Interview: Writer/director Daniel Waters

We chat with hilarious and super-smart scribe Daniel Waters, creator of cult classic ‘Heathers’.

“Harvey Weinstein is a disgusting, villainous pig. I’m not going to shed many tears at his imminent suicide, but Harvey can be a brilliant, charming raconteur/scholar of film…though seriously, fuck him.”

Daniel Waters made a name for himself as the screenwriter of the instant cult classic Heathers, before becoming one of mega-producer Joel Silver’s go-to-guys on a string of big-budget studio actioners in the 90’s, including Hudson Hawk, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and Demolition Man. Waters was also the writer behind Tim Burton’s out-of-control-amazing Batman Returns, and has written and directed the indies Sex & Death 101 and Happy Campers. In this interview with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement, the hilarious and super-smart scribe details his frustrations with now-fallen producer Harvey Weinstein (they clashed during production Vampire Academy, which Daniel wrote for his brother, Mark, to direct), what some of his favorite movies are, working with Brad Renfro, and much more. *NOTE* (This interview was conducted via email, and was edited by Nick Clement. One month elapsed between the questions being sent, which makes the final question all the more prescient to consider).

 

What would happen if you went and pitched Heathers, and I’m talking the same script that was produced back in 1988, to the studios right now? What would be the legit response?

Daniel: There’s an attitude behind your question that tees me up for a “Boy, that Columbine sure ruined the fun concept of high school mayhem!” answer of the “Heathers could not be made today” variety. The truth is Heathers could not be made THEN either! Studio executives could not have been more giddy and praiseworthy to me, a lowly video clerk, when the Heathers script, my first, went out into the world. But when I slapped my hands together and asked “When do we start shooting?” they’d just laugh. It is NEVER the right time to create a boundary pushing black comedy. Such films always must be made on the sly and on the cheap and with plenty of one of the most important ingredients to movie-making that no one ever talks about…Naiveté! The most original, transgressive, and game changing films get made when a writer doesn’t think for a second about whether it is the right “cultural moment” or “political climate” for their ideas. Stop reading about “what the studios are buying now” and just write! I was once asked that if I got to go back in time to my younger self before I wrote Heathers and tell him one thing about the film industry, what would I say? My answer: NOTHING.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen so far in 2017, and why?

Daniel: I got a bunch of films swirling at the top…a French cannibal movie [Raw], a Russian ballerina picture [Polina]…and put me down as a mother!-lover. But I keep coming back to the bracing Good Time as my favorite. I mean, come on, it’s as if John Carpenter directed of Of Mice and Men!

What’s the worst movie you’ve seen so far in 2017, and why?

Daniel: There’s a certain kind of action comedy that I had a sweet tooth for in the ’80s—let’s call it “Harold Faltermeyer Cinema.” Even now, listening to the soundtracks of Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch turns my frown upside down. When the alchemy is off on this kind of movie, it can be deadly, which brings me to Baywatch, which, like a past worst movie of the year, Get Hard, gets so depressingly bogged down in their cheesy criminal plots that they forget to be remotely amusing. If I want straight action, I’ll go elsewhere. Where’s the laughter? Maybe Faltermeyer is the missing ingredient. It says a lot about me that I went into Baywatch thinking it might be good.

I’m in love with the visual sheen that director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight) helped to perfect during the 80’s and 90’s, and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is so sexy and stylish looking, not to mention hilarious. Give me your best Renny anecdote, and keep in mind, he’s a Facebook friend!

Daniel: Ford Fairlane was perhaps not the wisest career move after Heathers but I saw the film at a packed repertory screening recently and I was shocked just what a bizarre, unique film it is and a lot of that has to do with Renny’s insane, bombastic direction. It feels like Beverly Hills Cop directed by Genghis Khan. If only the movie had come out when it was supposed to…against Bird on a Wire and Cadillac Man, before the world turned on Dice. It was pushed back to build Dice awareness…big mistake! Though it must be said Dice is fantastic in the film. My favorite Ford Fairlane memory—though perhaps not the best climate to bring it up—was going to the filming of a scene in a sorority house, involving girls in lingerie and clumsy plot points. I was crammed in a kitchen with all sorts of different sweaty famous men who mysteriously picked this night of shooting as the one to visit—I met John Hughes for the first time! My favorite Renny memory loses something in print when I can’t do my feeble attempt to imitate his Finnish accent, but imagine a towering Viking with long blonde hair approaching you very seriously and intoning “We need a car chase where we cut to a man taking a shit reading a newspaper, and then the car goes through his house right in front of him, and he looks up from his newspaper. BUT THEN HE GOES BACK TO TAKING A SHIT! We need it.” Who says something like that without smiling?!?!

