Premise: (from Black List) The story of writer/director John Hughes, whose emotionally honest high school movies helped to define American culture in the 1980s–but who, at the very height of his success, abruptly abandoned filmmaking for reasons that have never been fully explained.
About: It’s back to the most recent Black List with today’s script, Hughes, written by Andrew Rothschild. Rothschild has been working his way up the ladder, writing a lot of short films and most recently developed the series “Zac and Mia,” about two cancer patient who fall for one another that streams on Verizon’s streaming service, Go90. Hughes received 13 votes on the 2017 Black List.
Writer: Andrew Rothschild
Details: 119 pages
Today’s script is about John Hughes, the legendary 80s writer-director who disappeared from Hollywood without so much as a goodbye note. How big of a deal was Hughes? I’ll let the title card at the opening of the script tell you…
“In the 1980s, John Hughes wrote, produced, and/or directed nine films, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Together, those films comprise one of the most successful single-decade bodies of work in cinema history.”
As tired as I am of writer biopics, I’ll never tire of John Hughes. I think his story is fascinating. I love how he built his screenwriting model on advertising. Obscenely simple premises that are easy to market. I love how he moved teen flicks out of the ridiculous (Porky’s) and into reality. I loved how much fun he had with dialogue. And I’m as curious as anyone why he threw it all away. Or ran away.
Today’s script attempts to answer that question and does so controversially. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill writer biopic. It’s at times surprising, weird, even uncomfortable. However you want to categorize it, it’s different. And “different” is a dying art when it comes to this genre.
It’s 2001 and John Hughes is being interviewed by Elliot Gibbs, an eccentric Southerner who’s doing a profile in Premiere magazine on John’s son’s first film. Hughes thinks this will be a fluff interview where he can shower his son with compliments. But Gibbs has an ulterior motive. He wants to know why Hughes left Hollywood.
Hughes catches on quickly and tells Gibbs to leave. But Gibbs drops a bomb on him. He’s doing an unauthorized biography on Hughes. He threatens Hughes to either tell his story or let it be told for him. Hughes threatens to sue for slander but learns Gibbs has a legit shadow source. Hughes sets out to find who that source is.
We hop back in time to when John was 16 in the 60s and when he fell in love with a popular red-headed girl named Tiffany. Unfortunately, John was a geek, so while the two experienced a couple of great nights together, she eventually moved back to her own kind, leaving John broken.
Flashforward a couple of decades and John is a hot writer who wants to make his first movie, Sixteen Candles. One of the first things we learn about John is that he was intensely difficult to work with. The studio wanted to cast a star in the lead role. But John wanted a nobody actress who he’d never even seen act (he’d only seen her headshot). That actress was a teenaged Molly Ringwald. We see Molly come in to audition only for John to hand her the role to not just that movie, but “the next five movies” John was doing. A confused Molly agrees, but even at that young age knows something is off. Who gives five movies to an actress he’s never seen act??
Turns out John was less interested in making movies than he was hanging out with his actors and having fun. His sets were long drawn out improv sessions filled with goofs and gaffs. In addition to this, John was drawn to Molly. And the crux of Gibbs’ book seems to imply that there was more that meets the eye when it came to their relationship. Once John realizes that it’s this salacious story Gibbs is after, he curses him out, claiming none of it is true. But that’s not what Gibbs’s source says.
Which leads us to our third act, where John finally figures out who’s been feeding Gibbs this information. It is a stunning betrayal, but not an unexpected one. The revelation forces John to face his biggest flaw, the fact that he never wanted to grow up, and that once Hollywood made him, there was no reason left to stay.
Whenever you write a biopic that starts in the present day, you need to identify a framing device. A framing device is the story that sends you back into the past to tell your protagonists’s story. One of the most popular framing devices occurs in The Princess Bride, where to get to the story, a grandfather must read his grandson a book.
Most writers don’t think the framing device is important. But I think the more clever the framing device, the more horsepower your story will have. And this one is clever. A mysterious source close to our hero is selling secrets and Hughes has to figure out who it is. This had me just as interested in the present-day storyline as Hughes’ past. And that’s the way you want it. If all your framing device is doing is providing exposition, those sections will be snore chores.
As for the rest of this script, I don’t know what to make of it. I’m glad it didn’t go the way I expected it to (Ferris Bueller isn’t riding shotgun with Old John Hughes wherever he goes, giving him life advice). But it’s a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. I got my darkness. I got to peak under the hood of Cameron’s Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider. But maybe I didn’t like what I saw.
The story uses John Hughes’ obsession with Molly Ringwald to drive home his Peter Pan syndrome. His movie productions were basically an opportunity to experience all the fun he never got to experience in high school. The relationship between Hughes and Ringwald gets uncomfortable at times. The script always walks a tightrope with it, never committing to the idea that anything happened, but regularly implying it could have. And while that implication made for some solid dramatic conflict within the movie-making sequences, there was this innate feeling that you wished it wasn’t there.
Also, the pervasive thought with John Hughes leaving Hollywood is that Hollywood was too tough for him. That it beat him up and spit him out. But “Hughes” flips that idea on its head and says that maybe it was the other way around. According to Rothschild, Hughes could be a tyrant, taking advantage of his power to play by his own set of rules. It wasn’t uncommon for him to do 50 takes, carelessly burning studio money, simply because he was having fun hanging out with his actors. And we all know that once those number 1 box office weekends stop, studios are a lot less tolerant of that behavior.
Look, I don’t know how much of this is true. The script starts out by saying, “What follows is speculation.” So I’m not going to treat it as gospel. But from a storytelling point-of-view, this unexpected take on a Hollywood legend kept me interested.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I still think the John Hughes model can work in 2018. Find a high school concept and create a very simple container for it. With The Breakfast Club, it was one day in detention. With Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it was one day ditching school. There’s something about a tight time frame coupled with the unique potency of being a teenager that will always work as long as you don’t screw it up. Man, this is making me want to go write one of these scripts right now!