Amy Heckerling Looks Back at Fast Times at Ridgemont High

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in July of 2011.

It is very scary to realize “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is now at its 30-year anniversary. Although dated stylistically, what the students went through in this movie still feels very relevant to what today’s generation goes through on a regular basis. Based on the book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay, it follows a group of students during one year at a San Diego high school. Its director, Amy Heckerling, dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the behind the scenes stories, and she was greeted by a sold-out audience.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont” is notable for its frank depiction of teenage sexuality and in dealing with highly sensitive topics like abortion. Heckerling said the movie was shot at a time when things were rapidly changing. The sexual revolution was ending and the era of Ronald Reagan was on the rise along with conservatism. Most teenage comedies deal with situations from the male point of view, but Heckerling was adamant about the audience seeing things from the woman’s perspective. The MPAA, however, forced her to cut scenes like when a girl talks to her mother about blow jobs in order to avoid an X-rating. After all these years, the hypocrisy of the MPAA never ceases to amaze me.

These days, the movie is known for having three future Oscar winners in its cast: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, who is credited here as Nicolas Coppola. This is not to mention all the other cast members like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates, both of whom went on to other successful efforts after this movie’s release.

Heckerling recalled coming into this movie at what she called an “awesome” time. Casting young kids in a movie proved to be tricky, but she loved how there was so much great talent to choose from. When asked if she thought all great actors could do comedy, Heckerling replied some have it in their makeup while others do not. In working with Penn, she said he is wonderful in everything he does, and his smile always lights up whatever room he is in.

In talking about the soundtrack, Heckerling wanted to fill it with 1980’s music and songs by Oingo Boingo and the Go-Go’s. While she got to include the songs she wanted in the movie, she was also forced to add in a lot of 1970’s rock music from bands like The Eagles. This was in large part due to one of the movie’s producers, Irving Azroff, being the personal manager of The Eagles at the time.

One audience member asked Heckerling if the studio proposed any sequels or prequels to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” She said when the movie was screened in Westwood, one studio executive suggested, “How about ‘Spicoli Goes to College?'”

There was a television spinoff but, like many of its kind, it proved to be short lived. There was also something of a follow up to “Fast Times” called “The Wild Life,” which was also written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Art Linson, but Heckerling said it was not strictly a sequel.

As unbelievable as it is that we are now at the 30th anniversary of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” it only goes to show this particular movie’s staying power. It remains as raunchy and funny as when it first came out, and it is also one of the great time capsules of the 1980’s. This is the kind of movie which really does not need a sequel or a prequel at this point to justify its success or longevity.

Eric Red Talks About the Cast of The Hitcher

After all these years, “The Hitcher” (the original, not the godforsaken 2007 remake) has lost none of its suspenseful power, and it continues to terrify new generations of horror movie fans. In addition, it also marked a memorable point in the careers of the actors cast in it. Rutger Hauer created one of his most devilish villains ever with John Ryder, C. Thomas Howell gave one of his very best performances as Jim Halsey, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Nash proved to be a real stretch for the actress (that pun was most definitely intended).

When the screenwriter of “The Hitcher,” Eric Red, arrived to do a Q&A at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles on October 9, 2011 where Cinefamily was showing the film, he gave the small but very attentive audience a lot of great stories involving the actors involved in the production, and he had plenty of unforgettable things to say about Hauer.

The audience was very surprised to hear Sam Elliott was originally cast as John Ryder before Hauer came along. Apparently, Elliott’s audition was so terrifying, one of the movie’s producers refused to stay inside the casting office whenever Elliott was around. Somewhere along the line, however, Elliott got cold feet and ended up dropping out of the production.

But even after hearing that, it is still hard to think of another actor who could have played this truly frightening character as memorably as Hauer. As Ryder, Red said Hauer “evoked the character to such a degree” and was always “unpredictable” in what he did. Red described his screenplay as being “sparse” and said it was more about looks than it was about dialogue as there wasn’t much of the latter. Hauer, however, brought so many ideas to the role which were not on the page. During this particularly screening, some of us actually noticed how Ryder was actually wearing a wedding ring. To this, Red simply said, “That’s Hauer!”

