John Hughes' view from the top -- The director of "Home Alone" and "The Breakfast Club" shares his thoughts on success and failure, and where he sees himself in the future
Surveying his domain, stately, plump filmmaker John Hughes bestrides what he claims is ”the tallest hill in Illinois,” the mini-Matterhorn he had erected in his 600-acre backyard so he could ski. The bunny-slope hill is made of earth, but it could be made of money: Twenty-seven movies with domestic grosses exceeding $1.3 billion have enabled the standoffish box office Superman to forsake Hollywood for his private Chicago sound-stage and for this, his rustic Fortress of Solitude near Spring Grove. ”I got my cows from a Mr. Udder — that’s his real name,” says Hughes, ”and Mr. Sprinkle does my pond. It’s stocked with 56-inch pike that look like submarines. I had good hay this year — 7,000 bales!”
He also harvested two more movies: Baby’s Day Out last summer and Miracle on 34th Street, starring Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson, last week. Is either flick another Home Alone, the 1990 Christmas miracle that reportedly earned global grosses of $470 million and made Hughes the top comic filmmaker of all time?
As Macaulay Culkin used to say, ”I don’t think so.” Despite a pronounced family resemblance to the Culkin farce, Baby’s Day Out, reportedly a $50 million project, grossed a dismal $16.5 million. But this is a good thing, Hughes mused on the eve of Miracle, which opened with a still grimmer $2.7 million gross. ”It was like a big wake-up call saying, ‘What are you doing, where are you going, Mr. Home Alone?’ Suddenly I’m in the gutter — and it was great!”
To comprehend why Hughes considers disaster a blessing, you have to know about an experience in his Chicago boyhood that shaped his whole approach to movies. ”When I was 16 I went to a Zen temple, and I thought I’d figured out the koan, What is the sound of one hand clapping? I figured it was this —” He snaps his fingers. ”The monk went berserk, threw me out screaming, because I’d logicked it.”
Hughes feels he ”logicked” Baby’s Day Out by concentrating on special-effects technology and neglecting the emotions his non-F/X pix can tap. ”It had no soul,” he says. Miracle may fail to sell tickets, but its Santa Claus theme successfully expresses Hughes’ stubborn belief in magic over logic. ”I really believe if you think through it, you wreck it,” he says. ”We demand an explanation for everything. We’re just so bright, you know — Harvard has just illuminated all of our lives.”
Hughes, a University of Arizona dropout, loves to flout snobs and fly by the seat of his own fancy pants. When his flicks hit, they’re like a Zen master’s unaimed arrow that nails the bull’s-eye because it’s shot from the heart. ”I change my mind all the time,” he mumbles, chain-smoking in his living room. ”I want to make it up as I go along. When I know what I’m doing, it generally stinks.”
”He wrote Sixteen Candles in two days,” says its star, Molly Ringwald, now living in Paris (but willing to relocate should Hughes call). ”I may get in a lot of s— for this,” he confides, ”but the last 40 pages of Home Alone took eight hours to write.”
He’s still writing as fast as he can, but he’d love to get a few more hands clapping than he has lately. The directors of his self-produced scripts have been striking out, and his own last try at directing, 1991’s Curly Sue, ran 20 percent over its $25 million budget and still bombed. ”I’m getting ready for grandchildren. I really don’t see doing (movies) past 50,” muses Hughes, who turns 45 in February. ”When I’ve lost my voice, I’ll know when to go. I’ll disappear in a puff.”
Is he really about to take up alfalfa farming full-time, fishing for pike with his wife, Nancy (his high school sweetheart), sons John III, 18, and James, 15? Insiders don’t think so. ”I’m smelling a big Hughes deal brewing (with a major studio),” one industry watcher says. ”He’s like C.B. DeMille, like Disney without the animation,” says producer Jack Brodsky.
