Written by Alice Byrd (with additional edits by Noel Manning)
John Hughes understands the teenage experience in a way that most adults do not. He remembered what high school truly felt like – not this romanticized version pre-teens are fed about “finding yourself” and “preparing for college.” He understands the awkward, the cringe-worthy, the world-is-ending moments that every teenager goes through at least three times a day from the ninth grade to the twelfth grade. Hughes’ unique perspective allowed him to make movies that captured this flawlessly; films such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Sixteen Candles are now classic films that defy age and capture exactly what it is to be a teenager.
Nothing describes him better than a quote of his own: “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.” This too was true in his own life, as he disappeared from the world of film in the early nineties, never to direct again before his death in 2009. He directed his last film, Curly Sue, in 1991. There wasn’t any obvious reason for Hughes’ directorial stasis. It’s not that he was blacklisted in Hollywood or that his movies weren’t making money. He simply became comfortable, after a series of successful screenplays-turned-movies and thought perhaps that, “He’d had his say, and it was time for others to have theirs.”
Although he was born in Lansing, Michigan, in 1950, Hughes would later move to Northbrook, Illinois with his family. He attended Glenbrook North High, which would serve as the basis of inspiration for many of his popular films. Hughes dropped out of the University of Arizona after some time and sold jokes to comedians for a living. This experience got him a job as an advertising copywriter with Needham, Harper, and Steers in Chicago. He would then move to Leo Burnett Worldwide, where he was responsible for the Edge “Credit Card Shaving Test” ad campaign. He also worked closely on the Virginia Slims account, which brought him to the Phillip Morris headquarters in New York. This gave him proximity to the National Lampoon magazine offices, where he would kick start his career with one simple story. Hughes has almost no formal film school education, but one thing was for sure – the man could write a good screenplay.
It all began with “Vacation ’58,” the story about family trips from his childhood that snagged him a job at National Lampoon Magazine. That story would later serve as the basis for 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation – the first of many cult classics that Hughes would produce. His directorial debut came a year later, in 1984, with Sixteen Candles and thanks to its success, landed a contract with Paramount. The rest was history. Hughes went on to direct The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, just to name a few. In 1987, he directed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, as well as Uncle Buck, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, Flubber, and Maid in Manhattan. When Hughes wasn’t directing is was writing. He wrote screenplays for such hits as Mr. Mom (1983), Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Home Alone (1990), Career Opportunities (1990) Baby’s Day Out (1994), and 101 Dalmatians (1996).
While many directors draw inspiration from other filmmakers, Hughes instead was inspired by his own experience, as well as the experiences of his favorite actors and actresses – people like Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall. These two in particular show up repeatedly in his films.
Hughes certainly took the atypical road to filmmaking. He was an excellent writer, with a knack for making people laugh through realistic dialogue and relatable situations. It’s no wonder his films became so popular, because those things translate well to the silver screen. Audiences enjoy relatability; Hughes primarily wrote screenplays about the most relatable thing of them all – the American teenager. While he did direct other kinds of films, these teen comedies were the ones that established him on the Hollywood cinema scene.
Messages Through Characters and Music
“Life moves pretty fast,” according to Ferris Bueller, and that couldn’t be more true. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is all about stopping to look around and appreciate the life you live, rather than staying wrapped up in your day-to-day responsibilities. Ferris (Matthew Broderick), joined by his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), take a “sick day” and reflect on the importance of living life to the fullest.
Hughes appreciated finding interesting and unique characters to become the host for his stories. Many times viewers will find his characters stepping outside of their comfort zones, or being thrown (sometimes literally) into the mix of a chaos that could kill the ordinary human (or sometimes the characters may wish to be dead). Hughes’ films in many way seem driven by the situation, and that could be argued, but upon closer examination, one may find the characters driving the story, or at the very least making the story more interesting and compelling.
