Hadley Freeman interview: 80s movies, Eddie Murphy, Lucas

Heathers, John Hughes, Back To The Future, Nora Ephron, Coming To America and more, as we chat 80s movies with Hadley Freeman...

Hadley Freeman’s latest book has harnessed her love of 80s movies, and gone into detail about just why they work so well. Entitled Life Moves Pretty Fast, you won’t be surprised to hear that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off features in there. But then so does Dirty Dancing, Top Gun, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future and Eddie Murphy.

So what makes 80s movies so special? That seemed a logical place to start, as we caught up with Hadley for a chat…

Can I start by throwing a paraphrased movie quote at you? That line in The Truman Show about accepting the reality with which we’re presented? At what point did you come to accept and realise that the movies of the 80s were so special to you? As you grew up with them, they were your norm, but when do you discover that your norm is actually quite special?

Well, it’s hard to say. I grew up thinking this is what movies were like. I guess it was probably towards the end of the 90s with She’s All That. And I looked at this film which is funny, and appealing. I’m not completely dissing it. But there’s that bit when Freddie Prinze Jr’s character’s sister makes over Laney in the film. And I thought this is bullshit! What is this message that we’re sending? Then when Freddie Prinze Jr doesn’t recognise her at the dance. What the heck is this? There’s no way any of the girls I grew up watching in films would put up with this nonsense.

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Around the same time, if memory serves, Grease was up for an anniversary, and I saw it for the first time in my life.

It’s so mental, isn’t it?

It’s horrible! The ending is vile I think. So you had the film that so many teenagers wanted to see in the 70s, with a really horrible message to it. Then the 90s repeated the trick. The 80s feels like the nice bit of the sandwich. Maybe as a reaction to how dark younger films were getting?

Maybe. Certainly so much of it came from John Hughes. Look at the other teen films that came before. Risky Business is a completely insane movie. It’s amazing to go back and watch it now. I thought this film makes Pretty Woman seem normal. It was totally bonkers. It was really John Hughes who came alone and softened a lot of this stuff. He was so on the side of the nerds, which hadn’t been the case in the 70s, and definitely wasn’t the case in the 90s. Or onwards.

A lot of credit goes to him. There’s a quote from Eleanor Bergstein in the book somewhere where she says ‘once a film is successful doing something, then other films will do that’. So once other filmmakers saw that it worked with John Hughes, they all copied it. That worked for the decade. And then it kind of stopped.

It stopped slightly with Heathers a bit. People say that Heathers stabbed the John Hughes genre. I don’t really see that. The girls in Heathers aren’t the least bit John Hughes-y. It certainly stabs the conventions and the cliches, the canteen and the cliques, that stuff. Not that that stuff has ever died out in teen films. But in terms of the power of the geek, that was never done by Heathers. Heathers didn’t touch that. It was really more films like Clueless in the 90s, and Beverly Hills 90210. The cool kids were suddenly the venerated kids in films, which makes absolutely no sense to me at all.

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Did you ever see the TV show Freaks & Geeks?

I love that show so much. So much.

You talk about Judd Apatow a lot in the book…

I’m quite hard on him, it’s true.

Freaks & Geeks was the starting point for Judd Apatow really. But then Paul Feig was at the heart of the show. I talked to him when his last film, The Heat, came around. He said that the strange thing for him now is that he wants to walk away from the geeky edges. The reason he does Bridesmaids and Spy was in a way to move away from where the popular light was shining. A John Hughes parallel in a way. But we have filmmakers now who could make great geeky movies, who are shying away from such material?

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The thing is now that when people say geeks are cool and nerds are cool, they’re not really talking about Duckie in Pretty In Pink. They’re talking about cool geeks, hipsters. Paul Feig, I completely understand where he’s coming from. And he’s more interested now in getting a female presence in movies, and obviously I completely salute that. Him and Melissa McCarthy are taking over cinemas.

