My Job Interview With John Hughes

Monday, August 10, 2009

John Hughes Soon after I moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1986, the Paramount publicity department offered me a meeting with John Hughes on a film he was about to make called “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” I asked if I could see a script (I liked to be prepared for the “What do you think of the script?” query), but the guy from Paramount said that Hughes didn’t give out his scripts. I thought that was cool, very Woody Allen, for Hughes to keep the suits’ hands off of his screenplays. Of course, I couldn’t have cared less what the movie was about. I loved Hughes’ movies.

I got to the Paramount lot early, because everything about getting around in LA still flummoxed me, especially studio lots. I can get lost practically anywhere, but give me a little map filled with trailers that might not be there by the time I get to them, and I’m hopeless.

But Hughes didn’t have a trailer--he had a building. Hughes Entertainment was exactly where they said it would be on the map. I went up the stairs and took a seat in the waiting room. The place was nice, but it wasn’t trying to knock me off my feet with its massive import to the universe, like other offices I’d visited. It was low-key and hip. There was a bookcase designed to slant in this off-kilter way against the wall. It was cool looking, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t buy if I wanted to.

The characters in John Hughes movies like “The Breakfast Club” weren’t my age, they were a bit younger, but I related to them a lot, particularly Ally Sheedy’s character in “The Breakfast Club.” She was a weirdo, but I was an outsider in high school too—the only Jew and long-haired bell-bottom-wearing hippie. American high school life was pretty timeless, and I realized that these tales of people slightly younger than myself were written by someone slightly older. I had a certain idea in my head about what Hughes might be like. I wanted to be right.

I was ushered into a room where I was introduced to Hughes and his producer. Hughes set me at ease right away and asked me about the movie I had just finished working on--Robert Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War.” He had a lot of questions about Redford and also took an interest in the white paratrooper pants I was wearing. I had bought them at an Army-Navy store before I went to Belize for “The Mosquito Coast.” This was appropriate garb for the jungle heat, but back in the States they made me look like a fey guerilla wannabe, striding the mean streets of Westwood in my hiking books and Banana Republic safari shirt. Of course I thought I cut a raffish figure. Hughes loved my look.

Photo: Francois Duhamel

Me on the set of “The Mosquito Coast”

I could see that this wasn’t going to be one of those fussy job interview-type meetings; we were just going to shoot the bull until he could figure out if I was going to be someone he’d like hanging around. After a while I forgot that I was interviewing for a job I really wanted and started having fun. The only thing that was disconcerting is that his producer took an immediate dislike to me. I knew that wasn’t a good sign, as he’d be the guy who would really decide to hire me or not. But Hughes was the boss, so maybe I still had a decent shot at the gig.

After a while, I asked him what his movie was about. I knew next to nothing except the title and that John Candy and Steve Martin were going to be in it.

"Planes, Trains & Automobiles" Poster Hughes started telling me the story of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But he did much more than just describe the plot—he performed it for me. It was funny and moving, just the way the movie would be. At the time I was thinking that he really must have connected with me to tell this story that was a Woody Allen-style secret. Looking back I realize he was doing something a similar to a pitch. But pitches are for high-powered studio execs, not for lowly Unit Publicists. The Unit Publicist usually ends up on the credits somewhere between Craft Service and the guy who drives the Honey Wagon (toilet truck). But talking through stories was a normal aspect of LA life, and for some reason, he felt like telling his story to me. It was wonderful, but as he went on, I kept thinking. “There is no possible way he is going to take this all the way to the end….” But he did. He performed the whole damned movie just for me.

When the show was over, so was the interview. Hughes said goodbye to me warmly and the producer looked at me like I had just killed his dog. Perhaps he had heard the story of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” a few times before and didn’t appreciate a guy who could elicit another retelling. Still, I left feeling it had been a good meeting and I felt pretty confident I was going to get the job. I was very disappointed when the producer called me the next day and said it wasn’t going to work out.

What film did I end up doing instead? A Molly Ringwald vehicle called “For Keeps.” It wasn’t the only time I would encounter important people from the Hughes universe. I rode from the set of “Jacob’s Ladder” with a pre-“Home Alone” Macaulay Culkin (who played Tim Robbins’ son), and years later I became Ally Sheedy’s publicist, beginning a friendship that continues to this day. A lot of representing Ally involved fielding “Brat Pack” memory requests, including a very nice tribute to “The Breakfast Club” in Premiere Magazine.

I would really have liked to have worked on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” and gotten to know Hughes a little bit. What would he have been like? I’ll never know, although this person’s beautiful story tells a lot. But I had a really entertaining and memorable experience meeting with Hughes. I got my money’s worth, as much as I did at “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Home Alone,” and of course, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” Looking back, I’d have to say it was the most successful job interview I had during my years in LA.


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