The Case of John Hughes

Good morning/afternoon/evening, class! Thank you for joining us once again for Back-to-School September. Last week, we gave you a crash course in three of our favorite school-themed films. This week, we’re talking about a man that revolutionized the teen comedy genre, connecting with an entire generation of high-schoolers in a way no filmmaker had ever done before or since.

In the 1980’s, up-and-coming filmmakers weren’t jumping at the chance to make teen comedies. Along came John Hughes, a man that saw the current youth films as a means of entertaining adults much more than children. This was a man that never forgot what it was like to be a kid, to be treated as if your opinions are invalid. He remembered the complex social structure of high school, and what it meant to be an outsider. Hughes applied all of this to his films, becoming one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood. Of course, Hughes wouldn’t focus solely on the teen comedy, but it was this part of his career for which he would be most remembered. 

John Hughes is known as the king of the coming-of-age comedy. Even still today you will find teenagers watching his films. No matter how dated the movies become, there still exists a sense of timelessness to these films about teen life. 

Hughes was an autobiographical writer, imbuing his own life experiences into every story brought to the screen. Because of this, each one of his films was deeply human in a way that audiences everywhere could understand. So, come learn with us as we explore the life of this man that brought us so many wonderful movie memories!

FAMILY/YOUNG LIFE

  • John Hughes was born on February 18, 1950 in Lansing, Michigan. He was the second oldest child and the only son. His father was a salesman, and would sometimes struggle to support the family. The Hughes family often found themselves to be a lower-class family among wealthy suburban communities. As a result, class issues would one day be prominent plot points in his films. 
  • The Hughes family moved around often throughout John’s childhood, but stayed most prominently in Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit. Hughes was a constant observer of his suburban life. He would carry around a notebook and fill it with notes on the people he met, places he saw, and jokes that popped into his mind. He was rarely found without a notebook on his person, and he would use his childhood experiences to help him craft some of his most iconic stories. When John was 13, the family moved to Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago. This and Grosse Pointe would become the basis for Shermer, Illinois, the fictional town in which many of his films were based. John Hughes’ films had their own universe, with characters that John had imagined, but never even put in his films. He knew who lived where, who were friends, and who were related. 
    • In the beginning of The Breakfast Club, one character recites the zip code as 60062. This is the actual zip code for Northbrook, IL. However, as explained in Kirk Honeycutt’s book John Hughes: A Life in Film, the town was originally known as Shermerville, and one of its most prominent roads is named Shermer Road. 
    • Producers began to notice after working with John Hughes that most of the homes in his films had the same layout. Michelle Manning, who produced 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club, has said that they were very similar to the home Hughes lived in as a teen. 
  • Hughes was an unpopular teenager, who was considered a problem student and reportedly had a rocky relationship with his parents. He found escape in film, and solace in music. When he got into making movies, he was determined to get the music right. Music was a big part of his writing process, as he often blasted British rock music while crafting his stories. Tarquin Gotch, a frequent music supervisor for Hughes’ films, referred to him as a “modern Frank Capra.” Hughes’ films examined American life, and he wanted the actors to feel involved in the process.
  • After high school, John Hughes attended the University of Arizona but dropped out before graduating. He moved back home and married the love of his life, a woman named Nancy that he had met while in high school. He was only 20-years-old at the time, and the couple ended up living in his parents’ basement until Hughes began a career in advertising. Eventually, he would become the creative director at the Leo Burnett Company, but he never lost his ambition to become a writer. John started ghostwriting for a comic strip called, The Berrys. He started submitting jokes to comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. John also became a freelance writer for Playboy Magazine. On business trips to New York, Hughes would visit the offices of The National Lampoon for assignments. 
    • The National Lampoon seemed to be the perfect place for a young comedic writer. They allowed their contributors to have their own unique voices, and although the magazine was raunchy and hip, it relied on nostalgia to connect with its audience. John became a contributing editor until he was offered a full-time job. John accepted, but kept his other job in advertising. This meant he had to work nonstop, even sometimes catching flights to New York during the workweek. 
  • John kept up both careers until the famed blizzard of 1978 grounded him in his Chicago-area home with his wife and son. John spent those days writing and reflecting on his career. He had seen his fellow writers in advertising become frustrated with their work, losing track of what they wanted to be. When John later spoke of this time, he said, “What if I’m sixty-five and retired with all my stock, my profit-sharing, my money, and I’m sitting on the porch thinking I should have been a writer–I wonder if I could have done it?” So, Hughes quit his advertising job and took a big pay cut to work at The National Lampoon. He continued to write parodies, including issues about family holidays and vacations; stories that would eventually make it to the big screen. 

