For your reading pleasure, please enjoy Backstory’s Black List Tales interview with Hughes writer Andrew Rothschild from Backstory Issue 35 – out now exclusively for subscribers.
What happened to John Hughes? It’s a question that has puzzled fans and cinephiles for decades. Why did one of the most successful and influential writer-directors of the 1980s pack up and leave public life behind? He last directed a movie in 1991, and though he would be credited on multiple scripts—oftentimes under a pseudonym—up until his untimely death in 2009, he stayed out of the entertainment spotlight for almost 20 years. The abruptness of his retreat from the industry paired with the enduring legacy of his films—The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, to name just three—is fodder for Hollywood to be interested in a spec script that opines what may have precipitated Hughes’ departure. And that’s how Andrew Rothschild ended up on the Black List.
After growing up in Houston as a self-professed theater kid then leaving to attend college at Sarah Lawrence, Rothschild mainly studied the stage but always wanted to write films as well. Eventually he had to choose between the two, and due in part to the uncreative state of the stage world in 2008, he opted for movies, enrolling in the University of Southern California’s MFA screenwriting program. Though he concedes he may have gone a different way if theatrical prospects were as exciting then as they are today, the eight years since he graduated in 2010 affirm he made the correct decision. His senior thesis project, Sequoia, was made into a film in 2014, where it premiered at South by Southwest, and he cocreated the Go90 web series Zac and Mia, which won him a WGA Award in 2018 for Adapted Short Form New Media. Though Rothschild gained invaluable experience writing Zac and Mia and other new-media projects, it left him a little burned out on the medium. He wanted to do a feature and kept coming back to an idea he had a few years prior: John Hughes. “John Hughes was one of the first director’s names I knew when I was a kid,” he says. “I knew he stopped making movies around 1990, and I just assumed he was old. Then when he died, I realized he left Hollywood for Chicago in his early 40s. When all the obituaries came out, nobody ever talked about it. It just seemed like this obvious question no one was even broaching.” Over the years, he tried to consume every bit of information on Hughes that he could, watching YouTube videos of the director and listening to any DVD commentary track in which he participated. Still, not much was out there. He did, however, have one source he still declines to name, an individual involved with one of Hughes’ films who offered to share tales of the director and info on some of the relationships in his life.
And there’s the rub in reading his screenplay Hughes, for Rothschild’s portrayal of the beloved director is not a flattering one, owing in part to the insight he gained. Though the script gives due accolades to him as a filmmaker, innovator and cultural touchstone, it paints a dark portrait of Hughes the man, husband and father. The script posits he oftentimes had too close relationships with the primary teenage stars of his major works, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall. In Ringwald’s case, it was an infatuation that made a lasting mark on Hughes, to the point that when Ringwald began dating Hall and taking roles in other films, the director began holding grudges against her. Ringwald herself has admitted in interviews that the pair didn’t speak for twenty years because of this. “It seems that most of John’s life from everything I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to seemed to be about trying to relitigate high school,” the writer says. “He always felt he never had the high school experience he was supposed to have, and that seemed to be a running obsession throughout his life. I very much felt that Michael (what Hall preferred to be called) and Molly suggested who he actually was in high school versus who he wanted to be.”
Hughes’ desire to be at the cool kids’ table affects his personal relationships in the script, particularly with his wife, Nancy. Because there’s so little information that is public about the couple’s marriage and the filmmaker’s post-1991 life, Rothschild invented much of what occurs in that time period, and he is up front with the reader about that, writing, “What follows is speculation,” right on page one. “In terms of Nancy, she is certainly the person about whom nothing is written,” he says. “She doesn’t come up in interviews and has only cameos in books written about John. So that character by necessity was going to be partly fabrication. I think she represented everything that wasn’t Hollywood in John’s life. She represented the midwestern and stable in his life, and I think in that sense there is a very abstract truth, but certainly she is the person about whom the script has the least factual basis.” Rothschild remembered the words of screenwriter Paul Attanasio, who penned films based on real events—Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show—and took them to heart when writing Hughes. “The ethical line he drew for himself was he didn’t want anyone that acted well to come off badly in the script and he didn’t want anyone who acted badly to come off well. That sort of become my mantra, too. I allowed myself a little invention as long as I adhered to that basic tenet to the best of my ability. It also says this is all speculation. I don’t think anyone will read the script and think they were an expert in the factual history of John Hughes. I wanted to be clear about what I was doing.”
Crucially, Rothschild never worried about the legal implications of what he was penning, choosing instead to write the story he envisioned and worry about everything else after the fact. “To me, whether it’s makeable or not was not at the forefront of my brain,” he says. “The worst thing that happens is I get a cease-and-desist letter from his estate. But it would still be worth the investment in terms of time and emotional energy. I would absolutely recommend to unproduced writers that if they have a story they’re passionate about to not get bogged down in legalities before they type, ‘Fade In.’”
