Cinepocalypse 2019: Interview With ‘Airheads’/’Heathers’ Director Michael Lehmann

This year, Cinepocalypse closed out their festivities with an unlikely choice. The film festival, known for its bloodcurdling entertainment, granted moviegoers with a rare, 35mm presentation of the 1994 comedy, Airheads, in celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary. In attendance was the film’s director, Michael Lehman (Heathers 1988, Because I Said So 2007, Hudson Hawk 1991) to celebrate. I was lucky enough to get a bit of Michael’s time, and we discussed the rebirth of Airheads, the reboot of his beloved cult hit, Heathers, what he has coming up next, and, of course, horror movies.

PopHorror: Your film, Airheads, is closing out Cinepocalypse this year with a rare 35mm print screening to celebrate its 25th anniversary. What was your reaction when you heard the news that your movie was going to be closing it out?

Micheal Lehman: I was super happy and surprised and really delighted, because it’s a movie that we had a great time making. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s funny. It had a life after its release, but it was never a big hit on release. I get a lot of people saying, “Oh, I loved that movie,” but it’s not something… I haven’t seen it on the big screen probably since its release. I was just delighted to think that someone would want to watch it now.

PopHorror: I think it’s great that this was the choice of films. They could have selected anything – like Heathers – because it fits the genre more, but I love that this was chosen.

Micheal Lehman: Yeah, me too. I’ve had plenty of Heathers screenings and plenty of them recently. And they’re fun, and it’s great, but…

PopHorror: Give some love to another one!

Micheal Lehman: Yeah, and it’s also that you don’t get a chance to see these movies on the big screen very often, and so to see a projected 35mm print… I’m like really, really looking forward to just watching it.

PopHorror: I’m going to be one of those people. I love Because I Said So. It’s one of those that I watch every time that I see it’s on.

Micheal Lehman: Wow, I don’t get that very often.

PopHorror: I mention it to people, and they’re like, “Really?” Because I love my gore, and I love my horror, but I also really love this Mandy Moore movie. It’s really good.

Micheal Lehman: Well, that’s a funny one, too, because I had a lot of fun making that movie, and it was a challenge because that film is a mixture of a broad comic tone with the real relationship stuff and the sentimental relationship stuff between women… it was, like, you know… tricky. And that movie wasn’t really well received when it came out, although it did okay business. But I always thought, “Well, maybe people will find this a real guilty pleasure,” because the movie, I think, has a lot to offer.

PopHorror: That’s me. It’s got a great cast. You mentioned the women… great, strong female characters. Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

You’ve directed Heathers, episodes of American Horror Story, True Blood [read our retro review here], Dexter, and Scream Queens. Have you always been interested in horror?

Micheal Lehman: My relationship with horror is weird, because I’ve never been a horror movie geek. I’m not the guy who’s seen every single horror film, and I love it when I see it. It’s a great genre, obviously. That goes without saying. But what I loved more than anything else – when I was young, I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I was really interested in this stuff – was surrealism, and movies that weren’t necessarily coming out of the horror genre, but that the horror genre had used elements of those things in a big way, really intelligently. Even the low grade horror does that. It’s such a great genre. It encompasses so much aesthetically, and it’s designed to both frighten and also stimulate you to deal with your own fears and anxieties. It’s a great genre, but I never really saw myself as being like, “I’m a horror director.” I’m not like Eli Roth.

PopHorror: So, what is your favorite genre to work in?

Micheal Lehman: For me, it’s darker comedy. In other words, comedy that has a satirical bend to it, or that’s heavily ironic, or that deals with uncomfortable subjects. Which is also, by the way, very much what horror does. Half the time, the dark comedy genre is an offshoot of horror. If you look at something like Get Out [2017 – read our review here]… I looked at Get Out, and I don’t know if you need to classify it, but I would call it a dark comedy before I would call it a horror film. 

PopHorror: I can agree with that. You have an extremely impressive resume. Did you always know that you wanted to make movies?

Micheal Lehman: I knew pretty early on. I was an art kid. I painted and drew, and I was into comics… although I never really made a comic book movie. Anyways, so I was into all that stuff, and I loved movies. I grew up in the late ’60s, early ’70s when there was a lot of really good filmmaking being done around the world and in the states. And I knew I wanted to do it, I just didn’t know how to do it. It took me a little while to figure out how to get there. But yeah, it goes way back. 

PopHorror: If you weren’t a filmmaker, what do you think you’d be doing?

Micheal Lehman: At this point in my life, I have no idea. Right before I committed to being a filmmaker, I was a grad student in Philosophy, so maybe I would have become a professor. I would have been a very miserable, very unhappy professor. 

PopHorror: Well, it’s good you took the route that you did then. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but how do you feel about the Heathers reboot for the small screen?

Micheal Lehman: You know, it’s funny. I’ve been asked about it a lot – and maybe this is why – but I haven’t seen it. Dan Waters, who wrote the script to Heathers and basically follows everything related to Heathers, he watched the series and gave it his blessing. So, I thought, “Then I should watch it.” But, I have been holding back, because honestly, if I don’t like it, I don’t want to tell people that I don’t like it because that would be terrible, and I don’t want to be that guy: “Oh, I don’t want to say anything.” And if I do like it, that’s fine, but I’m not going to… well, actually, if I loved it, I’d be out there promoting it. So, maybe I should just watch it. At some point, I’ll take a look. I understand it’s very different from the movie, and I think that that’s actually a good thing. They inquired about my ability to direct the finale or something, but I was not available, so I thanked them for asking. I never read the script or anything.

