"Risky Business" director: "Some people like the visibility. I don't"

The reclusive director of the 1983 hit talks to Salon about the film, Tom Cruise, and turning down "Forrest Gump"

Published September 2, 2013 7:30PM (EDT)

Rebecca De Mornay and Tom Cruise in "Risky Business"
Rebecca De Mornay and Tom Cruise in "Risky Business"

One of the most iconic '80s teen movies not connected to John Hughes turned 30 in August. "Risky Business," the film that made 21-year-old Tom Cruise a household name, was also a promising directorial debut for Paul Brickman, the Chicago native who also wrote the tale of Joel Goodsen, a sexually repressed North Shore high-schooler, who falls in lust with a trouble-magnet call girl (Rebecca De Mornay) while his parents are on vacation. But as Cruise's star rose, Brickman retreated from Hollywood.

Just 34 when "Risky Business" was released, Brickman directed just one other feature, the 1990 bomb "Men Don't Leave." The alchemy that made the filmmaker's arrival so enduring — elegant direction atypical of coming-of-age films; sparkling adolescent dialogue; the use of Tangerine Dream's propulsive, hypnotic score — makes his lack of output over the last three decades all the more surprising.

Recently, I gave the hermit-like 64-year-old a call at his home office in Santa Barbara. His first question: “How did you get this number?” But it didn’t take long for him to warm up as we discussed his one-hit wonder 30 years after it hit theaters — and the Academy Award–winning scripts he turned down as he steered clear of Hollywood.

What was on your mind as your were writing the screenplay for "Risky Business"?

Well, I headed out to a rented cabin in the West to write it. I wanted to do a film for young people that was very stylized in a way that I hadn't seen before. I wanted to make the film that if I were in high school I would've wanted to see. I was writing it in the time just after Reagan had taken office and everyone wanted to be a little capitalist, get their M.B.A.s and wear power suspenders. I thought, That's all dandy, but life is more complex and darker than that. It's tough out there. Capitalism takes its toll on a lot of people.

Where did the title "Risky Business" come from? I’m glad there’s not a cheesy titular line in the film.

The working title was "White Boys Off the Lake." I think the studio rejected that because it sounded like an off-Broadway play. [Laughs] So we started doing word association to come up with a new title.

Were you acutely aware of the crop of low-I.Q. teen movies coming out at the time — "Porky's" and the like?

I don't know if "Risky Business" was a reaction to "Porky's." I don't know if I ever sat through "Porky's." What I was inspired by greatly is Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist." I thought, Why can't you present that as a film for youth and aspire to that kind of style and still have humor in it? That was the test: to meld a darker form of filmmaking with humor. Tone is what I wanted to play with. The Tangerine Dream score was all tone and texture.

Tangerine Dream was an odd but inspired choice for a coming-of-age movie. It added to the film’s dreamlike quality. What sort of direction did you give the band?

Initially we sent some film to Tangerine Dream in Germany and they came back with their first pass, and it was clear they were trying to write music to a typical teen movie. The chord changes were like '50s and '60s teenage rock. I remember going, "Oh, man. Do we start looking for new composers or do we stick with these guys?" That's when we — the music supervisor, producer Jon Avnet and I — got on a plane and went to Berlin. We hung out in Tangerine Dream’s studio for ten days and knocked out the score with them. I've played piano my whole life, so I have some musical background. We were very fortunate because the guys in Tangerine Dream were great collaborators. They had strange working hours. They owned and worked in an old church. We'd start work around dinner time and work through the night every night.

Which seems appropriate because "Risky Business" is very nocturnal.

Yeah, we had a lot of night shoots. One night we were filming the shots around Chicago’s Loop El tracks that were in the opening credit sequence of the city. It was a cold night and I was on a camera platform on a train all night long shooting with a second unit. I remember thinking, What am I doing here? I gotta have some fun. I gave them a series of shots to get and went up to a blues club in Rogers Park, got a drink and listened to this great harmonica player. When I got back downtown, the train was still going around the Loop and I got back on and we finished.

You were born in Chicago and grew up in Highland Park on the city’s North Shore. Did you always imagine your hometown as the ideal location for "Risky Business"?

Chicago is a set up well for "Risky Business," because you have the relative safety of the North Shore and you have the train line connecting to adventure and darker elements in the city. That’s the journey Joel takes. So it was an exploration of things not only geographically, but an exploration of the darker side of himself.

When you were an adolescent, did the city’s darker elements ever pull you in?

I tended to avoid the dangerous aspects of the city. But my friends and I used to go down to Old Town and hang out at Barbara's Bookstore. At the time, Old Town was kind of Chicago's answer to New York's Village. We would bring our guitars down there and play on the sidewalk.

Were you as anxious about your future as Joel is in the film?

I was not. I was fairly confident. Or I just didn't even think about it that much. There was this assumption that we would land on our feet. So maybe it was arrogance. [Laughs] My parents were very supportive and enjoyed my endeavors. My dad, Morrie, was a syndicated cartoonist. His most successful strip, "The Small Society," ran in about 350 papers.

