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“Who does that guy in the coat think he is, anyways, Bo Diddley?” – An Interview with Daniel Waters

Heathers is having a 30th anniversary with a limited theatrical release, to be followed by a Blu-Ray release in September (read my review). I met up with the screenwriter Daniel Waters in London, where he was visiting for a performance of Heathers: The Musical. Waters is probably best known for his first script, which was Heathers, the ultimate ‘80s teen movie that cemented his reputation as a writer with a wicked sense of humour. He powered through the 90s writing frequently for action producer Joel Silver, and wrote the best of the Tim Burton Batman films, Batman Returns. He was awarded an Edgar for Heathers—and is a two-time Razzie winner for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Hudson Hawk.

How does it feel to have your first thing out of the gate (Heathers) last so long?

It’s funny… I’m going through this period right now where it’s been 30 years, and when it’s happening that’s just the way it is—I have finally finished the screenplay and now it’s a great movie and everybody’s going to love it –you don’t have any sense of reality. It’s only since then that I got a sense of reality: I won the lottery and didn’t even know it! I’d obviously gone through a period of slight depression, with “why haven’t I written something as good as Heathers?” And now that I’m hitting middle age, I’m a little more rested and came to an approachment with myself with “Hey, at least I did one which had an effect on people.” You can say my Batman movie, Hudson Hawk, Demolition Man had some obscure love somewhere. I’m not saying people hate my work. But it’s been nothing like Heathers. I’ve really been experiencing it this week. I’m in London for the musical, and it’s been rediscovered in a really interesting way. The British production of the musical is much more raw and intense, and I realise a movie I wrote is almost… I wouldn’t say science fiction, but a teen film of Kubrickian Shakespearean heightened reality. The reality has caught up to my first work, which has given it a new lease of life.

What do you think is next for Heathers after a musical and this now ill-fated TV show?

Heathers On Ice would be great, but in most of the things I’ve written, be it Heathers and the Catwoman section of Batman Returns, my heroines always have tragic deaths, so I never even daydreamed of an afterlife. So this is it, and here is the exclamation mark! So then it’s weird that they have these afterlives, to begin with. I’m loving this musical, because when you do it yourself it’s like hosting a party— you have worry if everybody is happy. Do you have enough ice? Do you have enough glasses? This is the first time I can watch Heathers refracted, and hey, I’m having a good time and—that line is pretty good, I wrote that line! So I’m kind of enjoying it for the first time.

I’ll say something about the TV show… I thought the first episode was a little ‘MadLibs,” with just my show with added cosmetic silly changes, and I actually saw the first five episodes and when it broke away from Heathers it got pretty good. I was looking forward to seeing how it would play out in public, and I don’t know if it ever will get a chance to. I’m certainly not guiding that train in any way, I’m just excited to see if it’s Ice Capades or what have you… and I’m getting an opera vibe.

Do you have a favourite line from Heathers

It’s the massive satire line, but it’s one of the first lines I came up with. “I love my dead gay son!” is not too shabby, but I love “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” That hits all the satirical food groups for me too, so I’m a big fan of that. I usually spent way too much time writing. I’m not somebody who sits at a computer, I scribble things out on scraps of paper and then it all gets collated very slowly and eventually. I have learned to love “I don’t patronize bunny rabbits.” It’s been a dark horse coming up.

The one I go back to is always is the Bo Diddley one (Who’s he think he is…Bo Diddley?)

Oh my god, this is going to blow your mind—the guys who did the musical refused to cut Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley is in the musical and I’m very excited you can be the first audience member to react to it. It just dies every time and they take it as a badge of honour. They were like you’ve got to have that, and you really don’t.

That’s exactly why I love it: it makes no sense that they would know who Bo Diddley is. 

It’s just like, it’s this cool guy or something, but yeah, you’re right, they probably wouldn’t know who Bo Diddley is.

Is anything you look on and cringe about at this point?

