Mixing Marriage and Movies Is a Mirthly Delight for Directors Amy Heckerling and Neal Israel
Heckerling, 31, and Israel, 40, share more than membership in the League of Hot Young Directors; as husband and wife for the past year, they share a household as well. With two directors under the same roof, one is occasionally bound to get burned. And so it happened that shortly after Israel hit pay dirt with Bachelor Party, Heckerling's Johnny Dangerously was excoriated by critics and had all the box office bounce of a soggy tennis ball. "I was totally bummed out," says Amy. "Nobody could tell me anything. I'd say to Neal, 'Ah, what do you know, you don't have a flop!' " Now, thanks to less-than-lavish critical reaction to his most recent release, Moving Violations, Israel knows how it feels.
Even when one's hot and the other's not, Israel insists that the couple does not suffer the pangs of professional rivalry. "We're big fans of one another's work," he explains. "I identify with her problems rather than worrying about her getting ahead of me." Israel favors broad farce sprinkled with kink, while Heckerling has a more subtle, introspective touch, but each has enough adolescent sensibility to have tapped into the booming youth market. "A script can't go beyond the grasp of a kid's experience," says Neal. "You can't do a movie about office politics and expect them to understand." With Bachelor Party, and co-writing credit on last year's bonanza Police Academy, Israel is more grounded in a fiercely competitive industry. Heckerling, who is batting .500 pending July's release of her National Lampoon's European Vacation, has the added pressure of being among the few women directing comedy and is more needled by insecurities.
The directing duo met when Heckerling hired Israel to polish the script for Johnny Dangerously. At the time each was entangled in another romance. Prodded to identify the fellow in question, Heckerling reluctantly blurts, "Paul McCartney." Not to be outdone, Israel comes up with a name for his partner at the time: "Meryl Streep."
Humor plays a large part in their chemistry, but they also have complementary personalities. Israel is open, engaging, chatty. Heckerling is sharper edged, pithy, guarded. Shortly after they met, but before Neal asked Amy out, a mutual friend wanted to know Amy's taste in men. Heckerling replied, "Guys from New York who are funny, wear glasses and have a big nose." Since Woody Allen was otherwise engaged, Israel eventually stepped in to fulfill Amy's fantasy.
In the beginning Heckerling gave Israel the big chill. "When you have somebody writing or acting for you," she explains, "you have to be free to have them hate you so you can get your ideas across without worrying." It took Israel 10 months to invite her to lunch. "I told her I'd meet her in 15 minutes and when she said, 'Make it 30, I want to look good,' I figured if she wasn't interested, why would she fix herself up?" He does not remember proposing. "One night we were sitting in bed," he reports casually, "and she said, 'Why don't we get married?' and I said, 'Why not?' "
Each had been briefly wed before; Israel to singer-songwriter Lori (Killing Me Softly With His Song) Lieberman and Heckerling to a musician whom she identifies as "totally unfamous." Shortly after the family-only ceremony at a San Diego synagogue last July, Heckerling headed off to Europe for three months to direct European Vacation, leaving Israel to shoot Moving Violations'^ the less romantic burg of Brea in Orange County.
Heckerling's professional priorities were most apparent last December when, just after being offered a big-budget film, she learned she was pregnant. Amy feared that the news would jeopardize her movie deal, but her agent shrewdly calculated that the birth could take place between wrap and postproduction. However, the agent advised, breast-feeding could be a schedule problem. Amy is still undecided. "I'll breast-feed the baby," volunteers Neal. "I'm liberated."
Indeed he is. At their four-bedroom Beverly Hills headquarters, it is Israel who cleans and cooks. Heckerling "kvetches." When filming they put in 80-hour weeks. During the editing phase, they are home by 7:30 with work problems in hand. "The great thing about being married to another director," says Neal, "is that she can be more than a sympathetic wife; she can offer concrete suggestions about technical problems or how to fix a scene." They socialize with friends like Martin Brest, director of Beverly Hills Cop, Harold Ramis, co-writer and co-star of Ghostbusters, and director John Landis. John Travolta and Marilu Henner stopped by to watch last year's Oscar awards on TV, but most nights find the Israels home alone watching late-night comedy reruns.
They rarely bicker—even when it comes to naming their offspring. A girl will be Molly; a boy will be called Moe, after Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. "I'm serious," says Neal, "but Amy's mother said, 'This is a name, not a joke,' so we said, 'You don't like Moe, how about Shemp?' " Heckerling is not quite as poised for parenthood as her husband. "I hate pain," she laments. Adds Israel, "I never wanted to have a kid before, I was so obsessed with my career. I wasn't ready to give up my own childlikeness."
Israel was raised in Manhattan, where, he says, he always wanted to be a doctor, but his mother insisted he try acting. His late father acted on The Jackie Gleason Show. Neal came to Hollywood by way of Hofstra University, avant-garde New York theater and six mellow months in a Northern California commune. After directing commercials he took on a CBS promotion job, which he loathed, so he wrote comedy specials after hours for Steve Martin, Paul Williams and others. His first feature film, Tunnelvision, was released in 1976 and is revered by cultists for its irreverent look at the future of television. It was followed by 1979's Americathon, an ill-fated comedy that thrust him back to writing for the next four years.
The daughter of a CPA, Heckerling was drawn to James Cagney movies. Sobbing through his death scene in Angels With Dirty Faces, Amy caught her mother's attention. "She told me it was only a movie, and you don't die in movies," says Heckerling in a Bronx accent as thick as tapioca, "so that sounded like a great thing to go into." At New York University her student films won prizes, and as part of her graduate work at the American Film Institute in 1974, Heckerling directed a short, Getting It Over With, about a teenager anxious to lose her virginity. That film helped get her a directing deal with MGM, which collapsed during a 1980 actors' strike. A year later she signed on with Universal to direct Fast Times.
With three new comedies in release within four months of one another, Heckerling and Israel are keeping pace in their Hollywood orbit. "We're very stubborn about making our marriage and careers work simultaneously," says Neal. He is currently writing Kids on the Hill, a comedy about Washington congressional pages. "Most of my ideas come from real life," he says, "things that happen to other people or that I read about in magazines." A recent article on Cal Tech practical jokers led to Israel's screenplay Real Geniuses, due out this summer. Heckerling is developing two projects and awaiting the September birth of their own hot property—Molly, Moe or will it be Shemp? "We both feel the kid should instantly be doing commercials," says Neal. "We're already talking about auditioning for Pampers. Of course," he adds after a pause, "it would serve us both right if the kid had no sense of humor."