Reality Bites, that seminal early-’90s snapshot of post-college love and ennui, turns 20 years old this week, first premiering February 18, 1994. We dug out an interview with director Ben Stiller from way back when (no joke. It was original published in MovieMaker‘s fourth issue ever, March 1994; see pictures below for proof). Here you go, folks – relive an era.
Ben Stiller Bytes
Reality Bites, the comedy-feature debut for 23-year-old screenwriter Helen Childress follows a close circle of twenty-something friends as they try their best to survive the sometimes harsh, and often odd, reality of life after college.
It’s also the feature directing debut for Ben Stiller, creator and host of The Ben Stiller Show, the short-lived but Emmy-winning television show on the FOX network. Stiller, the son of comedy team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, brings his Saturday Night Live and MTV experience to the witty and offbeat Reality Bites. Ben Stiller was in Seattle to talk about his new move in early February, 1994.
Kathleen McInnis (MM): I found the movie hysterically funny. I was wondering how much of that was scripted? How much was in the Childress script and how much was you, or the actors?
Ben Stiller (BS): The script was extremely funny when I read it and that’s why I wanted to do it, because I thought it was really well written and the characters seemed real to me. A lot of the work that I did with Helen on the script was on my character and on the structure of the movie. Originally, it was much more about all the characters in the movie. Janeane [Garofalo]’s character, Vikki, and Steve [Zahn]’s character, Sammy, and Ethan [Hawke]’s character, Troy; all their stories were much more fleshed out. I felt like I couldn’t really bring all those stories together; couldn’t really tell them all fully, so I just wanted to make it more about [Winona Ryder’s character] Lelaina and her relationship with Troy.
[Producers] Michael Shamberg and Danny DeVito were partners; Michael had this idea to do a movie about people in their twenties about three years ago and he read a script of Helen’s that she had written on spec. Based on that, he met with her and she went back and wrote her first draft of the script. They went through a lot of different drafts, I think, for over a year. Then I came on, and Helen and I worked together for nine or ten months. By December of 1992 we had a draft we liked and all felt good about. Then it took a few more months to actually get it going. It’s been a long process.
I think a lot of people want to put this in a generational kind of “it’s only relevant to people in their twenties” thing. This whole—I don’t even like to say it—“generation X” bullshit. And I really wanted to make a movie that just emotionally works if you’ve ever been in your twenties, if you’ve ever gone through this time in your life when you’re trying to figure out how to get what you want and who you are. I think it’s the same no matter when it happens to you, the fifties, the seventies…
When people ask me what the movie’s about, it’s very easy to say the basic plot line, it’s not really that complicated. But for me, the movie is about a lot of different things.
In the original script, Michael [Stiller’s character] was in his mid thirties, an ad executive. I wanted to make him a guy closer to their own age, and who was kind of another aspect of the generation in terms of someone in their twenties who actually has a real job and seems to be doing well. On the outside, he’s okay, but he’s dealing with the same fears and the same problems—just dealing with them in different ways. I thought it was important to see that aspect of what’s going on.
The character was a little different when I read the script, and that’s one of the notes I had on the script when I first went through it. I thought he should be a more realistic character too, and not just the guy who is obviously the jerk who doesn’t understand [Lelaina]. As we talked about the character we improvised some scenes as Helen was re-writing, and it became one of these things.
MM: How much of your character, Michael’s, pre-occupation with communications was ad-libbed by you?
BS: Some of the stuff was ad-libbed, and some of it we’d improvise in rehearsal. Helen kind of had a real ear for this character based on what we had talked about. That scene, when I’m in the phone booth talking to her on the cellular—I was talking to Helen on the other end of the phone because it was a real cellular phone and I had them hook us up. So, it was funny because she would like—well, when I say “I love you,” I don’t know if you heard it, that was like an accident that happened and Helen said “you have to keep that in.” So that was kind of our working relationship; working back and forth kind of stuff.