Oh so much, the whole thing about Heathers getting this nice 4K restoration and all this stuff. I start to get excited, and I imagine about the good parts, and then I see the movie and god damn it, you got me again. The cafeteria scene goes on forever, and I tease the editor all the time when they shoot the jocks in the woods and then they run for 20 minutes around the woods. I mean, is this really still happening, can we go in? Oh, him blackmailing with the pictures from summer camp with her and Martha, that was pretty lame. You don’t even need to do it, and there is a better way to do it. I have a lot of stuff … oh of course “Ich Lüge Bullets” is not my finest hour of plotting. I think they play it off well as the way Winona says “Ich Lüge Bullets, I’m such an idiot,” and then it comes with one of my favourite moments where she burns her hand with the lighter and he lights a cigarette off her burnt flesh. It’s almost like, “OK. you are rewarded for ‘Ich Lüge Bullets’ because you tortured yourself like that.” but it’s still a cringer for me. There are better endings too…

I’ve heard about the endings…

I keep kind of adding to the ending, I think I’ve talked before about an ending only my brother read, like after they started shooting the other ending. Now I realise I should’ve put the brakes on. This is my new perfect ending: so, Winona comes back, she’s covered in ash, “you look like hell.” “I’ve just got back”, “New sheriff in town.” She takes the ribbon, puts it on her head, goes to Martha Dumptruck and asks if she wants to rent some new releases and pop some popcorn, and then Martha Dumptruck takes a knife and stabs Veronica and says “Fuck you Heather.” And then Winona falls to the ground with a knife in her stomach, and like Dr. Strangelove, Martha stands up and says “I can walk” and she collapses. And they are both laying on the ground with Winona looking up with the knife in her stomach and with Martha Dumptruck next to her and Winona goes, “My name isn’t Heather, you fat bitch.” And they both break out in laughter… and go to black.

Have you ever considered Pump Up The Volume an unofficial prequel? 

With Pump Up the Volume and Say Anything, I just thought it was the golden age, but I could always separate it. I would never say that character could become J.D., but I haven’t seen Pump up the Volume in a long time—but I remember loving it. That’s funny, I didn’t think if things didn’t work out with the radio station and Samantha Mathis that it could turn out that way…

How was it moving from these indies to the big blockbuster stuff you did later?

I was naïve because I thought this is just me going on vacation, playing around. I’m really a man with an “indie soul and spirit,” and I’m going to make all these great films. Thank god there wasn’t Rotten Tomatoes back then, but in pure Rotten Tomatoes elevator lift/drop, going to Heathers to Ford Fairlane is a pretty sizable drop, even though Ford Fairlane has its moments, for sure. The problem is I love all movies: I love the junk, Claire Denis and John McTiernan, I like them all! I find something to like in everything. I thought I was Superman after Heathers, even though it wasn’t a big office hit, but it was very appreciated even before it was made. The script cut a dashing figure across the town, I had meetings with everyone, so I was listening to everybody to sample their wares. I had a special fondness for Joel Silver more than other big producers, like Jerry Bruckheimer. Even when the movies were bad (and who knew I would be writing them) they had a certain flavuor to them, there’s always something off and humorous about them. I didn’t write Road House, but I wouldn’t take that off my IMDB page if I did, but you get in this mode of … you will do one for them and one for me. I didn’t really have directorial ambitions, so I wasn’t really considered a “auteur,” and it’s true that if you’re a screenwriter can skip from project to project. I think Michael Lehmann was much more hurt by the non-success of Hudson Hawk than I was. I’m this “crazy writer guy” who goes from thing to thing, but it was weird—suddenly the first five scripts I wrote were made into movies, so it got to a point where… I call it “failing upwards.” I did Hudson Hawk. Oh no, I really need to do something… and that turned into Batman Returns, and turned into Demolition Man, and every year I had a movie out. After Demolition Man, part of me was, it was lucrative, I’m not gonna complain or say if I could do it over again I would live in the hovel and only write independent films, success or failure be damned. Although part of me wishes that … but then, if you get out, you are making a clean break, I called my agent, “leave me alone, don’t tell me anything,” and I wrote a script called The Model Daughter, which was a satire which took place in the fashion industry, and it was about a designer who realises the perfect model for his strange campaign is the daughter of two divorced modelling agent heads, and they fight to sign her. Everybody loved the script, and they were like “this is the best thing you’ve wrote since Heathers.” But then you meet Natalie Portman, who was 12, for the movie, and have lunch with Jude Law … but it just never happened. It’s much worse now with an original movie not based on anything, especially not based on something actiony or superheroey. Those are even harder to get made, but it was hard to get made then. “I did four movies for you guys, you owe me one!”— but that’s just not the way it works, and you realise you really did win the lottery for Heathers, and shut up.

