Runner, Heathers started picking up in popularity in the subsequent years.
“I had no idea it would have an afterlife at all,” Lehmann remembers. “I think about five or six years later, people would come up to me and say they’d seen and liked the movie, but they couldn’t have possibly seen it in theatres.
“I realised that people were watching it on video but weirdly it didn’t play on television the way some of these films do so I guess it was word of mouth on video rentals.”
From video rentals to streaming on Netflix, Heathers has become wildly popular over the last 30 years and found an audience that spans generations. It’s no wonder then, in this cinematic culture of reboots and remakes, that someone wanted to recreate the magic of the original and so a Heathers TV series was ordered by the Paramount Network.
The Heathers this time around were made up of a heavyset Heather Chandler, gender-queer Heather Duke and biracial lesbian Heather McNamara but the new line-up failed to entice critics. The pilot, as well as unaired episodes, earned negative reviews before Paramount Network pulled it from the schedule.
Neither Lisanne or Michael were involved in the production or had seen any of the episodes, but after reading the criticism both had an idea as to why the TV show did not earn the same respect as the original film.
“It’s not my generation of understanding but Heathers is about the people you most want to hate and get revenge on so by taking them and making them these people then you almost feel like wow, I’m being biased,” Falk said.
“I think that Lisanne’s comments do make a lot of sense and it struck me as strange when I heard the approach they were taking on that show,” Lehmann says, “but in fact, they were just using the model of Heathers. The reboot is a very different point of view and it must be more targetted at current attitudes towards political correctness and inclusion and that sort of thing.”
“One of the strengths of Heathers and I do think it’s applicable today, is that Veronica and JD were battling against the powerful status quo,” the director continues, “The Heathers were like the current Republican party in the United States, they were the ones in power. In modern times the people who are politically correct, who are used to not being included or being given special status or being treated a different way because society rules are more inclusive.
“That’s a very different story.”
Heathers is in cinemas from 8th August and Digital & On Demand 20th August