Amy Heckerling is not interested in bullshit. A conversation with her is full of acerbic asides, fascinating tangents, and refreshingly honest anecdotes, the sort of deadpan candor that stands out in sharp relief against today's proliferation of bubble-wrapped celebrity conversations. That's likely because — though Heckerling is responsible for some of the most beloved comedies of the 20th century, including Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Look Who's Talking — the writer-director still thinks of herself as the consummate outsider. "I don't fit in in so many places," she laughs. "You know the [Beatles] lyric, ‘And it really doesn't matter / if I'm wrong I'm right / where I belong I'm right / where I belong'? I just go, ‘Where the hell is that?'"
This weekend, New York's Metrograph theater is honoring Heckerling's "boisterous, massively successful, and inspirational" films with a two-day career retrospective, the very nature of which contrasts with Heckerling's perceived estrangement from the mainstream. Saturday's screenings include 35mm prints of Heckerling's 1984 parody Johnny Dangerously — starring Michael Keaton as an up-and-coming mobster — and two separate showings of Fast Times, while Sunday sees a Clueless doubleheader and a single screening of Look Who's Talking, starring John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and a preternaturally chatty baby. MTV News hung out with Heckerling at the Metrograph a few days before the retrospective to talk about Travolta and Alley's on-set chemistry, what the hell is going on with Stacey Dash, convincing Phoebe Cates to go topless, and why Heckerling's made movies, as Cher would put it, "sporadically."
Why a retrospective now?
Amy Heckerling: Actually, they just asked me. It's not like, "Oh, now I shall look back …" It had nothing to do with anything that I thought of.
Did you choose these four films?
Heckerling: There was one I did that was never released, I Could Never Be Your Woman. I don't know what the hell ever happened to it. The producer, nobody could find. It's unfortunate. Whatever happened with it had nothing to do with the people in it and how wonderful they were — Paul Rudd, Michelle Pfeiffer. Some weird things happened, and they had a screening with numbers and the numbers were great, and there were fights, and deals, and crap. I don't even want to think about it.
Is there any chance it'll ever be released?
Heckerling: I don't see how. I have a DVD of it somewhere. But it's too depressing for me.
Isn't it online anywhere?
Heckerling: I don't know. Somebody called me and said, "Oh, I saw it on Starz." But I have no knowledge of where it is or will be. [Ed. note: A few DVDs are available for purchase on Amazon.]
So are you saying you'd have chosen that film to be in this retrospective?
Heckerling: I would've. I felt bad that nobody got to see it. Saoirse Ronan, who's now on Broadway and nominated for Oscars, she's just amazing. She was so adorable in it, and I wish people could see that.
Why choose these four movies, then?
Heckerling: They told me, "[What about] European Vacation?" And I said, "I never want to see that again."
Heckerling: I just hate it. You know what, I'm sorry. People rent it, and there's a studio, and I shouldn't say that. I just suggested these.
Are they your favorites?
Heckerling: I guess, in the real world, Clueless and Fast Times are my favorite. Clueless is my favorite. Look Who's Talking was a very happy experience for me. I think anyone working with John Travolta would say the same. And it was all babies. And it was the first thing I wrote, and it did really well. So it's got a special spot for me.
Do you keep in touch with John?
Heckerling: Now and then, everybody is thrown together for something. He's such a sweet doll. Every now and then I get Christmas notes from him. And I love him.
Kirstie Alley's famously talked about how John was the "great love of her life," and she's never gotten over him. Could you tell, watching them together?
Heckerling: They certainly had chemistry. She was married to Parker [Stevenson], and that seemed to be solid. I think it was a talent love. You know? A working-together crush. As far as "let's run away from the rest of the world because this love is bigger than anything," I don't think that's what was happening. They really got along and had fun.
Do you ever watch these — or any — of your movies on your own time?
Heckerling: No [laughs]. Clueless, though, I've been working on the Broadway show, so you kind of go, "All right, what is there that I'm missing?" But to sit down and go, "Oh, Clueless is on, I'll watch it." No. When you're making a movie, all day long, for months, you're watching it. So afterward, it's like, it's done. I'm very close to my friend Debbie [Chiate], the editor, and sometimes I forget what actually wound up in it because things were changed at the last moment or something we watched for months isn't in it. So I'll go, "Debbie, what happened to the music in that scene, did we lose the rights for it?" And she'll go [adopts extremely low voice], "Yeah." Debbie has a low voice [laughs].
What's the latest on the Clueless musical?
Heckerling: It's a jukebox musical. It's as if the ‘90s was one year, and we're taking songs from the ‘90s and playing with the lyrics to make them tell the story. We just had a sing-through/read-through the other day, and it went really well. They're just wonderful young actors. A lot of them are coming [to the retrospective].
When will it be up?
