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.”
How 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.
Besides 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.