'Reality' bites back

First-time director Ben Stiller, the son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, understands the existential qualities of directing a movie about misdirected twentysomethings in a world run by baby boomers.

"It's kind of like riding the wave when you're surfing," Mr. Stiller says. "You don't really have control of it. You just try to stay on the surfboard and hope you don't get wiped out.


The 26-year-old Mr. Stiller is the director of "Reality Bites," a film in which he also takes third billing to Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke.

One Hollywood screenwriter describes the film -- written by 23-year-old Helen Childress -- as "something to help you get in touch with your inner adolescent. We're all past the inner child at this point."


"Reality Bites" will be called "the twentyish 'Big Chill,' " and not entirely by accident. It was produced by Danny DeVito's Jersey Films for $11.5 million and overseen by Jersey executives Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg, who produced "The Big Chill" (1983).

Mr. Shamberg wanted to make another one of what he calls "a slice of life movie, like 'St. Elmo's Fire' and 'The Breakfast Club.' They come along every four years or so. But the studio system isn't in touch with this generation. We needed a director who was -- and who's funny."

Enter Mr. Stiller.

"When you're a first-time director, you really don't have any clout, and the star of the movie has much more power than you in terms of say-so," Mr. Stiller said. "You have to try to keep control of your film but at the same time acknowledge the realities of the business."

Reality, the denial and recognition thereof, is the villain in "Reality Bites." Its victims are college graduates whose days of future promise are over.

Winona Ryder plays the valedictorian of her class, who winds up as a saleswoman at The Gap.

"We missed the boom times of the '50s," whines one character, "the idealism of the '60s, the decadence of the '70s and the greed of the '80s -- and now we have to pay everyone back! We're the Reparation Generation!"

Even with his famous parents, Mr. Stiller knows a little about disillusionment. He's tried acting in several films, wrote for "Saturday Night Live," then wrote and starred in a comedy ensemble TV show on Fox, "The Ben Stiller Show."


The show won an Emmy but was canceled after one season.

"The backdrop of the movie is a world where you go to college and you think, if you do well, there'll be a job out there waiting for you," Mr. Stiller says, smiling. "That's not the way the world is anymore."

Ms. Sher laughs when she remembers Ms. Ryder's comments on getting the script.

" 'I want to get out of my corset,' she said, referring to 'Dracula,' 'The Age of Innocence' and the upcoming 'House of the Spirits.' She hasn't played anyone contemporary since 'Heathers.' "

To Mr. Stiller and 22-year-old Ethan Hawke, "Reality Bites" is just a story that reflects some of the difficulties faced by their peers -- not the definitive word on their generation.

Mr. Hawke, who's appeared in heroic roles in "Dead Poets Society" (1989) and "Alive" (1993), plays a cynical cigarette-puffing college grad. He himself is not so cynical.


"It's very dangerous to start making broad statements about my generation and who we are, because we aren't anything yet," he pronounces. "All that's happening is there's a group of people coming of age at the same time, and they're trying to process what's happening around them.

"Everybody in this culture is so prematurely nostalgic. They want everything to have a label and to say, 'This is what it is.' "

Mr. Hawke was drawn to "Reality Bites" because it's a comedy and he's been steeped in drama. The other thing he gets to do is sing in the movie (on a soundtrack with songs by the Juliana Hatfield 3, Lenny Kravitz, World Party and Dinosaur Jr.).

Mr. Hawke's character is a musician who plays in clubs. He recorded a song he wrote called "I'm Nothing" and a Violent Femmes tune called "Add It Up."

Mr. Shamberg says Mr. Hawke is such a surprisingly good singer, RCA has offered him a record contract.

Ms. Ryder lives up to her reputation for being press-shy, announcing she doesn't want to be interviewed about the movie. Pressed, she says she liked the script because it's a lot lighter than her last film ("House of the Spirits" starring Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep).


Her character in the film makes a video documentary about her friends' lives, only to have it butchered by an MTV-type producer from New York, played by Mr. Stiller.

So Mr. Stiller gets to take a jab at TV producers, something he does with glee after getting canceled by Fox.