Extracts from an interview with Amy Heckerling, director of Clueless
at the American Film Institute, September 14, 1995
MODERATOR: Seeing a movie like CLUELESS is just a delight because it captures so many things about our culture and our society and gives us such an extraordinarily entertaining experience. And so it's a great pleasure to welcome an AFI graduate, AMY HECKERLING.
Tell us a little bit about your voyage and how you came to this profession and why you wanted to make movies and tell stories and give us a little bit of you if you will.
AMY HECKERLING: That's a hard one. Well, let's see. I come from the Bronx and I couldn't stand the schools that I was in. Then we moved to Queens, which was equally hideous. I used to draw and watch movies and daydream. The idea of going to high school with these characters I had known my whole life was just beyond awful so I wanted to get out. I wanted to get out of the neighborhood, I wanted to get away from the people I knew. I went to art school in Manhattan. I was fortunate to get into the High School of Art and Design. Then everything was changed, it just all clicked in. Everybody there wanted to be something specific; they wanted to paint, they wanted to do stage scenery. They were 14 or 15 but they were directed. I felt so much better in a place like that. And I had a writing teacher, who really encouraged me. One day we had to write compositions on what we wanted to do. I wrote mine on why I wanted to be a writer for Mad Magazine and the boy next to me wrote his on why he was going to be a movie director. And I just was like, wait a minute. Movie director is like for big shots, people in Hollywood. Who told you you could be a movie director? I was just so jealous and I guess it started to dawn on me that that was what I wanted to do.
...MODERATOR: Were you pleased with the film you made - CLUELESS?
AMY HECKERLING: I haven't seen it since I finished it. I just remember, like, the last thing was that we had no money to do anything interesting with the credits, and that's where my involvement was last. So I haven't really thought about it since that particular problem.
MODERATOR: How did you react to the reaction? To audiences, to critics?
AMY HECKERLING: What I really enjoyed was I got good reviews and so it was like, wow. I mean who ever thought that a movie about teenage girls called CLUELESS would be taken so seriously.
MODERATOR: Alright. Let me open it up and let you [to the audience] participate in this.
Q: There are echoes of Emma, Jane Austen's work. Did you think about that in advance of writing it or come to that or did you not think about it?
AMY HECKERLING: They are similar. The same exact structure. I had this character in my head, the girl, and the kind of things she was doing, saying and the journey I wanted to take her through. But I needed a strong plot and I had read Emma in college. I read it again and said, This just lays out perfectly, this is just the most perfect structure for what this girl should go through. And when I would get stuck, when I would be at story meetings and they would say: Well, this should be more this ... But it was all there in Jane Austen. It wasn't there in the studio meetings.
Q: You had some success in the past. How hard was it to get this movie going, especially without any real name actors?
AMY HECKERLING: Well this particular movie has a strange history 'cause actually I went into the Fox network with an idea for a TV show and they said, You know what? We don't want to do this. We don't want to do what you're talking about, we want you to do something about teenagers. We're tired of shows about nerdy teenagers and we want to do something about the cool kids. So I said, Well, I could deal with that if they're, like, stupid. So I like went off and did this pilot for them and what came out of that was I sort of hit upon this character, this girl, that I really loved writing. And they read the pilot and they said, This is great, we're going to pass. The movie, Fox movies, bought the pilot from the TV company for me to develop as a film. And then I went back and read Emma and started to work out the structure. They were really worried about girls being the main characters. They kept saying, Let's see more about what the boys are doing, let's see this boy in his home and this boy with his car and this boy doing this and that. And I said, But this is an inner monologue in the girl's head, so what does her head know about what's going on with him at his house with his car? So I was really at odds with them and it wasn't working at all and ultimately they put it in turnaround. Then it was sort of languishing and somebody showed it to Scott Rudin. He read it, he loved it, he comes into a meeting and says, 'I want to do this,' and everybody goes, 'Okay Scott,' and so then it was done.
Q: So how long did that process take?
AMY HECKERLING: Well, let's see. The whole thing with writing and rewriting for Fox was over a year. You know, until you hand a script in, 'til this one reads it and loves it, they are going to show it to that one, that one's on vacation, okay, they're back, now they're going to read it on a plane, okay, now they're going to show it to the top guy, then he needs to think about it for a while, tells the other people ... you're always fifty percent writing and fifty percent waiting.
MODERATOR: In addition to the Jane Austen structure, tell us about the primary research that you did into the character, into the contemporary scene?
