Darren Stein sits dressed in a Boulet Brothers t-shirt and a black ball cap that reads “Creature” across the front, the brim pulled low over his eyes.
Sitting at a table of a famed Los Angeles restaurant on a Sunday morning, Stein has a nondescript quality to him. Nobody would realize he’s the queer writer/director of one of the most notorious cult movies of the 1990s, Jawbreaker. The movie gets a special edition Blu-Ray release this November 19.
The movie debuted in 1999 and left critics and audiences stunned by its dark, comic tale of a group of high school women (Rose McGowan, Julie Benz, Judy Greer & Rebecca Gayheart) who accidentally murder a classmate and scramble to cover up the crime. It flopped on initial release before finding a second life as a cult film, with fans savoring the campy vibe, macabre humor and fine performances by its leading ladies.
That cult audience represents something of a vindication for Stein, who has since bounced back with the popular queer film GBF. Now 47, he enjoys a successful career as a writer/director, with Jawbreaker standing out as his most notorious film. A stage musical based on the film will open next year, and a TV series is also in development.
Stein grins and rises to greet me with a hug as I enter; we’ve known each other for years. To celebrate the 20th Anniversary, we met up for drinks and remembrance of Jawbreaker, its effect on his life, and the effect on the careers of its director and stars.
Jawbreaker’s 20th Anniversary Blu-Ray hits the streets November 19.
So 20 years. Is it weird to have a child that is 20 years old?
It is. I don’t feel old enough to have a 20-year-old child.
That makes sense.
I’m just grateful that she’s still alive.
Interesting that you think of the film as a “she.”
Well of course. She has to be. It’s kind of great that people are still talking about the film and that it finds a new generation of viewers every year.
But let’s start at the beginning. So you’d directed Sparkler.
I made Sparkler when I was like—Jesus—at 24 or 25. I was really young.
And that became a cult film.
Strand released it in LA and New York. It played festivals and did really well. The producers of Sparkler knew two other producers, a female producing team, looking for a teen movie. And the producer of Sparkler had read Jawbreaker. I wrote it years before it got made. I couldn’t get it made at any studios. And one of our producers, Lisa Tornell, who produced The Craft, and she worked with Doug Wick at Sony. So they read Jawbreaker, loved it, brought it around. And it was an executive at Columbia-TriStar Home Video said “If you can get one of three actresses, I’ll finance it.”
I’ve heard this bit.
So that’s how it got made. And Columbia-TriStar Home Video at that point had only ever acquired films.
Now how old were you when you wrote it?
Let’s see. I graduated NYU in ‘93. So I think I would have been around 23. I wanted to write a horror movie. As I began to write it, it became more of a dark comedy, though it does have a very macabre underbelly which comes from the inspiration for the whole thing.
Where does that come from?
I grew up in the valley. Girls used to kidnap each other on their birthdays.
That was a thing?
Yeah. It was a very weird birthday ritual. Calling it that almost gives it too much gravitas. It was like, they’d be in their pajamas, and their moms would be in on it. They’d take a girl to Denny’s and have breakfast and her friends would tie her to a flag pole. It was really a fun hazing thing.
That makes sense.
And I went to an all-boys school from 7th grade to 12th grade called Harvard, which is now Harvard-Westlake. As a gay kid in high school, you needed girls to give you power. I didn’t have that. And I would hear from friends what their girlfriends were doing, or their sisters. And so it became kind of a fantasy of the high school career I didn’t have. Not that I wanted to kill people…
It is high school. So when Columbia-TriStar Home Video said yes…
And I want to reiterate: that meant making the film for $3 million, which was a fraction [of most movies of the time]. It always gets lumped in with other 90s teen movies. Cruel Intentions, Can’t Hardly Wait, Idle Hands—all those films were between $7-14 million. And my movie was $3 million. I think it’s pretty cool we can handle a candle to those, considering we had a fraction of the production.
Well and ‘99 is considered about the 3rd best year for movies. American Beauty, The Matrix, The Cider House Rules, Being John Malkovitch, Boys Don’t Cry, The Sixth Sense, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace…all of those come out that year. It was an incredible time, and in the midst of this, you release Jawbreaker.
