John HUGHES hasn't set foot in Hollywood for years, but his influence has never been more potent. The king of 1980s comedy, Hughes now qualifies as something of a Howard Hughes-style recluse -- he doesn't have an agent, doesn't give interviews and lives far away, somewhere in Chicago's sprawling North Shore suburbs where most of his films were set.
But he has an entire generation of fans in the industry who grew up infatuated with his films, especially a string of soulful mid-1980s teen comedies that helped capture the eternal drama of modern teenage existence. They include "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club," which no less an authority than Courtney Love once called "the defining moment of the alternative generation." Any number of successful actors and filmmakers, from Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith to Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Wes Anderson, are fans, having soaked up Hughes' keen observational humor, love of mischief and shrewd dissection of social hierarchies.
"John Hughes wrote some of the great outsider characters of all time," says Apatow, the writer-director-producer whose new film, "Drillbit Taylor," is loosely based on an old Hughes story idea. "It's pretty ridiculous to hear people talk about the movies we've been doing, with outrageous humor and sweetness all combined, as if they were an original idea. I mean, it was all there first in John Hughes' films. Whether it's 'Freaks and Geeks' or 'Superbad,' the whole idea of having outsiders as the lead characters, that all started with Hughes."
Hollywood is full of older masters who've been mentors to younger acolytes. But Hughes, 58, is the only one who's disappeared without a trace; he quit directing in 1991, moved back to Chicago in 1995 and has basically stayed out of sight ever since.
"He's our generation's J.D. Salinger," says Smith, whose film "Dogma" shows its heroes, Jay and Silent Bob, on a pilgrimage to Shermer, Ill., a mythical town that only exists in Hughes' films. "He touched a generation and then the dude checked out. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be doing what I do. Basically my stuff is just John Hughes films with four-letter words."
Smith says whenever he's in Chicago promoting a film he asks his local publicist if they know how to find him, to no avail. The one person who made contact was Vaughn, who grew up in the North Shore suburbs and met with Hughes when shooting "The Break-Up" in the area in 2005. It's in keeping with this aura of mystery that while Hughes came up with the idea for "Drillbit Taylor," the Owen Wilson comedy that opened Friday to lackluster reviews, his name isn't anywhere on the film. But his handprints are everywhere.
The story evokes memories of Hughes' teen sagas, being a comic tale about a trio of nerdy high-school freshmen who recruit a supposedly fearsome bodyguard to protect them from a nasty school bully. As the film's scruffy hero, Wilson is something of a throwback to John Candy's character in "Uncle Buck," Hughes' 1989 comedy that stars Candy as a bedraggled bachelor forced to look after his brother's three smart-aleck kids.
Based on a treatment Hughes wrote some years ago, the "Drillbit" story is credited to frequent Apatow collaborators Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown, who also wrote the screenplay, and Edmond Dantes, a favorite Hughes pseudonym. Susan Arnold, who produced the film with Apatow and her partner, Donna Arkoff Roth, is married to producer Tom Jacobson, who is one of the few people in Hollywood still in contact with the reclusive filmmaker.
"Tom is the unsung hero here," says Roth. "He'd always remembered the story and knew there was a great movie in there. He got permission from John to use it and got us involved." Arnold and Roth were fans of Apatow, who once had offices on their floor at Revolution Studios. "We'd always felt we were lucky to get Judd involved," says Arnold.
If anyone is a repository of Hughes lore, it is Jacobson, who calls him "one of the most interesting people I've ever met" but is scrupulously tight-lipped when it comes to offering any speculation about the filmmaker's retreat from view. When Hughes was looking for someone to produce "Ferris Bueller," Paramount executive Dawn Steel introduced him to Jacobson, who spent a decade working on various Hughes films.
Jacobson says Hughes could write the first draft of a script in a week. "Once he had the characters and a strong idea, it would carry him all the way through," he recalls.
Hughes' method of shooting comedy has become virtually an industry standard. He'd often let the camera roll through four or five takes in a row, looking for the right tone and rhythm for a scene. "He loved his actors and loved language, so he'd shoot a lot of film," says Jacobson. "It became a big thing in comedy after John did it -- listening to the actors and looking for those great moments. John would hear a line and get the actor to go with it. It really wasn't the actors who were improvising. It was John improvising."
No one who knows Hughes is eager to theorize about why he dropped out of sight. It's possible that the filmmaker, who gave studio executives headaches when he was riding high, simply grew tired of the messy business of making movies and chose to pursue a simpler life.
Still, it's hard to find a thirty- or fortysomething writer or filmmaker who doesn't credit Hughes as a seminal figure in their movie education. "You see Hughes' influence on all TV comedy, especially the stylized single-camera comedy," says Apatow. "His great film characters, starting with Anthony Michael Hall in 'Sixteen Candles,' were big inspirations. When we were growing up, we were all like Hall -- the goofy skinny kid who thinks he's cool, even if nobody else does. 'Superbad' has that same attitude, that mix of total cockiness and insecurity."
Hughes' influence remains so lasting that when Paramount Vantage needed an iconic image for the poster for "American Teen," a documentary due out this summer that chronicles the lives of five high school seniors, it re-created the look of the poster from Hughes' "The Breakfast Club."
It's interesting that for all of Hughes' identification with teen films, some of his biggest fans, notably Apatow and "Wedding Crashers" director David Dobkin, cite his "Trains, Planes and Automobiles" as a favorite film. The 1987 picture offers a distinctive Hughesian riff on the odd-couple buddy picture, pitting Steve Martin's sophisticated marketing executive against John Candy's garrulous salesman when the two are thrown together trying to get home for Thanksgiving after their flight to O'Hare is canceled.
It is perhaps Hughes' most grown-up film, especially in the way it shows how the caste system in his teen films could carry over to adult life. Stuck in a dumpy motel far from home, Martin erupts, making no secret of his contempt for Candy's mindless chatter. Though clearly wounded, Candy throws us off guard with his response. "Yeah, I talk too much" he says. "I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. [And] I'm not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. Because I'm the real article."
Dobkin says scenes like that are great examples of what he calls Hughes' "clear voice. That argument in the motel is pitch-perfect. . . . It's the great thing about Hughes' films. He made them for himself, but when you watch them, you always feel that he made them especially for you."
This sense of personal attachment is a big part of the Hughes mystique. Producer Scott Stuber was such a fan that, as a teenager, when he wanted to impress a girl, he'd get her a soundtrack from a Hughes film. "He somehow knew we were all struggling with the same things," Stuber says. "Whenever I watch a Hughes film now, I remember the euphoria of being 13 and falling in love with movies."
The Big Picture runs Tuesdays in Calendar. E-mail ideas or criticism to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.