Intermission: An Interview With John Hughes (1985)


In a break between posts, I am posting this rare 1985 interview with late director John Hughes (it’s strictly an audio recording). A remarkable master on creating genuine cinematic portraits of teenagers more than anything else (and with just as much humor as sentimental drama), he discusses a little on his professional transition from the advertising world to writing and directing films, gives backstory on casting 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club, and echoes his wariness about studio interference.

Here is part 1 of 5. Links to the other parts of the interview are listed below.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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Zen and the Art of Bad Movies


Our first BBQ of the summer this year ended with something different this time: a screening of the spectacularly bad fantasy film, Troll 2. The recent release of the making-of documentary, Best Worst Movie, has sparked renewed interest among cult fans. That it has generated headlines in major media goes to show you that the history of an utterly shitty movie can turn out to be even more entertaining than the movie itself. And this particular making-of documentary was directed by none other than Michael Paul Stephenson, the toothy, freckle-faced young star of Troll 2.

There’s something really intriguing about bad movies. Like that way that you pass a really bad car wreck and just can’t look away. Badly written, poorly acted, and shoddily designed, these movies are some kind of confounding testament to serious malfunctions in filmmaking, if not the human psyche altogether.

And yet, even the worst can, paradoxically, be the best…around. Their sole redeeming value is basically social cohesion. That they’re laughably horrible makes them ripee for riffing with a roomful of friends. And there’s certainly been far more cinematic stinkers than any “Worst Of” list can reasonably fit without being overwhelming. There’s plenty of obvious choices. Most any movie Ed Wood ever made. A slew of Japanese creature features from the 1950s. (The Japanese have come a long way, even inspiring American filmmakers who hunger for source material for sub-par remakes). There’s the over-hyped flops like The English Patient (elaborated on in a Seinfeld episode) and Battlefield Earth (which was labeled “Travolting”).The commercially-driven star vehicle like Cool as Ice.

With the Drive-In and late night movie marathons on cable television now being all but a thing of the past, obscure selections like Space MutinyMitchellSanta Clause Conquers the MartiansMonster A Go-Go, and a curious abundance of 1950s teenage rebel movies that overdid it on the slang were resurrected for Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Mike Nelson and the gang continued the tradition with the mp3-based Riff Trax). In addition to regular screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight movie circuit in various cities now run a small monopoly of so-bad-it’s-good fare. DC residents at least are also privy to the goodwill of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, now with 20 years of real turkeys under their belt. Carl, the host, usually enlightens attendees of the free, weekly screenings with hilarious backstory. And I wonder,  if in time, Stephen Baldwin’s hammy Target, will join the list.

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Youth in Revolt: The Legend of Billie Jean


While  The Legend of Billie Jean hasn’t yet made the transition from obscure VHS to DVD, it looks as though it’s a possibility, thanks to fervent nostalgics that transformed the ballyhooed 1985 teen movie into a cult classic. (Yeardly Smith did record DVD commentary for Sony, who was supposed to have released it by now). Surprisingly, those with a Netflix account, can endure the technological limbo, and add the movie to their Instant Queue.

This film is an odd product for its day, given the kind of movies that once typified the teen genre. Amidst numerous, cheaply produced T & A comedies (Private School, Spring Break, Porky’s, etc.), which indulged the exploits of mindlessly horny adolescents, John Hughes would soon become an 80s icon with sincere portrayals of American youth, both in drama and comedy. Elsewhere, a sub-genre of C-grade films that, seemingly inspired by 1950s pulp fiction, raised paranoia about the urban teenage timebomb (i.e. Class of 1984, Savage Streets, 3:15). Well, somewhere in the middle of all this is The Legend of Billie Jean. The B-grade action-drama (which includes a tasty foot chase!) isn’t set in the halls of the All-American high school, the comfort of Middle-class America, or even the grimy streets of the inner city, but more unusually, was filmed in and around the coastal Texas city of Corpus Christi.

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A Kook’s Guide to Skateboarding: Thrashin’


It’s always funny to see an “official” analysis of subculture, or the mainstream trying to interpret the latest subcultural hysteria like punk or text messaging. The Grunge era was indicative of this. Eddie Vedder notoriously made up words when the New York Times asked him to name and define some grunge terminology for their dictionary of young, modern lingo because, as can be interpreted from this, the activity of the youth as seen from the non-youth is just so complex. What it also meant was that a subculture was gaining popular – and in that case it was the underground music scene (and not just in Seattle) – only to be devoured and perverted once it became adopted into the mainstream, inevitably leading to the purist’s accusations of selling out.

