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A Controversial, Satiric Look at Teen Angst : First-Time Director Denies Intention to Stir Suicide Fears

Times Staff Writer

Warning: This is not “The Breakfast Club.” First-time director Michael Lehmann’s new film, “Heathers,” is anything but a John Hughes imitation. Lehmann wants his piercing, comedic look at the dark side of teen-age angst to disturb and unnerve audiences. “I do want people to be a little shaken up,” Lehmann confesses.

But the 31-year-old director didn’t intend to stir up public fears about teen-age suicide. The New World film, widely viewed in Hollywood as an impressive effort from a first-time director, is generating criticism from some quarters for its black comedy treatment of teen violence, particularly suicide. “Heathers,” written by 26-year-old Daniel Waters, opens in Los Angeles on March 31.

In advance screenings, some adults have expressed concern about the film’s effect on youths. But, says producer Denise Di Novi, the teens in the audience usually “have a blank look on their faces” when that issue is raised. “They see in it what they hate about high school--the tyranny of social groups,” Di Novi says. “They get very clearly that these are their dark fantasies.”

The movie is told from the point of view of 17-year-old Veronica (Winona Ryder), who has wildly conflicting feelings about the elite “Heathers” clique she has joined. Her fantasy of seeing her tyrannical best friend killed comes true, but the killing is disguised as a teen suicide. Other murders of popular bullies at Ohio’s Westerburg High--also disguised as suicides--follow. (Overseas, the film is being marketed under the title “Lethal Attraction.”)

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“It’s not about suicide,” Lehmann, a former philosophy student, says of his exploration of teen-age social structures. “It’s a movie about cruelty. This is a movie about moral issues. It doesn’t gloss over them . . . I’m the guy who is always saying that ‘Rambo’ and ‘Top Gun’ are dangerous movies. They really do present an immoral position.”

The treatment of suicide in any film or TV show is a delicate matter. There have been reports of teen-agers committing suicide after seeing TV shows dealing with the issue, and some recent studies have concluded there is a link between portrayals of suicide on the news, TV shows and movies, and temporary upswings in teen suicide rates. (Medical studies say the effect appears to center on youths under 24, not adults.)

Moreover, the release of “Heathers” comes at a time when suicide and depression are on the rise among young people, says Dr. Michael Strober, associate professor and co-director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital.

But Strober, who viewed the film at the request of The Times, says “Heathers” should have a positive effect on teens. “It is a biting commentary on the way some teens fall upon self-destructive behavior as a means of dealing with their emotional troubles,” he says. “You hope that teens watch this movie and think about what it is. At times the message is very subtle.”

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Strober describes that message as this: “Be aware of self-indulgent behavior, reappraise social values, don’t look upon differences as a basis for criticizing others.” He adds that “Heathers” is a sober look at adolescent life at a time when “there has been an alarming increase in violent (behavior), a cavalier disregard for human life.”

Dr. Michael Peck, a clinical psychologist who develped the state Department of Education’s suicide-prevention curriculum, says “Heathers” doesn’t pose a danger because teens aren’t likely to feel any emotional bond to the characters, most of whom are ridiculed by the film makers. “The audience never gets caught up with any character enough to become sympathetic (with their plight),” said Peck.

In the original script, Winona Ryder’s character--the most sympathetic in the film--committed suicide, said Lehmann. That aspect of the script was rewritten. The violent character is the film is J.D. (Christian Slater), who comes to town as the cool rebel, complete with a Jack Nicholson-type swagger and voice, but turns out to be a psychopathic killer.

Stephen White, then-theatrical president of New World Pictures, said he consulted with medical experts and researched the issue of teen suicide and violence before deciding to go ahead with the film. “Don’t think we weren’t worried,” White says. “I did go the extra mile. Ultimately you have to make a judgment, but I don’t take it lightly.”

But it’s not just the film’s treatment of teen violence that has shaken up some audiences since it was first screened at the U.S. Film Festival in Utah in January. “Certain members of the socially responsible left feel it’s a cynical view of teens, that movies dealing with social issues should be uplifting,” Lehmann says. “I wonder if people who grew up in more idealistic times are troubled by seeing their children as cynical and disillusioned.”

Despite his short career, Lehmann is already accustomed to stirring up the waters. After studying art at UC Berkeley, earning a degree in philosophy from Columbia University and studying 19th-Century philosophy at a West German university, Lehmann landed a job at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, where he supervised experimental video systems.

It was while he attended USC’s film school that he took on the persona of a film rebel. His student film project told the story of a student who applies for a scholarship in order to pay back money owed to his drug dealer.

The project was not exactly the typical USC student film. “I decided to try to make a movie that went against the grain of USC films,” Lehmann says."This movie upset conventions. But I wanted to make a movie like John Waters, not Steven Spielberg.”

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After graduating in 1985, Lehmann came across Daniel Waters’ (no relation to the director) script for “Heathers.” It was more than 200 pages long--which would take some three hours to tell on screen--but it had obvious flashes of brilliance and appealed to Lehmann’s rebellious side.

Waters’ inspiration for the story came from two sources: His sister and her friends, who described to him the intense peer pressure they experienced at their South Bend, Ind., high school, and a chapter in Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” that describes how young girls cultivate their images.

“I know the film will offend a lot of people,” Waters says. “But I hope it’s a healthy anger.”

“Heathers,” he says, “tries to take the glamour out of suicide.” For example, no one cries at the funerals of the teens who are killed, and Veronica’s brief attempt at suicide ends up making her look foolish.

Just for the record, neither Lehmann or Waters were the victims of adolescent cruelty in their own high schools. Waters was the writer of what he calls a “cynical” column on campus life for the school paper. Lehmann was a rock ‘n’ roller at his San Francisco high school. “In a way, my grammar school (the private Marin Country Day School) was much crueler than high school,” Lehmann recalls. “Some students had to leave because they were teased so much.”

Waters is now at work on a black comedy about the modeling business. Lehmann, together with his producer-partner Di Novi, has a second film coming out from New World this summer called “Meet the Applegates.”

“It’s not as dark as ‘Heathers,’ ” says Di Novi. “It’s about giant bugs from Brazil that take the form of the perfect American family, Dick and Jane . . ..”


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