Hudson Hawk. The film is awesome. It always was awesome. I don’t care what people say. I think it’s amazing and very witty and it’s not surprising that people are now finally coming around and giving the film its due. But I must know, what was it like when you were writing that film? Describe for me the actual process of how that script was “constructed.” How did it make you feel creatively? It’s so much fun, and it was made with such creative zeal and imagination, with a true sense of cinema.

Daniel: If you say so, Nick! It will always be hard for me to separate any genuine worth the film may have with its initial chilly reception. The dead silence at the premiere still haunts me (“Is this an audience or a Da Vinci oil painting?”) I love your use of the words “process” and “construction” when the making of the movie was madness. I don’t think anyone, fan or non-fan, watches this movie and thinks this was faithfully shot from an unblemished, deftly composed script! The script was transforming every day because no one knew what movie they wanted it to be. Joel Silver would shout out something new at dailies everyday: “This is a Pink Panther movie!” “This is a James Bond movie with Moonlighting’s David Addison instead!” “This is North by Northwest for a whole new generation!” Let’s face it – it’s the crazy tone-shifting, genre-busting nature of the movie that brings joy to the loony and lonely fans that “get it.” An example of my exasperation: My favorite scene of the script was a set piece involving a spinning safe that keeps switching angles. On one side you have the CIA trying to open it with state of the art high-tech gear, and on the other side, Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello try to crack it with more spit and bubblegum tactics. Exciting stuff! So Joel calls me into his trailer to say “Waters, the spinning safe sequence is too expensive. We’re going to need you to rewrite it so we can shoot it all in one day on the set of Andie’s MacDowell’s apartment.” The resulting scene with James Coburn coming in to brag and threaten, POST-theft, is not unamusing…but there was little “process” to it and even less “construction.”

If you were forced to choose between watching The Formula or The Day of the Dolphin, twice in a row with no break in between, which would you pick, and why?

Daniel: If we’re talking George C. Scott, can’t I watch The Hospital for a week instead? Okay, okay, Clement…well, certainly not The Formula. I feel that is a boring course that I already got a diploma for and need not revisit. The Day of the Dolphin has all sorts of silly pleasures, many of them nostalgic—I saw it on one of my first Visiting Post-Divorce Dad weekends, when I got to choose the movie (I mistakenly picked it over Woody Allen’s Sleeper.) I’ll always be a Dolphin fan because it has one of the best utterances of the word “shit” in the history of film when a villain notices the dolphins have planted a bomb under their boat. “Shit” + instant explosive death = bliss.

In Batman Returns, you all decided to have Batman act like a total lunatic bad-ass, even having him “kill” a few of the Penguin’s goons during that berserk fight in Gotham square. Did the studio balk at all in terms of how hardcore you wanted to make Batman as a character?

Daniel: My good buddy and fellow screenwriter Josh “A History of Violence” Olson calls Batman Returns “a great movie for people who hate Batman.” A little harsh, but I was definitely serving at the pleasure of Tim Burton, not Batman. It’s insane to think how much freedom we had to play with the Batman mythos in the tender days before Fan Fascism and Four Quadrant marketing took over. Burton and I naively thought Batman was an entity that could be remolded and reinvented by different voices. Doesn’t that sound more interesting? Ooh boy, I watched live, frothing at the mouth Q&As with Christopher Nolan and David Goyer where I thought a spotlight was going to hit me and I would be burned at the stake on stage. I DID know that Batman does not kill though. The rather cavalier blowing up of a stray clown was something that happened in a production draft beyond my control. That said, the days of Batman wrapping criminals in a net and dumping them in front of a police station seemed quaint…there was no guilt in going dark. And “Going Dark”—it’s hilarious to think what a beating we took for making Batman Returns too dark, tainting all those Burger King tie-ins. It’s Danny De Vito eating a fish, folks—stop whining! The Saturday Morning Cartoons nowadays are more bitter and anarchic. What I like most about Batman Returns is what probably REALLY rubs people the wrong way…it’s a movie about messy, sexually warped adults who like to dress up not as immaculate icons.  It’s not the “Dark,” it’s the “pervy” that bothers the Muggles. But hey these things go in cycles…I hope the President after Trump has the same freedom that Nolan did after Schumacher!

