Michael Lehmann is still best known for his 1988 film Heathers, despite having also made a great satirical take on the action film, Hudson Hawk, and the little-seen alien invasion eco-terrorist satire, Meet the Applegates, and doing loads of television work, including Bored to Death, Californication, American Horror Show and most recently Snowfall. We had been planning an interview for about a year, and with the re-release of Heathers and the upcoming Signal One Entertainment Blu-Ray release of Hudson Hawk, now was the perfect time to do it. Heathers has also just had a good-sized theatrical release in addition to this month’s Blu-Ray. What followed was a conversation that ranged from our mutual love of Seconds to Heathers to his work in television, including his episode on the obscure but great neo-noir show Fallen Angels.
How has the response been to the re-release—have there been any negative responses?
I generally feel when something is re-released after 30 years, most people don’t bother to be angry about it. It’s been interesting to see how people respond. The movie had a big positive following from the gay audience when it came out, because clearly we aren’t making gay jokes at the expense of gay people, but then there were a couple people who didn’t get that. When the movie first came out people said we were somehow making fun of suicide: we were making a comedy about suicide and that was inappropriate. But this was before any of the school shootings happened… You might think there would be people taking issue now with that: there is a high-school movie in which there are murders involved, but it’s clearly a certain kind of comedy. I don’t think anybody is saying Heathers inspired anybody to do high school shootings or anything like that!
I think people often forget how hated the film was at the time, some really big critics took against it…
Some did. The critical response in the states was mostly positive, but it was vocally negative from a few sources. I don’t know how it was received here. I know when I came to Britain to do press on its initial release, I had what appeared to be mostly positive press, but I did an interview with a BBC radio movie reviewer who was very snarky and clearly hated the movie, and kind of made it clear to me, so that was interesting! In some ways that was as harsh of a direct response as I got during that release.
Do you have a favourite line?
I always liked the “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” line.
My favourite is the most random line in the whole film: “Who does that guy in the coat think he is, anyways, Bo Diddley?”
That’s funny you say that, because I laugh every time I see that and it never gets a laugh from anybody else. I can’t recall, but I think Dan had something other than Bo Diddley, and we came up with that at the time… but he may have written it in before. It’s hilarious, because it has nothing to do with Bo Diddley, and there is no possible way Ram would know who Bo Diddley is. I always felt it was an underappreciated line.
I have to ask but what did you think of the TV version, and did you see any of it?
It’s good for me to say this, but I never saw it, so I can’t comment on it with any intelligence. I heard Dan said it started off a little shaky and he really liked it by the time it was done. I think he watched the whole thing, but I know he watched at least some of it. When I get back to the States I’ll see if somebody can show me the show. They enquired about my availability to direct the final episode, but I wasn’t available, so I never even got the chance to read the scripts.
I heard you guys didn’t really get any money from it.
I get nothing—like zero—because the ownership of the rights to the script would’ve reverted to Dan. But he told me it was a lousy deal, so whatever it is, nobody is getting rich off it. He might get a small amount but nothing that matters. Over the years there were various attempts to develop Heathers as a television show, and the funny thing is that none of the people involving with doing that had much if any contact with Dan or me. I figure they want to take a crack at doing their version of it and they don’t want to talk to us, which is fine, but me or Dan probably could’ve offered something along the way.
Do you have any news about whether Meet the Applegates is coming out?
It’s funny: there was a screening of Meet the Applegates at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn a few months ago, and I went and talked afterwards, and there was a pretty good crowd for it. I’m pretty sure the print they screened was one I used to own that I donated to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. I don’t even know who owns the rights, if anybody, and I don’t think there is any interest in releasing it. But I think it still plays reasonably well because the themes of the film are still current. Two months ago Larry Karaszewski sent me a email saying “if you don’t buy this I will,” and it was a link to an eBay auction of a print of Meet the Applegates, which I ended up buying, so I have a print sitting in my home. Nobody has ever asked to re-release that movie, and I don’t know if anybody would ever want it, it’s pretty obscure. I’m surprised when people ask to screen it, but it’s been screened in recent years at another Alamo Drafthouse in Denver, and that was connected to a Heathers screening. And it screened at the film archive in Berkeley as a part of an Eco-terrorist series, and that went over well.