[We picked Houston] because Helen was from there and she wrote the script to take place in Houston. So we shot the scenes we could in Houston and ended up filming most of it in LA and just filming the exteriors in Houston because of the money. I also think it being set in Houston is interesting in a couple of different ways. One, Houston is a city that in the early eighties was really prospering. The oil business was really happening there; then they built all these buildings and now a lot of them are empty. In a way it’s kind of symbolic to what the nineties are as a result of the eighties. So it was interesting to me that they [the characters] are living their lives against that backdrop.
MM: You slam every major TV show, every product possible. This is an independent feature, so how much of a part does product placement play in terms of budget, what happens to it, etc?
BS: There is product placement in the movie, but I don’t have any problem with it because it never happened where they said “OK, you can put our product in but you have to change your script.” I didn’t have a problem with it because any way we could help the movie monetarily that didn’t impinge on the credibility of the film or my own integrity was fine with me. And I wanted as much money as I could possibly have to make the movie the right way. It’s very important I think to the movie to have these real products that you can identify with; The Gap, and Big Gulp, things like that are really important. Pizza Hut I wanted to get. I wanted to make sure we had Pizza Hut because that was making a statement about “tie-ins” and it was meant to be crass. I don’t know that the Pizza Hut people knew that, but they went along with it. I guess the bottom line to them is they had Pizza Hut in the movie, they had no idea what we were really doing.
Diet Coke was written into the script; Helen lives on Diet Coke and smokes cigarettes so we wanted to have it in there because it was real. A movie like this depends on that because of identification, kind of as reference points.
I remember one of the college screenings we did, a test screening. At the pot smoking scenes people were like “you have to keep that in there because it’s very real.” It is, for a lot of people, it is very real.
MM: Where else do you want to go with your film career? Do you want to stay with directing, do you want to do acting in somebody else’s work? What do you want to do?
BS: For me, directing is the most important thing. It’s what I want to be able to do. I want to be able to direct different kinds of movies,, different genres. I love comedies, I’d like to go back and do comedy on television, maybe. On cable, or specials where I could spend more time on one hour of television as opposed to going crazy and trying to put out a series. And I’d love to act in other people’s projects if the work is there. But for me directing is really the focus—directing movies.
MM: Where do you find your scripts; where would you like to find your scripts?
BS: In the streets, street corners…wherever the good ones are I’d like to find them. You know, you get a lot of scripts. Your agent usually sends you scripts, and most of the time, 99 percent of the time, they are not good or they are wrong for what you want to be doing. It’s really hard to find something you really care about and believe in and want to spend a year and a half of your life working on. Solely that. It’s a lot of time doing a movie and you have to really care about it. And then what really happens when you get a script as a director is you do a lot of work with the writer in terms of becoming a part of it, and making it your own vision or getting in touch with it so you can feel connected to it enough to put it on the screen. It’s a strange process. It involves a lot of different things. I love doing it, though. I really love the process.
I just love movies; I’ve always loved movies since I was a kid. Maybe directing has something to do with wanting to have some control over something in your life, and so often you don’t. In real life. You don’t have control over things. When you’re making a movie, you can create your own reality and try to control that in some way, so it’s almost like a little fantasy world sometimes.
I would like to do more TV; it’s just that the experience I had with FOX left a bad taste in my mouth. We were just stuck with a network that wasn’t behind us. It was frustrating because we were working our butts off, and I developed that for two years, and you finally get on the air and all of a sudden you’re gone before you have a chance to develop what you’ve worked on. I’d have to know it was a situation where I’d have a chance to make it work.
My sense of humor is a little cynical, probably from growing up in show business and seeing what it’s really like. It’s kind of a sleazy business. It’s a hard business; but anything you go into you’re going to have to struggle to get ahead and do well. But show business can be really tough because it’s a very personal business. You’re putting yourself out there. Actors, directors, writers; you’re using your own stuff but the people who are judging it and the people who are putting up all the money are all business people. You’re almost at a disadvantage because it’s you you’re putting out there, and to them it’s a business matter. So it’s hard to relate.
I don’t like when people compare this to Singles, because they are very different films and for me this movie is going for something else entirely. I know what he [Cameron Crowe] was going for and it was not what this movie is about. I love his sense of humor, he’s a really good writer. But every movie is a different entity. MM