This is not how I remember John Hughes. It’s a photo of us, along with his sons John and James, about to take an afternoon off to go deep sea fishing with some other guys on the Hughes Entertainment team. It was a rare excursion into the sunlight for a man who spent nearly all of his time in the 80’s, hunched over a computer or a typewriter, most often in the dark of the night, with an ever-present cigarette and gallons of coffee to rev his engine.
My most vivid memory of John is of him sitting in his office in Lake Forest, Illinois, script pages spread before him, typing at hyper-speed while occasionally jumping up to play a different song on his concert hall-quality sound system. We spent countless hours like that, with John creating one scene after another that would eventually make their way to film and into the cultural fabric of the times.
How did he do it? What was his secret? There were many – most notably his piercing intellect, his endless curiosity, and his ability to instantly locate the most hilarious aspect of a given situation. He was a force of nature when it came to writing. He seemed driven – in the three years I worked for him, he wrote, produced and/or directed some ten films. He referred to himself as General Motors with only three car dealerships to release his product.
I was VP of Development for his company. At any other production company, that title would mean breakfasts, lunches and dinners with other movie industry executives, agents, writers and wannabe writers. I would be reading coverage written by a slew of script analysts, always on the prowl for the Next Big Thing.
But at Hughes Entertainment, that job meant serving one writer – the only writer we needed. John’s output was prodigious, as anyone who bought a movie ticket in the 1980’s can attest. And it was a full-time job merely keeping up with him. Back in those days, it was awkward to merge scripts on a computer, so we resorted to cutting and pasting a patch of dialogue here, and a set piece there, then assembling them on the floor of John’s office until they made sense. Then the whole thing had to be organized and re-typed into yet another file. At times we juggled dozens of scripts – many of them in preparation for delivery to one studio or another.
Along the way, I learned quite a bit about John’s methodology. Before I get into that, I have to say: I’ve never come across another writer with the incredible gifts John possessed. I’ve read thousands of screenplays and I’ve written over forty of them myself. John’s dialogue and setups set a standard – and they did so not once or twice but again and again.
One of the secrets John shared with me was that he never began a script until he could see the movie poster in his mind. And being something of an artist, he would sometimes doodle the imagined poster in one of his ever-present notebooks to get a feel for how it would look.
This was vitally important to his overall approach to showbiz in general and to screenwriting specifically. John came from the world of advertising, where a single image can mean millions in revenue. He brought those well-honed skills to Hollywood and, at his peak, became a one-man movie studio.
John’s trick with the movie poster approach gave him several advantages: he knew precisely what the story was about, he knew the feel and the tone of the movie, he wouldn’t waste time writing scenes that didn’t fit with the overall marketing approach he had in mind. Given his position in the industry, he also knew pretty much who he wanted to cast in the movie and therefore, which actor would be appearing on the poster.
During my years with Hughes, he made movies that retain their freshness and humor to this day: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Christmas Vacation, among others. Each of these had simple, core ideas that could be reduced to a single image on a movie poster – ideas that an audience member could glean from a quick glance at a billboard.
Some may say that this approach to movies is shallow, lacking in artistic integrity. I would only offer that they are enormously entertaining films. They don’t have to be anything more than that. There’s plenty of room for action movies, dramas, art house films.
And there was room for those classic comedies from John Hughes. It was an honor to play a small part in his efforts, and I wish he was still around to send more laughs our way.
- Rediscovering the Genius of John Hughes (theperuse.wordpress.com)
- Don’t You Forget About Me (theparisreview.org)
- ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’: 25 Things You Didn’t Know About the Classic Road Trip Comedy (news.moviefone.com)
- “Pretty in Pink” brings my family together (salon.com)