Word of Mouth: Topher Grace’s ode to the ‘80s

Actor Topher Grace wanted to make a movie that treated the 1980s the way George Lucas viewed the 1960s in “American Graffiti” or Richard Linklater remembered the 1970s in “Dazed and Confused” — more fond memory than mean-spirited satire. But Grace and his collaborators also believed their “Take Me Home Tonight” couldn’t avoid the era’s drug use. “You can’t do a movie about prohibition,” Grace says, “and not show alcohol.”

That decision was one of many factors — including moving to a new studio — that helped postpone the film’s release for years after principal photography was completed in early 2007. At last, the movie is opening Friday against tough competition from the animated “Rango” and the comparatively strong “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Beastly.”

Grace believes that the hold-ups had a silver lining — not only did they help preserve the film’s cocaine excesses but they also permitted director Michael Dowse to reshoot some key scenes to improve the film’s love story.

Set in 1988 and originally called “Kids in America,” the movie was made by Imagine Entertainment at Universal Pictures. Now, it’s being released by Relativity Media. It centers on Grace’s character, Matt Franklin, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who’s living at home and working at Suncoast Video (where Grace, a veteran of “That ‘70s Show,” had a job during high school).

Matt’s twin sister Wendy (Anna Ferris) takes him to a party where he reconnects with high-school crush Tori (Teresa Palmer), whom he never had the courage to ask out. Tagging along with Matt and Wendy for the festivities is friend Barry (Dan Fogler), who’s just been fired and is in a mood to consume as much cocaine and have as much sex as possible.


Grace — who had roles in “Spider-Man 3" and “Traffic” — also served as one of the film’s executive producers and has a shared story credit. He hopes “Take Me Home Tonight” is an end-of-an-era tale that also feels contemporary. Kids getting out of college today, he says, are about to share Matt’s struggle of finding a place in the world. “He has infinite options — and that’s what is paralyzing him,” Grace says of Matt. “He’s over-thought every single angle.” To help drum up interest in the film, Grace has screened it on college campuses.

Though Grace didn’t even enter his teen years until the 1990s, he says he and producing partner Gordon Kaywin were partially inspired to make “Take Me Home Tonight” because they felt that 1980s John Hughes-style ensemble movies — like “The Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles” — had unjustly vanished from the filmmaking landscape. At the same time, the now 32-year-old Grace says, movies about the ‘80s usually ridiculed the decade. “We wanted to make one of the first movies of the 1980s that wasn’t a spoof of the 1980s.”

But by including some of the era’s more disreputable indulgences — such as a scene in which Barry snorts up a “Scarface"-sized heap of cocaine — the movie ran afoul of Universal’s top brass, including President Ron Meyer, according to two people who worked on the film and spoke on condition of anonymity because they have business dealings with the studio. Early test screenings were also not encouraging. Without the studio’s support, the film’s release was in limbo. Universal says its decisions regarding the film were driven by business, not creative concerns.

When Relativity bought Universal’s Rogue Pictures division in a protracted deal in early 2009, “Take Me Home Tonight” was part of the package, but the film’s new studio wanted to reshoot several sequences to boost its appeal to women. A sex scene between Matt and Tori that initially happened in a room at a party was reset (to a trampoline) and rewritten so that it played less like a hook-up and more like the beginning of a relationship. While it was not difficult to reassemble the cast, Relativity struggled to get director Dowse, a Canadian, back into the United States.

“We have a studio that cares about the film a lot more,” Grace says. Referring to General Electric, Universal’s majority owner until very recently, Grace says that studio “was owned by a huge corporation, and they were really nervous about all the cocaine use. But we wanted to make a hard R-rated movie in a real way — and show what a cross section of these kids were like.”

Relativity, which is privately held and run by Ryan Kavanaugh, has modest expectations for the film (which cost $18 million before reshoots) and recognizes it will be a tough sell. Their hope is that enough young adults — and perhaps a smattering of people who grew up in the 1980s — will sample the film in its premiere weekend and recommend it to friends. To give prospective audiences a peek at the film’s raunchier moments, Relativity cut an R-rated trailer that can be found online.

“I have been able to sit with a crowd and listen to people respond to it,” Grace says. “I hope people have half as much fun watching it as we did making it.”