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.
Ethan Hawke (Troy): Look, Winona gets a lot of the credit for this movie. She had just worked with Scorsese. She was as big as an actor can be at that moment in time. Everybody wanted to work with her. Jack Nicholson was calling her up. Scorsese's calling her up, everybody. And she wanted to give Ben Stiller a chance to direct a movie. She watched his comedy show and she thought he was really special and she was right. And she cast me.
[Hawke had already starred in films like “Dead Poets Society,” “A Midnight Clear” and “Alive” by the time “Reality Bites” came knocking. The next year he starred in Richard Linklater's “Before Sunrise,” the unexpected beginning of a franchise that would eventually land him two Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations. He would go on to work with Jersey Films again on 1997's “Gattaca.”]
Ryder: A few other names came up, but I really had my heart set on Ethan, and I actually didn't really know Ethan, either. But I've always felt like, I don't know – Ethan and I have a connection. He started really young like me. We both had obsessions with Salinger. We listened to the same music. He was someone who I just really felt an affinity with.
Hawke: She had seen a movie I did called “A Midnight Clear,” which is one of the great attributes of Winona Ryder – she was always paying attention to other artists and helping people and she really liked my acting. You know, there was any number of hot young guys at that moment who the studio would have preferred, but Winona really wanted me and she really pushed that through for me.
Ryder: Ethan really brought a depth to it. A thoughtfulness. In the scenes that were kind of emotional, it was so easy for me. Sometimes when you have to cry, you have to really work to get yourself into a place, especially on a set and there's lots of people and you have to kind of go off into a corner. It can be hard. But with him I just really flowed.
Janeane Garofalo (Vickie): I knew Ben through stand-up and we had done “The Ben Stiller Show” together. Then he was directing this movie and I got to audition for it and luckily got the part, I think with some help from Winona, which I'm very grateful for. I don't know that I would have gotten it without her. Her opinion was held in very high esteem.
[Garofalo started out acting on TV series like HBO's “The Larry Sanders Show” and FOX's “The Ben Stiller Show.” She would go on to become a “Saturday Night Live” cast member one year later and star opposite Stiller in films like “Permanent Midnight” and “Mystery Men” throughout the 1990s. She continues to enjoy a career in stand-up comedy.]
Sher: The gift that Ethan gave us was Steve Zahn. Because we came in earlier, Ben and I, to meet with Ethan when he first signed on to the movie. We went to go see Jonathan Marc Sherman's play, “Sophistry,” which Ethan and Steve were in.
Steve Zahn (Sammy): That was at the Playwrights Horizons with Austin Pendleton, Calista Flockhart, Nadia Dajani and Anthony Rapp. It was a great play. Jonathan Marc Sherman is this great playwright who was friends with Ethan, and when those guys started a theater company, Malaparte, Jonathan was kind of the in-house writer. Nicky Martin directed it.
[Zahn's first theatrical movie was “Reality Bites.” He had toiled away in the New York theater scene before landing the role and would go on to work on Hollywood blockbusters such as “Crimson Tide” and collaborate again with Jersey Films on 1998's “Out of Sight.”]
Sher: So Ethan was like, “Oh, I really want you to see my friend Steve for the part.” And that was when we first saw Steve. Tons of people read for the part and it was just once we saw Steve, we knew.
Zahn: The other guy who went up was Noah Wylie. It ended up between me and Noah, and I think Parker Posey was up for Janeane's part. Parker and I worked together a ton in New York and it was at that moment where we were all, like, seeing each other at auditions and things like that.
Shamberg: Ben wanted a new cinematographer to bring an original creative vision to it.
Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (Director of Photography): I was very young and I was inexperienced and coming to America and uncomfortable living here. I didn't have many friends. I was just coming here to work. When I got this offer, I read the script, and I have to be honest, I barely understood the humor in the script. I didn't find it that funny. I found it more dramatic than funny. And they said, “Oh, Ethan Hawke is doing the movie and Winona and Ben.” I didn't know who Ben was. I had never seen his show or anything. Somebody helped me find tapes of his shows, and when I saw that, suddenly I realized that maybe the tone of the movie was going to be different.
[Lubezki's first major American film behind the camera was “Reality Bites.” One year later he would begin a collaboration with filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón on the 1995 film “A Little Princess” that could well come full circle next month as he sets his sights on his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on “Gravity.” He has also become a frequent collaborator with director Terrence Malick.]
Hawke: Ben had his eye on one of the best cinematographers in the world. The look of that movie, I think, is phenomenal. I worked with Chivo again on “Great Expectations.”
Childress: Ben's joke is that the whole movie looks like it was shot at sunset, because everything inside the apartment is always lit. He took a long time to get the lighting right. And that's why everyone looks so gorgeous in it.
Shamberg: The look is kind of a romantic naturalism, which is what was needed.
