"Thirteen is The Big Lie!" declares Daniel Waters, about midway through a dual interview with him and his brother, Mark. He's referring to the acclaimed teen drama from 2003, and it's a fairly cocky assertion. But if you've ever been asked by a teen girl, "What's your damage?" you can thank Daniel, the screenwriter who penned, among other works, the 1989 cult hit Heathers. New to theaters this week is Mean Girls, a sort of 21st-century update of Heathers, directed by brother Mark. They are two grown men, ostensibly experts in the realm of adolescent girlhood.
"Danny and I had an equal lack of luck with high school girls," Mark says, "so we have similar tales to tell." When it comes to high school reflections, their filmmaking formula is simple.
"The nostalgia just comes from remembering movies that I liked when I was in high school. I guess this makes it a fantasy. In Mean Girls, I was trying to create a nostalgic vibe of the 'John Hughes high school' -- it's hard for me to remember what my own high school was like, but I can definitely remember the John Hughes movies. That became a more important template for the world I was creating."
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Daniel, whom Mark credits as the family's cinematic pioneer since childhood, recently wrote and debuted as a feature director with the searing summer camp expos Happy Campers. "I think to do real high school, you would have to do a very creepy Sundance kind of movie. Heathers did play Sundance, but [to compare] Heathers and Mean Girls: I was coming from the point of being almost a terrorist toward John Hughes movies, those safe niceties. Mark took some of the plot of Heathers and brought it back into the John Hughes fold."
Mark shot his American high school movie in kinder, gentler Canada, where kids are statistically less homicidal. "Because of how hard and how bad teen movies have gotten," he says, "suddenly doing a John Hughes retro thing is a subversive take, in the 21st century." (This trend is paralleled by hair-band throwbacks the Darkness, who are countering pop music's currently chic negativity with a jolly "thumbs-up!" 'tude.)
Mean Girls is Mark's second project with Lindsay Lohan, who starred in Freaky Friday and plays the new film's protagonist.
"Back then, teen actors flaunted their non-commercial status," he says of the John Hughes era. "Now, teen actors are more than willing to become whores for the Hollywood system. Lindsay is incredibly talented, but she's more interested in being a star than being an actress."
He then smartly executes a half-backpedal. "However, she happens to be incredibly talented, and she'll keep growing as an actress, but she's much more glam than Molly Ringwald ever was."
"Teen actors today are much more self-conscious about the teen movie experience," Daniel pensively rejoins. "They have a more meta view of high school. I mean, the shit that we watched -- Little Darlings, that was pure crap. These people grew up on teen movies. I thought it was interesting that after Columbine [which Heathers eerily foreshadowed], the kids were articulate about what happened. They knew about cliques and weren't mystified by the violence. I can't imagine what a real high school is like [now], because it seems like everybody's in on the joke."
Mark, who collaborated with celebrated comedienne Tina Fey for Mean Girls, readily admits to his film's echoes of Heathers.
"That was conceived from the very beginning," he says, referencing the source for Fey's script, the best-selling book Queen Bees and Wannabes, by the young, self-styled sociologist (and Heathers-worshiper) Rosalind Wiseman.
"That nonfiction book does mention Heathers quite a bit," Daniel adds. "She made mention that 'It's curious that it didn't make that much at the box office, but it's the one movie that everybody brings up.'"
Mark matter-of-factly enthuses of Mean Girls, "Did I mention that we're going to be a big fat hit?"
"Yeah," Daniel growls, aping his baby bro: "The difference is, people are going to see my movie in a theater!"
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Mark guffaws. "Interviewers say to me, 'Do you think you could be a cult hit, like Heathers?' I'm like, 'I'd like to be a real hit first, then a cult hit later.'"
And if Mean Girls is no thirteen, that would be fine with both of them.
"Mark had a Spanish somebody at the junket who said she didn't like Mean Girls because it was no thirteen, and thirteen scares kids," Daniel says. "I think: A) No actual teenagers saw thirteen; B) thirteen is The Big Lie; and C) It's the Reefer Madness of teen sexuality. It's an awful film. But this film -- people will actually see it. High school isn't -- as much as adults like to say it is -- a 24-hour concentration camp."
Daniel boldly climbs to the very end of this slender limb. "People have a sense of humor about the cruelty, even while it's happening to them."