There's nothing to do when you're locked in a vacancy: "The Breakfast Club" and the luxurious intimacy of uninterrupted time

The crew joked John Hughes' masterpiece should have been called "Long Day's Journey into Detention"

Published March 13, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in "The Breakfast Club"        (Universal Pictures)
Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in "The Breakfast Club" (Universal Pictures)

"The Breakfast Club," which turned 30 years old this year, actually opens by namedropping its own birthday. After the on-screen quote from David Bowie’s “Changes” (suggested to writer/director John Hughes by cast member Ally Sheedy) shatters like a brick thrown through a window, we get a low wide shot on the front door of a high school. A weary, frightened voice we all know by now whispers:

Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062.

The line is part inside joke (the movie began principal photography the week of March 24, 1984), part unintentional branding — the 30th birthday of that date was a social media meme last year, and the newly restored version of the film that debuts at SXSW on Monday will screen in theaters around March 24 — but really, it's a statement of purpose: Open by telling us where and when "The Breakfast Club" happens and John Hughes tells us where he’s going with it. From that one line we know this will be an exceptional day (a Saturday in a school), one that signifies a moment before everything changes (March 24, right after spring break; summer and graduation coming fast) and that "The Breakfast Club" will concern itself with issues of time.

The opening date-stamp is far from the most quotable line of a movie overflowing with them. It lacks the mission statement of “When you get old, your heart dies,” the versatility of “You couldn’t ignore me if you tried” (the name of a 2011 biography of '80s teen movies) or the singularity of “neo-maxi zoom dweebie,” which has its own line of merchandise. It’s a tortoise, not a hare, endurance over flash. It reminds me that while I am exactly the right age for "The Breakfast Club" to be the movie of my generation, its gifts are bigger than nostalgia. Movies that are classics for all time and not just your time seem both familiar and new at each point in life you meet up with them.

Try this: Watch "The Breakfast Club," think about how much you have to do this week and then consider the last time you spent eight uninterrupted hours with a stranger and emerged the better for it? Maybe it's by definition a rare occurrence. Or it only happens when we are young and open to it. Or it happens against our will, like when we're stranded at an airport. Or maybe uninterrupted time in another’s presence, even for the young, the willing or the stranded feels as anachronistic in 2015 as Principal Vernon’s sharkskin suit.

Refresher: On a cold Saturday in spring, five high school students — a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), an athlete (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a basket case (Ally Sheedy) and a criminal (Judd Nelson) — are serving all-day detention and couldn’t have less in common except being stuck together for eight hours. By the end of the day, they realize they are all more alike than different. It all happens because of the eight hours of uninterrupted time they have been with each other.

Of course the teens in"The Breakfast Club" didn’t have smart phones to busy themselves with back in 1985. But I don’t think it would matter if they did. The movie remade (well) today would dispense with that issue by minute 10. A remake could also be dark and cynical, where eight hours pass and the characters try and fail to understand each other. "The Breakfast Club" isn’t, then, just about serving time with strangers, but what happens when you allow yourself to be taken in by unbroken time itself.

As a filmmaker, John Hughes leaned hard on specifics but reached for universals. The “Shermer, Illinois” of the opening is the fictional North Chicago suburb where all of his movies happened. And really, when you say “Chicago filmmaker” who else are you talking about? But remove the floppy disk jokes and the of-the-minute soundtracks and Hughes' movies are his own reworking of archetypes from classical Hollywood and American theater. "Sixteen Candles" is a Hudson/Day romantic comedy with Farmer Ted filling in for Tony Randall. "Ferris Bueller" might as well be subtitled "Chicago! Chicago! It's a Wonderful Town!" Crew members joked that "The Breakfast Club" should have been called "Long Day’s Journey into Detention,” with the library standing in for the Tyrones' home in Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork. John Hughes always had more than the present in his toolbox. He just thought the present, particularly for teenagers, was as much life’s enduring issues — fitting in, growing up, friendship, family — as any other time.

The premise of "The Breakfast Club" worried studio executives. They couldn’t see how a teenage audience would sit still for a movie about a bunch of teenagers warming up to each other while not much else happens. “There’s no action, no party, no nudity,” Hughes recalled one suit telling him as reported in in a 1999 oral history of the movie. Hughes won them over by securing about $1 million in outside financing and by keeping extravagances low. All of "The Breakfast Club" was filmed in a recently closed high school in the north Chicago suburb of Des Plaines (Jeannie Bueller would tell one of her brother’s well-wishers to “go piss up a flagpole” in those same hallways a year later). The crew built the library set in the school’s gymnasium with books on loan from the Chicago Public Library and wardrobe and makeup stuffed into nearby classrooms and offices. The cast bunked at a modest hotel near O’Hare airport and would rehearse for a now-luxurious three weeks before filming began. It was critically important to the director that the cast see themselves as celebrities or even young actors building careers. Given the movie’s theme, he wanted their month on "The Breakfast Club" to feel like something beyond the normal boundaries of time.