AMY HECKERLING: I could call it research. It's more like fun. I went to Beverly Hills High School and sat in on debates and plays, and had long conversations with with the kids. Finding skateboarding contests that would be within driving distance... finding the various places I wanted to go to see what I needed to see. Also I watch MTV constantly, you know.
If you wind up just going to the places they go, watching the things they watch, reading what they read, you get a lot of background. Just get off your butt and go to Judy's and stand by the closest group of girls talking. You hear a lot of stuff. This one was fun for me.
Q: During the character's transition to realizing that she's clueless and then turning her life around, to a certain extent, were you ever tempted to place more of a burden on her shoulders as to what was going to happen, how her life was going to turn out? Because you had a delicate balance there.
AMY HECKERLING: It's such a light movie that even if you want to say that she realizes that the world is not makeovers and materialism, how much do you want of the real life? Is she going to realize that people are being bombed in Bosnia? Is she going to worry about the ozone layer? I mean how heavy can you get without ruining the lightness of the movie? And so you want her to wake up, in a way, but you don't want it to sort of put a brick on a balloon. So I made up that arbitrary Pismo Beach disaster. We don't imply that anybody died. But they need things. So the feeling is there without the heaviness.
Q: Did the actors and actresses really get into their roles and improvise much or was it fully scripted?
AMY HECKERLING: The character that played Josh, Paul Rudd, he had the kind of mind that could come up with funny lines that worked for his character. The other kids were pretty much following the script all the time. Although I do enjoy that, with people bringing funny lines that work for the movie. In this case they're very young actors.
Q: Do you think the time you spent in the editing room was crucial for your directing? Do you think it got you ahead?
AMY HECKERLING: It's always been an important part to me. But possibly I would have felt more comfortable on a set had I been working more on jobs where I was on a set all the time. I'm very comfortable writing and being in the editing room. I'm very nervous when I'm shooting. There's a lot of people and I have to talk to them. [Laughter] But possibly if I had been more of a PA and then worked my way up through directing programs or whatever I might have felt differently in that situation. I don't know.
Q: I wonder what you think ... what is directing about?
AMY HECKERLING: What is directing about? God!
MODERATOR: That's a really heavy question
AMY HECKERLING: Directing what, though. Well, you know, in this film the problems, the decisions that I made are very different than what comes up in other films. I mean, to me it was like keeping the kids focused and having color schemes for the scenes and making sure that there was the proper coverage to get across whatever jokes or scenes or material we were dealing with that day, making sure we had everything before the sun went down. I guess you're looking for some sort of statement of what kind of interpretive art it is but since I wrote it, I wasn't thinking what does the writer mean? It was like, how much pink can I put in this scene? [Laughter]
Q: You kind of said how you did your first film but I'm curious as a woman - like you're doing what I would like to be doing so tell me how to do that. [Laughter]
AMY HECKERLING: ...I was coming out of NYU, where they taught us a great deal but we had these dicky little black-and-white eight-minute movies of people doing silly physical comedy in Washington Square Park and I said, I'm not going to get a job based on this. And so I knew I needed a better calling card. The movie that I got to make at AFI was a lot more professional. People were at a higher level. The materials and the equipment and the actors that you had access to, were all many steps up. And so it was a matter of really polishing that small, little film that I was going to do to the most glossy thing to show people. For me that was very important. Other people were very intent on, like, having a film and a script as a thing they would show. I was more thinking I really wanted this one movie to be perfection and then have some ideas to follow it up with so if they said, 'Okay, what do you want to do next?' I'd say, 'Well I have an idea for a comedy with two women .' and be able to have a pitch that I could work out. So that was what I did. And then when I had my AFI screening and various people that worked in different agencies or people who knew people who did would say, Yes, I'll show it to so and so where I work. So then it was a matter of getting the film to these various people and then sitting down and having meetings and not looking like a total schlemiel. And then they get you into the studio. So that was it. It really was based on this little twenty-minute movie and an idea that I got out and did anything.
I think there was just a lot of money paid to a high school student that wrote a script.
AMY HECKERLING: No, not KIDS. That was 20 years ago. Something else. And so nobody's saying, Oh, you're just students, get the hell out of here. In fact, you know, it's possible that movies like CLUELESS and KIDS and all of that, if they make money, then people are going, Oh, we want to appeal to that young audience so we need the young writers and come on in. I don't think that what you have to do is all that different from what it was.
MODERATOR: Can we stay with the casting issue, because obviously that was a very important part of this movie. Can you describe how you do this very important aspect?
