In a 1995 review of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, Roger Ebert called it “a smart and funny movie,” adding, “the characters are in on the joke.” That kind of self-awareness is what makes Heckerling’s films endure, decades later. And for two nights this weekend, Metrograph cinema on the Lower East Side will be holding a retrospective in her honor, screening four of Heckerling’s definitive films: Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Johnny Dangerously, and Look Who’s Talking. Ahead of her retrospective, we caught up with the director to discuss her influences, legacy, and what would make Walt Disney rise from his grave. Despite occupying a spot as one of Hollywood’s only female directors responsible for award-winning films, she was hesitant to claim any victories in an industry that consistently fails to fund women’s projects.
You have a particular style. What are your influences?
I get up in the morning and if I put on something and it’s colorful, I go, “Who do you think you are?” And I change. It’s not like I want to be something … I guess it’s wanting to be a little bit invisible. Not standing out. I know black is a statement, but you’re not saying, “Hey, look at me in my red flower dress.”
Metrograph will be showing your work, so you won’t be invisible there.
I am extremely uncomfortable with public speaking. In fact, I’m even uncomfortable in an office situation having to pitch something to people.
What do you do to prepare?
It’s not like I can do some yoga or relaxation and it helps me or anything. I can’t prepare; I’m just miserable. But the moments before are much worse than while you’re actually doing it.
Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount both have no female directors on their rosters until 2018. What’s going on?
Wow. At one point, an agent of mine called and said, we could show your script here and here and here, but Disney already had their female for now. They had one. You couldn’t go there because they weren’t going to have more than one.
What if that happened?
The world would explode. Walt would rise from his frozen death. Who knows. I’m thinking of a hysterical moment in the Family Guy where they have Walt Disney getting up from his grave and saying, “Are the Jews gone yet?” (Laughs.)
You were an avid follower of Downton Abbey. Dan Stephens said in an interview that you wrote him an email about dropping Lady Mary. What was that about?
I didn’t think Mary was good enough for him. My great aunt, who I’m pretty sure was a spy during World War II, she was 105 and we would watch it together. When the father was having an affair with one of the maids, she said, “I’ve lost all respect for him.” Like they were real people. Then, when Dan Stephens’ character died, I was very upset. “I hope your ghost is going to be in the next season,” I told him, because I thought he could be giving advice to Mary on her other suitors.
What other shows do you follow?
I used to watch Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and I’m very depressed that he’s gone.
Have you been watching Samantha Bee?
I saw the first one; I thought she was great.
What else are you watching?
I liked seeing John Travolta in The People v. O.J. I love John. He doesn’t have to be very subtle. He’s a big guy with big features and a big personality, and when there’s a part that comes through, it’s great.
What’s coming up for you?
I’ve been working on the Clueless musical, but it’s going so slowly that it’s making me insane. I would kill myself if this was the only thing I was doing. The pace is making me crazy.
What’s the issue?
You know the story. My father used to tell me that in the Army they’d always say “Hurry up and wait.” You’re always rushing to finish something and then waiting.
Can we go back to your great aunt?
She was almost 106 when she died. Into her hundreds, she would hop on trains to go to different parts of New York to see operas and plays; she was a very cultured person. When we were going through her stuff afterward, we found this logbook of parachute-jumping classes from the middle of the ’40s, when you know that women weren’t just learning parachute jumping for no reason. She never explained exactly what she was doing.
Where was she in Brooklyn?
What’s the real Jewish neighborhood, Borough-something?
Yeah, that’s the one.
You were born in the Bronx. What was the difference between the Bronx and Brooklyn, when you were growing up?
This is going way back, of course. The building I grew up in, most of the people were concentration camp survivors; my friends’ parents all had numbers on their arms. My grandmother would listen to the Yiddish radio shows, which were all very dramatic with people crying. I don’t know what they were saying. It was depressing.
I’d go to the butcher, the baker, and the fruit guy with my grandmother, and everybody would show you the numbers and say, “Never forget, never forget.” Okay … and you don’t forget, of course. And then you go to Brooklyn, and people are sitting out on their folding chairs, playing cards and listening to the Mets, and having Chinese food, and watching the Marx Brothers. It was a much happier place.
There was a lot of racial strife, which was very depressing. In New York there was busing; at one point, I was real little and Bobby Kennedy came to talk because there was too much aggravation in the neighborhood. But I was little; I didn’t know what was going on — I was on somebody’s shoulders.
What made you want to move to L.A.?
I didn’t. I got into the American Film Institute. Then you think, okay, I’ll go home after this. Then you have a meeting and another and another, and then you’re in development, and time goes by. At the time, the industry was very much centered in Los Angeles.
My daughter is here, and she has a baby, and my mother is here, so there’s four generations now.
What’s it like being a grandmother?
It’s awesome. She’s my best pal. She’s still at the point where she couldn’t sit still for any amount of time, so once she starts being able to go to movies, I’m going to go crazy.
