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The ultimate revenge film, “Heathers” is a biting satire on the toxic side of American teen culture and an enduring classic.

Once a geek, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is now in with the cool kids. However, she’s still the odd one out in Westerberg’s High’s most feared and revered clique of mean girls, the Heathers: Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), and the Queen B bitch from hell Heather Chandler (Kim Walker).

Veronica is fed up with the Heathers and crosses paths with rebellious bad boy Jason “JD” Dean, who allows Veronica to give free rein to her dark side.

One by one, JD begins killing the popular kids off and staging them as suicides. Veronica is his willing accomplice and pens the suicide notes. However, Veronica begins to rethink their whole plan. She thinks it’s gone too far. However, JD is not willing to give up and planning the most elaborate staged suicide yet.

At the time of its release in 1989, Heathers was a box office flop earning $177,247 in its first weekend and a total of $1.1 million in the U.S. over five weeks. However, the film has gained a cult following since. It even ranked number 5 on Entertainment Weekly’s List of 50 Best High School Movies. 

Heathers was adapted into a TV series that was set to premiere in 2018. However, it was scrapped due to a school shooting.

Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehrmann, Heathers was meant to be an anti-high school movie.

Waters was looking to take the popular teen comedies of the 80s and make one with a dark, twisted, and cynical edge.

Winona Ryder was quoted as saying, “We really wanted to make the teen film to end all teen films.”

Waters was inspired by a combination of his sister’s experiences in high school plus a passage from Simon de Beauvoir’s book The Sex Act (1949), which explores society’s treatment of women. Mainly, what Waters wanted to accomplish was present a more honest view of high school life instead of the heavily romanticized pop culture depictions of it.

Water’s original view of Veronica was more extreme. He saw her as a female Travis Bickle, Robert DeNiro’s psychotic cab driver in Scorcese’s classic Taxi Driver.

Waters has said that Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Veronica during her auditions, which brought a softer, warmer, and more empathetic side to Sawyer, made him re-think the character.

Much of the very memorable dialogue in the film came from Waters’ real-life experience.

He took the dialogue from kids he knew in high school and from his experiences as a camp counselor. Memories of co-workers and campers provided some witty one-liners. 

The profanity-laced dialogue and dark themes caused a lot of controversies.

Shannen Doherty especially objected to the language.

Growing up in a conservative household, she had trouble getting through her lines in some scenes. Actress Heather Graham, who was 17 years old at the time, wanted a role in the film. Because of her age, her parents had to approve the script first. However, they found the script too offensive overall because of its dark themes. 

As with many classic movies, Winona Ryder was not the first choice to play Veronica Sawyer.

Ryder really had to fight for the part. She even fired her agent after he begged her not to do the role and said it would ruin her career. However, the producers needed some convincing. They didn’t think she was right to play Sawyer based on her work as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice. To convince producers, Ryder even had a makeover at a makeup counter at a mall to make herself “pretty enough.”

Ryder has said that Veronica Sawyer is one of her favorite roles.

She said the Heathers script was “among the great literature that I’ve ever read,” comparing it to works by authors such as Philip Roth and Ezra Pound.

Winona Ryder’s commitment to the film continued well after it flopped at the box office.

She’s been pitching ideas for a sequel for many years, with Meryl Streep playing an older Veronica Sawyer as a Washington, DC, politician.

Before Ryder was cast, Jennifer Connelly was the producer’s pick for the role. Connolly was known for her roles in Once Upon a Time in America and Labyrinth. Producers thought that her name would be a box office draw. However, Connolly turned down the role.

Before Christian Slater, Jim Carrey, Judd Nelson, Johnny Depp, Jason Bateman, and Brad Pitt were considered to play J.D.

The role nearly went to Pitt. However, producers thought he was “too nice” to capture dark and twisted J.D. Christian Slater would say that he dedicated his performance to his favorite actor, Jack Nicholson, which isn’t a shock. It’s difficult not to see Nicholson’s voice and mannerisms in Slater’s performance.

Water’s originally penned the script with Stanley Kubrick in mind as the director. However, when Michael Lehrmann took the helm as director, he said he used Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as a reference, especially for the film’s first cafeteria scene.

There are many other interesting literary references in the film also: the names Veronica Sawyer and Betty Finn are combinations of two sets of famous characters. Betty and Veronica were best friends in the Archie comic books series. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are characters from Mark Twain’s classic novels. For one of the staged suicides,  J.D. and Veronica leave behind a copy of Moby Dick with specific passages underlined as a suicide note.

However, the book was initially supposed to be J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. But producers were unable to secure the rights to use Salinger’s work, and Melville’s Moby Dick had entered the public domain.

The producers thought the original ending was too dark, so it was changed.

In the original story, Veronica shoots J.D. and straps a bomb to herself. She blows herself and the entire school up. The school was supposed to end with a prom scene in the afterlife with the misfits and popular kids mingling and getting along with each other.

With Heathers, Waters aimed to create an honest picture of teen life in America.

Heathers depicts the toxic culture of American high school: bullying, peer pressure, and the end result that happens tragically in real life — suicide. He explores this in a darkly comedic way that didn’t sit well, especially with parents at the time.

The film flopped when it was first released in theaters. But like many misunderstood greats, it stood the test of time and earned a cult following. 

“25 Wild Truths Behind The Making of Heathers,” by Caitlin Leale, July 10, 2018. Screen Rant; “10 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About The Making of Heathers,” by Jake Dee, July 22, 2020. Screen Rant

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