When I read that director/screen writer John Hughes died on Thursday, I thought of a lot of things: his seminal 1980s movies “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”; how those movies taught me about love and not worrying about fitting in; and how he didn’t worry about fitting in on the Hollywood scene and basically retreated from the public eye and the persona he never wanted to live up to.
But mostly I thought about the time in 1997 when I somehow managed to get the rarely interviewed, publicity-shy director on the phone to talk about a little-known indie movie he wrote called “Reach the Rock.”
The ostensible reason I finagled the talk was because I was a fan of a label run by his son, John Hughes III, Hefty Records, which put out the soundtrack. When I asked John the younger if he could get his dad on the phone to talk to me about the movie, I figured the answer would be no. But one day, to my surprise, the director called me up and we spoke for more than an hour about his movies, his abiding love of music, the all-important teenage ritual of moviegoing and just about anything else I could think of to keep him talking.
The following are some highlights from the interview, which have never printed before.
Hughes said it was music that inspired him to write the script for “Reach the Rock,” a film about a smalltown troublemaker who leaves home after his best friend dies during a night of drinking and comes back years later to face his demons. The soundtrack was put together by Tortoise’s John McEntire and it features a number of Chicago’s then-leading lights of avante-garde indie rock.
“My son had been listening to a lot of Chicago music — Tortoise, Shellac, the Sea and Cake — and I wrote the script to that music,” he said. “I’m from Chicago, I live in Chicago and I wanted very much for the music in Chicago to succeed. It made sense to me to use local music, and I wanted a lot of instrumental music, but it’s hard to find instrumental music for films that has any integrity.”
Hughes said there is something about the emotion in instrumental music that has a way of moving the moviegoer. And, besides, the man who helped make the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds superstars among his fans, said, “You don’t want to hear another love song. I’m sure when I listen to Tortoise I’m hearing something different than someone else. It’s so powerful and moving.”
He said he loved writing to the band’s twisty, dub-influenced music and that throughout his career he’d always used music as a cue for his scripts, typically writing to a particular album or song.
“Every time I put that music on, it reminds me emotionally where I was in the script,” he explained. “I usually listen to surf music, not much instrumental music, and when I was younger I listened to jazz. I used to write to the Clash — [albums like] Give Em’ Enough Rope — and early on, a lot of reggae.” He professed to being a “music snob” who refused to listen to top 40 when he was younger, and to getting copies of England’s Melody Maker magazine so he could look at the import charts and send away for records that none of his peers knew about.
“In the ’70s I was dying,” he said. “I couldn’t stand hippie music … all those people running around in their overalls, disco was horrendous, so I was listening to classical music, Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams,” he said, describing how he discovered legendary Chicago indie record store Wax Trax, where he first picked up albums by Elvis Costello. On a trip to England, he discovered punk bands like the Stranglers, the Buzzcocks and the Clash. For him, it was like finding the Beatles.
A true music geek, he then got into pioneering electronic acts like Kraftwerk, Neu and Can. “I used to judge the quality of music by whether I could make a 90-minute cassette and not repeat any artists,” he said. He knew what he liked and he used to buy albums based on who the producer was, but realizing he didn’t have an ear for music, he found his true calling. “The only reason I got into movies was because I had no music talent,” he admitted.
Hughes was particularly taken with the Scottish band Simple Minds, whose “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” was the anthem of “The Breakfast Club,” and for him, an antidote to the bland corporate rock by bands like Toto that he couldn’t stand.
“In ‘The Breakfast Club,’ I played the Simple Minds song three times, with three mixes — the demo, an instrumental and a vocal mix at the end,” he said. “You had a raw sound on the demo, then it went into a finished instrumental track and then we played it at the end. People get used to music by hearing it repetitively. You play it three times, so by the end of the movie they will get it. And it was a hit, which was really fun for me — to make a hit of a band, that I gave a platform to a band that didn’t have one before.”
He was proud of the doors he opened for Simple Minds, as well as other acts, like new wave English act Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, whose “If You Leave” was the key track in “Pretty In Pink.” For Hughes, the idea at the time of getting a big band that already had a hit on the charts was exactly the wrong way to do things.
“It was backwards,” he said. “I let the movies sell records. The best sounds a kid will get is in a movie theater, with huge speakers, turned up loud. I always mix my music really loud. I don’t care if you don’t hear all the dialogue. The audience are not idiots. So you miss a word, punch it through, push the bass through and get a real high end and put the voices in the mid-range!”
With Hefty Records, Hughes said his son was having the music career he never did, and it made him proud. Though he is credited with making some of the all-time classic modern teen movies, Hughes blanched at the notion that he was a pioneer of the genre, pointing to such cheeseball films as 1982′s “Porky’s” as predecessors of his work.
“It always starts with the cheesy things, because the movies are one of the few places a teenager can go sit by themselves or with friends and not have to deal with their parents,” he said. “It’s a big part of the social experience.” Lamenting the rash of copycat teen-slasher flicks at the time, he praised smarter fare like “Rushmore” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” saying that as a “geezer” he had already seen the cycle of teen movies and compared the glut of same-y flicks to the flood of copycat bands that followed in the wake of Nirvana. “They were all imitators,” he said. “Every bass player took off his shirt and put his left foot forward and his right one back and they all sounded the same.” But when his son played him the music of Tortoise and some other experimental Chicago bands, he got interested in music again and started going out to clubs.
One of the true pleasures of the interview, though, was when Hughes talked about how the movie studio “butchered” his beloved “Sixteen Candles” over a dispute concerning the royalties they had to pay for music on the VHS cassette version. He bemoaned losing the music of favorite acts like the Specials and the English Beat, and being forced to use sounds-alikes or alternative tracks. “The only place you could hear the music was on the [film] print,” he said.
Surprisingly, Hughes said he didn’t really care what happened to his movies after he finished them. “The first ‘Breakfast Club’ cut was two hours and 45 minutes,” he said. “You couldn’t reproduce that now. It was a huge script and I had to cut it down to 90 minutes.” Whole scenes had to be taken out and Hughes still seemed steamed about the then-edict that teen movies had to have nudity in them or teenage boys wouldn’t show up to the theater. “How will we accomplish that in a movie about five kids in a library?” he said. “If you look at ‘Sixteen Candles,’ it had those standard elements to it — you had to have a party scene, a shower scene and you had to find ways to fit them in without destroying the intent of the movie.”
Refusing to cave, Hughes said he added a “ridiculous” scene to “The Breakfast Club” that took place in a swimming pool with an underground window in which Principal Vernon watches an underwater ballet featuring a topless female gym teacher. “It was designed not to work,” he said joyfully. “The film ended, [the studio executives] stood up and didn’t say a word. I said, ‘I think they don’t like it.’ The producer said, ‘It’s a piece of s—. It’s horrible. It’s just a bunch of kids in school talking.’ They thought it would be ‘Animal House’ meets ‘My Dinner With Andre.’ The put it out in February, which is an awful month [for films], and it was a hit right away. It made $50 million in four weeks and Simple Minds went to #1.”
And, not surprisingly, it was that #1 hit for Simple Minds that seemed to make Hughes the proudest.