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32 Things We Learned from the ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Commentary

“I can still smell this mall.”
Sean Penn in Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on May 10th, 2021

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits an 80s comedy classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains an all-timer when it comes to teen comedies. It was an early feature, sometimes the first, for numerous talents who went on to stardom, and that includes director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe. Both made their feature debuts here, and both found even greater success later on with the likes of Look Who’s Talking (1989) and Jerry Maguire (1996), respectively. Neither have done all that much this century as Heckerling’s last film was 2012’s Vamps and Crowe hasn’t made anything since 2001’s Vanilla Sky — I said what I said.

The film has just joined the Criterion Collection, so keep reading to see what I heard on the filmmakers’ commentary track for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Commentators: Amy Heckerling (director), Cameron Crowe (writer)

1. Heckerling recalls that one of the film’s producers wanted “Raised on the Radio” by the Ravyns as the opening title track because it was going to be “a big hit song.” The filmmaker went with her preferred choice instead, “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Gos, but still used the other song elsewhere in the film.

2. Crowe’s thanks Heckerling for having the idea to center much of the film’s action inside the mall. “I’m agoraphobic,” she says, “I don’t like going outside, so the idea of a bunch of fast-food places on a strip outside in fresh air was frightening to me.”

3. Crowe breaks the news to her that the Sherman Oaks Galleria is closing — this track was recorded in 1999 — and she’s crushed.

4. The cast is stacked with familiar faces, but the list of those who auditioned and didn’t land a role is equally big including Ally Sheedy, Meg Tilly, Matthew Broderick, and Ralph Macchio (who they couldn’t afford).

5. Jennifer Jason Leigh actually got a temporary job at the pizza place where her character works before the film’s production began. “She’s a method actor.”

6. The film’s “teenagers” only included two actual teens — Phoebe Cates was nineteen, and Nicolas Cage (who lied to them about his age) was actually only seventeen.

7. Sean Penn is wearing a half-wig. “That’s his Taps hair on the top and a wig on the bottom.”

8. Heckerling was confused by the prospect of picking a car for Brad (Judge Reinhold) to drive, as being from the Bronx she was flabbergasted at the thought of teens owning cars and knowing how to drive them. She thought maybe a junker, but Crowe and others kept telling her he should have a “cherry” car which left her even more befuddled.

9. This was Forest Whitaker‘s first time auditioning for a film, and Heckerling recalls seeing him out the window after securing the job. “He was skipping to his car.”

10. Penn asked Heckerling for permission to drink a little something something before his scene where he falls out of the VW bus to go to school. She said yes given that it was his only scene that day, and “that’s my only story about any substances on this movie.”

11. Heckerling wanted Fred Gwynne as Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) but the actor passed as the script featured “too much nasty stuff.” The character is big in the novel, but Walston proved even little guys can be mean assholes. Unsurprisingly, the elder actor didn’t quite gel with Penn who improvised a line calling Hand a “red-faced mother fucker” — which sent Walston to Heckerling to complain about the kid not following the script.

12. Find someone who loves you as much as Crowe loves hearing Penn say “You dick.”

13. Producer Art Linson was upset by the “blowjob” scene in the cafeteria where Linda (Cates) and Stacy (Leigh) practice on carrots. No, he wasn’t angry at its existence — he was irritated that Heckerling didn’t make it sexier. “You should have scene lips with big carrots going in and out.” Good lord.

14. They had seriously considered Cage for the role of Brad, but Heckerling felt he wasn’t a good fit as Stacy’s brother. Leigh always felt “down” compared to the rest of the cast’s pep, and the director thought pairing her with another “down” performer wouldn’t work. “We wanted something a little brighter.”

15. Surprising exactly no one, Cage “made up some really weird improvs.”

16. “I was trying to make sex seem scary and uncomfortable,” says Heckerling regarding her approach to showing Stacy’s awkward first time. As with the carrot scene referenced above, they weren’t aiming to make a salacious T&A comedy.

17. Thom Mount, the head of Universal Pictures at the time, wanted David Lynch to direct the film. They sent him the script, but he wisely replied “This is funny. Not really my material.”