Heckerling: It's Broadway [laughs]. The studios have been completely 100 percent dotting i's and [crossing] t's — that's an expression nobody uses anymore, because nobody writes — but nobody wants to start renting stages yet, because nobody likes to spend money until there's no way anything could go wrong. But the producers did Jersey Boys and Urinetown — they're very big, mega-successful musicals.
Who's in the cast?
Heckerling: Well, they're all young people. At this [recent] reading, we had the boy from Heathers [Dave Thomas Brown] and the girl from Bring It On [Taylor Louderman], and they were wonderful. At the last reading, we had Wally [Wallace] Shawn playing himself, the teacher [from the film version]. [Ed. note: The cast isn't finalized yet.]
Will he end up in the final musical?
Heckerling: God willing!
Why do you think Clueless has held up so well?
Heckerling: I have no clue. You know, the main character's good-hearted. There's not a lot of people that are making stories about somebody that's really nice [laughs]. I mean, of course, there are superheroes, and they're super-nice, doing all sorts of good stuff. But a regular person that you would tend to hate, because she's beautiful and rich and young, and then you go, "Wait a minute. What if that person was really nice?"
Do you consider yourself as plugged-in to today's youth culture as you were when you wrote Clueless and Fast Times?
Heckerling: Do I know the latest meme? Do I have a gazillion followers on my Instagram? You know, there's part of me that's always an outsider, from whatever year it is. I'm still an outsider, in that respect.
Is that how you're able to capture that youthful voice?
Heckerling: You just go, "What the hell is with everybody? What are they doing?" I will endlessly be confused by whatever new stuff they're doing.
What are you confused by right now?
Heckerling: Why everybody needs to have pictures of themselves 5 billion times a day for everybody else to see, and why you would care or like ‘em.
So you're not into selfies.
Heckerling: No, I mean, sometimes you go, "I wonder if I look really bad today." I had that scene in Clueless where they're taking Polaroids, because you go, "OK, what am I dealing with?" But that's between me and me. And 90 percent of the time that there's any picture of me that goes out there, I'm like, "Oh, fuck." You know? If you're doing publicity for something, and they take a picture and they go, "Did you see? You look really good!" And then you see it and you go [pretends to cry], "So that's what people will think I look like."
Do you think that's sort of the through line in your work, especially in these four movies? That feeling of being an outsider?
Heckerling: I never thought of what connected those particular ones. I just know where I was at the time, and what I was trying to do. But yeah, I guess anybody that's creative in any way has that feeling of being a little bit outside of everybody else, going, "All right, what's going on here, what's going on, what are they doing, what's funny about it, what's scary about it, what would I wanna do, why am I mad that they're doing it?"
How do you maintain that feeling while being so successful, though?
Heckerling: [Laughs.] Oh, it's so easy. It's way easy.
Heckerling: I think you just are or you aren't — I'm not comfortable.
Is Hollywood one of the places you've felt estranged from? Particularly because it's so male-dominated? Do you think the conversation about women directors right now is helping at all?
Heckerling: I mean, in the early ‘80s, I did a movie, and the one thing everybody would ask me, whenever I had to do anything, [was] "What's it like being a woman in Hollywood?" As if I were some sort of bizarre person because of my sex organs. It's like, come on. And I never wanted to say, "Oh, they don't blah blah blah, they never think of me for yada yada yada." I didn't want to carry that banner. I just want to do what I do, not have to lead any group in a march against anything. And not think about it. Because if I think about it, what good is that?
My father used to say to me, when I wanted to go to film school, "Yeah, right, show me the newspaper with the movies. How many are directed by women?" "None." But what am I gonna do? I can't think that all the time. I just put my fingers in my ear and go, "La la la la." That's the only way I can do it. Somebody else will have a billion followers on YouTube where they complain about, I don't know, maybe I'm a jerk for not helping women. I mean, I help other females. But for not being on a soapbox. But I'm not the type that can.
I think you do help just by being a woman making good movies.
Heckerling: I hope. I don't know.
You made a joke earlier about superhero movies that I want to go back to. Today's teen-targeted movies feel very different than Clueless in that they're either self-serious or wild superhero-y fantasies. Do you think you could've made Clueless today?
Heckerling: Oh, absolutely not. First of all, the film industry kind of lost its middle for a long time. It might be coming back. But [for a while] there was no studio-supported film about young people with a good soundtrack and a certain number of days to shoot with a professional cameraman. We had the money to get Alicia and Paul Rudd and everybody, and shoot for a certain amount of days, and have it look nice, and have a soundtrack with new music that was fun. So if you're going to make a film about a girl who's a matchmaker and her stepbrother is annoying her … it's a different animal [now]. She'd probably have to have cancer and die [laughs].
You've made films somewhat, as Cher would say, "sporadically." Has that been choice or circumstance?
Heckerling: There's been stuff I didn't want to do, and also, women don't get second chances. And so it's always like pulling a big boulder up a hill. It's never like, "OK, now what, now what, now what?"
