Movies

The Test Screening That Almost Killed Fast Times at Ridgemont High

An interview with Amy Heckerling about how her sleeper hit survived a studio that barely knew what it had.

Two teen girls wearing red and white striped restaurant uniforms talking in a mall
Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Criterion Collection

In 1982, Amy Heckerling, a 27-year-old New Yorker freshly graduated from AFI film school, was hired by Universal to direct Cameron Crowe’s screenplay based on his year spent undercover as a student at a San Diego high school. That movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, has since become an endlessly quoted cult object and an influential teen-movie classic. Many members of its young cast, including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, and (in his first, nonspeaking film role) Nicolas Cage, went on to major Hollywood careers. Now the Criterion Collection has released Fast Times; I was fortunate enough to write the essay accompanying the disc. I spoke with Heckerling about casting those rising stars, the test screenings full of squares who almost scuttled the movie, and plans for a musical based on her other seminal high school movie, Clueless. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

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Slate: I know from digging deep into the lore of Fast Times that you had a mixed experience with making the movie. You had a really creatively engaging experience on set, with a lot of freedom to do what you wanted, for a first-time director especially. But then you felt Fast Times was kind of dumped by the studio. Looking back on that experience, what are your best and worst memories about it?

Amy Heckerling: Well, when we made the movie, they had these test screenings in Orange County, which is a very conservative part of California, and the notes that we got were really harsh. I mean, people were like, “We teenagers are not like that,” “You think all we care about is sex and drugs,” and blah, blah, blah. And we were worried that we would have to cut out a lot of stuff.

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And this version was a very different cut from what we ended up seeing?

No, no, not a very different cut at all. Because thank God, our producer, Art Linson, who is just such a cool guy … I’d be panicking and panicking, and he’d be going, “Fuck them if they can’t take a joke.” And he just knew that that was not our audience. It’s like, that does not represent young people.

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Then they decided that they weren’t going to release it wide. They were just going to release it in a couple hundred theaters near Los Angeles. So there was no TV presence, there was no trailer, there was no nothing. And it was doing really well in California in these few cities, so they decided to release it all over the country, having no advance sales. And my mother was in New York, and it was like, on construction sites there were little flyers with a picture of Spicoli’s head. And my mother said people were calling her going, “Is that Amy’s movie? Who’s that old lady in it?” They thought that Sean Penn in the wig was an old lady. And I mean, it was just not printed well. Flyers on construction sites, that’s like an ex-boyfriend that’s in a band and you’d go the night before stapling up the flyers to tell people. That was the ad campaign.

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I remember it as a big movie in the summer of ’82. That story about the marketing strategy is complete news to me, because it certainly made its way to my suburban San Antonio theater and people loved it.

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Well, that was one of the sadder things about that movie. One of the happy ones was like, I was hanging around my apartment and somebody called and said, “Hey, you know what’s going on with your film?” And I was like, “No, what?” And they were like, “Go to the theater.” It was in Westwood. So I go there and everybody is saying the dialogue along with the film. This was like two weeks after it came out. And that blew my mind, to see real people seeing something they’d obviously seen before and singing along. I mean, you know. That was one of the high points in my life.

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Sure, I can imagine. How did the movie’s success change what happened next for you?

People were offering me scripts, but they were all about girls losing their virginity. And they were really putting me in this little box of like, OK, you’re a female. What female things do we have? Young girl, teenager, lose virginity, that’s what they want from you. And that wasn’t what interested me. I wanted to write things and direct them. That was, to me, the real creative part. So, you know, it was great, but it was also like …  Fast Times was like this thing that I did, but it didn’t launch me in the way that it would have launched a guy.

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Which is a crazy fate to have after you, in fact, made the sleeper hit of 1982.

It didn’t feel like that, because it wasn’t making what I considered a “boy hit.” I mean, I’m glad it made enough for me to continue. I wanted to get into that club of what guys do and what they can accomplish.

It reminds me of that story about your first day in high school, the High School of Art and Design in New York. Do you remember that?

It was in Ms. Rosecrans’ class in English and there was a boy that sat next to me, Eugene, and he was always talking about movies. We had to write an essay at one point on what we wanted to do when we grew up. And I wanted to make movies, but I would never say that because I didn’t think it was possible to do. I thought that’s something that a bunch of privileged men in Hollywood do, and I can never do that.

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But when I heard this guy talking about movies all the time, and he was copying off of me anytime there was a test—I thought, wait a minute, what’s going to happen when he gets to Hollywood? Who’s he going to copy off of? And I thought, screw this. If he can say he wants to do it, then why can’t I say I want to do it?

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Black and white photo of Heckerling smiling with arms crossed at Penn as Spicoli wearing a polo and backpack in a boys bathroom with a row of urinals behind them
Amy Heckerling and Sean Penn on the set of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Criterion Collection
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You can’t scan a group shot in Fast Times without seeing, like, four future Oscar nominees in it. What was casting like?

We loved the actors so much. It was just so much fun to see what Sean Penn is going to bring. And then, I’ve always been a big Ray Walston fan, and I knew Vincent Schiavelli from New York. And it was just a great bunch of people. God, Forest Whitaker—he came in and there was not much dialogue for that character. I felt bad saying “Would you say these two lines?” So I said, “I saw all these theater things on your résumé—you want to do any of these monologues or anything, you remember anything?” He goes, “Oh, yeah.” And he does something from, like, Streamers, like this far away from me. I was like, “Ha ha, anything you want to do in this, you can do.”

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In writing about Fast Times, I talk about how, as a 14-year-old watching it, and as somebody who was already getting into movies, it was a revelation for me that a movie could do something different. It could be about people like me and my friends, could have a girl as a protagonist who can have sex without being slut-shamed, et cetera. And I know you were also a big cinephile growing up. When you were the age of the Fast Times kids, what movies can you remember having that kind of effect on you?

When I was a little kid, I loved gangsters and I loved musicals and I loved anything with James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney. I just loved Warner Brothers movies. And then when I was a teenager, I loved Mean Streets and A Clockwork Orange and Carnal Knowledge and Bonnie and Clyde. So it was like this great clump of the 1930s and then amazing stuff in the ’70s.

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You can see the love for the ’30s musicals and things like that in Johnny Dangerously. You picking that as your next project out of Fast Times was a big swerve to make to keep from getting the “girl losing her virginity” movie again.

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Yeah. Except, I mean, it didn’t make money. I mean, it didn’t lose money, but … I managed to stay out of the box, but then I was like, uh-oh, now I better do something that makes money.

I know that the Clueless 25th anniversary was in 2020, and you already made the rounds Zooming about Clueless all last year. So I won’t ask you too much about that, but I am interested in this Clueless musical that you had going before the pandemic, and whether that’s still in the works for once theaters open back up. It had already opened off-Broadway, correct?

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It was off-Broadway and we’ve actually been Zoom-working on it, revamping the musical numbers and condensing the verbal stuff. So it’s me and the director and lyricists.

So you’re doing the book for it, or you’re producing, or what would your role be?

I do the book. [Walks away, returns carrying a corkboard covered with notes for the Clueless musical.]

Aha. You’re not storyboarding it, but corkboarding it.

Yeah. That’s going to be the book.

And where will it open?

There’s interest in London to start there.

That’s exciting it’s going to happen. That’s one of my dream trips for after the pandemic is over, to take my teenage daughter to London and see theater, so maybe we’ll get to see Clueless: The Musical.

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Come on out.

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