Sitting in the '50s-style diner booth in her kitchen, film writer and director Amy Heckerling glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost 5 p.m., when she was scheduled to meet with an executive at Disney. Heckerling has been forced to become something of a clock-watcher ever since her prenatal baby film "Look Who's Talking" burst fall box-office records when it opened two weeks ago. In the days since, she has been courted by just about every studio in town.
"I get on the treadmill, and I say to my husband"--film director Neal Israel ("Bachelor Party")--"that I really want to exercise for a half an hour. Can you take messages?" Heckerling said in her Bronx accent. "I get off and he hands me a full page of messages. I have three phone lines in my house and they never stop ringing."
"Look Who's Talking" stars Kirstie Alley as the single mother of a precocious, talking fetus--and later baby--who tries to persuade his mom (via Bruce Willis' voice) that bumbling cabby John Travolta is the perfect dad. Heckerling conceived the idea shortly after her daughter Mollie was born four years ago.
"When I had Mollie, she would sit on the table in this baby seat and just endlessly look around," the 35-year-old Heckerling said. "My husband and I started to put words in her mouth, what she might be thinking based on her expressions--like when the baby in the film looks at the woman's breasts and says, 'Lunch!' Kids are always grabbing at your clothes if you're a woman, and there's something sexual about it to us. But to them, it's a soda fountain."
Some of the movie's biggest laughs occur before Mikey, the baby, is born. To carry her idea into the womb, Heckerling used liquid special effects to track the wise-cracking Mikey--first as an impudent sperm diving headlong into an ovary, then through his various stages of fetal development. At one point, Heckerling's bizarre vision had the unborn Mikey playing paddle ball with his placenta. She finally decided to cut that scene because it "looked too awful."
"I was very worried," said Heckerling about giving the unborn baby a voice. "I didn't want to do a pro-life type of movie. I wanted to do something that was a fantasy. So I didn't want to make a statement that when a baby is conceived it's talking. A number of my girlfriends said, 'Why don't you wait until the fetus is 3 months old before he starts to talk?' But I felt like, if you're setting up a gimmick, you have to do it immediately. And then I decided I could avoid the whole issue if I made the sperm talk too."
The talking-baby gimmick paid off in a huge way. "Look Who's Talking," released by Tri-Star Pictures, bested its own box-office record in its second weekend and has collected more than $30 million in two weeks. Early predictions are that the modest $8-million film will approach the $100-million stratosphere if it can hold on through the holiday season.
"It's a crap shoot. There's no telling if a movie is going to work or not work," Heckerling said.
And she should know. Heckerling, who won awards as a film student at New York University and the American Film Institute, made her successful directorial debut in 1982 with "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Hollywood thought it had found itself a shining young female director, but Heckerling's sterling image quickly tarnished after lackluster comedy outings with Michael Keaton in "Johnny Dangerously" and Chevy Chase in "National Lampoon's European Vacation."
" 'Johnny Dangerously' and 'European Vacation' were nightmares from hell," Heckerling candidly said, resting her chin in her hand and shaking her head. "After 'Fast Times,' it was like, 'OK, you're in. You can do movies. You're one of the gang. Now, here are the movies we're offering you.' I used to think that women could only stay in this business if they made money. I had this philosophy that a man can fail and keep going but a woman can't."
After Mollie was born, Heckerling stepped away from film and developed "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" into a TV series for CBS. Although it lasted only seven episodes, the experience swept the director back to her college days when she used to direct her own scripts. "It was so much more satisfying. I told myself this is the only way I can work, and if that means doing only television for the rest of my life, I don't care."
"Amy is really on her game when she's able to write and direct both," said Tri-Star president Jeff Sagansky. It was Sagansky who took a chance on Heckerling's pitch and commissioned her to write the script for "Look Who's Talking" after Warner Bros., Disney and Orion had passed on the idea.
"She has a very quirky, offbeat comic sense," Sagansky said. "When she's free to use that on a film, she's really on firm footing. It's what she does best. Those other films really weren't her sensibilities. She had done great work before. I wasn't chased off because she wasn't coming off a big hit. The offers are piling up knee-deep now."
When Heckerling sat down to write "Look Who's Talking," she wanted to create something that she was close to. "I didn't want to be in the race for who comes up with the best picture that everybody wants. I didn't work so hard to put myself through film school to kowtow to movie stars, and all that nonsense.
"I just knew that I needed to express something, and do it whether it makes money or not, even if it takes years to complete. I just said to myself, 'This is the one idea I have. I'm going to go to all the people I know--whether or not they like me anymore, at least I can get in and tell it to them.' It doesn't matter how many chips are down. You only need one person to say yes. And one person did."
Heckerling knew that she wanted Travolta--another underdog who had mostly faded from public view--to play the lovable cab driver. Enter producer Jonathan D. Krane, who also manages Travolta. Not only did Krane supply Travolta, he offered to produce the film for almost half of the $13 million slated by Tri-Star by dressing up parts of Vancouver, British Columbia, to double for New York.
"Inexpensive movie making," Krane said, "comes down to one thing: "the passion of the director, which translates into careful planning and attention to detail. Amy had that passion from the start. If somebody has the talent and persistence necessary to survive the ups and downs, they will ultimately be successful. I view a director's last film much less importantly. Give me passion, and I'll back that any day of the week."
The rough cut of "Look Who's Talking" was completed in February, and the film was scheduled for a March release. Although an unusually high 95% of theater audiences tested liked the film, at the last minute Tri-Star decided to steer clear of the heavy summer competition and aim for a fall release. The seven-month setback fueled rumors inside the industry that the film was a dud and might never be released. Sagansky and Krane firmly denied the suggestion that they ever considered dumping the film.
For the moment, like it or not, Heckerling is basking in a baby shower of praise for "Look Who's Talking," while studio suitors continue to woo her. The director is thinking about her next project, another comedy that involves a new gimmick--but she won't let on exactly what the gimmick is. She's just looking forward to starting work on another film that is hers.
"Goethe says, 'What has not burst forth from your own soul will never refresh you.' That's the only reason to really do a film. Because directors always look like idiots on the set. Really. It's just a stupid thing to do. So now my movie comes out and for two weeks people are calling me. That's not the reality. The reality is the work. That's where you have to be refreshed--not from two weeks of 'We love you.' "