It’s doubtful that the dark comedy Heathers, with its shocking violence and politically incorrect teen-speak, would likely ever be made today—at least not by a major studio. But the biting 1989 satire was widely embraced by film critics and its (initially tiny) audience.
1. Heathers was written by a video store clerk.
Daniel Waters moved to Los Angeles during the 1980s and was working at what he described as “the least cool video store” in Silver Lake when he wrote Heathers. In 2008, Waters insisted to The Hollywood Interview blog that he was working on the whole video store clerk-to-screenwriter metamorphosis “before I knew it was a cliché.”
2. The initial script for Heathers was much longer and featured more violence.
When Waters finished his first draft of Heathers (which was the first script he’d ever written), it was 200 pages long, which would have roughly amounted to a three-hour film. The body count was higher, too; not even the editor of the school newspaper survived.
3. Daniel Waters wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct Heathers.
Waters wanted the legendary moviemaker to direct his film, back in its initial stages when it was 180 minutes long. It didn’t happen. But director Michael Lehmann, who did direct the film, had Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in mind when he shot the opening cafeteria sequence.
4. The high school in Heathers was named after the singer in Winona Ryder’s favorite band.
Westerberg High was named after The Replacements’ singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg. At one point in the film, Christian Slater’s character J.D. says “color me impressed,” which references a song by The Replacements.
5. Heathers was set in Ohio for three reasons.
Waters chose to set Heathers in the Defiance County, Ohio village of Sherwood because: Waters’s favorite book is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; Robin Hood was the benevolent rebel of Sherwood Forest; and Waters grew up on Sherwood Street in Cleveland.
6. Both Jennifer Connelly and Justine Bateman turned down the role of Veronica in Heathers.
But 15-year-old Winona Ryder really, really wanted the role. Initially, Waters didn’t think Ryder was pretty enough to play the lead. “I was like, ‘The girl from Lucas? She’s just not attractive,” Waters recounted to Entertainment Weekly. But Ryder was undeterred: “You have to understand, at the time, I didn’t look that different from my character in Beetlejuice,” Ryder explained. “I was very pale. I had blue-black dyed hair. I went to Macy’s at the Beverly Center and had them do a makeover on me.”
7. Winona Ryder’s agent begged her not to take the part in Heathers.
“My agent at the time literally got on her knees and begged me not to do [the movie],” Ryder recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “She had her hands together, and she goes, ‘You will never. Work. Again.’ We parted ways later.”
8. Brad Pitt auditioned for the role of J.D. in Heathers.
Pitt participated in an informal read-through as Jason Dean, and told Waters the script was “brilliant.” His compliment didn’t get him the part though, since producers decided that Christian Slater had the right look for a murderer, and Pitt looked too nice.
9. Heather Graham’s parents refused to let her be in Heathers.
She had that first name and everything, but the Grahams were convinced that the script was offensive and not the right fit for their 17-year-old daughter (who would later play porn star Rollergirl in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in 1997). Kim Walker, Christian Slater’s girlfriend at the time, landed the role of Heather Chandler instead.
10. Shannen Doherty had issues with all the swearing in Heathers.
Though she has since developed a reputation as a wild child, back in 1989 Shannen Doherty was uncomfortable with the script’s frequent use of profanity. According to Ryder, it was Doherty who was supposed to ask be gently loved with a chainsaw, but the actress refused. “It was definitely the first time I had ever, ever spoken like that in my entire life,” Doherty admitted to Entertainment Weekly. “I was a very sheltered 17-year-old. My mom was on set with me. I definitely had moments where I was blushing through my makeup.”
11. Lisanne Falk lied about her age to play Heather Mcnamara in Heathers.
Falk claimed to be 18 years old at the time of filming. In reality, she was 23.
12. Daniel Waters stole a few of Heathers‘s most memorable lines.
When the screenwriter was a camp counselor, a camper named Jamie used to ask people “What’s your damage?” “I just completely stole that from her,” Waters admits. “And one of my college friends used to say ‘F*** me gently with a crowbar.’ And then I realized crowbar sounded too masculine. Chainsaw was more feminine. And apparently ‘f*** me gently’ was at one time a common expression in England. This is the evolution of nasty language. That’s where my friend extrapolated ‘F*** me gently’ into ‘F*** me gently with a crowbar.’ And then I had to have him killed so I could take credit.”
13. Doris Day refused usage of her version of “Que Sera, Sera” in Heathers because she disliked profanity.
Heathers producer Denise Di Novi had a feeling that only versions by Syd Straw and Sly and the Family Stone would end up in the movie and/or the soundtrack; her father was a session musician for Day, and he claimed that the actress/singer would make musicians add to a swear jar if they cursed.
14. “ich lüge” is German for “i’m lying.”
J.D. tells Veronica that the “ich lüge” bullets he’ll use to scare the school jocks will do just that—scare them—when, in fact, they’re intended to kill them.
15. Christian Slater was doing an impression of Jack Nicholson throughout Heathers.
The actor failed to get in touch with Nicholson to ask him to watch and give approval.
16. The studio wouldn’t allow an ending with a prom to be filmed.
New World Pictures didn’t like the part in the original screenplay when J.D. successfully blows up all of Westerberg High, but the prom commences—in heaven. In another alternate ending, Martha stabs Veronica.
17. Heathers only made $1.1 million in theaters.
Because Heathers, which was released on March 31, 1989, was made for $3 million, it wasn’t technically a box office bomb. It’s still considered to be a “cult classic” though, because it became much more popular when it aired constantly on cable and was released on video.
18. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater got together after shooting Heathers.
Slater and Walker broke up after filming, freeing Christian and Winona to make out “a few times,” according to Ryder. Oh, you kids.
19. There was a Heathers musical.
An initial reading took place in 2010, with Kristen Bell as Veronica. After a limited Los Angeles engagement in 2013, Heathers: The Musical ran Off-Broadway from March through August 2014.
20. Heathers star Kim Walker passed away in 2001.
In one of her most famous lines from the film, Kim Walker—as Heather Chandler—asks Shannen Doherty’s Heather Duke, “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” Tragically, Walker passed away 12 years later, at the age of 32, from a brain tumor.
This story has been updated for 2021.