Ryder: It has, like, a richness.
Lubezki: Ben never wanted to have a completely flat movie. He didn't want a dark movie or he didn't want to make it inaccessible, and me, too. I never like comedies that are lit to be funny. The comedy doesn't come from that. It's either well-written or it's not well-written, well-acted or not well-acted. But it's not the light that is funny. The camera can help a little. The lenses can help a little. But it's more the actors and the editing that makes something funny. I'm sure a lot of people have different theories about what makes things funny, but I had seen Woody Allen movies for forever and admired them. And those were the kind of comedies that I like, and they were never lit to be funny. He always worked with master cinematographers, and Mike Nichols, too. This modern thing of just lighting comedies like shit is not right.
Shamberg: That was Chivo's first American film and I'm pretty sure he's going to win the Oscar [for “Gravity”], so I'm proud of that.
Ryder: I remember our first day we shot the date scene in the restaurant. Actually Helen is the waitress.
Childress: That was really fun. The night before, Ben said, “Hey, I really want you to be in it. I want you to be the waitress.” I think he knew I could act because we had improvised some scenes together, but I wasn't in SAG. So they did a kind of Taft-Hartley thing and I had my one line. It was definitely fun to show my kids. “Look, I'm in a movie!” I already felt like a big part of the production, but I didn't know what my role would be on the set. And I think Ben set the tone of, “She's a part of this and she's going to be here for a while.” I was on set a lot, and I didn't realize it until later that that was an anomaly for a screenwriter. But I think it helped that we were all the same age. I was really spoiled.
Zahn: It was really good people on that film. I've done movies that I can't remember shooting them, movies that weren't that fun to be on or whatever. I do remember shooting that movie. I remember the days. I remember the drive. I remember Ethan and I setting up an AFX race car set at the hotel, playing whiffle ball at this cottage he rented behind this big house. I think we broke a window.
Stiller: We all felt like we were equals and hanging out. When you're directing and acting, you have to have that sort of camaraderie with your actors. You really need their support.
Garofalo: I enjoyed going to Houston because at the time my family lived there. My dad and sister came to watch and very quickly realized that making movies is boring. And my dad, who doesn't know who anyone is – he's one of those type of guys – he thought he was going to see Wynonna Judd. “She's an attractive lady!” He really likes Wynonna Judd.
Ryder: We would have these amazing nights over at Ben's house where we would play, like, “Who sang this song,” and think of the most obscure – I remember going, like, “Okay, who sang, [singing] 'We are, we are, we are but your children…whisper to a scream?'” And that was the one that stumped him!
Garofalo: There were a few times when I would go over to Winona's house and – I used to drink a lot back then, I don't drink anymore – I would be unable to drive, or she wouldn't let me drive. She would always very nicely take the keys away from me and put me up in a very nice guest bedroom.
Stiller: It's a strange thing because it was a studio movie that was being made about ideas of commodification and dissent or whatever, and the idea that it was a Universal movie that was really sort of independent-minded was something that we struggled with.
Childress: It was a really tight budget. The set-ups and the printing of the takes were just big cost-eaters, so there wasn't time to sort of fool around and find your way into something.
Garofalo: I'm not sure if I was officially fired, but that's what I was led to believe. Because of our friendship, I thought it was weird when Ben was quote/unquote “directing” me. And also when I was younger I had a problem with authority figures, real or perceived. It was his first time directing a major film and that was very important to him. I was not thinking in those terms. I was thinking, “This is fun! What a great job! I can't believe that I am allowed to do this!” And I thought it would be as improvisational as “Larry Sanders” and “The Ben Stiller Show” were. Those were two anomalies. It's like Baptism by the greatest piece of cake, to have two improvisational people as your first bosses. And then as I got hired on other things I realized, “Oh, shit. You're not allowed to just say what you want.”
Childress: Honestly, I think it had to do with the technology at the time, because Ben was under pressure to reduce the amount of takes that he printed. Every time you printed a take it was a lot of money. And the problem with improvising on film, at that time, was you can't match things. It's really hard to get coverage.
Garofalo: So there would be times when he'd say, “Do this,” and I would say, “I don't want to.” I think he finally got tired of me, in front of the others, saying that, because he thought he would lose their trust. So he said, “You can go home now,” and I was like, “Alright! Half-day!” By the time I got home there were like a hundred messages from my agent at the time, who was a very dramatic person. “What did you do!?” “What have you done!?”
Childress: I really didn't know that had happened until later. As a writer I was always sort of the last to hear about things. I never understood it as a firing. It was more of a warning situation. Winona had done so many movies before that. She was kind of the “oldest” one there, in a sense, and in a way, I think she helped Janeane find that place where they could still have fun but still stick to the script.