Oddly enough, the evening’s funniest story involved the scene where Leigh’s character of Nash was tied between a truck, and Halsey has to keep Ryder from stepping on the gas and ripping her apart. It turns out Hauer did not want to shoot this scene and would not even come out of his trailer when everything was ready to start shooting. The filmmakers talked to him regarding his concerns, and Hauer told them the following:

“I don’t want to shoot the scene because the audience will end up figuring out that my character is the bad guy.”

Hmm … Dismembering the driver who picked up Ryder before Halsey did, murdering a whole family and sticking a human finger in a pile of French fries was not enough to indicate Ryder was the bad guy? How scary it is to learn of this!

When it came to casting Halsey, the filmmakers did not have any particular actors in mind. Red said they all went with Howell as they remembered him from “The Outsiders” and described him as having “the right look.” Ryder is described as being a “father figure” to Halsey, and he wants Halsey to kill him. Howell convincingly portrays his character, who goes from a terrified young man in over his head to one who gains control and becomes almost as cold-blooded as Ryder.

With “The Hitcher,” Red was aiming to create a movie where the audience got an inescapable feeling of claustrophobia in wide open spaces. He said it does not only have to happen in a tiny room or an elevator. Even with the infinite expanse of land on display, no one can escape their pursuers. But the movie also benefits from its memorable performances from a cast who bring more to their characters than what was on the page. Without Hauer, Howell and Leigh, “The Hitcher” would never have been half as effective as what we ended up seeing onscreen.

One From Noah Baumbach: ‘Margot at the Wedding’

Margot at the Wedding poster

Noah Baumbach must have had one messed up childhood. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” which chronicled a divorce filled with animosity and the of effect it ended up having on the kids. In 2007 he gave us “Margot at the Wedding,” which focuses on two sisters who do their best not to explode at one another. This is sibling rivalry at its most vicious and with sly attacks throughout until the inevitable showdown where the wounds and scars reveal themselves in all of their hurt and anger. Once in a while, you will get a movie which shows the loving power of a family and how they all come together as one. This is not that movie.

Nicole Kidman stars as Margot, who is heading into the country to attend her sister’s wedding. With her on this trip is her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) who she dotes on with increased restlessness. 2007 was a tough year for Kidman as the films she starred in, be it “The Invasion” or “The Golden Compass,” were not at as successful as they were expected to be. She was at one point the most underrated actress in movies with unsung performances in movies like “To Die For” which she was unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination for. Following her Oscar win for her role in “The Hours,” she looked to be stumbling in movies underserving of her talent. Her performance as Margot, however, reminds you of just how brilliant and fearless an actress she can when given the right role.

Margot is a bitch with a capital B, and she is one of the most unsympathetic and spiteful characters you would ever want to see in this or any other motion picture. She is cruel to those who love and hate her, and she even reacts coldly at times to her son by saying something about his appearance which could not be any less true. Kidman tears into the role with gusto, and she never tries to sweeten this character up and make her more likable than she ever could have appeared in the script. She is fearless in her portrayal of Margot, and she even lets us see beneath the character’s cruel mask to reveal the pain her character feels inside. You never completely sympathize with her, but you do come to pity her.

Margot’s sister Pauline is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the former Mrs. Noah Baumbach, and it is great to see her here. Her portrayal of Pauline makes the character pitiful in a whole other way. While Margot is cold to those around her, Pauline is much more vulnerable and is skillful in the way she throws her sister’s carefully placed insults right back at her. Pauline seems to be striving for a happiness which is just out of her reach. Leigh works at keeping her cool around Kidman’s character, but you can see through her eyes that the last time these two sisters met, it resulted in a brutal confrontation which kept them apart for years. It takes a great actor to make you see things about their characters without having to tell you what they are.

Pauline is about to get married to an unemployed musician/painter named Malcolm, and he is played by Jack Black. This is Black at his most unglamorous as he portrays Malcolm as a sad sack of a man who never looks all that happy about the fact he is about to get married. His character is utterly depressed and lost about what he wants out of life. There are times where Black falls back into those mannerisms we know him best for, and they do take away from his performance at times. But for the most part, he is really good here as he is cast against type in a more dramatic role.

In many ways, this movie is a prolonged attack leading to an explosion of emotion which we can tell has been repressed for far too long. How long you ask? Years, maybe even decades. You know the first time these two sisters meet each other that there is still bad blood between them which is eventually going to spill over. They say they are no longer mad at each other, but we know this is not true. Tension fills the air as these two test one another’s patience, and they continually betray each other in their own subtle ways.

