Director Michael Lehmann on how 'Heathers' was really meant to end

DAF Presents ... 'Heathers'

Photos from the launch of “Denver Actors Fund Presents …” a new monthly film series featuring live entertainment by local theatre companies. To see more photos, click the forward button on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Michael Lehmann, director of the cult classic dark comedy Heathers, told a special benefit screening audience in Littleton on Sunday night about Christian Slater and his “Jack Nicholson thing,” why Shannen Doherty left the first screening of the film in tears, and all about the ending he and writer Daniel Waters first envisioned … in heaven.

Mindful that the host Alamo Drafthouse is located in Littleton, not far from school shootings at Columbine and Arapahoe High Schools, as well as the massacre at an Aurora cineplex, Lehmann also reminded Sunday’s audience that “Heathers is the furthest thing from a comedy about suicide.” Rather, the film follows a rich, smart girl whose “teen-angst (beep) now has a body count.” Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, tires of her snobby clique of girlfriends and teams up with a teen sociopath in a plot to kill the cool kids, while making it appear to be a rash of suicides.

Heathers Quote Michael LehmannRyder, Lehmann said, was “intelligent, precocious and self-assured” on the set. Doherty, on the other hand, “was a complete and utter terror in every possible way.”

The special screening launched a new monthly film series at the Alamo called “The Denver Actors Fund Presents…” The featured films either inspired (or were inspired by) a stage musical that is currently being performed by a Colorado theatre company.

Sunday’s screening included live pre-screening entertainment by Denver’s Ignite Theatre, which will be presenting the regional premiere of Heathers the Musical from Feb. 26-March 20 at the Aurora Fox. Audience members also were treated to a pot pie at every table, the post-show Q&A with Lehmann, and an original Heathers print by storyboard artist Vanessa McKee.

The Denver Actors Fund provides financial assistance to members of the Denver theater community in situational medical need. To date, the organization has distributed about $32,000 in aid and logged about 230 volunteer service hours.

“Denver Actors Fund Presents …” will now be a monthly happening at Alamo, with live pre-show entertainment by rotating local theatre companies. Next up: Ragtime, March 14, with pre-screening entertainment from Performance Now Theatre Company​; and Sweeney Todd, April 18, with appearances from the cast of the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming production, featuring new orchestrations by DeVotchKa​.

Heathers. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Zoe Miller, Chelsea O’Grady and Jenny Pan are three of the Heathers in Ignite Theatre Company’s upcoming ‘Heathers the Musical.’ They challenged Alamo Drafthouse audiences to croquet in the lobby … and a staredown. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Here are highlights from Alamo Drafthouse Denver General Manager Walter Chaw’s illuminating post-screening Q&A with Michael Lehmann:

Walter Chaw: How did you meet Heathers writer Daniel Waters?

Michael Lehmann: I was a student at the University of Southern California School of Cinema, and one of my friends there was Larry Karaszewski, who is an excellent writer. He and his writing partner, Scott Alexander, just wrote The People v. O.J. Simpson miniseries on FX. Larry had gone to high school with Daniel Waters in Indianapolis. So I met Dan through Larry. There was a group of us that hung out in some crazy house. Dan was very funny, and he was very odd. After we got out of school, we got agents. One day I got a call from Dan saying, “I gave this script I wrote over to Larry and Scott’s agent, and he hated it. Will you show it to your agent?” And I said, “Sure. What is it?” And it was the original draft for Heathers, which was 250 pages long. It was really brilliant, and very twisted, and really dark, and really funny. And my agent loved it. Dan, like Quentin Tarantino, worked in a video store for two or three years and wrote the script. He was not in film school like the rest of us. He just sat and wrote.

Walter Chaw: When we were speaking earlier, you quoted a line from a deleted scene …

Michael Lehmann: Yeah, I was talking to Dan Waters just a year ago, and I made a reference to this line, “stained with loserness.” Which is a very Heathers-esque line. Somebody associating with somebody else would be “stained with loserness.” We looked at each other and I said, “That’s still in the movie, right?” And he said, “I don’t think so.” It must have been from the lunchtime poll scene.

