The answer to the question “Where the hell has Daniel Waters been?” gets answered this weekend in very select theaters. It’s called Sex and Death 101, and it skewers the romantic comedy genre as savagely as Heathers assailed the 80s teen movie. The film stars Simon Baker as Roderick Blank, a soon-to-be-married ladykiller who’s more than content to go off the market; at least, that’s the lie he tells himself. The truth is he’s a long, long way from the end of his single-guy run, which he discovers rather jarringly when a list of 101 names hits his inbox on the day of his bachelor party. The first twenty-nine are women with whom he’s had sex. The other seventy-two represent everyone else he’ll have sex with before he expires. And this is problematic because his fiancee is number twenty-nine.
It’s a nifty high-concept conceit (with clanging echoes of Woody Allen), but, in typical Waters fashion, he attacks it with a buckshot, attention-deficit abandon ‘cuz precision strikes are boring and fascist. This blow-it-all-to-smithereens approach may leave the narrative in tatters, but it keeps Roderick’s journey from proceeding along one of two predictable paths (i.e. he learns a valuable lesson and lives happily ever after, or he learns a valuable lesson and is punished for his sins because life is shit). Once his pending marriage is off, he’s free to dive into the list, which he does with gusto until he hits a snag: Miranda, a gorgeous and quirky veterinarian played by Leslie Bibb. Though he may have been in love before, Miranda offers something completely different; she’s a soul mate. She’s also the first woman to say “No”. But Miranda’s the next name on the list right? Surely, it’s just a matter of time.
The pitch black direction in which Waters takes things from here should come as no surprise to anyone who fell in love with his writing after Heathers, and it’s great to see him teamed-up with Winona Ryder again (she plays a murderous femme fatale nicknamed Death Nell). But does Sex and Death 101 completely atone for his studio-financed transgressions (Hudson Hawk, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Demolition Man, etc.)? Are those even transgressions? Is he still on speaking terms with the Diceman?
Few of these questions are answered in the roundtable interview below, but, hey, at least we know where the hell Daniel Waters has been. And thank god the answer is “writing”.
Q: You’ve said that Sex & Death 101 was something you started thinking about when you were working on Heathers.
Daniel Waters: People are so focused on structure, that structure is the most important thing about a screenplay. I think I joked last night that those screenwriting books stress the importance of structure, which, to me, is like a book about horseback riding that stresses the importance of having a horse. It’s obvious. And the whole beginning, middle and end thing comes to me naturally, so I stow it away and put it in a safe-deposit box. This idea came to me… I think it was on one of those third or fourth dates, where I didn’t know how it was going and whether I should keep going to these expensive restaurants. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I had a printout?” From there, I came up with this idea of a list that would just say everything. It’s one of those things where you *shouldn’t* sit down and write it right away; you should let the different possibilities of an idea like that come. So I kind of stowed it away and collected acorns for it anytime I thought of a variation on this list. And just recently, I was trying to think of a movie I haven’t seen before that I’d want to see; it was in this realm of sexuality, so I thought, “Okay, this could be my trojan horse to put a lot of different things I want to say about sex”. With this idea, you’re allowed to go from tangent to tangent.
Q: You talk about holding this idea back. Was it the kind of thing you perhaps toyed with developing for a studio back in the early 90s?
Waters: You know, I thought that by doing these studio films I would one day become like God, and that during my God phase I could take it out of my safe deposit box and just go, “I’ve got this for you.” But I never hit that God phase. My period with the studio films was my “Island of Misfit Toys” phase: the squirt gun that shoots peanut butter was Hudson Hawk. I wasn’t sure who these movies were for. I inadvertently was being paid for putting the head of a giraffe on a rhinoceros’ body, and you have these monstrosities that are amusing to people; for some reason, they love it in Europe. (Laughs) They were interesting to a cult crowd, but for the whole commercial world… it’s kind of like we mutually said, “Maybe we’re not the best fit for each other.” But then, unfortunately, I’m not part of the independent little league team either. After Batman Returns, I compared it to having sex with fifty condoms. It wasn’t fun anymore. So I tried to go back to this place of naivite where I wrote Heathers. The thing is, people come up to me and say, “Why don’t you make a movie like Heathers?” But the real question is, “How did I get to make Heathers in the first place?” How do you win the lottery twice? Well, I realized you can’t think about that stuff, so with Sex & Death 101, I said, “I’m not going to think about getting it made. I’m not going to think, ‘Who’s going to buy it?'” I felt like this was my Van Gogh period, and if I kill myself, I don’t have any good scripts in my drawer. So I decided to start banking some good stuff, scripts that I like, so that when I die they can pull it out and say, “Why didn’t they make this!?!?“. It’s kind of a happy accident that it got made, so I can postpone my suicide for another couple of years. But that’s a drag: I wrote this anti-suicide comedy, so if I kill myself it’ll be bad.
Q: Have you and Winona Ryder stayed in touch over the years?
