ByFred Topel, writer at
Fred Topel

Here it is, folks. I promised part two of my Daniel Waters interview and here is part two of my Daniel Waters interview. After discussing Vampire Academy, I took a look back at Waters’ other classic movie screenplays. Of course we all know Heathers, in which Christian Slater and Winona Ryder team up to murder popular high schoolers and frame them as suicides, thus making suicide the cool thing to do. I watched Heathers over and over on VHS too.

I also obsessed over The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Hudson Hawk. Ford Fairlane was a vehicle for Andrew Dice Clay, then the most controversial vulgar comic on the standup scene. I defended Hudson Hawk before it was cool to defend Hudson Hawk. A musical action comedy was exactly the movie I wanted to see in the summer of 1991. I also watched it over and over on VHS.

Waters also wrote Batman Returns, the sequel we have to thank for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Those were lightened up after the backlash of the too dark Returns. Then there’s Demolition Man, the Sylvester Stallone sci-fi comedy where commercial jingles are Top 40 hits and we wipe with three seashells instead of toilet paper. Spoilers for all those movies follow.

I want to look back a little. With Heathers, do you regret killing off J.D. at the end given there would’ve been interest in a sequel?

Well, you know, both my original versions of Heathers and Batman Returns, the Winona Ryder character dies at the end of my first version of Heathers and Catwoman dies in my first version of Batman Returns. So I’m always killing everybody. I guess I’m not born to think of sequels. I’m trying to kill everybody off. That was the lightest version of Heathers I think. I think you always needed to kill J.D. no matter what but I had versions where the high school blew up. I had a version where she goes to say hello and say nice things to Martha at the end and she turns around and stabs her.

Christian Slater has said we never saw J.D.’s body. He could’ve still faked his death.

[Laughs] Well, I guess I’ve seen stranger things. Can’t we just do a twin brother? Coming after Winona to avenge his death and he’s the new principal of the high school.

Were there every more murder/suicides than ended up in the film?

Oh, that was my first script I ever wrote. I’m still naive apparently, but I was really naive back then. My first draft was over 200 pages so I had the editor of the school newspaper, he got killed and mistaken suicide. It had a lot more violence.

When you got the job to write The Adventures of Ford Fairlane...

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re bringing up all my skeletons in my closet. [Laughs]

I grew up on these movies. Was that already an Andrew Dice Clay vehicle when you got on?

Well, that was a funny thing in that I came at it as just a detective movie in the music industry. Then they said, “We got this guy, Andrew Dice Clay to be in it.” At the time I wrote it, I wasn’t very familiar with his work so they flew me out to New Jersey to watch him perform, and I watch him perform in this small bar and I thought he was great. I thought he was brilliant. I thought this is a brilliant making fun of a macho *sshole. This is going to be funny because I’m making fun of those kind of characters. Then I think unfortunately he became too popular while the movie was being made. Instead of what I thought was a parody of a macho *sshole, he actually became a macho *sshole. So it kind of took some of the fun out of the script and some of the fun out of the movie I think.

I don’t know, maybe I was really sophisticated but I always got the parody of it.

Oh, cool. It’s still there in parts. I think if the movie would’ve come out earlier before people were sick and tired of him, that would’ve helped too but I think it was more like he’s a comic performer, he knows what he’s doing but too many people who didn’t get the joke loved him. So it was hard for more intelligent viewers, like all these *ssholes down the street like this guy so he can’t be good.

Did you study his act and find ways to put those trademarks into the script?

Oh yeah, definitely. I hung out with him a great deal. I definitely worked in his personality. I’m glad that you see there was a certain comic distance from it. Suddenly that movie was criticized for all the sins of the world. It’s sexist and it’s racist. I was like what? Not really. I’ve actually got some good female characters in this.

Especially as the archetype of the action hero in movies, it makes total sense in that context.

I had the line, “Clint Eastwood, I f***ed him.” What do you want?

I have to tell you I was on board with Hudson Hawk from the beginning in 1991 when I first saw it.

It’s funny, when I’m drunk I like to Google “Daniel Waters underrated” and see what comes up. I’ve been doing “Vampire Academy underrated” and getting a couple hits. So I did that the other night and suddenly all these Ford Fairlane and Hudson Hawk people are coming out. There’s an article, Biggest Turkey of the ‘90s or Underrated Masterpiece? And I’m like all right, people are starting to come.

Now they do, but I got it in 1991. Were you hoping the musical action genre would take off?

[Laughs] Well, again, I may have been a little before my time in that by the time Austin Powers came along, people were ready for somebody that made fun of action movies. I think we were still too much in the world of action movies. Like, Die Hard is one of my favorite movies. Again, another movie plagued by bad marketing where they kinda tried to make it seem like this is just another Die Hard. This is like a different Die Hard. If you went in thinking that, you were going to be very angry when people started singing. I thought that sequence was great. I can’t defend the whole movie but the Swingin’ on a Star heist sequence, that I’ll defend. I like that scene. They love it in Europe!

That was a Bruce Willis dream project, so did he give you guidelines of the character he wanted and what adventure he wanted him to go on?

He really just only had this guy who gets out of prison and is in a new crazy world and can’t deal with it. He didn’t say, “I need some musical numbers.” Although again, you hang out with these people and you know he likes music so you end up trying to please him. Like what’s going to make Andrew Dice Clay happy? What’s going to make Bruce Willis happy? On Batman Returns it was what’s going to make Tim Burton happy? As far as this conception of Catwoman and this conception of Penguin in the sewer, I knew he would like that. You end up borrowing their brain a bit.