I’ve worked consistently. I did an adaptation of the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land with Tom Hanks, you would think that would get made, but it is a strange project and it is a 100 million dollar science-fiction project where there isn’t a laser beam fight. It is a tough proposition still. It’s amazing how a decade can go by, and then I had a point where—I always talk about this when looking back on my life—but I was offered an obscene amount of money to rewrite the not very good movie Town and Country, the Warren Beatty movie, and choose instead to direct a movie. Directing takes a year to develop, a year to shoot it, and a year to edit it, and it felt like I went away in the wilderness and it wasn’t a great experience for me. I’m somebody whose creative process involves a lot of naps, and it’s hard to tell your crew “I’m gonna sleep on this one.” I directed another movie, Sex and Death 101, which I ended up having a much better time on, but it was resoundingly unheralded by anyone. I’m more focused on writing now, but the “how did I get here with my career” is something that baffles me. It’s been 30 years since Heathers, but it doesn’t feel like 30 years. It’s not like I’ve had writers block or I’ve not been writing.

How much script doctoring do you do, or is more reported than it really is, because it’s always in your biography? 

Yeah, I was never the “great” script doctor. I mean, Demolition Man was crazy, because my contribution was done mostly when Johnny Carson was having one of his last shows and it was very hard to get tickets. I knew I was going to wait in line for 20 hours for one of his shows, and Joel had been trying to get me to rewrite Demolition Man. I’m like, hell, OK, I’m gonna do it because it was an unseemly sum that nobody gets for per week, and I’m gonna do mostly index carding and writing while I stand in line for this thing. I was calling my friends, like Larry Karaszewski who wrote Ed Wood was sitting by a toilet, and I was like “oh you’re in a toilet? I need some toilet stuff.” And he had a bag of seashells and I was like “seashells! I’m gonna work with that.” I had never written anything that fast, and that was script doctoring. I didn’t really ask to arbitrate, really, and when the arbitration came back the entire spirit of the film had changed because of me, so they gave me first position writing credit, even though I wasn’t really begging or asking for it. In baseball pitching terms, I’m a good starter, I’m a good mid reliever, but I’m a terrible closer, so I’m not the guy you get to finish off, but I’m the guy you get to make it good—and somebody else has got to make it real. I’ve built up enough, even though it was so long ago. I still have enough old Batman residual money I can live my own life and write original scripts.

I’m not gonna brag that I’m the greatest screenwriter who ever lived, but I’m gonna say my arbitration letters are pretty amazing. Like there was a guy… “I feel sorry for you, I’ve said bad things about you in the press. If this comes up again, I now realise I had it nice with you and I shouldn’t be so mean.” But this guy, Wesley Strick. who did a rewrite after me after my contract was up on Batman Returns… there are a lot of jokes in Batman Returns that I want to run from theatre to theatre [shouting] “I didn’t do that!” But there is still a reference to this game show, The Love Connection, in the movie, and I’m like why? I’m not afraid of a pop culture reference, but GOTHAM CITY—NO POP CULTURE REFERENCES! This guy just threw a bunch in, but let’s say… he hired a publicist who was very confident about his shared writing credit, and my arbitration letter was pretty brutal, so I have sole credit.

What’s the craziest Hudson Hawk story you’ve never told before? How was writing a script with Bruce Willis? That must have been bizarre. 

