Over the course of Amy Heckerling's 30 years as a writer and director, she's carved out a niche for herself making broad mainstream comedies like Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Clueless, which try to stay rooted in real human behavior and real human problems. Heckerling's latest feature film, I Could Never Be Your Woman, stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a Heckerling-esque middle-aged TV producer and single mother, battling the bosses at her network over the content of a teen-oriented comedy show. Heckerling finished the film in 2005, but due to the financial troubles of some of her backers, I Could Never Be Your Woman sat in limbo, and finally showed up on DVD earlier this year. Heckerling recently spoke with The A.V. Club about her career-long struggles with studios, and what her film has to say about the Hollywood beauty mill.
The A.V. Club: I Could Never Be Your Woman appears to offer a personal perspective on what it's like to be a working mother in Hollywood. How much of it is directly taken from your own experiences?
Amy Heckerling: Some of it. Mainly the idea of having to try to figure out what's going on with the youth of today, and then trying to cater to them and serve them up something you know is BS, because you have a real young person around you.
AVC: How much input has your daughter had on your more youth-centered work?
AH: When I was doing the Clueless series, my daughter was an entirely separate entity. There was a studio, and a network, and what they expected us to feed to young people. And then there was this person who had entirely different taste, and no interest in becoming the kind of characters I was expected to write. She had no interest in becoming what she calls a "fashion girl," or a "girly girl." She was not interested in clothes, not interested in trends. She'd be much happier listening to Billie Holiday and watching Marx brothers movies. And she was a pre-teen at the time.
AVC: How do you strike a balance between wanting to entertain a mass audience, and also wanting to write something that's true, and maybe even a little painful?
AH: Well, there's another element involved, and that's knowing that there really are young people out there who care a great deal about what you say to them. There are these images and characters you want to give them to look up to, vs. what you're going to be allowed to do or say. It can be something as simple as a girl dressing a certain way. Do you dress her up so that she's comfortable, or so she'll look pretty, or because you like the way it looks? Is it too sexual? Do you want your daughter to have to dress that way and worry about it? It's tough.
AVC: The film presents a pretty scathing portrait of the beauty industry in Hollywood, but do you have any sympathy for women who get caught up in it, and Botox themselves to keep their careers viable?
AH: It's been that way from Sunset Boulevard on. Hollywood is the dream factory, and no one dreams about older women. It's a youth-and-beauty-obsessed place that sells a certain image. Of course I have sympathy. If you look at all the pictures of women in magazines, everybody's got a forehead that looks like a billboard. Completely blank. When I was 20, I had these furrowed lines between my brows, because I was always angry. And I was 20. I don't think that was a mark of age; it was just my personality. Yet these people think that when you have a completely blank head, you can put advertising on it. That's not youthful. What is that? Some of these young girls that I find and put in films, I see them in a magazine a year later, and they've got big fat lips and stick figures. And you go, "Why? Why are you buying into this?"
AVC: A lot of I Could Never Be Your Woman is drawn from your experience working on the Clueless TV series. Given that you were making a show for kids, but also trying to reflect how kids really talk, did you have a lot of fights about how frank you could be?
AH: Your hands are tied by the censors. It was very restrictive. In movies, too. And Clueless was a pretty tame movie. That was the least I've ever had to deal with the ratings board about how much I had to change. A lot of my movies were completely destroyed by the censors, who can be pretty arbitrary. They're not completely fair with how they treat one person vs. another.
AVC: I Could Never Be Your Woman has gotten some press because it's being sent straight to video, in spite of a cast of well-known actors and your own marketable résumé. That must be disappointing, but at the same time, the story does give you a hook you can use to bring attention to the film. Is that any compensation?
AH: No. Nobody wants to tell that story. Nobody wants to go around going, "Hey, look. My kid is in the hospital." Nobody in the industry thinks, "Oh, isn't that too bad! We feel sorry for you," or, "Gee, the movie went to DVD. It must be really good or have an interesting story behind it." It's just bad. It's just bad, bad, bad. There's really no nice, interesting spin you can put on it from my point of view.
