It's not that hard to believe that it's been 25 years since the release of "Heathers," on March 31, 1989.
Really, the movie seems like an artifact from a different era, one paradoxically bolder than our own. It's hard to imagine a movie getting made today that makes fun of teen suicide, schoolhouse violence, and the public grieving process that follows both. "Heathers"'s gleefully gruesome satire made stars out of Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and Shannen Doherty, launched the careers of screenwriter Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann, and created the mold for subversive schoolgirl comedies to come, from "Clueless" to "Mean Girls."
"Heathers" wasn't a hit at first, but it eventually became such a huge cult success that it made lunchroom polls and lines like "What's your damage?" into pop-culture fixtures. Still, as many times as you've seen it, there's still much you may not know about "Heathers," from which other actors and actresses almost starred in it, to the inside-jokey names peppered throughout the script, to the eerie life-imitates-art nature of the deaths of two of its performers. So crack open a bottle of mineral water (not that there's anything wrong with that) and read all about the secrets of "Heathers."
1. Screenwriter Daniel Waters modeled the initial cafeteria sequence after the barracks chatter in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." In fact, Waters initially tried to interest Kubrick in the script, believing he was the only director who could handle the project's dark-comic tone and its (at that time) three-hour length.
2. Once Waters recognized the futility of trying to hook Kubrick, his script ended up with director Michael Lehmann, who had never directed a commercial feature before; at the time, Lehmann was best known for his student film, the arrestingly titled "Beaver Gets a Boner."
3. Originally, Jennifer Connelly and Justine Bateman were sought for the role of Veronica.
4. Winona Ryder begged to be in the movie, but, at 16, was thought too young. Eventually, however, the filmmakers decided she was mature enough for the role of Veronica.
5. Heather Graham, aptly enough, was to play cheerleader Heather McNamara, but the 17-year-old's mother wouldn't let her because she found the script in bad taste, the filmmakers recalled later.
6. The then-unknown Brad Pitt auditioned for J.D. but didn't get the role because he was seen as "too nice."
7. Glenn Shadix, as Father Ripper, had worked with Ryder before, as Otho, the interior decorator/exorcist in "Beetlejuice."
8. The police officers who investigate Ram and Kurt's supposed double suicide are named McCord and Milner, after actors Kent McCord and Martin Milner, stars of 1970s cop drama series "Adam-12."
9. Yes, that's Renée Estevez, younger sister of Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, as Veronica Sawyer's friend Betty Finn.
10. Notice those names, by the way? Veronica and Betty come from the old Archie comics, of course, while Sawyer and Finn come from classic Mark Twain characters.
11. One more big literary allusion: "Moby-Dick," the book in which Heather Chandler has been highlighting ominous passages before her supposed suicide. Originally, the filmmakers wanted to use "Catcher in the Rye" for that gag, but they couldn't get permission from J.D. Salinger.
12. The school was named Westerburg High based on Ryder's fandom of the band The Replacements, whose lead singer was Paul Westerberg.
13. If Veronica had known German, she'd have been more suspicious of those supposedly harmless "Ich lüge" bullets that J.D. said he would use on Kurt and Ram. After all, "Ich lüge" is German for "I lie."
14. Slater was already dating Kim Walker (Heather Chandler) when the film began shooting; by the end of the shoot, he was dating Ryder.
15. Slater acknowledged that he was doing a Jack Nicholson impression throughout his performance. He tried to contact Nicholson himself to get him to watch the younger actor's homage, but he got no response.
16. The original ending was much darker. It had Veronica shooting J.D., then strapping the bomb on and blowing herself up. The text to what (in the actual release) became J.D.'s "imagine I blew up all the schools" speech is written in a suicide note found in Veronica's locker. The film then would have concluded with a prom in heaven, the one place where all the social cliques would mix and finally get along, according to J.D. The promgoers would drink punch that was, of course, made of drain cleaner. As dark as the film was, the studio found that ending too dark and insisted on the milder, slightly less explosive finale that was ultimately shot and released.
17. The film cost an estimated $3 million to make but grossed just $1.1 million in theaters. It was only after years of video rentals that "Heathers" was recognized as a cult classic.
18. Just two years after missing out on the "Heathers" role, Pitt would become a star by playing another character named J.D. (again, with both "James Dean" and "juvenile delinquent" implied) in "Thelma & Louise." Two years after that, he and Slater would both appear in "True Romance."
19. According to producer Denise Di Novi, Doris Day reportedly wouldn't let the filmmakers use her version of "Que Sera, Sera" because she didn't want her recording associated with a movie that used profanity. (Di Novi's father had been a session musician for Day and recalled to his daughter that the squeaky-clean pop star/actress made her musicians put money in a swear jar whenever they uttered a profane word.) "Que Sera, Sera" does appear on the "Heathers" soundtrack, in versions by Syd Straw and Sly and the Family Stone.
20. Waters and Lehmann reteamed on the 1991 Bruce Willis caper "Hudson Hawk," a movie that nearly killed both filmmakers' careers. Waters also went on to have a hit with the screenplay to "Batman Returns," while Lehmann's biggest post-"Heathers" success was probably the romantic comedy "The Truth About Cats and Dogs."
21. The role of Heather Duke proved a big break for Shannen Doherty. A year later, she found stardom as high-school sweetheart Brenda Walsh on Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210."
22. Kim Walker, who, as Heather Chandler, uttered the immortal line, "Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?", died in 2001 of a brain tumor. She was 32.
23. Jeremy Applegate, who played Veronica's friend Peter Dawson, who prays not to suffer Heather Chandler's fate because "I don't think I could handle suicide," actually committed suicide in real life, with a shotgun, in 2000. He was 35.
24. Waters' brother, Mark Waters, is best known for directing "Mean Girls," the 2004 high school clique comedy that clearly owes a large debt to "Heathers." In 2014, the Waters brothers collaborated on "Vampire Academy" (think "Heathers" with fangs), with Daniel writing and Mark directing.
25. In 2009, Ryder claimed a sequel was in the works, in which Christian Slater's J.D. would return as an undead mentor, "a kind of Obii-Wan character," the actress said. Lehmann denied, however, that there would be any feature sequel. That same year, a TV series was in development, one that would update "Heathers" to the present day, with the daughters of the original characters squabbling for social status. That project also failed to come to fruition. There is, however, a stage musical version of "Heathers" that is opening Off-Broadway this month.
Photo by New World / courtesy Everett Collection