FIRST PROJECTS

  • Over the course of his career, John Hughes wrote 37 films, produced 23, and directed eight. The first film project he worked on was a Jaws parody called, Jaws 3, People 0. The project was eventually pulled by a Universal Studios executive. Hughes then worked on a screenplay for National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex, but its star, John Belushi, passed away suddenly just days before filming was set to begin. Hughes’ script was thrown out and the film was made by another studio. After that, there was Delta House, a TV spinoff of Animal House, but it only lasted one season. 
  • After attending a high school reunion, John Hughes penned a script that would become his first screen credit. It was a horror/sex comedy called, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion. The film holds a lot of the notes and character archetypes that would become familiar in his later films, but ultimately it was a box office failure. 
  • John continued to write, and struck up a friendship with a young producer named Lauren Shuler (who would one day be Lauren Shuler Donner, as she married Richard Donner!) Lauren had called John to pitch a story, and their friendship led to him presenting her with the pages of an unfinished screenplay based on his days as a househusband when his wife went out of town. Lauren loved the pages and wanted to make the film. Learning from his early experiences in film, John decided to complete the script before bringing it to a studio. He realized that if someone paid him before the script was done, he had less creative freedom. This was how he preferred to work for the rest of his career.
  • This film would become Mr. Mom, a fairly successful comedy starring Michael Keaton. However, John Hughes was fired as a screenwriter during the production process, and two uncredited writers polished the screenplay. The film was not what John Hughes and Lauren Shuler Donner wanted to make, and the experience might have planted the seeds for John Hughes’ famous distaste for Hollywood in the years to come. 
  • While writing for The National Lampoon, John Hughes published a story called Vacation ‘58, based on his childhood family vacations. It followed The Griswold Family and their ill-fated trip from Grosse Pointe, Michigan to Walt Disneyland in California. Marty Simmons, the owner of the Lampoon eventually shared the story with an executive from Warner Brothers, and soon the project was underway with John Hughes as the screenwriter. Because the studio wanted to draw in Saturday Night Live fans, they cast Caddyshack star Chevy Chase as the lead. Harold Ramis signed on to direct, and John adapted his screenplay to match Chase’s comedic delivery. The story stayed generally the same, but Hughes built on his younger characters, giving them more personality. The original ending didn’t do well with audiences, and Hughes was forced to do a rewrite where the family actually did arrive at their destination: Wally World. Because of the rewrite, comedian John Candy was added to the cast, playing a hilarious guard at the vacant park. Candy would become synonymous with John Hughes in later years, and the two were very close friends. The new ending did well, and Vacation was a hit. It essentially created a new genre of film, the family road trip. 
  • Now that Hughes had two major successes under his belt, it wasn’t hard for him to find screenwriting jobs. He quit his job at the Lampoon and was on his way to directing his first feature film. 

A FEW OF HIS MOST INFLUENTIAL MOVIES

  • John Hughes was a rare man in his field. He was a midwestern conservative, working amongst Hollywood liberals. He held a disdain for authority (something he picked up from his youth) and a distrust of Hollywood bigwigs. Instead of filming in Los Angeles like many other filmmakers, John liked to film in Chicago, away from the big studios. He hated studio notes and wanted freedom. A few of his films were filmed in the New Trier Township High School, an abandoned school! Ferris Bueler’s Day Off, Uncle Buck, and Home Alone were all shot here. Filming in the midwest also meant taking young actors away from their friends and the partying scene in California. But most of all, John Hughes was an autobiographical filmmaker. His stories took place in the midwest because that’s where he was from, and so that’s where they would be filmed. 

So let’s talk about some of John Hughes’ most influential films. We won’t have a chance to talk about all of them. So let us know if we missed your favorite or if you’d like us to cover any of these in a future episode!

  • SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984)
    • In the early 1980’s, one of Hollywood’s biggest agents was circulating a script for a teen comedy. Many studios were interested, but the major hang-up was that the screenwriter, John Hughes, wanted to direct the film as well. Producer Michelle Manning mentioned the screenplay while in a job interview with filmmaker Ted Tanen. Tanen liked giving first-time directors a chance, and was interested in the idea. Manning contacted Hughes, and they were able to strike a deal for Sixteen Candles. 
    • When the agency ICM first agreed to represent John Hughes, they gave him a batch of headshots for potential actors in his films. Hughes fixated on one photo in particular, and placed the photo over his workspace as he wrote Sixteen Candles. The photo was of Molly Ringwald, and in John’s mind, she had already been cast in the leading role. Hughes also decided that Anthony Michael Hall, who had appeared in Vacation should play the film’s famous geek character. 
    • Sixteen Candles relies heavily on high school tropes like the jock, the geek, the prom queen, and the wallflower. But, it unexpectedly turned the unspoken rule of the teen comedy on its head. Audiences were shocked and delighted when the quiet girl got the surprisingly sensitive jock at the end, instead of learning some kind of hard lesson. One of the film’s biggest surprises was Samantha’s (Molly Ringwald) touching conversation with her father, and the empathy that he shows his teenage daughter. 
    • This was Hughes’ breakout as a director and started his meteoric rise as the king of teen comedy. Of course, there are components in the film that do not pass the test of time. Featured prominently is a foreign exchange student that plays into hurtful stereotypes. It’s also hard for modern audiences to brush aside the casual attitude toward date rape, which seems to be prominent throughout the film.
  • THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985)
    • True to his style, he filmed this as well in small-town high schools, this time in Illinois. This forced the cast to become closer as there were not many entertainment options in town. The most common things they would do were to go to the Hughes home for dinner or go to see a blues band together.
    • Judd Nelson would stay in character as Bender, even after scenes were shot. This almost cost him the role as Hughes noticed that he would continue to treat Molly Ringwold terribly. Hughes felt responsible for her and therefore wanted Michelle Manning to fire him. It was worked out however when Manning discussed the issue with his manager/live-in girlfriend, Laurie Rodkin. After that it was never an issue again.
    • In order for Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez to understand the divisions between jocks and the outcasts, Hughes sent them back to high school. Nobody seemed to recognize Judd, but unfortunately for the experiment, Emilio was recognized almost immediately. 
    • As the set was being built, the cast began getting ready for rehearsals. John had a few different drafts of the script. After Emilio asked to see them, John brought all of them in for the cast to look through. Each actor read through them and picked out the pieces from each script that they felt connected with their characters. Hughes spent that night cutting and pasting those pieces together and presented a new script the very next morning. 
    • The film was actually shot in continuity, and the Principal was based on a real gym teacher of Hughes’s that did not like his attitude!
    • This film is what brought about the term “Brat Pack.” The term refers to teens that often appeared in multiple movies together in the 80’s. For example, Hughes knew after Sixteen Candles that he wanted Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald to be in this movie as well. The ensemble group of talented kids did not take kindly to the term and even stopped hanging out all the time because of it.
  • WEIRD SCIENCE (1985)
    • Directed and wrote
  • FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
    • Directed by and wrote
    • The screenplay was written in just seven days, though Hughes claimed he did it in four. Hughes was famous for writing his stories in short, manic bursts. 
    • The name Ferris Bueller came from Hughes’s long term friend Bert Bueller and the character of Sloane was based on his wife.
    • To help immerse the actors Hughes drove them around the Chicago town, showing them the sights and talking about his life as a high schooler. As he did this he put cassettes into the player with the songs that he intended to run throughout the movie.
    • When Broderick first met with Hughes Pretty in Pink was going to be released soon. As the pair walked and talked Hughes plastered Pretty in Pink stickers on every lamp post. He was brilliant at advertising. Hughes would pen a newsletter, and it would be mailed out to many fans of which he had a database from all the fan mail Hughes Entertainment received.
  • PRETTY IN PINK (1986)
    • Written by
    • John Hughes continued his reign as the teen comedy king with Pretty in Pink, another classic starring Molly Ringwald. It was named after a 1981 Psychedelic Furs song that Hughes liked, and even included in the film. In fact, Hughes selected about 90% of the film’s soundtrack. 
    • This movie continued to explore the difficulties of living in a working class family, surrounded by upper class peers. It also featured one of Hughes’ most iconic ‘80s characters, Duckie, played by Jon Cryer. 
    • Duckie was a classic Hughes geek, a guy that has everything going for him but doesn’t know it. According to Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald was uncertain of his taking the role, she reportedly wanted Robert Downey Junior to play the character. 
    • In the original ending, Ringwald’s character, Andie, ends up with Duckie. But, test audiences didn’t like this ending. So, the crew reshot the ending to have her character end up with Blane, the rich boy played by the dreamy Andrew McCarthy. There were many challenges to the reshoot, including the fact that Andrew McCarthy had shaved his head and had to wear a wig.  
  • PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)
    • Directed and wrote
    • This movie has become the perfect model for future buddy comedies. The two characters are forced together into situations where they must walk in the other’s shoes.
    • When Steve Martin read the screenplay and accepted the part, he noticed that it was a hefty 145 pages. The typical for a comedy would be about 90. When Martin asked what would be cut, Hughes looked at him quizzically and Martin realized that Hughes did not plan to cut a thing!
    • The movie, while only modestly successful at the time, became treasured by Hughes and many others. Roger Ebert even said in a tribute article that it is in his “Great Movie Collection.”
  • SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (1987)
    • Written by
  • NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989)
    • In 1988, John Hughes wrote and directed She’s Having a Baby, a deeply personal film and probably his most autobiographical. However, the film didn’t do very well, despite the star power of Kevin Bacon and Alec Baldwin. Some theorize that because this film didn’t find the same success as his other projects, John began moving away from personal stories for films. 
    • In 1989, two of Hughes’ films premiered. They were Uncle Buck and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Both did fairly well at the box office, with Christmas Vacation eventually becoming a holiday staple in many American households. Critics felt that the film lacked the magic of the original, as it had less of a cohesive plot and more of a string of hilarious holiday mishaps jumbled together in a film. This would be the final Vacation film written by John Hughes, though two more would be made–one in 1997 and 2015. 
  • HOME ALONE (1990)
    • After working with Macaulay Culkin in Uncle Buck, John Hughes thought it would be interesting to have a movie centered around a 9 year old. He had thoroughly enjoyed working with Macaulay after never having worked with that age group before.
    • Chris Columbus, who directed the film, expressed that he was afraid that nobody would give him another shot at directing after his recent flop Heartbreak Hotel. John Hughes, however, had faith in him and liked his style. Chris was originally supposed to direct the previous Christmas movie we just talked about but had difficulties with Chevy Chase. Chevy refused to take direction from him because he saw Chris as too new to know anything about directing properly. Hughes therefore brought Chris on to direct Home Alone! Since Chris was also a writer, the script went back and forth between the two until they felt it was ready. It was then pitched to Warner Brothers, who said that they would make it for the low budget of 10 million dollars. When they inevitably surpassed that budget (though not by much to 14.7 million), Warner Brothers shut down the project. We almost didn’t have this Christmas joy.
      • Luckily Hughes was behind the project as its writer and had secretly met with his friend Tom Jacobson at 20th Century Fox. When Tom and chairman Joe Roth heard the storyline, the 14.7 million dollar budget, and that Hughes was fighting with WB they said they would make it! All they had to do was wait for WB to officially pull the plug because legally they weren’t really supposed to know about the project while another studio owned it. Once the phone call came, those that knew about the switch had to feign sadness and fear before calling up 20th Century Fox to seamlessly continue the picture.
    • Chris Columbus said that John Hughes was a director’s dream, essentially staying offset except when John Candy arrived for his scenes. He was receptive to ideas, and allowed Columbus to add his own touch to the story, giving it more heart to balance out the slapstick humor.     
    • All the sets for the insides of the house were built in New Trier Township High School, including the scene when the house is flooding. The crew knew that the set would leak due to all the water, so they built it right in the school’s empty swimming pool!
    • Hughes’ close friend and colleague John Candy made an extended cameo in the film, appearing on set for 23 hours of shooting. He appeared in the film as a favor to Hughes, and was paid even less than the pizza delivery boy that appears in the early scenes of the film.  
    • Some believe this was John Hughes last greatest film, and in later years he would move away from autobiographical works and films focused on midwestern families. 
  • HONORABLE MENTIONS
    • Baby’s Day Out (1994)
    • Beethoven
    • Flubber
    • 101 Dalmatians