PopHorror: If you could do commentary on any one film, what would it be?

Micheal Lehman: That’s a good, tough question. In a way, it might actually be Airheads, because it was so much fun to make. Basically, any commentary on that movie would be entirely positive. I did do a commentary on Hudson Hawk when it was first released on DVD, and that was such a problematic experience, although I stand behind the movie as much as I can. But, people said to me afterwards, “Oh, I heard your commentary. I can’t believe how many negative things you said.” Oh, shit. I shouldn’t do that. I didn’t mean that. I just wanted to be honest. But I think with Airheads, it would be fun, because it was really a good, fun experience from start to finish. 

PopHorror: I noticed that you wrote the 1990 flick, Meet the Applegates. Do you have any ideas or plans for any new writing projects?

Micheal Lehman: You know, it’s funny, because I like to write, but I love to direct. When I was doing features, I would generally do a pass on the script just to make sure it was tonally what I wanted and that sort of thing. In television, I had never written anything, because I liked going in and working with good writers and not having to deal with developing stuff. Recently, I wrote the draft of a pilot that I did just for my own amusement, and I thought it turned out pretty well, but I don’t know if I want to do anything with it, because I don’t know how easy it’ll be to get made. That was last year that I did that, and then I got tied up in directing. So I may go back to doing that.

I don’t think I’ll write a feature now, because the feature world is so difficult to maneuver if you’re not making big studio mainstream stuff. Actually, maybe I should try to write a horror genre picture. That would be good. But I don’t know enough about it. The problem is, there’s been so much great stuff being done in the genre in the last 10 years. I’d have to educate myself completely to know what not to do. You know what I mean? To know what’s already been done. And then I’m worried that if I went through the process of educating myself that way, they’d probably knock out any ideas I have because they’d say, “No, they’ve already done that here and there.” So, that’s a long-winded, convoluted answer, but that’s how I feel.

PopHorror: Do you have any words of advice for those that are just starting out?

Micheal Lehman: Yes, because I think that everybody that’s interested in making movies – and that’s any form of movies now, because there’s so many… there’s shorts, there’s tiny shorts, there’s medium shorts, there’s television series, there’s features, there’s anthologies… whatever you want to do, there’s so much opportunity now to get these things made. Maybe not for the money you want, and maybe not at the level you’d like when you start out. There are ways to get them seen, as hard as it is because of the internet. My advice to people who want to actually do it is to just go out and do it. Do it at whatever scale you’re able to muster. If you just have to take your phone, and shoot it on your phone, and edit it on a laptop, then do that. When I came up, we didn’t have the means to make little movies without spending a lot of money. You could do it on 16mm or whatever, but equipment and crews of the kind are not necessary anymore. What I mean to say, if you have a burning desire to do this stuff, don’t wait for somebody to hand it to you, because they never really do.

PopHorror: What do you have coming up next?

Micheal Lehman: I just finished two things. One was I did two episodes of season two of The Terror [read our review here] for AMC, which is in the horror genre, actually. Did you see the first one? Did you see The Terror, the first season?

PopHorror: I have not.

Micheal Lehman: It’s Ridley Scott’s company that does it, and it was a 10 episode horror anthology series. The first season was 10 episodes, set on an Arctic expedition that gets trapped in the ice around the turn of the 20th century. And the ship is haunted. It was really good. And then, the second season, which has just finished being shot, has pulled on a lot of Japanese horror elements. It’s set in a Japanese/American internment camp in WWII. And it’s really, really, really good. It’s amazing.

Season two has nothing to do with season one. It’s all new cast, all new showrunners, the whole thing. It’s on AMC. I did the third and fourth episodes, and I think it’s really good. I just finished wrapping up all my work yesterday on an episode of an FX show called Snowfall, which is also a terrific show. It’s set in LA in 1984. They’ve done three seasons now. It’s about the rise of the crack cocaine trade. It was created by John Singleton, who recently passed away, but it’s a really good show that I love directing on. So, I just finished that. I have something coming up that’s going to be sort of a M.A.S.H.-type comedy set in the Afghan war with a US Army medical unit. 

PopHorror: That’s a lot of different genres, time periods and subjects. An eclectic mix of stuff that you’re working on. 

Micheal Lehman: Yeah, I like to mix it up.

PopHorror: What’s your favorite scary movie?

ML: Oh, let me think about that for a minute. You know what? This is a dumb answer, but it’s true. I’m going to say The Exorcist [read our retro review here]. The very original Exorcist, because I thought nothing could scare me. I was in high school when it first came out. I went to the theater, and honestly, I have never been so scared in a theater. Now, this was in the ’70s, and I was young. I have no idea if it holds up now, but it was fucking awesome. I remember going with my friends, and being kind of arrogant like, “Yeah, it’s a scary movie. It’s not going to be scary.” I left the theater fucking scared out of my wits.

PopHorror: Were your friends scared?

Micheal Lehman: I think so. I don’t know. I was too scared to look at them.

Thank you so much to Michael Lehmann for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to check out The Terror on AMC, and Snowfall on FX.

About Tiffany Blem

Horror lover, dog mommy, book worm, EIC of PopHorror.

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