Filmmaker Amy Heckerling clued in when it comes to the teen-age experience

July 25, 1995|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,New York Times News Service

In the midst of a summer of mostly desultory films, along came "Clueless." The wickedly funny farce about rich teen-age girls in Beverly Hills emerged last weekend as a sleeper hit of the summer.

"I'm blown away, especially by the great reviews," Amy Heckerling, the film's writer and director, said in a telephone interview. "I just wanted to do something about the teen-age experience; it's such a wonderful and horrible time of life."

Scott Rudin, the producer who brought the movie to Paramount, said: "I thought this script was screamingly funny. It's a touching and generous-spirited movie."

It's also the kind of movie that studios crave but rarely find: a very inexpensive commercial film. At $12 million, it cost about one-third of the average studio film.

The film, which opened Wednesday, was expected to gross about $16 million by Sunday night. As early as two weeks from now, the film will probably earn a profit, which is unusual for such a short time period.

In many ways, "Clueless" revives the teen-age genre that some Hollywood executives assumed had died in the mid-1980s. Although there were a handful of exceptions, studios have failed to generate the kinds of teen-age movies -- some of them very good, some of them awful -- so popular in the 1970s and '80s. Among the most successful were "American Graffiti," "Saturday Night Fever," "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Risky Business" and "Pretty in Pink."

"Clueless" is about a rich, charming, spoiled and ditsy 16-year-old girl named Cher Horowitz (played by Alicia Silverstone), whose mother died in "a freak accident during routine liposuction." A romantic, Cher serves as a matchmaker for her teacher, tries to control and make over her friends, and seems supremely confident until she learns that when it comes to matters of the heart she is the one who's clueless.

Actually, the movie is a very loose reworking of Jane Austen's "Emma." Ms. Heckerling, who made her directorial debut with the 1982 hit "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and wrote and directed the comedy "Look Who's Talking," said: "I wanted to do something in the style of a comedy of manners. I read 'Emma,' and it seemed like a natural. Those were wealthy and privileged people who rode around in carriages and made calls on each other.

"I wanted to do something about a really optimistic character, a character who was so optimistic no one could burst her bubble. And by setting it in Beverly Hills, I knew we could have a lot of fun."

Ms. Heckerling, who grew up in the Parkchester section of the Bronx and is in her early 40s ("Just say I'm 39-plus"), said the teen-age experience had always consumed her. "It's when you're trying on new personalities and dipping your foot in many areas to see where you fit in," she said. "The clothes you wear, the books you read, the people you talk to dictate, in many ways, what direction you're going to take."

The success of the film is an embarrassment to 20th Century Fox, which owned the rights to the script but dropped its option last year. "They were worried about something that was so female-oriented," Ms. Heckerling said. "They kept pressuring me to create more of a life for the boys in the film, to create more of an ensemble piece, which didn't make sense to me at all."

It was then that Mr. Rudin heard about the script, read it, and called the producer at Fox, Robert Lawrence, to ask him if he could shepherd the movie to Paramount. Sherry Lansing, chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, and her team quickly agreed.

"On the first cut of the movie, I came in with a pad and paper to take notes," Ms. Lansing said. "But I was laughing so hard I didn't take any notes."

For weeks the film was heavily promoted on MTV, a sister company of Paramount, which is owned by Viacom. "There hasn't been a film in the marketplace for a long time for this audience: young females, 8 to 20 years," said Barry London, vice chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group. "Once we saw the playability of the movie, we knew we had the potential to be the true sleeper of the summer."

The film was released in the midst of a season whose movies have been uneven, if not disappointing. Certainly there have been successes, such as "Apollo 13," "Batman Forever" and "Pocahontas." But several films, including "Species," opened relatively strongly but soon dropped off sharply, evidence of poor word-of-mouth. At least two films, "Judge Dredd" and "First Knight," seem to be major financial mishaps.

"You never can tell," Ms. Heckerling said with a laugh. "I've been through this a bunch of times. You write them and go out and make them, and then you pray."

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