"Clueless" wasn't supposed to be a hit: "I don’t think they necessarily saw a teen female audience as being much of a boon"

Salon talks to Jen Chaney, author of "As If!: The Oral History of Clueless" about the movie's timeless appeal

Published August 2, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless"      (Paramount Pictures)
Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless" (Paramount Pictures)

Today, it's difficult to imagine a world without "Clueless," the 1995 teen movie starring Alicia Silverstone that's since gone on to be a cultural touchstone for women of all ages. The film's slang, colorful outfits and peak '90s soundtrack operated in its own aspirational universe, and while it certainly romanticized California, its depictions of high school and parties were at once relatable and way cooler than real life. Above all, through the lens of Silverstone's character, Cher, "Clueless" validated the complexity and intelligence of teenage girls: In the movie, she balances being image- and socially conscious, boy-crazy and feeling responsible for her father — and does so (mostly) without breaking a sweat.

Jen Chaney's new book about the movie, "As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew," is a comprehensive look at the film's surprisingly complicated genesis. "Clueless" started off at Fox as a TV show, then morphed into a movie, and ended up being released several years later via Paramount Pictures. Along the way, Chaney uncovers all of the trivia and minutiae a "Clueless" fan would want to know, from the fashion and set design inspiration to the actors and actresses who were almost cast and how the movie's indelible soundtrack came to be. These inside baseball tidbits dig deep: For example, the movie's Mr. Hall had a real-life teacher inspiration — who appears in "Clueless" as the principal of the movie's high school, not the character actually modeled after himself. Chaney also talks to experts about the movie's inspirations and indelible influence, in order to get at the heart of why "Clueless" is still so universally beloved 20 years later.

The author talked to Salon about how the book came together, her relationship to the movie, and Clueless' parallels to modern-day society.

Tell me about how this book initially came together, and how you became involved.

I had written a piece for Vulture, around the end of 2013, that was an oral history of just the Valley party scene in Clueless. An agent saw that, and she had also read some of my other work, and she reached out and said, "I don't know if you'd be interested in writing this as a book that might look at the whole movie, but I think that might be a good idea." I agreed that it was a good idea, but I actually had to sit down and write a proposal and figure out whether there was enough substance to it to actually justify a book. As soon as I sat down and started that process, it was obvious to me that there was enough to dig into.

So I wrote a proposal and we shopped it around, and there was a lot of interest — probably because a lot of women around your age work at publishing firms in New York. [Laughs] They immediately understood why this would be of interest to people.

When I was reading the book, I thought, "This has to be written by a fan," because as a fan of the movie, it has all the questions answered. Everything I would want to know about is there.

I am a fan of the movie, but I'm sure there are fans that are bigger super-fans than I am. I think part of that comes from [the fact] I've written about fandom and am fascinated by it, and understand the mindset of it. So I really was trying to think, like you said, "What will people want to know? What kind of questions can I answer for people?" and approach [the book] from that point of view.

It's true that this movie in general has such a strong fandom. The Internet, of course, has really helped it endure, and ensured that younger generations catch on to it. Of all the '90s teen movies, this one really stands tall.

I think so too. People really just connected with it, and it's so quotable, it became part of people's daily dialogue. I think "Clueless" really kickstarted the teen movie trend again; it had gone dormant to an extent in the early '90s, and then "Clueless" helped get it going, so that by the end of the [decade] there were just so many high school movies and teen movies. Some of them were very good, but a lot of them were not, so it stands out in the pack for that reason.

It's one of those movies you just never get tired of. I've watched it, obviously, many times, and I'm still not really sick of watching it. Even after thinking about it intensely for several months, working on the book. I'm still not sick of it, which is weird!

How long did it take you to put together the book?

It was very fast. The deal to actually write the book was put in place around a year ago. I had done the Vulture piece, so I had some material from doing those interviews. But I still had a lot more research and a lot more interviews to do. I would say I started that process in late June of last year, and the initial manuscript was due right after the holidays, so it was written in six months. Then I had two or three months going through edits, during which time I was still getting a couple of interviews that I hadn't gotten, and was able to weave those through what was in there. It was still a tight timeframe.

Is there anyone that you didn't get for the book that you really wanted to talk to?

I did want more from Alicia Silverstone. I had talked to her for the Vulture piece, and ultimately I got some additional answers to questions from her via email, but I really wanted get on the phone with her for a longer period of time for a second interview, and was never able to make that happen.

I wanted to talk to Julie Brown, who played Ms. Stoeger, and she also was one of the producers when they made the TV show after the movie came out. She and I had traded some emails, and she seemed like she was interested, but at some point she just stopped responding. It was one of those things where maybe if I'd had a year, I could have worked it out, but I had no time; if somebody wasn't getting back to me, I just had to move forward.

So there were some things like that, but overall considering how terrified I was when I started about the prospect of getting everyone, I feel really good about the breadth of people that I got. Especially the people who played smaller roles but had really, really strong, vivid memories of working on the project — whether it was supporting actors like Ron Orbach, who plays the messiah of the DMV, or the assistant directors who were on set every day who remembered a lot of the details of what was going on behind scenes. Those interviews were really helpful.