Walter Chaw: If it were in the movie, I would have a T-Shirt saying that. But let’s talk a little about Christian Slater and the Jack Nicholson thing.

Michael Lehmann: We had a very hard time casting the role of J.D., partly because everyone who came in and read for the role was imitating somebody. I don’t know why. I think it’s because they were 15 years old. I wanted to get real teenagers in this movie as much as I could. And we all know boys don’t develop the same way that girls do. They are usually way behind. So they were all imitating somebody. There were a lot of James Dean imitations, and Al Pacino imitations and whoever else was popular at the time. Christian came in late in the process, and by that point we just expected that everybody would imitate somebody. And so for him, it was, “Oh, this guy sounds like Jack Nicholson.” I was mixed about it at first. I thought it was distracting. Everybody loved Jack Nicholson at that time. He was at the height of his career. So there were times when I told Christian to pull back on the Nicholson. But I am telling you – that’s how he talks. And at one point he confessed to me: “I love his work. I look at what he does in his darker movies and how he manages to find the comedy in it.” So he had a reason for leaning in that direction.

(Pictured above: Pre-screening entertainment from Ignite Theatre’s Zach Nick as J.D and Lindsey Falduto as Veronica Sawyer. Photo by John Moore for teh DCPA NewsCenter.) 

Walter Chaw: What was it like wrangling all those young actors?

Heathers Quote Michael LehmannHeathers Quote. Michael Lehmann Michael Lehmann: You hear about productions that are difficult or in turmoil and everybody hates each other. This was a very happy production, and a very close-knit group of people because we had very little money. It was my first movie. It was Dan Waters’ first film. We didn’t know much. We just knew we had a great script and that we were going to try to make the best movie we could. Generally people got along great. Kim Walker, who plays Heather Chandler, was Christian Slater’s girlfriend at the time. Lisanne Falk, who plays Heather McNamara, was a little older and more mature, so she didn’t engage in some of the childish stuff. Shannen Doherty was 15 years old and a complete and utter terror in every possible way. And Winona Ryder was the most intelligent, precocious, self-assured young woman I have ever seen. She had either just turned 16, or turned 16 while we were making the movie, and she got it. She loved the film so much that she basically encouraged everybody to be well-behaved. So for the most part, it was a great experience. 

Audience member: When you are taking on a dark comedy as a director, is there something you can do to balance the two, or do you just trust the script?

Michael Lehmann: You walk the tightrope the whole time. Dark comedy is weird. To some degree, the more tasteless it is, the funnier it can be. But if you do it wrong and it’s just tasteless and it’s not funny, the house of cards falls apart. You know when to go that extra length to make it more shocking, more disturbing, more darkly satirical – and you know when to bring in elements of emotional authenticity and truth that support all of the other crazy dark stuff. Every step is difficult.

Audience member: Do you remember the moment you realized the film had reached this point where it now has a cult following, and that we will still show up to see it, all these years later?

Michael Lehmann: You know what’s weird? Even when we were making the movie, we all thought, “If we do this right, this will be a memorable, kind of culty film.” We knew it wasn’t going to be a mainstream movie, and we didn’t care. We were going to make the movie we wanted to make. I recommend that to anyone who makes movies, by the way. But at the end of the first week of shooting, when it was clear that this group of girls really did work together, I remember thinking then that, yes, the film could have the kind of following where people will watch it 28 years later and still like it.

Walter Chaw: Looking at the film now, there are a lot sensitive elements, especially for Colorado audiences who have lived through so much school violence. When the film first came out, what were some of the concerns that were brought up?

