Made in New York: An Interview with Amy Heckerling

When director Amy Heckerling visited Criterion earlier this week, I was immediately reminded of Helena’s description of Hermia in a A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Possessed of an acerbic wit, a frank, no-nonsense attitude, and an accent that gives away her New York upbringing, Heckerling has a strong, unwavering personality. Over the past three decades, she’s put that personality to use to create some of the most enduring movie characters in modern American cinema—from Clueless’s Beverly Hills heroine Cher Horowitz to Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s beach burnout Spicoli. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Heckerling helped to revitalize mainstream comedy and created full (and linguistically authentic) portraits of teenage life that made her into something of a generational icon.

Beginning on Saturday, New York’s Metrograph theater will host a two-day retrospective of Heckerling’s work. And, thinking it might be a nice occasion to ask her in for a visit, we invited Heckerling to sit down for a conversation with me and a few of my colleagues in various departments, for whom her films have served as personal touchstones. We talked about her days as a struggling filmmaker, the allure and disappointment of moving to the West Coast, and her love for old-Hollywood actors.

Your films often delve into the adolescent time of life. Did growing up in the Bronx and going to school in Manhattan shape your interest in capturing the high school experience?

My particular high school years aren’t like anything you see in my movies. I went to the High School of Art and Design. I schlepped in every day on the subway and the bus, so I would go there, and half the day was photography, and I would be begging people to borrow photo paper because it was so expensive. Then I would go to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, where I was a filing clerk, then I’d schlep my ass home and be really exhausted and try to do the homework that I had. I felt like I was a middle-aged person, and I didn’t feel like I had any expendable income for a record or to go to a concert until I was in my late twenties.

I was also no longer a teenager when punk stuff started happening, and it was like, oh, I like this shit. I felt like I didn’t relate to what was from my particular time period. I’ve always felt like, you look at what’s around from different periods and go, it must have been fun in the twenties when they first started having cars and then that was a place you could go to make out with people, because there was no place before that—you were on your front porch with your parents sticking their heads out.

Your work is so culturally ingrained that everyone at this table has stories of formative experiences with your films. Are there films—or people—who are like that for you?

When I was real little, like in-a-playpen little, what I responded to was James Cagney and Speedy Alka-Seltzer. They were these energetic, crazed characters—and I liked the hat too. From the time I was little I thought James Cagney was like a cartoon character, like Bugs Bunny, and then I realized these were stories and he was an actor. And actually, there’s another way he’s tied into my life, and this is all before I started kindergarten. I was watching Angels with Dirty Faces, and he was about to go to the electric chair, and I was freaking out, I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was something bad. And so I started running around the house screaming, and my mother tells me, “Yes, he died,” and this is before I knew what that was. She said it was like going to sleep, and I was really upset, but then she said, “In movies, you don’t really die.” So I thought, movies, fuck, that sounds good. I thought, he’ll magically always be alive.

I love the musicals, I love the gangster films, I love him doing anything; I just love his spirit. Then when you’re older and start to know about movies, you realize that what he’s doing was amazing, and then you learn about all the foreign films, and you’re chasing them down and reading all the subtitles and learning all the directors, but part of you just wants to go back and see The Roaring Twenties again. And whatever stage I’m at, he still makes sense, and that’s kind of nice: to have something you liked when you were little that never stops working.

What was it like living in New York after you graduated from NYU and were first starting out?

Well, there was a guy ahead of me, a year older, his name was Marty Brest. He made Scent of a Woman, Midnight Run, Beverly Hills Cop . . . I was crazy about him. Before he left to go to AFI we sort of got involved for like a minute, and then he was gone. We were both from the Bronx, so we lived a few blocks from each other. And anything he did, I knew was the right thing to do, like to go to AFI, because I didn’t think I would show my NYU films and people would go, “Wow, what movie do you want to do next?” That I knew would not happen. Even though I won the NYU festival, it was this goofy little movie. So, I said, I need something slicker to show.

The world now is an entirely different place, because you could have something really raw, and if you get enough hits, Hollywood will want to buy that popularity, and if it doesn’t work, fuck you. But back then, you worked your ass off to have this thing to present to them. And I knew that I needed something that would show more professionalism. So I applied to AFI, and I got in, and I was really happy because I was going to go to California, but I didn’t know what the hell that meant. I used to see on the back of every movie I liked, “Made in Hollywood”—but I didn’t know Hollywood was in Los Angeles, and there are studios, and they’re in the valley, and there are palm trees, and it’s always going to be hot. I didn’t have a driver’s license; I failed the driver’s test five times. I was not comfortable.

