John Hughes – Interview

John Hughes

by William Ham

If you haven’t heard of Reach the Rock, you’re not alone. In fact, considering its short, unheralded existence, you may well be alone if you have. Directed by newcomer William Ryan, it’s a quiet, rather low-key (the less generous among us might call it “dull”) character study of an overgrown delinquent (played by Alessandro Nivoli, last seen in Face/Off), stuck in a dead-end Illinois town, who spends most of the picture’s 100 minutes breaking in and out of the town jail, breaking windows, and generally tormenting the slow-witted police sergeant who locked him up (William Sadler). Not exactly the stuff of blockbusters, and indeed, it died a quick and barely noticed death last year as Universal, struggling with some of the worst business/timing decisions in its history (the words Babe: Pig in the City will chase several key execs to their graves, no doubt), dumped it in a total of three theaters in three cities for one week for a total gross of $4,960. (I’ve had home movies that pulled in more than that.) As of this writing, it lies in studio limbo, awaiting its inevitable (and likely very quiet) arrival on home video and cable.

So why are we devoting four pages to it? We could say that it’s a worthy film that doesn’t deserve to pass forgotten, but nahh, let’s be straight: it’s because the dead-end Illinois town is a mythical burg known as Shermer, and, if you grew up young, confused, and full of nonsensical slang in the 1980s, you know the founding father of the town is one John Hughes, the man who best articulated the social stigmata of the misfit adolescent in the age of Chess King clothes and Keith Forsey-produced soundtrack records. After a series of phenomenally successful comedies that either a) dealt with the mundane miseries of youth, b) featured John Candy or, c) both, the demographic that made Hughes the Tycoon of Teen, as synonymous with his time as Phil Spector was with his, turned its back on the writer/director, and he contented himself in the nineties with a run of slap-schtick farces featuring younger and younger protagonists (a trend that thankfully ceased after Baby’s Day Out: God only knows where he would have gone from there –Wriggly Field! The wacky adventures of a misfit gang of Chicagoland spermatazoa!) and remakes of old Disney films (an ironic turn for a man who ended his most famous short story by shooting Walt Disney in the leg). Whether Reach the Rock heralds a return to his most famous territory or not remains to be seen, though dozens of young filmmakers are pledging their troth to the Hughes oeuvre (word has it that Kevin Smith’s forthcoming Dogma will send Jay and Silent Bob on an ill-fated pilgrimage to Shermer) and the next generation of Hughes boys are doing their part to keep Dad cool (the RtR soundtrack, on son John Hughes III’s Hefty Records and featuring Tortoise’s John McEntire and bands like Polvo and Poster Children, is by far the coolest collection of its stripe since Pretty in Pink – and no Nik Kershaw covers, either), but it hardly matters either way when one is granted an audience with the man who defined modern teen cinema in all its flawed, erratic, awkward glory. (And if there happen to be any twelve- or thirteen-year-olds out there named Duckie, Blaine or Farmer Ted, you now know who to blame.)

Reach the Rock is a very stark picture. Most of it takes place at night in a basically empty town, there’s only about a half-dozen characters in it, very little action – it certainly runs counter to what sells tickets in this day and age. Why did you take that tack?
John Hughes: I was just tired of the huge blockbuster effects movies. I always liked character stories best – put two or more people in a room and get them talking, that’s the whole reason I got into this in the first place. I’m not really a digital effects/sci-fi kinda guy; I respect that when it’s done well, but it’s not really my cup of tea as a filmmaker or a writer. If you look back at the films I’ve done, they take place over a maximum of three days and usually in a single setting. Even my road pictures are just get a couple of people in a car, then out of the car, into a room, and back in the car again.

It’s interesting to me that you’ve returned to Shermer after all these years, to find a much bleaker and less hopeful place than it was in the high school setting. Do you recognize the kind of character that Robin (Alessandro Nivoli) represents? Some part of yourself that never quite escaped, perhaps?
Not me so much as people I’ve known. It’s a situation a lot of us can understand: you leave high school very quickly, time passes, ten years later you remember it a little more fondly than it might warrant, so you go back to a reunion or something and look at the people you knew for this short time in a particular place, you see how some have changed, and some might not have changed at all.