Michael Lehmann: When it came out, there were people who said, “How dare you make a comedy about teenage suicide?” And we would say, “We didn’t make a comedy about teenage suicide. We made a movie about high school. We made a movie about people who use the reaction to suicide to manipulate people, and we think that’s funny. But we are not making a movie about teenage suicide. This isn’t about people who really commit suicide. It’s not about the psychological issues that people go through. There was a movie about teenage suicide that was made at the time called Permanent Record. Our movie was a satire. A lot of people who either didn’t think it was funny – which is their prerogative – or didn’t get it, which is their loss; or just plain didn’t like it, were upset that we chose to make fun of those who were using those particular elements of the high-school experience.

Audience member: I was 12 when the movie came out, and even though I haven’t seen it in 15 years, I can still spurt out one line after the other before anyone says them. Who came up with all of the one-liners?

Michael Lehmann: That was entirely, completely Daniel Waters. He is brilliant. He is very funny. And he is very durable. He invented the language that is in this movie. This was not improvised. I don’t think anything was elaborated or changed significantly on set. Daniel wrote down all this stuff, and he should get full credit – and take full responsibility – for all of it. 

Walter Chaw: What was the reaction of your cast as they were having to say lines like, “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”?

Michael Lehmann: It was very strange because John Hughes was making his movies at that time, and they had a different kind of high-school language. My friends and I liked the John Hughes movies. We just did not want to make them. We didn’t want to have anything to do with that. We felt this language that Dan invented was weirdly more like the way kids really spoke, even though it was far more clever and a little bit more twisted. So what I found was that young actors – the good ones anyway – could just rattle this stuff off as if that’s the way they spoke all the time. If people came in and auditioned and they couldn’t do it, then obviously they didn’t get the part. Christian had a really tough time because he had some really monstrously complex things to say, and he managed to do pretty well with it. I remember being happily surprised that most of the young actors who came in, got it. They got what the humor of the movie was. Shannen Doherty did leave the first screening of the movie in tears saying, “Why didn’t anybody tell me this was a comedy?”   

Walter Chaw: What did she think that it was?

Michael Lehmann: You’ll have to ask her.

Audience member: Since we had the cast from the musical performing in here earlier, I just wanted to know what you think about your movie being made into a stage musical?

Michael Lehmann: For me, it’s only fun. It’s weird, too, because I remember reading the words before we shot them. So now, all these years later, to see young performers break into song, singing, “I love my dead gay son” – it’s pretty funny.

Walter Chaw: I’ll confess: I have seen this movie close to a hundred times. I am very lonesome. But it really spoke to me. I identified with several different characters throughout the course of the film. It has a unique insight into the horror of high school. Can you talk about evoking so many of our experiences that way?

Michael Lehmann: There are certain common experiences and clichés in high school that are the same everywhere: The cliques, the classes, the way things happen at recess, and in the lunchroom. We were dealing with all this iconic stuff. There is also the universal experience of adolescence in which you are discovering really how unfair the world is. You have been coddled to some degree as a child. Or you have been dealing with the inequities you kept thinking would go away as you got older. I don’t know if you all remember how strong that feeling was as a kid. So when you are in high school and you are starting to be an adult, then everything comes crashing down around you. Everybody experiences it in their own way. In this movie, I wanted to try to capture the emotional reality of being an adolescent and being in high school and put it in this twisted form. But also keep it emotionally authentic and grounded.

Audience member: I read that there was an alternate ending to the movie in which Martha (Dumptruck) kills Veronica?

Michael Lehmann: No, the alternate ending of the film was that J.D. blows up the school and there is a prom in heaven. That was the official, actual end to the movie that we wanted to make – and we were dead-set on making it. One of the reasons this movie got made in the first place is because there was a young executive at New World Pictures named Steve White. New World Pictures had been Roger Corman’s movie company, but he sold it to some guys who were just trying to make money off of his library and in the burgeoning world of home video. So Steve White, who had been a member of the Groundlings, was an actor and a comedy guy. He was really good guy. He read the script and he completely got it. He said, “I have a mandate. I can make movies at certain budget here. I don’t need to get approval form anybody. I am going to make this movie.” So he was our biggest ally. But he also said to us: “I will not make the ending that you have in this film. Everything else is fine. But you cannot have the protagonist actually kill herself at the end. She can’t explode the school. I won’t allow it. I don’t want one copycat suicide after this movie. I won’t do it.” And he was firm on that. So Dan and I said, “Well (bleep) that, we are going to take it somewhere else.” And we found nobody else. At all. New Line Pictures, which has made a lot of horror movies, said they would make it – but they wanted to change almost everything. So we came crawling back to Steve and said, “Yeah, we’ll think about the end. Maybe we can come up with something else.” So the ending that we have now, which I think is a good ending for the movie, was written as a compromise.

