Screenwriter-director Daniel Waters rocketed to the top of the Hollywood heap after garnering acclaim for his first indie screenplay, only to spend the decades that followed toiling away on mainstream studio projects. A viciously satiric, pitch-black teen comedy, "Heathers" (1989) not only made teen idols of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, but turned Waters into a bona fide Hollywood player virtually overnight. Lured by high-profile projects, big money and mega-producer Joel Silver, Waters lent his talents to the box-office embarrassments "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane" (1990) and "Hudson Hawk" (1991). Although heavily reworked as it made its way through the studio machine, his original script for director Tim Burton's superhero sequel, "Batman Returns" (1992) met with more favorable reviews and impressive commercial success. Within a year, however, Waters virtually dropped off the radar for more than a decade as he devoted his energies to providing uncredited contributions to dozens of studio films and development projects. Looking to return to his roots and maintain more creative control he later wrote and directed (for the first time) the comedy "Happy Campers" (2001) followed by the quirky sci-fi/romantic comedy "Sex and Death 101" (2007), neither of which received a wide theatrical release. A talented writer with a knack for dark comedy, Waters remained best known for "Heathers," more than 20 years later.
Daniel Waters was born on Nov. 10, 1962 in Cleveland, OH, but moved to the town of South Bend, IN with his family not long thereafter. Showing an artistic bent from a young age, he wrote, directed and starred in a sketch comedy series called "Beyond Our Control" with fellow South Bend native, Larry Karaszewski, who would go on to an enviable screenwriting career himself. While attending South Bend's James Whitcomb Riley High School, Waters penned a satirical newsletter called Troubled Waters, which detailed the fictitious adventures of his real-life classmates. Not only did the early side project prove popular with his school friends, but it also laid the groundwork for the breakout screenplay Waters would write several years later. After graduation, he left for Montreal, Canada, where he studied film at McGill University, focusing on the likes of Goddard, Bunuel and Truffaut. Eventually, Waters made the move to Los Angeles to pursue his writing career. It was while working at a video store in the artsy Silver Lake neighborhood, that Waters wrote the script that would put him on the Hollywood map.
Taking inspiration from his writings in "Troubled Waters" years earlier, Waters penned "Heathers" (1989) as a response to the milquetoast fantasies he saw depicted in teen comedy-dramas by filmmakers like John Hughes. The dark comedy in "Heathers" was ink-black in its view of teenagers as vicious, predatory creatures, rather than the naïve, misunderstood diamonds-in-the-rough seen so often in movies of its ilk. Winona Ryder starred as Veronica, one of four popular girls - the other three all being named Heather - who rule their Ohio school through cruelty and intimidation. When Veronica's new "bad boy" boyfriend (Christian Slater) urges her to get back at her overbearing, nasty gal pals, things take a deadly, albeit hilarious, turn. Although "Heathers" was a commercial failure upon release, the film - directed by Michael Lehmann - was hailed by critics, most of who singled out Waters' sardonic and intelligent script as one of its greatest strengths. For his work, Waters received an Edgar Award the following year, in addition to reaping financial rewards as the film performed exceptionally well on video and quickly established itself as an oft-quoted cult favorite.
Living a rags-to-riches cliché straight out of the movies, Waters suddenly found himself in very high demand with the major studios. Artistically, Waters yearned to write more original, personal films, but the lure of big money offered by the likes of producer Joel Silver proved hard to resist. Adopting a "one for them, one for me" approach, he took on work as a hired-gun, retooling the script for the action-comedy "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane" (1990). Starring brash, misogynistic comedian Andrew Dice Clay as a titular brash, misogynistic private eye, the movie met with nearly universal derision and scant interest from moviegoers. Looking to wipe out the previous embarrassment, Waters put aside any original projects he may have been contemplating and accepted more script work on another Silver-produced project that was sure to be a massive blockbuster. That movie was the action comedy, "Hudson Hawk" (1991), a Bruce Willis vanity project of epic proportions. Saddled with a much larger budget that "Ford Fairlane" and even higher commercial expectations, "Hudson Hawk" went on to become one of the biggest box-office bombs of the decade - mentioned in the same sentence as "Heaven's Gate" (1980), "Ishtar" (1987) and "Waterworld" (1995).
Despite the disappointment of these films, they did make Waters - a starving writer only a few years earlier - extremely comfortable financially. So much so that he was able to put his younger brother, Mark Waters - who would go on to direct such films as 2004's "Mean Girls" and 2008's "The Spiderwick Chronicles" - through film school at the prestigious American Film Institute. The elder Waters faired considerably better with his next studio venture, an original screenplay for "Batman Returns" (1992), the sequel to the blockbuster superhero adventure, directed by Tim Burton. Waters' dark sensibilities were well-suited to Burton, especially in regard to the independent, empowered characterization of Catwoman (Michele Pfeiffer). Though some were caught off guard by the film's somber, sometimes mean-spirited tone, "Batman Returns" triumphed at the box office and was considered by many as an improvement over the first outing in the franchise. As fine as the large paycheck was, the process of writing for committee - consisting of the director, producers, studio execs and a massive marketing machine - was less than gratifying for Waters.
The following year, Waters received high marks for his satiric contributions to the successful sci-fi actioner "Demolition Man" (1993), starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes as adversaries cryogenically frozen then defrosted decades later to do battle in a utopian version of Los Angeles. From there, Waters fell off the radar as an officially credited screenwriter, spending much of the next decade working as an uncredited script doctor for countless studio projects, many of which never left the development stage. Waters resurfaced to make his feature film directorial debut with "Happy Campers" (2001), an ensemble summer camp comedy the writer described as, "Jean Renoir meets 'Meatballs.'" Despite boasting a talented young cast that included Brad Renfro, Dominique Swain, Jaime King and Justin Long, it was never released theatrically, going direct to DVD instead. Six years later, Waters took another stab at both writing and directing a project of his own when he helmed "Sex and Death 101" (2007). A bizarre mash-up of science fiction, dark comedy and erotic romance, it reunited Waters with Ryder in a tale of a man (Simon Baker) confronted with a list of all the woman he has ever slept with - past, present and future. Criticized for its lack of focus and wildly fluctuating tonality, "Sex and Death 101" did little business in theaters before being sent to DVD.
By Bryce Coleman