It seemed especially cruel when John Hughes passed away from a heart attack in 2009 at just 59 years old. The man who immortalized adolescence on screen throughout the 1980s was gone entirely too soon. Tributes poured in and testimonies were given as to the late screenwriter/director/producer’s legacy and contributions through time-tested work like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club (which celebrated its 30th anniversary this past February), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Home Alone.
Books, too, were cannily released on the coattails of all this reflection, re-examining general Brat Pack craziness and generational nostalgia. But longtime Hollywood Reporter movie-industry reporter and critic and current film-studies professor Kirk Honeycutt‘s newly published retrospective, John Hughes: A Life In Film does something a bit different. Rather than examining Hughes’s place in the broader cultural milieu or conducting an unauthorized census into Hughes’s life story, Honeycutt takes us through a chronological tour of the Chicago native’s two decades in show business. Starting with his transition from writing ad copy to joining National Lampoon’s ranks and concluding on the bittersweet note of his somewhat infamous late-90s flops (Flubber, Baby’s Day Out), Honeycutt also interviews collaborators including Matthew Broderick and Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutch (Hughes wrote the screenplay). The end result makes no bones about Hughes’s erratic output and reputedly aloof personality, but also offers insight into the creative and logistical process that went into his body of work.
Honeycutt spoke with us recently from a film festival in California, and expanded on Hughes’s lasting appeal.
Was it always your attention to focus more on Hughes’s career arc than entire life story?
When the Hughes family, as they do with everybody, rejected any involvement in the project, I couldn’t get too much into his personal life. They say they’re going to do something of their own, so we’ll see if they do. As a critic, I was more interested in the film side, anyway. The more I learn about his writing efforts, the more I stand in awe, because I just don’t know how he could sit down and power-write for hours at a time, and then turn right around and do it again.
How much of your intention was to help cement his place in the pantheon of “important” film-makers, and not just as the teen-movie director?
He doesn’t need me to help his legacy, but I did want to look at that legacy and try and figure out, “What was it that made him so successful?” The critics didn’t take him very seriously, and [Hollywood] took him seriously only in terms of the kind of extraordinary money that could be made. I wanted to figure out what it was that made him connect with so many people over the span of three generations. The younger kids I teach know his films extremely well. They’ve never heard of [Barry Levinson’s] Diner and other films from that era, but they know [Hughes’s] films. I don’t know where he fits in any canon of film-making. You’re not gonna put him up at the Prometheus level of the John Fords and Alfred Hitchcocks, but he certainly, within a certain niche, had an extraordinary ability to reach out to people and entertain them and make them think about things.
How do you think he did it?
I think a lot of it was instinct. It didn’t sound like he sat down and thought about these things for any length of time. He just sat down and wrote. He had where he wanted to start a film and knew where he wanted to end the film. But he certainly wrote in the classic structure of screenwriting. He somehow knew how to do this from watching movies, and as an ad man, he knew how to sell ideas.
Your reappraisals of his most beloved films aren’t all glowing. Are you worried about tarnishing peoples’ sentimental attachment to them?
Well, let’s see what happens, I don’t know. I’ve been a critic all my life, so it’s long-ingrained. Maybe it’ll spur people to re-examine these films and see for themselves. I expect it to be a wide-ranging reaction, so maybe you’re right: I will get boos and hisses. I look forward to the dialogue.
The book also shares honest insights about Hughes’s divisiveness. Were you surprised with the candor of film producer Chris Columbus’ foreword?
No, they coincided with just about everyone who worked with him in Hollywood. He had difficulty in his relationships with other adults. That was a theme of almost any interview you would have. One or two people put the blame on themselves by having caused some problems. I heard rumors, but I didn’t put those in the book, because those were just rumors that the person themselves couldn’t confirm.
I thought Chris dealt with it in a very gentle and maybe even kindly way. This is a man he would have liked to continue making movies with, but he wanted to live in San Francisco. He didn’t want to live in Chicago. I think John Hughes was always looking for somebody to mentor, to bring along, and every time the person didn’t quite live up to the expectations, he’d cut them off.
Has doing the book altered your impression of him in any way?
I admire what he was able to do much more. I don’t think I dwelled on negative things that much. They were there, and they were impediments to the film-making, but he overcame them in many instances and produced wonderful works.
What’s the most valuable lesson from his career?
They always say, “Dying is hard but comedy is harder,” and I don’t know of anyone whose had such a successful run of so many films in the area of comedy as he has. If I were to devise a curriculum, it would be something about how he was able to make comedy work for so long in such a timeless way. Some other screwball comedies are very much a fixture of their era. The Neil Simon comedies were pretty much a fixture of their era. [Hughes] somehow, while having this mythical universe in his head, created comedy that still resonates with people.
What was your biggest revelation about him?
I do think the key relationship in his life was with John Candy. I think when people say John Hughes, they associate The Breakfast Club actors with him first, but I think John Candy was the key collaborator. And the more I dug into it, the more I was convinced of that. I think John’s death was a turning point in [his] life. It was the beginning of the slow fade to black of John Hughes. It reminded him of his own mortality and how we all have a limited time on this earth and, “Who on this earth is most important to you?” And for [Hughes], it was very simple. It was his wife and two boys.
So is it unfair to characterize him as an eccentric?
He was no more difficult than a lot of people with half his talent, and he was butting heads with people who were being stupid in many cases. I remember [Ferris Bueller actor] Jeffrey Jones saying, “You wouldn’t believe the amount of problems he was having with these studio types and producers who felt it should be this instead of that and maybe we can save some money here.”
In a sense, he wasn’t all that grumpy and eccentric given the lunatics he was battling. Hollywood is full of super-egos and people who are so wrong-headed. He was right most of the time. It wasn’t like he was battling for cockamamie ideas. He was battling for solid story points and production values. So I understand why he got tired of battling these fools all the time with the amount of money he was making for them. He was just a Midwest guy trying to be logical, and they were being illogical.
And how would you ultimately distill the essence of his timelessness?
He wrote about teens as if they were adults. He connected to them in a way no one has before or since. Their problems, he treated with seriousness. Their angst, he treated with seriousness. He didn’t write down to them. He wrote to their level. He was someone in his thirties who still remembered what it was like to be 17. He remembered how parents and teachers feel like creatures from another land. He understood that who you go to the prom with was crucially important for a couple months in your life. He created an adult world in which the kids were the adults. I think that will play forever.