You don’t want to be defined forever by how you were as a teenager. All of us have to grow out of that at some point. I had this idea for another book that was kind of about 80s movies too, but more fictionalised. But I thought I don’t need to be constantly writing about 80s movies and their influence on my life.

The movies today that I see, the teen movies, they don’t celebrate the kids who have nothing. I think that’s a real loss to be honest.

I think the stakes have changed too. You argue in the book that Back To The Future would still be made now, but it probably wouldn’t be centred on George and Lorraine any more. I’d take that a step further. It wouldn’t be about a kid trying to keep his parents together any more. It’d be about saving the world.

True. Saving the world, trying to ensure America’s domination, and at the same time trying to make sure that he gets a car! I always think it’s really cool in Back To The Future that Marty doesn’t do that when he goes back in time.

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You can see that Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale sort of thought it’s a big deal that Marty gets a car at the end of the movie, and it’s kind of like a climax at the end when he opens the garage door. I think audiences by that point are so invested in the McFly family and George’s progress that the car feels almost secondary. Whereas obviously with Ferris Bueller, the car is everything!

Back To The Future now, a time travelling teen, you could sell that tomorrow. To Universal probably. But it’d be such a different movie.

At the back of your last book, Be Awesome, you have your list of ten awesome books, and inevitably the name of Nora Ephron crops up. My introduction to her was You’ve Got Mail, which is a bit like starting a Robert De Niro retrospective with Rocky & Bullwinkle.

Even though Bill Murray emerges as the hero from your new book, Nora Ephron comes across as your muse to a degree?

My muse: I wish. That’s such a compliment to me, the idea that she’s my muse. I think she was amazing. I love her books so much. I agree: her movies got lesser and lesser for me. The peak is When Harry Met Sally, and I also love Silkwood. You’ve Got Mail? It feels very flimsy.

I don’t like it at all!

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The romance between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan is kind of creepy to be honest. That often happens in movies that aren’t really well thought through. The weird thing [in Sleepless In Seattle] when Meg Ryan dumps her fiancee to go and meet this guy who she’s obsessed with on the radio. And he’s totally fine with it! This movie has lost its connection to real life.

I think Ken Loach could do a really good left wing version of You’ve Got Mail.

I would quite like to see the Ken Loach version.

When Harry Met Sally, there’s not a moment you don’t believe. It’s just perfect to me. Julie And Julia is really nice. But for me, the peak is the 80s with Nora Ephron’s films.

Reading her written work was a revelation too.

Do you read Heartburn? That’s so funny.

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It’s on my list. I’ve just read I Remember Nothing.

That’s a lovely book. She was really quite ill when so wrote that too. Heartburn is an amazing book about divorce. It’s very hard to write about divorce in a way that makes people laugh out loud and make your heart break, and she manages to do that. She was an amazing writer.

Back to 80s movies, then. Just looking at the special attachments we form with films of the 80s. I barely got to the cinema much when I was very young, so cherished whatever I saw. For some reason, I ended up seeing Howard The Duck twice…

Oh my gosh… [there is a brief silence as we both let this settle in]

But it’s now quite a special film for me as a result, although for reasons I can’t quite comprehend. But accessibility is the other thing that’s changed radically. In your epilogue, you make the point that more films are being released, and there’s a broad spread if you’re willing to seek them out. But it’s the old human thing: the more choice you have, the less choices you seem to make.

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Was your contained accessibility, and your local video shop, pivotal to your early love of films?

Yeah. It’s so true. I still remember all the shelves in the shop. I also remember that these movies, with the exception of Dirty Dancing, they were all released by big studios, usually Paramount. Now the more interesting films are released by indies. They don’t get the distribution that something like Cocoon or Steel Magnolias did, something that now wouldn’t be made by a big studio.

And so unless you live in New York as I did, or London as I do now, or somewhere like that, you’re not going to see a lot of these movies. There are a lot of good indie movies, but something like Obvious Child that came out last year, I can’t imagine that got distribution on anywhere near the level that Dirty Dancing did.