What are you excited to show her?
Early Betty Boop. All the movies I loved. We do this thing where the slats on the staircase are like bars, and we shake the bars like we’re in prison. I say, “Let me out of here, you screws!” and she babbles something similar. We pretend we’re in a 1930s James Cagney movie.
What were the films that you grew up on?
I would watch TV a lot. I wasn’t able to go to a movie theater until I was about 8 or so. But Public Enemy, Roaring Twenties, Angels With Dirty Faces, Footlight Parade, The Gay Divorcee. I loved James Cagney the most. I loved Mickey Rooney. I loved musicals, and gangsters, and Dracula and Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello meeting them.
Do you see any of that slapstick of that era in your own films? For instance, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High with Spicoli.
I love Sean Penn so much. I just love him playing that part; I don’t know Sean Penn like I know Jeff Spicoli. We all had to call him “Jeff” then.
He was full-on Method?
Yeah, he was just so free. It didn’t occur to him that people would be mad at him; he was doing what he wanted to do, and that kind of attitude is in a lot of the characters I like. You know, with James Cagney, one of his characters could walk into a room, punch them, pat them on the head, kiss them, do whatever he wanted to them. There were no boundaries. Spicoli, if he wants a pizza, he’ll order it in the classroom. I just like that kind of attitude; there’s nothing malicious about it.
The same could be said for Cher in Clueless.
When I was writing that, I thought, well, what kind of characters do I like? One thing that popped into my head was Ed Wood. What I liked about him was that it wouldn’t occur to him to not be positive, and that’s so alien to me that I think it’s funny. So what if you go through the world thinking that everybody likes you? That’s hilarious.
In Clueless, Cher’s best friend in the film and TV show, Stacey Dash, is black. Two decades later, you see TV shows like Girls receive attention for featuring an all-white main cast. Were you ever thinking about race in casting?
In Amyland, which is my imaginary place, here’s this girl who is somebody I relate to because she’s got a father who is a lawyer, and she’s very positive, and what happens when she goes to school? It’s multiethnic. Everybody can equally have the same amount of money to go shopping with; it’s a nice place. It’s all good stuff for everybody.
You don’t feel the need to write in a character because she is a certain ethnicity. It’s like, no, she’s a person, and you want her to be there.
We have all the retroactive wedding movies these days — it’s like we rewound a few decades.
There seemed to be a slew of them at one point, and I can’t believe that this is a whole genre, and this is what there is for females. It could be nineteen-fucking-fifty again. So much of the stories are about getting a guy and getting married.
I don’t understand two things. There’s so much fighting in the gay community for the right to be in the army and getting married — the two things I don’t understand why anybody would want to do. In the latest movies, men have to be heavily armed and fighting, and women have to be in fluffy white dresses getting married, and I don’t understand why that is still a thing.
Now we have so much more data available to counter these antiquated notions, right? For instance, the audience for The Hunger Games was 61 percent female.
Whenever there’s a study that women want to see X or Y, then they go, “Wait a minute, now women want to see a woman with a bow and arrow,” but only in that genre. There’s always a reasoning behind it. When Sex and the City became a popular movie, people said, “So it’s okay to show women of a certain age? Only if it’s a Sex and the City equivalent.” There’s always an excuse for whatever change they should be looking at that they’re not looking at.
The young female audience is not taken seriously. If anything caters to young people, it caters to boys, and then girls were thought to go along with it. After Clueless there was a lot of movies with young females, like Legally Blonde, Confessions of a Drama Queen, whatever. Like it was okay to be young and female.
You have two acting credits to your name. You were a maid of honor in Clueless, for one.
Well, that wasn’t acting. The girls were all supposed to be jumping for the bouquet, and were supposed to be really pushy and rowdy. But they were all being kind of reserved, and I wanted to shake them up. So I got in there and started pushing them around so they’d think it was okay.
Do you often do that?
No, I’m extremely shy. But I had to get it moving.
In your career, what have you gotten away with, in your mind?
Oh man, it feels like I’m the one who never gets away with anything. I grew up watching movies where they said there was a sexual revolution, but when you went to the movies you saw naked women; you never saw a naked man. And I thought, I’m a woman, I can change that, right? Hahaha.
I had two people in an awkward scene, they’re supposed to be uncomfortable, it’s their first sexual experience, and I didn’t want it to seem romantic or fun. They take their clothes off and you see a naked young man. The studio heads said, “you’ll have to cut that or you’ll get an X rating.” I said if it was a woman, it wouldn’t be an X, and they said, because the male organ is aggressive, and the female organ isn’t. But then you see something like Borat, and you see schlongs swinging in the wind for, like, 15 minutes. Not that I didn’t enjoy those movies, but it didn’t seem fair. I’m going, what didn’t make that an X? That’s a pretty aggressive organ.