What do you think you aren't getting a second chance from? Clueless was such a big —
Heckerling: It wasn't a huge hit. It was a medium amount of money. Which was OK, because it cost very little. But it wasn't, like, a Look Who's Talking, which made a lot of money. Legally Blonde made more money.
So there was a lack of offers?
Heckerling: It's not as much a lack of offers — I mean, I want to do what I want to do. But it's hard to get to do that, and it gets harder and harder and harder.
Are you writing anything right now?
Heckerling: Yeah. I'm always writing. I'm writing something I want to do, and I don't know if I'll get to do it. If I don't write, I'll go insane. And I'm always working on the musical, which is really fun — I wrote that. In the next couple of weeks I'm doing some streaming shit, but that's just to make sure I can still have the ability to wake up and learn people's names [laughs].
I read an interview where you said doing streaming TV "depresses" you. Do you still feel like that?
Heckerling: It did because ... it did. But now I'm just like, "OK, that's all my kids ever watch, so what the hell." I'm sure that the DP of Metropolis, Karl Freund, made some of the most iconic images that were ever on movie screens. Then he was doing I Love Lucy later in his life, and people go, "Ooh, I Love Lucy!" I'm sure they know more about that than Metropolis. You do what you do because that's what people are wanting. I don't think he was going, "Wow, I have Fred Mertz sitting on a couch," as opposed to the amazing shots in [Metropolis].That's what it is, so that's what it is. You're going to survive, or you're gonna become an alcoholic [laughs]. It's your choice.
What are you working on now, streaming-wise?
Heckerling: Red Oaks [for Amazon]. I'm directing. But, you know, I've done Gossip Girl, things like that. It's here, you like the show, so you go, "OK."
To go in a completely separate direction: What do you think of everything that's going on with Stacey Dash? She has a book coming out: There Goes My Social Life: From Clueless to Conservative.
Heckerling: Really? [Laughs.] You know, she's always been her own person. And we're talking about her! Maybe if she hadn't gone this route, that wouldn't happen. She's a talented, beautiful girl, but that doesn't mean she had all the opportunities she deserved, so maybe she's chosen a path that keeps her going. I believe she believes in what she's saying. And I believe that the people that have the same beliefs are probably very happy to have her representing. I have nothing but love for her. I may not have the same opinions…
Do you guys still talk?
Heckerling: Yeah, yeah. There's constant text messages and shit. Alicia and Paul Rudd and Stacey, not like I'm seeing them every day, but we stay in touch.
Do you have plans to work with any of them again?
Heckerling: I would in a heartbeat. I worked with Alicia again [on Vamps], Stacey was in I Could Never Be Your Woman. I love them. I'd be honored to.
The market is ripe for nostalgic reunions right now. Did anyone ever try to get you to do a sequel?
Heckerling: I wouldn't want to mess with what [Clueless] was. You know, Clueless Goes to College ... no. The story is told.
You've talked about on-set stuff to death in other interviews and oral histories, but I'm wondering if there's a story you haven't told yet.
Heckerling: I'll tell you a story. I was watching Mommie Dearest last night. I remember we were shooting Look Who's Talking, and the hallway is dark, low-lit, and the kid is crying, and Kirstie had to come in. I say cut, she's off-camera. And she comes in with a wire hanger, screaming, "I told you I didn't want it!" [Laughs.] It was dark.
I need to ask how you got that baby to give you such perfect reactions to everything.
Heckerling: It would be a lot easier in the digital age. It was a low-budget movie, relatively, and film was expensive, and you start to shoot the baby footage, and everybody's the baby-wrangler and trying to get him to do certain things that are in the script. And then you wind up with completely other things, and you try to rewrite. Some things you get, other things you go, "That never happened, but this happened." It was very elastic.
In that same Flavorwire interview, you said you wanted Look Who's Talking to be "enjoyable for guys," even though it's about a single mom. Can you elaborate?
Heckerling: You always hope you're not just getting one little slice of audience. I hoped that the baby's personality would be identifiable, a cool male character, which certainly Bruce Willis is. That was important to me. That he not be a cutesy-pie, that he be somebody you'd like to watch.
What about Fast Times? It seems much more male-oriented than your other movies.
Heckerling: You know, I can't deny that. I'm not an idiot. I knew that women were not doing as well as men, and I wanted the male audience. I wanted to not be a "female director," I just wanted to be a short, New York, Jewish director [laughs]. I was hoping that there'd be things that appealed to guys. The only time an issue came up was when Phoebe Cates didn't think it was necessary that we show her breasts. I thought it was very necessary, from what I know about guys that age.
How did you convince her it was necessary?
Heckerling: I mean, I'm sure I stated my case, but the producer was there and the contract was signed, so it wasn't an issue.
Looking back now, would you do that again, tell her the boobs were necessary?
Heckerling: If they were absolutely necessary boobs, I would [laughs].