What’s the craziest experience on Hudson Hawk that you haven’t previously told about?
Hmm… Let me think about that for a couple minutes. I’ve never really talked about the whole episode with Maruschka Detmers, which always seems to be misreported. It’s not that crazy or weird, but everything on that movie was crazy and weird! I’m not sure how much of everything has been discussed… Maruschka Detmers was a Dutch actress living in Paris. She was cast in the role that Andie McDowell had, and she was our original choice. Do you know who she is, does the name mean anything?
[I drew a blank]
She was a very beautiful and very intelligent young woman who was at the time known for being in Devil in the Flesh, in which she performed fellatio on screen, but it was an intelligent independent film, not a porn film. She was up and coming, and somebody who was referred to me by our casting director—and Dan knew her work. I met with her and she seemed pretty great, and we cast her. She showed up when we were shooting in Rome, the scene where the character gives a tour of the Vatican, and in the movie Bruce Willis’s character, Hudson Hawk, throws a stuffed elephant to trigger an alarm. We were doing the scene with Maruschka, and she told us she had back issues and chronic pain in her back. She just collapsed right there on set and we had to shut down shooting for a day. There was a big hullaballoo about whether she was healthy and if this was a good idea, and she told us she had a doctor who had diagnosed her issue as a chronic pain issue, but there was absolutely nothing to do about it. She could take painkillers, but maybe that’s why she collapsed. We panicked and were like, this is probably not a good idea, since there was a lot of physical stuff to do with the role. We shot some other stuff for a couple of days and replaced her with Andie McDowell, who we got from the States, and who did a remarkably good job in the movie, I think. She wasn’t somebody who auditioned, we auditioned a lot of European actresses for the part. I heard later on there were rumours that Maruschka Detmers was replaced because she was having an affair with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore insisted that we replace her, and all of that was entirety not true, had no basis in anything. It’s one of the only times I’ve had somebody get so sick they collapsed and we had to shut down.
It was your Terry Gilliam moment! Why do you think it bombed as bad as it did?
I can give you the charitable interpretation, which is it’s not what the studio sold it as, and it’s not what anybody expected it to be. So if you came expecting to see Die Hard or a regular Joel Silver/Bruce Willis action movie, you would’ve been disappointed or confused by it. I do think there is some truth to that, so it certainly bombed because the people who were selling it had no idea how to sell it and didn’t want to embrace what the movie was. You could say the movie bombed because it undercut the conventions of the genres within which it was functioning, and as a result made an unsatisfying experience for people who just wanted to see a good version of the genre.
You can also take the other tack, which is it bombed because it’s such a horrendous, horrible movie that nobody liked it, which… I wouldn’t put it that way. It got a lot of people angry, and critics in particular acted as if all of the things we did intentionally were mistakes.
How do you feel about the Blu-Ray of that coming out?
I heard it’s coming out, and I did a interview that I suppose will be a extra on the Blu-Ray. I always wondered if anybody would ever re-evaluate that movie, and there were a couple of re-evaluations of it in the last year from critics in the States. There was a reassessment in the New Yorker, which was full of praise and backhanded compliments: it was an odd reassessment of the movie, but at least the writer found it interesting and got a little more of what we looking to do with the film.
The British critic Mark Kermode has been a big fan of the film for years and told Richard E. Grant he loved it—and Richard was like, “how could you like that piece of shit?”
Richard has not been very charitable towards the film, but probably for Richard—who is a terrific actor—it didn’t help his career at all, and might be angry it was a big bomb. He has to say it was a shitty film. He had great promise at the time, which he still does, because he is a terrific actor.