“Margot At the Wedding” is not quite as effective as “The Squid and The Whale,” and it is easy to judge the two in comparison because they deal with the same thematic elements. They deal with broken families, divorce, parental neglect, underlying feelings of anger and resentment, etc. It has been said the best directors make the same movie over and over again, be it Hitchcock or Spielberg or anyone else. Baumbach’s specialty is in the dysfunctional relationships which he was exposed to when he was young.

Either way, you will most likely come out of this movie thanking god your family relationships are nowhere as bad as they are portrayed in this movie. You think you have it bad? Wait until you watch this.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Annihilation’ is a Unique Sci-Fi Cinematic Experience

Annihilation movie poster

I have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking risks in the past year or so on movies which defy what is considered these days to be mainstream entertainment. Last year, they released Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a film which could in no way be mistaken for a comic book movie. Despite it earning a rare Cinemascore grade of an F, Paramount stood behind Aronofsky and his film defiantly, saying they were proud of the work he did. Keep in mind, the studio made this clear even after “mother!” suffered a weak opening at the box office, especially when compared to other movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Now in 2018, Paramount has released “Annihilation,” a science-fiction horror film which not only defies what many expect from Hollywood at the moment, but also proves impossibly hard to fit into any specific genre. This has led many to accuse Paramount of not giving the movie the proper promotion it deserved, but we will address this issue at another time. Whatever expectations you have for this cinematic experience, it would be best to leave them at the door as “Annihilation” deals with themes and situations other filmmakers have explored in the past, but this time they are handled in a way which feels truly fresh and not the least bit routine.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier who, as the movie starts, is in a depressed state as her husband, Army soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, and many presume he has been killed in action. But suddenly, Kane reappears to Lena’s delight, but he resembles one of the pod people from Phillip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he seems devoid of any emotion and cannot remember where he was. Before Lena can get a satisfactory answer regarding his whereabouts, Kane becomes very sick and is transported via ambulance to the hospital. As you can expect, military officials stop the ambulance, and it becomes clear Lena and Kane have stumbled across something those in power would prefer to keep under a heavy veil of secrecy.

“Annihilation” puts us right into Lena’s shoes as she desperately tries to understand the situation she has been thrust into. Finding herself at the United States’ government facility known as Area X, a name which implies a location always closed off to the general public, Lena is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who finally gives her some answers and introduces her to an area known as “the shimmer.” We see a meteor hit a lighthouse, and from there an electromagnetic field has developed and continues to spread at a rate to where it will eventually absorb everything in its path. Soldiers have been sent into “the shimmer” to better understand this phenomenon, but Kane is the only one who has come back from it alive.

Dr. Ventress ends up recruiting Lena and two other women to join her on the latest mission to enter “the shimmer,” a mission they have every reason to believe is a suicidal one. This is where “Annihilation” becomes particularly unique as these characters are not trying to be heroic but are instead dealing with their own self-destructive tendencies. Indeed, self-destruction is a big theme as these four women are revealed to be individuals deeply wounded by life in one way or another to where they feel as though there’s nothing much left to care about or live for. But as they get deeper into “the shimmer,” their survival instincts become awakened almost immediately.

“Annihilation” was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland who started out as a novelist with his book “The Beach” which was made into a movie by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he has graduated to writing screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” In 2015, he made his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” a brilliant science fiction thriller which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence in a way which felt familiar and yet very fresh. Even if the story reminded me of “Frankenstein” in a way, the approach Garland took with the material and the characters felt invigorating and wonderfully unique.

Garland has brought this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to “Annihilation” as it follows a group of people caught in a situation much like the one in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to where they are dealing with an antagonist who is not quite visible, and this leads them to become increasingly paranoid about one another. Garland does an excellent job of keeping the audience off-balance as he takes us through the story in a non-linear fashion. When Lena awakes in a tent inside “the shimmer,” she admits she has no idea how she got there or of what she experienced in the past few hours. Indeed, we end up feeling as lost as her as we are desperate to better understand the situation everyone has been sucked into, and Garland holds our attention throughout as a result.

