Each generation has its touchstones; shared experiences that help to define the profile of the generation. In the 20th century, movies have been one of the most immediately identifiable signposts. Teens of the ’50s might hearken back to Rebel Without a Cause or The Wild Ones , while those of the ’60s are apt to mention West Side Story or Easy Rider as pivotal moments. Being born in 1971, my generation’s key movie moments took place in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and can be best summed up in two phrases that will easily resonate with anyone of my age group: the Star Wars trilogy and John Hughes movies.
To my generation, Hughes is best known as the writer, producer, and/or director of a string of teen-oriented films from the early to mid-’80s, including The Breakfast Club , Sixteen Candles , and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off . Virtually all of my peers could identify with at least one of the characters in these movies, and could probably, if asked, recite any number of memorable bits of dialogue from the films. These movies were so resonant to my generation that it can be easy to forget that Hughes didn’t quit when the Brat Packers started growing up. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hughes broke into film through an editorship at National Lampoon . When Animal House (which began life as a story in Lampoon ) became a huge hit, Hollywood came a-callin’. A Hughes short story, “Vacation ’58,” became the basis for the phenomenally successful National Lampoon’s Vacation . The film launched both a franchise for star Chevy Chase and a new career for Hughes.
Hughes parlayed his success into more screenwriting jobs, including the hit Mr. Mom , as well as work as a script doctor on many early ’80s flicks. At the same time, the first big teen films, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Risky Business , became big hits. Sensing an opportunity, Hughes turned his talents toward the films that cemented him as an icon to a generation.
Hughes made his directoral debut in 1984, with one of his first teen scripts, Sixteen Candles . The film was a runaway smash, and led to a string of teen-oriented successes. It’s surprising to realize that this period in Hughes’ career only spanned four years. In that brief span. he released a six-pack of classics, four of which he directed. But by the time 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful hit the screen, Hughes notes, “the teen audience shrunk. There was a little bulge in the ’80s where there were enough kids to make a hit,” but the audience grew up, and Hughes moved on.
These things are always cyclical, though. “The teen audience is coming back now,” Hughes opines. “Everyone is chasing that audience now — there’s a tidal wave of teen films coming.” Hughes sees this as a great opportunity for young filmmakers to break in, as “the pictures are cheaper to make, they can be made for around $10-$12 million. It takes a lot less out of the system than the $100 million blockbusters, so young directors get a chance. You can’t get a big star for $12 million dollars. It brings pictures down in scale.”
Certainly, a lot of today’s young filmmakers must have grown up watching Hughes’ films, and I wondered if he’d noted an influence. “I haven’t seen a lot of them,” Hughes admits. “I’m not avoiding them, I just don’t watch many movies. I saw Rushmore , which I really liked. I couldn’t imagine smaller footsteps to follow in than mine.”
I brought up Kevin Smith, writer/director of Clerks and Chasing Amy , who has more than once mentioned Hughes as an influence, even going so far as to base his upcoming Dogma around a quest by his recurring characters, Jay and Silent Bob, to find Shermer, Illinois (a mythical Chicago suburb where many of Hughes’ teen films were set). “Someone mentioned that to me,” Hughes says. “I saw Clerks , and it made me a little jealous. I wanted to do something similar. I like how he stays in New Jersey and retains that regional flavor. I admire what he’s doing.”
Hughes’ mid-’80s teen output also had a profound impact on the music world. Many bands, such as Simple Minds and OMD, owe a great deal of their popularity to songs that appeared in Hughes’ films. For Hughes’ part, he reveals, “I just used what I was listening to at the time, bands I liked. It was my own personal taste.” Oddly, the success and influence of these soundtrack songs has spawned at least two tribute records in the last year, about which Hughes says he has “no opinion. It’s nice. I don’t like to get involved. It’s weird, it makes me feel like I should go sign autographs at boat shows or something.”
In the late ’80s, Hughes did a few films for grown-ups, including the memorable Planes, Trains, and Automobiles , before moving into his stock-in-trade for the last decade, family films. He launched the career of Macauley Culkin in the John Candy-starrer Uncle Buck , then shot the kid into the stratosphere with the blockbuster Home Alone in 1990. Since then, hardly a year has gone by without a Hughes-penned family smash, including Dennis the Menace , the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians , and Flubber .
Hughes most recent film, Reach the Rock , is a step away from the family films he’s been doing for the last decade. Hughes relates Reach the Rock to one of his best-loved ’80s films, by describing it as “what if [ The Breakfast Club ‘s] Bender had stayed with Claire?” In describing the protagonist, Robin, he says, “I’m sure someone at your high school stayed around town, and you could go to a local bar and find him. He never gets around to school, stays home, never really left high school. His rebellious streak isn’t so charming any more. He goes from being a rebel to being a loser, and he doesn’t know why. His high school sweetheart is leaving for good, and he has to face the fact that he wasted four years of his life waiting for a dream, waiting for her to rescue him. He doesn’t win, he just finally realizes he’s losing. The film only has six actors, and only five main players. It’s not a real cheerful ending. He’s not redeemed, he’s just informed.”
Another way that the film hearkens back to Hughes’ ’80s output is that the music once again plays an important part. This time, it’s Hughes’ son, John Hughes III, and his Chicago-based indie label, Hefty Records, putting together the music. “My son has always been around to give me a second opinion,” Hughes reveals. “He grew up around movies and scoring all the time, and has very good opinions. As he got into music, I turned to him for advice. As indie music becomes so important, you can’t run down to the record stores — they’re gone. You really have to search it out, and it’s become more difficult in the last 8-9 years. I wanted to break ground with this soundtrack. People use the soundtrack as a marketing tool, to the point that they advertise it — “featuring the music of Everclear” — as if that’s going to make people go to the film. It worked in the ’50s, but not now.”
Hughes wanted a “marriage of sound and movie.” To accomplish this, he and his son turned to John McEntire of Tortoise. “My son gave me Tortoise records, ” Hughes says. “They have a lot of mood, great tone. It sounds like what I’m writing. I asked John [Hughes III] to coordinate. Universal [the distribution company behind the film] didn’t want the soundtrack album because there are no vocals, so we released it on my son’s label. [Music is a] cruel business. If you don’t live in a major city, you hear what they want you to hear. It’s sad.”
Hughes is very happy with the results he got from McEntire. “Ten years ago,” he says, “I tried to get music that absolutely fit the characters. Would Molly Ringwald listen to this? [The score for Reach the Rock ] fits as well as anything I ever had. When you score with records, you have to hire someone to fill the spots between them. McEntire wrote a score that sounds like a record. It fits like a glove. It’s really exciting. I wish I had someone like him 15 years ago.” McEntire played all guitar, bass, and keyboard parts on the score himself, while the rest of the soundtrack was filled out by contributions from Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Bundy K. Brown, Polvo, and Dianogah.
Oddly, Hughes hasn’t directed since 1991’s Curly Sue , preferring to stick with writing and producing. When asked if he has plans to sit behind the camera again, Hughes replies “I would like to. I don’t like getting up early, and it takes a long time, but it’s different when I don’t direct. I do like working with actors, and editing. Shooting is a big social experience, but in the cutting room, you can do anything . Shooting is like gathering information, editing is more like writing.”
Whether Hughes directs again or not, though, his reputation is made. Despite Hollywood’s unpredictability, one thing seems almost certain: if John Hughes’ name is attached to a film, audiences will be watching.