Hawke: Ben seemed to suffer a tremendous amount to me. You know, I haven't spent much time with him. I've never worked with him again so I don't know how he seems as a filmmaker now. But directing seemed to come at a great cost and it was a painful experience for him. I can't say that it was fun, but it was intense.
Sher: Ben cares so much and he worked so hard with Helen on the script and bringing it further and he cared so much about the actors and their performances. It was his life's dream to be a filmmaker. But the stakes were very high for him because it was his first time and it was going to set his career in motion as a filmmaker.
Childress: And he might have felt like he was the grownup out of everybody, because everyone else was kind of running around saying, “Let's try this. Let's do this.” And he's like, “Okay, you guys. I have to answer to somebody for this.”
Shamberg: Ben is obsessive and tireless about getting things right and agonizing if he doesn't think they're right. We did a movie where Ben just acted, “Along Came Polly,” and he would be the last person on the set making sure the director got what he wanted. He would stay and do take after take after take. Ben's a perfectionist.
Stiller: The scene where they kiss by the fountain, because the fountain was so loud, we had to have them loop the entire scene. I really regret that. I would have killed me. I made them loop that entire scene, which is this big scene that was emotional. It's really hard for an actor to do that, to go and do all your lines again. It never sounds real and never sounds as good and you can never get the performance as good.
Ryder: I was having a really bad day once. It was during the scene where me and Ethan are walking and it was like one of the last things we shot, where he's giving me the tour of the jobs he's lost. I remember for some reason I was just having a really bad day. I can't really remember why. And it was the only time that Ben got kind of, like, stern with me and he just took me aside and was like, “What's going on? Get it together.” And I needed it. I remember having that moment of, “Oh, God, I hope I…,” and then just sort of knowing that I was in good hands.
Hawke: I've watched Ben's whole career with such curiosity because people have this idea that comedians are, like, fun to hang out with. But his demand for excellence is high. And he's extremely critical of himself. He was wound pretty tight as I recall. I don't think he had a good time directing the movie.
Garofalo: Ben, I think even more than me, self-flagellates. I can definitely beat myself up, and he does, too. But what happens is he becomes very quiet. He's a very serious person. Steve Martin, Steve Carell, it's the same thing. They aren't big jokesters in social settings. They're quite focused and disciplined.
Ryder: When you meet these hilarious, brilliant comedians, sometimes they are very serious people. I don't know if it's because people expect them to be sort of on and funny all the time and they get sick of that. I'm not really sure. But Ben was very serious when he was doing this, and when he was acting. I think there's probably part of him, too, that like with a lot of great comedians, they want to be taken seriously as actors as well. But to me that didn't come across as defensive. He was great with me.
Garofalo: I think he did have a good time and he was very happy to be doing it, and he was pleased to get some of his ideas in, like the MTV parody and the parody of “House of Style” and a few other things. He likes to do that stuff. He's also, I think, happiest if he can be in certain things. He likes to just be a character and do stuff.
Hawke: He pulled it off. A lot of times when people direct a movie and star in it, the movie is told from that character's point of view, a la Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, whatever. It's an odd thing, to make a movie that's actually told from Lelaina's point of view about two guys. And the movie always seemed to me to be at war with itself, where the filmmaker both wanted you to secretly want his character to be with her and simultaneously it felt very confused about what its relationship was to the two male protagonists, you know? Because in a way, they're both not very likable.
Zahn: I'm grateful to Ben. I always have been, just because he was the first guy to take a shot [on me]. I was up there in the mix for so long with so many things and it was so hard and difficult to keep going to auditions and go so far and then not get something, so I was just thrilled. I remember him feeling so bad that I had to sit in the trailer so much. I had so much trailer time. But I loved it. I was getting paid. Are you kidding? Sitting in a trailer with my dog? And he bought me my first guitar, and because of that I learned how to play guitar.
Garofalo: The LGBT angle and PFLAG, that was relatively new at that time. Obviously there had been gay rights movements for years before that. But I think there was the beginnings of the idea that it should be more normalized and that young people in high schools and college have the right to be who they are and come out, and there were parents getting involved.
Zahn: The coming-out scene was kind of Sammy's moment. The rest of the movie, I can't remember any other scenes that I had to “work on,” kind of deal. That was the audition piece.
Garofalo: I had just met Steve and he would just kind of play his guitar. He was very easy-going. He's a great actor, which the world knows after seeing him in other things, but it seems a shame that he didn't get to do more in the movie, because he's so good.
Zahn: A lot of it I was coming up with stuff, being that character that's just kind of always there but not talking much. I had done a lot of theater where I was that character and tried to have some kind of a life on stage without upstaging, and I found it kind of fascinating on film, how you could even more so be a part of something and have this life without it being written down on a piece of paper.
