Amy Heckerling has made some serious classic films in her career namely Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless. She was in NY this past weekend screening Clueless and her new film Vamps at the Lena Dunham curated program at BAM, Hey Girlfriend. Vamps is about vampires living in contemporary NYC starring Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter.
Women and Hollywood: You started directing in 1982 when there were just a handful on women directors. What was it like then?
Amy Heckerling: There were actually a handful of women working before me – I call them the Joanses. There was Joan Rivers, Joan Tewkesbury who did a movie called Old Boyfriends and Joan Micklin Silver. And then of course there was my buddy Claudia (Weill) who I loved.
WaH: What is it in you that made you want to direct?
AH: I love movies to death. I spent my entire youth in front of a TV watching old movies and as soon as I was able to get a subway pass when I was 14 I joined the Museum of Modern Art and was there all weekend watching old movies.
WaH: How did you come to make Fast Times at Ridgemont High?
AH: I had a student film that I made at AFI and Art Linson saw it and Thom Mount and Sean Daniels at Universal saw it too. I had a project I was writing and Art Linson showed me the script and asked what I thought of it and I gave him some notes and then he asked if I wanted to do it. And I was like Whoa.
WaH: And now it’s 30 years old. What is it like to make a movie that has had such a long life and is still well known?
AH: That’s very weird to me. Sometimes people say oh you did one of my favorite movies and I will ask them what the other one is and it’s always something that I totally hate. I say it can’t be you have to see Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane, Metropolis, Umberto D.
WaH: You dealt with so many issues in that movie around sexuality and specifically abortion that we never see in the movies anymore.
AH: It’s so stupid. When I watch it with other people they say wow you couldn’t do that now, wow you couldn’t do that now.
WaH: What things can’t we do now?
AH: The fact that they were under 18 and they’re having sex and you are seeing it. Not to say that that isn’t exploited in a lot of the cop shows, but to have that be just regular part of a girl’s life. The disconnect between what’s going on in schools and what’s allowed to be shown in movies has gotten really bad because girls in junior high are having oral sex and getting bracelets for it, and in movies everybody’s got to be 30 years old to have sex. It’s very bizarre. At that little sliver of time I was allowed to do something — even with a lot of fighting — but actually was actually allowed to show something about a real teenagers life.
WaH: I next want to talk about Clueless. That is a film that has resonated and lasted. Why do you think that one has endured?
AH: I’m not the one who can explain that. I don’t know.
WaH: What was it that made it special for you?
AH: It was probably the most fun I’ve had writing because once I got into that head I just enjoyed living there.
WaH: What one thng can you point that has changed in the business that you are surprised about?
AH: What bothers me is not how it changed since I got in, what bothers me is how it changed before I got in. For my money the movies of the 70s were just amazing. People were making movies like A Clockwork Orange and Mean Streets and now there is a lot of science fiction and there is a big gap between the little movies that are so small and deal with tiny things and then the big splashy tent pole outer space stuff. A move about 4 knuckleheads in the neighborhood who get into trouble with gambling with the cool music and the great actors like Mean Streets, and A Clockwork Orange which I guess you could call science fiction but it is so smart, stylish and sexy. That kind of stuff I don’t think anybody is allowed make right now.
WaH: I am a huge fan of I Could Never Be Your Woman and I know it was a terrible experience since it never got released in theatres Can you talk about that?
AH: What happened with that I don’t even understand it. When I would say to people where is this money coming from, they would say, you don’t want to know. I asked Is it being used to kill Jews in Israel? Is it guns? They would reply you don’t want to know.
WaH: Are you referring to the producers who were raising money for your movie?
AH: One guy in particular [whom she never named] apparently, I still don’t know, he announced that he raised a 100 million fund and making all these movies. As we were making it things kept getting taken away and you are going huh what happened $100 million. My movie wasn’t $100 million but the budget that we had that we counted on when we started planing was in constant flux and there were people calling up and saying we’re not going to get distributed unless you talk to Michelle Pfeiffer and tell her to change her deal. I said I’m not going to do that. Michelle did this out of love and fought for a long time to get it made and didn’t get what she deserved as a salary and now you are telling me that I should tell her that everything is her fault. I don’t know what was going on.
The company went under and I’m not a thousand percent sure of what happened but this guy had sold off — to make other movies — our foreign distribution. He wanted to be considered the next Harvey Weinstein. He made a deal with Harvey and Harvey got th DVD rights. I don’t even know if he got any money for that or if he was just hoping to start some partnership with him. Meanwhile when we would go to the studios and distributors and show them the movie and ask them what they thought they would say yeah and then they would find out that they wouldn’t be getting any foreign or any DVD rights. So it was not worth putting in the money you would need to advertise. Meanwhile I was taking care of my parents. My father was vey ill and my mother had cancer and every day my father would ask when is the movie coming out. It was a really miserable time. I don’t know what I could have done. I was not in the loop of the deals this guy is making behind my back.
WaH: You have to trust the people you work with.
AH: Theoretically. If there is a lesson to be learned I don’t know how I could have done anything differently.
WaH: How did Vamps come about?
AH: I met Lauren Versel a producer who had just won the Tribeca Film Festival with City Island and I was telling her I was writing this thing and she said if you can make it for $10 million I can get that. I was like ok. Anything could be made for any amount. So I showed it to her and she really liked it.
WaH: How was it like working with Alicia Silverstone again?
AH: I love Alicia she is the greatest girl in the universe.
WaH: When I was watching your film I felt like I was watching her character Cher in Clueless again. Was that intentional?
AH: She is Alicia and I’ve been watching Clueless a lot because I am working on the musical and I appreciate her more and more.
WaH: Clueless the musical for Broadway?
AH: We’re working on it as sort of a jukebox musical and Kristin Hanggi who did Rock of Ages is directing. It’s so much fun.
WaH: Is the trust you have with Lauren at a different level – do you feel confident that this film will get distribution?
AH: It will with a limited release. It is a small movie. There has been a recession and it’s a whole new world.
WaH: It seems timely with the vampire theme.
AH: I love the cast. Wally Shawn is great. Sigourney Weaver and Malcolm MacDowell are so fun and Krystin Ritter and Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey.
WaH: Do you have any advice that you could offer people?
AH: I have no clue. I wish somebody would give me advice.
WaH: What was the most challenging thing in making Vamps?
AH: Doing it on tight budget. Trying to make a movie that would have a certain look and effects and still not feel like a little movie.
WaH: Do you feel like it is important for directors to write their own projects as a way to direct?
AH: I don’t know how a person gets to direct now because it is a whole new world with getting things out online. People find their voice. It’s very different from when I was a kid when you went to film school, made your short and then you tried to get it to people.
WaH: Do you have any comment on the fact that only 5% of movies are directed by women?
AH: It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what else to say. Especially now. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don’t want to say the name – but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men.
There is no release date yet for the film.