Waters: Yes, we have, though not recently. I’ve been saying that she’s like Brando in Apocalypse Now, the way they have her head looming in the poster even though she doesn’t show up until the end of the movie. And the fact that it’s impossible to get her to do press. “She’s my Brando!” But, yes, we’ve stayed in touch, mostly because she’s still under the strange illusion that we’re going to do a sequel to Heathers – which I go with so she’ll keep coming to my parties. “Here’s that Heathers 2! I’ve got dip!”
Q: That keeps coming back. Every now and then, we hear about a Heathers 2. Is it a serious thing?
Waters: Oh, that’s right. I’m supposed to be mad at her for not doing more press for the movie, so you can write that I’m shooting Heathers 2 next week with Jennifer Connelly just to get a rise out of her. (Laughter) Maybe she’ll call me back now. But there was a thing where I felt like I had to giver her a new Heathers 2 plot ever day just to keep her on the hook. To me, we’re really past The Two Jakes. Who wants to see it? But, yeah, I had this cockamamie thing where she was a senate page, and she was working for a senator named Heather, who was kind of a precursor to Hillary Clinton without me knowing it. She was going to be played by Meryl Streep. So I kind of throw this twist in where she assassinates the President and makes it look like a suicide. Then I’m at a party three years later, and Winona comes up to me. “Meryl’s in and she’s got some questions.” (Laughter) And I’m like, “What!?!? Memo to Crazytown: I didn’t mean for you to actually do anything with this.” But, yeah, on the set we’ve been playing with a parody of those Dangerous Minds types of movies where the cool teacher comes in with the leather jacket and gets the whole school to behave. We were thinking about doing one of those that goes completely awry. But I’m trying to find that next name. What’s the next name that’s “Heather”?
Waters: This is a really sad story: there’s this series of books called Ashleys, and one person who’s a part of their clique doesn’t like them. I was reading a message board, and someone said, “It sounds a lot like The Craft.” I’m like, “What!?!? It sounds a lot like another movie. And not Mean Girls.”
Q: What made you think of Mindy Cohn for this?
Waters: I try not to write with today’s stars in mind. I like to write for people who are dead. “This is the Audrey Hepburn role, and this is the Cary Grant role.” They’re dead, so I know I’m not getting them. But it gives me a prototype of who I am going for. And she’s– oh, I had a kid today not get a Woody Allen reference. ‘Cuz I’m about to give you a Woody Allen [reference]. She’s the Thelma Ritter role. Anybody? It’s kind of like the way Jimmy Stewart would be looking at women, and there was always Thelma Ritter back there cutting him down to size.
All the actresses in this movie are incredibly bawdy. I was worried about intimidating the actresses on this movie, but Julie Bowen, Leslie Bibb, Mindy… we had crew members quitting in disgust. But we had a four-people playoff for the role of Trixie, and they could not be more different. I think they were sitting on a couch together, and they had no idea they were going after the same role. So I bring Mindy in, and… Simon is one of those guys who doesn’t really have to try. Life is good to him, and he’s got that laid-back Australian thing going for him. But I bring Mindy in, and, all of sudden, it’s like “Oh, shit!” The meter starts to go crazy, and Simon has to work just to keep up with her. They ended up having this great dynamic that brought him down to Earth. I think, especially if you’re not enjoying the film or are offended by the sexuality, Mindy is that oasis in the desert. “Thank god! No more necrophilia! We’re back to Mindy!” I think since people know her and love her, she’s got this comfort level. And when she says the word “pussy”, you’re like, “Okay, we’ve crossed the rubicon. Natalie from Facts of Life just said ‘pussy’. Hold onto your hats; we have no idea where this movie’s going.”
Q: I know you’re very careful with your scripts, but some of Patton’s dialogue sounded like his stand-up voice. Did you give him free rein to improvise?
Waters: I read these interviews with directors who just give actors an idea of the scene, and let them go. I’m very meticulous in the way I write a script, but when you get Patton… You know, I told Patton, “This isn’t the type of role where you’ve got to go crazy.” But then you get to the fourth or fifth take, and you’re like, “Okay, Patton. Be funny. Do something funny.” (Laughs) A lot of his lines… like the thing about montage sequences? That’s his. And I had the thing in my script about the blow job loophole, but he just went on and took it to another level. But I do want it on the record that the obscure reference about “Grover Cleveland poontang” is all mine. Because when I watched the movie, I thought, “Oh, great. Patton Oswalt’s going to get credit for that.” He did have a line that we cut out of the movie. “Grover Cleveland poontang. And I don’t mean that new indie band.” (Laughter)
Q: Patton and Mindy really breathe life into the movie.
Waters: Because it was a corpse!
Q: Did you ever think about putting them in a scene together?
Waters: They do have similar roles in the film. They’re kind of the “Geek Chorus”. If you get carried away with the beautiful people, you need to undercut that. I’ll be the first to admit it: I do like making raunchy comedies, but I do have this huge, pretentious, exploring-the-mores-of-American-sexuality side to me. And, goddamn, I need Patton or Mindy to cut into my pretensions or I’m dead. But I think it would be too much of an overdose to have them together. And I think people would expect that they’d be on each other’s list.
Q: Leslie Bibb was kind of a revelation in this movie. I’ve liked her films before, but here she gets a chance to play it quirky and real. And that moment you give her with Simon before [spoiler] happens is quietly devastating.
