Director Mark S. Waters seems an unlikely candidate to be directing a movie about misfit high school girls. With his polished appearance and confident manner, it’s easy to believe that the Mean Girls helmer was a basketball player and a valedictorian.
"When I was talking with some of my friends from high school," he recalls in a roundtable interview in Kansas City. "They were going, 'What do you mean? You were cool in high school.’ My God, I felt like I was a loser. That's the kind of perspective, if anything, I'd like to give to a teenage audience is that it's finite. You can make it through it and laugh at what you went through."
This hidden, temporary insecurity can be seen in the work of his brother Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers (1989), the cult comedy about teen homicides. He explains, "The funny thing is I like to make fun of my brother saying that, 'It's a kind of an easy way out to kill your bullies.' ‘Yeah, sure. I'm gonna kill her.' It's a tactic that's not available to the average high-school student.
"It's more interesting if (the main character) actually has to use more devious means to get back at the Queen Bee and in doing so she becomes the Queen Bee herself. Also, the thing I really liked about this movie in the script form was that it seemed like it had the potential to be like a John Hughes movie as well, like Heathers remade by John Hughes."
To be fair, Mark S. Waters’ own films have occasional dark themes that could give his brother a run for his money. In The House of Yes (1997), Parker Posey played a mentally disturbed young woman who has a Jackie O fixation and an incestuous obsession with her brother.
He’s aimed for more mainstream audiences with the romantic comedy Head Over Heels (2001) and his 2003 remake of Freaky Friday. According to Waters, the switch from making a Sundance film to a Disney one wasn’t all that dramatic.
"When I made Freaky Friday, the reason I got the job is because I went into Disney and said, 'I have no idea how to do a family movie, so if you want like somebody who's going to make a family movie, don't hire me because I'm going to make a movie that I like and a movie that I would want to go see myself and work within the parameters of the genre that you guys establish for me with the subject matter or how you deal with things.’
"And I think we benefited because parents who brought their kids to the movie weren't horrified that they had to sit through an awful Rug Rats3," he explains.
Despite the commercial success he had with Freaky Friday, Waters has kept up with and frequently consults his friends from his days as an independent filmmaker, like Requiem for a Dream co-writer-director Darren Aronofsky, 8 Mile writer Scott Silver and In the Bedroom director Todd Field.
He remembers, "Darren and I, I had a really good class at AFI (the American Film Institute) when I went there. We kind of have this support network where we read each other's scripts and give each other feedback and watch each other's rough cuts. It's a good place to be because a lot of times when you achieve some degree of success you fear people aren't willing to say you don't know what the hell you're doing. But since we knew each other since we didn't know what we were doing, we're willing to tell each other 'That sucks! What are we thinking?'
Keep It Almost Real
Mean Girls teams Waters with Freaky Friday star Lindsay Lohan and Saturday Night Live performer and Head Writer Tina Fey. In it, Lohan plays a home-schooled teen who transfers into a conventional high school and discovers social maneuvering that makes the African jungles where she grew up seem tamely sedate. Fey, who also plays a teacher in the film, wrote the script from Rosalind Wiseman’s study of teen girls titled Queen Bees and Wannabees.
Waters says, "It's a sociology text. There's no story there, so it was Tina's invention of taking these anecdotal interviews with teen girls and creating a story of it. However, the detention sequence is very much Rosalind Wiseman. That's actually what she does in her seminars, when she goes across the country to talk to teen girls. And that line, 'Calling someone else fat won't make you any thinner. Calling somebody stupid won't make you any smarter.’ It's kind of like straight from her kind of gospel. However, the good thing is that it's being related in a way that doesn't feel like a preachy Sunday school lesson."
If Waters and Fey had based some of their film on Wiseman's observations, authenticity had to be sacrificed in other areas. "If we were going to have an R-rated movie," recalls Waters. "We would have had the girls talk the way they really do talk, which is like sailors. A girl like Regina (played by Rachael McAdams) in real life every other word out of her mouth would be a complete swear word." Other sacrifices had to be made for the PG-13 rating, and a certain television event wound up making things more difficult.
"There were a couple of places where we submitted the movie to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), and it happened to be the Monday after the (2004) Super Bowl. So suddenly they were kind of plucking the things out of the movie saying, 'You can't say things like that, like cherry pop. You can't say cherry pop.' We basically got into these fights.
"I kept certain things that I insisted I would not give up on but ended up having to change cherry popping to buttering your muffin in the version that you saw, which we had to make up even another euphemism on top of a euphemism. That's just kind of the absurd time is that we're in right now as far as censorship is concerned. At the same time, I'm kind of happy that the MPAA exists because it's better than some kind of government body ruling over the movies," states Waters.
Where Credit Is Due
Waters does seem to have a knack for working with younger actresses. Lohan has received solid reviews for her work in both or his features, but Waters explains that working with performers of Lohan's age is easier than some of the challenges he has faced. "I've had situations where I've worked with really young actors or working with models in Head over Heels, which requires a whole different working method," he says. "It's much more standing next to the camera and coaching them, while Lyndsay and I have got to this point now where our shorthand is very quick. Like we have this thing, comically where you speak less and less to actors, the better job doing."
While some directors like to take credit for even the gaffing on the set and having their name appear several times during the credits, Waters is quick to credit Fey's writing and performing contribution. "On this movie, she was the one and only writer. Unlike other directors who kind of have bigger egos and then I do, I will never send a good resource away from me. So, I kept Tina close to my vest. I could always just go to her and say, 'This line's not if that funny. It was funny on the page. Can we do something better?' Then she'll go off and come up with six new lines. Also in post-production, I would show her every cut of the movie and kind of like brainstorm ideas for ADR (Additional Dialog Recording) lines," recalls Waters.
Rethinking the Male Gaze
If there is any distinctive stamp to Waters' films, it may be that all of them with the exception of the upcoming The Diceman, which he's developing with Daniel, feature female lead characters. "When I find myself reading scripts," he explains. "I find the female stories just grab me more. It's not a conscious choice. I think it comes back to in directing you basically have to wake up early in the morning and get up and shine a bunch of lights in a camera. It's better if it's a pretty girl than the sweaty guy. It helps you get out of bed in to work.
"Beyond that I think its that I just I think that women will always be a mystery to me. There's still like endlessly fascinating and worth exploration. I'm married now and I have a daughter. One of the reasons I took Freaky Friday was because my wife just insisted before our daughter was about to be born. 'You have to do it because Zoë and I will watch it years from now.' I'm even more bathed in estrogen around my house now, so who knows? Maybe I need to work with Nic Cage and then The Rock!"