Teen markets are the most lucrative, since you tend to get fickle in spending when you start making your own, limited income. In the case of skateboarding, there has been numerous Renaissances and Dark Ages in its more than 50 year old fluctuating history, and “outsiders” to the activity were there at every profitable upturn to hungrily exploit. It isn’t all a Boogie Man’s Tale, and in fact, opportunism led to a lot of much-needed improvements in the device central to the activity: the skateboard itself, among other things. But on the other hand, those decades churned out a lot of nonsense intended to catch the eyes (and dollars) of skaters and non-skaters alike by characterizing and simplifying the scene. By the mid-80s, the meant depicting the skater as misfits and California as their cultural Promised Land (although, California was the cultural promised land to most everything young and hip in the eyes of mid-80s Hollywood… except for those suckers in the fictional landlocked locale of Shermer, Illinois). Suddenly, skating, which managed to survive the bust of the second generation (post-Dogtown), was something worthy paying attention to again. But, as far as mainstream appeal goes, craft and technique wasn’t as important as attitude.

Two more skateboard-themed adventure films emerged during the late 80s — Gleaming the Cube in 1989 (see the earlier Muvika! blog post “Ho Chi Min Doesn’t Skateboard”) and Thrashin in 1986 — that are probably the more oft-cited ones today (because not too many nostalgic film fans are familiar with the 1970s choices of Skateboard: The Movie, where real skaters Tony Alva and Ellen Page play second banana to one very annoying Lief Garret, Freewheelin which was corny enough to be a grade school slide show for a desperate substitute teacher but, with plenty of skate sequences with Stacey Peralta, Paul Constantineau (another Dogtowner), Russell Howell, Tom Sims coming from different backgrounds (surfing, skiing, and even rollerskating) actually made some sense of the never-elaborated suggestions of  “style”, and even the short documentary Skateboard Kings (available on YouTube) which really emphasized the commercial advantages and the marketable misfit personalities of guys like Alva. The skateboarding films that followed in the 90s and beyond weren’t all that much of an improvement – Grind despicably played up an unmitigated obsession with sponsorship; Clark Walker’s little-known Levelland tried to get political in his film of a handful of skater friends making sense of the boredom and hopelessness in a small Texas suburb; and Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown perverted everything Peralta’s wonderful Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary laid on the table (Hardwicke and Peralta both worked on the film, and earlier on, both worked behind the scenes on Thrashin’).

As far the two mid-80s picks go, Gleaming the Cube certainly tried too hard to get spiritual with audiences (though at least thankfully made an attempt) in trying to explain the allure of the activity, but it was at least much more innovative with the plot than most sports-themed films tend to be: a teenage skater avenges his adopted brother’s death in an adventure/action film doused in Cold War politics. Though Christian Slater took the helm and hammed up the screen, pro-skaters (many of them Bones Brigade members at the time) were allowed slightly more camera time especially Tony Hawk and his perfect McSqueeb hair. Even actor Max Perlich (as Yabbo) could actually skate. Plus, the skate sequences were quite good and plentiful (as they should be) with Mike McGill and Rodney Mullen both pretty obviously doing those tricks as a stand in for Slater (who was taught the basics by Tommy Guerro).

But what to say about Thrashin‘? That it was directed by David Winters, the man responsible for the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which riffed on disastrous Space Mutiny? That it had a typical 80s California title song performed by Meatloaf? That the promotional poster featured the nonsensical taglines, “Reckless! Totally Insane!” That is was a knockoff of The West Side Story? Or that it egregiously plucked from its portrayal of skateboarding two of its most appealing features (at the time): the individuality nurtured by an activity completely devoid of rules, and the camaraderie in a sport that really needed that kind of solidarity to survive   the historical slumps.

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Masters of Disasters


While Angel the Pig today reports of the possible Gore Virbinski remake of the 1988 cult comedy, Clue, due out in 2011, there are also reports of a Frank Marshall rehash of The Never Ending Story, due for 2012.

