Dan Waters reflects on his irreverent cult classic

August 16, 2019 Jeff Goldsmith

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our interview with Heathers screenwriter Dan Waters from the latest issue of Backstory.

Subscribers and paid readers also have access to Dan’s 196-page first draft screenplay – so if you like what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us for the rest of the article!


As the 1980s drew to a close, it appeared that two of the most durable movie genres of that decade—teen comedies and slasher flicks—were nearing their eclipse as well. Box-office returns had drastically diminished on the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, while high school films were in desperate need of a third evolution after seguing from the sex-crazed likes of Porky’s to the bittersweet introspection of John Hughes, who as a writer-director had himself moved on to movies about actual adults. Fortunately for Hollywood, a rookie screenwriter named Daniel Waters knocked out a darkly hilarious script called Heathers that was equal parts raunchy, profound and macabre. It was a knowing satire that hopped all over the third-rail topic of teen suicide without sneering at or pandering to its audience. It was sexy. It had a body count. It would go on to be one of the most beloved and influential teen movies of all time—just not in 1989.

Directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers was a classic ahead-of-its-time flop, a pop-culture Molotov cocktail that its distributor, New World Pictures, was afraid to throw. Despite its primed-to-explode duo of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater and enthusiastic notices from several prominent critics, the film never played on more than 100 screens in its initial release. It wasn’t until home video that Heathers found the cult following that would preach its strychnine gospel to viewers who might’ve otherwise been appalled by its premise. Within years, lines like “I love my dead gay son” and “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” were every bit as quotable as any utterance in The Breakfast Club. And the likes of notable writers Kevin Williamson and Tina Fey would go on to emulate Waters’ deliciously bitchy dialogue. It is not an overstatement to suggest that, in terms of high school movies, there is a pre- and post-Heathers world. So, how did Waters manage to shape the zeitgeist with his very first feature-length screenplay? The 56-year-old points all the way back to the summer of 1975, when, like tens of millions of moviegoers, he was knocked sideways by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. “I already knew I was going to be a writer,” says Waters, “but seeing how that movie affected me and watching it affect an audience—I still vividly remember seeing it at the mall and going to the ice-cream parlor across from the theater, and saying, ‘That’s it. I am writing movies. I will go to Los Angeles even if I have to be homeless.’ I was only 12 years old, but I knew then that this was what I had to do.”

Waters’ path to Hollywood included a detour to McGill University in Montreal, which, while it lacked a functioning film school, did offer, he notes, “one great screenwriting class.” After graduation, he flew out to L.A. with no real connections outside of high school friend Larry Karaszewski, who fortuitously had access to all manner of new screenplays while he and writing partner Scott Alexander were in USC’s film school. Waters began tearing through those scripts, most of which were terrible, but one that stood out for him was John Hughes’ original script for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “[It] really went to some dark and psychologically contemplative areas,” Waters says. But one classic Hollywood lesson made its mark when he saw the finished film and was shocked that most of those elements had been abandoned. “That was an education. He really went for it in the screenplay. The movie’s quite good, but…it had much more complexities and layers to it.”

With no finished feature screenplay to his credit, Waters took a job at a local video store—before Tarantino, he says of the lore surrounding the mega-writer-director, and, “I want that on the public record.” However, he’s quick to point out that his place of employment was not Video Archives, the South Bay mecca of film nerd-dom in which Tarantino famously toiled. “I worked in a normal video store where you watch Real Genius 10 times a day. I didn’t have the esoteric experiences he did.” What he did have was a non-labor-intensive gig that allowed him to generate ideas while being literally surrounded by movies, where “you’re working on your script without working on it.” This is where Waters happened into his writing process. “I never believed in the writer cliché you see in movies, where you see somebody staring at a computer screen or a typewriter, and there’s a blank page, and they’re like, ‘What should I write?’ All they have is ‘FADE IN.’ I don’t believe in that. I believe in sneaking up on it. I just kept coming up with lines and ideas and different bits for Heathers, and then at night I would collect all the acorns together. It was actually not being able to write right away [because I was at work] that allowed me to write something that was so packed with stuff.”

Like what you’ve read? Join us for the rest of the article in Backstory Magazine Issue 38 which includes plenty more with Dan Waters plus exclusive access to his 196-page 1st draft of Heathers!

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