Throughout, Garland gives us much to think about such as the differences between suicide and self-destruction as well as the importance and inherent danger of discovery. While watching “Annihilation,” I was reminded of a scene in “Jurassic Park” between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. Hammond doesn’t understand why anyone would stand in the way of discovery, but Malcolm leaves him with this to chew on:

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

But while Garland has crafted “Annihilation” as the thinking person’s sci-fi movie, it is not at all lacking in the thrill department. Certain scenes have a visceral feel to where I jumped out of my seat for the first time in ages. On a visual level, it has a look which is as beautiful as it is haunting, and I am having a hard time comparing it to other movies I have seen recently. On top of this, “Annihilation” features a very unique sonic landscape courtesy of composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, both of whom combine an earthly sound with an electronic one as they work to separate the real world these characters have left behind and the alien realm they have dared themselves to enter.

Natalie Portman has a tricky role to play here. As Lena, she has to be vulnerable but also exhibit a reserve of strength deeply embedded in a character who has served her time in the military. That Portman manages to pull this off is not the least bit surprising, and she gives us a fully formed character whose experience and pain aid her in the movie’s spellbinding climax. Many still can’t shake the squeaky-clean image they have of Portman, but she has been around long enough to remind audiences of the amazing depth and range she has as an actress.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh here as well, let alone in any movie she appears in. As Dr. Ventress, she creates a truly enigmatic character who keeps her emotion in check to where you constantly wonder what is going on in her head. Clearly, this doctor has more interests than in just exploring “the shimmer,” and Leigh keeps you guessing what they are all the way to the end.

I also have to give credit to Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny for creating such memorable characters out of those which, in any other movie, could have been of the easily disposable variety. Some characters exist solely to further the actions of the lead protagonist or serve as mere fodder for an ever so lethal antagonist, but these actresses make theirs stand out in a way they would not have otherwise, and their final onscreen moments are hard to shake once you have witnessed them.

And when it comes to Oscar Isaac, you can always count on him to give an infinitely charismatic performance even in a role where the character looks to have been drained of all emotion. Telling you more about his character of Kane would be detrimental to your viewing experience, but once you watch him here, you will agree he has created a fascinating portrait of a man who once knew his place in the world, but who now is forever lost in it.

It has now been a few days since I have watched “Annihilation,” and I still find myself thinking about the movie quite intensely. Even if its pace lags a little more than it should, the questions it left me with remain endlessly fascinating. When we see Lena reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is that a hint of some kind? What led Garland to include the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Hopelessly Hoping” here? And more importantly, is the movie’s ending a hopeful one, or is it meant to be relentlessly bleak? Garland is not out to give us easy answers, but my hope is you will be open to the unusual experience this movie has to offer. Cinemascore may have given it an average grade of a C, but please remember this is the same research group which gave “America: Imagine the World Without Her” an A+.

Trust me, check this one out, and be sure to come into it with an open mind.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Jane Weinstock on ‘The Moment’

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Jane Weinstock, 2003

Filmmaker Jane Weinstock follows up her directorial debut of “Easy” with “The Moment,” a compelling psychological thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Henderson and Alia Shawkat. In the movie, Leigh plays Lee, a photojournalist who has just ended a tumultuous affair with troubled writer John (Henderson). But when she goes to John’s place to get her things, she discovers he has disappeared and is nowhere to be found. The stress of not knowing his whereabouts causes Lee to have a nervous breakdown, which in turn lands her in a mental hospital. During her recuperation, Lee reconnects with her estranged daughter, Jessie (Shawkat), and ends up meeting Peter, a fellow patient who somehow looks a lot like John. As Lee struggles to get a grip on reality and learn the truth behind John’s disappearance, the clues she is given lead her to the most unexpected of places.

Just as with “Easy,” “The Moment” has Weinstock dealing with the contradictions of human nature and psychological realism. It was fascinating talking to her about this movie, and we discussed the challenges of writing a highly complex screenplay, what it was like working with Leigh who is very serious in her approach to playing a character, and how her studies in psychoanalytic theory and semiotics came to inform this film.

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Ben Kenber: Regarding the screenplay, how difficult was it for you and your co-writer Gloria Norris to write it?

