Michael Lehmann talks Airheads at Cinepocalypse

Brendan Frasier, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler in Airheads.

Filmmaker Michael Lehmann spoke with Solzy at the Movies in a phone interview prior to Thursday night’s screening of Airheads to close out Cinepocalypse.

Michael Lehmann
Michael Lehmann (ABC/Giovanni Rufino)

Airheads will screen as the closing night selection of Cinepocalypse in honor of the film’s 25th anniversary.  How honored are you to be screening a 35mm print of the film?

Michael Lehmann:  I am really jazzed about it.  I think that it’s a great way to see a movie.  Obviously, it was how was shot and originally projected.  It doesn’t happen anymore, and I am really, really, really excited to see this thing on the big screen again.

Despite the poor reviews and dismal box office at the time, the film has managed to attract a cult following.  When did you first begin to notice this?

Michael Lehmann:  I sort of picked up on it about—it must have been about five or six years after the movie came out.  I was talking to a film journalist and I made a comment about the movie having failed.  She said, “What do you mean it failed?”  I said, “Well, it was a box office disappointment.  It wasn’t well reviewed.  We thought we had a better movie on our hands.”  I said, “I’m kind of happy that it’s had a life on cable.”  She looked at me and she said, “You’re out of your mind!  People love this movie.”  I never know what to think when people say that.  She seemed very sincere and I thought, well maybe it has more of a following out in the world than I was aware of and then that has been borne out over the years because I get just the casual.  I sometimes gauge these things on people coming up to me going, “I really like that movie.” Airheads seems to be a favorite.

When did you first learn of Rich Wilkes’ screenplay and decide to direct it?

Michael Lehmann:  It was sent to me by an executive at Fox who I knew pretty well and who went on to become a producer that I worked at later on.  He knew that I was a rock’n’roll fan and he thought it was a clever idea and a good script.  He just he sent it to me and put me in touch with the producers.  I thought it was a really good read and very funny.  I figured that there was a way to make a sort of—I always wanted the movie to be more subversive than it ever really became but I thought there was a good way to get some good stuff in that comedy.  I had a good meeting with the producers and the writer who is terrific.  Rich Wilkes is really talented guy and we moved forward.

This film features a star-studded cast spoofing the heavy metal scene at the time.  What was it like to work with Adam Sandler, Brendan Frasier, and Steve Buscemi.

Michael Lehmann:  Well, they weren’t stars really at that time.  We didn’t think we had a star-studded cast. We thought we had a future star-studded cast which I guess is true.  Brendan had done Encino Man so he’d had the lead in a movie and he was kind of a commodity at that point but he hadn’t done a whole lot of stuff.  Adam was on SNL and he definitely had a following on SNL and in the world of standup but he hadn’t made any real impact in the movie world at all.  I remember that was a big discussion with the studio.  They didn’t automatically approve him.  They knew who he was and they kind of liked the idea but I had to fight for that.  Buscemi was somebody I really had to fight for because he had only done—at that point, he had only done independent movies and maybe a couple parts in action movies.  I guess Reservoir Dogs probably had come out but maybe not (Ed. Note: The film premiered at Sundance in January 1992).  He wasn’t known that well at that point and I had to fight really hard for him. What was seems now like a kind of a no-brainer cast was not that easy to get through.

The late Chris Farley makes an appearance.  What was he like to direct as an actor and do you have any favorite memories of him?

Michael Lehmann:  He was a very, very sweet guy.  I was struck at the time that he was like a big kid in a lot of ways.  He was very friendly and very gregarious.  He was good to all the people around him.  He was extremely inventive particularly with physical comedy.  What I remember more than anything else was he—at that time—was fighting his various demons of addiction and that sort of thing.  He had a couple of handlers who were around him all the time and he would cheerfully say, “These guys are here to protect me from myself.”  He meant it in a really good way. He was onboard to try to keep his life on track and eventually that didn’t work out.  It’s very sad because he was a complete and total sweetheart.

In directing Heathers, did you ever expect the film would become a classic?

Michael Lehmann:  No.  When you make a movie, you just want it to be good.  You don’t ever really know what to expect about how it’s going to be received.  In the case of Heathers, it was my first film.  It was a small movie and it was made pretty much off the radar.  The people that I collaborated with on it—we knew we were making a good movie because we knew how good Dan Waters’ script was. But we had no idea—actually; I’m going to back up to say we hoped we would be able to make a good movie from what was clearly a great script.  When we were shooting, it felt like things were going really, really well.  There was no expectation that it would perform at all.  We had no idea if anybody would ever see it.

Later this year, Veronica Mars will return for a new season on Hulu.  You’re directing one of the episodes.  How much fun was it to work on the series?

Michael Lehmann:  Yes, I did the the first episode—the pilot for the reboot of the series.  That was really, really, really terrific experience because those guys made the show for three seasons.  They made a feature based on it but everybody involved is still extremely enthusiastic about the character of Veronica Mars and the whole story around her.  All the people that had been recurring on the series—they brought a lot of them back.  It was a really good experience.  I think Kristen Bell is amazing.

I think so as well.

Michael Lehmann:  Yeah, she’s awesome.

One of your first jobs in the industry was working for Francis Ford Coppola.  How much of an influence has he been for your career as a filmmaker?

Michael Lehmann:  Well, he’s a great filmmaker.  If you look at his best work, there’s nobody who ever did anything better. So just to be able to—when I was young and when I was starting out, just to be able to be around somebody who had that level of talent was inspirational.  I don’t know how much I learned from him because I didn’t know very much at the time. I just watched.  I learned a few things that may maybe seem a little unusual but I learned that it’s important to treat people well.  It’s important to create enthusiasm for what you’re doing among the people that you’re collaborating with.  Francis is a very expansive guy and he really gets completely invested emotionally in what he’s doing and brings this kind of passion to his work.  I saw that and I was a kid basically and I thought wow, that’s the way to do it because you have so many people working with you on movies that.  You have to make sure that they understand that they’re really part of it.

Airheads will close out the Cinepocalypse Genre Film Festival on June 20, 2019.  Click here to buy tickets.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.