Writing Hughes took about three months. The first act was Rothschild’s biggest challenge, which he says is normal for his process. The final version of the script opens with Hughes being interviewed by a reporter who confesses he’s written an unauthorized biography about the filmmaker. From that scene, the film toggles back and forth between Hughes’ past—including his first meeting with Ringwald and the making of some of his more seminal films—and its present, where the writer-director is trying to find out who in his life talked for the reporter’s tell-all. In the first few versions of the script, that opening scene came much later in the first act. “I kept thinking I had to show John’s status quo,” Rothschild says. “I thought I needed scenes where we see what his life is like in the present day and what his relationship with his wife is like. Then once all that is situated, we go into the flashback structure. It just didn’t work. I watched a lot of movies that used similar structure and it became clear to me that if you don’t start using it in the first 10 minutes, it just seems weird or awkward to bring it in later.” After a couple weeks of it not working, he literally woke up in the middle of the night with the answer: What if the reporter scene was the first scene in the script? “In retrospect it’s so incredibly obvious, and I feel stupid that it’s something that resulted in me throwing up my hands and exclaiming to my boyfriend that this movie wouldn’t work. It doesn’t seem like it’s a problem that should justify that, but it’s a very common thing.”
Perhaps no scene better represents the brilliance of Hughes more than one crucial moment that is part fact and part speculation. In the movie’s second act, we see the main cast of The Breakfast Club—Ringwald, Hall, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez—visiting Hughes’ house to discuss the script they’re all about to shoot. Hughes tells the group the studio made him rewrite the script to make it more of an ’80s teen film—meaning raunchy scenes and female nudity—but that Ringwald preferred earlier versions of the scripts she had seen. He told the actors they could go through the previous drafts and pick the parts they liked and they would create a new and final version of the script right then and there. That part of the scene—other than the fact that it happened at Hughes’ house—was true. What happens next in the scene is not. As Hughes and the actors are hanging out, with Hughes trying desperately to fit in with the younger actors, his 4-year-old son, Jamie, wanders in to visit his dad and ends up spilling a pot of coffee. Hughes loses it, yelling at his son and later his wife for the interruption. It’s the perfect summation of the script and why it would appeal to Black List voters: Here, Rothschild stages a major emotional character moment in the middle of a scene that depicts how one of the most revered films of the past 50 years was made. “It’s a complicated scene, and there’s a lot going on,” he says. “I thought people would be interested because it’s so iconic and the scene tracks John’s relationship with Molly, so it made sense from a story standpoint. He was someone who was very different around his family than he was around his teenage actors. In terms of Jamie, if scripts could be 180 pages long, that relationship would have been explored more in the script. But this scene provided a good opportunity to look at all those things at the same time.”
Rothschild’s agent, Amanda Hymson at UTA, sent the script out in October 2017. This timing is important to note because of what was happening concurrently: the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Suddenly, this script about a director and the complicated relationship he had with a young actress was going to be seen in a different light. The #MeToo movement would gain steam in the coming months, and even Ringwald herself penned an important and insightful essay in The New Yorker about Hughes and his work. To be clear, Ringwald has never accused Hughes of inappropriate physical behavior. It’s evident from her public comments that she considered the director a mentor and key figure in her life. But the essay does tackle the problematic way women are treated in his films, including characters she portrayed. “I became aware that the script read differently than it did just a week before [it went out],” Rothschild says. “My motive was not to sully the reputation of anyone if there was a speculative element to the script in terms of his relationship with Molly. My view of the interactions of what happens in the script is it’s about the tragedy that John seems to think he’s a 16-year-old in the body of a 36-year-old. The point of the script was not to call somebody out for perceived misdeeds but to get in the muck of a tragic and complicated human situation, and I think for both better and worse, there are people who read the script thinking I was trying to expose someone. For some people, that probably was interesting. I don’t know what Molly’s true experience was but certainly nothing in that piece she wrote led me to believe I got anything wrong.”
Whether the climate in Hollywood at the time affected Hughes’ reception in a positive or negative way is impossible to tell. What is certain is it not only ended up on the 2017 Black List and despite some potential thorny legalities, there is some interest in getting the film made. While that all rolls out, the Black List effect is in play: Rothschild’s career is on the fast track, with several projects and assignments in the works, including the creation of a fantasy series at AMC. “The Black List is what makes a script like this possible to write,” he says. “Before the Black List, I don’t think writing a John Hughes biopic would have been perceived as a good career move, but now there are scripts that are written in a ‘Black List’ style. It’s become its own genre to write in. I’m glad there is a Black List and that people were able to understand the value of this type of script.”
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