What was your involvement with Ed Wood? I know you were the original director…
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were friends from film school, and they had made Problem Child, which was terribly reviewed. It was considered an abomination by critics. And I had made Hudson Hawk, which was considered an abomination by many critics. Scott and Larry read Nightmare of Ecstasy: Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, and they called me saying they had this fantastic book about the life of Ed Wood and A. You have to read it, and B. We think there is a movie here about Ed Wood. I read the book and was “oh my god, this is perfect and would make a great film! Nobody knows better how it feels to wake up on a Friday morning and read all the critics saying you made the worst movie ever made, and you and I have had that experience, so we know how it feels to some degree to be Ed Wood, to think you are making great work and people aren’t appreciating it.” We thought that was funny, and we had meetings about how to structure it and make it work, and they gave me the first draft.
They thought of taking it to Scott Rudin at that time as a producer, who at one point was a high executive at 20th Century Fox and bought a script that they came out of film school with. I said “I don’t know about Scott Rudin for this, I’m not sure he would get what this was about, but Denise Di Novi, who had produced Heathers and Meet the Applegates, is working with Tim Burton, and Tim should understand this. So let’s take it to them to see if they want to develop it for us.” I took the idea in the book, and Scott and Larry, who didn’t have a relationship with Tim… I took this package to Denise and said we wanted to make this with me directing. Denise was “Ok, I’m not really sure where this fits, but let me show it to Tim.” And I was like, “Show it to Tim, because he will get it.” And the word gets back: “Tim gets it and Tim actually loves it and Tim wants to direct it.” And I said “No, this is for me to direct, not for Tim to direct, but we want Tim to produce it.” And then we hear, “Tim is embarrassed to say this, but he really, really badly wants to direct it this.” And I said, “Well, that’s still not what we’re asking.” And I talked to Tim and he really was passionate and he wanted to do it. It was Scott and Larry’s idea: they came to me.
Tim could get any movie made at that point, and I was doing OK in Hollywood, but I was still suffering a little bit from the failure of Hudson Hawk. So I said to Tim, “Look, let’s do it this way: if you get involved, you drop everything else.” He was at that point scheduled to direct Mary Reilly, which Stephen Frears ended up doing, but that was Tim’s movie originally. I said, “if you don’t do everything else you are working on and you make Ed Wood as your next movie, and you don’t fire Scott and Larry”—who he didn’t know and didn’t have a relationship with—“then you can direct it and just give me an executive producer credit, and I’ll be happy to have the movie made. But if you don’t make it as your next film, and you’re interested in getting other writers involved, then you have to promise me you will just be the producer and I can direct it.” It was a sort of unconventional request, but he agreed to that and true to his word, he dropped everything else he was involved in. Not only did he not fire Scott and Larry, but he essentially shot their first draft. He made very few changes and kept them involved, and has worked with them since on Mars Attacks! and Big Eyes. So that’s how it happened.
Was the ending ever changed? Were there any scenes of him as an alcoholic, etc.?
Not that I remember, but it was a long time ago. It’s actually in my experience that the movie itself is closer to the first draft than any I’m aware of.
I wanted to ask about one of your least-seen projects, your episode of Fallen Angels.
Oh wow, that’s great! I love that piece, and nobody has ever asked me about that.
So how did that come about, and how was it making it?
I’m gonna try to remember exactly who got in touch with me about that. It was a Showtime show, and Bill Horberg was a producer on it, who I knew, and who is a great guy and a very good producer. Stuart Cornfeld was involved as well. It was a great idea to do a noir series on Showtime using a lot of very good feature directors who did episodes. As far as I remember, nobody watched these things, but Peter Bogdanovich and Soderbergh did some great episodes, and my friend Howard Rodman wrote some of them.
My episode was written by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who were the guys who did Suture and who have gone on to direct some really interesting films. It was an adaptation of a Cornwell Woolrich story I think.1 Mine starred Dana Delany, who was a friend of mine. She is a terrific actress, and was always sort of relegated to being an American TV actress but I always thought she was a better actress than that. I had William Peterson—this was before his CSI stuff, it was his more his To Live & Die in L.A./Manhunter stuff—and Benicio Del Toro in one of his first roles, Adam Baldwin and Marcia Day Hayden, who was great. The casting director was Deborah Zane, who had cast some of my movies and some of Soderbergh’s, and is a very good casting director. She did the series and brought in all sorts of great people. Robert Brinkmann was the DP. He did The Truth about Cats and Dogs with me, which was a bit later, but I had been to film school with him. We had a good time, even though it was a difficult shot because they didn’t have a lot of money or time.