Garofalo: Sometimes it's not always all there, and that's not a criticism of the writer. Sometimes they're focused more on other characters, or there isn't time to develop a character, so it's up to that person to do it themselves. Whether you see it on screen or not, it's something that I think is fulfilling for the actor to do. I know it is for me, because very much over the years, a lot of parts – especially for females and especially for middle-aged females – are underwritten. So it's actually a nice exercise to fill it in yourself and hope for the best.
Zahn: That old thing, “There are no small parts, just small actors?” It's really true. I really kind of went to town trying to get Sammy in as much as possible and be a part of the group.
Hawke: One of the things I think went largely unnoticed at the time is how unbelievably good Winona is in the movie. It's an amazing performance. I mean she's so alive in the film and she is the movie.
Lubezki: I had never seen an actress that was so luminous. She was just incredible.
Hawke: I remember she had this unbelievable ability as an actress that I'd never seen before, which is you could improvise something with her and, like, if you told her she was pretty, she would blush. If you said something funny, she would really laugh. It sounds corny to say but what they try to teach in acting classes all the time is really being present and listening and being available and how spontaneity is always the goal. And this girl could do that. I mean her natural talent was giant.
Ryder: The scenes where I'm on the couch and I'm saying this stuff to Janeane and Steve and crying – I was really crying. Like, when I was talking on the phone with the psychic. I just remember Ben and Chivo scratching their heads like, “God, you really went there.” But I just felt very open and vulnerable and connected and safe. And the humor, I've always sort of believed that with comedy, at least with me, the more real you play it the funnier it is. When you're trying to be funny, it doesn't always work. I just remember I had such easy access to my emotions. You don't get that way unless you feel really safe and have a real trust. And I just had that with Ben and with Ethan and with everybody.
Zahn: I was always very nervous around Winona. She was this big star. I remember one time putting my foot in my mouth when she was an hour late to work and she was like, “Oh, the traffic was horrible.” And I said, “Well, what highway? Wait. Were you on the same road?” And getting this glare like, “Shut the fuck up.” It was like, “Oh, yeah, right. It was pretty busy. But I was here an hour ago…learning the…”
Lubezki: Also in Mexico I was used to everybody as like a little family trying to make this movie together. If somebody needs to carry water for the crew or whatever. Here I would arrive, have stand-ins, light them, and then, “Winona's coming! Oh my God, Winona's coming to the set!” You hear in the walkie-talkies, “Winona is coming! Winona is coming!” It's depressing. That was a big shock, the way people treated actors and the stars. She's super down-to-earth. It's not her; it's the system that works like that. “Ethan is coming! Ethan is coming! Guys, oh my God, quiet, quiet on the set!” When you want to go, like, “Guys, he's one of the collaborators. He's like everybody else. The difference is he's putting his face in the film.” So that was another shock. I had a lot of shocks.
Childress: The only person who could have had an ego problem would have been Winona, but she didn't. She was into just hanging out and going to the mall. We went to see movies. I remember this one time, it was a long, long line in Westwood to get into “The Firm,” and we were kind of looking at her, like, “Do you want to stand in line here? I mean, is there any way we could, like, jump this line,” kind of thing. And she was like, “You know what? I'm gonna try!” It was as if you were pulling a prank or something. So she goes up to the usher and says, “Umm, I don't mean to, like, be this person or whatever, but I'm kind of getting recognized on line so I'm wondering if we could kind of go in.” And the usher did not recognize her! He goes, “Who would recognize you? What would they recognize you for?” And she's so sweet, she just goes, “Oh, never mind,” and she goes back in line. She had no sense of herself as being a movie star. She was a contradiction.
Sher: Ben and I were in New York getting on a late flight to Dublin. We were bringing it to show U2, to get permission to use “All I Want Is You,” and we got a call: they had given us the song, and they weren't going be able to screen the film. So we had a night in New York on our hands and Ethan said, “I'm having a benefit for my theater company. Why don't you come?” And Lisa was playing.
Lisa Loeb (singer/songwriter): Ethan and I were neighbors. I participated in his theater company writing music. We sort of were a loose-knit group of musicians and actors and writers and people in New York City who all supported each other. I'd go see his plays and he'd come see me play music.
[Loeb was launched into the limelight in1994 with her platinum-selling #1 hit song “Stay (I Missed You).” Since then, she has enjoyed a successful career encompassing music, film, television, voice-over work and children's recordings. She is currently busy working on the release of a new eyewear line, Lisa Loeb Eyewear (in partnership with Classique Eyewear).]
Hawke: She recorded that song, “Stay,” and I thought, “Man.” I sent it to Ben because when I heard it I just really felt like it was so perfect for the film. And he completely agreed.
Loeb: It was definitely one of my more popular songs that I would play in my shows. It was the song that people requested a lot.
Zahn: I was at Lowe's the other day with my friend and her song came on, you know – [singing] “You say…” – and I told him this story, that she used to play in these little cafes in New York and we'd all go see her play. It's really kind of fun when these little projects can branch out and everything kind of connects in this real way.
