‘PTA’ Transports John Hughes Beyond His Teen Comedy Image

“I’ve been reading you for a long time,” film director John Hughes says, as he settles back on one of the leather chairs in his office at Paramount Pictures.

“And I’ve been watching your movies for a long time,” his guest says.

Pause. Nothing further from Hughes on what he thinks about what he’s read. Nothing further from his guest on what he thinks about what he’s seen.

“Hmmm,” the guest thinks to himself. “He remembers everything. He knows how much I hated ‘Sixteen Candles’ and ‘Weird Science.’ He knows I thought ‘Breakfast Club’ and ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ pandered to adolescents and stunted adults. He remembers that I said his scripts for ‘Mr. Mom’ and ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ led to two of the century’s worst comedies. Now that he’s made a movie I like--'Planes, Trains and Automobiles'--how do I ease into the subject of his, uh, maturation?”

“You’ve sure gotten some good reviews on ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ ” the guest says. “Most of the ones I’ve read say you’ve finally made a movie for adults.”


Hughes, who is 37 and appears to be pushing 18, smiles and shakes his head.

“At least half of the reviews for ‘PTA’ start out with, ‘Well . . . he grew up!,’ ” Hughes says, in a mellifluous voice guaranteed to land him a job as an FM jazz show host if his film career ever sputters. “About 10% of the reviews say, ‘He’s finally found something more important than proms.’ ”

Hughes says he’s happy to read nice things about his movie, and it won’t bother him to see the labels Kiddiemeister, Wizard of Teens and Youth Guru fade. But “Planes, Trains and Automobiles"--or “PTA,” as he calls it--is not a signal that he’s swearing off subjects dear primarily to the hearts of teen-agers.

“I maintain that when you’re 17 and the prom is breathing down your neck, it’s the worst thing in your life,” Hughes says. “You don’t care about arms control, you care only about your feelings. That’s really what (his past movies) were about.”

“PTA,” his R-rated comedy about two mismatched companions on a stormy run from New York to Chicago during Thanksgiving weekend, was not a conscious effort to prove anything, either, he says.

“If I had said, ‘OK, I have to go make a movie that changes my image,’ then I’m not making a movie, I’m making an image change.”

Intentional or not, “PTA” has changed Hughes’ image overnight.

There was never much question about the former creative ad man’s ability to direct. Even in “Sixteen Candles,” the hormone-powered comedy that jump-started his directing career, Hughes demonstrated sure skills at setting up and delivering gags--at least those aimed at the laugh zone of his target audience.

In the three years since, he has been one of the hottest and busiest hyphenates (writer-director-producer) in Hollywood. The laughs in his films have come at the disproportionate expense of caricatured adults, convincing many of us that we were being goosed rather than needled. But compared to the other teen-age software in the market--the “Porkys,” “Police Academys” and “Rockys"--John Hughes was producing high-brow masterpieces.

Until “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” the question remained: Could someone who would stoop to milking laughs from a Chinese exchange student named Long Duc Dong (“SixteenCandles”) rise to the occasion of entertaining adults as well? Does Hughes have a prayer of some day having his name mentioned in the same breath with those--Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra--he reveres?

If film historians ever look back on Hughes the way he might like them to, his reputation will start with “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” a screwball comedy that would be a mature piece of film making for the most experienced hand.

It is far closer in spirit and execution to the work of Sturges--specifically, of Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels"--than to the sophomoric “National Lampoon’s Vacation” that Hughes once claimed to have written in something like eight days. (Hughes’ guest remembers writing that after seeing “Vacation,” he wondered why the script had taken so long.)

Some reviews have chided Hughes for continuing to work laughs from easy targets--the assortment of country bumpkins and addled clerks that the two stars encounter along the way--but they are traditional comic foils and it seems doubtful that without Hughes’ previous patterns, the same criticisms would have been made.

One thing is certain. The movie is a big success, having grossed $22.2 million during its first three weeks in release, and it may eventually surpass last year’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” on his hit list.

You don’t think of whiz kids as people in their late 30s, but in Hollywood, it’s not your age that counts as much as the age of those you satisfy, and the speed with which you do it.

In barely six years, Hughes has written 11 scripts that have been produced. He directed six of them, including the upcoming Paramount release “She’s Having a Baby,” and he produced three others that were directed by Howard Deutch, including the upcoming Universal release “Big Country.”

Hughes says he has other scripts in mind. “She’s Having a Baby,” for instance, is the second leg of what he hopes will work into a trilogy. He is also writing a novel based on small-town anecdotes collected from his and his wife’s yarnful Midwest relatives. The book is set in Shermer, Ill., the mythical town he has used in several of his films.

“This is just my job,” Hughes says, when asked if he’s having any fun while he’s at it. “I was in advertising for nine years and I adored it. I’ve liked everything I’ve done. I like the pressure.”

Hughes said he has been on a self-set 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week work schedule for the last eight years.

“I saw a Dick Van Dyke episode once where he went up to write a novel and he was blocked,” Hughes says. “That terrifies me. It’s like heavy equipment in Alaska. You don’t turn it off in the wintertime because you might not get it going again.”

Hughes admits his appetite often causes him to swallow more than he can digest. He blames his one failure--"Weird Science"--on the fact that he was trying to shoot it at the same time he was editing “Breakfast Club.”

“I was an innocent piranha and I got myself in trouble,” he says. “It was so weird to go from the dubbing stage on ‘Breakfast Club’ to the set on ‘Weird Science.’ I usually do a lot of rewriting on my films, but this was just ‘Wham!’ It’s got to be in the theater.”

What started out to be a simple fantasy turned into a special-effects film that Hughes says he still cannot watch all the way through.

Hughes cut it thin again last year when he wrote two scripts--"Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “She’s Having a Baby"--back to back and cast them simultaneously. Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern committed to “Baby,” the first Hughes-directed story that stretches over more than a few days, and Martin and Candy immediately committed to “Planes.”

Because of weather conditions in the script, Hughes and Paramount executives decided to shoot “Baby” first, with a release date of June, 1987. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” would follow, set for this Christmas.

Hughes had finished shooting “Baby” by mid-December last year, but had only seven weeks before rehearsals began on “Planes.” While “PTA” was being filmed throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast (“wherever there was snow”), he was attending audience previews of “Baby” and trying to supervise such post-production elements as dubbing and scoring on that film.

“I got to a point where I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do all this,’ ” Hughes says. “I felt like a guy who had hit a double off the wall and was about to be taken out for a pinch runner.”

Instead, Paramount agreed to hold “Baby” until after “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was finished and released. Last week, one year after he finished filming “Baby,” the scoring was finished, and the film is now set for release Feb. 13.

So for Hughes, it was “Baby” and not “PTA” that marked his first all-adult cast feature. He says he has never worked with an actor he wouldn’t want to work with again, but there is one advantage to working with adults.

“When it came time to loop (re-record lines of dialogue) for ‘Breakfast Club,’ some of actors’ voices had changed,” Hughes says. “I haven’t had that problem lately.”