Now this guy (Robin) – you can go to any town and find these guys who never got around to leaving town, you can find them at the same bar they were at five, ten years before. It’s a type I’m very familiar with from the community I moved to, on the North Shore of Chicago. There was a naval station in the town, so you had these base kids that would go to my school for a couple of years before they got transferred out. These were the real outcasts, fairly tough kids because of all they’ve had to put up with, completely outnumbered by the rich kids – it was a fairly affluent community, so you’d have these guys in the khaki pants and the Brooks Brothers shirts, if you were a cool guy you could carry your books in one hand. Well, I always preferred to hang out with the outcasts, ’cause they were cooler; they had better taste in music, for one thing, I guess because they had more time to develop one with the lack of social interaction they had!

Then there were a lot of farm kids, who wound up in town because of community expansion and businesses muscling the farms out, so they went from being rural communities to bedroom communities, and these people, the indigenous people if you will, wound up at the bottom of the social ladder because of it, lost in suburbia. John Bender was very much one of those characters. I think (Robin) is almost as if Bender had stayed with Claire at the end of The Breakfast Club and had never moved on. It’s the same with the locals in a lot of these resort towns: it’s interesting to see how these small communities really get co-opted by money, people who sweep in and say, “let’s bring all of our own kind of people, have our run of the town, and leave at the end of the summer.” It really changes the face of these towns, and constantly so. I’m from Detroit originally, a community that’s been basically the same since 1920, and to come into an area that changes so constantly like that, with the original people growing fewer and fewer, is kind of shocking.

The whole notion of Shermer came out of that heterogenous kind of society, very extreme – I mean, at one point I went from a school with 1100 students to one with thirty. I remember this one kid, an eighth-grader, who had his teeth rotted out. Eighth grade. It was like Deliverance. But then at the same time, you’d have the richest kid in town in your school as well, so even in this tiny set-up, you had both ends of the economic spectrum, real extremes. I’ve always wanted to write a history of Shermer, because it’d be kind of the history of postwar America. Haven’t got around to it yet, though.

And yet in a funny way it’s a place that so many of us think of fondly. My teen years were defined to some degree by your movies, and I think a lot of people my age and younger can say the same.
Well, it was a great time in my life too, and I’m grateful, ’cause it’s that audience that kept me in business all those years. The studios never perceived those films as hits – they’d always bring them out in February, which is when the studios usually dump the movies they have no confidence in. Of course, I was naive, I thought, “Fantastic! Right in the middle of that long stretch between Christmas and Spring Break, your coats are getting dirty, everything’s dark, dingy – what a great time for a movie!” Especially one that’s a little depressing. You see, one of the bits of wisdom I’ve picked up about adolescence is that joy and sorrow are equally pleasant to a teenager; those extreme states of mind are pretty cool whatever they are!

I think one of the reasons my movies have held up so well for as long as they have is that I’ve always tried to be true to my memories of the experience and show that on film. At the time I came along, Hollywood’s idea of teen movies meant there had to be a lot of nudity, usually involving boys in pursuit of sex, and pretty gross overall. Either that or a horror movie. And the last thing Hollywood wanted in their teen movies was teenagers! I mean, look at them – it was all 25-year-olds in those movies. When I did Sixteen Candles, all the extras, the kids on the bus and in the gym, they were all real freshmen boys and girls from the same high school. (Anthony) Michael Hall was a freshman, the sixteen-year-olds were actual sixteen-year-olds, except for Molly, who was a year younger. You may not realize it now, but it had never really happened before, for very simple reasons: it’s more expensive and harder to use kids. You only have four hours a day to shoot because of labor laws, but the results were worth it, I think.

Before you got into screenwriting, you were an editor at the National Lampoon for several years, and before that you were like the Kevin Bacon character in She’s Having a Baby – working in advertising, hoping to be one of the few to break out. That must have been quite the leap of faith.
No, the real leap of faith was going for the advertising job! I had never finished school, so I’d go into these agencies and they’d ask, “So, where’d you go?”, and I’d say, “Universityofarizona.” “Oh, really? What degree program did you do?” “Uh, didn’tgetthroughthere.” “Well, thanks very much for coming in!” But it looked really easy to do, advertising, so I put together this fake portfolio of stuff, they liked it, and I started free-lancing once I broke in. Advertising was fairly simple work, and I really just wanted a job where I could sit and write every day and not get fired for it like I had at other jobs, but it was fun. I liked it, riding in on a train every day, all the travel… I used to go to New York every Wednesday for six years, because I had a client there – it got so I knew every flight attendant on the Chicago/New York route – and I started hanging out at the Lampoon offices on Madison Avenue. This was right at the tail-end of the Doug Kenney era, Animal House was about to come out, P.J. O’Rourke was about to become editor-in-chief… I stuck around and finally, I made someone laugh and they decided to keep me.

