Originally, the book that suicidal students supposedly underline "meaningful" passages from was "The Catcher in the Rye". The producers could not get permission from J.D. Salinger to use the book. It was changed to "Moby Dick" because Herman Melville's works are in the public domain.
This has become one of the most controversial movies ever made about the high school experience. When it was released, detractors thought it was making fun of suicide. Now it's uncomfortably similar to many school shootings.
Shannen Doherty had problems saying the profanities in the script because of her conservative upbringing. She couldn't keep a straight face. As a result, she smirks when she says, "Veronica, why are you pulling my dick?"
A 2014 Entertainment Weekly retrospective revealed that the original read-through of the script with the producers was held with Dana Delany playing Veronica Sawyer and Brad Pitt as J.D. During subsequent casting, Shannen Doherty was first interested in playing Veronica but Winona Ryder had already been cast. Producers wanted Doherty to audition to play Heather Chandler but Doherty preferred the part of Heather Duke and was eventually cast in that role.
The high school is named "Westerburg High". Winona Ryder's favorite band at the time was The Replacements, whose lead singer is named Paul Westerberg. Another reference to the band occurs when J.D. says "Color me impressed", which is the title of a song from The Replacements' album "Hootenanny".
In 2014, a musical theater adaptation of Heathers opened at the off-Broadway theater New World Stages. In a completely unrelated coincidence, the movie had been released by a film production company called New World Pictures. The play is tenatively set to appear on Broadway in 2016.
Some reviewers have discussed similarities between this film and Massacre at Central High (1976). Daniel Waters has stated that he had not seen the film at the time he wrote the script, but that he had read a review of it in Danny Peary's book Cult Movies, and that the earlier film may have been "rattling around somewhere in my subconscious".
"Hot Probs", the radio call-in show featured in the movie, is a version of the nationally-distributed KROQ radio show "Loveline". The DJ in the movie is James 'Poorman' Trenton, the creator and original host of "Loveline".
Winona Ryder has said she was motivated to make this movie because of her strong feelings about girl cliques, the pervasive bullying that goes on in high schools and the "hellishness" of the high school experience. This is interesting when you consider that Winona Ryder spent most of her high school experience on movie sets and not in actual high schools.
Mid-1990's-era ska/punk band 'Edna's Goldfish' named their song "Veronica Sawyer" after the main character in Heathers. The song's theme of alienation among suburban teenagers reflects the themes of the movie. Reel Big Fish covered the song on their 2009 album "Fame, Fortune and Fornication."
Several characters sardonically use the phrase "Oh, the humanity." This phrase was first coined by the American radio reporter Herbert O. Morrison during his May 6, 1937, on-the-spot description of the explosion of the Hindenburg in New Jersey. Morrison started his broadcast with a calm report of the zeppelin starting to dock after its transatlantic flight, but he quickly became panicked and horrified as he started to relay the disaster: "It's starting to rain again; it's-the rain has slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from-It burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it's falling, it's crashing! Watch it, watch it! Get out of the way! . . . It's fire-and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my, get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames, and the-and it's falling on the mooring-mast and all the folks agree that this is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. . . . It's-it's-it's the flames . . . oh, four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it ... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's flames now ... and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring-mast. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers screaming around here. . . . Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk, and the screaming. . . . Honest: I-I can hardly breathe. I-I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah-I can't. I, listen, folks, I-I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed."
Winona Ryder said in interviews at the time they were making this that "if anyone else got the role (of Veronica in this movie) I will have to kill them". This is funny considering the themes of this movie, of competing high school girl cliques trying to kill each other.
Quoted from the American Film Institute: "According to the 23 Mar 1989 [Los Angeles Times], [Daniel] Waters based the script on the high school experiences of his sister and her friends, as well as a chapter about the cultivation of female identity in Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 book, 'The Second Sex.' He also told LAT that he had grown tired of Hollywood's romanticization of suicide, and that he believed most people actually harbor an "ultimate fantasy" of attending their own funeral."
The Fox Network considered turning the film into a sitcom for its fledgling network, but jettisoned this idea in favor of developing Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990) into its new teen-themed series. The fact that these two teen-themed projects were developed in tandem by casting agents at Fox eventually led to Shannen Doherty being cast in 90210.
Heather Duke paraphrases somebody's comment that 'Big Fun are tuneless Euro-fags'. Coincidentally, in 1989 when the film was released, there was a UK boyband named Big Fun, who, it turned out after scoring a string of minor hit singles that year and into 1990 (including a cover of The Jacksons' Blame it on the Boogie), were all gay.
