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Amy Heckerling on the enduring appeal of ‘Clueless’ in the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown

Alicia Silverstone and Justin Walker in "Clueless"
Justin Walker as Christian and Alicia Silverstone as Cher in “Clueless.”
(Elliott Marks / Paramount Pictures)

Ugh, as if any other film could beat “Clueless” for the 12th week of The Times’ Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown. As if.

“Clueless” writer-director Amy Heckerling joined Times film critic Justin Chang on Thursday for an #UlimateSummerMovieShowdown conversation about the 1995 romantic comedy’s enduring appeal and sharp-witted screenplay, loosely based on Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

“When the script went out to all the studios ... one person called me up and said, ‘Hey, did you ever read Emma”?’” Heckerling recalled. “And that was [producer] Amy Pascal ... and it was like, ‘Wait a minute, out of all these people that have read this, nobody else picked that up?’”

Week 12 of the #UltimateSummerMovieShowdown saw Heckerling’s teen classic best runner-up “Aliens” (1986) by a narrow margin. Other titles in the running included “Arthur” (1981), “Arachnophobia” (1990), “RoboCop” (1987), “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), “Trainwreck” (2015) and “Girls Trip,” as well as three Christopher Nolan entries: “Dunkirk” (2017), “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).

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(Warning: Video includes profanity.)

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Set in 1990s Beverly Hills, “Clueless” follows the exceedingly fashionable and lovably spacey Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) as she navigates various teen crises and relationships with the help of her best girlfriends Dionne (Stacey Dash) and Tai (Brittany Murphy).

“Once you get into her head, then it just goes,” Heckerling said of crafting Cher. “It’s not the voice of God. It’s the voice of that person. And you get into it, and it’s not necessarily what the writer needs — it’s what the writer wants you to think that person is thinking. And that’s a lot of fun to do. It’s like, as a writer, you’re also playing a character.”

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Earlier this week, Chang and Times TV reporter Yvonne Villarreal discussed how “Clueless,” which turned 25 this month, still holds up today thanks to its “wittily stylized teen vernacular,” “brightly hued costumes” and “ridiculously quotable dialogue.” Separately, Heckerling offered Chang a glimpse into her research process for the movie’s Valley Girl vocabulary, which involved hanging out in schools, listening to young people and watching MTV.

“I wanted to give them their own separate language, of course,” she said. “Young people always do have their own separate language that separates them from people that are older.”

Times writers Justin Chang and Yvonne Villarreal revisit Amy Heckerling’s irresistible teen comedy.

Heckerling also opened up about her experiences as a woman filmmaker navigating what was then — and continues to be — a male-dominated field and how she coped with the sexism in the industry.

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“Your agent would say, ‘OK, we can take it here, and we can take it there, but we can’t take it to Disney because they already have their female movie,’” she said. “You feel like you’re in competition with every other woman because if you get something, they can’t have it, and vice versa — because they were giving out very little of it....

“There was a lot of, ‘Girls can’t do this,’ ‘Girls don’t know what’s funny,’ ‘Girls can’t do action,’ ‘Girls, girls, girls.’ And my attitude, for better or worse, was ... I’m just going to try to do what I need to do and make it happen by some sheer force of will because nobody else wants what I want to do to happen, so I’ve got to keep that vision and plow through. And all the negative stuff that they’re saying, I’m not going to listen to.”

What’s next: On Thursday, Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018) clinched the Week 13 crown over “Caddyshack” (1980) in the final round for the next #UltimateSummerMovie. Join Chang at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 for a live conversation about “Fallout” on the Los Angeles Times’ Classic Hollywood Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter.


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