You filmed in some favored Chicago movie locations, like Lake Shore Drive and the John Hancock Center, but also some suburban spots that seem to have personal significance.

I shot a lot of scenes in Highland Park, so there are a lot of personal spots. The exterior of Joel’s house is three minutes from the house where I grew up. Shelton's Ravinia Grill, where Joel and his friends talk about their futures, is where I used to hang out after walking home from school in the eighth grade. We'd go there and throw French fries at each other. Part of the car chase sequence with Guido, the killer pimp, goes by the Highland Park Movie Theater where I saw movies as a kid. I remember for the “love on a real train” scene, I was stuck on how to make that work. So John Avnet and I went to an Italian restaurant in Chicago one night that had the worst service I've ever had in my life. We were there for about three and a half hours. And we came up with this concept that the train car would come off the tracks and fly over the Chicago skyline. [Laughs] We shot it, but failed to execute it. It came across as pornographic.

As a first-time director, was the film’s mantra “Sometimes you have to say ‘What the fuck’" something that you were thinking about your own career?

Definitely. I had some less-than-positive experiences with other directors in terms of my screenwriting up to that point. I was thinking, I can't go through this again! They're destroying my work! So I either had to take a swing from the batter's box or throw in the towel, because I wasn't getting my work realized in the way I thought it should have been. So there was a what-the-fuck attitude to taking on the work on my own and making the film I wanted to make.

When most people think of "Risky Business," they think of Tom Cruise in his underwear dancing to Bob Seger.

Well, I think there's a universal connection to that scene. People can respond to that sense of freedom for a moment that's so exuberant and so much fun.

But my point is that it’s easy to forget how darkly satirical the film is.

Cruise’s living-room dance is a fun few beats in the film, but it’s the deeper themes that have carried the film through time. Some of the film's themes about success seem more relevant today because the world has gotten even more competitive. There's this exaggerated fear of not being able to get into the perfect school, which has become more inflamed. If those themes were really thin, this film would've disappeared into the ether long ago.

What was it like once "Risky" came out and it was a critical and box-office success?

The success of "Risky Business" was strange because I had Hollywood coming at me full throttle. I found it very uncomfortable. I moved out of L.A. immediately. Studio heads sent me wine goblets and food baskets. And people threw material at me right and left, and lined up to meet me. It gets uncomfortable.

You're a bit of a recluse, at least compared to the average filmmaker.

Some people like the visibility. I don't. I'm more from the J.D. Salinger school.

You didn't direct another feature until 1990 with "Men Don’t Leave," which was your last. There was this buzz about you when "Risky Business" came out that you were a new auteur, but you never capitalized on that.

Nope. I don't think I did either. I squandered a really good career. What can I say?

Do you really feel that way?

Looking back, I could've taken advantage of "Risky’"s success to a far greater extent. I could've done more.

Which scripts got thrown your way?

A lot of them: "Rain Man" and "Forrest Gump" and like a hundred others.

The ending of "Risky Business" was not the ending you originally scripted and shot. Geffen Film Company, the studio backing the film, demanded you tack on a less cynical final scene. Did that compromise underscore your feeling that you'd never get to make something in Hollywood that was your own vision?

Looking back, that's probably a component. I fought like a madman to preserve the ending. I got very close to achieving what I wanted and then the football was taken away from me like Charlie Brown and Lucy. I felt the film went out in a weaker form and it really bothered me. But if you wait long enough, good things come: The 30th anniversary came up and the Academy had a screening last month as part of its Oscars Outdoors series, which was great because I had never been able to present the film with my original ending to an audience.

I’m curious what you thought of the rise of John Hughes, another filmmaker from the Chicago area, who made popular movies about suburban adolescents.

I have to ask in response: What was the end of John Hughes's story? He walked away from Hollywood and really shut out the industry, too.

True. He was his own sort of recluse.

See what Hollywood does to you? Man! [Laughs]

"Home Alone," which Hughes wrote and produced, seems like "Risky Business" for…

For children! Yeah. And "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" seemed to have a lot of references to "Risky Business," too: the North Shore kid exploring the city, the trashed father's car.

How did you feel really seeing Cruise get super famous after "Risky Business." He’s exhibited some strange behavior through the years.

Tom, Rebecca De Mornay and I went out to dinner one night right before the film came out, and I told them, "Your lives are going to change radically now. I hope it's what you want.” Tom was like a younger brother on the set. We were very close. I was concerned for his overall welfare because there’s a certain Faustian arrangement with that kind of success. While I was happy that Tom's career took off, I was also concerned that it could affect him in some difficult ways, too, and maybe that's what happened to him. I stayed close to him for a while and as he got more successful, he became harder to reach. Unrelenting adoration can really twist you in some strange ways. It’s crazy to think that one day I was sitting in a cabin thinking of these lines of dialogue, and a few years later, these young lives were profoundly changed.

By Jake Malooley

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