Fast Times (Film) – L.A. Times

‘Fast Times’ Returns to High School For Action

A couple of movie debuts got under way recently almost unnoticed. Shooting began on Universal’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – well after midnight – at a shopping mail in Sherman Oaks.

The nearly vacant mall recalled a line of Carson McCullers: “Privacy is the right of all young things.” Making their debuts: director Amy Heckerling, 29, and screenwriter-author Cameron Crowe, 24. The subject of their film: high school, from the inside.

At half past 3, the director finished a scene, sat alone on a stone floor, then did what few enough directors do: she studied her script. “There’s no power trip with Amy,” said a veteran crewman. “She’s the first director I can remember without an entourage.” (The director does have a new husband, however: He’s “Fast Times” new wave musician Reeves Nevo. The couple recently celebrated wedding ceremonies on both coasts.)

“The studio has taken a shot with Amy,” says co-producer Art Linson. There’s a reason. Heckerling, formerly an American Film Institute fellow and TV news camera-woman, is not unfamiliar with teenagers. Her prize-winning short film, “Getting It Over With,” was about the loss of virginity. It also was well received at studios.

This high school movie, based on Crowe’s current book for Simon & Schuster, has another slant. The point of view is that of teen-agers, not movie makers. Crowe spent a year undercover at a Southern California beach-community high school – for two full semesters he got away with being a student. The idea was simple, as good ideas usually are. The results, according to the writer, were “surprising.”

In more ways than one, Crowe, upon signing with the publisher was faced with a legal dilemma. “Books about minors don’t get written for a reason,” Crowe explained. “The reason is fear of lawsuits, from the minors or their parents.” So Crowe had to strike a deal with the high school. He vowed not to reveal the school’s name, under any circumstances. He’s stuck by the deal – and gotten some flak. Lately, a local magazine claimed Crowe had invented the whole book. (“I only wish I was that inventive,” responded Crowe.) More interesting, however, is the genesis of the projects.

“Everyone was asking me, ‘What’s going with the kids?’” mused Crowe, “like there was some big secret. I decided to find out. I’d just turned 21 and melancholy. I’d graduated as a junior, never having a senior year. My editor (David Obst) said, ‘You’re still young enough to go back – and report.’” The reporter took himself out of the story, found his narrative, and spent another year writing.

And now, outside Perry’s Pizza in Sherman Oaks, the book is becoming a $5-million movie. Surrounding the newcomers are veterans: co-producers Linson (“Melvin and Howard”) and Irving Azoff (“Urban Cowboy”), cinematographer Matt Leonetti (“Breaking Away”) and sound man Tom Overton (“Only When I Laugh”). The cast is almost completely unknown. Explained Linson: “We stayed away from the obvious, the Tatum O’Neals and Matt Dillons.”

They went instead for the eclectic. Method actors, Crowe calls them, with amusement. Co-star Jennifer Jason-Leigh readied for her role as a waitress by working three weeks at Perry’s. Sean Penn, who plays the “surfing marauder,” took his rebel’s role just as seriously. Penn, 21, got his own apartment, when he visited his parents, he tore his new phone number out of their address book. (“Sean’s really into it,” giggled an onlooker.) Another cast member, Brian Backer, a Tony winner for Woody Allen’s “Floating Light Bulb” displays an Allen-like intensity on the set.

“What can I tell you the first week of shooting?” wondered producer Linson. “We have to accept the basic limitation: High school movies don’t do well. Beyond that, this one was not difficult to get going for a lot of reasons.”

Start with the budget: It’s $5 million in a time when even a Neil Simon movie costs twice that. The shooting schedule is only 35 days. Add music: Linson’s partner Azoff manages a stable of hit-making composers, the Eagles among them. A sound-track album is in the works. “Then you have sex and nudity and a very hard R rating,” continued Linson. “There are a lot of reasons for a 17-year-old to get off on this. It’s a good-feeling movie.”

But risky? “Not today. Not with cable and network TV sales. Not with sex and rock ‘n’ roll. And don’t forget Cameron’s original idea. It’s basic and solid.” For a first-time screenwriter that’s praise indeed.

But then Crowe is the baby mogul of journalists. He began his career at 16 at Rolling Stone. He wrote profiles of Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson and this year saw himself profiled onscreen. In the current “Rich and Famous,” the Rolling Stone journalist is based on Crowe and played – to a T – by his friend, Hart Bochner. Says Bochner: “Cameron is a lesson for all of us. He wrote this book, then the movie, and not once did his head get turned. I mean, no ego – only humor.”

It took humor to go underground. “Rolling Stone wrote me off,” revealed Crowe. “When a journalist’s tear sheets disapper, he’s like forgotten.” It also took humor to deal with the publishers. Editors came and went. One expressed grave disappointment with the book: “Nobody dies, there are no gang wars or druge overdoses . . . “ But Crowe refused to sensationalize his story. “Today’s kids work, buy cars, and sometimes think they can buy the whole package – including sex,” he said. “That’s where the humor is: sexual blunders.”

Crowe, like director Heckerling, was a chancy choice for screenwriter. He had no credits, and this was to be one of Universal’s major 1982 releases. “There are no guidelines on how to do these things,” he said, still somewhat astonished at the good fortune. Book-to-movie deals are announced regularly, but rarely pan out.

“Several studios were given the finished book, and 14 days to decide. Universal took the option. Ned Tanen (Universal president) is a California boy, he knows the beach-surf scene, and had a feel for the material. I then paid my own way to New York to meet with the producers. ‘Write your own screenplay,” they urged, then backed me up. Six months later we had a script. And now, just look – “Crowe pointed to the brightly lit set. “We’ve even got cameras and lights – and teen-agers.” A final question had to be asked: “What is going on with today’s kids?”

“Fast foods,” answered the writer, as he headed for the 4 a.m. chow line, “the kids are working in fast foods. Isn’t that a perfect metaphor?”

Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Paul Rosenfield – December 7, 1981