They told us not to forget about them and they were right. On 15 Feb 1985, ‘The Breakfast Club’ was released – and 30 years later, it remains one of the most iconic teen movies of all time.
Telling the story offive diverse high school students locked up for the day in detention, it’s heartfelt, hilarious and authentic. Here’s how they did it.
For people of a certain age, the name John Hughes inspires a particular kind of awe. The ad copywriter-turned-filmmaker was responsible for several of Hollywood’s most enduring teenage movies, as well as writing brilliant comedies like ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’, ‘Mr Mom’, ‘Uncle Buck’ and ‘Home Alone’.
But when the reclusive writer/director died tragically in 2009 aged just 56, it was his contribution to teen cinema he would be most fondly remembered for – ‘Pretty In Pink’, ‘Sixteen Candles’, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and of course, ‘The Breakfast Club’.
“When I got my first real development job at Universal, I didn’t even really know what I supposed to be doing,” remembers Adam Fields, who was an assistant at Hughes’s talent agency when they first met and got walking while wandering the halls.
“I kind of knew I was supposed to call writers and get scripts. So I called John and said, ‘Do you have any scripts?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I wrote two this weekend.”
The first turned out to be 1984’s ‘Sixteen Candles’, which featured Hughes muse Molly Ringwald as a high school-er pining over a boy, while annoyed that her family has forgotten her 16th birthday.
Also starring Anthony Michael Hall, it struck a nerve if not a commercial jackpot, as well as helping to marshal the burgeoning Brat Pack movement that had been started by ‘The Outsiders’.
The second film – named after a phrase Hughes had heard his ad colleague’s teenage son using about Saturday morning detention – was ‘The Breakfast Club’.
Getting the band together
The success of ‘Sixteen Candles’ meant that ‘Club’ – which Hughes had originally written as a play – barrelled headlong into pre-production. Fields was the executive in charge, while it was down to casting director Jackie Burch to find the five actors who would be spending Saturday in cinematic detention.
“I think it was just a good time for young actors making movies back then,” says Fields (pictured above). “Movies were inexpensive to make, very inexpensive to market. I don’t remember ever having a conversation about needing ‘names’, which you have now.”
Ringwald and Hall were a given thanks to their relationship with the writer/director. “I think John saw a lot of himself in Michael,” says Fields (Hall’s three-pronged thespian name swaps his real-life first names around). Emilio Estevez as jock Andrew and Ally Sheedy as outsider Allison came next, but Hughes had trouble finding an actor to play John Bender, the loudmouth, edgy ‘criminal’ who rounds out the club.
John Cusack had worked on ‘Sixteen Candles’ and came close to landing the part, but lost out at the last moment, mainly thanks to Burch’s insistence he wasn’t right. Instead, it was Judd Nelson who eventually won out, having come into the audition in character and blown the cast away with his intensity. His performance would go on to break a million teenage girls’ hearts.
With cast in place and following three weeks of intense rehearsal, filming began in an abandoned high school near Chicago, the area Hughes liked to shoot all his movies.
“It was a high school that had been built and no-one came, so ultimately it just sat there,” recalls the film’s cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth (pictured above). “They had two interior gyms and one was huge and that was what John Corso the production designer decided to build the [library] set. The entire film takes place inside the school itself or just outside. We were never more than two hundred yards from the school at any point.”
Filming in the Illinois winter felt a world away from Hollywood, which was just what Hughes intended.
“It felt so innocent back then,” says Fields. “You didn’t have the micromanaging of a film that goes on now. I don’t remember any executives coming to set.” He laughs. “But I do remember being really frigging cold.”
"The inside was super-heated,” remembers Del Ruth. “There was the heating in the corridors and we had hundreds of movie lights. The crew would hang out on the second floor because it was out of the way and out of camera and a lot of the time, the assistant directors would have to walk around during takes and wake them up because they were snoring, which would break up the scene. It was like the tropics up there.”
Hughes left Del Ruth and production designer John Corso to concentrate on the visuals, preferring to focus on the performances. His close relationship with Hall and Ringwald was palpable and caused difficulties, especially because of Method actor Nelson, who liked to taunt his on-screen love interest. Some of his comments infuriated his director so much that he was almost fired, saved only after one of the producers told him to tone down his behaviour.
But Nelson wasn’t the only one who stayed in character. “Ally Sheedy spent the entire 12 to 14 weeks not saying a word!” says Del Ruth. “She was always hiding from camera – she was into her character 100%.”
However, for the cameraman, the set was far from the nest of teenage angst we see on-screen.
“I just think of John laying casually with his shoes off below the camera, directing,” he says. “He was in a hammock. It was like a little boy that was fascinated with something.”
With production over, Hughes went to Los Angeles where he rented Donald Sutherland’s house while he edited the movie. Already knee-deep in his next film ‘Weird Science’, a lot of the shaping of ‘The Breakfast Club’ was left to legendary editor Dede Allen, who had worked on classics like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon’.
“She took a very motherly approach to John and he allowed her to do that,” says Adam Fields. “‘The Breakfast Club’ was a much funnier, sillier movie until she got in there and with John made it more poignant and touching. I think the tone of the movie changed in post-production.”
Gone was an unnecessary fantasy sequence and scenes like one in which the male characters spied on a bunch of attractive older women taking an aerobics class in the school’s gym.
Hughes had also encouraged the cast to do some improvisation on set, moments of which remained in the finished product, like during the bit where they all get stoned.
Says Fields, “John had a magical way with the cast. It was almost like his own repertory theatre.”
Like many enduring films, ‘The Breakfast Club’ wasn’t a smash hit on release, taking in a modest amount at the box office. Some critics noted its qualities and the charisma of its actors, while Simple Minds’ credits song ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ reigned supreme in the charts.
But it wasn’t until years later that the movie’s true impact could be fully estimated.
“For me the barometer of that stuff is my 16-year-old daughter,” explains Fields. “She’ll email me something that’s brought up about it by her generation. When subsequent generations are talking about a film, that’s when it becomes iconic.”
Adds Del Ruth, “When I say I did ‘Stand By Me’ or ‘The Breakfast Club’, people go oh my God, regardless of whatever else you might have done. Ironically, those were the things I thought would probably be the least mentioned.”
So far, no-one has had the chutzpah to try and reboot ‘The Breakfast Club’, though the notoriously protective Hughes estate is unlikely to let anyone near the rights, even after his death.
Director Jason Reitman staged a fun, celebrity live-read of the script in 2011, with Jennifer Garner in Ringwald’s role and ‘Breaking Bad’ star Aaron Paul as Bender, but apart from that, there’s – thankfully – not been a sniff of remake.
And 30 years on, it’s clear the participants look back at the original with a huge amount of love.
“It was a great time,” says Fields. “We probably couldn’t get those movies made today.”
After his Brat Pack success, Hughes continued to write and produce, focusing more and more on family movies like the ‘Beethoven’ series and ‘Curly Sue’. There was the odd gem such as ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ and ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’, but not long after he quit Hollywood and returned to Chicago with his family.
He all but ex-communicated protégés Ringwald and Hall when they struck out on their own (not entirely successfully) and would occasionally write scripts-for-hire under the pseudonym Edmond Dantès.
But while his films were varied and occasionally brilliant, few were such a pure distillation of his talent and perspective as ‘The Breakfast Club’, which remains a classic watched by each successive wave of teenagers.
“The film hasn’t dated,” says Thomas Del Ruth, “because the truths that were presented in 1985 are exactly the same in 2015.”
Photos: PA/Giphy/MCA/Everett/Moviestore/Rex/NC/Keystone USA/Eric Charbonneau