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Daniel Waters on “Sex and Death 101”

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04022008_sexanddeath101.jpgBy Stephen Saito

For once, timing is in the favor of Daniel Waters, the prodigiously talented writer behind “Heathers” who admits to “taking forever to write a script.” Waters’s latest film, “Sex and Death 101,” opens in theaters April 4th, but the dark comedy actually begins on April 2nd, when a playboy (Simon Baker) is accidentally e-mailed a list of all his future sexual conquests before dying. While a life of musical lap dances and “an embarrassment of bitches” await Baker’s Mr. Roderick Blank, so does a sense of mortality and ennui.

It’s a bit reassuring to see Waters’s second directorial effort arrive in theaters a week after many pondered the disappearance of John Hughes, whose earnest ’80s teen classics were redefined by Waters’s sardonic satire of high school life. In the years since “Heathers” was released in 1989, Waters turned a development deal with producer Joel Silver in the early 1990s into perhaps the strangest and most subversive run of studio action movies ever (“Hudson Hawk,” “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” and “Demolition Man”) before returning to teen territory with the underrated “Happy Campers” in 2002, a film he never intended to direct. That isn’t the case with “Sex and Death 101,” a film that bears Waters’s trademark wit as well as his “Heathers” star Winona Ryder as a feminist death dealer named Death Nell. I recently sat down to Waters to discuss his reunion with Ryder, his writing process and how originality became a dirty word.

When you get a clever line in your head, is that something that lingers in your head long before it finds its way into the script?

I’ll do anything to not write — like I won’t open up my computer. I have to write everything by hand. I call it collecting acorns, writing these scribbles…”embarrassment of bitches!” It ends up collecting over time, and then when I sit down to actually start to put my little scraps of paper in order, I have this dialogue. To me, it’s worth cooking the chili that much slower in order to get that extra flavor. I think it’s funny that a lot of books about how to write a screenplay [teach] the importance of structure. That’s like a book about horseback riding that says you need a horse. You shouldn’t even start anything until you have the structure down. But these little individual bits [are] what’s fun for me to write and makes [my movies] unique.

But unique can be used as a pejorative too. “It was unique. It was original.” I find that people, especially in the world of independent film, like originality as long as it’s an originality they’re comfortable and familiar with. “What’s this real originality thing going on?” “Wait, you have like five different tones. That’s against the law.”

04022008_danielwaters.jpgHow did this movie come together?

Obviously, it’s a long journey, this 15 years away I call the “island of misfit toys” part of my life — I was working on bigger movies doing rewrites, and I ended up inadvertently being hired to put giraffes’ heads on rhinoceroses’ bodies. I had to force myself to break away from the studio films, which are kind of like having sex wearing 50 condoms. “Sex and Death 101” is this conscious thing of going back to the basics, to my Ralph Nader side where I open up the newspaper and say, well, as a consumer advocate, what movie’s not out there that I’m not seeing? With “Heathers,” it was like a high school movie that didn’t end with them saying when you grow older, your heart dies… because your heart dies way before then. (laughs)

I wanted to do a movie about sexuality, because there was a realm in the ’70s that I think is missing now. Independent films seem to be very punishing about sexuality — nobody seems to be enjoying themselves, it’s like “Oh my God, I’ve had sex with my daughter!” or something like that. On the other end of the scale, you’ve got these immature ejaculation movies about boobies that have nothing to do with actual sex. Mainstream comedies don’t even have sex. They just run after a cab at the end and the sex happens during the closing credits.

I wanted to go back to “Shampoo” and “Carnal Knowledge” and “Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice,” popular movies that dealt with sexuality, but in a way that was still humorous. I liked the idea of that kind of movie, but it was important that I update the zeitgeist of it all. Back in the ’60s and the ’70s, the men were still playing offense and now, I think we’re playing defense. The world has overwhelmed the typical male. The one realm of sexuality I didn’t mention [is] Judd Apatow’s. I think they’re terrific films, but he’s got a very comforting thesis that men are these sex-obsessed beasts, but if you just scratch the surface, they’re warm and fuzzy inside. I’ve got a less popular dictum in my film that a man can be well-adjusted, mature, and remembers Valentine’s Day and to complement your haircut, but you scratch the surface and he’s still a sex-obsessed beast.

You have a great foil for your leading man in the character of Death Nell. Did you write the part for Winona Ryder?

When I started writing the script, she was going through her troubles, so I did think it was a great idea because people didn’t know where she was coming from and I liked that. It dovetailed into the character quite nicely because it’s a character that you think is one way, but is really another. I didn’t want the man-eating Angelina Jolie femme fatale that would eat you up and spit you out. I wanted to have that threat out there looming, but then when you actually meet the character and there’s this sweet wobbly human being playing it, you know there’s no more femme fatale out there. It’s like a role she’s feebly trying to take on, just like he tries to take on his role of the guy that’s got it all together.

04022008_sexanddeath101a.jpgBesides Ryder, how did you attract such a strong supporting cast?

It didn’t hit me until I was actually filming that, except for Mindy [Cohn], there are no supporting characters in the movie. When an actress shows up on the set, she’s the lead of the movie — it is almost like ten different movies, [each] with a new female lead, so they bring their A-game because they don’t feel that they’re scenery. Obviously, I made the movie before “Good Luck Chuck” [which has a similar premise about a womanizer] came out, but I knew there was going to be a movie like that, and I didn’t want to make it. I didn’t want that montage sequence, the dreary cavalcade of Maxim whores. I wanted it not to be a movie about a guy who just bam, bam, bam, fucks a lot of women, that the women are fucking him as much as he’s fucking them.

Was it actually a conscious decision on your part to direct your own scripts at a certain point or did it just work out that way?

I was very obstinate about [it] — “Oh, don’t worry. I’m not the guy that wants to direct” — when I was starting out, and it was great because I’d been so prepared that they always ignored the writer. But “Heathers” is one of the few movies where they put a spotlight on me and taped sparklers to me, so I was getting credit. It’s funny that what you think is the most simple, littlest detail that you put in a script — and my scripts are very thick and dense — gets lost in translation, and it can be one stroke if the writer is also the director. I’m never going to be quite comfortable directing — I think I did a good job this time around. I had a $12 million film school course called “Happy Campers,” but I still think the writing process and the editing process are the warm cave, and that directing is like me with a spear trying to kill a woolly mammoth. But it’s exciting, and it is where the movie gets made, and so if you really want to be a filmmaker, you can’t kid yourself that you’re going to have this pristine [experience], because nothing goes through a gang bang more than a script, so it’s just good to be there.

[Photos: Winona Ryder in “Sex and Death 101”; Daniel Waters, Simon Baker and Sophie Monk; Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2007]

“Sex and Death 101” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 4th.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.