During principal photography the clock worked as both inspiration and obstacle. Hughes and his team had to make four weeks of film look like eight hours of a single day. The library where everything happened had to begin as a place of isolation and anger and transform into a place of intimacy and warmth.

Watching "The Breakfast Club" recently for perhaps the 50th time, I found it remarkable how thoroughly this transformation succeeds. Costume designer Marilyn Vance dressed the actors in layers, which come off as the bond between the characters grows. Cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth shoots with cold industrial lighting early on (the orange of the school lockers resembles prison jumpsuits), but as the day goes on, perhaps matching the progress of both the sun and the plot, the library becomes airier, almost hazy. Hughes’s screenplay deliberately removes both cutaways of the library clock and (more importantly) adults for the third act. And the final heartbreaking scenes, where the characters sit on the floor and understand that, somehow, without any of them knowing how, they have become friends, are blocked with the cast facing away from the entire library set, their former prison in soft focus behind them. Time, once their jail, becomes the thing that brought them together.

Those last scenes, compromising 35 pages of script, took three days and came near the end of the shoot. One of those three days was the day Roger Ebert visited from the Chicago Sun-Times, and on that day both Anthony Michael Hall and Alley Sheedy had to break down and cry. According to Hughes, the whole set — including Ebert — cried with them. I like to think it was the moment they saw the theme of their movie come to life: that we are more alike than we realize. But they also saw what it took to get there, the time for characters to see themselves in each other and the space for the cast and crew to make a movie, several of the actors confided to Ebert, they could sense was going to be something great.

I have a feeling that something great feels a lot like what a friend of mine calls “linking souls,” the awakening of intimacy for the first time. It’s why so many stories of how couples got together include the phrase “we talked all night.” “It unlocked so much” recalled Anthony Michael Hall of the time and closeness that went into making "The Breakfast Club." “Like a family praying together.”

The scarcity of uninterrupted time and its power are sexy issues these days: The New York Times article “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” about a psychological experiment where two strangers spend unbroken hours asking progressively intimate questions of one another, went viral. WNYC in New York just launched the “Bored & Brilliant Project,” a series of challenges to put down your smart phone and “reclaim the lost art of spacing out” as fundamental to human creativity. The jukebox musical "Dear John Hughes," now playing in Los Angeles and Chicago, calls itself “an immersive concert mash-up.” The trailer shows the cast doing the Michael Jackson "Thriller" dance. Message: All the John Hughes moments you could want and some '80s pop references to boot, with time for dessert afterward.

Hurry is the enemy of a movie like "The Breakfast Club," and there’s some consensus amongst the Hughes faithful that its worst moments are when it seems to be rushing to make the wrong thing happen. Molly Ringwald’s Claire giving Ally Sheedy’s Allison a makeover feels kind but unnecessary. It’s also too neat and tidy that the five new friends end up with two couples. The couples themselves are less than believable, as if the movie felt like it needed to finish with bigger drama than it had created already.

And yet its last scene forgives all. The date stamp, we find out, belonged to the first draft of a letter written to the evil principal who demanded the five friends spend the day writing an essay about who they thought they were. Brian writes one letter speaking for all of them. In a voice whispered but firm, he explains they’ve each learned they are all a little bit of each other. The immortal last shot, after four sets of parents have picked the other kids up, is the criminal John Bender (Nelson), walking home across the athletic field and throwing a fist into the air.

What does it mean? Is Bender psyched that he got to kiss the prom queen? That he and his new friends stuck it to Vernon? Was it a practical decision, as Bender was the only character at the end of the movie on foot?

Or maybe John Bender, who began the day the most wounded, angry and isolated member of "The Breakfast Club," now feels the most transformed. Maybe now he feels beyond having to fight for a place in his own life. And maybe, along with his four new friends, he’s discovered that, beyond what happens on Monday (the most common question the cast reports they still get), they’ve all had eight unforgettable hours together. Connection begins when you realize you have more time for that than you think.

Until you don’t. "The Breakfast Club" was filmed in sequence, the last shot on the last day of shooting. When they got the take they needed and everyone knew what had happened between them would now be over, Judd Nelson kept walking until he was out of sight. “I was heartbroken” said Hughes in the oral history. Saying nothing after “cut,” he got into his car and drove away.

By Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

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