They probably spent all the money on the casts, because they are insane.
Yeah, but then again the cast probably all got paid the same, because those were the days when Showtime was a small network and it wasn’t what it became. They probably were able to make really inexpensive cast deals. None of those people were really known at the time. I just thought it was a terrific piece, and it was really fun to work in the genre that way. I don’t know why they haven’t done more of those sort of things.
You would think maybe Netflix would do something like it, because it would be probably a big hit.
You would think so. The thing is, it’s very appealing to a director because you make a short piece on a TV schedule but we get you a good cast and you can pick from the classic noir literature, it’s an incredible opportunity.
How was it working for Zoetrope during the early ‘80s? It must have been a fascinating time to work for them.
It was an incredible place. You know, I was a kid, and I got hired to answer the phones for Zoetrope on January 1st 1980. At that point they were finishing the foreign distribution for Apocalypse Now, and Francis was in the process of building this studio down in L.A. that he purchased, Hollywood General Studios. Hammett was in prep, ready to be shot, and One From The Heart was in prep and ready to be shot.
I answered the phones for a while, and then moved up and worked in post-production for a bit, and then ended up being involved with what Francis called the “Electronic Cinema Division,” which was his attempt to use electronic imaging and computers to make movies—this was absolutely revolutionary at the time. It was 1980 and there was no such thing as digital video or high definition video, but Coppola had used a video editing system on Apocalypse Now to do rough cuts of the film. He felt electronic editing was the future, and electronic imaging would likely be improved enough that movies could be made digitally, like what we have now. I got involved with that at Zoetrope, and that was very cool and got me into all sorts of things—and pretty close to the process, because Coppola was trying to use these techniques on One From The Heart. He did storyboards on a videodisc, and did a simultaneous edit on a video editor, taking feeds off the video tap on the camera, which was a flickering black and white image—very different from what you get now. All the footage was transferred to videotape and edited that way. I ended up being about three years at Zoetrope.
It was an unbelievable place to be, and I’m surprised nobody has written about that particular place at that time. The lot at Zoetrope had offices for Michael Powell, Jean-Luc Godard, George Burns, Mel Brooks and David Lynch. There is a lot of history: at one point a woman named Jill Kearney who was working for Fred Roos at Zoetrope, had become an editor at Premiere magazine, got an advance to write a history of the place but said it was too complicated to unravel all the weird personal stuff, and she ended up not writing the book, which I thought was a shame.
I watched the Trailers from Hell you did for one of my all-time top 10 favourite movies, Seconds, and Coppola showed you that.
What he did was he came into the office one day and would just hang around and talk to anybody about films, he was kinda great. He has a great knowledge of movies, and I think I asked what he loved when he was in film school. He brought up Seconds, and said: “it was this great film that nobody paid attention to”. I think it was when he was making Rumble Fish, and there echoes visually of Seconds in lots of ways. Rumble Fish had all kinds of incredibly visual things going on in it, but clearly there is an influence of Seconds there, and Francis has talked about how much that movie meant to him. I have wanted to remake that movie forever, but other people always had the rights, and other people were trying to develop it, so I didn’t think there was a way to get in on it. I never personally could figure out a way to make the second and third acts of that movie work well enough, and that’s the problem: I love Seconds, but it’s definitely a flawed film, and it doesn’t completely add up. And the final third isn’t great.
The final moments are amazing though and that sequence in the corridor…
Yes! But it’s the journey Rock Hudson’s character takes two-thirds of the way through, with all his love-in and all this sort of stuff in Malibu, the idea is great but it doesn’t quite work. But yes, it ends very strong. I tell everybody to watch that movie. To this day, if anybody says “What’s your favourite movie that nobody knows about?” I just immediately go there, and of course it’s not that obscure—it’s Frankenheimer. I still say “you have to see this movie,” and most people I know haven’t seen it.