It’s interesting you mention Paramount – as a studio, I don’t think it’s even putting ten films in cinemas this year.

Isn’t that strange, though? They just do the massive big budget things, rather than the mid-range things. They’re hedging their bets. Saying we’ll do one enormous film that’ll cost hundreds of millions of dollars and hopefully make lots of money, rather than something like Ferris Bueller that cost very little, and very little to market. That would not be interesting to them because they’ve don’t make that much money, even though the profit ends up being approximately the same in terms of percentage.

A lot of people – i.e. me – don’t have any interest in seeing Michael Bay films. I find them so mind-numbing. They’re hilarious, on certain levels, but also too many explosions, there’s no script. I’d rather go see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even though I’ve seen it a billion times by now. Those people aren’t really being catered to by the studios.

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I did an interview with Jerry Bruckheimer a year or two back, and even he made the point that nobody can make a mid-budget film and get it released widely by a studio now. Even a relatively cheap film, Jack Reacher, cost Paramount $60m to make. You can get a film through the studio system now if it costs $5m and is produced by Jason Blum, or $150m. The mid-range has pretty much gone.

I went through every film in your book, and I think only Dirty Dancing would get into the low budget bracket, but everything else would sit in the mid-range that’s just not there any more.

Isn’t that weird? It means whole genres are gone. Mid-range means rom-coms, teen films, some comedies. A big budget film now is a massive action sci-fi thing. That’s all they make now. It’s because those films are easier to translate when they ship them overseas. A lot easier to translate than When Harry Met Sally. But it seems like a real loss. They’re making these movies that all look the same.

Yet we’re in an era now where Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg have to go hunting for the funds to get their movies – Rush and Lincoln – made in the first place. Howard and Spielberg!

George Lucas too. He had to go hunting to get the money to get his film made. And in a way you think it’s almost karma. Spielberg and Lucas almost kickstarted the whole blockbuster thing, and now it’s overtaken them in this insane way. They can’t even make their more interesting films!

You look back at Spielberg’s blockbusters in the 70s and 80s, those are films with scripts and storylines, lines that you want to quote. I’ve never come across anybody quoting Transformers or even X-Men. I don’t hate X-Men at all. I’ve seen all the X-Men films and they’re really good. But you don’t go around quoting them, like people quote Indiana Jones.

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I don’t believe that Spielberg and Lucas, not until the 90s anyway, ever stepped onto a film set and thought they were making a blockbuster. I don’t think I could say that about Michael Bay. The directors who are given big films, the trust from studios doesn’t seem to be fully there.

And filmmakers lose the trust of studios so quickly. If you make one bad film, you’re gone. Spielberg and Lucas when they were starting out, they were really trying to create the cinema of their youth. A spectacle, something you could sit back in your seat and get lost in. Rather than this idea of a movie taking over the world. So they were making movies from a very personal perspective, whereas movies are now made from a global perspective.

Most of the time throughout your book, you call them 80s movies, rather than 80s teen movies. You talk about how part of the joy of The Princess Bride is that it doesn’t differentiate between what kids get, and what adults enjoy. Do you regard a lot of the 80s films that you talk about as teen films?

No, not at all. In fact, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale both said to me that they didn’t see Back To The Future as a teen film. I see it as a teen film, it’s about teenagers, and Pauline Kael described it as a teen film. I can understand people saying it about the John Hughes films because they’re made so much from the point of view of teenagers, and he loved teenagers so much.

But I still enjoy these films on the same level as when I first saw them. And when I saw them, I was around 8. And I immediately connected with the heartfelt emotions, the desperation of Duckie, to Andie in Pretty In Pink. Emotions are universal. Everybody can find their character, especially in a John Hughes film, but also in the other 80s teen films. Which is why I don’t see them as teen films.

