St. Elmo's Fire actors look back at movie that defined a generation
A version of this story originally appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Untold Stories issue, on stands now or available to buy right here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
The reviews were atrocious.
When it was released in June 1985, New York magazine’s David Denby said that “nobody above the moral age of 15” would enjoy watching the narcissistic exploits depicted by these seven up-and-coming actors, who, along with the casts of movies like The Breakfast Club, would inspire the infamous Brat Pack moniker. But St. Elmo’s Fire — which starred Rob Lowe as a deadbeat dad, Andrew McCarthy as a struggling journalist, Mare Winningham as a big-hearted rich girl, Emilio Estevez as a lovesick waiter obsessed with a hospital intern (Andie MacDowell), Judd Nelson as a young Republican, Ally Sheedy as his pearl-wearing squeeze, and Demi Moore as the resident drama queen — captured the Reagan-era zeitgeist. Centered on a group of college friends who have just exited the ivy-trimmed incubator of Georgetown University, the film connected with its youthful audience and remains a cultural touchstone for almost anyone now in middle age. We asked writer-director Joel Schumacher and the cast to look back at a movie that, in the words of its theme song, aimed to “climb the highest mountain, cross the widest sea.”
Leaders of the Pack
Three decades ago, dramas targeted to young adults were rare, and the movie studios hadn’t quite cracked how to appeal to the children of baby boomers — what would become known as Gen X — who were then in their teens and early 20s. At the same time, a new crop of young actors was on the verge of breaking through to stardom.
JOEL SCHUMACHER [co-writer/director]: I lived in Georgetown during the period of Reaganomics. I was looking at all of these kids who were acting like adults who thought they should have 25-year plans. Every studio turned down the spec script. The head of Universal actually called me into his office, threw the script down, and said, “Joel, in the history of movies, you have managed to create seven of the worst people I have ever seen on a page.” He then went off and made Howard the Duck.
ROB LOWE [Billy]: They wanted me to play the part that Judd Nelson ended up playing, the preppy straight guy. I had no interest in that. I wanted to play Billy, for sure. I remember walking onto the Warner Bros. lot and seeing this woman who was in between the soundstages, backlit with long sandy-blond hair. It was Demi Moore.
DEMI MOORE [Jules]: There were so many of us coming in and out of these auditions. It felt like it could really be something special.
JUDD NELSON [Alec]: I remember at the audition there was a bit of mixing and matching going on. “Let’s try him with her, and her with him.”
ANDREW MCCARTHY [Kevin]: I was picked up at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, driven across the hill, and taken into the studio to meet whatever executive. I was terrified and sat there like a lump on the couch. I failed the interview, so they sent me back with the director’s assistant in his VW bug. On the way back, I finally woke up to what had happened and said how much I wanted to do the movie. The assistant went back and told Joel, who was like, “Well, why the hell didn’t you act like it with the important people, you idiot?”
ANDIE MACDOWELL [Dale]: I was scared of [my costars]. They all seemed so cool to me. I went out one night with them [during filming] to some party, and I remember watching Demi dance. She was just free and wild and spontaneous. I felt like a fly on the wall, watching these exotic creatures.
SCHUMACHER: Mare Winningham was married with kids and pregnant during the making of the movie. One of the characteristics of Wendy was how chubby she was and how that gave her some insecurity. It worked out in everybody’s favor.
LOWE: Nothing was shot at Georgetown. The university wouldn’t let us because they thought the movie would be bad for their reputation. I love that 30 years later we are talking about the movie, and Georgetown is dealing with their legacy of slaves building their university. So much for that idea! University of Maryland let us shoot instead.
PB and J and Ha Ha Ha
Each character faces unique struggles. Wendy (Winningham) carries a torch for Billy (Lowe) and is longing for a room of her own. Kevin (McCarthy) is secretly in love with Leslie (Sheedy), who’s on the fence about whether to marry Alec (Nelson). Kirby (Estevez) is trying to get Dale (MacDowell) to fall for him, and Jules (Moore) is coming unhinged. All are longing for the safety net of their friendships, which seem to be fraying in the transition to adulthood.
LOWE: It was to Joel’s credit that we included the infamous “Buggala buggala buggala, ha ha ha.” Emilio, Judd, and I would go out together carousing, and we were always so pissed off about how there would be really rich foreign guys off in the corner, stealing the girls we were interested in. They would huddle together and talk, like “Buggala buggala buggala, ha ha ha.” It was an inside-joke moment that made sense only to us.
