"Some Kind of Wonderful" at 30: On the John Hughes film's epic romances — on- and off-camera — that endure

Salon talks to power couple Lea Thompson and Howard Deutch about making the film and falling in love

Published February 26, 2017 8:30PM (EST)

Lea Thompson in "Some Kind of Wonderful"   (Paramount Pictures)
Lea Thompson in "Some Kind of Wonderful" (Paramount Pictures)

This month marks the 30th anniversaries of both the release of "Some Kind of Wonderful," the last teen movie written by the genres' 1980s svengali John Hughes, and the relationship between the film's director Howard Deutch and star Lea Thompson, who met on set and began dating around the time of the "Wonderful" premiere.

Unfairly branded as a gender-reversal retread of "Pretty in Pink," a Hughes/Deutch collaboration from the year before, "Some Kind of Wonderful" was not a box office hit upon its release at the end of February 1987. Yet it endures as a late-arrival classic that holds its own among its better known Hughes siblings from the era, like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off.Recent fair-minded portraits of young people and the uncertain boundaries of friendship and love — "Juno," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "The Edge of Seventeen" — can legitimately be called its nieces and nephews.

Thompson, a veteran of more than 40 films and the NBC sitcom "Caroline in the City," can currently be seen on Freeform's (formally ABC Family) "Switched at Birth," now in its fifth season. Deutch, who also directed the Hughes-scripted "The Great Outdoors" and more recently episodes of "Big Love" and "Jane the Virgin," has a development deal at HBO and is scheduled to direct for the network's upcoming comedy series "Barry," starring Bill Hader.

Married since 1989, the two are parents to actresses Madelyn and Zoey Deutch.

Salon spoke to both Deutch and Thompson by phone about how "Some Kind of Wonderful" sprang them both from "movie jail," John Hughes' skill at writing female characters, and the film's most difficult kiss.

Here in the present, how often does "Some Kind of Wonderful" come up for each of you?

Howard Deutch: Quite a bit, actually. Which is ironic because it wasn't considered a hit when it came out. But it's a meaningful movie to people and I met my wife on set so it's a meaningful movie to me.

Most people talk about it like I talk about a movie I didn't direct and I don't think the other person has heard of. They don't talk about "Some Kind of Wonderful" as completely unknown or an underdog but they cherish it because it hadn't been this massive hit movie. It's not like they're saying, "Have you ever seen this little movie, "Back to the Future?"

Lea Thompson: It wasn't a bomb, but definitely a disappointment. Yet it seems to have a broad base around the world that are really touched by it and quote it. I just asked on Instagram and Twitter about everyone's favorite line from the movie and was amazed how many people have so many different memories of it.

I also hear from more men than women who love it, but I can't tell you why. Maybe because it's two girls fighting over a guy? Or because it's about a guy trying to find himself? I also hear from a lot of gay women who love Watts.

You both have worked more or less continuously in films and television since 1987. Where do you see "Some Kind of Wonderful" in the arc of your work?

Deutch: I had only made one other movie up to that point and couldn't cast the role Eric Stoltz ended up playing. Around that time, I ended up on a plane with (director) Brian De Palma, whom I didn't really know. He told me, "If you can't cast it, don't make it." I mentioned this to John and suggested I do one of his other scripts and ended up in movie jail. Paramount locked the door of my office.

Martha Coolidge (director of "Valley Girl") was brought on to replace me. The script was originally a broad comedy and John made rewrites to take it in the direction of Martha's sensibility, which was darker and more adult. Martha cast Eric. But when she and John had disagreements, I was brought back with a different script, a leading actor. A different movie.

Thompson: I was 26 when I made "Some Kind of Wonderful." Right before, I had made "Howard the Duck," which got terrible reviews. I thought my career was over.

Eric Stoltz, whom I had become friends with while working together on both "Back to the Future" [Stolz was the original Marty McFly] and "The Wild Life," acting as a messenger for Howard, delivered the script to my house. Howie saw me as right for Amanda even though I had already turned it down because I thought Watts [the character ultimately played by Mary Stuart Masterson] was the better part. I needed a job. Amanda was my second chance.

The character of Amanda Jones is a pretty girl who comes from a poor background and who knows being pretty has gotten her a rich, popular boyfriend, but in the end decides that's not being honest with who she really is. Though she's one of three lead characters in the movie, her story is the movie's primary themes — honesty, self-awareness, seeing past the surface of others — in miniature.

Thompson: Up until that point, I had mostly played characters who came across as likeable. So it was different for me to play the popular girl in a love triangle, even if she was the popular girl who lives in a crappy house. Finding the soul of the popular girl -- someone where it would be easy to say, "Ooh you're pretty, you're skinny, who cares?" -- that's really difficult. But I also got the part only a few days before we started shooting. So I had to draw on a lot of what I already knew, particularly how everybody tries to demonize everybody they don't know or only see at a distance, for Amanda.

Deutch: Of course, how sexy Lea was part of why I wanted her in the movie; I had a crush on her that all of my friends teased me about. But there's also something grounded and relatable about her on screen. She's blue-collar, not untouchable. That's part of why the audience doesn't doubt her choice at the end of the movie when the character says [she'd rather] "be with someone for the wrong reasons than alone for the right reasons."