Getting into the Lampoon was like a Boy Scout initiation or something – they’d be very cruel to you until you made someone laugh, then they welcomed you into the fold. As it turned out, my timing was perfect, because once Animal House came out in the summer of ’78, breaking all sorts of box-office records and so on, Hollywood, in their infinite wisdom, came knocking and gave every writer at the magazine a development deal, including myself. I looked at that, thought, “Hell, this is easy,” and flew out to Los Angeles and got four more development deals like that. Again, it’s Hollywood jumping on the hot property – tell them you just got a deal, they’ll want a part of you sight unseen. “We want to offer you a deal.” “Hey, great, I just got two this morning!” I went back home and there was a gigantic snowstorm in the winter of ’79, couldn’t leave the house for two weeks, so I just hunkered down and wrote. It was great, and I haven’t stopped since.

After the first couple of “adult” movies you wrote (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom), you seemed almost to stumble into the “teen-angst” genre at exactly the time we needed it. I’m amazed at how quickly you became synonymous with the form.
I had a very particular strategy for the timing of those movies, which I kind of had to educate the studios about. I told them, “I’m gonna grow an audience,” which they didn’t think I could do, but I did it – first of all, I tried to line up the release of each new movie with the video release of the previous one. That way, the first one might not do so well at the box-office, but people would become familiar with it by the time the second came out, and so on. That’s why my movies would come out every six months or so, and if you look, you’ll see that the grosses steadily increased with each one. So I grew an audience, and I tried to be as true to that audience as possible, play to what they like and appreciate.

You know how, when you’re a kid, you love it when you get mail? You feel important, like someone’s paying attention to you. Well, we used to do that – every time someone wrote a fan letter to one of our cast members, every piece of mail that came in, we’d put their names on our mailing list and mail out huge packages every time a new movie was about to come out, kind of like what Disney does now – posters, rolls of stickers, all sorts of neat stuff. In fact, the only official soundtrack that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ever had was for the mailing list. A&M was very angry with me over that; they begged me to put one out, but I thought “who’d want all of these songs?” I mean, would kids want “Dankeschöen” and “Oh Yeah” on the same record? They probably already had “Twist and Shout,” or their parents did, and to put all of those together with the more contemporary stuff, like the (English) Beat – I just didn’t think anybody would like it. But I did put together a seven-inch of the two songs I owned the rights to – “Big City” on one side, and… I forget, one of the other English bands on the soundtrack… and sent that to the mailing list. By ’86, ’87, it was costing us $30 a piece to mail out 100,000 packages. But it was a labor of love. I cared about my audience and I cared about these movies.

You may have noticed I never sequeled them, nor did I want TV shows made from any of them. The only sequels I was involved in were under duress – I was only involved in the third Vacation movie, for example…

But you’re credited as co-writing the second one.
Only because I created the characters. I didn’t write any of it.

I must admit I’m relieved to hear you say that.
But the studio came to me and begged for another one, and I only agreed because I had a good story to base it on (“Christmas ’59”). But those movies have become little more than Chevy Chase vehicles at this stage. I didn’t even know about Vegas Vacation until I read about it in the trades! Ever since it came out, people have been coming up to me with disappointed looks on their faces, asking “What were you thinking?” “I had nothing to do with it! I swear!” Same with the TV shows. I tried to talk them out of doing Ferris Bueller as a series – talking to the camera is real hard, a lot harder than it looks, and I knew it’d never work, but they didn’t listen. After that, they left me in the dark on these – Uncle Buck I knew nothing about until the producers asked me if they could use some of the exterior footage, establishing shots from the movie. That’s when I got to put my foot down – “No fuckin’ way! I’m a DGA member! Go get your own!” Then there was the time I was sitting at home, watching TV, and this commercial comes on for this new show. I’m watching it, thinking “Jesus, they ripped me off. This looks just like Weird Science.” Imagine my surprise…

