WHEN Amy Heckerling got the idea to write a vampire comedy, she was in the midst of caring for her sick parents.
“If I’m looking for a feel-good movie, young love is more fun than cancer,” the filmmaker says. “Movies are an escape.
When I’m depressed, I want to laugh.” Best known as the director of such comedies as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Look Who’s Talking (1989) and Clueless (1995) – the latter two of which she also wrote – Heckerling approached the subject of vampires very practically and also very personally.
“I started out trying to think, ‘What kind of lifestyle would I like to have?,”’ she recalls, speaking by telephone while en route to her Manhattan home from the Woodstock Film Festival, where she presented Vamps. “I liked being in college. I was up all night hanging out with my friends. I had a job I went to for a while.
“I thought, ‘You can do that if you’re a vampire,”’ she continues. “The only thing you’re missing is food, and that doesn’t bother me, other than coffee.” Heckerling began by establishing some basic vampire parameters.
“How can you get enough credits to graduate from college if you can only go to night classes?” she wondered. “How would eating work? I didn’t like the idea of having to harm people.” She found a precedent for vampires who don’t feed on human blood.
“In one of Anne Rice’s books, a vampire was able to eat animals,” she says.
“Exterminators kill rats. It all fits together.
That’s how I would live my life.” Vamps, scheduled to open on November 2 and available on DVD on November 13, is about two eternally young party girls (Krysten Ritter and Alicia Silverstone) working the New York dating scene. When one of them falls for a guy named Van Helsing (Dan Stevens), traditional vampire myths such as garlic, mirrors, blood and coffins get the Heckerling twist. And, yes, the girls drink rats’ blood – actually cranberry juice – to keep from expiring.
Sigourney Weaver plays an ancient vampire and Wallace Shawn, like Silverstone a veteran of Heckerling’s Clueless, is the senior Van Helsing, a noted vampire hunter.
Heckerling, who admits to being a fan of monster movies, was intimately acquainted with the demographic of her main characters courtesy of her daughter Mollie, whose father is Heckerling’s ex-husband, writerdirector Neal Israel. Mollie Israel is a singer and percussionist with The Lost Patrol, and Heckerling used the group’s music on the Vamps soundtrack.
“My daughter is in her 20s,” she says. “I know what’s going on with Mollie and her friends. They’ve grown up in a world that seems to have some advantages, and then find themselves in a job market with very few jobs. I feel for them.” More important, this demographic also deals with Heckerling’s favourite topics.
“Figuring out your place in the world and what kind of relationships you’re going to be in, falling in love and the problems that arise from that,” she says. “We’ll be mining these forever.” It’s been more than 30 years since Heckerling first attracted Hollywood’s notice with this very subject matter. She was still working on her master’s degree at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles when she made a short film called Getting It Over With (1978), about a teenager.
She continued this theme with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which launched the careers of Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker.
Clueless, which gave big boosts to the careers of Silverstone and Paul Rudd, dealt more with romance than with sex.
The success of her early films launched Heckerling on a productive career, but she admits that not all of her nine features are equally close to her heart.
“I don’t want to bad-mouth any of them,” she says, “but some I feel are my babies. Look Who’s Talking and Clueless, those are very close to me. Some I’d like to leave at a fire station.” Possibly she’s referring to Johnny Dangerously (1984) and (National Lampoon’s) European Vacation (1985).
“I consider myself one of the parents of Fast Times,” Heckerling continues.
“Cameron Crowe wrote it, (producer) Art Linson made it happen and Sean Penn made us laugh. I think he is a genius.” Vamps is, however, only Heckerling’s third film as writer and director since Clueless came out 17 years ago. Loser (2000) is about a nerdy college student (Jason Biggs) who falls in love with a classmate (Mena Suvari) enamoured of her professor (Greg Kinnear), while I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007) is a romantic comedy about an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) falling for a younger man (Rudd). The former bombed at the box office and the latter didn’t even get a theatrical release, going straight to DVD.
Heckerling wasn’t idle during this period, of course. She wrote, directed and produced the television version of Clueless (1996- 1999), and also produced the feature A Night at the Roxbury (1998) and directed an episode of The Office (2005).
“I don’t even remember what I was up to,” she says. “I’m always pitching things. Some are almost happening, some do happen. I work on a lot of things. I’m in a world where time doesn’t tend to exist.
“When I have nothing to do with myself, I’ll direct an episode of Gossip Girl (2012),” she adds. “I’m going to do the Sex and the City prequel, The Carrie Diaries. That gets me off the streets a little bit.” Heckerling is also working on a Broadway musical version of Clueless, largely by accident.
“Other people bought the rights, and I had no control over it,” she explains. “Now the rights have reverted to me, and I thought, ‘Why not take a stab at it?”’ However, her heart is in movies. Growing up in the Bronx, she was the daughter of an accountant and a bookkeeper, both of whom worked long hours. As a result, their daughter spent untold hours at her grandparents’ home, much of the time watching movies on television.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching movies,” she says. “My grandfather was always deeply in love with show biz. He worked in a factory, but he read Variety.” While a student at the High School of Art and Design in New York, Heckerling decided to become a film director – even though she didn’t know exactly what that meant.
“I was 14,” she recalls, “and a boy in my class said that he wanted to be a director.
None of the other areas were really working for me, and I realised that movies were what I really loved.” Heckerling went on to study film and television at New York University, undeterred by the fact that at the time only a handful of women were directing in Hollywood – a situation which still hasn’t been redressed to her satisfaction.
“Statistically there are a lot more women than when I started,” Heckerling admits, “but the percentage of females to males is very low compared to other industries. Of course it bothers me. It doesn’t make sense.
In the silent-film era there were women directors. What’s the hold-up?” Everything is a little harder, she says, when you’re a woman working in a male-dominated industry.
“When I did Look Who’s Talking, I was told by a lot of studio people when I was pitching ideas, ‘You can’t have a female protagonist,”’ Heckerling recalls. “I had a woman (Kirstie Alley) who was pregnant and looking for a father.
I said, ‘She’s not the protagonist.
It’s the baby (voiced by Bruce Willis).’ They were OK with it.
“Like any place you want to get into that has closed doors, you have to be a little sneaky.” Getting Vamps made was even harder than usual, despite the fact that vampires are hotter in Hollywood than ever before. The economic downturn, which has affected not only the United States but also the foreign markets where many American movies make most of their profits, has hit Hollywood hard.
“You have no idea,” Heckerling says darkly.
“The worldwide recession has made every industry very depressed. Movies that would normally be commercially middle movies have gone indie, but they’re not heavy.
Vamps is humourous and fun. It’s not the indie mentality.” No matter how hard things get, however, Heckerling will persevere.
In the 30 years since Fast Times at Ridgemont High heralded her arrival in Hollywood, she has been nothing if not a fighter – even if sometimes she wishes she weren’t quite so hardnosed.
“I was a jaded, cynical kid,” the filmmaker says. “I’m trying to lighten up. The other day I was watching Harvey (1950) with my daughter. At one point Jimmy Stewart says, ‘Years ago my mother used to say to me, “In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.’ “That made me cry,” Heckerling says. “Why can’t I be that? I can’t, but I wish I could.”