6 Filmmaking Tips From John Hughes

The master of the high school movie taught us valuable lessons.

This week is the 25th anniversary of the release of Curly Sue, which was the final directorial effort of John Hughes. He would go on to write and produce many more movies over the next decade, but that definitely marked the end of an era long before his unexpected death in 2009.

When we think of John Hughes movies, we still focus on an even more limited amount of his writing and directing efforts, specifically his 1980s teen movies. Many have been influenced by him, but we still haven’t gotten anything nearly as good (supposedly the upcoming The Edge of Seventeen comes close). So, we wanted to go back to the source for advice.

Surely there are some lessons to be learned from the movies themselves, communicated through characters he based on himself, namely Samantha from Sixteen Candles and Ferris from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But below we’ve got six more direct tips from what rare video and print interviews are available with the late filmmaker. Cue “Oh Yeah” by Yello, and enjoy.

Write What You Care About

“Write what you know” is a common tip for writers and filmmakers, and it certainly applied to Hughes, who always stuck to Chicago settings and based his scripts on stories from his life, whether it was a family trip to Disneyland or his experiences in advertising, or being a nobody in high school.

What made him special is that he didn’t just write what he knew but also what he cared about. In 1986, his young muse Molly Ringwald interviewed Hughes for Seventeeen magazine (reprinted in this archived fan site post), and she seems to have been the one to realize the caring element specifically in the following exchange:

MR: Don’t you think you’ve done a lot of movies about Chicago?

JH: No, they weren’t about Chicago. Chicago’s a setting.

MR: But, they’re about suburban life . . .

JH: I think it’s wise for people to concern themselves with the things they know about. I don’t consider myself qualified to do a movie about international intrigue – I seldom leave the country. I’d really like to do something on gangs, but to do that, I’ve got to spend some time with gang members. I’d feel extremely self-conscious writing about something I don’t know.

MR: I think one of the most admirable things about you is that you do write about the things you know and care about. I think that teen movies were getting a bad reputation because these fifty-year-old guys were writing about things they didn’t care about.

In the below Eye On the Movies interview, Hughes talks more about how his life experience influenced his movies.

Screenplays Are Always Unfinished

“When a book is written, it’s a final product,” Hughes says in the Seventeen interview. “But, when a script is finished, it’s really just a blueprint.” It’s one of the reasons he couldn’t wait to direct his own scripts and not watch someone else interpret them under their own vision, as he saw done with Mr. Mom and National Lampoon’s Vacation.

In the below interview from 1984, he discusses how scripts aren’t really ever finished products, and how it was frustrating to let go of them. It would be interesting to hear if he had changed his mind later in his career when he stopped directing and was back to only writing screenplays for others.

A Good Comedy Consists of All Kinds of Comedy

Jumping ahead more than a decade to when he was just writing and producing (he doesn’t seem frustrated about letting go anymore), in the below interview from 1996 Hughes talks about his work on Disney’s live-action remake of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. He discusses how he aimed to make it funnier with all varieties of comedy, which he thinks is important, and catered especially to adults primarily before their children.

Respect the Characters, Respect the Audience

One of the reasons Hughes was so successful with his teen movies, and why they remain so popular with each new generation of kids, is they’re honest and respectful to and about their characters and in turn their audience.

He knew what he was doing from the start, too. Here’s an excerpt from a 1984 feature on Hughes by Roger Ebert as Sixteen Candles was about to open and The Breakfast Club was in production that quotes the filmmaker and his regular actor Anthony Michael Hall:

Hall said he believes the largely teenage audiences for both “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” are ready for movies that take teenagers seriously. “Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them,” he said.

“They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. Both of these movies are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies.”

John Hughes also is prepared to give teenage audiences credit for more intelligence and taste than Hollywood thinks they have.

“People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.”

Build and Take Care of a Fanbase

In addition to being true to his audience, Hughes was very focused on building that core fanbase of mostly young people who loved his honest teen movies and would follow him through every release. He explains firstly how he got the fans in a 1999 Lollipop interview:

I had a very particular strategy for the timing of those movies, which I kind of had to educate the studios about. I told them, “I’m gonna grow an audience,” which they didn’t think I could do, but I did it – first of all, I tried to line up the release of each new movie with the video release of the previous one. That way, the first one might not do so well at the box-office, but people would become familiar with it by the time the second came out, and so on. That’s why my movies would come out every six months or so, and if you look, you’ll see that the grosses steadily increased with each one. So I grew an audience, and I tried to be as true to that audience as possible, play to what they like and appreciate.

And here he continues with his strategy for keeping the fans happy and loyal and interested, acknowledging that it’s not just something that could also be done today but offering a comparative example:

You know how, when you’re a kid, you love it when you get mail? You feel important, like someone’s paying attention to you. Well, we used to do that – every time someone wrote a fan letter to one of our cast members, every piece of mail that came in, we’d put their names on our mailing list and mail out huge packages every time a new movie was about to come out, kind of like what Disney does now – posters, rolls of stickers, all sorts of neat stuff. In fact, the only official soundtrack that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ever had was for the mailing list. A&M was very angry with me over that; they begged me to put one out, but I thought “who’d want all of these songs?” I mean, would kids want “Dankeschöen” and “Oh Yeah” on the same record? They probably already had “Twist and Shout,” or their parents did, and to put all of those together with the more contemporary stuff, like the (English) Beat – I just didn’t think anybody would like it. But I did put together a seven-inch of the two songs I owned the rights to – “Big City” on one side, and… I forget, one of the other English bands on the soundtrack… and sent that to the mailing list. By ’86, ’87, it was costing us $30 a piece to mail out 100,000 packages. But it was a labor of love. I cared about my audience and I cared about these movies.

Actors Are Sacred

Below is one part of an audio from a 1985 American Film Institute Q&A with Hughes, during which he discusses his transition to making movies, his screenwriting experiences and process, and the making of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, as well as why they have such unrealistically happy endings. You can find and should listen to all five parts here.

At the moment bookmarked, someone in the audience asks how much freedom he gives actors and he explains that it’s a lot, because they’re valuable collaborators through pre-production rehearsals and then are the most sacred part of a film set during production. He also answers a question about young actors, saying he prefers them because they’ll try anything.

What We Learned

Hughes was first and foremost a writer of honest stories and characters, but he was also a master of directing honest performances from actors, particularly young ones. Much of what we can learn from him concerns that honesty and respect and appreciation for his closest collaborators, of which the audience definitely could be included in the end. It’s a shame we couldn’t have gotten more movies directed by him, but in his prime he was quite prolific – for a good reason, it turns out – and we’re thankful for that.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.