“Do you think there’s ever been another movie like Heathers?” Winona Ryder asks in her tiny, forever-a-kid voice, and then listens quietly. She’s genuinely curious. Your brain races through the obvious choices. Mean Girls, Clueless, Jawbreaker — teen-girl comedies with a drop of caustic in their lip gloss. But in 25 years, no high school movie has ever come close to the bloodthirsty wit and sweet-faced nihilism of Heathers, the 1989 satire about an Ohio high school where suicide becomes a scrunchie-level fad. “I looove this movie — to the point where I talk about it like I’m not even in it,” says Ryder. “If it’s on TV, I watch it. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. Like, I can do it by heart.” She isn’t the only one who feels that way; fans have turned the box office flop (total gross: $1.1 million) into a cult hit on home video and TV — and even into a tongue-in-cheek musical, now playing Off Broadway. But long before that, a 24-year-old video-store clerk named Daniel Waters had a brilliantly ludicrous idea: “What if Stanley Kubrick made a teen film?”
In 1986, when John Hughes was giving us teen classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, Waters began working on what he calls ”a Carson McCullers-style novel of a girl who meets the Antichrist as a teenager.” The project morphed into a screenplay about an angsty popular girl, Veronica (Ryder), who starts secretly killing her classmates with the help of a diabolical new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), and framing the deaths as suicides. The script made its way to producer Denise Di Novi (Edward Scissorhands); a fresh-out-of-film-school director, Michael Lehmann; and Ryder, a relatively unknown 15-year-old who had just wrapped Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.
Winona Ryder [Veronica Sawyer] I’ve always held the original script of Heathers among the great literature that I’ve ever read. For me, it’s like, Ezra Pound, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Daniel Waters, you know?
Denise Di Novi [Producer] I had the sense I was reading a masterpiece. I brought it to the executives at [indie studio] New World, and they were like, “What the hell is this? Are you crazy?”
Michael Lehmann [Director] The original ending was that J.D. blew up the high school and they all died, then there was a prom scene in heaven. [New World execs] just said, “No way. We can’t make a satirical movie about teenage suicide in which the people actually kill themselves.”
Di Novi, Waters, and Lehmann organized an informal read-through of the script with Dana Delany as Veronica and a certain soon-to-be screen legend — then just a teenage nobody in an acting class — as J.D.
Daniel Waters [Writer] After the reading was over, the pimply-faced, blond Brad Pitt came up to me and said, “Hey, man, I know I’m not anybody. But for what it’s worth, that was brilliant.”
When casting began, Jennifer Connelly and Justine Bateman both rejected the role of Veronica. Ryder was next on the list. But not everyone thought she was a perfect fit.
Waters I was like, “The girl from Lucas? She’s just not attractive!” [Laughs]
Ryder At the time, I didn’t look that different from my character in Beetlejuice. I was very pale. I had blue-black dyed hair. I went to Macy’s at the Beverly Center and had them do a makeover on me.
Lehmann The first time we shot with her, I turned to the cameraman and said, “This girl is a movie star.”
Waters You can’t overvalue how much Winona meant to this movie. In my initial drafts, Veronica was much more evil and twisted. I referred to her as a female Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. And suddenly you’re rewriting with Winona in mind, and Veronica becomes more of an audience surrogate.
Ryder My agent at the time literally got on her knees and begged me not to do [the movie]. She had her hands together, and she goes, “You will never. Work. Again.” We parted ways later.
The part of the homicidal loner J.D. went to Christian Slater, 19, known for the 1986 drama The Name of the Rose. After Heather Graham turned down Heather Chandler, the school’s teenage dictatrix, that part was offered to Slater’s then girlfriend, 18-year-old Kim Walker.
Christian Slater [J.D.] I remember leaving the audition and feeling like, “Oh God, I really blew it.” I threw the script in the garbage angrily. I had a big tantrum.
Lehmann Heather Graham’s parents wouldn’t let her do the movie. I begged them. Then the casting director said, “Well, Kim Walker might be good. She doesn’t have a lot of experience, but…”
Carrie Lynn [Martha Dumptruck] Kim was beautiful. Flawless. I remember looking at her and being like, “Don’t you ever get a zit, bitch?” [Laughs] She was so sweet.
A veteran of the TV series Little House on the Prairie and Our House, Shannen Doherty, 16, read for Heather Duke, Heather Chandler’s conniving second-in-command.
Lehmann When Shannen came in, [our casting directors] pulled me aside and said, “This girl is really good, but she wants Veronica.” And I said, “We’ve already cast Winona.” And they said, “She knows that. She’s willing to read the Heather Duke part, but she just wants you to know that’s not the part she wants.” She was amazing in the reading. I think she actually came in hoping we’d think she was so good that we’d just give her the Veronica role.
Waters She wanted to be the lead Heather. And Veronica too. And J.D.