AMY HECKERLING: That is like the fun part. It's, like, you know you're going to have a party and you're figuring out who to invite. I was writing the script and I knew I wanted somebody new and wonderful who'd be beautiful and funny and be able to pull off this sort of oblivious quality and yet still be somebody you'd care about. And I saw the Arrowsmith video where Alicia was bungee-cord jumping and she was just so engaging. She's so beautiful and you just watch it and you go, what's this little girl going to do next? I just loved her. So once the movie was a go we went through the process of seeing a lot of girls but I knew I wanted her and then I met with her and her manager and she had read the script and really liked it and in person I really loved her.
MODERATOR: How old was she?
AMY HECKERLING: She was seventeen then. Now she's eighteen. So then it was dropped, then she had other jobs but we always knew we were going to catch up to each other. Then it was picked up at Paramount when the dates worked out. From the time I saw her onscreen, that was who I wanted. And then for the other people it was the usual process. ...We had casting directors in Los Angeles. We also made trips to New York. We had everybody of that age group coming in. If anybody is in a play within that age group you rush out and see it. You're seeing all the movies where anybody is in that range and then even some calls are out to the casting directors in other cities. You're getting tapes from Chicago or wherever. You start to shake loose all the people that don't seem to work and the few people that seem right, that seem talented and look right and get it and seem to form a nice connection with the others start to emerge. And then you start mixing and matching, having them read with each other. I like to call people back a lot because sometimes somebody that you discount the first time starts to grow on you and other times people that you think just blow you away when you first see them, they seem to be repetitive, they don't bring anything new each time. Other people, as you start to talk to them or they do other scenes or whatever, you just realize there are a lot more colors. So it changes and you do have to see them a lot, I think. Especially with young people.
MODERATOR: How difficult was it to direct young people ... you've done it often, but...
AMY HECKERLING: I love it. I mean, they're so gung-ho. They're so willing to try anything. There's something wonderful about people that are happy to be in a movie. That sounds stupid, but you know, when you say 'We're doing a scene in the classroom and, if you like, you could also be in that class, you won't have lines .' 'Yeah, yeah, I'll be there!' I mean it's just so energizing when people around want to be doing what they're doing.
MODERATOR: Outside of the credits that you couldn't get, are there other things that you wanted to do on the movie that you couldn't do because of time or money or...?
AMY HECKERLING: I kind of knew what kind of budget I was dealing with coming in.
MODERATOR: What was the budget?
AMY HECKERLING: It was fifteen. So I wasn't thinking extravagantly. There was one situation-and I don't know if people even pick up on this-where, once we found the house that Cher lived in we still had to find a place for Miss Giest to get married. And they said, Well what if Cher threw the wedding and it's in her backyard? And I thought, well, that doesn't make any sense. Why would a student throw the wedding for a teacher? But ultimately it's like the backyard was beautiful for a wedding; the house was perfect for what I wanted. The other places we saw for weddings were just really going to make it small and ugly and not pretty enough for the end of the movie; and having a house for her wedding was more important. So ultimately I said, Alright, we'll have the wedding in the backyard. If I had the money to find a different-looking place that would have been as joyous and beautiful for the ending I would have done that.
Q: I'm curious about the casting of some of the supporting characters, particularly the father. Did you basically apply the same kind of casting approach to that?
AMY HECKERLING: Well, you know what? I wanted Harvey Keitel. I wanted her to have a father that was really scary but she wouldn't be scared of so that even if he yelled and screamed at other people, a normal kid would be scared but she was just like, That's Daddy. I met with Dan Hedaya and I said okay and then I thought, you know, that'll be great.
Q: He has the best line in the film, 'Get out of my chair.'
AMY HECKERLING: I can't take credit for that either. When I introduced my father to my first boyfriend, that's what he said.
MODERATOR: Isn't there talk about a TV series around CLUELESS?
AMY HECKERLING: There is a vague ... I think it would make a really good TV series. But the studio are talking about a sequel, but I don't think there should be a sequel. I don't think Alicia should be in a sequel, I don't think she would want to be and I think it's best left alone. But I think it's the kind of thing where those characters on a TV series, I think, would work fine.
MODERATOR: Well, Amy, I think that it is very clear that your work has really found an audience here. And I think it's also very clear that you're a very self-effacing filmmaker but we're very proud that you went to AFI and I hope you'll bring your next film here 'cause we can't wait.
AMY HECKERLING: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much.
Used with the permission of American Film Institute. No longer available to open access on their web site. They can be reached by interested parties at http://www.afi.com.
Supplied by Professor William Phillips.