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Austen and the 'in' crowd: Author Jen Chaney on the lasting impact of 'Clueless'

“Clueless,” starring, from left, Stacey Dash, Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy.

The ’90s brought us several films updating classic stories: The 1999 comedy “10 Things I Hate About You” transported “The Taming of the Shrew” to modern-day Seattle; 1998’s “Great Expectations” is set in New York City. But one of the most successful and most enduring of those efforts is “Clueless,” the 1995 teen comedy — based on “Emma” — about Cher, a L.A. high school queen bee (Alicia Silverstone), and her circle of friends.

Twenty years later, Washington-area pop-culture writer Jen Chaney looks back at the movie in her new book, “As If!” Chaney is a former Washington Post critic whose work has also appeared on Web sites such as Vulture and the Dissolve. Her book, about the making of director Amy Heckerling’s film, will be released July 7 (Simon & Schuster). Chaney is scheduled to speak at the Jane Austen Summer Program on the panel about film adaptations of “Emma.” We caught up with her to find out more about “Clueless” and its source material.

Can you tell us a little about your book?

The book is an oral history of the movie “Clueless” that delves into the details of how it was made — including how Amy Heckerling developed the screenplay, using “Emma” as a narrative blueprint — and its lasting impact on pop culture. To put all of that together, I talked to many, many people who worked on the movie in various capacities, including Heckerling, many of the cast and crew members, and more than half of the artists found on the soundtrack. I also spoke to other people — fashion experts, cultural critics, and, yes, a few Austen professors — who could speak to the currency the movie still has even though it’s (shudder) 20-years-old as of this year.

So, be honest: How many times have you watched “Clueless” by now?

Author Jen Chaney is scheduled to speak on “Clueless” at this year’s Jane Austen Summer Program.

I had seen it a few times before writing the book, but during the writing, I watched it many more times than I can even quantify, either from beginning to end or in segments. I’ll guess I’ve seen it somewhere between 20 and 30 times? I’m sure there are hardcore fans who have seen it more times than I have, though.

What was it about “Emma” that made it the perfect fodder for “Clueless”?

I think it’s a very well-structured book that, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, is just timeless enough that it can be updated and still work just as well in the modern era. It’s really amazing to watch “Clueless,” then go back to “Emma” and find all the fun ways that Amy Heckerling uses the novel as a springboard to invent her own story, on levels both macro and micro. The little details are the ones that delight me the most. I love that Harriet has such a fondness for the Martins and their farm when she first meets Emma, and then in “Clueless,” when Tai (the Harriet equivalent) first shows up at school, Amber greets her by saying, “You could be a farmer in those clothes.” It’s a moment that’s funny without the “Emma” context, but when you know the context, it makes it even richer. That’s true of so much in  “Clueless.”

What kind of Austen-related research did you do for the book?

Reading “Emma” was one of the first things I did as part of my research. I had read Austen (I was an English major in college) and I knew the “Emma” story, but I honestly don’t think I had read the original novel before. So I did a close read and highlighted all the places where I thought it dovetailed with “Clueless.” I also read a number of essays about the ways in which Austen and “Clueless” intersected, and interviewed a few Austen scholars — including Dr. [Inger] Brodey — who are cited in the book.

What makes it of particular interest to Austen fans?

I think Austen fans who appreciate “Clueless” as an “Emma” update will be interested in the book. I also think Amy Heckerling was pretty ahead of her time in terms of taking an Austen story and thoroughly modernizing it for a mainstream audience. Austen’s resurgence in contemporary pop culture really exploded in 1995 and 1996, when “Clueless,” the Colin Firth “Pride & Prejudice,” Emma Thompson’s “Sense & Sensibility,” and several other films arrived at more or less the same moment. But “Clueless” was the only one that really placed an Austen story in a radically different time and place, which is something that has since been done a million times. Maybe there would be a “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” or an “Austenland” if “Clueless” hadn’t come first. But it was first, so it’s interesting to look at it as sort of a template for how to tell a Jane Austen story in a way that’s accessible to people who know Austen as well as people who don’t.

Favorite character in “Clueless” and why? “Emma”?

I mean, it’s hard to say anybody other than Cher and Emma, right? They are so central to both stories and they’re both such fully realized, equal parts endearing and maddening characters. Like a lot of people, though, I think I relate more directly to Harriet and Tai [played by Brittany Murphy]. That fish-out-of-water, “I don’t belong here” sensation is one that a majority of readers and viewers have probably experienced. There are few Chers or Emmas in the real world.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about the making of “Clueless” as you were researching it?

Oh, gosh, I learned so many things, especially fun and sweet little details — I was really touched when Amy Heckerling told me she still has the painting of Cher’s mom in her garage, and that she also has Brittany Murphy’s silver Converse sneakers, too, which actually fit her. On a broader level, it was also pretty striking to go back and look at the mid-’90s time period and see how many women were directing some of the more lucrative Hollywood hits.

To be clear: There were still far more men doing that than women. But comparing it to where we are in 2014-2015, the landscape was actually a little more positive back then, with people like Heckerling, Betty Thomas and Nora Ephron all actively directing. Heckerling had to fight to get “Clueless” made the way she wanted it to be made: as a story told very clearly from a young woman’s point-of-view, just as “Emma” was. If she tried to make it now, I suspect she’d have to fight even harder. Several people said they think that’s one of the reasons “Clueless” continues to resonate with younger people who watch it for the first time on, say, Netflix: There aren’t a lot of current movies like it, made with that mix of intelligence and humor, that are about young girls. If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when people like Heckerling and John Hughes were making movies that spoke to teens without condescension and also featured female protagonists, it makes you feel kind of lucky.

Twenty years on, what impact did “Clueless” have on pop culture? And its impact on other updates of classic novels, Austen (if you’ve seen any of them) or otherwise?

In the video for “Fancy,” rapper Iggy Azalea re-creates Cher’s look.

As far as other Austen updates, I feel “Clueless” gave other artists — authors, filmmakers, etc. — license to have more fun with her novels. It sent the signal that, hey, you can take an Austen novel and make it into something that’s not all empire-waisted ball gowns and stand-up-extra-straight poshness. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It’s hard to know how directly “Clueless” inspired some of those artists. But if you watch a movie like “Aisha,” for example, which bills itself as an update of “Emma” set in India, it really plays more like “Clueless Redux” than anything else. I don’t think that’s an accident.

What are you looking forward to most about coming to the Jane Austen Summer Program?

Honestly, I just had so much fun talking to the Austen scholars that I look forward to meeting people like them, who are so engaging and smart. I love being around people who are really serious fans of something, whether it’s the TV show “Lost,” or “Star Wars,” or Jane Austen. Being in the presence of all that passion is inspiring. So I look forward to being inspired.

“As If!” can be pre-ordered on Amazon now. Follow Jen Chaney on Twitter (@chaneyj) for updates on her upcoming book.


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