Now you already mentioned the studio wanted one of three unknown actresses: Kate Winslet, Natalie Portman or Rose McGowan. Those are three names I would not necessarily even associate with being the same type.
Well the executive at Screen Gems was gay, and I think he was cool enough to be into Rose McGowan. Scream had just come out in ‘96, right?
Scream was ‘96, and she had done Doom Generation. She was very much an indie darling.
I think he’d seen Doom Generation. I know he saw Scream. I’d seen Doom before it came out. I had a friend that worked for the French distributor, and I was riveted by Rose. She had that face. She had this gravitas that I hadn’t seen since Ava Gardner or Heddy Lamar.
And I know Rose often mentions Gene Tierney as inspiration for her performance.
Yes. And she’s similar. So I was fascinated by her. I saw Scream in the theater, and she was one of the most amazing parts of Scream to me. At the time, I didn’t think Scream was all that. I appreciated it, I thought it was transgressive with what it was doing. And Rose was one of the more interesting things to me.
She speaks very well of Wes Craven, and you, in her memoir. She doesn’t speak well of everybody, so I think that’s telling.
She’s like my sister. She’s family. So I’m very sensitive about her. At the time, she was dating Marilyn Manson.
Well, and he’s in the movie too.
I asked her to ask him to be in it.
And he was amenable?
I was a huge fan of his. So she said “Doctor, will you do it?” She always called him Doctor then. It was really cute. I said he could be the sleezy man her character has sex with, or he could be in the prom scene. He chose the sleezy man.
That makes sense for some reason.
And Manson gave him a name: Saucy Peterson.
Is he billed as Saucy Peterson?
No, but he called him Saucy Peterson. And the costumer put him all in 70s Sergio Valenti.
And he had a great time with it. He considers Jawbreaker his big acting break. After that, he did Party Monster. Now he’s on The New Pope.
But now hang on. You go to Rose. Did you even talk to anybody else?
No. She got the film financed.
Was she on board right away?
Yeah. We had a meeting. We met. I remember her saying she wanted to play Courtney almost robotically, not a lot of emotion like an android. And I remember her making these android-like, mannequin-like, movements. It was great. She really appreciated the language and the theatricality of it. And she wasn’t scared to play Courtney as totally evil. She doesn’t have a damaged backstory. She was born bad, “Satan in Heels.” That’s what’s fun about the character, and she fully threw herself into it.
And then you found Julie Benz and Judy Greeer, both of whom are still working and have had successful careers.
And Rebecca Gayheart.
Now I heard Rachel Leigh Cook was originally cast…
Yeah. We decided on Rachel and then she read with Rose & Julie. It just wasn’t the right mix. Rachel’s style was much more real, more grounded and subtle. This called for glamazon, larger-than-life. So we found Rebecca Gayheart who just got it immediately.
It’s one of Rebecca’s better performances. And it’s one of Rose’s best performances. She’s very good here.
Let it be said, your approach—Jawbreaker is a very stylized film. Watching it, I kept thinking that it’s a cartoon about murder. With your scene transitions with the screen wipes, with the goofy cartoon side effects, the bright colors, the humor, it’s like Loony Tunes with homicide.
I mean that as a compliment.
Yeah, yeah yeah.
To do that kind of stylized performance you ask your leading ladies, particularly Rose, to do—not every actress can do that. They all really commit to it.
And that bled out on the set.
When you have a set with this evil girl who’s running the school, there’s always going to become part of the way people think. There’s always going to be a messy moment when actors use that process. There were definitely some intense moments.
But you’re all still friends.
Yeah. I was with Rebecca and Judy on Friday, and I posted our picture on Instagram. Rose commented like “Aww, great crew.” And Julie was going to come too. It’s very rare that on a movie, 20 years later, people want to hang out again. And actors often have wrangling personalities, but Rebecca, Julie, Judy and Rose are all really sweet people. So it’s great to hang. And Rose isn’t in LA, she’s in New York, so she couldn’t even be on the commentary.