You haven’t done a “teen” movie in a decade or so, but those really seem to be the films that are nearest to your heart, not to mention the audience’s.
That was just a great moment in time for all of us. Apart from the real pleasure I had in just making up stuff, I thought it was great to have something for the young audience. I love writing young characters, and everybody can relate to a good teen movie; it’s more immediate, honest, and there’s a sense of group dynamics in that setting that I prefer. A good cast, of course, helps – I’m not a big fan of “movie stars,” people with entourages whose handlers come up to you saying “we have to change the script,” but then again, it’s been about ten years since I’ve worked with actors who knew their lines! And by that I mean that they’ve studied the scripts for a while and internalized them to the point that they can play around a little, improvise on set and make their own imprint on the material. Michael Hall was very good at that, as was John Candy, they didn’t care if they screwed things up a little because they’d usually screw them up in interesting ways. That said, I like young actors because they’re so unspoiled, not like some of those actors who are about half an hour into their fifteen minutes of fame by the time they get to me.

I get the impression that you’re not too fond of the Hollywood way of doing things.
I’m not, you’re right. That’s why I’ve stayed in Chicago, ’cause I never quite fit into L.A. It’s easier to maintain a degree of innocence here, you’re not playing the herd so much. Even my biggest successes, like Home Alone, cut against the grain somewhat. Around the end of the eighties, the studios wanted me to do something commercial – my old demographics had dwindled, there wasn’t really an audience for the kind of stuff I used to do at that point, I’ve never worked overseas or worked with a really big star, Matthew Broderick was about as big as it got. They forced me to bow down a little bit. So I said, “Okay, I’ll write a movie with a nine-year-old as the star, that’ll show ’em.” (laughs) Little did I know…

I love some of the little details that get into your movies that show up on screen for a couple of seconds and then are gone. One of my favorites is the shot of the Shermer sign in Weird Science with the town motto – “One of America’s Towns.”
I’ve always loved the movies where there are layers of different things going on at once, different things going on in the background while the main action’s playing up front.

For example?
Well, was there a scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles in the bus station where…

Wait a second, don’t you remember?
I don’t remember if it made it into the released version! There are three-hour cuts of both Planes… and The Breakfast Club, both of which have things I hope will surface one of these days. Anyway, in Planes… there’s a scene at the bus station, Steve Martin and John Candy are in the forefront of the scene, but behind them and to the side a little bit, there’s a guy with a shoebox in his lap with all these white mice in it, coming in and going out quickly, just scurrying around for no good reason except that I thought it’d be funny, maybe you’re watching it for the third or fourth time on cable somewhere, your eye wanders away from the main activity in the scene, and… “Are those mice?” (laughs) I must say I love that.

Before we wrap this up, I have a question about something that’s been bugging me for fifteen years now…
“What’s the punchline?”

To Bender’s “naked blonde/salami/poodle” joke? No, I know better. Same movie, though. At the end of The Breakfast Club, the criminal gets the prom queen, the jock gets the basket case, and the brain gets… to write the paper? What’s up with that?
Well, Michael Hall and I talked about this pretty extensively while we were making the movie. Other than the obvious technical matter, which is that there were five people in the film so somebody had to get left alone at the end, we decided that Brian was smart enough to know that wasn’t on his agenda. He was the intellectual superior of the others, and it was enough for him to be accepted by them, that they’d think enough of him to let him represent the group on paper. I think Brian was intellectually mature enough to realize that he wasn’t socially mature enough to handle a relationship anyway.

That sounds like a massive rationalization to me, which my inner 15-year-old geek tells me would be just about right.
Sure! That’s where that whole “girlfriend in Canada” thing comes from, which I used twice. “Oh, you wouldn’t know her, she’s in Canada.” That way you get to dodge the issue and still impress people – ooh, Canada, exotic. I like to keep that wavelength open, to stay in touch with the way kids think and feel, which is why I love talking about those movies, they’re so near and dear to me. It’s like being at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving – you can put your elbows on it, you don’t have to talk politics… no matter how old I get, there’s always a part of me that’s sitting there.