Unsung Auteurs: Helen Childress

September 14, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Helen Childress, who penned the 1994 cult favourite Reality Bites.

With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’ll be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters for the next weeks in the Unsung Auteurs column.

When trying to isolate cinematic documents from the 1990s that are well and truly of their time, it is very, very difficult to go past 1994’s zeitgeist-forming, era-defining, pop culture-inflected, Gen X flagbearer Reality Bites…unless you want to take more of a left turn and cite Richard Linklater’s ingenious Slacker instead. Now when delineating the reasons for Reality Bites’ success and importance, most would point to Ben Stiller’s smart direction, Ethan Hawke’s textbook portrayal of slacker cool, Janeane Garofalo’s bone-dry sass, or Winona Ryder’s then unchallenged position as American cinema’s ultimate It Girl.

The name less frequently bandied about (of course) is that of debut screenwriter Helen Childress, who drew the script from her own life. The same age as her characters, Childress truly knew of what she wrote, and her foot in the door came courtesy of her script entitled Blue By You, which eventually found its way to producer Michael Shamberg (The Big Chill), who was impressed by the writer’s awareness of Gen X tropes. Though Childress had initially dreamed of becoming a poet, she was on her way to a career in screenwriting.

Helen Childress doing press on the release of Reality Bites.

“Michael Shamberg wanted a movie of people in their 20’s,” Childress has explained of the film. “At the time I was, like, 20. I said, ‘Okay, here’s what my life is like.’ I had just been turned down for a job at Wendy’s. I’m pretty proud of that. I had trouble finding a job and most of my friends did too. The film was so personal to me. It’s not like I researched anything. I honestly just wrote about myself and my experiences and my friends’ experiences. I actually lived off my Dad’s gas card for a couple months. It’s funny when people say the film is so commercial. God, my life is commercial?”

Reality Bites was in development for three years (during which Childress worked in a cinema box office, amongst other things) before successful comic actor Ben Stiller finally stepped in, and really got the project going, opting to make his directorial debut with Childress’ snappy, honest, funny, snarky, and zestfully youthful script. The film follows musician slacker Troy (Ethan Hawke in the role that would ultimately stick to him like glue, binding him down as a grungy bohemian for the rest of his career) and flashy yuppie Michael (the very funny Ben Stiller) who both carry a torch for Winona Ryder’s Leilana, a pithy, acerbic production assistant on a lame daytime talk show. The wonderful Janeane Garofalo was a comic revelation in her role as Ryder’s acidically flip pal, while Steve Zahn is great as a sensitive young guy coming to terms with his sexuality. Reality Bites is sharp and funny, and (whether you like it or not) the dancing-in-the-711-to-“My Sharona”-scene is now a truly iconic moment in nineties cinema.

Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn in Reality Bites.

Though Reality Bites was a relative success and an instant calling card, Helen Childress remained something of a perennially slack outsider, never really fully willing to get on board the Hollywood screenwriting merry-go-round. “I really had no interest in screenwriting,” Childress told Entertainment Weekly after the release of the film. “I wanted to be a poet. But poets don’t make any money. I know this sounds totally naive and idealistic, but I would rather get a job at Kinko’s and write poetry than be in a position where I feel like I’m Willy Loman.”

Despite an obvious gift for dialogue and characterisation, Helen Childress never seemed to get the opportunities she deserved post-Reality Bites. She created the TV series Model Woman in 2016, but it never really took off, though her other major screenwriting credit – Karen Moncreiff’s 2019 telemovie Escaping The Madhouse: The Nelly Bly Story – is a richly entertaining and well-imagined piece of work. Childress has since been writing for the TV series The Spanish Princess and Good Girls and, in a curious twist of events, is apparently on board for a currently-in-pre-production (and now obviously strike-halted) TV series revamp of Reality Bites, which will not include any of the other original cast and crew. Though the film’s aggressively laidback Troy might find that all a bit, well, uncool, we’ll be flicking it on.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Bill Lancaster, Lucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz Garbus, Victor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.