Wil Wheaton Has a Posse


The shrilly-voiced imaginative boy of Stand By Me, Wil Wheaton, was once immortalized in the “So & So Has a Posse” craze. He’s also got a blog.

Rock n’ Roll in the Rising Sun: Tokyo Pop


Tokyo Pop is probably an unrecognized film title to all but a handful of people, most of whom are likely rabid 80s film fans. And without the transition to the more readily accessible DVD, it remains not a great film (pacing tends to be a problem), but still an overlooked, low-budget gem in the grand universe of obscure cult films.

Centering on young and naive aspiring American and Japanese musicians, Tokyo Pop contrasts the mid-80s new wave, punk and rock influences of urban Japan with the backdrop of idyllic tradition and historical roots; an obvious criticism of commercial globalization and the “Americanization” of a once-distinct Eastern identity. Rock, pop, punk and new wave (check out an early performance of “Rauken Rauken” by Japanese goof-girl rockers, Papaya Paranoia) – it’s all image and personality. Like the old photos of youth in 1980s post-Communist countries: a carefully manufactured young “cool”.

There are essentially two leading characters who, by fate (and the script!), cross paths. Carrie Hamilton, the late daughter of comedienne Carol Burnette (she may be more recognized as one of the instigating rivals in Shag), shares the lead as Wendy Reed, a struggling singer with no hope for security and mobility in the New York City dives scene. Inspired by a postcard of a friend who boasts of success in the business following a move to Tokyo, Wendy packs up her sparing belongs and decides to join her friend. Except things don’t go as plan. Stunned not so much by culture shock, but news of her friend having already moved someplace else, she sticks it out. And, on the advice of fellow nomadic gaijins (the romanticized gringo: Americans) she,  takes up residency in a group house plastered with Disney memorabilia and, in the closest thing to paying singer she could quickly find, entertains drunken entourages of Japanese businessmen in a karaoke bar with half-hearted renditions of corny American folk songs.

Stranded in the city one night, Wendy meets Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, the vocalist for the Red Warriors who is probably better recognized as the director of the whiskey commercial in Lost in Translation), another young, aspiring rock musician. Obsessed with American and British pop culture, especially the musical legends like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, this is basically the bulk of the limited English he can communicate to Wendy. His family is the same – in one scene, his grandfather, in traditional garb, scowls at his daughter who is attempting to follow the jazzercise routines she’s watching on television as they sit around the dinner table with Hiro and his sister. A big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken crowds the table and Hiro’s mother is ironically bewildered that her son isn’t interested in more “Japanese” things. Even Hiro’s father, a divorcee (taboo no more!) specializes in the 80s novelty of synthetic food sculptures.

Hiro and Wendy’s first encounter is eventually miffed by a misunderstanding over the sharing of a hotel room, but eventually the two hit it off, much to the delight of Hiro’s band, a rock quartet, who want the newfound blond gaijin to be in their band, certain that this is just the gimmick they need to get recognized by the country’s most famous producer, since sneaking trying to sneak him demo tapes hasn’t worked. Reluctant at first, Wendy seems unable to find any other band to meaningfully support a singing career (X of Japan briefly appear in their massive coifs, and delegate Wendy, the new band mate for about a second, the back up singer’s tambourine).

Hiro’s band is basically a cover band, churning out live performances of corny American pop songs like Three Dog Night’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Amazingly, they do achieve major public recognition, but only through some trivial event – a photographer happened to capture a backstage spat between Wendy and someone else. Suddenly, the cover band is topping the country’s charts. And yet, both Wendy and Hiro, at the helm of  a thriving gimmick band, aren’t entirely happy with the expected definition of “success” (money and fame). In private, Hiro has performed for Wendy the songs he has written, which he sings in Japanese. Completely absent of the Western manufacture, the songs are sincere. Wendy, willing to walk away in order to get Hiro and his bandmates to abandon the gimmick, encourages Hiro to perform these songs for his audiences. In other words: art for the sake of art.

Released in 1988 and yet to be re-released, the film was co-written and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, though her 1992 directorial effort is more widely known: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tokyo Pop was a lot like the 1987 culture-clash dramedy, Living on Tokyo Time. Unfortuantely, there’s little net-recorded history on the movie, other than (surprisingly) a 2007 New York Times Review.