Yeah, I think our names are both on the poster, but it’s not like he’s making the coffee and I’m writing on the typewriter with a cigarette—we were never really in the same room. He just had these ideas and I incorporated them. It’s so sad though, he was funny and alive and always willing to try different things, and after the failure of Hudson Hawk he became so serious. So there’s a line in the movie—and it’s not the greatest line in the movie—but where he’s watching Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhardt go at it and he says “I know who wears the penis in this family.” It’s not my finest hour, but it’s a cute enough line. So we do the take, and instead of that line he says “who’s got the dick?” And everyone is “OK, that was interesting Bruce,” and it’s kind of playing off the line “who wears the pants in the family,” so we might want to keep it in… “Who’s got the dick?”  We managed to get one take where he actually says the line, but me and Michael kind of say that’s the spirit of the production, what it was. My stories of Hudson Hawk are kind of like tragedy plus time makes them funny. The very ending of the film. which he didn’t film at the end but shot in the middle of filming, everybody had a nervous breakdown during shooting the last scene. with people screaming at each other. I was leaving the next day to go work on Batman, so everybody fucking hated me. Like they would touch me, like “oh, who could know a rat jumping from a sinking ship could be so dry?” There were all these arguments about what the lines should be, and Bruce did this thing which is like my favourite line in the movie now, where Danny Aiello has to give this horrible speech about airbags and things like that. And Bruce is like: “that’s probably what happened.” So if I did do a book about Hudson Hawk, it would be called “that’s probably what happened.”

Have you ever had any real creative differences? 

I’ve never actually written with somebody, and if I have a credit with somebody, it’s because we’ve never actually meet each other. I actually knew Steven de Souza, but we didn’t work together. De Souza is a very funny guy, and I worship Die Hard, it’s one of my favourites. I don’t really have a lot of fights, but Tim Burton and I had a little bit of friction. I called it “two Rain Men with two Dustin Hoffmans,” we’re both kind of like “I’m crazy genius guy, I don’t have social skills,” but wait a minute—one of us has to have social skills if this is going to work. He fakes it a little bit. I hear stories about Bjork where it’s like “I’m Bjork, I make the sound of icicles,” and when she goes in the studio it’s like you’ve got to take it down 12bpm, and Tim has that side too. We made up eventually.

One more thing about working with people: if only directors and producers knew that if they kept the writer around, it’s like the lobster in hot water, that they get acclimated and they stop saying shitty things about the production, if they are in the production. It’s best for everybody to keep us around, and if you keep us around we won’t realise the movie is staying awful. We will be there, we will know why it happened. It’s a two-way street: everybody has to play ball. Literally, my favourite screenwriting joke is: “How many screenwriters does it take to change the lightbulb? Change the lightbulb? That’s the best part!”

Where do you keep your Razzies? 

That’s very funny you say that: de Souza was obsessed with tracking down the Razzie. Coming off Heathers I won two “worst screenplays” back to back, I’m the Meryl Streep of bad screenplays! There is no physical Razzie, and de Souza went the extra mile to track one down. We were both disappointed: “wait a second you are gonna shame us and not even give us something we can point to at a party and laugh at, you won’t even let us share in the joke?” We didn’t feel degraded winning a Razzie, but we felt degraded that the Razzies aren’t a real thing. “Worst screenplay” is a bit of a farce, because if it’s a bad movie it’s normally because they fucked up the screenplay, rarely is it a perfect draft that the person typed out completely that is turned into the movie with the worst screenplay.

So what’s next on your plate?

I just finished an original screenplay, and I just had a kind of sad experience of writing a TV pilot about a female serial killer in the fashion industry. I would label it as “The Dexter wears Prada.” We had a great actress, Willa Fitzgerald, who hasn’t done a lot of movies—she was the lead of the TV show Scream. I thought the script was good, my brother did a good job of directing it, we had a lot of money in New York, and Willa was amazing. I had done the bible for the entire series. It was, unfortunately, for the illustrious E! Network, and they loved developing it and making it—but when it came to “let’s turn into a TV show,” they kind of got cold feet. It was a little bizarre, and we all knew it was bizarre, so it didn’t happen. So, I’m still licking my wounds about that.

I have written a script, and I’ve gotten a good response from it, and I’m still trying to find somebody to make it: The Day Everybody Else Fell In Love. It’s hoping to be too romantic comedies what Heathers was to teen films –trying to finish off but revitalise a dying genre.

What did you watch on the plane?

I see everything, so I watched the Joaquin Phoenix hitman movie again. and it’s still a little disappointing—I had such high hopes. So I was down to Monster Hunt 2, this Asian action movie with Tony Leung, of all people. It’s not good. Films I liked this year: Beast and—oh, you will hate me—but I worshipped How to Talk to Girls at Parties, nobody liked it, but Elle Fanning was amazing.

HEATHERS 30th Anniversary 4K Restoration is released in UK cinemas from 8th August and on digital and on demand from 20th August.

You can follow me on Twitter.

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