Demolition Man. Tell us about those sea shells. And I don’t want to some bullshit answer, I’m talking I want a mini-essay. I want to know everything about them, and what they might spell for the future of mankind.

Daniel: Take a deep breath and prepare to be disappointed. I love how the seashell thing has tickled the brains of people all over the country…cops, bailiffs, and politicians have all directly confronted me over this matter of grave international importance. The sad reality is I called fellow screenwriter buddy, biopic maestro Larry Karaszewski, pumping him for “future stuff”—My draft for Demolition Man had to be done in two weeks; I was pumping everybody! Larry asked if I could call back because he was in the middle of going to the bathroom. I demanded he not hang up and instead give me something future-y and bathroom-y. He mentioned he had a bag of seashells next to his toilet. I hung up and went from there, never thinking I would be forced to ever explain any of this to anyone.

What’s your favorite movie? Or better yet. You’ve just crashed landed on a deserted island. You’re alone. You just so happen to have a 100″ Plasma screen and a region free Blu-ray player. Those two things are what survived the crash. Which one film would you want to watch for the rest of your life?

Daniel: When people try to tell me there is a better film than The Godfather I look at them like a dog being told the joys of being a vegan. Yeah, yeah, The Godfather II is amazing, but it’s nothing without The Godfather. I’m not a watch one film over and over kind of guy (I’m from the generation where if you went to the bathroom during the flying monkey sequence from The Wizard of Oz, you’d have to wait a whole year until CBS showed it again) but The Godfather is The Godfather. Many of my favorite scenes in all of film history happen to occur in this one film. Oh my, just thinking of Pacino convincing the family he is the right one to do the assassination…goose-bumps. But that being said, when you bring in a desert island element, I’d probably go with a happy Ukrainian nudist film—oh my God, what am I saying? FINAL CUT LADIES AND GENTLEMAN is the winner! It’s a Hungarian film where Gyorgy Palfi edits 450 of your favorite movies (including Ford Fairlane) in order to create a whole movie about “Everything.” It’s the greatest work of God or Man in 2 billion years. Hurry, it’s on YouTube for the next 15 minutes before copyright lawyers take it down!

You worked with Brad Renfro on the cult-item Happy Campers. He was a tremendously talented actor who left the Earth too soon. What was it like working with him? I was always drawn-in by all of his performances.

Daniel: Brad Renfro was real and raw, a true original and when weaponized correctly on film, like in Bully, a compelling presence. Renfro questions are awkward for me because, while we got along personally, he shouldn’t have been in Happy Campers. New Line and his agents disagreed and his casting is what got me a green light. Raw and real Brad was never a great fit with my overwritten, would-be TCM dialogue. Robert Altman was mixing Dr. T and The Woman next to where I was mixing Campers. I got to meet him and say “I was going for M*A*S*H* at a summer camp and missed!”

What’s a film that you know that I love and that you can’t stand, and please tell me why I’m wrong and why you’re correct.

Daniel: I call it The Goonies/Spaceballs Demarcation line. Men of a certain age like me (the first number is a 5) can’t believe people younger than them worship Goonies (to quote Martha Plimpton in the film, “I feel like I’m babysitting and not getting paid for it”) and I’ve had to be pulled off of someone for uttering the words “Blazing Saddles is no Spaceballs!” I’ve since managed to lighten up…who am I to rob the joy of someone engaging with a movie, any movie? Both of us, Nick, are vigilant in our use of the word “favorite” as opposed to “best” when making a list. I have a line — “the person who likes it always wins” — we’ve all had that experience where we come out of a comedy laughing our ass off and there is someone in the lobby with charts, pulleys, and beakers, scientifically explaining why the movie wasn’t funny.

Now, that said…my new found hippie love was decimated when I saw the list of your Favorite Movies of 1986…. A monstrosity where SpaceCamp and Flight of the Navigator sat at the head table while Blue Velvet and Manhunter were crammed back by the swinging door next to the kitchen.  After my bout of incoherent moaning, I thought we had a great interchange where I sneered that our finest American actor, Joaquin Phoenix, gives one of my least favorite child performances in Spacecamp under the name Leaf Phoenix. Your one line protest: “That was me.” Even I can’t Scrooge such a simple and pure response. SpaceCamp was your childhood friend, your security blanket—you saw it 46 times and I saw it only once. Who’s to say which one of us is—I’m only kidding! BLUE VELVET IS A SUPERIOR PIECE OF CINEMA TO SPACECAMP. And furthermore, no one needs to see Francis Ford Coppola’s sad turd The Rainmaker ONCE, let alone twice. Come on, Clement, you’re a father now!

