As one of just a small handful of female directors who have seen her films gross more than $100 million at the box office, Amy Heckerling is a force to be reckoned with. Today, she’s also a babysitter.
When I reach Heckerling by phone in New York ahead of this Sunday night’s premiere of The Movies on CNN—her first feature Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a focal point of the documentary series’ episode about the 1980s—she’s looking after her young granddaughter.
Our conversation is periodically interrupted by pleas for her to get off the phone and pay attention to the Transformers movie playing in the background. “Have you seen Bumblebee?” Heckerling asks me at one point. “It takes place in the ‘80s.”
Despite its period setting, that action behemoth is about as far removed as one could imagine from the human stories Heckerling is best known for telling on screen, first with Fast Times and then later with Look Who’s Talking and Clueless, both of which she wrote and directed to massive box office success.
During our interview, we discuss the joys and challenges of making those films. And Heckerling briefly addresses the controversy that erupted a few weeks ago after former Saturday Night Live cast member Chris Kattan claimed in his new memoir that Lorne Michaels pressured him to have sex with her more than two decades ago.
How did you end up getting involved in the new CNN documentary series The Movies?
I don’t remember. I guess somebody asked me and it’s CNN and I love the shows that they make, the stuff on the ‘80s and ‘90s and all that. So when they asked me to do it, I was like, yeah this is something I would definitely do.
I got to see the first episode about the films of the ‘80s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High is featured prominently in that episode. That was your first feature as a director and you were just 27 years old at the time, so what’s the story behind how you ended up directing that movie that became so iconic at such a young age?
Well, I actually had been developing a project right after film school—not Fast Times—and it got into turnaround and was at three different studios and then the actors went on strike. I would have been really young had that gone, but it didn’t so I was very depressed. And I knew [producer] Art Linson from being in the offices at Universal. And he’d show me scripts that they were developing and I’d tell him any thoughts I had. And then he showed me Fast Times and I told him some ideas, but I thought it was just like, as a friend, here’s what I think. But then he said, do you want to tell those to the executives and it was like, ‘What?!’
What were your first impressions of Cameron Crowe’s script when you read it?
I read it and then he told me it was based on a book and I read the book and thought, oh my God, there’s so much wonderful material in this book that could be incorporated into this script. And I told him also that one thing that made me like people was when they worked hard and a lot of teen movies show this frivolous lifestyle. There’s romance and the usual stuff going on at school, sports and all that, but they’re just teenagers. And in the book, they had jobs. They were struggling. It wasn’t just like I’m cruising around in my car, it’s like I have a job to pay for this piece of junk. So I wanted to get more of the work ethic in there and the fact that they are kids and to have such financial problems threw them into a grown-up world before they were ready. That made it seem like the sexual problems were things they were dealing with at too young an age, it felt like that was kind of a theme. I mean, the title of the book was Fast Times so it felt like things were happening too fast for them.
Yeah, I think one thing that really stands out in the film now is the abortion scene, which unfortunately still feels kind of radical in some ways. Did you get pushback from anyone on that?
Actually, the executives at Universal at the time were all pretty young, radical people. They were the student leaders of political movements at their schools and then went to Hollywood and became studio executives. They wanted to show the edge, they wanted to make these statements, so I was very fortunate. And the producer, Art Linson, wanted somebody who could show the awkwardness but also be edgy and out there. I was fortunate in that there was not the sense of being tamped down by the people making the film. The times changed extremely quickly right after that. I think of it like when a garage door is closing and someone slides in right at the very last second. Because what was allowed to be shown in terms of sex and drugs and all of that kind of shut down afterwards for a long time.
Yeah, and I think the films with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow smashed it all open again.
Fast Times obviously launched all these careers of these young actors including Sean Penn. What do you remember about working with him and were you able to see in him at that time what he would become?
Everybody did. He’s so intense and so brilliant. You just look at him and you know. He was just incredible. People kept dropping by the set to talk to him, to schmooze. Everybody knew this guy is going to be the next thing.
So another of your films that came at the end of the ‘80s and is not explored in the CNN documentary is Look Who’s Talking, which was one of my favorites growing up. You wrote that based on your own experience of becoming a mother?
Well I can’t say completely because I didn’t have a baby inside me talking, but yes it was based on everything going on in my life. And also a little bit of feeling like the things I was being shown in the industry to direct I wasn’t very happy with. Then having a baby and staying at home and having that time to be thinking and writing and not wanting to run off and be on a set—I wanted to be with her—that changed things. But also I kind of knew that I would be offered things with teenagers, but it was always like ‘girl loses her virginity’ and how much of that can you do?
