“Do you think there’s ever been another movie like Heathers?” Winona Ryder asks in her tiny, forever-a-kid voice, and then listens quietly. She’s genuinely curious. Your brain races through the obvious choices. Mean Girls, Clueless, Jawbreaker — teen-girl comedies with a drop of caustic in their lip gloss. But in 25 years, no high school movie has ever come close to the bloodthirsty wit and sweet-faced nihilism of Heathers, the 1989 satire about an Ohio high school where suicide becomes a scrunchie-level fad. “I looove this movie — to the point where I talk about it like I’m not even in it,” says Ryder. “If it’s on TV, I watch it. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. Like, I can do it by heart.” She isn’t the only one who feels that way; fans have turned the box office flop (total gross: $1.1 million) into a cult hit on home video and TV — and even into a tongue-in-cheek musical, now playing Off Broadway. But long before that, a 24-year-old video-store clerk named Daniel Waters had a brilliantly ludicrous idea: “What if Stanley Kubrick made a teen film?”
In 1986, when John Hughes was giving us teen classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, Waters began working on what he calls ”a Carson McCullers-style novel of a girl who meets the Antichrist as a teenager.” The project morphed into a screenplay about an angsty popular girl, Veronica (Ryder), who starts secretly killing her classmates with the help of a diabolical new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), and framing the deaths as suicides. The script made its way to producer Denise Di Novi (Edward Scissorhands); a fresh-out-of-film-school director, Michael Lehmann; and Ryder, a relatively unknown 15-year-old who had just wrapped Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.
Winona Ryder [Veronica Sawyer] I’ve always held the original script of Heathers among the great literature that I’ve ever read. For me, it’s like, Ezra Pound, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Daniel Waters, you know?
Denise Di Novi [Producer] I had the sense I was reading a masterpiece. I brought it to the executives at [indie studio] New World, and they were like, “What the hell is this? Are you crazy?”
Michael Lehmann [Director] The original ending was that J.D. blew up the high school and they all died, then there was a prom scene in heaven. [New World execs] just said, “No way. We can’t make a satirical movie about teenage suicide in which the people actually kill themselves.”