In Answer to Some Questions about John Hughes and Love on the Big Screen

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Cusack Say Anything

Cusack Works the Phone For a Date in Say Anything

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.

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Weird Science Anthony Michael Hall

Gary and Wyatt Work Their Magic

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.

William Torgerson The Breakfast Club Molly Ringwald Judd Nelson

The Kiss at the End of the Movie

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?

The Real Life Inspiration for my Fictional Pison College (picture from

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.


William Torgerson Weird Science John Hughes Chet Kelly LeBrock

"Chet" as transformed in Weird Science

A Love “Poem” for my Wife: Shall I Compare Thee to a John Hughes Movie?

If you click on the title above, the Facebook “share” button will appear at the end of this post.  Thanks for taking a look at the poem!

Shall I compare thee to a John Hughes movie?

Thou art Pretty in Pink and sexier than Kelly LeBrock’s lips.

I recall no Weird Science to the chemistry of our first date,

But only your Bueller charm, Farmer Ted wit,

and Some Kind of Wonderful beauty.

You are no Chet, no Principal Richard Vernon on detention duty,

But so thoughtful that you would never forget my birthday

like in Sixteen Candles. Life with you is a Vacation:

more hopeful than Sparky’s family-truckster ride,

racier than Christy Brinkley in that red Ferrari,

richer than the floppy-disk payoff for Samantha Baker’s underwear,

and as magical as Gary and Wyatt’s Barbie Doll ceremony.

While you may not know “If You Leave” was sung by OMD,

Be sure to know that I love you and your love gives life to me.

Thanks to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 for getting me started.

Love in the Third Grade

Love at first sight?

Between the time I was in the third grade and the time I was around thirty years old, I was the sort of person who could look across a room and think I just fell in love.  I didn’t feel this emotion was something that I could control at all, and I imagine that there are many of you reading this who think love is something that just happens; it’s an emotion you don’t have any ability to steer.  Certainly there are people who think they fall in love each time they see someone who physically catches their eye, but I wasn’t like that as a boy into my teenage and twenty-something self.  There could have been a cast of fifty beautiful and interesting women, and somehow I always managed to become secretly devoted to one.

Logansport's "Felix the Cat"

Let me jump back to third grade love:  my family moved from Logansport, Indiana—home of the Berries—to a house a mile outside of a town called Twelve Mile, so named for its relative distances from several other “bigger” towns.  Even in the third grade, being the new kid brought with it some love capital that could have been (but wasn’t) cashed in.  I fell for this girl I’ll call “Ali” right away, a pseudonym I choose after Elisabeth Shue’s character in the 1984 Karate Kid.   Something rare happened between Ali and me, and because I was just getting started with the whole business of “liking” people, I didn’t realize how rare it was.  Ali started sending me a lot of notes via that special delivery system of the artfully folded note that works its way to its intended recipient desk-to-desk, hand-by-hand across the classrooms of the world.  What was so rare about that?  Let me ask you another question as an answer:  How many of you have liked/loved someone who instantly liked/love you right back?

Elisabeth Shue as Ali in The Karate Kid

I recall Ali’s notes being of the will you be my boyfriend? / check “yes” or “no” variety.  So there I sat, in third grade love with Ali, receiving a note from her asking me to be her boyfriend.  So what did I do?  Red faced with shame—at being a coward?—I threw that note, along with the ten or so that followed, right into the garbage.  Even though the notes arrived most times in front of our whole class, I pretended as if I never received them.  Eventually, Ali stopped sending me love notes, and I vaguely remember still liking her as a seventh grader.  For at least four years, I secretly “loved” her, and I barely even spoke to her.  We may have traded very small talk a couple times in our lives, and each time I was horrendously nervous.  I always wondered if she even remembered sending me the notes, and now, looking back, I feel sure that she did.  She thought I’d rejected her, and I felt in love with her.  How does that work?

Before my eighth grade year, my family moved roughly twenty miles away to Winamac, and I still remember keeping track of Ali—of seeing her at various interschool athletic events—all the while wondering if my life would have been different if I’d only checked “yes.”  Why did it take me so long to try and love someone who would love me back?

I’d appreciate it if you’d “rate this post” and/or leave a comment.  Thanks for reading.

Image from Weddingbee