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Amy Heckerling on "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Clueless" and more

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood studios seemed more open to entrusting a woman to direct a mainstream comedy than they do these days (last year, only 7 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films were directed by females). Back then, it apparently helped to be a known entity in another capacity. Penny Marshall (“Laverne & Shirley”) and Betty Thomas (“Hill Street Blues”) initially found fame as TV actresses before stepping behind the camera. Marshall would oversee such hits as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Big” while Thomas did “The Brady Bunch Movie” and “Doctor Dolittle.” And, after great success as screenwriters, Nancy Meyers made her directing debut with “The Parent Trap” and Nora Ephron would score her first major hit with 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle.” 

But Amy Heckerling not only beat these ladies to the director’s chair with 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” whose script was adapted by Cameron Crowe from his 1981 book. She came aboard the Universal release, armed with film degrees from NYU and the American Film Institute, as a virtual unknown. With her eye for spotting fresh talent already firmly in place with a cast featuring Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates and Forest Whitaker, the Bronx native carved a niche for herself as someone plugged into the era’s zeitgeist.

These days, Heckerling, whose wild brunette hair and smudgy eyeliner exude as much punk attitude as ever at age 63, has joined in the wave of streaming entertainment by directing several episodes of Amazon’s ‘80s-set series “Red Oaks.” She also is working on a stage musical based on her “Clueless,” the 1995 hit that opened the door for the likes of “Legally Blonde” and “Mean Girls.” She recently was in Washington, D.C., where the high-school comedy starring Alicia Silverstone as Beverly Hills fashion plate Cher Horowitz had a special screening as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival and agreed to take a look back at her career with

When you started out as a director, I think mainstream comedies were treated with more respect than they are now. For a while, there were a lot of R-rated bromances and, as much as I like some Judd Apatow films or "The Hangover," it got oppressive for a while with Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel having to be in every film.

I like those guys, so I was OK with that. It’s hard to say if there was more opportunity back then since the entire equation is changing. If I was a man doing personal comedies, I would have to go to other sources than mainstream Hollywood. And so much of the big names are doing things that are streaming now. When I started out I did “Fast Times” and I was working on a TV show of “Fast Times,” and we were shooting at the mall one day and John Landis comes by. He’s a friend of mine. He goes, “What are doing here?” I said, “I’m doing a TV show.” “What are you doing TV for?” That was the mentality at the time. If you got to do movies, why would you do TV? And, certainly, if there had been computers with little stories on them, nobody would have done that. And now, all your biggest favorite actors are doing stuff that is streaming. There is a weird thing, like, you’re watching the Oscars and the guy who is winning for “Whiplash,” J.K. Simmons, is on a commercial selling insurance. In the olden days, you do that when you can’t be in the Oscar movies anymore. But everybody is all over the place now and the movies that the studios want to make are the big tent-pole movies.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was quite a debut. When I saw it in a theater 35 years ago, it didn’t feel like a first-time director did it. The story is episodic, which is fine. But while most people went crazy for Sean Penn’s surfer dude Spicoli’s antics—like having a pizza delivered to his history class—I was more focused on Jennifer Jason Leigh’s coping with the pressure of losing her virginity at 15 and dealing with boys who were all too glad to take advantage of her but not take any responsibility afterwards. She delivers such a heartbreakingly real performance as Stacy that seemed unusual even back then. Did you add more to her character arc or was all that there in Cameron’s script?

There was a mention in the book, about the graffiti on the ceiling when she loses her virginity. And I had written a script before that movie came out where I had a person finally making love with the person they wanted, and while it is happening, they are starting to think about how to re-arrange the furniture in the room and their mind goes to all sorts of other places. So I when I read that in the book, I thought, “Oh, this I know what to do with.” It just made sense to me. There is this physical drive towards having sex and, initially, it is not always the most amazing thing in the world. And your mind wanders.

You must have gotten pushback about the scenes involving Stacy’s abortion.

They wanted to fire me. Because the way the shooting schedule worked out, we started in the house where Jennifer and Judge Reinhold as her brother lived. And those were the more emotional scenes. And there was a kind of heaviness. And Jennifer’s tendency is to be very dramatic and basically I wanted the movie to be a lighter film. Not like a disease-of-the-week movie on TV. I wanted to deal with real things but not like weepy. When they were seeing some of the footage, they thought, “Oh-oh, what is this?” They were thinking this wasn’t what we signed up for. I knew Jennifer’s story was this and Phoebe was going to bring that and Spicoli wasn’t in the dailies yet because he was in the school and the mall. They got worried that this was some girly movie about abortion. And, then, oddly enough they sent John Landis, who worked at Universal. One day I was shooting the scene where Judge is cleaning off the “Big Hairy Pussy” graffiti on the bathroom mirror and John comes by and says, “Hey, how ya doing?” Years later, I find out he had been sent to the set to see if I knew what I was doing because they thought they were going to get some depressing movie. He told me many years later about that. He went to them and said, “She’s fine, she’s fine. She knows what she’s doing.” I’m indebted to him for that.

The popularity of Spicoli created a sort of ground swell of dude comedies, such as “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Wayne’s World.”

I love those movies. There is always the character who is the joker and the wisenheimer. I mean, Maynard G. Krebs on “Dobie Gillis.” I was pretty much crazy about him.

Your Wikipedia profile says that when you were young, you were obsessed with James Cagney films, such as “Angels With Dirty Faces.” That is probably why you directed the 1984 gangster comedy “Johnny Dangerously.”

