After a wildly prolific decade of screenwriting and directing that made him the king of teen comedy, John Hughes receded from the cinematic landscape, his legend preserved by the classic 80s trilogy of Sixteen Candles,The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Following Hughes’s sudden death, at age 59, last summer, the author delves into his intense connections and sudden breaks with his Brat Pack actors, as well as the essential anomaly of his brief Hollywood reign.
John Hughes (in white pants) with the cast of The Breakfast Club: Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, and Ally Sheedy.
John Hughes never stopped writing. He was notorious for this trait, especially in the 1980s, when he churned out screenplays faster than Hollywood could make them into movies. The script for Sixteen Candles came forth in a two-day burst during the 1983 preparations for The Breakfast Club, so impressing his studio overseers that it jumped the line to become Hughes’s directorial debut, in 1984. By 1987, the year of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Hughes had already written and directed the “teen trilogy” for which he would be most celebrated—Sixteen Candles,The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—as well as a lesser teen comedy, Weird Science, and the movie that would actually come after Planes, Trains & Automobiles on the release schedule, the expressly post-teen She’s Having a Baby. Somewhere in this time, he had also managed to write a further two teen pictures, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, that were off-loaded to another director.
Writing was, for Hughes, not so much a profession as a condition of life. The thoughts that germinated in his brain took a direct path to his hands, which filled notebooks, floppy disks, and hard drives with screenplays, stories, sketches, and jokes. When he wasn’t writing creatively, he was writing about how much writing he was doing. A spiral-bound logbook from 1985 finds Hughes keeping track of his progress on Ferris Bueller. The basic story line, he notes, was developed on February 25. It was successfully pitched the following day. And then he was off: “2-26 Night only 10 pages … 2-27 26 pages … 2-28 19 pages … 3-1 9 pages … 3-2 20 pages … 3-3 24 pages.” Wham-bam, script done. All in one week.
A box of demo tapes and mix tapes that Hughes gathered while deciding which music to use in his films in the 1980s. The tapes pictured here include temp scores (selections of existing recorded music used by directors to convey what they want in the final score), submissions from bands, and personal mix tapes of various genres that Hughes used to generate ideas for music cues.
In recent years, as he withdrew from filmmaking and ceased to maintain any sort of public profile, an air of mystery came to surround Hughes. He had been such a force; what had happened to him? He last directed a movie in 1991—the forgettable Curly Sue—and by the dawn of this century he was no longer sending new screenplays to the studios, though any studio would have been glad to have him.
Yet, in his absence, Hughes’s cultural stock only appreciated. His best movies, the teen trilogy in particular, transcended their origins as light 1980s entertainments to become, first, lodestars for such developing talents as Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson, and then, as these pictures proved their durability on TV broadcasts and DVD, outright classics. It was remarkable enough that a baby-boomer born squarely in the middle of the 20th century had somehow laid claim to the title of Teen Laureate of the 1980s; more remarkable still was that his movies turned out to be a renewable resource, with a reach far beyond the generation for which they were originally intended.
So when Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack while out walking in New York City last August, at only 59 years of age, it wasn’t just the 25th-reunion crowd that fell into mourning and remembrance but nearly the whole of movie-watching America. Duly and fondly recalled were the tragicomic romantic trials of the coltish young Molly Ringwald; the jittery patter of gangly Anthony Michael Hall; the stalking menace and flared nostrils of moody Judd Nelson; and the fictional community that their characters inhabited, Shermer, Illinois, which was at once an Everytown for every teen and an explicit homage to Hughes’s home turf, the North Shore suburbs above Chicago. And again the question arose: What had happened to Hughes—where had he gone, and what had he been up to?
Two pages from one of Hughes’s Moleskine pocket notebooks, from 2006.
The answer, to some degree, lay in the wisdom of Ferris Bueller, who, as played by Matthew Broderick, delivered the most epigrammatic of Hughes-isms: “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
At some point, Hughes stopped and looked around, and he realized that he didn’t want to make movies anymore. He wanted to be at liberty to spend as much time with his family as he pleased, to work the farm he owned 75 miles northwest of Chicago, and to exult in the resolutely uncoastal ethos of his beloved Midwest. And by 1990, with the release of his highest-grossing movie, the Macaulay Culkin sado-slapstick comedy Home Alone, which Hughes wrote and produced but did not direct, he had the means to put Hollywood and the movies behind him.
For all his success in pictures, Hughes’s directing years turned out to be an aberration in his life—a shortish stretch that required him to do uncharacteristic things like be in L.A. and keep the company of actors. The one normal aspect of this period for him, consistent with the rest of his life, was the compulsive writing. It was a habit that dated back, appropriately enough, to his teen days. “You know that assignment you always get in high school when you’re reading Walden, to keep a journal?” he said in a 1988 interview. “Well, I just kept doing that.”
The shoulder bag used by Hughes during the filming of Sixteen Candles. When the production ended, this bag was boxed up with several personal items related to the shoot and remained untouched until family members came upon it in August 2009. The bag’s contents were perfectly intact, down to the script pages from the final scene of the shoot, a newspaper, train and airline ticket stubs, and a package of Life Savers.
Last autumn, I met with Hughes’s two sons, John III and James, to discuss their father, his movies, and his post-filmmaking afterlife. We convened at a hotel in Lake Forest, Illinois, not far from their parents’ home. The brothers, born in 1976 and 1979, respectively, explained that their mother, Nancy, was still too grief-stricken to join us, though she had given them her blessing to talk. John III is a musician and producer who owns an independent record label in Chicago. He is married and the father of three young children. James, who until recently was based in New York, is a writer and the managing editor of an independent cultural magazine called Stop Smiling. He is married and became a father for the first time last June. It was during Hughes’s second trip to visit his new grandson that he suffered his fatal heart attack. James and his wife are now in the process of relocating to Chicago.
