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“I have so many emotional feelings right now,” Ben Stiller said Saturday afternoon at the 25th anniversary screening of Reality Bites at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film marked Stiller’s directorial debut and skyrocketed Ethan Hawke’s career, and Stiller reunited with Hawke, as well as the film’s stars Winona Ryder and Janeane Garofalo, screenwriter Helen Childress and producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher for a talkback after the screening.
“It feels like an embarrassing home movie for all of us,” Sher said.
Before the cast and creative team took the stage, Lisa Loeb played her song “Stay” as the credits rolled. Loeb was a member of Hawke’s theater company at the time, and the pic catapulted her single to No. 1, making her the first unsigned artist to top the charts.
Childress started writing the film when she was 20, based on her own experiences, and finished when she was 23. It was initially called “Untitled Baby Busters Project,” and she intended the title Reality Bites to be a play on soundbites, rather than the generally accepted meaning that “reality bites” mean that reality is hard.
The film premiered at Sundance in 1994 and became a quintessential moment for Generation X, capturing the resistance to selling out and authority of the early ’90s.
Shamberg said he was attracted to the generational story, particularly after his success with The Big Chill, which was a similar narrative for baby boomers.
“We didn’t have streaming. We had some sitcoms. It just seemed like a formula, and I don’t mean that pejoratively,” he said. “You could be really authentic about what was going on in the culture and nobody was doing it. That was the excitement of the project.”
Stiller was coming off TV’s The Ben Stiller Show, which ended after 12 weeks, but Rider was a big fan of the series. As soon as Ryder said yes, the film was greenlit.
“I just connected with it, and I really, really wanted to work with Ben and Janeane and Ethan,” said Ryder, who convinced Hawke to join the project as well. “I was very intimidated because these were cool people.”
“I remember Winona called me and said you should talk to Ethan,” Stiller said, adding that he responded, “Who’s this Ethan Hawke guy?”
“Winona brought us all together. She wasn’t intimidated at all,” Hawke responded.
Garofalo was actually let go from the film and reinstated during the process. Ryder called her the “rosebud” of the movie, saying that she couldn’t imagine the movie without her.
“Apparently, as was my wont back then, I was behaving in a rather immature manner on the set and was not respecting the authority that needed to be established,” Garofalo said. “I didn’t know I had been let go. I remember Ben saying, ‘You can go for the day,’ and I was, like, psyched. … I’ve since become more mature, as I am in AARP now.”
One thing the actress did without permission was cut “Bettie Page bangs.” While Garofalo doesn’t think they looked good, Stiller thinks it worked out. “I was totally wrong. They were great,” Stiller said.
Hawke also had a very specific hairstyle in the film, though when asked how he kept the look consistent for continuity, he said that’s just the way he was. “That was my look, babe. It worked,” said the actor. “It was called actually doing nothing. It was exactly the way I looked all the time back then.”
Although Reality Bites is still beloved today, there are many aspects that did not age particularly well.
“I just want to apologize for the way the film fetishizes smoking,” Stiller said. “It’s out of control the amount of close-ups of cigarettes and cigarettes going into mouths.”
While the film embraced the anarchic attitudes of young people, there was some initial resistance from audiences, given Reality Bites was produced by a major studio.
“It wasn’t an independent movie like Clerks or Spanking the Monkey or Slackers — it was made by Universal Studios,” Stiller said. “So from the beginning, people were suspect. So we went to do a test screening in Berkeley, California, and the Universal logo comes up onscreen and the audience starts booing. We went to Berkeley because [the studio] thought that would be our crowd.”
However, the movie did launch a lot of careers and give younger people an opportunity to shine — particularly Childress.
“I’ve heard from people that it was inspirational for them to see a young woman to get sole credit,” the screenwriter said. “I would have to thank Ben and Stacy and Michael for not being rewritten.”
Hawke applauded Ryder for taking the chance on an unknown screenwriter.
“I really want to say how much we are all are indebted to Winona using her strength, her power at that moment, to care about another woman’s voice,” said Hawke, as Ryder rubbed his shoulder. “I’m indebted. Winona believed in me. Winona got me this job. This job changed the trajectory of my career entirely.”
Hawke said he was attracted to the writing and characters because they were three-dimensional and real mistakes were made.
“In life, we do the wrong thing all the time, and it’s so difficult for us to forgive ourselves,” said the actor. “We behave badly, but we’re trying to learn. And the movie ends up showing how hard it is as young people to learn your way. You have to live your way through these things.”
Both Ryder and Garofalo were hesitant to call the movie the story of a generation.
“I always read it just as this great little story about these friends. I never anticipated it becoming — and I don’t even like to say the ‘generation certain letter.’ I never really saw it as that,” Ryder said. “I feel like the lucky one. I feel like it couldn’t have been made without every ingredient up here.”
“I think there was pushback that I tend to agree with,” Garofalo added. “This speaks to the authenticity of Helen’s story. It doesn’t represent quote-unquote a generation. It represents those people who we would say would be between working class, middle class, white, who had the luxury of having those days jobs and things like that. I understand why there was some pushback. That is a blanket statement, a generation. A generation is very, very diverse, and there are many stories to tell. And it was Helen’s speaking hers. And I felt like that was an unfair pressure to put on the movie.”
When asked if she will ever write a sequel, Childress responded that she’s living it right now.
“Those relationships, they were real. It’s based on my husband and I, who now have been married longer than Vickie’s [Garofalo] parents in the movie,” Childress said, adding that it was special to have her daughter in the audience for the screening. “I would love to do a spiritual sequel.”
As far as where the characters might be today in their 40s, Ryder has a surprising answer.
“People always come up and are, like, ‘Would you be with Troy [Hawke] or would you be with Michael [Stiller]? I always thought maybe I’d end up with…,” Ryder said, gesturing to Garofalo. “People mistake me for being both gay and Jewish, which I am neither, but I am complimented by that,” she said. “It makes me seem far more interesting than an asexual atheist.”
Stiller concluded the conversation by saying he was thankful to everyone who came out, establishing another memorable moment tied to the film.
“It’s emotional for me, to hear the movie with an audience, to hear your reactions, to feel it together and to still be here 25 years later,” Stiller said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
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