20 years later: An oral history of 'Reality Bites'
It was February 18, 1994. Kurt Cobain was still with us, but the grunge revolution had already begun to morph into something more palatable: "alternative." A generation labeled "X" was struggling to enter the work force amid a recession, that economic reality yielding "slackers" and "sell-outs" in equal measure — labels that would soon enough become little more than pop cultural shorthand.
Ben Stiller's "Reality Bites" had already premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and an intense marketing campaign had the film aimed squarely at a target audience destined to deny it. It was an unassuming romantic comedy invested in its characters more than its setting, but it registered — rightly or wrongly — as an attempt to define a generation. Two decades on, it exists less as a snapshot of an era than an emotional Polaroid of what it's like to go out and make your way in the world.
On the occasion of the film's 20th anniversary, HitFix talked to 10 individuals involved with the production of the film: stars Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn; screenwriter Helen Childress; producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; and singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb. What follows is their recollection of how it all came to be.
(Note: Ben Stiller declined requests to comment for this article. His quotes in this piece have therefore been taken from the 18th anniversary screening of "Reality Bites" at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.)
Michael Shamberg (Producer): I took a general meeting with Helen Childress, the writer, who had written a spec script called "Blue Bayou" about a dysfunctional family in the south. Her writing was extraordinarily good for her age. When she started talking about herself and her friends and what they were doing, that gave me the idea that she should write about herself, because nobody had done a movie about that generation. I was primed to do that because I produced "The Big Chill," and about every 10-15 years there's a new generation.
[Shamberg is best known for films like "A Fish Called Wanda," "Garden State" and "Django Unchained." He founded Jersey Films with Danny DeVito and "Reality Bites" was one of the company's first big productions. They would go on to bring such stories as "Gattaca," "Out of Sight" and "Erin Brockovich" to the big screen.]
Helen Childress (Screenwriter): We just started throwing stuff at the wall and figuring out what would it be. "Here's what my friends are saying. Here's what my friends are doing. Here's what my life is like." It was just Michael and me for about a year and then Stacey came on board. And Stacey was the real deal. She knew story. She knew structure. She just had a key into the character of Lelaina and she helped me. She focused everything.
["Reality Bites" remains Childress' only produced screenplay. Her female-centric work has faced an uphill climb in Hollywood ever since, though she is collaborating with Shamberg, Sher and Stiller on a "Reality Bites" TV series for NBC.]
Stacey Sher (Executive Producer): I think what I brought to it was I was closer in age to her than Michael and we just started structuring it and digging deeper into the relationships. I kept urging her to go to the truth of the characters and what was going on in people's lives. It was just at the beginning of the backlash to the women's movement, after Susan Faludi would write "Backlash," and I think that Helen and I both came to it as women making choices about making their way in the world after school. It also reflected a group of people who were the product of divorce, who grew up in ways that pop culture was a part of our lives.
[Sher joined Jersey Films in 1992 after working on films like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "The Fisher King." She would become a partner in the company a few years later after the success of films like "Reality Bites" and "Pulp Fiction."]
Shamberg: We approached Ben because we loved "The Ben Stiller Show." You've got to remember the comic specificity of what he did was so precise, because he's a real technical director in that way.
Sher: The original Michael Grates character was older than them, and I think the genius thing that Ben brought when he entered in the mix was he instantly had the reaction, "Why not have him be their age, but he has no issues about being successful, and he's into it?" At the time, the character seemed like a throwback almost to an '80s character, but what we realized was that it was really a character that would show the direction that people were going to move in in the late-'90s and 2000s.
Ben Stiller (Director/Michael): I was trying to figure out a way to connect with the movie as a director and we started talking about the points of view that the characters had, and a lot of it being very personal. So I just thought, "What would my point of view be?" It was important to have a character in there that represented another side of that generation, and that helped the story. So that's how the Michael character came to be.*
[Stiller was coming off the success of "The Ben Stiller Show" in 1994 after growing up in a showbiz family. He would truly break out into the mainstream four years later with his performance in 1998's "There's Something About Mary." "Reality Bites" is one of just five films he has directed in his career, the others being "The Cable Guy" (1996), "Zoolander" (2001), "Tropic Thunder" (2008) and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (2013).]
Sher: We went on a scouting trip to Houston. Ben was about to go back to another season of "The Ben Stiller Show," and we got the call on the flight home that Winona had said yes and Universal was interested. We knew that we'd be making the movie for real then. That changed everything.
Winona Ryder (Lelaina): I was coming out of a time where I had been working a lot and I had gone through my first break-up. I was shooting "House of the Spirits" and shooting these scenes where I'm being literally, like, tortured in a Chilean prison. I would come home and I'd be covered with fake bruises and blood, and I hadn't really done this kind of contemporary character at all ever before. I said something that got, you know, reprinted about "I wanted to wear jeans" or something, and I was sort of joking in a way. It wasn't actually a deliberate, like, "I don't want to do a period piece" at all. I was sent the script and I just really responded to it.
[At the age of 22, Ryder was already an Academy Award-nominated actress for her performance in Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence." Best known at the time for her work in films like "Beetlejuice," "Heathers" and "Edward Scissorhands," she was one of Hollywood's biggest stars in 1994.]
*Ben Stiller declined requests to comment for this article. His quotes are taken from the 18th anniversary screening of "Reality Bites" at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.