I still am fan of James Cagney. Not gangster films. Just him. I mean, I love Humphrey Bogart, I love John Garfield. But I loved him since way before I started kindergarten. He is like a cartoon character. But also he is the most real of anybody. And the way he moves, he could be a marionette or made out of rubber. He is just incredible. I read that script and I was really interested.

With 1989’s “Look Who’s Talking,”  in which we hear the voice of Bruce Willis express baby Mikey’s thoughts, it is funny—there are certain movies that I can recall where I saw it and who I was with. And I distinctly remember thinking how clever the premise was. John Travolta was coming off a string of flops and although 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” restored his A-list status, this comedy would prove he could still be a box-office draw—it grossed nearly $300 million worldwide and spawned two sequels and a TV series. There was something about that concept. When I saw “The Boss Baby,” I kept thinking about this film.

On our table, we had the baby seat. My daughter, Mollie, was sitting there and my ex-husband, Neal Israel, and I were doing dialogue based on her movements and stuff. And it hit me, this is my next movie. And I kind of didn’t want to do it. If someone had offered it to me, I would have said no because I thought, “I can see how this could be a hit. But I would rather do ‘Mean Streets’ than do something cute.” I felt like it was not going to be edgy. The plot would have to be finding the father. In a way, I knew all the problems I would have to figure out. And I didn’t want to. But I could see this. I remember how I was thinking when I was three or four years old.  And it is still who I am. People say, “Oh, I love kids.” Which kid? It’s like saying I love people. They are separate people but they don’t know a lot of stuff yet and they have to figure it out. From the time when you are a few months old to when you turn two, you are learning more stuff and how the whole world works faster and with more information than ever in your life, which is a big burden.

I consider 1995’s “Clueless” to be your “Citizen Kane.” Sort of the essence of who you are as a filmmaker. I was just looking at a list of all the great lines from your script, and I was laughing just hearing them in my head.  “Valley Girl” in 1983 relied on a special kind of lingo, but did you make up expressions like “Whatever?” or a guy being a “total Baldwin”?

I compiled a dictionary. The thing is, every time you have to say, “Oh my God, I love that!” or “It’s amazing” or “It’s wonderful,” that adjective tells you what social strata you are in, what year you were born, where you live. That goes on constantly. It has evolved and changed, because a lot of stuff is texted. And because of television. There is a flattening out. It is less local. Still, it exists in any group of outcasts, whether Cockneys, in prison or a girls’ school. They always have their own separate stuff. If you have a few friends, you develop phrases and words. Even between me and my editor, because we both know my movies and we know the dialogue so well. “How did you know that?” “Well, I know this grapevine.” It’s from “Johnny Dangerously.” It means, “I know why this works.”

My favorite dialogue exchange in “Clueless” is when stuck-up Amber doesn’t want to play tennis and tells the teacher, “My plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.” And Cher’s friend Dionne says, “Well, there goes your social life.” I am surprised you got away with that with a PG-13 rating.

I am glad that one got by. The ratings board is subjective. If they didn’t like a movie, they would say, “You can’t say this” and “You can’t say that.” I’ve been in situations with things where you go, “What? What is wrong with that? There’s no curse word. There’s no description.” There’s nothing wrong with this and, then, no. But you got to hit that sweet spot where it’s inoffensive enough and only dirty for a portion of the audience and totally OK with the younger ones.

You’ve given so many young actors their first breaks. In this, Paul Rudd’s whole career is practically variations of Cher’s adorable ex-stepbrother, Josh.

He can do anything. He did a Neil LaBute play, Bash, where he is a really horrible, violent guy. You go, “Ooh, that’s scary.” But it is still Paul Rudd. He can play a nerd, he can play a cool guy. I was very lucky to find him.

It was so smart to base a contemporary romantic comedy like “Clueless” on Jane Austen’s “Emma.” You beat the rush. Later that same year, “Persuasion” and Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” were released. And, in 1996, the six-part TV adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy aired on A&E while Gwyneth Paltrow’s big-screen period adaptation of “Emma” opened. How did you come upon your concept about turning a high-schooler into a do-good matchmaker?

Basically, I tried to think, “What do I feel like writing?” And I realized that I was fascinated by people who were happy and had a positive attitude. And I remembered “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Lorelei Lee, who has an everything-is-going-to-turn-out-positively outlook. If the diamond isn’t big enough, just send it away and they will send back a bigger one. What makes you assume everyone loves you so much? And “Emma.” And another influence, but I don’t often talk about it, is Sally Field in “Gidget.” A girl with a father, no mother, telling us how things work and how things go. And she is kind of positive and she thinks she sort of controls her universe there. Because she is the woman of the house. I was recently watching TV Land and I bumped into something I had seen when I was real little. I thought, “Oh, wow, I forgot about this.” An exchange student comes to stay with Gidget and her father. And she is a total nerdball. And Gidget tells her how to act and dresses her up and suddenly she is the hottest girl. And she has her eye on Gidget’s boyfriend.

That influenced what happens when Cher does a makeover on Brittany Murphy’s Tai, who has a crush on Josh. 

Sometimes, you saw things as a kid and you forgot about. But then you go, “Ahhh!”

What movies have you liked lately?

You know what I thought was really great? “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” And I think Bel Powley was really good.

Your daughter, Mollie, is 31 now. Has she seen all your films?

She has always been supportive. She has always been with me on the set.

What is she into?

There is a script she wrote that there’s been some interest in. And she also made animated puppets, these nasty puppet things. She is doing standup. She can do a lot of different things. She plays the harp and writes music.

What’s all this about a Broadway musical version of “Clueless”?

They’ve told me to shut up about it because things take so long. It takes forever and we are having workshop stuff in July. So, who knows what will happen? 

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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