AVC: But judging by this year's crop of independent films at Sundance, it seems that there are a lot of movies being made these days that have big stars but can't make a sale or get theatrical distribution. It's like the new technologies are making it easier to get a film made, but it's harder than ever to get it released, because of the glut of product.
AH: It's not so much the glut as how much it costs to do a studio release. You could go out with a camcorder tomorrow and make a movie with virtually no money, but promoting a tiny low-budget movie costs $20 million. And the money they spend on the big movies is astronomical.
AVC: Do you feel any affinity with the new crop of up-and-coming writers and directors? Is there anyone doing what you've tried to do, to make mainstream comedies that also have a certain truth to them?
AH: My taste is different. I like quirkier shit. And the last thing I've been excited about is—I don't know who did this movie, but I really liked it—Teeth. That was insane! I loved that. The last thing I was really excited about before that was South Park. That was a long time ago.
AVC: Does your daughter still keep you informed?
AH: Yeah, but not like, "Oh, here's the new thing, Ma. You have to hear it." Although she did turn me on to OK Go. And she just sent me the movie This Is England, which is great.
AVC: Throughout your career, you've managed to control your work by being a writer and director. Have you ever wanted to go fully independent and try to find your own distribution channels?
AH: No. If this is independence, I'd rather go back to what they call "the devil you know." When I did Clueless, there was a big studio system that had marketing and distribution people who knew what they were doing, and had an idea of what TV shows movies should be advertised on, and did research into who liked which movie, and what they watch and what they read, and how much it costs to reach them. These people who knew how to make posters and advertisements. You know, I liked that machine. It worked.
AVC: You attended the American Film Institute's graduate program, which is notoriously grueling. What was it like when you were there?
AH: I'm sure it was a different place than what it is now, but I'm really glad I went. It was very important in helping me get into the industry and having a calling card that was viable, and something that would be impressive to people in the industry. But at the time, I was fairly miserable, because I was from New York, and I was not a wealthy kid, and I had never been anywhere. California was very frightening to me, and I was not adapting very well.
AVC: How did AFI differ from NYU?
AH: NYU was my comfort zone. It was in the Village, and there was a film professor there who was very good to me, and we had our little tiny cameras and we were out on the streets doing stupid stuff, and that was a lot of fun. There was no sense that there was an industry. You were just out on the street, messin' around.
AVC: Did you have an eye toward getting into the industry even when you were at NYU?
AH: I've wanted to make movies desperately since I was a kid. That was pretty much all I knew that was nice. I grew up watching movies on TV. I grew up in a building full of Holocaust survivors, and I was watching Fred Astaire on TV. What seems happier?
AVC: Does having past success in Hollywood give you any kind of leverage to get what you want? Or do you have to start from scratch every single time?
AH: It's always a new river every time you stick your foot in.
AVC: Is that why you take so long between films, or is there some other reason?
AH: It's different every time. I did Fast Times, Johnny Dangerously, and European Vacation in less than two years. And that didn't exactly make me happier, to say "I've got a shitload of movies." And then I had a kid, and that was a priority. This year, I had other issues that took precedence over my career. But then sometimes, you become really impassioned about a project, and you still get chucked around a lot. If I didn't care, I could have done a bunch of movies about women and their stupid weddings.
AVC: Do you wish the Amy Heckerling shelf had a few more items on it?
AH: It's not really my place to think about it. Who cares? There were missed opportunities, and there are things I wish I'd never gotten up to do. I can't think about it, because I'm stuck inside of me. Nobody can tell the future, or how things would've happened. There's no point to that. As far as, like, wishing I did a shitload more—I mean, do you wish you fucked more beautiful women? What are you gonna do?
AVC: After all you've gone through with I Could Never Be Your Woman, are you still proud of it?
AH: It just represents a lot of unhappiness to me. I loved working with Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfeiffer and Saoirse Ronan and all the other people, and I got to make some friends in England, where it was shot. But I'm not happy about what happened. I feel bad. But I feel bad about sadder things than this, too.