In New York, from the time you’re thirteen, you have a subway pass, you’re going anywhere in the world you want. You can go to the Financial District, to museums, to whatever gallery, anything all over the city. You could do it, and you felt like you were a grown-up, and you had the ability to get around. Then you go to L.A., and it’s like, “Can you drop me . . . ?” “Are you going to AFI today . . . ?” Suddenly you go from being a thirteen-year-old grown-up to a twenty-year-old child. So that sucked.

Alicia Silverstone in Clueless (1995)
What were your student films like?

For the first one that won the NYU festival and some others, we weren’t allowed to do sync sound, so I thought, okay, I’ll make a silent movie but the people will be acting like now. So me and this other guy made this film, where he’s a film student and sees this gamin on the streets, like [Paulette Goddard] from Modern Times, and he decides he’s going to make a film with her. It was stupid but had montages, and he had the brilliant idea to take “The 59th Street Bridge Song” by Simon and Garfunkel and do this film that illustrates every single line in it literally and how that gets messed up. And then I did another film the next year when NYU was going broke. So I decided I’d do a movie about NYU going broke, but it would be like a Mickey Rooney movie, where the kids save the school. So it was like post-hippy slobs acting like they’re in a Mickey Rooney movie and breaking into song.

Is there any way to see these?

Well, with the first one, the guy got mad at me because we made this movie together, but I wouldn’t go out with him. After they showed it at the festival, he went up to the projection room and got the only print, and he would never let me have it. When I would write letters to him, he would say things like, “You know, if you’re cute and you’re pushy, people say you’re a go-getter, and if you’re ugly and you’re pushy, they think you’re obnoxious and aggressive, so you’ll make it and I won’t”—because he was hideously ugly. And then he died (I don’t know of what), and I got a detective and reached out to his father, and apparently there was a garage full of his crap that the father just threw away.

In spite of your frustrations with it, did Los Angeles ever feel like home?

I hate the beach, I hate the sun, I hate the wind, I hate the Santa Anas.

So where did Clueless come from—why those people at that moment in time?

I was feeling very depressed, which is how most stories start. And I was going, “Now what?” I mean, I had sort of been forced into doing a sequel to Look Who’s Talking for legal reasons, and it was just like, the story is over. That was not a fun experience, and I was going, “So, is that it? I did this teen thing a million years ago and that’s the highlight of my life? Is it all downhill from here—and why am I even existing?” You know how you get. And then I thought, What do you like, what makes you happy, what kind of stories do you like, what kind of characters do you like? So I was thinking, I like people that, for some reason, are extremely optimistic; they totally mystify me.

There was this book I read a long time ago, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—not the movie—where the character, it didn’t occur to her that she wasn’t smart or that things wouldn’t work out or that men wouldn’t all do what she wanted. And she had a sort of intelligence that made her be able to get everything that she needed in a way that I didn’t understand. Like, if you’re meeting with a guy and you want him to like you, that you’d have flowers delivered to yourself. Who would think of that? I would never in a million years. There are tricks that you play that work, and that amazed me, that kind of intelligence. I was also thinking about Ed Wood and the idea that he went out and did all this creative stuff, and he stunk, but it didn’t occur to him that it wasn’t good, because he was enjoying it so much. And who says that he’s wrong and other people are right? We all live in our own heads, and if I go out and go, “Gee, I look great today,” who’s to say I don’t? I have the choice. I can see things one way or another. So I said, “What if you just went around seeing things the other way?” This psychologist [Martin Seligman] wrote this book called Learned Optimism, where you can take a rat and give it a reward and it’s happy, it knows how to get what it wants. You sometimes give it a reward and sometimes don’t, and it goes crazy trying all the time. If you give it a reward sometimes and a shock sometimes, it just doesn’t know, the world doesn’t make no sense. So these are behaviors that can be learned, but how do you do it to yourself when you know you’re doing it?

Also, a world full of optimists wouldn’t be a good idea, because what if we all went, “Ha, global warming—it will be fine!” We need pessimists. You can’t just say, “Oh, here’s this thing I made, it’s great,” although a lot of people that are creative have that. They go, “I’m doing this and I’m doing that!” and they think everything they do is great. And then there are the people that say, you know, this has been done before and here’s all the ways it could stink. Then you can’t write one word without thinking how bad it could be based on how people could react, how other ways have fallen flat. If you’re Roberto Benigni, and you want to write Life Is Beautiful, and you go, “I’m writing a positive comedy that takes place in a concentration camp”—what if he’d said, “What about Jerry Lewis’s film [The Day the Clown Cried]?” Then he wouldn’t have written a word—and meanwhile he gets an Oscar. So part of you has to shut off the evil voices in your head.

Are you able to do that?

It’s very, very hard. I’m a night person and I can only do things at four, five in the morning when I feel like what I call the “terrorist chatter” is quiet, when I feel like the world is shut up.

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