While many of his films don’t rely solely on musical score in the sense we’d discover with a Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter film, music certainly plays an important part. It aids in character development, which can be difficult for many filmmakers to do well. His selections of music also complement storyline development, and Hughes believes that a strong soundtrack certainly plays a significant role in creating the mood needed for audiences. So, what exactly is his approach to music and score? Well, John Hughes is known for creating films that serve as a companion for best-selling music soundtracks. His trademark of utilizing popular songs and artists in his films provided an avenue for numerous number one songs and soundtracks, and a launching pad for fame for several musical artists (throughout the 80s in particular). Hughes believed that the music should represent the characters and the situations, and sometimes you need to get artists to write original theme songs (with lyrics) in order for that to happen well. Hughes wanted to have a soundtrack that when listened to would offer a mental reminder of the experiences audiences have with the films (and vice versa).
The Intersection of Story and Character Dialogue (and experiences)
Hughes is also the master of weaving together storylines and character interactions in a way that they are set off like dominoes when things start to happen. That’s a large part of the lasting magic of his films; he offers characters with relatable problems and situations. No matter if it be a family Christmas Vacation with crazy relatives, discovering you’re going to be a parent (She’s Having a Baby), or dealing with the loss of a job and changing your career path (Mr. Mom), Hughes tried to bring light-heartedness and fun to normal situations –while also nearly always offering messages through the humor. His films become a commentary of life and life experiences, and challenge audience members to ask the question: “How would I react if that happened to me?”
He understood the teenager, but he also could relate the challenges of adulthood. Hughes explored the roles of individuals within society and the expectations associated with that. Many of his works shine a light on stereotypes (sometimes as a reminder of who we really are at the core), while other occasions he breaks those walls down. His characters almost always discover something about themselves (and others) by the story’s wrap. That’s why the stereotypes can play such an important component within his stories. The Breakfast Club for example wants to be about breaking down stereotypes and embracing everyone for who they are. It wants to be about understanding that everyone has their own problems and realizing that those problems may be more similar to our own than we think. It asks, very plainly, “why are we the way that we are?” The truth is, nobody knows – not even fictional characters.
The biggest testament to Hughes’ success isn’t the dazzling cinematography – sure, he offers visually sound films, but there isn’t anything mind blowing about them (normally). Although he was a master of the wide shot and natural lighting to set mood and scene, it’s really the character dialogue that is the standout in his films. The exchanges and interactions between different characters are so natural and so brilliant that the dialogue becomes an element that keeps his films fresh. Sure, some of the catchphrases and sayings are a little outdated, but that adds to the nostalgia factor.
The Write Stuff
According to a Vanity Fair interview with his sons, Hughes left behind a ton of material: “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…”
It’s clear that he was a man who loved to write and observe. It’s clear that he was a man with many ideas competing for space in his head, and it’s clear that there probably wasn’t enough paper in the world to put down every idea he had. Hughes was a writer at heart, not a director or an editor, and that is what makes his films so strong. The dialogue, the words, contain the magic – not the cinematography. He wasn’t a visionary or a genius when it came to filmmaking itself. Technically, he knew how to go about making a film and turning his screenplay into a perceived reality. He wasn’t the same kind of director as Spielberg or Scorsese, but nobody needed him to be.
It’s easy to talk about talent with film directors because all of the “famous” directors have something special that they bring to a film. Whether it’s a creative use of camera angles, unique lighting or composition, and even how the score is included, they brought a technical genius to the project that Hughes just didn’t have in the same way. He brought the vision to the table in terms of writing and detailed characterization, which other directors often rely on other people for. Hughes knew exactly how these characters were supposed to look and act, so his influence comes in the form of these incredibly real, dynamic characters that make his movies more timeless than ones that rely on the strength of the director rather than the strength of the screenplay.
The Final Words
Hughes wasn’t a technically trained director. He didn’t attend a formal film school nor had he much experience with film in general. Hughes was a words guy, not a film guy, at the end of the day.
Hughes didn’t make movies about war or social justice, poverty or wealth – he made movies with life lessons (and life questions) and within that complexity lies a shared experience that audiences can relate to. Everyone was sixteen once. Everyone agonized over prom and parties, obsessed over music and fashion. And somehow, Hughes, a middle-aged man, was able to bring that experience to the silver screen.
His thoughts, his words, and the universal meanings still matter today. In The Breakfast Club, Andrew shared this statement that reflects all of us in one way or another (even if we don’ admit it),” “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
True… so true.
Byrd, A. (2016). Bueller, birthdays, and breakfast: An analysis of John Hughes (1216). Gardner-Webb.