Loeb: We hung out together, supported each other, and so at the time it seemed totally normal and natural that Ethan might ask for a song. It was exciting, of course, but in retrospect it's much more surprising. Now I realize that even if you have friends who are actors and making movies or other people in your life who might be able to connect you with an incredible opportunity, it usually doesn't happen. And even when it does happen, it doesn't necessarily follow through to such great success.
Sher: Our music supervisor, Karyn Rachtman – we balanced things that were really poppy with things like the super-fuzzy Dinosaur Jr. The soundtrack was a curated mix tape that was a souvenir of the movie. Kathy Nelson at Universal was a big believer – even though she ended up not doing the record with us – in this notion of souvenirs of the film for an audience.
Zahn: We had “My Sharona” and the “Schoolhouse Rock” stuff. I remember Ben was like, “Learn the whole song. We're going to do the whole song” – “Conjunction Junction” – and we were like, “Yeah, okay.” [Laughs.] And then it got to the day and I think all of us memorized like four lines, which is why it trails off in the movie. I don't know if Ben had some bigger plan that it was going to play the whole thing. I think we let him down. It's a tough song to learn.
Sher: We had a cassette of Lisa's music and when Atlantic Records wouldn't let The Lemonheads give us a song – [lead singer] Evan Dando is in the movie – all of a sudden we moved The Posies up to first end title and we had an opening for second end title. And we said, “Hey, why don't we put Ethan's friend, Lisa, in there?”
Loeb: I was really excited to be on a soundtrack with The Knack. That was a huge band for us growing up. I couldn't believe we were on a record with U2 and Crowded House. I mean that was major, to be on a record with those guys.
Hawke: I had been directing a bunch of plays and stuff back then and so Lisa asked me if I would direct her video. That's the first and only music video I've ever directed. It's not really a medium I crave to be a part of.
Loeb: To be a new artist that a record company was going to spend money on for a video was unusual. I think they decided to go ahead and make it because Ethan was directing it. That was a dream come true for me, to be able to be a professional musician making a video, and Ethan had a great idea for it. He did such a great job and had such a unique vision for it.
Hawke: I don't know, I just had fun with it. What I felt was remarkable about that song is that it's a single without a chorus, which is really rare. It has a refrain but no chorus. And because of that I thought, “You know, you can do this in one take because it doesn't repeat itself.” And it worked.
Loeb: It was a great artistic concept. In his apartment he was like, “Okay, this is what it's going to be like,” and he sort of moved around the room and told me the exact story of how the camera would work, so he knew exactly how it was all going to be shot. I think he wanted me to be singing to the camera because it was such a personal-sounding song and recording that that was the way to connect. And it was very different from what was out there at the time.
Sher: Ethan's direction of the video is completely as iconic as the movie.
Hawke: Lisa was the first unsigned artist ever to have a number one single. [The second is Macklemore.]
Loeb: It was great because it gave me freedoms for the rest of my life, to make music the way I want to. That song was made the way we wanted to make it at the time. There were no questions that a record company would make us record a certain song a certain way.
Shamberg: We screened it at first at a test screening in Palm Springs, because the Universal executives were having a retreat and we didn't think they were sophisticated enough. So we decided to screen it in Berkeley, where the audience would get it.**
Sher: It's all because of that “Bell Jar” joke. We became obsessed with the fact that the audience wasn't sophisticated enough in Palm Springs to get the “Bell Jar” joke. We thought we were geniuses about this. We thought, “Berkeley, they're our people.”**
Shamberg: Well, everybody in Berkeley turned out to be a film critic. Long critical analysis of what they didn't like about it.**
Stiller: It was worse than that. When the Universal logo came up, they actually booed.
Sher: In the focus group, someone said, “You violated the rules of découpage editing in the Big Gulp scene.” [Laughs]**
Stiller: I remember Casey Silver was running the studio and after a screening in the valley he said, “You know what? I think it's great. It is what it is. Go with God.” In a way, that was very supporting, of it being just what it was. I think that's also because it was a low budget movie for them so they didn't have a lot riding on it, so they didn't care.
Ryder: We weren't trying to make any type of statement or “voice of a generation” or any of that. Ben very deliberately avoided that term, “Gen X.”
Zahn: If you set out to do that then you would fail miserably at the task. Something like that, if it gets a title that it's defining something, that's usually something that happens by mistake and has the true pulse of people and people adhere to it because they're sympathetic to the characters and see themselves in them. That just happens.
Garofalo: I was 29 playing, I think, 21, 22, and they were all really 21 or 22. So I'm not “Gen X,” per se, but was always lumped into that category. And people would always ask me questions about Gen X, to which I'd always have to say, “I don't know. I can't give you a grand narrative. It's not my particular generation.”