And talking to the original Mr. Hall! I don't think I realized there was an actual Mr. Hall in the drama, so that was a really sweet part: "I wasn't good enough to play myself!"

[Laughs] He was really great; I'm now friends with him and his wife on Facebook!

You get into this in the book a little bit, but for you what stands out that makes "Clueless" endure? Why do you think it has such staying power?

I think there's a couple different reasons why. Obviously for people who were 14 or 15 years old when it came out, there's a nostalgia that's wrapped up in their own high school experience. Even though I think "Clueless" is timeless in a lot of ways, it's still, in terms of its references, in terms of a lot of the music in the movie, there are certain things about it that mark it as a film that came out in the mid-1990s.

That has something to do with it. But I've talked to a lot of people — younger people or people who have kids who are 10, 11, 12 years old — and they have found it on Netflix, and they connect with it also. That's in part because the story itself — about a teenage girl trying to figure out what her place in the world is, and maybe being underestimated by other people and even underestimating herself a little bit — all of that is really timeless, and really relatable, no matter what decade it is.

I talk about this in the book a little bit, I think that [writer/director] Amy Heckerling managed to, almost by accident, capture certain ways our culture functions now. Maybe even more so than it did then — with the cell phones and Cher's computer that has a touchscreen she uses to pick out her clothes. All that stuff was completely outlandish in 1995, and now that is totally how we function. Obviously, the cell phones are way bigger than they are now, but just in terms of a phone rings and everyone at the dinner table thinks it's their phone, that's how we function now. A 13-year-old kid might think, "Well, those phones look old, but I recognize that. That's my world today." Those touches make it something people can still relate to, even if they weren't born when it came out.

That helps keep it modern, too. At the time, it seemed to me it was always a little bit fantastical [but] grounded in reality. Having all that technology that was more advanced and cooler than what I had then definitely made it seem totally ahead of its time. 

In the process of doing research, [I was reading] Entertainment Weekly summer movie previews for 1995. In the one about "Clueless," they mentioned something about the phones, and said, "These kids are obviously much more privileged than the kids on '90210,' because they all have cell phones," which I thought was really funny.

In hindsight, I feel like "90210" is way more privileged than "Clueless," even though Cher lives in this mansion.

I think it's because Cher is more open-hearted. I think Amy Heckerling was trying to write a character who was privileged and had blinders on in terms of what regular people's lives were like, but was still a good person and wasn't as mean-spirited as we sometimes see those characters [being] in other movies and TV shows.

What did you learn about the movie that you didn't know? What sorts of insights did you gain?

So many. I knew the basic history that it had been at Fox, and then they went in turnaround, and it ended up at Paramount, but [I heard] more details about that, and more details about why some people weren't comfortable with it or turned it down. And then Twink Caplan's story about how she had been on board with it from the beginning as a friend of Amy and as a producer, and then she ended up getting an associate producer credit once it got to Paramount. I think she was very happy to be a part of the project, but I think that sort of frustrated her a little bit.

I felt like I was hearing a lot of those kinds of stories from predominantly women who had little frustrations along the way. Like Carrie Frazier, who was the original casting director on it at Fox, and when it moved to Paramount, at least her version of the story was they didn't want to pay her anything more to cast it at Paramount, so she ended up not being the casting director and Marcia Ross was. I just felt like a lot of the stories I was hearing about someone getting screwed over usually was a woman. [Laughs] I guess that's really reflective of the industry, and how things operated and often, frankly, still operate today.

Today we take it for granted that is there is so much smart, cool media for teen girls. I was surprised to see that it was a struggle getting "Clueless" made. Even with Amy Heckerling involved, it was still a struggle. That was shocking to me.

There was an executive at Fox who wondered whether the movie was too focused on Cher's point of view, and whether the movie should be more of an ensemble piece and if the male characters should be beefed up more. Obviously, that took if farther away from what "Emma" was, and it also took it farther away from what Amy was trying to do. But I think at the time, teen movies in general, at least in mainstream Hollywood, were not as big of a deal as they had been in the '80s, so there was some trepidation from that point of view.

In Hollywood, they always want what they know is guaranteed to make money, and the fact is with an original story it's always a guessing game. It's always a guessing game anyway, but if it's a non-pre-established [movie] — if it's not a "Star Wars" or a "Marvel" movie — you never know what's going to happen. I think it'd be even harder to get made now, because the studios are really risk averse, to a greater extent that than they were even in the 1990s. They didn't necessarily know whether there was a teen audience, and I don't think they necessarily saw a teen female audience as being as much of a boon as it certainly is.

I still think now, studios still start try to target young men more than any other demographic. But it's obvious when you look at numbers, especially this summer, that there are a lot of women — as many if not more — going to the movies, and they need to serve that population as well.

Certainly to your point, there's greater awareness of that now than there was 20 years ago, but I still think there's not as much being done with that knowledge as there should be. In 1995, that was still a new concept for people to wrap their minds around.

There's a part in the book where Amy was saying she felt bad because when they tested the movie, it was spiking in the young female quadrant, and she felt guilty somehow. Sherry Lansing, who was the head of Paramount at the time, said, "That's fine. Now we know who our audience is," which is the right answer.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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