Reality Bites showed audiences how early-twentysomethings in the mid-1990s spent most of their time basing their personal ethos around the term “selling out” and suffering (Big Gulp-aided) brain cramps from self-rationalizing the hypocrisy of keeping “superficial” jobs to pay the bills. Winona Ryder played Lelaina, an aspiring documentarian who films her roommates and then has the video aired (with exploitative gloss) by her network executive boyfriend Michael Grates, a role played by first-time feature film director Ben Stiller. Ethan Hawke played the caustic irony-pointer-outer lost boy Troy, with support from Steve Zahn and Janeane Garofalo.
1. THE WRITER OF THE MOVIE NEVER WANTED TO BE A SCREENWRITER.
In 1994, Reality Bites screenwriter Helen Childress told Entertainment Weekly that she had “no interest in screenwriting. I wanted to be a poet. But poets don't make any money.” So she wrote a script all the same about people in their 20s in the early 1990s, which is exactly what producer Michael Shamberg was looking for. Childress was 24 years old when the film was released on February 18, 1994.
2. BEN STILLER MADE SOME KEY CHANGES TO CHILDRESS’ SCRIPT.
Stiller believed the script to be “extremely funny,” but tweaked it anyway. “Originally, it was much more about all the characters in the movie,” he said in an interview around the time of the film’s release. “Janeane’s character, Vickie, and Steve’s character, Sammy, and Ethan’s character, Troy; all their stories were much more fleshed out. I felt like I couldn’t really bring all those stories together; couldn’t really tell them all fully, so I just wanted to make it more about Lelaina and her relationship with Troy.” He also changed the character he ended up playing, Michael Grates, from a 35-year-old ad man attempting to make Japanese candy bars popular in the United States to a twentysomething executive for In Your Face TV.
3. TRISTAR PICTURES CHANGED ITS MIND ABOUT MAKING THE MOVIE.
In 1993, the studio also eventually said no to Pulp Fiction. Made for $11.5 million, Reality Bites would end up being released by Universal Pictures, after Stiller claimed they were “turned down by everybody” else because twentysomething coming-of-age movies such as Singles (1992) didn’t make enough money.
4. WINONA RYDER ADVOCATED HARD FOR ETHAN HAWKE AND JANEANE GAROFALO.
Winona Ryder had seen Ethan Hawke in the World War II drama A Midnight Clear (1992), and subsequently pushed for him to play Troy. Despite working with Stiller earlier on The Ben Stiller Show (1993), Garofalo said she didn’t know if she would have been cast as Vickie without Ryder’s high opinion of her.
5. GWYNETH PALTROW, PARKER POSEY, AND ANNE HECHE AUDITIONED FOR VICKIE.
6. HAWKE PUT STEVE ZAHN ON THE PRODUCERS’ RADAR.
Hawke and Zahn co-starred in the play Sophistry. Hawke encouraged executive producer Stacey Sher to see Zahn for Sammy. “Tons of people read for the part and it was just once we saw Steve, we knew,” Sher told HitFix.
7. IT WAS EMMANUEL “CHIVO” LUBEZKI’S FIRST AMERICAN FILM.
The Mexico City-born Lubezki was brought in as the director of photography. “I was very young and I was inexperienced and coming to America and uncomfortable living here,” Lubezki recalled. “I didn't have many friends. I was just coming here to work. When I got this offer, I read the script, and I have to be honest, I barely understood the humor in the script. I didn't find it that funny. I found it more dramatic than funny.”
The language barrier was irrelevant; Childress later said his hard work made everyone look “gorgeous.” Shamberg believed the look of the film was a “kind of a romantic naturalism.” Last month, Lubezki pulled off an Oscar threepeat when he won his third consecutive Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Revenant (following wins for Birdman and Gravity).
8. ONE ORIGINAL TITLE WAS THE REAL WORLD.
It was nixed when MTV’s The Real World debuted.
9. GAROFALO WAS FIRED (“SORT OF”), AND RYDER FOUGHT FOR HER AGAIN.
“That was my first experience with a studio film,” Garofalo told The A.V. Club. “I didn't understand what was going to happen, or why the hours were so long. I know Ben was not thrilled with me there. He also didn't like my attitude during rehearsal, because I hate to rehearse. He sort of fired me, but luckily I was rehired because Winona stepped in on my behalf. Let's put it this way: I don't have a good work ethic.”
10. NONE OF THE COMPANIES MENTIONED IN THE MOVIE INSISTED ON A CHANGE IN THE SCRIPT.
“There is product placement in the movie, but I don’t have any problem with it because it never happened where they said ‘OK, you can put our product in but you have to change your script,’” Stiller reasoned. Diet Coke specifically was written into the script because Childress lived off of it.
11. HAWKE TURNED STILLER ON TO LISA LOEB.
Loeb had participated in Hawke’s theater company, writing music in New York City. Hawke sent her new song, “Stay,” to Stiller, who agreed it should be in the movie. After they were refused permission by Atlantic Records to use a song by The Lemonheads (fronted by Evan Dando, who appears in the film), “Stay” was slotted as the second song to play during the closing credits. The first and last music video Hawke directed would be “Stay.” Mostly because of the movie, Loeb achieved the rare distinction of being an unsigned artist with a number one single, a feat that wouldn’t be achieved again for another 19 years.
12. PETER FRAMPTON WASN’T THE FILMMAKER’S FIRST CHOICE.
"Baby I Love Your Way” was supposed to be a Beck tune.
13. THE FIRST TEST SCREENING DIDN’T GO WELL.
When the Berkeley, California audience saw the Universal logo, most of them booed.
14. THE REAL TROY SUED.
A Troy Dyer attended USC film school with Childress, became a financial consultant in Wisconsin, and sued in 2005 for defamation. Childress claimed Dyer gave her permission to use his name, because he was straight-laced and conservative—the total opposite of the character. The case was settled to “everyone’s mutual satisfaction,” according to Dyer.