But did Bruce Willis want it to be a comedy?

Bruce Willis and Joel Silver, the producer, this may have been our problem with the movie. Every day they wanted a different movie. They would come out and go, “This movie’s got to be like North by Northwest.” And then, “This movie’s got to be like a James Bond movie.” “This movie’s got to be like a Pink Panther spoof movie.” Every day was a different movie and if you look at the results, they’re all there. There’s every kind of movie so I think it’s a lesson I haven’t learned yet. If you look at all my movies, I have a hard time picking one genre. Some people get it. Some people like it. Some people get really angry and think I did something wrong and I’m offending the movie gods.

When you look back at Batman Returns, and I remember the outrage over it when it came out, I love the Nolan movies but I think their Two-Face is the most horrifying thing I’ve every seen. Can you believe people were so disgusted and revolted by The Penguin eating raw fish?

Again, boy I’m making myself sound like I’m some great pioneer, but again I was too early as far as going dark with the superheroes. You’re right. We had this Burger King sponsorship and people were furious. It is kind of a bummer of a movie. I say that in the nicest way. Especially think of a summer movie that ends with such moody melancholy unpleasantness of him in the backseat of a car mourning he thinks Catwoman’s dead. Tim Burton and I were in our own little world. We made the movie we wanted to make. We didn’t care what Batman fans thought or what summer movie fans thought. It was definitely maybe crazy on our part but that’s just the way it was. I love the Christopher Nolan pictures. I think we were doing more poetry and he’s doing more prose, but they’re great. But they make us look like Winnie the Pooh.

As gross as eating the raw fish was, it’s not real.

Can you believe that? We got a raw fish! People complaining about a raw fish!

A guy with half of his face burned off looked real!

And it’s not played for any kind of giddiness or laughs. It’s played completely straight. I don’t know if I can take responsibility for being one of the ones who pushed it but it’s definitely a darker culture now. It’s funny, I’ve been going through talking about the musical version of Heathers that’s in New York right now. What I like about the musical version is it doesn’t try to out-dark Heathers. It actually brings some joy and catharsis and I think that makes it more subversive. To me, dark has been done to death already. Let’s come up with something new than going more dark.

I have a theory about the Batman films you might like. Whatever anyone complains about Batman & Robin, I want to remind them that they asked for that from the Batman movies. After everyone hated Batman Returns so much, they came out with a lighter Batman Forever and everyone loved it and said, “Yes, this is what we want!” So they did that again but by the time of Batman & Robin everyone said, “This is stupid. How dare they do this to Batman?” I want to tell them, "You asked for this. If you don’t like this, you should’ve gotten on board with the Tim Burton vision."

I credit the Joel Schumacher films for making the Christopher Nolan films so good because it took Batman & Robin going way too far into Saturday morning cartoon craziness for Warner Brothers to go, “Oh sh*t, we need something dark. We need something so dark it’s going to blow people’s minds.” It only shows how cyclical the whole process is.

Yeah, but I’d like audiences to see their role in the cycle. That might bring a little more consistency to it if every sequel didn’t have to be so reactionary.

That’s why a mob mentality never works. I find the same thing with the vampire movies. Everybody suddenly started hating vampire movies and hating Twilight and hating that kind of gooeyness. I’m like, “Well, if I looked at your internet history five years, you’d be, ‘Oh, I love it.’” It is about timing too. I don’t think the mob has a consciousness. I don’t think they have the self-awareness that you think they should have.

I do want to touch on Demolition Man also. Was that something where Stallone had a lot of ideas he wanted to do and you had to work those into the script?

Not really. I came in very late in the game on that one. I’ll be honest, most of that was written, I had to wait 20 hours in line for Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show and I needed something to do. So I took this job and I wrote most of Demolition Man in the 20 hours I had to stand in line for Johnny Carson.

As an audience?

Yeah, as an audience, not as a guest. Here’s the thing about Demolition Man. I really only did two weeks of writing on it but as you notice, my name comes up first in the writing credit because it was just much more of a serious Stallone science-fiction action movie. I am the one, for better or for worse, I think the people who like the movie like what I did, the people who don’t like the movie don’t like what I did. Again, mixing peanut butter and chocolate together, mixing too many genres together, but I did like the whole element of what if big, bad, violent Stallone came to the future but the future is suddenly pristine? The whole idea of the two violent guys from the past coming up and messing with the deceptively perfect future. That was my whole concept. Definitely my first draft of Demolition Man scared the sh*t out of Stallone because it was even wackier and more openly humorous than what’s there now. I think he had to give me a reality check. Ryan Reynolds wasn’t born yet.

Was Taco Bell already on board when you wrote Demolition Man?

You know, Taco Bell is so much better. I think I just had McDonald’s but Taco Bell made a merchandising deal. Thank God, it’s so much funnier.

With Heathers, did you write the book of the musical show also?

Oh no, that was totally done by just people who really love the movie. As you can tell I kind of poke in everything I actually do, but they love Heathers more than I do so it was great having people who worshipped the movie do this musical. Outside my Hudson Hawk heist sequence dance number, I’m not really trained as a musical person.

That’s been happening a lot with musicals made by people who loved the movie, like Re-Animator and Toxic Avenger.

To me, that’s better than doing just a crappy shot by shot remake nobody needs.