Hughes, who currently has a nonexclusive agreement with Fox, hasn’t scored any deals by winning Hollywood’s heart. He gleefully broke Warner’s by taking Home Alone to Fox after Warner demanded a last-minute $700,000 budget cut, says one insider. ”He thinks studio execs are all know-nothing geeks,” says one studio exec who has worked with him. ”He’s volatile, impetuous, and spoiled,” says a screenwriter. ”Where someone like (producer) Joel Silver yells at you,” says one of Hughes’ publicists, ”John stonewalls you.”
”Yeah, I’m real testy,” says Hughes, not at all testily. ”I’m just as nuts as the actors are. (Moviemaking) is not the most comfortable thing in the world for me to do.” When Matthew Broderick said Hughes wasn’t being clear about a scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, ”he shut down like a rock,” recalls Broderick, who would gladly work with him again. ”When he gets quiet, it’s hard to know what you’ve done to bother him.”
Perhaps Hughes learned the silent treatment from his first showbiz employers, the cold Harvard grads at National Lampoon magazine. In the mid-’70s, he shuttled between Chicago and New York, writing ads for Philip Morris. ”I tried to finish my business by noon, and then I’d hang out at the Lampoon. No one would talk to me for months.” Finally a Hughes joke about a maimed baseball player earned him a laugh and a place on the masthead. ”Vacation ’58, ” a Lampoon tale of a family trip to Disneyland, later became his second and most seditious film, 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation.
”With Vacation, I was actually deconstructing Disney,” Hughes explains. ”I used to watch The Mickey Mouse Club, those obnoxious, spoiled Mouseketeers you just wanted to beat the tar out of.” As Hughes recalls it, ”They could do anything! Disneyland after hours? Whatever you want! They’d wear these horse things, and they’d give away giant Tootsie Rolls. My grandmother was diabetic; there was a fear of sugar in my house. I wanted one of those goddamn Tootsie Rolls, I wanted to dance with that horse for a while, I wanted to go to Disneyland. I never got there as a kid and knew I never would.” Says Ringwald, ”I think at the core he was like my Breakfast Club character, intelligent, extremely sensitive, and didn’t quite fit in.”
Hughes’ salesman dad and charity-worker mom earned less than some of their ritzy neighbors, and their Detroit and Chicago homes were pop-culture fun-free zones. ”I really like my family (he has three younger sisters), but Jesus, I & don’t think I saw a movie till I was 10. We didn’t even have TV, so I’d watch Walt Disney by sneaking into somebody’s backyard and watching it through their picture window on their color TV. My (story’s) first sentence was, ‘It would’ve been the best vacation ever if Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg.’ Which is really saying, Our life would be so much better if you wouldn’t shove these phony fantasies down our throats!”
Hughes prides himself on giving his frothy fantasies a dark edge, but his nastiness is offset by an adman’s calculated perkiness. This came in handy when National Lampoon’s Animal House opened Hollywood’s doors to Lampooner in 1978. After such entry-level screenwriting jobs as National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and an encounter with an exec who screamed at him, ”You’ll rewrite that script until the director likes it, you dumb little s—,” Hughes decided he wanted more control. Mr. Mom (1983), based on Hughes’ life after he quit the ad game to write at home, hit big and gave him a shot, and The Breakfast Club made him a mogul.
He freely admits to his own boners. ”I stumbled into this business, I didn’t train for it. I yelled ‘Action!’ on my first two movies before the camera was turned on. They’re not perfect movies, they’re flawed. They’re not cappuccino pictures, they’re sort of Maxwell House instant coffee out of the machine at the car wash.”
Next to run through the Hughes percolator is The Bee, a film for Disney. After that Hughes, typically, won’t-or can’t-say where his career might head. Retirement, The Breakfast Club 2, and Home Alone 3 are possibilities. But he’s determined to wing it, trusting his gut to break his losing streak. ”Home Alone made me think I knew something! The worst thing I can do is think I know anything. That’s just the end of you.” Is John Hughes over? Don’t be too sure. ”He’ll have the last laugh,” says Ringwald. ”He always does.”