John Hughes movies inspire a memoir
To grow up on Chicago's North Shore in the 1980s and '90s, Jason Diamond writes in his memoir (published in November), was to grow up in a world that looked an awful lot like a John Hughes movie. "Sixteen Candles." "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." "The Breakfast Club." "Uncle Buck." "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." All were filmed in Chicago's wealthier suburbs to the north, where a discombobulated childhood like Diamond's can be hidden from view behind an upscale facade.
The turbulence of his parents' marriage and his difficult relationship with both takes up the first half of his book, "Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching '80s Movies."
In it, the stories he tells are a reminder that we never know what goes on behind closed doors. In Diamond's case, that meant his parents divorcing when he was young. A verbally and physically abusive father. And a mother who informed him as a teenager that she was moving out of state and preferred he not come with her. Diamond was left homeless and fending for himself, couch-surfing through much of high school.
But the movies of John Hughes (who lived most of his adult life in the Chicago suburbs where he made his films) were instrumental in shaping Diamond's expectations. "As a kid," he said when we spoke recently, "I was watching these movies and thinking, 'This is what life is supposed to look like,' because if you live in any of those areas — going from Evanston, straight up north — you're going to recognize it."
Here he is writing about that sensation in his book:
"Hughes utilized the area in almost everything he directed. Scenes from 'Uncle Buck' take you from Evanston to the forest in Wheeling, the 'Home Alone' house is in Winnetka, and the Glencoe church was where he filmed the wedding scene in 'Sixteen Candles.' He was taking a lot of what I was seeing from car windows and giving it to the world in movie form. His movies offered up the sense that things were supposed to be normal where I grew up, that the road could get bumpy but ultimately it would get better. It was boring, and that was just fine. That's why my parents moved out there in the first place; they dreamed of normalcy but found out it takes more than just the proper setting. Things didn't turn out as planned, but when re-watching any Hughes movie, I can still see why they thought this was the place where they wanted to make things work."
Hughes died in 2009, but a decade earlier, Diamond (who now lives in New York and is the sports editor at Rollingstone.com) was mulling over the idea of writing a Hughes biography and hoped to "run into" him despite the fact that by this point, Hughes had withdrawn from public life.
I asked Diamond if he really thought he would be able to track Hughes down just by spending time in the suburbs.
"Yeah. I did." He sighed. "Part of me thought, 'It's the suburbs, how hard would it be?' Like, I knew a kid that caddied with the Murray brothers (Bill and the rest) when they golfed in Winnetka. And I always heard of Vince Vaughn sightings. So how hard would it be to bump into John Hughes?"
What kinds of conversations did Diamond want to have with Hughes?
"I would have loved to ask him why he walked away. He kind of faded from view. It makes sense. He got super rich in the '90s. And when you look at how people treated him in the '80s when he was actually full-on writing, producing and directing these films, critics weren't that kind to him. And my theory is that he was like, 'Screw it, it's not worth it.' But I think deep down he still wanted to tell those stories. There's a Vanity Fair article that came out the year after he died and it talks about how there is a whole town of Shermer that goes beyond those couple of movies."
Shermer, Ill., was the fictitious setting of so many of his movies, with Shermer High School popping up in everything from "The Breakfast Club" to "Weird Science" to "Sixteen Candles."
"There are hundreds of notebooks that he left behind," said Diamond, "and in them there are details like John Candy's character from 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' is neighbors with John Bender, Judd Nelson's character in 'The Breakfast Club.' Shermer was its own little world to him, like Springfield on 'The Simpsons.'"
Hughes did make room in his movies for the kid with something darker going on at home _ "Ferris Bueller's" Cameron or "The Breakfast Club's" Bender, "Pretty in Pink's" Andie _ but Diamond also writes about the other side of that coin:
"While they all have their problems, and all of them have to deal with the same teenage malaise we all feel growing up, the happiest and most well-adjusted kids in John Hughes' films are the ones from normal families. By 'normal' I mean the parents are living and functioning together under the same roof. I know there's hardly such a thing as a family who could be described as totally natural and regular, that something is probably lacking beneath the surface. But for what it's worth, Ferris Bueller seems as if he enjoys his life, Samantha in 'Sixteen Candles' has it all together, aside from her parents forgetting her birthday. Their families might be a little dim or absent-minded, but we're not given an indication that there's anything off about them."
"Home Alone" (directed by Chris Columbus but written by Hughes) seems eerily close to Diamond's own experiences: A kid, absent the presence of one or both parents, is left to fend for himself.
"I saw it in the theater when I was 8," he said, "and remember thinking, 'Oh, I could absolutely do that. I could live on my own. I could make my own microwaved dinners and be fine.' I do think it put something in the back of my head that a kid could live on (his) own and be self-sufficient. I've thought about that quite often."
In an email follow-up, he had this to say about those Hughes movies from the '80s:
"It's silly to think about that now, but when I was a kid, I looked at those films and really figured that was how life was going to look one way or another. I'd get married, have a few kids, and live in a nice house in Glenview or Evanston or something and there would be ups and downs but nothing too crazy. As I started to get older I began to realize that maybe that wasn't the life I totally wanted, that I wanted to write and live in a city, and that maybe things in the suburbs weren't as nice and clean as I thought because of movies."