Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary writer, director and producer John Hughes in the first of a two-part feature...
Tired of their infantile portrayal in the movies, Chicago-based filmmaker John Hughes became the voice of a generation of teenagers by treating them like adults.
“I was kind of quiet,” recalled the director of his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. “I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly girls and old people. There weren't any boys my age, so I spent a lot of time by myself, imagining things. And every time we would get established somewhere, we would move. Life just started to get good in seventh grade, and then we moved to Chicago. I ended up in a really big high school, and I didn't know anybody. And then Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home came out and really changed me. Thursday I was one person, and Friday I was another. My heroes were Dylan, John Lennon and Picasso, because they each moved their particular medium forward, and when they got to the point where they were comfortable, they always moved on. I liked them at a time when I was in a pretty conventional high school, where the measure of your popularity was athletic ability. And I'm not athletic - I've always hated team sports.”
Oddly, enough the creator of such adolescent benchmarks as Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) was unsentimental about his student days at Glenbrook North. "High school was not this key point in my life," remarked John Hughes. "It wasn’t traumatic. Basically, it was over real quick." When pushed to describe himself when he was the age of his film characters, Hughes responded, “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!” The moviemaker went on to add, "People ask me, ‘Were you the geek?’ No, I wasn’t. ‘So which one were you?’ I don’t get it. Who was Alfred Hitchcock in his movies? Janet Leigh? Did anyone even ask him? But I get asked, so I make up an answer."
After graduating, John Hughes attended art school at the University of Arizona; he did not stay there long as the undergrad discovered another passion which caused him to trade in his paint brush – writing and mailing unsolicited jokes to comedians. "I'd start out with Rodney Dangerfield, then move down to Norm Crosby," he stated. The experience proved to be so enjoyable that when the aspiring humorist returned to Chicago he talked himself into a job at DDB Needham Worldwide, and married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Ludwig. In the span of seven years the advertising wunderkind went from being an ad copywriter at Needham to becoming the creative director of the Leo Burnett agency at the age of 27. “Advertising was fairly simple work,” the moviemaker fondly recollected, “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.”
Even with his success, Hughes felt like something was amiss in his life. "I thought,” he related, “what if I'm 65 and retired with all my stocks, 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.'" With the support of his wife, the young advertising executive went to work for the National Lampoon magazine. Upon reflecting about his dramatic career decision, the director replied, "It was real hard to leave. I had a kid and another one on the way. I was rising, doing great, but I just had to try this, and I needed primary access to my time. I couldn't bring myself to screw the agency by working on their time, so I took a severe cut in pay and gave myself three years to make it. I figured, in three years, if I blew it completely, I could still go beg for my old job back."
Good fortune arrived with the box office hit Animal House (1978), which suddenly made National Lampoon writers a hot commodity in Hollywood. John Hughes was signed to a film development deal with Paramount. Unlike his time in the advertising industry, success did not come quickly to the rookie screenwriter. Hughes wrote episodes for the promptly cancelled television version of Animal House; he also collaborated on a Jaws sequel, satirically titled Jaws: 3, People: 0, and The History of Ohio from the Beginning of Time to the End of the Universe, neither of them would make it to the big screen.
The bad luck ended in 1983 when John Hughes wrote National Lampoon’s Vacation, which starred Chevy Chase as the clueless father and husband who takes his family on a disastrous summer holiday. "That was how my family vacationed, tons of kids in the car, things going wrong," said the filmmaker. "These are just simple truths about people and families. I happen to go for the simplest, most ordinary things. The extraordinary doesn't interest me. I'm not interested in psychotics. I'm interested in the person you don't expect to have a story. I like Mr. Everyman." He explained further his inspiration for the film, “In Vacation, I was actually deconstructing Disney. I used to watch The Mickey Mouse Club, those obnoxious, spoiled Mouseketeers you just wanted to beat the tar out of." As Hughes recalled it, "They could do anything! Disneyland after hours? Whatever you want! They'd wear these horse things, and they'd give away giant Tootsie Rolls. My grandmother was diabetic; there was a fear of sugar in my house. I wanted one of those goddamn Tootsie Rolls, I wanted to dance with that horse for a while, I wanted to go to Disneyland. I never got there as a kid and knew I never would."
The other movie written by him that year was about an unemployed dad who gets to look after his offspring while his wife works; the experience of having the script taken out of his control by 20th Century Fox caused John Hughes to become embittered with the Hollywood system. “Mr. Mom was pretty badly butchered,” he bitterly remarked. “I just got raped on the project. It is, in fact, the story of me and my two children. I did the first draft in a day and a half, one sitting.”
Both National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom proved to be commercial triumphs. So much so that Universal signed John Hughes to a three-year, $30 million deal which allowed him to direct his next two scripts - Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club which made actress Molly Ringwald a star, and introduced movie audiences to the fictional suburban town of Shermer, Illinois.
Read John Hughes' original Vacation story here, or watch a tribute film to commemorate his 1991 Producer of the Year Award from the National Association of Movie Theater Owners.
Continue to part two.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.