The National Film Registry of the Library of Congress is a kind of hall of fame, a Cooperstown for important American films of every genre. "The Breakfast Club" just joined "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," another of John Hughes' teen anthem pictures, in the pantheon of America's best. Some people grow out of their teen-movie phase the way kids grow out of memorizing dinosaur names. But for Jason Diamond, like Hughes a child of the Chicago suburbs, the films resonate well beyond the hormonal roller-coaster of teendom. He set out to write a Hughes biography, but the book "Searching for John Hughes" turned into something else altogether — as did Diamond.
What is so enduring about the films that John Hughes made?
I think especially with a movie like "The Breakfast Club," which to me stands out among the quote-unquote teen trilogy of Hughes films, the ones he produced, wrote and directed, where it really digs into the social lives of teens and looks at the different cliques, the different ranges of emotion which anybody who was a teen knows that when you're a teenager, you have nothing but emotions.
But with movies like "Ferris Bueller" or "Pretty in Pink," I think there's just everything from the fashion to the ideas behind a character — like Ferris Bueller just wanting to have a perfect day before he's too old to do something like that.
I don't know about you but I was so happy not to be a teenager any more, and I was very happy not thinking very much about it in the years after.
I actually hated being a teenager. It's kind of funny because as I grew up, I idolized teens. I wanted to be a teen when I was 6 and 7 and 8. I saw my babysitters and all the older kids and thought, They're so cool — I want to be like that then. When I became one, I was horrible — this is the worst time of my life. When I grew up, I realized I didn't have all the cinematic teen experiences I grew up wanting to have. All the Hughes movies painted a picture of high school as being difficult but not terrible, and I feel like when you're a teen everything is terrible. [The 2016 film] "The Edge of Seventeen" does a really good job of portraying how everything looks so crazy and so insane to you, and everything seems like the end of the world. A movie like "The Breakfast Club," for instance — it's been so culturally important for so long, high school health class teachers show the film as a teaching tool.
What was your John Hughes movie epiphany?
I think the first real big one is when I realized Molly Ringwald's character in "Pretty in Pink" was one of my first heroes. In her, I saw somebody who didn't care what anybody thought and was just effortlessly cool, and just sort of coasted through the mud and mire of high school, and I remember being maybe 8 [years old] and thinking, I want to be just like that.
As you grew up, did these movies stay with you?
Oh absolutely. It's not one of the teen movies, but I watch "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" every year around Thanksgiving. Then I watch "Home Alone" almost every Christmas. Any time "Ferris Bueller" is on, I will sit down and watch it. Because I've been watching those movies since I've been a little kid, the characters are almost like families to me. It's quite like a weird, strange, suburban family.
Even after I wrote this book, I'm still not sick of them. I really thought that would be the end of it — I could never watch "The Breakfast Club" ever again. But if it's on right now, I would definitely sit down and watch it.
You decided to write a biography of John Hughes without ever having written a biography, having no sense of where you were going with it, and not having really any way to talk to John Hughes.
I thought it was a good idea. When you're in your early 20s and you move to a place like New York or Los Angeles, or any city where people are making things happen, you automatically want to jump in and start making things happen yourself.
I kept hearing people say, write what you know, and I'm like, well, I know about John Hughes movies. I know a lot about Chicago. There's never been a great John Hughes biography. Why don't I be the 24-year-old barista to leave the shackles of making espresso drinks for people and write that biography?
You can't just do that, but I thought I could. I learned the hard way through five years of trying to track him down, trying to track down people who played certain characters in the movies, that it just wasn't going to happen.
You wrote in the book that you were looking for him, but you'd subconsciously started to understand why writing that book was your destiny: You wanted to live in a John Hughes film.
Yeah, absolutely. It gave me some sort of hope. My childhood, there was a lot of turmoil and I thought maybe if I stayed the course that one day maybe I'd end up in a nice house with a front yard a couple of kids and that would be it — that'd be my nice life. It'd look like a Norman Rockwell painting, or a John Hughes film.
In your book, what you describe as a biographer has a lot of things in common with a stalker.
I didn't go to his house or anything like that. There was a documentary that came out a few years ago where these filmmakers who drive from Toronto and put the script in his mailbox — at least I didn't do that. I did chase down Matthew Broderick on the street and tell him I was writing a biography on John Hughes, and I do feel sorry, and if I ever meet Mathew Broderick, I would apologize for that. The Ally Sheedy part of the book, I didn't feel like this was stalker-y but I do feel like an idiot for trying to act like I was talking to an agent on my telephone, and I didn't even have an agent.
A bartender in Chicago heard you talk about this book you were working on and he said it sounded like the book is more about you than about John Hughes.
It's definitely something that stuck with me. A couple of years later I dwelled on it, and I was like, Oh yeah, that bartender was probably right: I was not writing a book because I felt like the subject — I'm obsessed with the subject, but I think at some point it became, this is my great quest. And I think the whole point of writing a book kind of escaped me. It became more of something I felt necessary, like I had to do it to prove myself, to quote unquote become a writer.
Where do you think John Hughes is in the great canon of film?
When I was trying to write the biography I think I was feeling he belongs alongside Hitchcock and every French New Wave filmmaker — I had all these lofty ideas that he's one of the great filmmakers. And that wasn't the answer. I think in time he's carved out his own place as the person who I think changed the teen film, and also, in a broader sense beyond film, he changed the way we talk and write about teens, in a lot of ways.
I don't know many Ferris Buellers in my life. I wish I did, because I'd love to drive around in a Ferrari for a day. But I do think he did a good job of showing that teens are people and teens have emotions.
He died young, at 59, in August 2009, and you were expecting to meet with him.
I feel like my life was a series of almosts, and also like false leads when it comes to John Hughes. When he died, I had totally been under the impression that I was going to meet him pretty soon. If I was really going to meet him, I wasn't sure what to talk to him about because it was such a big buildup, it was such a huge thing to me.
And finally, when he passed away, I just sat there thinking of all these things I have no right to want to ask. But I am a huge fan of his work and it means so much to me, I just wish I could have told him that. To this day, that's the one thing I wish I could have done,.
There's still a big standard biography of John Hughes to be written. Are you the guy to do it?
No, I don't think so. There was a great profile written about him in Vanity Fair a year after he passed, and it talked about his sons and how they have all these notebooks of his. If there's ever a collected works of John Hughes that is going to be put out into the world, I would love to somehow help work on that, if I were given the opportunity.
But besides that, I'm not sure that biography is my calling. I have also read a lot of biographies since then, and I realize what an enormous undertaking it is to write a truly great biography .
It occurs to me that movies, certainly since the 1980s, have become our virtual families and our social neighborhoods, and maybe John Hughes was partially responsible for that.
I've thought about that. Something I talked about in the book that I've always found fascinating is Hughes' background. He didn't go to film school; he came out of the advertising world. He definitely knew how to get you attached, which I think comes from that advertising background. He knew what pulled at people's heartstrings.
In books we read, films we watch, if we really connect with a character, we really connect with that story, that book or that movie becomes part of us. Every reading I do, I see a good amount of people there and I ask for questions and people raise their hands and they start talking about what those movies meant to them, in the '80s, in the '90s, in the 2000s, in the early aughts. They just start about their own memories with the film, and their own connections, and I'm just blown away by that.
I hope the answer to this is yes: Did you ever pull a Ferris Bueller?
Yes, I did! I've pulled too many Ferris Buellers. I don't know if I pulled them off the whole way through, but I definitely pulled off some pretty good ditch days, and I also went to some Cubs games on those ditch days. I feel like I did good on those days.