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I see something more like the American Pie franchise as teen films. They’re aimed more at teenagers, they’ve got the sex, the raunchy humour. And at first, the films were about teenagers. To me, that’s more of a teen film.

I made my boyfriend watch a lot of these films with me, and he’s slightly younger than me. He was born in the middle of the 80s almost, and he didn’t watch Pretty In Pink and Some Kind Of Wonderful. But he could still connect with Duckie or with Eric Stoltz’s character. They’re films, for me, that are for everybody still.

If there’s a thread that’s running through family movies now, for better or worse, it’s loneliness. Hollywood seems to do it well, too. You talk in the book about how Tim Burton’s first Batman film is effectively about loneliness, but I watch Frankenweenie, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, How To Train Your Dragon with my kids, and all of these films are dealing – either subliminally or overtly – with quite heavy issues. Primarily kids facing solitude.

You talk about the 80s films aimed at a similar audience as having a spine of fun to them. Whereas the more modern ones – and I really like lots of them – they start with a message they’re looking to teach.

It’s true. I went to a screening of Inside Out this week, the new Pixar film.

I hate you.

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It’s a really sophisticated film as you’d expect from these guys. And it’s about a little girl slowly losing control of her emotions. The film’s message is ultimately that sadness is an essential part of growing up. I think that it’s kind of now almost universally accepted that to get sophisticated stories and messages from films, you now look towards Pixar. I love all those Pixar films, and to me those film say so much more about human story than that tedious Noah Baumbach film While We’re Young. That said nothing about nothing… those really self-conscious hipster films, everyone lives in Brooklyn, all that crap. To me, they say nothing, and it’s really Pixar where you get the real emotions.

I find that weird. That we assume that adults can’t cope with these strong messages. It’s hard to imagine a film made for adults today that contains the storylines and the power of something like Frozen or Inside Out.

There’s almost an assumption from studio films that parents aren’t very good parents. That messages have to be hammered very hard.

It’s true.

At the back of the book is a list of movies that you say you didn’t talk about properly.

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I keep thinking of all the films I’ve left out!

One of them was Lucas, a movie barely talked about. I remember as a kid, my brother switched it off after 30 minutes, and I wasn’t allowed to watch the rest. I always assumed it had naughty stuff in it. But what did I miss? For some reason, I never caught up with it again.

Oh, gosh. Lucas to me is… I’m not dissing John Hughes, or Back To The Future. But Lucas to me is the purest film of the 80s. The emotions are just throbbing on the screen.

It’s got the most amazing teen cast. Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen, Winona Ryder… all of them are so great in that film. It’s nearly the first film for all of them. They’re so great in it, and you think of what’s happened to them since. It just breaks your heart.

Corey Haim’s performance is so incredible. Roger Ebert’s review of the film said this kid, if he continues this way, is going to be one of the great actors of his generation. And you just think of what happened to him. It’s so heartbreaking. He plays the classic 80s role, the nerdy kid who is a bit weird, pushed ahead in school, so is much younger than everyone else in his class. And it turns out he’s extremely poor and has a terrible home life.

In a funny way it’s like Rushmore, the Wes Anderson film. His character is so much like Jason Schwartzman’s character in Rushmore. He’s an amazing figure in the school, and spins all these lies about his home life. Then the kids realise later what happened. The scene with Bill Murray in the barber shop in Rushmore… it’s so amazing. The kids have that when they go and try and find Lucas’ family, and realise it’s just a dad who lives in a trailer park.

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Winona Ryder plays the girl who’s secretly in love with him, and he doesn’t notice. She has all these lines about how you don’t have to be glamorous to have someone fall in love with you. To see someone I think is still the most beautiful woman in the world being cast as the ugly girl is quite something.

Then Charlie Sheen plays the sensitive jock, which I think is the biggest stretch he ever made.

