Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I didn't recognize John Hughes the first time he walked into the music department of the Barnes & Noble store I worked at, but a co-worker did. "That's John Hughes," he whispered. I wasn't so sure, but none of the three employees around that day had the nerve to say anything in any case. When he came up to pay, I figured there was nothing to lose.
"Are you John Hughes?"
"...the director?"
He just nodded his head in acknowledgment, and I may have said something about liking his movies. Then I had the thought of giving him my book Clumsy, which I had just self-published, and had some copies of behind the counter.
"Um, do you like comics?" I asked.
He was giving me a look of something between fear and curiosity. At least, the kind of curiosity you see in horror films where the character knows better than to check out the weird life form growing on the wall, but stands there a minute too long anyway. I think John Hughes actually started backing up a little, but I hadn't finished bagging his DVD's.
"Here, you can have this if you want, it's my book." I pulled out a copy and handed it to him.
He flipped through it and a look of relief seemed to come over him.
"I thought you were going to hand me, like Batman or something."
He ended up talking to me right there for almost an hour, about books and movies. He mentioned his son's self published art magazine project, and asked if I liked what Dave Eggers was doing with McSweeney's.
I think he tried to pay me for my book, but I don't remember if I took the money or not.

Even though I didn't know at first that this unassuming figure was John Hughes, I was very familiar with his films. When a friend of mine had hosted a 1980's themed party, I put on my Red Wings jersey, and everyone instantly recognized me as Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off . I knew The Breakfast Club, and I knew Home Alone. I went home that night to look up what other films he had worked on, and was astounded at the number of them that had played such a large part in my pre-teen and teenage years. National Lampoon's Vacation (& Christmas Vacation), Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Uncle Buck, The Great Outdoors. Looking at the list of his films all at once, it's a pretty staggering resume.

John turned out to be a regular in the store, buying stacks of DVD's, books and music. He would ask us for recommendations, and give some. He recommended the British TV show The Office, long before it was an American sitcom, saying he liked how it captured moments. The best times for me were when he would talk about his own work. He said "I like people who are ambitious..." and explained how at one point before becoming a full time director, he was working essentially three jobs. His day job was at the Leo Burnett ad agency in Chicago, but he would duck out to get on a plane for meetings as the editor of the National Lampoon. While he was gone he would have his secretary put hot coffee and half smoked cigarettes on his desk to make it look like he had just stepped out a moment ago. He had also started writing screenplays, which he would sometimes hide at the bottom of his garbage can underneath the rest of the trash, only to pull it out and brush it off at the end of the day to continue working on it. He also mentioned how he took over editing the National Lampoon letters page, and realizing that the magazine paid for letters it published, began writing the letters under pseudonyms for some extra money.

At one point someone approached me about adapting my book for film, and it went as far as a big official Hollywood type contract coming to me to sign. John talked to me about it and shared his own experiences. He talked about negotiating the money aspect, selling his first screenplay for something like $30,000 to get his foot in the door, and then later with Home Alone how he paid other producers on the film $50,000 for each of their "participation points" - the percentage of money they would get from what the film made - and each point ended up being worth millions.
The things he seemed to regret a little were some of the rights. He based the character of Clark Griswold in Vactation on his father, but because the film was written as work-for-hire, he essentially lost the rights to the character of his own father. He also talked about the movie studio wanting to make a sequel to The Breakfast Club, which he opposed. I think there were also negotiations for a stage adaptation of that film, the year long process falling apart when it became apparent that the producers intended to make it a musical. Those characters were ones John mentioned a few times, I think he felt protective of them. He said he wanted to write novels someday, maybe, about where they all were in life at age 40. He talked about being disenchanted with Hollywood in general, and wanting to move in other directions creatively. He also talked about being disappointed that Chicago wasn't as active a place for filmmaking as it once was.
Aside from the advice, John put me in touch with his lawyer. After sending the contract to the law firm, the package was returned unopened, and so John again contacted the lawyer and put me in touch with another person he worked with to make sure I heard back this time.
In the end nothing came of the film adaptation, although I learned a lot from the experience. The fact that John would do a favor like that for me was nonetheless astounding.

As time went on I began to transition to becoming a full time cartoonist, which meant cutting my hours at Barnes & Noble, which meant I saw John less and less. The last time I talked to him he was near the magazines. I remember talking about three things. First, he talked about film. How what he was interested in was low budget, documentary style film. Films that didn't use a lot of special effects, and asked me if I'd seen the film Open Water. He said he'd been working with a friend, taking a camera and just shooting on the spot, giving people fifty bucks to act in it. Second, he talked about a book project, and asked me if I knew anyone for illustration. I mentioned a few friends, and offered to help myself, but never heard any more about it. Finally, I had the thought of interviewing John, and although I knew he didn't really give interviews anymore, I thought I'd ask anyway. Knowing he liked a lot of what McSweeney's was doing, I asked him if he'd be interested in an interview for their sister magazine The Believer. He didn't seem to have heard about it, but he gave me a thoughtful look as if he would at least consider it. I never got to interview him, but his response was still polite. I feel like he was always very patient with me, always willing to give me some of his time, and I'm happy to have had those talks with him.

I saw John Hughes one more time after that. He was paying with a hundred dollar bill, and the cashier didn't have the change. Of course, he was buying eighty five dollars worth of books, so the cashier should've had changed, especially since it was a slow day. The cashier called the manager, who took a while to come down from the office, and rather than just switch out for change from another cash register, he slowly headed back upstairs to the office. All the while, John was becoming more impatient. I watched from where I was shelving some books as the manager finally returned with the change, but at this point - some fifteen minutes or more later - John no longer wanted change, he wanted his money back. The manager offered the money he brought, but John wanted the hundred dollar bill he had paid with. John took his discount card and attempted to tear it in half, but it was hard plastic, so he mostly just bent it up, and then tossed it over the counter, and stormed out without buying anything. It all seemed a little surreal. He never came in again.

The manager and cashier didn't really care. To them it was just another case of an unreasonably irate customer, and who he was seemed only to reinforce that - a kind of 'just because he's John Hughes he thinks he's so special' attitude. I guess my experiences with him over the past five years had been different. I thought he was special.

I don't know what John Hughes was up to the past eight years since I first met him. I know he had a wide range of interests in reading and film and music. I know he loved his grandchildren, who he was often buying DVD's for. I also know he was still really sharp, and still had a lot to offer, even though his incredible run of successful films seemed to have ended some fifteen years ago. Last Friday he passed away, and I think the world won't ever fully realize what it's missing.


  1. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing this.

  2. Wow yeah thank you for sharing this with us, it's great to have a first hand insight into his character. His films will always be special to me.

  3. That was great, Jeff. You should write more.

  4. Wonderful story. One small caveat--I think the NatLamp letters were always clearly fake--if he was editing the Letters page then he would have been contributing the comedic letters, along with other NatLamp writers. But again, thank you for sharing this.

  5. thats an awesome little story, would be cool to put it in illustrated form!

  6. thanks for your memories, jeffrey!

  7. I'm kind of late reading this- but it really touched me. Thank you Jeff!