Sher: There's a great New York Times piece that was written about coming-of-age stories, and that's really what it is, that we're a part of a group of coming-of-age stories. Not everybody wanted to say that we were making a “Gen X film,” so then the coverage begat more coverage about that and then it became, like, “Gen X'ers don't want to be called Gen X'ers,” the same way that there are articles about millennials now not wanting to be.
Loeb: Back in those days there was still sort of that old feeling as an artist, as a young person, you didn't want to sell out. Whereas now I feel like things have really changed. You don't sell out; you do what you want to do. You try to become successful doing what you feel like doing. You make decisions about how you look and how you talk and what you do. If somebody pays you money for that to be a tastemaker or to be representative of a generation, you just take it. You're like, “Okay, great, thanks. I'll take your money.” And you don't worry about selling out because you're so strong in yourself and what you do, whereas then there was still this fear of selling out.
Childress: If you look back at the early-90s, you remember stuff like OK Cola. They were trying to sell to us without looking like they were trying to sell to us. Because there were all those articles, like Time and Newsweek – we were the generation that couldn't be sold. We wouldn't sell out. We were so aware and wary of commercial messages. That's the irony, because then they go out and try to sell the movie to the people that don't want to be sold to.
Shamberg: It's their generation; they're entitled to push back at it, but I do think it was accurate. I think some of the pushback was it was probably too much of a Hollywood movie as opposed to not enough of an indie movie. Because the people are kind of attractive and they fall in love.
**These comments from Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher were also taken from the 2012 Sundance anniversary screening.
Loeb: It felt a little bit strange because for a minute I think it was being marketed, or at least being perceived as, a slacker movie about slackers. If not slackers, they were a generation of young adults who were lost and didn't know what they wanted out of life, which seemed really strange to me because all the people I knew were super motivated, super specific, very driven and all becoming successful along the way. It was people who knew exactly what they wanted and were just trying to figure out how to get there while maintaining their artistic credibility. Nobody was “selling out”; everybody was just working really hard to get what they wanted and to do what they wanted.
Shamberg: You know, Linklater did the movie “Slacker,” and excuse me, but look at Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky's characters on “Girls.” Aren't they kind of the new Troy Dyer? And I love “Girls.” I think it's a great show. But Adam Driver, remember he did that monologue last year, he wanted to be an actor and Alex Karpovsky was sort of just starting to manage the coffee shop? I mean it's the same guy.
Hawke: When I first read the script, “Slacker” hadn't come out yet. “Gen X” wasn't a definable thing yet; all that stuff was happening. So when it came out it was released in the mason jar of “Gen X” and MTV, as if the film was trying to capitalize on and commercialize that moment, when in fact the movie is not. I think it is a smarter movie than people thought at first.
Lubezki: There's no “Generation X” in Mexico. We're out of synchronicity. It's a completely different feeling. People don't go off to college when they finish school. They have to live with friends and we stay at home with our parents. You go to college and then you move on, and you do college in your city. Here the families really split and kind of collapse when the kids – I remember that was another shock, to talk to people on the crew who said, “Yeah, I live in California. My mother is in Florida. She's divorced. My father is in Seattle and my sister studies in Memphis.” It's like, “What??”
Sher: The original title of the script that we had to abandon was “The Real World.” Because when we were in pre-production, the first season of “The Real World” was announced. Michael obviously worked for a parody version of MTV: In Your Face Television. And Ben had worked at MTV as well. So it really captured where we were headed and everybody getting their 15 minutes. And obviously Lelaina had a real attitude toward that when you saw what her documentary was turned into.
Stiller: That's the interesting thing that I think really dates the movie. The whole story wouldn't exist now because if she wanted to make a documentary about her friends, she'd make a documentary about her friends and post it, and let people discuss it. The MTV aspect of it is interesting to me because of how that held up. I think my character says, “It's an exciting time at the channel. We're getting into real programming.” Because MTV used to show videos and now it is all reality programing.
Ryder: With her documentary, Lelaina wants it to be this pure thing. I remember – and I hesitate to say this because I don't think it's true at all – but I remember someone wrote something like, “Oh, they did to the movie what Michael Grates did to her documentary.” And I just felt like that was not true.
Childress: I have to say part of that was pretty incisive. The part about, like, the story in the movie being self-reflective or sort of like a meta story of a 20-year-old walking into an industry. But it was a lot of fun writing those scenes. Ben and I had so much fun with them. We improvised out those Michael and Lelaina scenes and I had never worked like that before. So to say it was co-opting it was hard for me to accept, because looking back, what I was more than anything else was lucky. I think people get that break like a lot later in life.
Sher: It was kind of an impossible task. I remember Janeane once went on David Letterman and she was, you know, with the best intentions. And she said, “They're going to tell you it's a Generation X movie, but it's not a Generation X movie. It's just about people.” And David Letterman was kind of like, “What? Okay.” I remember she got in trouble for that. Someone from the studio called her and basically read the interview back to her and said, “You're here to sell the movie and not tell us what it's not,” that kind of thing.