Massacre at Central High and Heathers have many similarities in terms of plot and story structure. They're both about vicious high school cliques. The clique in Massacre at Central High is a villainous group of four boys who rule Central High. Three boys in the clique are bullies and one is good. The clique is called "The Little League Gestapo". The clique in Heathers is a villainous group of four girls who rule Westerberg High. Three girls are bullies and one is good. The clique is called "The Heathers". The big difference with the two movies is the gender of the bully clique; in Heathers they are female, in Massacre they are male. In Massacre the clique bullies the school by literally beating everyone up and threatening them. In Heathers the clique bullies the student body mostly through vicious pranks. In both movies the good member of the clique is hurt by the evil head of the clique. Veronica is humiliated by Heather Chandler the ringleader of the eponomous Heathers, when she vomits at a Remington University kegger party at the beginning of that movie. David is physically wounded by Bruce, the ringleader of the Little League Gestapo at the beginning of Massacre, who kicks the jack out when David is doing mechanical work under a car, crippling David for life. In both movies the protagonists get revenge by orchestrating the deaths of the bullies of the clique which seem accidental or self inflicted. In both movies once the evil members of the clique are eliminated, then new students jump in to take their place as the chief bully of the school. The students who used to be victims become bullies themselves, leading the protagonist or protagonists to think they have to kill everyone. This in turn leads to a plot where one of the protagonists attempts to blow up the whole school while they're assembled in the gym, in a homecoming rally in Heathers, and in the prom in Massacre at Central High. One of the protagonists gets blown up at the ending by their own bomb in both movies. Another difference here is that in Heathers there is only one dominant clique in the story, in Massacre there are several vying for domination, and the conflict is much more overt and violent in Massacre; with most of the students engaging in a kind of warfare with each other and threatening to kill each other off all the time. In Heathers it's just The Heathers (and Heathers sidekicks Kurt and Ram) doing all the bullying, and their bullying is mostly non violent; coming in the form of jokes, putdowns and pranks. The other big difference is that the protagonist in Massacre is cleaved into two characters for Heathers; David, the hero of Massacre becomes both Veronica, the insider member of the clique, and JD, the psychotic outsider hell-bent on revenge. Though Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters denies having seen Massacre before he wrote Heathers, he admits he probably read about it in one of movie guides and the plot was "buzzing around in his subconscious" when he wrote Heathers.
While producing worldwide television, radio, film, commercials and satellite broadcasts, Kurt Kelly was also asked to appear as Kurt Kelly. However, ABC would not grant him the time off from his already nonstop schedule for the taping of the film. The role of Kurt Kelly later went to Lance Fenton.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Two of the cast members died at young ages, in ways which were eerily prophesied by the script. Jeremy Applegate, whose character Peter prays he will never commit suicide, shot himself on March 23, 2000 at age 34. Kim Walker, whose character Heather Chandler asks "Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?", died of a brain tumor on March 6, 2001 at age 32.
Winona Ryder claims that she has many favorite moments from the film. The one that usually comes to mind is when she is walking up the hill after seeing JD in the cow-tipping scene. In the background, just barely visible, Heather McNamara is being date raped by one of the jocks. Ryder says the scene is so subversive and dark that once you notice it, you can't stop thinking about it.
The original screenplay had a different ending in which Veronica kills J.D. by shooting him and then straps the bomb (a much larger and more complicated piece of equipment, described as being "a cylinder as large as a television set") to herself, blowing up as J.D. does in the final ending. What is placed in the final ending as JD's boiler-room speech about "imagine I blew up the school, imagine I blew up all the schools" is contained in a suicide note found in Veronica's locker by Heather McNamara and Betty Finn. The movie ends with an eerie prom sequence set in Heaven, tying into JD's assertion that the only place everyone will truly get along is in Heaven. The prom begins with students dancing within their social cliques, then switching partners in odd pairings like metalheads dancing with Heathers and one of the murdered jocks getting his prom picture taken with a tipped cow; the punch being served is the drain cleaner used in the first murder scene, and "Dumptruck" is singing onstage as the entertainment for the evening. This was intended to be shot but the studio thought it was too dark for the target teenage crowd and opted for a lighter ending.
Writer Daniel Waters said in an interview: "I did come up with this crazy, cockamamie "Heathers 2" where Veronica becomes a page for a senator named Heather, played by Meryl Streep. The ending is her assassinating the president and getting away with it - and it's a good thing." Winona Ryder has heavily supported the idea for a sequel, but as of 2014, nothing has come out of it.
One alternate ending had Martha Dumptruck stabbing Veronica. Martha shouts "Fuck you, Heather!" Veronica, lying on the ground with a knife in her stomach, replies "My name's not Heather! My name's not Heather!"
The original ending involves Veronica killing herself with JD's bomb, quietly saying "bang" and the school being destroyed. Keeping true on JD's words about how different social types can only get along in heaven. The scene then would cut to black and it would show a prom in heaven with Martha Dunnstock singing to a crowd of different social types dancing together. This was rejected for being too dark.
When Heather Chandler falls through the glass table, a copy of the Cliff's Notes for "The Bell Jar" (by Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide) and a magazine with a cover story "The Fall of the American Teenager" are on top of the table.
Winona Ryder claims that this is her favorite movie. She also says that she gets asked about Heathers 2 more than anything else, although a sequel seems unlikely. The filmmakers have suggested that they would like to do the project. One of the plot lines includes JD being a CIA agent before his death. The CIA would then blackmail Veronica and the story would end with Veronica assassinating the President.
A crow cawing can be heard after each death scene, getting progressively louder each time. The sound is muffled when Heather Chandler dies indoors, is more obvious when Curt and Ram are killed in the forest, and is quite loud after JD blows up.
The Kurt and Ram murder-suicide prank touches on another big irony with this movie: Gay teenagers do have a very high suicide rate, about 3 times higher than that of straight teens. The football players' phony suicide note actually sounds like a poignantly accurate reflection of many gay teen's experience. Although these statistics have become common knowledge in recent years since the movie came out, back in 1987 when Daniel Waters was writing this it was not well known, (he probably did not know this himself at the time!)
In Heathers The Musical one of the biggest changes the producers made to the story was that Martha "Dump Truck" becomes Veronica's former best friend, not Betty Finn. Also Heather, Kurt, and Ram make ongoing appearances in the show after their deaths in dream sequences.