Writer-director Amy Heckerling and her muse Alicia Silverstone discuss ‘Clueless,’ ‘Vamps,’ and filming women
In person, Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverstone make an odd couple.
On Saturday, both were at BAM for a pair of Q&As with fans; the first following a screening for the new Heckerling-helmed Vamps, which stars Silverstone and Krysten Ritter. The second following a screening of Heckerling's 1995 classic Clueless, which launched Silverstone's career and, judging from the packed theater—audience members not only cheered when the film came on and called out lines of dialogue; they audibly gasped when Heckerling revealed she was working on a musical version—remains a cultural touchstone. Both films were being screened as part of BAM’s "Hey, Girlfriend!" series, co-curated by Lena Dunham and the BAM's own Nellie Killian (who also moderated the Q&As), which focused on films that, in Dunham’s words, depict "realistic female relationships … inspiring in their tenacity and unparalleled in their complexity." These Q&As, then, were a chance to get a look at such relationships as they exist offscreen as well.
Complexity would certainly, at least at first blush, seem to describe Silverstone's relationship with Heckerling. Though both were wearing black—Silverstone a drop-waisted dress, Heckerling a neat skirt and jacket ensemble—the similarities, visually and temperamentally, ended there. The California-born actress is blond, bubbly, and vegan; the Bronx-born writer-director is dark-haired and sarcastic, and claimed to not care about food other than coffee. But the combination, the balance between Silverstone's breezy delivery and the bite of Heckerling's satirical dialogue—her writing, as Silverstone noted has “a lightness to it, and it seems like it's about fashion and boys, but there's such depth"—is a winning one. Heckerling confessed, "Alicia is who is in my head when I write . . . She's my prototype. She's my baby." The audience let out an "awww," then laughed as though embarrassed by their own unironic appreciation of a strong female bond.
The first Q&A, after Vamps—a zippy little confection about a pair of besties (Silverstone and Ritter) who just happen to be vampires and whose lives as eternal college students are complicated when one falls in love with a the son of a vampire hunter—was marred by an oddly combative preoccupation with the city of Detroit, where the film was primarily shot. Though the movie is set in New York, the monetary incentives Detroit offered at the time of filming—41 cents back for every dollar spent—were too good to pass up, especially as Vamps didn't have studio backing.
"It's a complete shell of city," Heckerling said, explaining that the money they'd saved was spent in "digitally put[ting] lights in every window because it's just abandoned buildings with dumpsters full of cats." From there, the discussion veered off-course, with Heckerling speculating that the city had stopped offering filmmakers tax breaks because "the only place that was making money was the one hotel that everyone stayed at”—a hotel which was apparently nicknamed “the mothership” because they had been warned not to leave it (though a Parliament reference might have been overlooked).
Both Silverstone and Wallace Shawn (also in Vamps and a surprise guest at the Q&A) jumped in to say that they did venture into the city—to scattered audience applause—as if embarrassed by the perhaps well-meant but obviously insensitive characterization. Silverstone swore that her husband loved Detroit and that she found it "kind of beautiful." Shawn chimed in with an anecdote: while he was there, he'd seen an audience of about a thousand people listening to "unbelievably avant-garde jazz in a wonderful outdoor auditorium for free." "The people who live there have a wonderful love of their city," he emphasized, before admitting that, "Of course, it's also part of the decline of the American empire, this tragic situation." Attempting to describe the most impoverished residents, he, like Heckerling, wandered into awkward insensitivity:
"In most of the United States, poor people are rather heavy," he noted; "in Detroit they are so poor, they are as thin as you would see in India or other places where people are starving…" He quickly segued into a discussion of urban farming, which he cheerfully characterized as both "inspiring" and "quite unusual!"
A native Detroiter offered a gentle rebuke: "I love my hometown," she said cheerfully, "and I hope you guys had a little bit of a good time."
Heckerling was exponentially more charming when it came to the dissection of Vamps. Asked about her decision to plunge into the vampire genre, she said she'd spent some time thinking about what would make her happy and concluded that she didn’t want to get old; she just wanted to “horse around with [her] friends.” She wanted, in essence, “to be a teenager, at night." There was a poignancy to that desire, given her successes with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which she directed at the age of 30) and Clueless, both of which center on adolescent protagonists. But, as she admitted, "The problem is that you really are meant to grow up."
Fictional characters, thankfully, are spared such cruel fates: Cher Horowitz will always be a sixteen year-old virgin who can't drive. In the Q&A that followed the screening of Clueless, an audience member with a British accent tried to get Heckerling and Silverstone to speculate on what Cher might be up to these days, whether she might have married to a British hedge-fund manager, perhaps; they refused.
Heckerling was more forthcoming about the work that went into the now-iconic film, and the frustrations which followed. She described the project being dropped by one studio, Fox, even after changing key plot points at their request—Josh, Cher's love interest, was to be her neighbor rather than step-brother (Heckerling's own grandparents were step-sister and step-brother). When it was picked up by Scott Rudin, he promptly asked her to change everything back; his interest then sparked a bidding war among the very studios that hadn't wanted to touch the project earlier.
And, of course, after the success of the film, there were copycats—movies that were superficially in the same vein but seemed to be “glorifying shallowness,” which was precisely not what Heckerling had set out to do. (As her daughter, in middle school when the movie was released, would tell the kids who asked her why she didn’t dress in fancier clothes: “It’s satire!”) The worst, Heckerling said, was when she would be asked to direct “horrible diluted versions of what [she] had done." While she wouldn't name any films specifically, she did add—in a darkly comic tone—that they'd all made more money than Clueless.
A hopeful question about Heckerling's influence on latter-day female-centric comedies like Mean Girls and Bridesmaids prompted another cynical response from the director about the slew of "Katherine Heigl-y type things where women … have no reason to exist other than to get a guy."
"In the '70s," she continued, "there were these women who were women." And while the very existence of the “Hey, Girlfriend!” series speaks to the lack of films being made today that show women as women—it also suggests that people are taking notice, though perhaps too late to make a difference in either Heckerling or Silverstone’s career.
The evening ended on a somber note, with both Silverstone and the director reminiscing about the late Brittany Murphy, costar of Clueless.
"It’s just such a shame," Heckerling said, “and when you see her in full-screen and you can really see what she's doing, it's heartbreaking." Clueless is about, in Heckerling’s own words, “an escape to a place that didn’t exist.” The people who populate it, however, do; Murphy was a sobering reminder of how many seem unable to grow up in the real world, to figure out how to function outside those onscreen realms.