Jane Weinstock: Well our starting point oddly enough was the Edith Wharton novel “The Mother’s Recompense,” but we weren’t able to get to the rights to that. We didn’t want to do a period piece, but we wanted to sort of take the basic structure of this extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship and make a movie out of it. So once we realized that we couldn’t even get the rights, we just kept that relationship as our starting point and then we went on to write this piece. We decided quite early on to make the character of Lee a photojournalist because we have a fascination with danger, and at the same time a kind of ethical commitment to try to do good in the world. We both love Hitchcock, so I think there were Hitchcockian elements that we gravitated towards, and it also changed in various rewrites. We worked on it for a very long time so we rewrote it a number of times.

BK: When it came to the subject matter, did you do a lot of research on photography as well as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder?

JW: Yes, I definitely thought of researching PTSD first. We actually showed it (the movie) in New York to a posttraumatic stress disorder specialist at Hunter College, and she felt that we really got it right so that was very gratifying.

BK: There’s a scene in the movie where Martin Henderson’s character is eating sardines which he says are good for those suffering from depression. Is that true?

JW: No, not really (laughs). They are good for your brain and they don’t have a lot of mercury.

BK: Jennifer Jason Leigh is well known for her method approach to the characters she plays. How did she approach the role of Lee in this movie?

JW: Well I did a lot of research and I gave her my research and she looked through that, and she’s known photographers before and she just was her many ways. During rehearsal we worked on the script together. We made some changes as we were rehearsing, and she’s a writer/director so she’s very, very good at that. She also looked at different cuts of the movie and made suggestions, so she was very involved creatively and not just as an actress.

BK: There is a moment in the movie where Peter is standing in front of his place of work and Lee is taking pictures of him, and he is covering up part of the word “storage” to where only “rage” can be seen. What was your reasoning for shooting the scene like that?

JW: It was just a little reference that I thought not many people would get, but you got it. He is a character who was filled with rage. He was imprisoned for five years for a crime that he didn’t commit, so he’s got a lot of rage that he turns against himself and feels towards the world as well.

BK: Alia Shawkat is fantastic as Lee’s daughter, Jessie. How did she get cast in the film?

JW: Well Jennifer had already been cast, so we had her read with several actresses. They were all great, but when I asked myself, ‘could this actress be capable of murdering somebody,’ I always came up with the answer no except for Alia. I really wanted her to feel like someone who is capable of murder, and I also really liked the fact that she looks like she’s part Iranian, and she is part Iranian, so we could give her an Iraqi father.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie?

JW: We shot it in 22 days, and then we had two days for re-shoots.

BK: With movies like these, the shooting schedule always seems to get shorter and shorter.

JW: I know. It’s crazy.

BK: I read how while you were at New York University you focused on psychoanalytic theory and semiotics. Did any of those studies factor into the making of this movie?

JW: You know it must have especially in terms of the writing and having a psychoanalyst be in the movie. But there’s also a way in which I had to drop a lot of my theoretical knowledge and just make it more organic, and at other times I could get very heady.

BK: In some ways “The Moment” is timely because our reality keeps getting distorted by technology and in other ways as well. By the movie’s end we’re not entirely sure if Lee is even dealing fully with reality. With technology today we are getting closer to the truth, yet at the same time we’re being taken further away from it. Was that something you thought about during the making of this movie?

JW: I guess something I thought about most in terms of that kind of general theme of the movie is that we live precariously in an uncertain world which is partly a function of technology but also a function of the times and all the wars we’ve been living through. The last 20 years has been a very, very uncertain time, and then the reaction to this kind of need for certainty comes up in the form of the Tea Party and other kinds of very fundamentalist types of positions. I thought about it in terms of that more than in just technology specifically.

BK: It seems like these days people are not fighting for the truth necessarily, but more for the truth as they see it. “The Moment” reminded me a bit of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” It’s a very different movie, but like with Bill Pullman’s character, Lee is trying to get a grip on all that is happened to her. Still, we’re not entirely sure she has succeeded in doing so.

JW: Yeah, people have compared the film to David Lynch’s work. He’s not somebody who I respond that strongly to. I’m much more of a Hitchcock person, but I can see that. Another big theme in the movie which is definitely Hitchcockian is guilt, and even if none of these people actually killed John, is that really the end of it? Can people carry guilt with them, or for the moments that they have created that may or may not have led to John’s death? For example, the moment where Lee kisses John, at that point there’s no turning back. This has to end badly, right?

Thanks to Jane Weinstock for taking the time to talk with me about “The Moment,” a film that constantly challenges your perception of reality throughout its running time.