And I just felt like I wasn’t allowed to have a female protagonist. There was sort of a female ghetto and I was in it and I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be doing those sorts of films and I knew I could do something where the main character was a female so I could express things going on in my life. There weren’t that many female stars that they would let be the driving force of a film, and I knew that at that time if you were doing something in comedy, you needed to have Bill Murray or a very-close-to-Bill Murray type. And I knew that I wasn’t going to have first dibs on those guys. There were male directors that were getting them. But I kind of got the feeling that I could get them for a day or two and if they would do the voice it would feel like they were the main character, but I would be able to get what I couldn’t normally get.
And that’s where Bruce Willis came in as the voice of the baby?
Yeah, it was like I can have the wisenheimer character that all the studios want to see, but I won’t be in competition with everybody else for Bill Murray. I will be able to get somebody who would be able to be paid enough to do two days of work. It’s like you’ve got to trick everybody to let you in. You want to be on a movie set, but you’re not allowed to, but if you come in carrying a lot of coffees they think you’re doing something.
Well that film ended up way outperforming expectations at box office, it was a huge hit. Was that at least gratifying for you?
That was very gratifying for me. But still, the studio was bought by another studio and the new people had no interest in making the old people look like they did anything good. So then they came up with this philosophy that John Travolta was box office poison and that you didn’t want to sell a female character so they would just feature the baby. That’s not such an ingenious idea, but they were acting like we figured out how to sell that movie and that’s why it did well.
Yeah, I remember the baby on the poster by himself.
I mean, yeah, it’s not like that’s a genius idea to put a baby on a poster, but whatever. But you know who really was a genius of the thing was John Travolta. Because we had Bruce Willis, which was great in English-speaking places, but John, who was a world traveler, told them you should get stars of the different countries in different languages and sell it, that was in those places. So there’s some ownership and recognition of their own star. So I don’t even know who the different voices were, but they went with that and that was his idea and it was I think the first time a comedy did really well foreign. And that was John and I don’t think a lot of people know that but I owe him big time.
So you of course returned to the world of high school with 13 years after Fast Times with Clueless. And those two movies feel like they exist in two different worlds in some ways. How did you feel the lives of teenagers had changed over that time?
It wasn’t so much that I felt like the lives of teenagers had changed, it was a different tone, it was a different world. One was extreme reality. I mean, Cameron Crowe went back to high school, talked to all those kids, lived with them, did things with them and the reality of it. And Clueless of course is comedy of manners based on a book from the 1800s and translated into a much more gentrified and happy and colorful world of the ‘90s, which was not the real world. I mean, we shot in a high school where there had just been a shooting. And we painted the walls and changed people’s clothes and what it looked like what I was showing was not the reality of the place.
What was the casting process like for that film because it’s another one with all of these amazing young actors, many of whom were not well known before it came out?
It was just so much fun. I always knew that I wanted Alicia [Silverstone]. I knew from watching her in the [Aerosmith] videos, God I love this girl. And then I met her and we’re still pals, I love her to death. The hard one was Josh. You see a million people and there are people that the agencies and executives are pushing. But when Paul Rudd came in, it was like oh my God, that’s it. I just knew this is the guy. I needed that charm and cuteness, but also intelligence and the balance to her lightness.
So I know this is a little awkward but I have to ask about a story that recently came out, Chris Kattan claims in his memoir—
Ugh, I didn’t read it. He’s a nut. You know, I don’t comment about that, because basically I have no interest in helping his book sales. I don’t even want to know or hear the dumb shit he came up with.
Well he claims that Lorne Michaels pressured him into having sex with you so that you would stay on A Night at the Roxbury.
No, I have nothing to say about him or his idiot book. I don’t feel like helping him at all.
So just to wrap up, what excites you creatively now in terms of your work?
Well I have a kind of Jewish superstition thing where you go ‘pooh, pooh, pooh,’ where you’re not supposed to say anything because then it doesn’t happen. We did an Off-Broadway version of the Clueless musical and now we’re making some changes and stuff looking towards out of town and hopefully the Great White Way. It’s just a process that’s so unbearably long. But the fun thing is learning a whole new process and set of skills. That I’ve been very thrilled with. And various other things, but I don’t want to jinx them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.