Garofalo: It's amazing in quote/unquote “show business” what you can get in trouble for just by speaking. I felt that as a story, why limit it to one generation's story? Like I said, I was 29, but it reflected a lot of similarities from when I was in college '82 to '86. I didn't see it that way and I was just answering a question authentically, which will always get you in trouble when publicity's involved. But I would answer it the same way now. I feel like it is a story that involves these particular young people.
Ryder: Maybe I was just a little sensitive or maybe I sort of read a couple of things that I shouldn't have, but I remember it felt like there was a bit of a backlash. That was the time of Nirvana and the sort of super cool, “fuck everything,” sort of – I don't know how to describe it, like, indie, if you did anything that did well then you sold out. Also I was in a relationship with Dave Pirner, who's in the movie, and he was in the whole music scene. He had a band [Soul Asylum] for a long time, but then they had that “Runaway Train” song and they got accused of selling out because they had a song that actually sold and was on the radio. So that was kind of interesting.
Zahn: We were just shooting a movie with real characters from our time. I mean, shit.
Hawke: Now, none of that stuff matters. It's like everybody cared about that label at the time, but now Ben Stiller hasn't been defined by that label and I haven't been defined by it. So now I'm kind of proud of the label. I mean at the time, it used to drive me crazy. It did mean something. It was a moment in time. And I've lived long enough now to see that every now and then time periods are looking for definition, and art can do that. Nirvana and “Slacker” and “Reality Bites” and Pearl Jam and all this stuff came to have meaning.
Sher: Ben and I were the ones who chose the photographer to shoot the one-sheet. It was Anton Corbijn, who's obviously now a successful filmmaker. We chose him because we wanted it to have the feel of the U2 covers that he shot, like “The Joshua Tree,” and we felt that the movie should feel like an album cover. And then it was really important that all the issues of people in the age group that are on the one-sheet – the studio wanted things like “credit cards” and like whatever's in the background of it. And we became very postmodern about it and put the words “movie poster” on there so that we would show that we didn't take those things seriously, that we weren't trying to really market to it, I guess, because we felt that the movie was more classical than that.
Garofalo: After that Letterman thing, whenever I did publicity, they had a watch dog sit near me. I guess I didn't understand the ramifications. And also nobody ever read a rule book to me about, “This is how you answer these questions.” Because it would have seemed disingenuous to do it that way. I also felt that if I was a viewer and someone said, “This is a film about Gen X,” would it be more intriguing to me or less, me not being Gen X? I thought why put such a narrow frame on what the movie is or isn't to people?
Stiller: I'm just still trying to come to grips with the size of my hair. I think any filmmaker who looks at something you've done, the more time you have [away] from it, you have a different perspective. So I just look at certain choices. It's really interesting to see the stuff that makes me cringe and the stuff that doesn't make me cringe. It's interesting to see moments that I think are real moments and play well, and then I see moments where I underline it too much for the audience, certain close-ups or music cues where I feel like, “I could have just let that be or let it play out.” Even the end, maybe, that last shot where they come together. Things like that. Or that close-up where I say, “I know what she needs in a way you never will.” But the moments where I see Janeane really laughing, I feel like those are just as fresh as when we did the movie.
Hawke: The last time I saw it was a couple years ago at like 2:00am. I went to somebody's wedding and I was staying in a hotel and doing that thing you do at a hotel, like, flipping the channels before you fall asleep. “Reality Bites” came on and it was kind of early in the movie, and I found myself watching the whole thing. I don't know what it sounds like for me to say this, but I was shocked at how good it was. I didn't know it was such a well-made film, you know?
Zahn: I haven't seen the movie in a long time and I'm always surprised there's a lot of people who love that movie. I constantly have people come up and go, “Oh, my favorite movie is 'Reality Bites,'” and I think, “Really?”
Garofalo: It got a really nice reception and I think it's just one of those things that, career-wise, you're either well-received or you're not. It was at a time when, for whatever reason, people were very welcoming to me. I don't know why; it was strange. And then it slowed way down, which to me always seemed like, “Yeah, that seems more right. This ambivalence at best about me. That feels right.” Because it always seemed odd, like, “Why am I getting to do another movie now? And now another one?” It just became a thing of once you're in, you get to do stuff. And if you, for whatever reason, fall out or are less “in,” you don't. It's just as perplexing to me, both ways. I don't say “in” or “out” with pettiness. I'm saying this has just been my experience of, “That's odd, people want to hire me. Oh, here we go, they've stopped wanting to hire me. Okay. Well, that feels like it was prior to 1991.” Hopefully that'll change again. Maybe next time we talk, for the 40-year, I will be “in” again. And won't that be exciting? I'll get Betty White-ed back into show business!