What’s the biggest difference between working in TV than film? Because you haven’t made a film in a while.
I haven’t made a film in a while because, in a lot of ways Hollywood isn’t making the kind of movies I want to see, so there’s not much opportunity to do that. In the world of independent cinema, where I would happily make a movie, a lot of what would be independent cinema has folded into what now you could call television or streaming, all that sort of thing. I fell into it, and I used to do television every once in a while because I just like to shoot and work with actors, and it takes so long to get a feature going. You put in all this work and shoot for a number of days, and then you’re editing, you don’t get a chance to shoot that much when you are making movies sometimes. I used to do television just to keep myself busy on set between films. And, you know, when HBO, Showtime started making good stuff, I just kind of fell into it. I didn’t take it that seriously at first. I thought, this is good, it’s interesting, the actors are good, the scripts are good, you don’t have the same ownership as when you’re directing a movie, so I kind of backed into it.
I found in some ways it’s a real pleasure when you’re a director, because you aren’t dealing with the same level of politics and nonsense, your job is a little more circumscribed, and it feels a little bit more like being an old-time Hollywood director from the ‘30s. You know, you’re hired to do stuff. Half of me hates it and can’t stand it. It drives me crazy, and I say “what the fuck am I doing, why am I doing this stuff?”—working for writers who don’t have the cinematic sense they should, and making things where I’m restricted in so many ways. But most of the time when I’m working with good writers and good material and good actors, it’s a sort of pure form of directing. That’s kind of great and I’ve really enjoyed it.
The clear difference is—and any director would tell you this—in television your job is mostly on the set. You prep for sure and then shoot, but you only spend a few days editing and you don’t get final cut. You aren’t creating the pieces from the beginning, because they are a part of an ongoing series and the writer, whoever it is, usually has that sort of global perspective on it. I feel when directing television, when the material is good and the actors are great is 65% of a great thing, and 35% you would be doing on a movie that you would like to do which you’re not that involved with.
Anything you’ve liked recently film or TV wise?
There are lots of things I like watching, and they are the things everybody likes. I like watching Black Mirror, Peaky Blinders and that sort of thing.
What have you worked on recently?
I did a couple episodes of an FX series called Snowfall, which is set in the ‘80s in L.A., about the beginnings of crack cocaine, which I think is good. John Singleton developed it, but nobody has paid much attention to it in the States. They’ve made two seasons, I did one in each season. I just think it’s really good and it’s been great to work on, and in fact the lead actor is a Brit, a black guy who sounds and acts exactly like—in fact authentically like—South Central L.A. 1980s. It’s an amazing performance. I might be doing a pilot for something that should be fun and interesting. I just did the third season opener for Jessica Jones for Marvel, it’s the only thing for Marvel I’ve done, and I like that show quite a bit. I stay really busy, and I like it that I get the chance to direct some interesting things. The other advantage of doing television for me is that I get to do things that are different genres, and get to jump around a bit. Unfortunately, I don’t get that much that’s absolutely in line with my sensibilities in the world of television at all but I’m going to look at Strange Angel.2
Did you ever get your Razzie for Hudson Hawk?
Nobody ever offered it to me, and nobody invited me to any sort of ceremony to get it, and nobody ever sent it to me. I have no idea if there is any actual Razzie to be had, but I once saw a video of Paul Verhoeven getting his Razzie for Showgirls. This is the problem when your work is considered the worst movie of the year: there has to be something going on in it to be distinguished as being “the worst.” They usually are not actually the worst movies, but usually are the movies that angered people the most or have plenty of interesting things in them but don’t work. I’m neither humiliated, embarrassed nor proud to win a Razzie—how about that?
1 It was actually a Bruno Fischer story, but Woolrich was adapted three times across the two seasons.
2 A show I suggested he might be suited for.
Heathers is still playing selected Arthouse theatres in the UK and Arrow just released a lavish Blu-Ray special edition with a brand new restoration Buy Here
Hudson Hawk is out on Blu-Ray next month from Signal One Entertainment Buy Here
The Truth About Cats & Dogs just came out on Blu-Ray from Fabulous Films Buy Here