Shannen Doherty [Heather Duke] I don’t remember that, because I remember Winona was already hired when I got the script. Originally they wanted me to audition for Heather Chandler.
Lehmann She had a television career, and she was a really talented actress, but a bit of a handful.
Waters Shannen’s mother [Rosa] kept throwing Our House in our faces. “Well, you know, Shannen is the star of this TV show.” She was very ambitious.
Lisanne Falk was a megastar child model by age 14. Now she was 23. She kept her age quiet until she was cast as the impressionable Heather McNamara.
Lisanne Falk [Heather McNamara] I said I was 18 or 19 in the audition. After I got the part, we had this celebration dinner, and I said something about how my boyfriend and I were living right down the street from the set. And they’re like, “Your mom’s okay with that?” And I’m like, “You guys know I’m 23, right?” And they all were like, [gasps]! I could just see the panic. [Laughs]
The filmmakers struggled to cast Martha Dunnstock, a.k.a. Martha Dumptruck, the sweet, overweight girl tortured by the Heathers.
Lehmann The casting directors brought in actresses who were good-looking but slightly chubby. I said, “No, we need somebody who is really large.” [Carrie] was completely invested in it. She understood what it’s like to be teased.
Lynn Most of it was that I looked the part. Where are you going to find another 400-pound young person? I had no friends. I was Martha Dumptruck in real life, growing up in Beverly Hills. And now I’ve got therapy! [Laughs]
Waters The ending I should’ve fought harder for is where Martha Dumptruck pulls out a knife, stabs Veronica, and says, “F— you, Heather.” And Veronica’s on the ground laughing, with a knife in her stomach, saying, “My name’s not Heather. My name’s not Heather.”
With a slim $3 million budget, the filmmakers had just 33 shooting days. Much of the film was shot at a high school in L.A.; sets for Veronica’s and Heather McNamara’s bedrooms were built in the gymnasium.
Ryder It was pretty much work, work, work. Then I had to go home and go to sleep. I had a tutor. There was no going out at all for me. Maybe there was for Christian a little bit. [Laughs]
Lehmann Christian was professional, but there were a couple times when he slept in late and we had to retrieve him. He said he had a sleeping disorder. I could never tell if that was true or if he was just out partying late.
Slater Sleeping disorder? Maybe. I don’t know if I was ever late or missed any calls. Whatever I had then, I have since recovered. I sleep very well.
As tends to happen when hormone-addled teens are thrown together in a high school (real or fictional), alliances began to form.
Patrick Labyorteaux [Ram Sweeney] Everyone kind of stayed in their cliques. So I was kind of a jerk jock through the whole shoot. Me and the other guys were sending inappropriate notes to Shannen and the other girls, in character, between takes — sexually inappropriate notes that a high schooler might send. And they sent back something three times grosser. [Laughs]
Falk I hung out with Winona. She stayed at my house a lot. Kim Walker was really sweet. I barely knew Christian. He’d always be in his trailer or smoking cigarettes.
Doherty Christian was a tiny bit aloof. He definitely was embracing J.D., for sure.
Slater I got so into working with Winona that I had blinders on to everyone else. It was almost like J.D. didn’t have patience for any of those people, either. I stayed away from Shannen. She seemed to not have any interest in me, so I just kept my distance.
Lynn The only one in the cast who stuck out like a sore thumb was Shannen. It’s like when you get a paper cut, and someone just purposely squeezes a lemon on it. She was the lemon. She was just so bitchy.
Though Slater was dating Walker, his onscreen rapport with Ryder was undeniable. But the actors don’t agree on whether they ended up dating after the shoot.
Slater Yeah, yeah. We tried.
Ryder We never went out! He was dating Kim Walker. And I had, like, such a big crush on him.
Slater It’s one of those early lessons. It’s better to keep things professional than to try and mix them as far as emotions go.
Ryder It’s funny, the last time I watched the movie, I was like, “God, we have really great chemistry!” And I wonder if it was partly to do with the fact that, you know, I wished I could. There were a couple of times where we tried to go out, but there was always some sort of drama. Nothing happened until after the movie. Then I do remember, like, making out with him a few times after he broke up with Kim.
Slater You end up at times crossing boundaries and confusing things.
Ryder I felt a real closeness to him. Maybe it was because — I’ll just say it — I was a virgin. I remember getting the talk from my mom: “When you make out with someone, it doesn’t mean they’re your boyfriend.” I was like, “Really?” [Laughs] I was always trying to figure out if we were actually dating, and he would never really answer me.
Slater I definitely love her today. She’s a great actress. And that was a unique time for both of us.
The script’s acidic dialogue was sometimes a challenge for the young cast — especially Doherty, due to her conservative upbringing.
Ryder Shannen had problems with the swearing. There’s a moment when we’re in the hallway and she’s just shown me the petition, and then she walks away and you can notice that I put my hand through my hair but I stop and look at her. She was supposed to say, “F— me gently with a chain saw.” But she refused to say it.