Ms. Thompson, your initial training as a performer was in ballet. I see some of that in your early characters, like Lorraine in "Back to the Future" and Lisa in "All the Right Moves" — young women with a centeredness and balance in their physical presence who seem a bit wise beyond their years.

Thompson: During "All the Right Moves," I was dancing around the set. Michael Chapman, the director, yelled at me for it. "Your character's not a dancer!" So on that movie, my training was a detriment in some ways. But I did learn you can't be self-conscious about your carriage. It's death for an actor to be self-conscious about anything.

I don't think much about what the parts had in common. I was just trying to get a job. Still am.

Mr. Deutch, in looking at your films you seem particularly interested in odd pairings, from "The Great Outdoors" to "Grumpier Old Men" and "The Odd Couple II." And yet your first two movies, "Pretty in Pink" and "Some Kind of Wonderful," have three lead actors and the drama is all about who will pair up.  

Deutch: I don't really view my career that way. I think 90 percent of directing is casting, then enabling actors to bring the characters to life by way of what feels most true to them. That was what John Hughes was so brilliant at, for a character to be so alive on a page that the actor can already hear and feel the moments of truth in their story. And then to have those characters be so unique, like Duckie, Watts, Ferris, that they endure for years, even decades.

When John wrote for teenagers, his movies would typically have a large event that was like the sun and the characters would be planets rotating around that event. In "Ferris" it was a day off school; in "Pretty in Pink" it was the prom. You could say in "Some Kind of Wonderful" it was the date, but it doesn't have to be. And I was worried, with Mary Stuart driving Lea and Eric around on the date and wearing a chauffeur's uniform, that it would come of as silly and the audience would laugh and not take it seriously. But John wrote it as serious. The kiss at the Hollywood Bowl was a very serious moment, both in the movie and for the actors, to have it feel real. Even though this was John's last movie about teenagers; you can already see him turning toward more adult themes.

Thompson: John wrote great parts for women. In one scene early on, where I'm sitting in the car and my boyfriend (Craig Sheffer) is being a jerk to Eric, John was on set. I happened to be carrying a purse in that scene and John asked to see what was inside the purse because he wanted to know if I had packed it with stuff Amanda would have in her purse instead of just treating it as prop. When he saw that I was playing the scene as Amanda instead of with a fake purse, I felt like I had understood the character as he wrote it, like I passed a test.

Mr. Deutch, you and John Hughes met during "Sixteen Candles" (1984), his first movie as a director, when you were hired to direct the trailer. The opening of "Some Kind of Wonderful," where we see each of the three principal characters in montage, feels like a trailer for the rest of the movie.

Deutch: I'd love to take credit for that, but that's how it was written. John had this piece of music he thought would be right for it. The music had emphasis on the drumming and we had a character who was a drummer. Now, crosscutting is a technique I find particularly powerful, but the idea of using it as a way to introduce the three leads was John's.

It's my second favorite scene in the movie behind Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) teaching Keith (Eric Stoltz) how to kiss in preparation for his date with Amanda, even though she's secretly in love with him. I think it's the greatest kiss in movie history, bar none.

Deutch: A lot of that is Mary Stuart. Her performance, of being in love with her best friend, while acting like a best friend, of also refusing to feel sorry for herself, makes that scene.

John had called that scene "a kiss that kills" after a line he gave to Mary Stuart's character. He liked to write at night while I slept on the couch at his house. One morning, I was waiting for rewrites and he showed me that scene that he had probably written in an hour, maybe 20 minutes. But that was the way he worked. One night, while I was asleep waiting for rewrites, he told me he had written the first 50 pages of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" instead.

What was the experience for both of you of being into each other and working together?

Thompson: Big and strange. "Some Kind of Wonderful" was my eighth film and I was already a bona fide movie star thanks to how big "Back to the Future" had been. But I didn't quite see myself as an adult. Howie is 11 years older and I was engaged to someone else (actor Dennis Quaid) at the time. But Howie seemed very exotic, a different status, like a man, not a half-man. He's a complicated, weird dude with his own neuroses and I didn't understand his kind of thing. Up until then, I'd mostly been with actors and dancers whose thing I understood.

Nothing happened during the movie. I knew he had a crush on me but it took time to play out.

Deutch: Of course I had a crush on her. But I had also been given another chance to work and I had so little time to prepare. I couldn't think about anything else other than making the movie.

Your eldest daughter (actress Madelyn Deutch) is about the age Ms. Thompson was when she played Amanda. If "Some Kind of Wonderful" were remade today, with your daughter playing Amanda, what advice would you give her?

DeutchI'd tell her to ask her mother.

Thompson: I think you broke my brain with that one.

Deutch: Lea has always been the artist in this family. Our kids got that from her. Just as she did from her parents and how they valued creativity and her gift.

Thompson: That's the thing that's so beautiful about being an artist. You get to use everything. And draw from all you've learned.

What is the legacy of "Some Kind of Wonderful?"

Deutch: That I never thought I'd be on the phone talking about it with someone like you 30 years later. But really that it's special to a lot of people and it's where we met, so it's special to us too.

Thompson: That's really what all artists are looking for. A lot of our work is ephemeral. It disappears in a puff of smoke. It's really remarkable when you do something that sticks.

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.

MORE FROM Kevin Smokler

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