Part of the pleasure of writing Love on the Big Screen was that it caused me to revisit many of the films that I watched between the ages of 14 and 19, and many of those films are mentioned in connection to movies that my protagonist Zuke admires: Sixteen Candles, Say Anything, Weird Science, Dead Poet’s Society, and Pretty in Pink. The idea for writing this book came as a surprise and it came during one of the writing classes I teach at St. John’s University. We write almost every class session and most of the time I write along with the students. Some days we write whatever comes to mind, (actually that’s always an option) and some days I make suggestions. For example, I might ask students to try a moving story, a relationship story, or perhaps that they write about a place they know well. Sometimes these experiments are specific to a part of writing as in the opening paragraph. I think on the day I conceived of Zuke’s story, we were talking about writing a sentence that could be amplified and by that I mean that I open with a sort of summary sentence which I can then spend the rest of the writing trying to explain and develop. I wrote something like this: Everything Zuke knew about love he knew from the movies, most of them late-eighties romantic comedies. Even though I’d already done the research for another book, I thought I had something with that sentence. I could see it being set at the fictional version of where I earned my undergraduate degree. It would be some sort of love story, and all I had to do was figure out who Zuke was, who he was in love with, and who the other characters in the story would be. One other short note: A friend of mine has the last name Zaucha and so that’s where “Zuke” came from, but there isn’t much else about my Zuke that is like my friend.
I’m reluctant to call it research (maybe the lesson here is that research is fun and interesting if you’ve chosen the right topic) but what I did next was to go back and watch all those movies that had been my favorites growing up. Here’s a couple of my first reactions: I thought many of the movies were much sillier than I’d remembered. A movie such as Weird Science held up for me pretty well in the sense that when the guys create Kelly LeBrock’s character with the bras on their heads, that was still pretty funny, and one of my favorite scenes is when the boys are at the mall, they’ve brought LeBrock with them, they’ve got some new duds, and for the first time in their lives they don’t feel like total dweebs. Then some of the most popular guys in the school stand over them (one is Robert Downey Jr.) and drop giant frozen slurpees onto their heads. Moment in the sun over. On the other hand, that I was into this movie enough to go to five nights in a row with my buddy “Tank” as a middle school student was kind of embarrassing. I didn’t find as much in the film to be devoted to as I would, say, in one of my favorite authors. Mostly, I’ll give myself a break. I was probably fourteen when I first saw it.
My memory of the 80s romantic comedies was that a boy spotted a girl he fell in love with, he pursued her, there was a spot of trouble, the rival was vanquished, and then there was a happy-ending kiss at the end. Part of me wants to say that the movies were more complex than that. Judd Nelson’s burnout character was physically abused. I think Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club considered suicide. There was the suicide in Dead Poet’s Society, but also there were so many kisses at the end. And then I think the really key factor for me was that they never showed what happened after the first kiss. I didn’t really think about that much until I was about thirty and divorced. Certainly Zuke doesn’t think about this at first. He only goes for the gal and hopes for the kiss which will signal the start of a good life. Now, at least for those of us who have been in long relationships or been married or divorced, we’ve learned to think of that kiss at the end of the movie (the first kiss of a relationship) as just the first baby-step of a tall mountain climb. I don’t mean to make it sound so hard–often it isn’t–I just mean that the first kiss is far from the end. Duh, but somehow my teenage self didn’t know it. And, although what I’m saying here is so obvious, how many people do we know who seem to long for that movie romance that they don’t feel they have in their real-life relationship?
As far as John Hughes’s movies and Love on the Big Screen go, what I set out to do was subvert what I thought were the conventions of romantic comedies. I wanted to suspend my own understanding of life and try to become Zuke in my mind, a twenty year old who thought if he worked hard enough and displayed the right amount of romantic spirit (see Cusack’s boom box over his head) that he would in the end, “get the girl.” I wasn’t particularly obsessed with the Hughes movies. I think my favorite films were Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society, and Sixteen Candles because I really enjoyed Anthony Michael Hall’s character. So I don’t see myself as someone who comes after Hughes and only after Hughes, but as I re-watched his films and learned about his life, there started to be more connections between my protagonist’s Zuke’s story and the stories John Hughes told. I think one of the most significant might be the Midwestern/Chicago area setting. Hughes lived in Chicago and he set a lot of his stuff in fictional Shermer, Illinois. So as I wrote and continued to learn about Hughes, I was able to–I think–put in a lot of little “treats” in the book for those who know their Hughes. For example, my character Pee Wee names his pet after the big brother in Weird Science, Chet.