Nostalgia alert! New York’s Metrograph theater is hosting a retrospective on Saturday and Sunday, featuring four films by Amy Heckerling: Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Johnny Dangerously, and Look Who’s Talking.
Heckerling, who will appear in person, watched Clueless recently, but says it’s been a while for the others. “Sometimes you want to be able to hand out leaflets explaining what the studio made you do,” the writer-director predicts of how she’ll respond at the screenings. “But I will be there to maybe shine some light on the problems people have making films and making their vision first.”
Ahead of the retrospective, Heckerling spoke with EW about her experiences working on the four films being shown and their enduring legacies. She also expanded on the vision she was committed to with those films, and what’s up next for her creatively (including an update on that Clueless musical she’s working on).
Filmmaking mindset with Clueless
Heckerling had a pretty straightforward approach to the 1995 comedy, which centers on a rich, high-school student named Cher (Alicia Silverstone) with a penchant for matchmaking and is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. “I wanted it to be so goddamn happy,” she says, adding that everyone from the director of photography to production designer to costume designer was on board. “Even when [Cher] was sad, she was happy-sad.”
She notes, though, that while her coming-of-age flick, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, is bright and optimistic, it certainly had darker counterparts. “While I was making Clueless, Kids was being made, which was [about] street kids in New York, and a guy having sex with underage girls and giving them AIDS,” Heckerling explains. “Reality was still being reflected, maybe the worst [parts of] reality, but I was more interested in happy fantasy.”
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Reality in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Clueless and Fast Times at Ridgemont High have both remained prominent forces in pop-culture, but Heckerling focused on the lasting resonance of the latter 1982 cult classic about Southern California high school students exploring sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. “Cameron [Crowe] had a great script [that] came from a great book he wrote,” Heckerling says. “It was so realistic; you felt like you knew all those people.”
She continues, praising the script’s groundedness, “It was based on real people and when you read it, you felt like you knew everybody and you were back in school, or that you understood what that was like for a Californian. When we made the film, we used a lot of material from the book that had been left out of the initial development phase and it was so much fun to have all this great research and material and characters at your fingertips.”
Changes made to Johnny Dangerously
As mentioned earlier, Heckerling hopes to address some of the changes imposed on her works and, more generally, problems filmmakers face at the retrospective. But to start, the work of hers that was “most notably” affected was the 1984 crime-comedy about a good man (Michael Keaton) living in the 1930s who embraces crime to pay for his mother’s medical bills. “I wanted to make something much closer to what the 1930s Warner Bros. films were like, and [the studio] wanted to make it more fluffy.”
Then there were viewers who were averse to the violence. “There was a screening and [the audience] was like, ‘No, we don’t want to see anybody get shot,’ which I can’t imagine today,” she recalls. “Everything was taken down so much. Johnny lives at the end, as opposed to having a really dragged out dying scene.” More specifically, shoot outs were changed, as well as a scene where the people around a dying Johnny get bored and leave. That, and more, she says, “was made into another kind of animal.”
Personal nature of Look Who’s Talking
What stands out to Heckerling about Look Who’s Talking is how personal it was, especially coming off of a not-so-great experience on National Lampoon’s European Vacation. “I was so unhappy during every moment of [European Vacation],” Heckerling remembers. “I got a script that didn’t make any sense once we got to Europe, things that were written into it that were not possible, and you know, Chevy Chase. It was a crew that was not so happy to be working with Hollywood people, a lot of things.”
After that, she was determined to turn things around. She had a baby around European Vacation’s release, and soon started writing while at home with the child. The result was the 1989 comedy-romance about a single woman, Mollie (Kirstie Alley), who has a child named Mikey, narrated through voiceover by Bruce Willis, and soon finds romantic potential in a taxi driver, James (John Travolta). What does Heckerling recall about her writing experience, and how her child inspired the film? “Well, I still call her my talking baby.”
Back to the still-strong following of Clueless, there is a musical in development, and Heckerling has an update. “We’re starting workshopping in the fall, but I’m just like, ‘Why can’t we do it right now?’ I wrote this a while ago, so we have a reading and they give me notes, and then, ‘Put this in, put that back, put it in, put it back.’” When asked if Katy Perry is still a contender to play the socialite-student at the center of it all, Heckerling quipped, “I think whoever is going to be Cher is probably being conceived right now.”
Beyond Cher and company’s musical turn, “I’m writing something that I don’t know if anybody in the world would ever want, but it keeps me happy, and [I’m] working on some things that are streaming that I periodically go off and shoot — make sure I’m still capable of getting up early in the morning in the names of the crew.” And of course, there’s a certain retrospective to look forward to…