So me, Julie, Judy & Rebecca recorded the 20th Anniversary commentary together. It was really fun. We wanted to add Rose in later, but that’s not how they do it. We all have to be in the same room together. But it was interesting: Judy, Julie and Rebecca hadn’t seen the film in years. So their reactions were all very fresh and raw.
Maybe this is a good time to bring up another subject then. You, as a director, in the whole of your filmography, love stories about women.
What’s that about? What is it about women that so fascinates you as a gay man? Jawbreaker, Sparkler, GBF—these are films about women, about friendships with women, about relationships among women…
I think as a queer person, you have an intrinsic femininity to your personality, or the way you see the world. You’re open to the experience of another gender the way straight people aren’t. I’m not speaking for all gay men, but look at Twitter. There are a lot of gay men obsessed with Toni Collette or some other actress. We all have “our woman.” We just put them on a pedestal of appreciation in a way straight men don’t. So I think that GBF, Jawbreaker and Sparkler all celebrate women in a way that a straight man wouldn’t necessarily want to. I think that’s why they have appreciation from gay audiences, and from women.
I think that makes sense. Now, when you guys shot this on a shoestring budget all around Los Angeles…
30 days. Three high schools.
Wow. That’s hardcore. And you were so young doing it.
It was a challenge.
So how did you cope with the pressure? How do you keep those personal pressures from spilling over onto your cast & crew?
I think every director has a different way of working. Directors set the tone on a set. I’m a collaborative person. I like it to be a fun, happy experience, otherwise why do it? But also, get it done. Jawbreaker was a big movie in terms of design, in terms of extras, in terms of shots that were really elaborate. So getting the schedule was a challenge, but we did it. And the studio was under tremendous pressure because it was the first film that they’d financed. After we made the movie, they went on to become Screen Gems—a legitimate studio.
So it was tough but exciting. Post-production was great too. Our sound designer, Dean Hovey, had done Lost Highway.
That explains the sound effects.
It was actually the studio’s note that we should add those cartoony sounds in transitions. I wasn’t thrilled with that at first. I thought it was hokey. But over the years, I’ve grown to like it. The movie played too dark to test audiences. Originally, the film opened with the kidnapping. We had to add in that whole opening scene about “the beautiful ones:” the shots with Fern running away from the girls, picking up her books, to help give the audience a sense of safety before being thrown into the violence which is very disturbing.
Yes it is.
To this day, I have people say “I saw that film too young.” Or “It gave me nightmares.” And I love when people tell me that. I saw films when I was too young that f*cked me up. I think it’s a right of passage.
That is an achievement if you can scar children.
I love it.
Now, one of the other things that really stands out about the film is that it’s not just a movie about high school. It’s a meditation about high school movies. You subvert John Hughes with your plot. You also have actors like Carol Kane, PJ Soles, Jeff Conway, William Katt—all of whom were in big high school movies like Halloween or Carrie or Grease.
And Rock & Roll High School.
Yeah. In some ways it’s like you’re making fun of the genre, or the purity and innocence of it. It’s like you’re saying “people in high school are not innocent…”
Well, they’re not. High school is a very painful place to be, and nobody talks about that. I grew up on John Hughes movies, Grease, Heathers, Rock & Roll High School and more subversive films like Carrie, The Shining and Alien. The Hunger. So I think I was rebelling against the John Hughes films of the 80s because they were so heterosexual. There were no queer characters.
No. So, first of all, in high school the girls are going to dominate.
I remember Roger Ebert gave the movie a scathing review.
Yes he did. I remember.
He hated it. And I was like really girl? You wrote ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’.
That is funny.
And people are always asking why Jawbreaker had an 11% on RottenTomatoes. It’s because the film was ahead of its time.
Well let’s talk about that. The film got one of the harshest receptions I’ve ever seen. What was the feeling for you and the studio when you put the film out and that’s the reception? What was the state of your life when that happened? Did you have guys throwing themselves at you because you’d made a studio picture?
Oh no. Not really. I was in a relationship.
