For a certain stripe of moviegoers, Daniel Waters’ screenplay for 1989’s biting high-school satire “Heathers” produced more quotable lines than Roget, Shakespeare or the Bible. The film, starring Winona Ryder as a wise-beyond-her-years Midwestern teen who inadvertently becomes Bonnie to her murderous rebel boyfriend’s Clyde, served as the ultimate counterpoint to the far more sweet-natured John Hughes films that then ruled the multiplex.
Without “Heathers,” one could argue that there would be no “Jawbreaker,” no “Mean Girls” and certainly no “Juno.” Before Diablo Cody’s world-weary mother-to-be was hushing convenience store clerks with “Silencio, old man,” the members of the student body at Westerberg High were punctuating conversations with “how very” and “what’s your damage?”
Back in the early 1990s, the screenplay became a calling card for Waters, who scored writing assignments on some major studio releases -- none of which really earned much in the way of critical acclaim: “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” “Hudson Hawk,” “Batman Returns” and “Demolition Man.” After moving so quickly into the mainstream, he seemed to disappear from the Hollywood radar. Until now.
Today, Waters lives in the Hollywood foothills in a home that belonged to Orson Welles in the last 15 years of his life -- the place where he died, just off the main foyer, is still outlined in masking tape. Nearby is a coffee-table book called “Pornstar” by Ian Gittler, which features production stills from the numerous adult movies that were shot here in the decade after Welles’ death.
“I bought the house because I wanted to get that ‘Citizen Kane’ mojo,” says Waters. “Instead I’m getting the end of [Welles’] career, the hanging out with Henry Jaglom, doing wine commercials and magic tricks part of his life. I mean, I enjoy my life, but come on -- where’s my ‘Touch of Evil’?”
His new film, “Sex and Death 101,” might not earn too many comparisons to Welles’ classic, but it does place Waters squarely back into off-kilter territory. The story follows a callow ladies’ man (Simon Baker) who, on the eve of his wedding, receives a mysterious e-mail containing the names of all his sex partners, past, present and future.
As existential comic relief, “The Wire’s” Robert Wisdom and celestial stooges Patton Oswalt and Tanc Sade preside over a kind of bureaucratic heaven, while Ryder haunts the margins as a femme fatale nicknamed “Death Nell” by the newspapers. “It’s Neil Simon adapting Georges Bataille,” Waters says. “It’s Roman Polanski directing Seinfeld.”
“You kid yourself into thinking, ‘I’m going to do one for them and one for me,’ and then you realize they’re all for them,” says Waters. “So I came to this point where I realized I hadn’t really written anything -- I don’t even have that drawer full of Orson Welles projects that never got made. ‘Sex and Death 101' came out of just wanting something in the drawer, so that when I’m dangling from a noose above it, there it is.”
Waters began to develop his signature sensibility at a young age. He was born in Cleveland and grew up in South Bend, Ind., home of Notre Dame. There he wrote, directed and starred in a local sketch comedy series called “Beyond Our Control” with Larry Karaszewski -- one half of the team (with Scott Alexander) that wrote “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon.” The collaboration ended when Karaszewski left for USC and Waters moved to Montreal to attend McGill University, where his father taught business ethics. In college, he refined what he describes as his “Bunuel-meets-'Caddyshack’ sensibility.”
“I went to Montreal, where I was kind of pushed in the deep end, watching Godard and Truffaut and Bunuel,” Waters remembers. “So I had to make a decision: I was going to learn to enjoy Godard, or I was going to drink beer and have sex and have a great college experience. And I chose Godard.”
In some ways, “Heathers” was as groundbreaking as some of the films to emerge from the French new wave -- and much funnier. With its school shootings and teen suicide storylines, it was wildly transgressive yet engaging, and its riffs on popularity and materialism unquestionably resurfaced in films such as “Clueless” and “Mean Girls,” the latter of which was directed by Waters’ brother Mark.
Daniel put his brother through the AFI film school and invited him onto his sets (where he observed, for example, what Waters described as “the Nordic comedy stylings of Renny Harlin” that undid “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane”). They are set to partner again on “The Dice Man,” adapted from the ‘70s cult novel, a project currently in development.
Waters says his brother is a little more adept than he at working within the studio system: “I can’t start writing unless it’s got, whether misguided or not, a philosophical payload,” says Waters. “My brother is much better at that. My favorite story is I walked into a restaurant and my brother was on a cellphone, and he said, ‘No, I love the idea of Tom Cruise as the dog.’ I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.
“I just don’t have that Wallace Beery wrestling picture kind of gene,” Waters adds, referencing the Coen brothers’ 1991 film “Barton Fink.”
Before “Sex and Death,” Waters had tried his hand at directing with 2001’s “Happy Campers,” which he calls “Jean Renoir meets ‘Meatballs.’ ” The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival but never received a theatrical release. In the interim, he’s operated quite comfortably below the radar, doing what working screenwriters always do: spending his time and talents on never-made projects like an adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” for Tom Hanks.
Waters also sees an average of 350 new films every year, ranking them from best to worst in e-mails to friends and colleagues. But screenwriting remains his first passion, and he’s one of the few writers in Hollywood to have delivered a debut that resonates with young audiences, even today.
“ ‘Heathers’ was written from a point of complete, utter innocence,” says Waters. “But it’s bizarre, in that it still gives me a lot of cachet. To kids today, ‘The Godfather’ is ‘Casablanca,’ this old movie that shows on TV sometimes. ‘Heathers’ to them is still kind of weirdly vital. So the young people I meet don’t throw me away.”