You worked with a helluva cast on Sex and Death 101, and Simon Baker couldn’t be a cooler cat. How do you compare simply writing for others, and then directing your own screenplays?

Daniel: I love writing…scribbling on the bus, typing in my underwear. I love pre-production—kibitzing with the actors, cajoling my keys, endearing myself to the crew—and I love the warmth of the editing room cave—I am a master of cinematic Tetris, the first person you want to bring to your rough cut screening. But goddamn, the actual shooting of the movie! Hunting for the meat and pelts I will need for the editing room cave! “Making your day” are not words conducive to creativity! I never met a Lunch Penalty I didn’t like. Don’t the Movie Gods know how important naps are to my process? I know every trick in the book when it comes to getting your page count down, but when you’re the director, you’re just screwing yourself. “Our heroes blow up the hideout”—what kind of description is that? Kubrick says directing is like trying to write War and Peace while riding the bumper cars at a carnival. I have a hard time microwaving pizza while playing Scrabble! WATERS ON DIRECTING—not coming to a book store near you.

Do you believe in the idea of the auteur theory?

Daniel: Absolutely…but only as a quirky and fun parlor game…and if it applies not just to directors. Writers, Actors, Composers can all be “auteurs.” I mean, earlier I dropped a Harold Faltermeyer Cinema reference. Give me the credits of the craft services guy and I can piece together a thru-line!

What’s Kiss Kiss Fingerbang?

Daniel: If you can believe it, there exists a woman in L.A., barely 30 years old, who is an expert in dopey 80’s Cinema in the same way Scorsese is a scholar of Silent Film. Her name is Gillian Horvat and besides being a gourmet of the Cannon canon who can pull out an ode to Michael Dudikoff at the drop of a hat, she is a talented writer/director. How can I not become her mentor and producer of her short film? Gillian’s Kiss Kiss Finger Bang is not remotely influenced by the stylings of Albert Pyun, but a comedy done in own unique voice. It’s about a woman who can be convinced to do anything, even a crime spree, at the mercy of a certain sexual act. The film, and her similarly digit obsessed second one, Whiskey Fist, are both on the World Wide Web. Check out Kiss Kiss and you can see my downtown loft be turned into three separate sets. On a poignant note, it’s one of the last films of Anton Yelchin.

If you could make any movie tomorrow, like I’m talking just walk into a room, sell the studio on something – ANYTHING – what would your dream project be?

Daniel: Has this whole interview been a trap to cough up my dream idea? I kid. I could have someone hack a file of my ideas and create a finished script that would not remotely resemble mine. In the good sense and the bad sense! But I do have a mystical belief the something dies when you put a raw idea into the ether too soon. I’m a big believer in private incubation. Only you know how your idea is going to evolve and the wrong gulp or cringe from your lover or roommate could topple the house of cards. Shut up and write!

How miserable is Harvey Weinstein as a person?

Daniel: Poor Nick! You sent this questionnaire to me long before every man, woman, and child found out what many of us already knew—Harvey Weinstein is a disgusting, villainous pig. I’m not going to shed many tears at his imminent suicide, but Harvey can be a brilliant, charming raconteur/scholar of film…though seriously, fuck him. I’m not going to moon too loudly about how my “collaboration” with him, Vampire Academy, is a maligned masterpiece along the lines of The Magnificent Ambersons, but let’s just say the Waters Brothers’ cut scored a test screening of 84 and Harvey’s scored a 54. Guess which one was released? It’s “funny” to look back at the crude-sexual-metaphor emails I sent to TWC during the making of the film (to befriended executives, not Harvey himself.) Some examples, with apologies to their poor taste: “It’s one thing to be raped, but Harvey wants you to tell him how good he is in bed right after!” After he decided not to show the film to critics, I sent “So let me get this straight, Harvey fucked us in the ass then put a cigarette out in our ear and now he’s throwing us out in the street, telling the world ’She’s nothing but a stupid ugly whore – what did you expect?’”


Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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