18. Universal wanted a “Spicoli Goes to College” follow-up almost immediately.

19. Spicoli’s (Penn) dream where he wins a surfing award was originally meant to see him on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson passed on the cameo, so they offered it to Tom Snyder — “I talked to [him] on the day he was leaving The Tomorrow Show, and he was depressed and said ‘I’m gonna go get drunk now but thanks for thinking of me.'”

20. Crowe asks what she thought while watching dailies during production, and Heckerling reveals that “I was so crazy about all the guys and so worried about how the girls were coming out.”

21. Numerous fans over the years have pointed out to Crowe that Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” isn’t on Led Zeppelin IV and is instead on Physical Graffiti. He knows that. “Through a publishing snafu of some kind” they were unable to secure something from Led Zeppelin IV but were offered this song instead solely because Crowe was a known entity to the band.

22. Brian Backer plays Rat, and he was apparently cursed at and berated during early Fast Times at Ridgemont High screenings by audiences upset that his character didn’t make follow through with Stacy after their date. People are weird. “This gives me a stomach ache even now,” says Crowe watching their awkward encounter.

23. Cates’ topless scene saw her worried that people were watching from nearby rooftops despite it being a closed set. She should have been worried about Reinhold’s decision to have a big dildo in his hand — it surprised her when she opened the door and sent her flying back into a wall on the first take.

24. The extra at 55:39 nearly ruined the take.

25. Crowe recalls Cates asking him how the pool scene went, and he said people were saying she was great “for a model.” her face fell and she didn’t talk to him for a while. He apologizes for his choice of words and corrects himself that she is great as an actor.

26. The cabana sex scene between Stacy and Mike (Robert Romanus) features full-frontal nudity on his part, and the studio warned that it would get them an X-rating. Heckerling challenged it on the equality front, and the MPAA reps said “the male organ is aggressive.”

27. Crowe mentions Over the Edge (1979) as something of a reference point, but there’s no shout out for The Last American Virgin which released the month before Fast Times at Ridgemont High and features some similarly dramatic character beats.

28. That’s director Martin Brest as a doctor at 1:11:26. “He was my ex-boyfriend,” says Heckerling. Her ex-husband is the lead singer of the band at the graduation dance.

29. Penn gave numerous takes for his “Oh, gnarly!” line at the organ removal scene using different expressions, and Universal threw out the footage back in 1985.

30. Crowe’s parents wanted to visit the set, and the only day that was available was when they were shooting the scene in Spicoli’s bedroom with Mr. Hand. The problem was that Penn didn’t like having non-essential crew members on set during his scenes. Crowe brought them in anyway and kept them well out of Penn’s eyesight, but after the scene was finished the actor approached Crowe and said “somebody’s here, right?” Crowe said yes but added that Penn couldn’t see them to which the actor replied “but I felt them.”

31. John Landis visited the set at the request of the studio who were concerned because they expected a teen comedy but “were getting people crying and getting abortions.”

32. The Fast Times at Ridgemont High end credits are influenced by the likes of American Graffiti (1973) and Mean Streets (1973), obviously.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“This is the first fight I remember.”

“They went from looking like teenagers to looking like thirty-year-olds.”

“I can still smell this mall.”

“I’m amazed that we were able to film this.”

“That’s Phoebe. She’s a hottie.”

“I had some of that pizza.”

“I had to use a lot of music that I totally hated.”

“She was happy as a clam to have her clothes off.”

“Nancy Wilson is about to make her appearance.”

“We should talk over other movies.”

Final Thoughts

Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains a funny film elevated by a tremendous cast including Penn, Leigh, Reinhold, Cates, Whitaker, Amanda Wyss, Kelli Maroney, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and James Russo. It’s also a rarity of the “teen” genre that feels authentic in its balance of tone — it’s essentially the lighter balance to The Last American Virgin which prioritizes the darker elements. The commentary shows that both Heckerling and Crowe still look fondly on the film, and the track is just one of the new disc’s worthwhile special features. A very good film gets a great Blu-ray release!

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.