Doherty It could’ve been any of the lines. “Why are you pulling my [pauses] d—?” I still have a hard time saying that!
Ryder In her defense, she had come off of, like, Little House on the Prairie. That was how she was raised.
Doherty It was definitely the first time I had ever, ever spoken like that in my entire life. I was a very sheltered 17-year-old. My mom was on set with me. I definitely had moments where I was blushing through my makeup.
Ryder She got such a bad-girl image later on, and I was always like, “She was such a sweet girl, and she didn’t want to swear!”
Falk Shannen didn’t have much of a sense of humor and she took herself a little seriously. What’s funny is, watching [the film], I do think she did a really good job.
Di Novi I don’t think [Shannen] at the time quite got what Heathers was, and that actually worked for us. She made that character real.
Doherty The first time I saw the movie I was definitely a little bit in shock. It was so dark and so funny, and maybe a little over my head.
Falk She didn’t realize it was a comedy, or maybe know what a dark comedy meant.
Ryder I remember [Shannen] got interviewed 10 years later, and she was trying to say how dark and funny and cool it was. You can’t blame her. She doesn’t want to be remembered as the one who ran out sobbing, “No one told me it was a comedy!”
Doherty There might’ve been some tears in the eyes. [Laughs] I was worried people wouldn’t take it the right way. I was worried about social responsibility and what we were saying. Then I watched it again, and I was like, “Wait, this is really good and cutting-edge.”
Heathers hit theaters on March 31, 1989, as New World Pictures was going bankrupt.
Di Novi It was a nightmare. I paid for the ad in the L.A. Times myself for the second week. It was $1,800, which to me was like $18,000.
Lehmann The movie didn’t do a lot of box office, but it did stay in the theaters for a while. It never made a profit.
Waters I made more money writing a treatment for Parent Trap 3 for the Disney Channel that never happened.
Eventually Heathers built a fan base on home video and drew interest in follow-ups.
Lehmann There was a new network called the Fox network that was starting up, and we pitched a Heathers TV show to Peter Chernin.
Waters He said, “This is a great script. It’s down to this or Beverly Hills High.” Which, of course, ended up being called 90210. Doherty wins in the end after all!
The movie also paved the way for other high-school-set dark comedies, including 2004’s Mean Girls, directed by Waters’ brother Mark. There was also talk of a sequel.
Waters I did come up with this crazy, cockamamy Heathers 2 where Veronica becomes a page for a senator named Heather, played by Meryl Streep. The ending is her assassinating the president.
Ryder I’m like, “Guys, this is genius!”
Waters I told Winona the idea, and a year later I hear from her: “So I talked to Meryl. She’s in!” I’m like, “What?!“
Ryder I was working with Meryl on The House of the Spirits. I was pitching her the whole thing in the makeup chair one day. She was very sweet about it, and she was like, “Oh, that sounds really great!” But what else are you going to tell a panting 19-year-old? We were in rural Portugal living in huts, playing Chilean refugees. She could’ve been just waiting for me to shut up. [Laughs]
Falk If they said they were doing a sequel, I’d say, “Tell me when and where, I’ll be there. No questions asked.”
Doherty I would love to see a treatment or script about what a sequel would be.
Ryder I was onto [the idea of a sequel] all through my 20s, way through my 30s — when everyone wanted to work with me, when not a lot of people wanted to work with me. I’m 42 now, and Veronica is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. I never, ever felt finished with her.
What Ever Happened To…
The students of Heathers‘ Westerburg High have gone on to successful careers in and out of show business
Ryder, 42, earned back-to-back Oscar noms in 1994 and ’95. She next stars opposite Bill Nighy in the BBC spy drama Turks & Caicos, which airs on PBS June 22.
His ABC series Mind Games was just canceled, but Slater, 44, costars in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and wrapped the upcoming indies Undiscovered Gyrl and Way of the Wicked.
After four seasons on Beverly Hills, 90210 and three on Charmed, Doherty, 42, recently worked on director James Franco’s Bukowski and the TV movie All I Want for Christmas.
Falk, 49, quit acting in 2002 and resides in rural England with her husband and daughter. “I live in a cottage and volunteer in the village shop,” she says. “It’s a very different life!”
In 2001, Walker died of brain cancer at 32. “The fact that she said in the movie, ‘Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?’ was just eerie,” says Falk. “She was really sweet.”
A regular on CBS’ JAG from 1995 to 2005, Labyorteaux, 48, is one of the creators and executive producers of the Scott Baio sitcom See Dad Run on Nickelodeon.
Since leaving showbiz in 1990, Lynn has lost 250 pounds. “I’m literally half the person I was!” says Lynn, 46, a trained chef who co-owns Lee Gelfond Chocolate in Beverly Hills.