Sometimes, a director makes a film that becomes engrained in the culture of a generation. It affects the slang, the fashion, and the attitude of popular culture. They launch superstar careers, images from the film become iconic, and scenes are parodied for decades to come.
And in very rare cases, one director manages to repeat this feat. Amy Heckerling is one of those rare cases, after defining teen culture with Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, she did it again in 1995 with the movie Clueless. Those are only two highlights in a long and distinguished career.
Born in The Bronx, Heckerling’s parents both worked and she remembers often sitting at home watching television by herself. She would also spend a lot of time with her grandmother, staying up all night watching movies. She had a particular fondness for James Cagney and gangster movies.
As she was about to start high school, Heckerling’s family moved to Queens. She felt like an outsider there, and decided to go to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan instead of the local high school. She says early in her high school experience, she was inspired to become a film director during a class assignment where each student was supposed to write down their dream career path. The boy next to her wrote that he wanted to be a film director. In the book Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, she says that gave her the idea.
She remembers, “I was really annoyed because I thought that if an idiot like that guy could say he wanted to be a director, then so could I, and certainly I should be a director more than he should. It had never occurred to me that that was a job possibility.”
Heckerling’s focus on directing continued at NYU. The films she made there were often musicals, which helped her stand out, “I was the only one doing them and they were weird.” She has fond memories of NYU, but also has said that she had to work on low quality equipment, and that her student loans caused her a lot of stress.
She then moved to California to attend the American Film Institute, which was a big change from New York City, but offered more opportunities. Soon she had made her short film Getting It Over With, about a girl trying to lose her virginity before she turns twenty. She told Flavorwire that other students at AFI “were trying to be more mature. They didn’t want to show that they were kids. And I never felt embarrassed about that. I thought, ‘Those are the fun movies.’…And I didn’t want to say ‘Here’s a serious movie, based on a serious story, with serious crying scenes’ to show that I know how to direct. That would have never occurred to me.”
She continued working on the short after earning her MFA from AFI, finishing a cut just before being hit by a drunk driver and being seriously injured. In 1998, she told a reporter that she remembered that at the moment of the accident her first thought was “well, at least I got the film to the lab.”
That short opened doors for Heckerling, but it took some time for her to be able to take advantage of them within the studio system. Then, in 1982 Universal Pictures brought her on to make a feature film. Originally, she was working as a writer and someone else brought her a script to look at. She started to make suggestions for changes, and soon she was asked if she wanted to direct the story, called Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Fast Times was based on a book by Cameron Crowe, who at the time was best known as a reporter for Rolling Stone. It was his first book, and told the story of what he saw during a year “undercover” as a high school student in California. Heckerling said she was drawn to the script, but she could tell that the studio had too much influence. So she went back to the book and worked with Crowe on a rewrite
Heckerling said she wanted to cast actors who were actually young and not “grown-ups dressed in high-top sneakers,” but that she also listened to a friend’s advice to “go with the talent.” She went for a list of mostly lesser known young actors, and the ensemble cast featured Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Sean Penn in one of his most iconic roles. Most of the cast have gone on to acclaimed and successful careers.
With this being her debut film, Heckerling was very deliberate in her choices on every level from casting to cinematography to the soundtrack. The studio did a small opening for the film on the west coast, and it did so well they expanded to a nationwide release. Made on a less than five million dollar budget, it grossed over 27 million. The movie was a hit, and a cultural moment was born.
While Heckerling was in demand after Fast Times’ success, she remembers getting many copycat scripts. She looked for something different, and in 1984 she made a gangster movie spoof called Johnny Dangerously, starring Michael Keaton and Joe Piscopo. The movie did not do well, and she believes that most audiences actually didn’t know the movies they were satirizing.
It wasn’t long before she was back in the director’s chair with National Lampoon’s European Vacation in 1985. A sequel to the 1983 hit National Lampoon’s Vacation, written by John Hughes, European Vacation was also a hit, and is considered a comedy classic, though Heckerling doesn’t look back fondly on the experience, saying that filming it was a difficult process.
In 1986 she worked on the first TV series adapted from one of her films, Fast Times, which aired on CBS for only seven episodes.
A few years later Heckerling directed the film that would be her highest grossing effort, Look Who’s Talking, starring John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. Heckerling also wrote the script for the comedy, inspired by an idea she had while pregnant. The movie was enormously popular, grossing almost 300 million dollars.
After co-writing and directing the sequel, Look Who’s Talking Too, Heckerling also helped write a television spin-off called Baby Talk. But those sequels weren’t the types of projects Heckerling wanted to be making, and she told Criterion that she started to feel depressed, wondering about the direction of her career. And in that depression, she turned to her curiosity about people who were endlessly optimistic, the opposite of how she was feeling. “What if somebody yells at me, and I just think they’re amusing? What if I got out into the world wearing bright colors and assume that I look good?’ It’s not the way I go about functioning but what would happen?”
In 1995, that exploration of optimism became an updated version of the Jane Austen novel Emma. Changing the setting to Beverly Hills, she originally envisioned a television series but her agent suggested she write a feature instead. After sitting in to watch high school classes at Beverly Hills High School, Heckerling put together a script featuring friends Cher, Dionne, and Tai navigating life, love, and driving tests.
As somebody who was actually a teenager when Clueless was released, and who saw it in the theater with my two best friends, it’s hard to overstate the impact that it had on the culture of the time and it’s hard to capture it in a simple description. It was a movie that was a defining moment, not just in the world, but for me. It is an incredibly well-crafted comedy, full of really winning performances by both younger and more experienced actors. Heckerling clearly has a gift for casting, and a gift for dialogue. She’s said that she simply listened to the slang the teenagers used while she was writing and then tried to take it to the next logical step. She also encouraged the actors to ad lib. It worked perfectly, the language becoming easily adopted and incredibly popular.
Heckerling has said that she likes making comedies because it takes a long time to make a movie, so the process should be happy and fun. The memories of those who made Clueless show how well that philosophy works, and the film definitely benefits from that.
Clueless was also adapted into a television show, which Heckerling produced and helped write.
After both Fast Times and Clueless, Heckerling saw a lot of people who wanted her to just do more of the same thing. But she says “That’s not how a creative person comes up with anything. That’s business thinking.” Also, while Clueless was incredibly important to the culture of the time, financially it was only a modest hit. In an interview with MTV, she said “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.”
In 2007, she made I Could Never Be Your Woman, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Clueless alum Paul Rudd. The movie had a troubled production because of budget problems, and never had a theatrical release but was well received by critics. In 2011, she teamed up with Alicia Silverstone again, along with Sigourney Weaver and Krysten Ritter, for the horror comedy Vamps. She has also directed episodes of The Office, Gossip Girl, Suburgatory, and Red Oaks. Currently, she’s helping to turn Clueless into a Broadway show.