Audience member: How do you feel the film has aged? It is so prescient now but still – is there anything about the film that you watch now and it just … eeks you out?

Michael Lehmann: I mean, it’s an ’80s movie. People didn’t really quite dress like that then, but they sort of did. I always said, way back when we made the movie, “You know, if you look at A Rebel Without a Cause, that looks weird and dated and bizarre. Is this movie going to be like that someday?” Yeah, it’s ridiculous. It’s dated. And I think part of the fun of watching it now is that it evokes a time period that was in many ways very different from now – and that’s good. That’s great. But yeah, all of that is really embarrassing to me. As are a lot of things about the ’80s.   

Audience member: I graduated high school three years ago. And this was probably one of the most relevant movies I have ever seen in my life. I went to school at Arapahoe (site of a 2013 school shooting that killed two) and if you have heard anything about that, suicide and shooting is just the thing to do there. I know that’s horrible to say, but that was the feel going to school there, for me. This movie was hysterical to me but it also touches me, and a lot of other people, in a really affecting way. To me, this movie was way before its time. You just nailed it on the head with how people manipulate tragedies for their own ends, and the power struggles for popularity in the wake of that. I guess what I am asking is this: Here we are, however many years after this movie was made, and I feel like it is more relevant than ever. Does that weird you out? 

Michael Lehmann: First off, everything weirds me out. … You know, one of the things this movie deals with is what you just mentioned, which is that people manipulate real events to their own ends. That is a big part of the satire of the movie. We didn’t invent that for Heathers. That had been going on for as long as people doing anything, and it has continued. Now the circus is bigger and the stage is broader with all of the social media. And there have been real serious, horrible, terrible, violent events in high schools that hadn’t happened yet at the point when we made this film. What weirds me out is this: I don’t want to think that what this movie did was ever to inspire anybody to commit violence. This is something we talked about back when we made the movie. What if 99.9999 percent of the people who watch the movie get the satire, and get the humor. And then there is somebody who watches it and says, “Oh, I should kill myself.” Or, “I will kill somebody and make it look like suicide.” You don’t want that to happen. I don’t think it has. Nobody has ever told me that Heathers has inspired anything but laughter.”

Ignite Theatre. HeathersThe cast of Ignite Theatre’s ‘Heathers the Musical’ includes Jacob Durso-Sabina, Lindsey Falduto, Brandon Jay Lopez, Rachel McCulloch, Tashara May, Zoe Miller, Zach Nick, Jenny Pan, Shahara Ray, Brian Robertson, Cody Schmidt, McKenna Seckman, Jessica Sotwick, Scott Taylor, Brian Trampler, Samantha Wekenman, John White and Chelsea O’Grady. The director is Keith Rabin Jr. Providing live keyboards was Zach Stailey. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Denver Actors Fund Presents …
A monthly film series featuring movies either inspired (or were inspired by) a stage musical that is currently being performed by a Colorado theatre company.

  • Purchase tickets to Ragtime, screening at Alamo on March 14
  • Purchase tickets to Sweeney Todd, screening at Alamo on April 18

All screenings at Alamo Drafthouse, 7301 Santa Fe Drive
Read more in the DCPA NewsCenter

Ignite Theatre Presents Heathers
Ignite Theatre will be presenting the regional premiere of Heathers the Musical from Feb. 26-March 20 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Go to or call 866-811-4111 for tickets. 

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