MOORE: One of my favorite moments is Mare Winningham talking about making the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her kitchen and her saying, “It was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich…” It was such a simple, pure, honest moment.
MCCARTHY: I remember doing the love scene with Ally Sheedy, and we were fairly tender and shy as actors to be doing this sort of thing. Joel [wanted us to be more wild and] in his inimitable style screamed, “You’re f—ing!” Ally burst into tears, and in that instant, I stood up and said, “What the f— is a matter with you, Joel?”
SCHUMACHER: I made a terrible mistake, and I’ve regretted and felt embarrassed by it. Ally gave an interview years ago saying that I destroyed her and her career by this, which I do not believe. Because [one of the next movies] she did was with Judd Nelson and she played a stripper. [In 1986’s Blue City, Sheedy’s character goes undercover as a go-go dancer.]
LOWE: It’s always funny what images become the images you see over and over. That image of all of us huddled outside of St. Elmo’s Bar was just a quick shot we took to send to the executive who had championed the movie, Craig Baumgartner. That was a photo for him that nobody thought anything of. We all sort of looked like crap. And it ended up being the poster for the movie.
MCCARTHY: My scene [with the prostitute] was one of those things that just worked somehow. I think we shot it all in one night. I never met that actress before. She just showed up, we had good chemistry, and there it was. They are funny scenes. I asked, “How come you never come on to me?” She says, “I thought you were gay.” It was one of those lonely moments with a little comic flair.
In the film’s climactic scene, Jules has finally hit bottom and has locked herself in her pink bedroom with the windows open to the freezing winter. Billy, armed with a lighter and a can of hairspray, explains the meaning of the movie’s title.
LOWE: The spray-can scene was always in the script. It was a silly scene, but it explains that everything we are feeling is like St. Elmo’s fire: It’s there for a fleeting, shining moment and then it’s gone. It’s not the worst analogy ever.
MOORE: Sitting on the floor with all the windows open in the cold was a cringeworthy moment for me. It’s probably better that I haven’t seen the movie recently. I am sure I would find many more.
SCHUMACHER: That part was satirical and tongue-in-cheek. She’s so f—ing dramatic all the time. Demi did it fantastically but it was ridiculous. Do you know how long it takes to freeze herself in a Georgetown apartment? She’s not in the Antarctic.
NELSON: The music video we participated in is worthy of a cringe or two.
MCCARTHY: I felt okay with that movie. I remember reading a review at the time that said this movie is a day late and a dollar short, that it was like the junior Big Chill. I don’t have any cringe moments from that movie, which is rare.
Each one of the principal actors and Schumacher went on to have long careers, but their feelings about the movie remain mixed.
LOWE: At least in my career, Billy was the most succinct version of bad boy-man child that I’ve ever played. It’s the most long-lasting. Not a day goes by that someone who should know better tells me they love that movie and Billy — like Gwyneth Paltrow, who can legitimately recite every line in the movie. It never ceases to amaze me the level of person who is obsessed. I think it was probably a lot of people’s first guilty pleasure.
MOORE: Prior to this, I don’t feel like there were stories being done about young people with real emotional adult issues. This opened the door in a way, giving a voice and a place for young actors to be seen in a whole different light. It was a game changer.
MCCARTHY: None of those [young adult] movies at the time got great reviews. But they became what they became because they were the first generation of films that people could take home on VHS. Young people could take ownership of us in a way that no generation ever did before.
SCHUMACHER: I resented the Brat Pack title. We were on the cover of New York with a fabulous picture of the cast, but it coined the term. It was such an unfair thing, but in some strange way, it may have solidified the movie in some people’s minds.
NELSON: Acting in St. Elmo’s was clearly instrumental in my being included in, and branded negatively by, the fictional Brat Pack. Being portrayed as professionally irresponsible has diminished my opportunities.
MACDOWELL: People say things to me about Kirby and Dale to this day. I was walking in London one evening and I had these girls yell out to me “Dale Biberman!” really loud. And I yelled back, “Where is my Kirby Keger?”
LOWE: People love this movie, or we wouldn’t be talking about it 32 years later. It is very kitschy and it’s extremely dated. There is a lot of great stuff to hate-watch in it. But at the end of the day, when Billy Hicks gets on the bus and pulls away, you will cry.