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.]