Directors’ Trademarks: John Hughes

John Hughes’ is one of the most influential filmmakers of the past few decades. His contributions as writer, director, and producer have created many well-loved and contemporary classic films. While his impact as a filmmaker in general overshadows his contributions just as a director, there are many commonalities between the films he directed versus the films he only contributed a script. As such, the trademarks considered below are meant to represent the films directed by John Hughes, but they can easily also apply to the films he contributed to, but did not direct.

Hughes’ career began as a writer for several advertising campaigns. He went on to join National Lampoon where he wrote several films including 1984’s Vacation, and 1983’s Mr. Mom before earning a 3-picture deal to direct. His directorial debut was 1984’s Sixteen Candles, which was well received by critics, and became profitable, but was not a hit. Hughes’ follow-up was 1985’s The Breakfast Club, which became a box-office hit, and is widely considered one of the best films of the 1980’s. That same year he directed Weird Science, which was a moderate hit despite lukewarm reception by critics. In 1986, Hughes directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which audiences and critics both loved, and has since had a significant cultural impact. In 1987, Hughes released Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which continued his trend of successful films, which are appreciated by both audiences and critics. In 1988 he directed She’s Having a Baby, which marked a sharp turn towards more serious drama, and, as a result, was not as well received by critics or audiences. His follow-up was 1989’s Uncle Buck, which had mixed reviews, but was successful at the box office. John Hughes’ last film as director was 1991’s Curly Sue, which received negative reviews, and was not as well loved by audiences as his previous films had been.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a John Hughes film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of John Hughes’ trademarks as director, in no particular order:

Playing off of Stereotypes

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Hughes’ greatest contribution as a filmmaker, not just a director, is the way that his films went against established stereotypes that had previously not been explored onscreen. He took seemingly simple ideas and found great meaning and importance that many people had overlooked. His teen films went against the establishment that teens should be treated like children. He showed that growing up was difficult and more complex than it seemed. Furthermore, people could not be defined just by a single element, such as the way they looked. Weird Science focuses on two geeks who are picked on, only for them to become the coolest kids in school. Breakfast Club showed how people of different, conflicting backgrounds could find common ground and friendship, despite social norms. Hughes also went against the widely-held idea that parents know best. In many of his films, the parents or authority figures are the ones to blame for many of the pressures and issues that their children have to deal with. In The Breakfast Club, all of the kids in detention have some sort of issue with their parents that they are dealing with which influences their life negatively. In Sixteen Candles, Samantha’s parents forget her 16th birthday because of her sister’s wedding, and she feels unimportant because of this. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you have the school principal transformed into a comical, slapstick villain. Finally, in John Hughes more adult-themed films, he is also playing his characters off against stereotypes. Uncle Buck can’t be defined by his appearance or flaws, he has much more to offer. More importantly, he grows from his experiences to become a better person. The same can be said about the main characters in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Suburbia, Illinois

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John Hughes earlier films typically told coming-of-age stories. The fact that these coming-of-age stories all took place in seemingly the most boring place on Earth, the suburbs is not a coincidence of oversight. Hughes grew up outside of Chicago, and from this familiarity with suburban life he drew a lot of the inspiration for his films. Furthermore, the suburbs were a familiar place to a lot of people, yet because of the stigma they carried as an uninteresting setting, few films took place there. By featuring the suburbs and the challenges associated with growing up there, Hughes films appealed to a segment of the population that traditionally had not been represented in popular culture. Hughes’ characters became heroes, and even if he didn’t make growing up in the suburbs cool, he made it interesting and entertaining. All of Hughes’s films either take place outside of Chicago or mention the city in some significant way. In particular, a majority of the films he has written or directed at least mention the fictional city of Shermer, Illinois. Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Plains, Trains, and Automobiles, Home Alone, Pretty In Pink, Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and She’s Having a Baby all feature this fictional city in some way. 

The Brat Pack

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Hughes’ films are often associated with the so-called Brat Pack, even if he wasn’t really involved in its creation. Instead, Hughes’ films often told coming-of-ages stories in a suburban setting, and young audiences of the 1980’s could easily identify with the characters and situations that he created. As such, the actors portraying those characters became incredibly popular and were often cast together, including several times in Hughes’ films. Like the exclusive 60’s foursome from which it takes its name, the Brat Pack originally referred to a group of successful young men (Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage, Matthew Broderick, Matt Dillon, and Judd Nelson) who often enjoyed having a good time together off-screen. Later, membership of the group was expanded after the success of two films in 1985; John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, and then St. Elmo’s Fire. The Brat Pack was redefined to include the main cast of both of these films, including Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, and Ally Sheedy. Sixteen Candles (featuring Ringwald and Hall) would be Hughes’ first film starring members of this group. Anthony Michael Hall would be featured in four films written or directed by John Hughes, while Ringwald is featured in three of them. Unlike earlier Rat Pack films such as Taps or Class, Hughes’ films felt more realistic and representative of the challenges facing a new generation of young people growing up in the 80’s. Hughes simply became more associated with the group because his films reached and connected with more people and, in turn, made the actors stars more so than from other films.

Common Endings

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Hughes’ films are, well, somewhat formulaic. He uses a lot of similar structural and stylistic elements in his films, including montages, breaking the fourth wall, and similar music. He is known more for his writing talent and creating memorable characters rather than exploring new avenues of film production. However, this common feel across his films actually ends up working for him rather than against him. First, consider that what Hughes did in his films has since been repeated endlessly (which is why it seems somewhat plain today). At the time, his approach, while not necessarily stylish or exciting, was effective and interesting. No one had seen real life come alive in films as much as Hughes did. People saw themselves in his films, rather than seeing them as pure entertainment. Second, Hughes was consistent in his approach. This meant that fans watching a Hughes film could expect a certain magic. That magic is achieved in a large part due to the way his films end; i.e. happy. In Hughes’ films, the right guy gets the right girl. The character down on their luck ends up winning. Problems are solved. Typically, Hughes ends his films with one character embracing another. In Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the film ends with Steve Martin’s character embracing his wife. In Curley Sue, the ending is a hug between Bill, Grey and Curley Sue. In Uncle Buck, there are several hugs and the ending is happiness all around as everyone’s problems have been resolved and the future looks rosy. Sixteen Candles has perhaps the most famous John Hughes typical ending, with Jake and Sam kissing over her birthday cake. The scene then freezes with the credits scrolling up. The freeze-end is also a common ending for Hughes. Most notably in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when he relaxes into his bed with arms behind his head and a smile on his face. The image freezes before fading to the end credits.

Locking Eyes

930862 orig2911098 origOne shot that is common in Hughes’ films is a close up shot of two characters’ eyes. Typically, these characters are looking at each other, and Hughes is emphasizing this with the extra attention to detail.It’s a versatile action for his characters to perform, and in nearly every occurrence in his films it is for a different reason. Sometimes these exchanges are simply two characters eyeing each other, such as when Allison receives her makeover in Breakfast Club and Andrew can’t stop staring at her. At other times, the two characters’ faces are scrunched in anger. This is the case in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris Bueller gives his sister a look as if threatening her to not get him in trouble when she sees that he has been lying about being ill. Or it can be a competition, as in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles when Steve Martin and Kevin Bacon both spot the same taxi and they know that it will be a race to grab it.

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Want more Directors’ Trademarks? Check out the last installment:

The Coen Brothers