It’s just the most lovely film, and it got completely ignored when it was originally released, because it doesn’t have a pop music soundtrack. It wasn’t able to ride the teen movie bandwagon of the 80s. The music was clearly done on someone’s Casio keyboard. But Corey Haim, he’s so gorgeous in it. So perfect. And Corey Feldman said since Corey Haim died that it was right after that movie, that Corey Haim was abused by a producer. You can really see the change in Corey Haim’s eyes, just from that to The Lost Boys. It’s hardly a big [time] gap, but you see this hardening coming over this kid. He never made a movie like it again, and never turned in a performance – so vulnerable and sweet – like it again. And I’ve seen a lot of Corey Haim films. To watch his descent is just heartbreaking. Something happened to him after that film, and it just cut him off from his emotions.

I saw Lucas when it came out when I was about seven years old, and I immediately related so much to Winona Ryder’s character. There’s noone in it to hate. Also, Jeremy Piven is in it as the school bully. It’s so right for him! He was 17, 18 when he made it, and he has less hair in the film than he does now! He’s pretty good in it, in that way that Jeremy Piven surprises you sometimes!

I’ve spent 20 years assuming it was full of filth – I was never allowed to watch it!

Oh my god – it’s like the opposite of that.

I thought I was going to get something like Porky’s!

Oh, no. Porky’s is so bad. That was the biggest grossing teen film of the 80s except for Back To The Future, and it’s so bad. It’s worse than Revenge Of The Nerds, and that’s a low bar.

I remember when they were promoting American Pie 2, when they were doing the interviews, they said they wanted to avoid doing something like Porky’s 2. I think they should just have avoided Porky’s 1 as well…!

The idea that it was seen as a classic!

On a slightly different point, you wrote an article a while back, one that we’ve cited on the site, about the way media outlets should cover celebrity death, and the way they shouldn’t. We’ve talked a lot about 80s movies here, but how do you feel the modern movie press has evolved too? Because it goes hand in hand to an extent. Or do you think it’s just a sign of the times, the nasty, snidey edge we increasingly get?

It’s sad. I’m all about enthusiasm. If I wanted to understand the appeal of Jason Statham, for example, I would seek out an article by someone who loves those films. I don’t want someone going in who goes ah, you know, action films are kind of stupid. This guy’s slightly better than normal, but whatever.

I don’t understand that sort of thing. I think enthusiasm is good. I think it’s cool. I think there’s an attitude in this country that’s come on since the 90s that everything has to be cynical and ironic in the press. And that’s not what I grew up reading. I moved to this country when I was a teenager, and immediately took out a subscription to Empire. What I loved about Empire was every month there was the greatest whatever for movies. When Pulp Fiction was released, I honestly thought Empire was going to explode. And that’s fun. It’s fun to be a fan, to be really into something.

Even when writing this book. Someone said that “she covers the naffer end of the spectrum, like Die Hard and Top Gun“. Die Hard! What the hell? In what way is Die Hard naff? Everyone loves Die Hard! I thought everyone watched it at Christmas. Maybe I’ve been living in some geek tower, but why do you have to apologise for liking these movies?

I tried to explain to someone when I was writing the book that I was doing it about mainstream 80s American movies, and he said ‘oh, you’re writing a love letter to guilty pleasures’.

That phrase!

I don’t understand that phrase. Heroin – maybe that would be a guilty pleasure. I can understand why you wouldn’t be so proud of liking that. But Ghostbusters?! It’s a really kickass film. I don’t get it. I just enjoy the movies I enjoy, I’m going to be super-enthusiastic about it, and I don’t care!

I loved, by the way, that you mentioned Eddie Murphy’s outstanding performance in Bowfinger in the book.

Yeah!

I think it’s his best.

Amazing. He so should have got the Oscar for that. I can’t believe he was nominated for Dreamgirls instead. That was soooo boring. But Bowfinger, he was amazing in it. It’s incredible what he can do in that film.