Zahn: The movie wasn't a big smash hit so it really didn't do much as far as propelling my film career. I didn't know what to expect and you can't help but think, “Oh, wow, maybe this means something. Maybe this will jet other work and it'll just be smooth sailing from now on and maybe I'll get recognized.” And then you realize, “Oh my God, no. No to all of the answers.” It's like, work is work. But these films have lives for a long time.
Hawke: That movie was so popular with my generation. I couldn't go anywhere anymore. It was funny, they talked about how the movie didn't make as much money as they thought, but for years after that film had come out I couldn't go to a college campus where everybody didn't have that DVD. “Singles” was another movie that tried to be marketed to them that didn't really do well. They try to lump us in with that, but we weren't as edgy and punk rock as “Slacker.”
Childress: To be honest, I often forget I wrote it. It does not come up. I remember one day – and this is years ago – I was in Barnes & Noble and “Stay” comes on the sound system. It was just one of those moments I was like, “Oh, yeah. I fucking wrote that movie.” But it was sort of off the map at that time. No one was really talking about it. There wasn't a '90s nostalgia yet. Then we went to Sundance in 2012 and we saw the film with an audience. You know how it is when you look at things that you've written when you were, like, 20? I hadn't seen it in I don't know how many years, because it's not that it was embarrassing, but it's kind of like, “Oh my God. That's something I wrote when I was 20.” But then the reaction from the audience – and especially from the young people in the audience – was really positive. It was sort of reflective of what they were going through today, because there was the job crisis or the economy was flat and all that stuff.
Stiller: I just saw this great documentary about the making of “Jaws” where they had to spend the whole day waiting for a boat to leave the horizon because they couldn't take it out digitally. That's changed the process so much, in terms of everything, so we had to be much more aware of that, how the video would transfer to film and we had to do the test and print it out to film to see what it would look like. Because all the optical effects are actual optical effects and not done with a computer, like dissolves and things like that. I feel really lucky that I had a chance to edit a movie on film because it was literally at the very end of when people were being allowed to do that. It just changes the process. You think about it more before you actually make the cut. That process is totally gone now because you just do it instantaneously.
Lubezki: It helped my career because I learned my craft and I had a chance to practice and meet such a wonderful director and just to work with these great artists. That helped. I learned a lot from them.
Loeb: I'm really happy that it happened. It's opened doors for me for the rest of my life. I've met a lot of people who connected with this song, either because their sister played it all the time and they hated it or because they loved the song and they bought every one of my records and they know every word, you know, the whole range. Or they know me because I have glasses. Seriously, as a professional musician and entertainer, to have that connection on any level is really rare, actually, and I see it and I appreciate it more now just because it lasted for so long. Few musicians actually get to experience that.
Stiller: When I look at it there's this certain lack of cynicism. That's what's interesting to see. We were just putting it out there. I like to see in movies, even if it's couched in irony, that there's something heartfelt and real there.
Sher: It was a love letter to all those characters and to all those feelings at that time in your life. I think that we wanted the movie to be a souvenir. We wanted it to be as exuberant and have as many highs and lows and as much fuzziness sonically and emotionally as the time period did.
Ryder: I've wondered if my life hadn't gone the way it did, if I would've been more like Lelaina. Obviously my family life was very different than hers, but in terms of just the struggles – and not to sound totally corny – but the dreams that she had. And also just trying to survive.
Childress: It sort of wore its heart on its sleeve. It didn't pull any punches. I watch the film and I think, “Wow, this sounds like a 22-, 23-year-old wrote it.” And that's for better or worse because I obviously didn't have the craft to do something great. I just didn't have the artistry yet. But at the same time there's an authenticity to its artlessness. That, I think, does sometimes resonate with people who see it today. Although I am proud that it's a female movie, because a lot of movies that are about women, they're focused solely on the love life or the guy. And what I like about “Reality Bites” is Lelaina wanted to do something with her career and with her life.
Zahn: It does feel like 20 years ago. And it doesn't. It does when I look at my kids. It's so weird, this business. I just finished something last Monday and it feels like it was six months ago. It's hard to really gauge time in this business. I'm always saying, “Oh, that was a couple of years ago,” and it was, like, seven. I have to really sit down and think about it. But that was 20 years ago. Far out.
“Reality Bites” grossed just over $33 million at the worldwide box office. It was a success, though perhaps not on the level those involved would have hoped for. Nevertheless, the film continues to be discovered by new generations, its universal story living on beyond the confines of its colorful era. NBC is currently developing the material with Shamberg, Sher, Childress and Stiller for a potential TV series.
“All you have to be by the time you're 23 is yourself.” -Troy Dyer
*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.
**These comments from Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher were also taken from the 2012 Sundance anniversary screening.