Among the first things John and James showed me was a little red Moleskine pocket notebook, three and a half by five and a half inches in size. Each page within was covered in their father’s neat, extraordinarily tiny handwriting—the cursive equivalent of three-point type. In his later years, Hughes never went anywhere without one of these notebooks on his person, the better to record anything that popped into his head at any time he wished: observations, incidents, editorials, inventories, theories, vignettes, overheard conversations. Sometimes his thoughts erupted into drawings: densely crosshatched caricatures of real-life figures such as Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, or wiggy flights of fancy that variously evoked the styles of Saul Steinberg, Gahan Wilson, and R. Crumb.
“This is extremely representative of what he was like in recent years,” James Hughes said. “Where you have the Smythson of Bond Street attaché case with multiple Moleskines within, and the Pentel fine-art pens he used.”
John and James have found, so far, more than 300 pocket notebooks among their father’s effects (some Moleskines, others Smythsons), and these are but a drop in the bucket of what Hughes left behind: archival papers, old correspondence, personal journals, thick binders containing works in progress, and gigabyte upon gigabyte of computer files.
Going through all this material, said John III, has been “as comforting as it is horribly sad.” The brothers had also discovered a cache of letters that Hughes had prepared for each of his four grandchildren, to be opened and read when they’d reached certain ages. Even James’s little boy, eight weeks old at the time of his grandfather’s death, has a stack of letters awaiting him.
The canvas backing from Hughes’s director’s chair from the set of Sixteen Candles, signed by members of the crew and cast.
Hughes, his sons say, reveled in grandfatherhood; he relished the concept of growing old and shifting into the role of eccentric paterfamilias. Whereas, in the 80s, he had hewed faithfully to the fashion conventions of the time, collecting expensive basketball shoes and wearing his hair in a rococo power mullet, in his last decade he pointedly dressed in a suit nearly every day, favoring Brooks Brothers and the custom tailor Henry Poole of Savile Row. “I think it bothered him that people his same age, of similar means, were wearing sweat suits and Twittering,” said James. Though he still kept up with new music—Hughes had been a legendarily voracious record buyer in the old days, admired by rock snobs for the acuity of his soundtrack picks—he now viewed it as his primary duty to be, in his younger son’s words, “the curious, engaged grandpa in the seersucker.”
The creative writing he continued to do was, therefore, not necessarily for public consumption. In recent years, he worked in a variety of formats: memoir, short fiction, and, yes, screenplays. But he was content, John III said, to “pump the stuff out for his own satisfaction, comfortable with it never going anywhere.” He’d had his say, and it was time for others to have theirs.
This mind-set was, as contradictory as it may sound, consistent with the one that led Hughes to become the sympathetic voice of teendom in the 1980s. One of his major hobbyhorses—“a constant topic,” in James’s words—was the attention-hogging egotism of his own generation, the baby-boomers. In his view, the boomers did not know when to step aside and cede the stage. “He was kind of upset not to see more people of his generation passing the baton,” John III said. “He wanted to give youth a voice.”
A sample of one of the young Hughes’s pitches while working as a freelance joke-writer, pulled from his personal files. This particular set of one-liners was sent to Phyllis Diller in 1972, when Hughes was 22. Also stashed in the file were photocopies of the checks Hughes received from Diller ($10 per approved gag).
Avatars and Surrogates
Hughes’s own youth has been the subject of much speculation. He was so expert at delineating archetypes—“You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” as Anthony Michael Hall’s voice-over letter to the mean principal goes in The Breakfast Club—that viewers have naturally been moved to wonder which type represented the author himself.
In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times six days after Hughes’s death, Molly Ringwald speculated that she and Hall, both of whom appeared in three Hughes-written teen films, were his avatars, “acting out the different parts of his life—improving upon it, perhaps.” Ringwald specialized in playing the sensitive, conflicted, sexually naïve, deeply romantic ingénue who kept posters of alt-rock bands on her walls. Hall was impressively resourceful in playing three distinct iterations of the common geek. So that would have made the teenage Hughes a kind of geek romantic outsider, right?
But then, the DVD commentary for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off features a telling interview from 1986, the year of the film’s release, in which Hughes describes the dynamic among the consummate winner Ferris, his beautiful girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), and Ferris’s sad-sack best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), as “this classic third-wheel situation, which I was always in.” You expect Hughes, whose lanky build and soft features weren’t a world away from Ruck’s, to cop to being the third wheel. But what he proceeds to say is “I always had my girlfriend … and some guy in the backseat saying [dopey voice], ‘What’re we doin’?’” Wait! Hughes was the popular kid?
A business card for Del Griffith, the John Candy character in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, that was designed by Aaron Draplin, of Draplin Design Co., in 2008. (Draplin, the creative force behind the popular Field Notes brand of memo books, was a late-in-life friend of Hughes’s.) A small run of cards was printed up, intended for circulation among Hughes’s friends and (somewhat subversively) in places where business cards are collected, such as community bulletin boards and the “goldfish bowls” that cafés and small businesses put out.
“When you know a little bit about John’s history with Nancy—they met in high school. He was a penguin that mated for life, and so was Ferris,” says Broderick, who, naturally, thinks his character is the most ready stand-in for Hughes.
The truth is that Ringwald, Hall, and Broderick—and Ruck—were all Hughes’s surrogates: refractions and distillations of various parts of a very complex character. Throughout his life, Hughes was at once an old kid and a young fogy. He was a child of the 60s who got married while barely out of his teens; a stolid adman who mischievously and semi-surreptitiously moonlighted as a humor writer; and a homebody midwestern dad who effectively created the Hollywood clique that came to be known as the Brat Pack.
To read more of David Kamp’s Article Head over to Vanity Fair