What he does in Bowfinger is really hard. You go back to something like Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin in All Of Me. What they both do is incredibly hard too. Yet because they’re comedies, awards snobbery and mainstream snobbery kicks in. Your book swims against that.

I just don’t understand it. I’ve got so many favourite films, but one I watch around once a month is Coming To America. What Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall do in that is off the charts crazy. It’s amazing. So they give the Oscar to Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man, for pretending to be one different kind of character. They then completely ignore Eddie Murphy.

In Bowfinger, you completely believe it’s two different people, even though they look exactly the same. That’s what’s so crazy about it. He doesn’t even use any prosthetics or make-up. There was something that John Landis said in the book, about how Eddie Murphy can only be funny now in disguise. It’s so heartbreaking that, but it’s true. He can only do The Nutty Professor, he can only do the geeky brother in Bowfinger. Other than that, he sort of wants to be Denzel Washington. I don’t care about Denzel Washington, I care about Axel Foley! You can be funny Eddie, you don’t need to apologise for it.

It’s sad when actors fall victim to that snob mentality, and feel they have to do serious drama to be taken seriously. But really, comedy is so much harder than drama. So screw drama!

I have to ask. You talk in the book about Bill Murray giving you a noogie. Er, what’s a noogie?

[Laughs] I didn’t realise this was an American word.

I looked it up, but I’m still none the wiser!

It’s when you make a fist and you kind of dig it into the top of the other person’s skull. Then you rub it. It’s an American thing! Like you do if you’re a dad with your little son. It can be painful if you’re a bully, but it can be a sign of affection. It’s really just an immature thing to do. It’s a jokey thing.

The way you’ve described that, it sounds like Bill Murray punched you in the head.

[Laughs] He didn’t punch me in the head. I can promise that. He was slightly bemused by me. He did this other thing, which I didn’t put in the book. He gave me this noogie, and then I said ‘I’mreallysorryMrMurraycanIgetsomequotes’. And he said really loudly, “look at you, you look so ill, here, here”. And he gave me a really tight hug so I couldn’t speak.

He said “you’re babbling, you’re out of control, poor you”. And I tried to talk, and he said “no! Listen to you! You’re babbbling nonsense again!” [Laughs]

I thought I can’t put all of this in. It’s too weird. But it made me laugh a lot, and it’s a really great way to stop a journalist from asking a question!

So, just to prove that modern movies still have their moments, can you recommend one or two more recent releases that have impressed you?

Well, I’d put Obvious Child. I really did enjoy that film a lot. It’s not a teen film on any level, it’s just a very sweet film. The problem with it is that it makes this big deal about abortion. But I thought the humour was very honest, and it’s the kind of film I like to see.

Then there was another indie film, Appropriate Behavior. That too felt like it was made by someone who’d watched a lot of 80s films. Desiree Akhavan [writer/director] said that she grew up on Judy Blume and John Hughes, which explained everything to me. That was about a girl who hadn’t really found her place in the world, all the usual cliches. But in a very honest way, that felt emotionally true. Both of those are really great, and show women on screen in a way you don’t get to see any more.

Can I go back to the 90s?

Sure. If you’re going to say Congo.

Congo is a classic film. But I loved Rushmore. I feel like Wes Anderson is a really interesting film director, but he was at his best when he was writing with Owen Wilson. So that’s when the movies felt to me like they had emotion, sex and women in them. Now, that’s so rarefied. I loved The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore.

Finally, then, I have to ask: your favourite Jason Statham movie?

[Laughs] This is a really terrible admission, but I haven’t really got into Jason Statham. It’s not that I dislike his films, I just haven’t watched his movies! The man I live with loves Jason Statham, and I’ve somehow always avoided seeing his films. The only one I’ve watched is Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. But I think that’s a bad answer, so I’ll say Spy for the moment. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know I’m going to love it!

Hadley Freeman, thank you very much!

Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman is published by 4th Estate, price £12.99. You can find it on Amazon, here.

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