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21 Things We Learned from the ‘Heathers’ Commentary

What would you do if aliens landed on Earth and you didn’t have time to listen to the ‘Heathers’ commentary yourself?
Heathers commentary
New World Pictures
By  · Published on December 26th, 2013

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kevin Carr has some big fun listening to the Heathers commentary. 

Going to high school in the 1980s, I was the perfect age to connect with a film like Heathers. Knowing a friend who struggled with suicide and together rolling our eyes at the idiotic depiction of it in many films made it hit even closer to home.

Extremely daring for its time, Heathers challenged and threatened media stereotypes of teenagers and high school. Long before Diablo Cody gave an edgy pop vocabulary to high schoolers in Juno, Daniel Waters’ script introduced moviegoers to a particularly colorful jargon that we all licked up.

The commentary from Waters, director Michael Lehmann, and producer Denise Di Novi on the original DVD release was recorded nine years after the film was released, revealing a look at the film only recently after evolving into a full-on cult classic. Fortunately, the hindsight adds to the darkly sardonic experience.

Heathers (1988)

Commentator: Michael Lehmann (director), Denise Di Novi (producer), Daniel Waters (writer)

1. Heathers was one of the final films released theatrically by New World Pictures. Because of this, the studio would not buy newspaper advertisements for many of the markets. Producer Denise Di Novi offered to pay for a newspaper ad in Los Angeles, but New World Pictures refused.

2. Lisanne Falk, who plays Heather McNamara, is wearing a wig in the opening scene because it was shot after production and her hairstyle had changed.

3. Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) reads “Moby Dick” throughout the movie, but it was scripted to be “Catcher in the Rye.” The production couldn’t secure the rights to use the book. Waters insists that the film makes much more sense if you think about “Catcher in the Rye” rather than “Moby Dick.”

4. Waters originally (and quite arrogantly) envisioned the film to be a three-hour Stanley Kubrick high school film, encompassing the entirety of the teenage experience. Of course, Kubrick didn’t direct it, and things were cut down considerably in the development stage. However, director Michael Lehmann did use Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as a visual guide for the film, particularly in the first cafeteria sequence.

5. The practice of forging notes from popular boys and slipping them onto the trays of unpopular girls, which the Heathers do to Martha Dumptruck (Carrie Lynn), comes from pranks that Waters’ sister did in high school.

6. During the casting process, many casting directors were uncomfortable asking their talent for an overweight, unattractive actress to play Martha Dumptruck. They often sent in girls who were cute but just a little plump. Lehmann and Di Novi had to insist on a specific body image because the character has only one line and relies almost entirely on her looks.

7. Originally, New World wanted Justine Bateman for the role of Veronica (Winona Ryder), and they actually made an offer to her.

8. Winona Ryder started shooting the movie when she was 15 and turned 16 during the production. This caused some problems because they were limited by the amount of time they could have her on set each day. For example, the scene in which Veronica and JD (Christian Slater) murder the football players in the woods was supposed to be shot during the evening, but they had to shoot during the day to accommodate Ryder’s teaching schedule on set.

9. Heather Graham was pursued for a role in the film, but because she was only 17 at the time, her parents had to approve the script. They found it offensive and wouldn’t let her do the movie.

10. Waters wrote the character of Veronica to be much darker, but Ryder’s performance made her more sympathetic. Waters describes her originally as being only slightly more moral than JD.

11. The scene in which Veronica starts taking a shower with her clothes on originally ended with the other girls stepping into the shower fully clothed. Then, there was to be a cut-away of confused high school boys looking through the wall, sending up the famous shower scene in Porky’s. The scene was eliminated because it didn’t play funny even though Waters insists it was brilliant in the script.

12. The scene in which the bullies chase the nerds after the funeral and force one of them to say he likes “to suck big dicks” was used in the film The Celluloid Closet as a negative example of how homosexuals are portrayed on screen, even though this was meant to show the bullies in a negative light.

13. During an early reading of the script a then-unknown Brad Pitt read the part of JD.

14. In much of Europe, the film was released under the name Lethal Attraction in a feeble attempt to gain favor from the success of Lethal Weapon and Fatal Attraction.

15. Many corporations would not allow their products to be used in the film, including 7-Eleven and Perrier (for the mineral water scene).

16. Westerberg High is named after Paul Westerberg of The Replacements.

17. Even though Waters is from Indiana, he set the film in Sherwood, Ohio for several reasons: 1) His favorite book was “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson, 2) Sherwood Forest was where Robin Hood is an outlaw doing good, and 3) Waters was born in Cleveland and grew up on Sherwood Street.

18. Veronica Sawyer and Betty Finn (Renée Estevez) represented best friends broken apart by the Heathers. Their first names Veronica and Betty pay homage to Archie comics, and their last names Sawyer and Finn pay homage to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

19. The only performance note that Lehmann got from the studio was that Christian Slater didn’t portray JD as “demonic enough” near the end of the film.

20. The film had a couple of different endings. In one, Veronica kills JD in the boiler room but then blows herself up. This ending suggests that the school also blows up because it ends with a prom dance in heaven. New World refused to fund the film if it retained that ending. They were afraid that an anti-suicide movie in which the protagonist ends up killing herself would result in copycat suicides.

21. Another ending has Veronica making peace with Martha at the end, but Martha pulls a gun from her wheelchair and shoots Veronica in the face. Then Martha would say, “Fuck you, Heather,” and the scene would cut to bleeding Veronica on the ground, saying, “My name’s not Heather… my name’s not Heather…” After this, Martha would stand up from her wheelchair and declare, “I can walk!” as Peter Sellers does at the end of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Writer Daniel Waters monopolizes much of the commentary with his extremely dry and sarcastic wit. You still hear the sting in his voice as he deals with the various changes in the film that were made to his original draft. He engages mostly with Denise Di Novi while Michael Lehmann remains a silent partner in the commentary track.

For the most part, the group stays on track, though they do tend to ramble and reminisce rather than dropping a lot of good, hard stories about the production. Still, you can’t beat the in-depth discussions on the development of some of the dialogues, specifically when they pick apart the nuances of Shannen Doherty being able to say, “Why are you pulling my dick?” with a straight face.

Any self-respecting Heathers fan ought to give this commentary track a listen. It’s bittersweet at times when they talk about Kim Walker, who had not tragically passed away by the time of recording, but for the most part, it’s a breezy, informative discussion.

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