Fresh out of film school, director Amy Heckerling hit the ground running in the early ’80s. Her first feature, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, remains a classic for its delicate balance of absurdity and pathos and the way it treats its characters with bemused-older-sibling affection laced with comic incredulity. Her next few features were more uneven, the humor generally broader and the emotional stakes often less engaging, but they still had flashes of the director’s quick wit, and they never sold their female characters short. In 1996, Heckerling returned to form with Clueless, another brilliant high school comedy—this one written as well as directed by her—that deeply respects and understands its female characters at the same time that it laughs at their, well, cluelessness.
This week, I had the chance to speak with Heckerling, who was promoting a retrospective of four of her films by the Metrograph theater in the Lower East Side. Quick to laugh, with a sense of mischief and a lack of interest in mincing words that may explain why she’s so drawn to young characters, the filmmaker discussed gender inequality in Hollywood and what movies have in common with the economy.
What I love best about Fast Times and Clueless is how well they get American teenage girls, in a fun way. That doesn’t happen too often in movies.
In a fun way is the different thing. There were so many movies about teenage girls. It’s a scary, depressing time for a lot of people, and a lot of movies capture that brilliantly. But they may not be as happy. When we came out [with Clueless], there was this movie Kids...
The Larry Clark one?
Yeah. And people were saying, “Oh, you’ve captured American kids,” and I’m going, “Well, that one did too. It’s just, I chose those kids.” [Laughs] There are a million stories in the naked city, and I gravitated to the happiest one.
Actually, some pretty tough stuff happens in Fast Times. But the overall tone of it is always comic.
If you’re doing something very real, you’ve got to be wary, like [Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy] getting pregnant. There’s just so far you can take something like that, in terms of what you’ll show and say and how you photograph it, because the rest of the film has these other elements, and it has to be kept up in the air. So, you know, the tone can’t go too far.
You weren’t the only woman making movies with fully realized female characters in the early ’80s, but you may have been the best. And you were coming after such a drought for women, both behind and in front of the camera, after World War II.
There was Ida Lupino. But then there was a long [dry spell]. But then when the baby boomer executives got in there, they were very liberal and political and feminist, there was kind of a switch, allowing women in more. And there was Joan Micklin Silver and Claudia Weill and, I think, Joan Rivers did a movie, and a writer woman did a movie with Talia Shire, and Jane Wagner did a movie with Lily Tomlin. So you’d go around and see posters: “That’s by a woman; that’s by a woman.” It wasn’t so unusual. But I think once they did that, if they didn’t have the results that they wanted, that wasn’t like, “We didn’t develop that movie right,” or “That wasn’t the right person to be in it,” or any of that. It was always, “Well, it was women.” That was the answer. So that shut down.
Lately, there’s been a push for more jobs and more roles for women. The ACLU is investigating gender discrimination in Hollywood, and there’s the Shit People Say to Women Directors Tumblr, and Geena Davis keeps track every year of how many speaking parts women get compared to men. So I’m wondering: Do you feel like it’s coming back to where it’s a little easier for women to make movies about women, or is it still harder now than it was back in the early ’80s?
Well, another thing that’s happened is that there was a recession, so there’s less money and you can take less risks. There used to be a healthy middle class of movies, medium-sized movies that told human stories, and then there were the big tent-pole movies, and then there were the indies, which you may or may not get to see. But the middle class of movies is gone. Maybe it’s coming back a little. But that was the area in which women told human stories that had a better chance of having strong female characters.
And they didn’t require a huge amount of funding, so it was easier to make them.
Yeah. And when that went away, the women had to go to the indie ghetto. And when you look at the tent poles, there’s like a female at the end of Batman v Superman, but she doesn’t say very much. There are some more females getting into the leotard movies, but it’s still geared toward a young [male] audience. You know, every economy needs a strong middle class.
Strong female characters and female friendships and a female point of view are kind of baked into pretty much all your work. Is that just what you were interested in so that’s what you wrote or said yes to, or is that something you were consciously doing to some degree, because you saw there wasn’t enough of that out there? And did you have to fight to do that?
Well, for Fast Times I have to give a lot of props to Cameron Crowe, because he wrote a screenplay that had six major characters, two of them are women, and he knew them and he talked to them and they were real. When I came on, we talked a lot more about that and added things, so that I felt very good about that. The film was produced by a man, and the studio was Thom Mount, and Art Linson was the producer. Those were men who were very open to a woman’s input. They were all very cool. And there were big male stories [in the film], about the loss of prestige at work, going from the best to the worst burger joint [Laughs], and the slacker and his bouts with authority. Those were strong stories for the guys, and I was very much into them, so they didn’t feel like all I cared about was the girl stuff. Of course, after that people came to me saying, “Oh, you’re a woman?” And so I got offered a lot of girls-losing-their-virginity movies. But I didn’t want to do that.
You don’t want to be ghettoized as a woman director doing women’s stories.
Yeah. I really, really wanted to do something not female, and one of the genres I’ve always loved was gangster movies, because I’m madly in love with James Cagney. And there was this script that Mel Brooks had developed—actually, I don’t know if Mel was involved with it, but his people. But after Blazing Saddles, it was like: “Let’s do this to gangsters.” I loved the script, and I wasn’t the person that you would normally think of for it, but I knew all the references, and I could go on about the genre. So they let me do it. And that was Johnny Dangerously, and there were no girls losing their virginity. I had made a real effort to step away from what they wanted to put me into. As it turned out, it didn’t work. A billion years later some people tell me they like it, but I couldn’t even watch it for decades because, to me, it represented something that I loved a lot that got changed a lot that didn’t help me. But I’m not sorry I didn’t take one of the girls-losing-their-virginity movies.