AWARDS

  • John Hughes was the epitome of a cult classic. He wasn’t universally loved in Hollywood, and held grudges that, as Molly Ringwald would later put it, “were almost supernatural things.” But, the man certainly had a following, and still does to this day. Despite connecting with and influencing generations, he didn’t win very many awards. 
  • In 2020, Hughes was posthumously inducted into the OFTA Hall of Fame. In 1991, he won the Showest award for Producer of the Year
  • On a more negative note, Hughes won two “Stinkers Bad Movie Awards.” One was “Worst Resurrection of a TV show” for Dennis the Menace. The other was “Worst screenplay for a film grossing more than 100 million” for Flubber

DEATH AND LEGACY

In August of 2009, John Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting family in New York. He was 59. The news of his sudden death shocked and saddened his collaborators, including the young actors that started their careers with Hughes. Hughes had continued to write until his death, with his last credit being Drillbit Taylor. At the 82nd Oscars, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Matthew Broderick, John Cryer, and Macaulay Culkin all paid tribute to John Hughes. This included a montage of his most well-known films, ending with a classic moment from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast; If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you might miss it.”

John Hughes was one of a kind. He didn’t do things the normal way, the popular way. In reality, Hughes was the outsider that he put on screen. He was a man that never forgot how it felt to be a teenager, with all the anxieties of life, but none of the respect of adulthood. He talked to his actors, young and old, as if they were his collaborators and not his employees. And because of this, he created art that resonated with millions of people.  

Not only did John Hughes give voice to the younger generations in his movies, he helped to launch the careers of so many others around him. John Hughes was funny and strange, intelligent and to some, frustrating. But, he made meaningful connections to audiences and his fellow filmmakers that would last a lifetime. In a foreword for Kurt Honeycutt’s book John Hughes a Life in Film, Chris Columbus wrote, “John’s films have inspired a few generations and they will continue to do so for many, many more decades. His work has profoundly changed millions of lives. I know that he profoundly changed mine. Without John, I may not still be directing today. I owe everything that’s happened in my cinematic life over the past twenty-five years to John Hughes.”

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