Waters: Unfortunately, that becomes my favorite part to see with an audience. “Okay, everybody knows he’s going to end up having sex with the leprous grandmother, and everybody knows he’s probably going to end up with Winona whether they kill each other or not.” But nobody knows that this character is about to die. It’s like, “Oh, god, here it comes!” Last night’s audience seemed ready to kill me. They seemed deeply shocked and offended. But I think Julie Bowen gives a speech like that early on, and it was important to me that that voice was heard. I didn’t want it to be the dreary cavalcade of Maxim whores. It’s not a movie about just him, that he’s entering these people’s lives. I wanted it to feel like he’s on their list as much as they’re on his list. And it was tough because I had to teach Simon Baker what the friend zone was. (Affecting Australian accent:) “What do you mean you’ve gone out twice with a girl and haven’t had sex? I don’t understand!” It’s funny, because we had this scene where we cut from him and Leslie walking down the street to this shot of another day, and the first audience I showed it to naturally assumed they’d had sex. So I had to add a line of narration saying, “No, we haven’t had sex yet.”
Q: Could you talk about the casting of Simon Baker? Often in these movies, we get a lead whom we don’t buy as a ladykiller, but that’s not a problem with Simon.
Waters: Yeah, 101 women was probably a good march for him when he was twenty-three. It was very important to not have the geek with the golden lamp and, “Oh-ho, I get to see boobies now!” I didn’t want that element, nor did I want what I felt Jude Law in Alfie was: a too-perfect cad of a ladies’ man. I wanted this guy to think, “I’m mature and content. I’ve got a nice wife, I’m a good man. I remember when my wife gets a hair cut, and I know where to get her flowers.” I wanted that guy, and it was very important that it be someone whom you think is a pretty good guy from the start. Back in the 70s, it could be Richard Benjamin, Elliott Gould or George Segal; they didn’t need to be that good looking. (Laughter) But just for shooting the movie, Simon was invaluable. These poor actresses would come on the set and see me with my viewfinder, and go, “Oh, god, I’ve got to take off my clothes for this guy?” Then Simon would come around, and it’d be like, “Oh, thank you! But stay out of my eyeline, Waters!”
But, again, it was very important that it not be a male film, that women could enjoy the film. And just from an aesthetic point-of-view, you’re more likely to go along with the journey if Simon is your captain then you are if… oh, what’s a good name. (Decides better of it.) I wanted it to be a myth of male control. I guess it ends up being the flip side of Judd Apatow’s movies, which I adore. Judd Apatow presents the crude, sex-obsessed beast-guy, but then it turns out that, when you scratch away the surface, he’s warm and fuzzy. I wanted the completely mature, well-adjusted, good-looking guy who’s had sex with twenty-nine women and doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody, but you scratch that surface and desire is going to break down that house of cards no matter what. The mature, most content guy in the world could still be a sexual beast. Both [Judd’s] thesis and my thesis are true, but women should still be on guard at all times. (Laughter)
Q: Of all the things that could be turn-ons for Sophie Monk’s centerfold character, why “pudding, air hockey and pudding”?
Waters: Because those are my turn-ons. No, I just hadn’t seen the sexy air hockey flirtation before. And I just liked the idea of her saying the same turn-on twice. It’s cliche to say, “I want all of my characters to be intelligent,” but I did want that one dumb blond. Just give me *one* dumb blond at least.
Q: Where did you come up with the swing set and faerie wings? And putting the faerie wings on Simon?
Waters: Putting the faerie wings was Simon’s choice. I turned around and he was wearing them. The problem with those scenes is that you can’t shoot them at the beginning of the day, or else everyone will get freaked out. So you shoot them at the end of the day, where you’re always running out of time. I had these choreographed scenes, and instead it was like, “Okay, everybody into the bed! Here’s some tequila, and let’s go! Now, everybody get on the swing set!” So they end up feeling a little bit forced, but they had all drank tequila, and, like I said, Simon warms up the crowd pretty good. Even the gaffer was taking off his clothes. It was nice. But the swing set was from… Mario Bava’s movie Four Times That Night. There’s a swing set in it, and I really liked the POV shot from the swing set. Of course, this is a low-budget movie, so we don’t get to build a hotel room; we have to go to an actual hotel and build a swing set within the hotel room. It’s in my backyard now.
Q: How did you choose the various sex acts they’d perform?
Waters: (Laughs) Well, I am well-versed. (Laughter) That’s the thing about taking the slow-cooker method of writing this thing. I didn’t want “No Sex Act Left Behind”, but I did want to make sure I was hitting all of the eighteen food groups. I think in the production notes, I wrote that I didn’t want to do incest or sheep. But people kept saying, “You’ve got to have the name of a sheep [on Simon’s list]!” I do have a bit of a reference in there. The third person he has sex with is Daisy Milos Ross. (He explains the reference, but I’ll let y’all work it over for yourselves.) That’s as close as I came to bestiality. But, come on, I came close to necrophilia! You can’t say I was shying away from the big-ticket items!
Sex and Death 101 opens here and there Friday, April 4th.