More than anything, today at 47, I’ll go out with guys and they’ll find out about Jawbreaker and have a serious moment about it. That’s weirder. I love the fans of the movie and appreciate them. I collect fan art. I love it.
But let’s go back to the reception for a minute. How did the negative reception affect you?
First of all, I wanted the film to play at Sundance. And Sundance has a history of showing teen films. They showed Heathers. They showed Pump Up the Volume. And then they showed Jawbreaker. It had a really great reception at Sundance. People loved it. Then it came out in theatres and got crucified.
So why was that?
The movie plays by its own rules. It’s not designed to appease an audience. And it vibes with queerness that is not overt. I think that was off-putting and upsetting to heterosexual critics. But it became a cult movie. So I’m happy fans have the last word.
That’s what matters.
Rebecca McKendry and I recently did Attack of the Queer Wolf together, a queer horror podcast. She told me afterward how she found out about Jawbreaker: John Waters.
She interviewed him in 2002 and they talked about queer movies. She praised Drop Dead Gorgeous, and he was like “I loved Jawbreaker.”
Well the movie has Waters’ sensibility & anarchism.
He was a huge influence for me. It’s funny, I was just watching Female Trouble and there are lines of dialogue that are very close.
That’s especially true of Female Trouble in general, which is Waters’ deconstruction of the high school genre.
I can tell you the overt references when we were making it were Grease, Carrie, Rock & Roll High School, Heathers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and every horror movie I’ve ever seen.
Interesting that you have several musicals in there. One of the main characters of the film is the music. This awesome riot grrl, female alt-rock soundtrack…
I’ve always been into alternative music. Back in the 90s, I was having a major Smashing Pumpkins and Hole moment. As a matter of fact, the Hole album Live Through This was a big influence.
Ok, so I noticed this. The prom scene. It’s very close to the “Miss World” video in some respects.
Well, it’s Carrie.
Yeah, but the tracking shot of Rose is the “Miss World” video and the cover of Live Through This.
Yeah. I would say I was less inspired by the video. It was more the album cover: the girl with running mascara. I wanted to have an operatic Grand Guignol finale. I was actually hired to direct an Alexander Wang video because he wanted it to look like the prom scene. Someone said, “Why not just hire the director of Jawbreaker?”
So I did it.
Did you pick the songs for the movie yourself?
Yeah. I had a music supervisor at the time, but I am very hands-on with music. I had a fight with one of the producers over “Lollipop Lips,” the Connie Francis song that plays during a sex scene. They thought it was too campy. They wanted to use a male vocal from the same period. I argued that it had to be a female vocal because it’s a scene about female power.
Did the negative reception have an effect on your career?
I’m sure it did. Everyone thinks of those things in the business. I didn’t make a direct correlation to it, because I’m proud of the film, and I don’t hold anyone responsible for my career other than myself. I was offered a lot of teen movies to direct after Jawbreaker, and I didn’t want to do another teen movie. I wanted to adapt a cyberpunk novel. I wanted to do bigger films. But then, I didn’t get to direct another feature until GBF.
Which is a teen movie. And that was more than 10 years later.
That’s a long time between projects.
But, I made a documentary. I produced a feature. I worked constantly as a writer during that period. I’ve written pilots for E!, HBO, The CW…
Yeah, I wrote Seeds of Yesterday. I wrote a Spice Girls biopic that never got made. So I’m doing stuff. And I’ve been working on Jawbreaker as a musical for the stage.
So you recovered.
But I’m not going to lie. It was not easy. It was a bummer. I love to direct. When I made GBF, I remember thinking that if it was not a great experience or a great film, I should not direct anymore. That was my headspace. But not only was it a great experience, it turned out really well.
So what is life like now? Jawbreaker follows you everywhere.
It’s great. I have a movie called Kill the Boy Band, which is basically Jawbreaker meets A Hard Day’s Night.
That sounds fun.
It’s about fangirl culture. So we’re in the process of making that right now, hopefully shooting next year.
Jawbreaker arrives on special edition Blu-Ray November 19.