Monday, August 10, 2009
I was babysitting for my mom's friend Kathleen's daughter the night I wrote that first fan letter to John Hughes. I can literally remember the yellow grid paper, the blue ball point pen and sitting alone in the dim light in the living room, the baby having gone to bed.
I poured my heart out to John, told him about how much the movie mattered to me, how it made me feel like he got what it was like to be a teenager and to feel misunderstood.
(I felt misunderstood.)
I sent the letter and a month or so later I received a package in the mail with a form letter welcoming me as an "official" member of The Breakfast Club, my reward a strip of stickers with the cast in the now famous pose.
I was irate.
I wrote back to John, explaining in no uncertain terms that, excuse me, I just poured my fucking heart out to you and YOU SENT ME A FORM LETTER.
That was just not going to fly.
He wrote back.
"This is not a form letter. The other one was. Sorry. Lots of requests. You know what I mean. I did sign it."
He wrote back and told me that he was sorry, that he liked my letter and that it meant a great deal to him. He loved knowing that his words and images resonated with me and people my age. He told me he would say hi to everyone on my behalf.
"No, I really will. Judd will be pleased you think he's sexy. I don't."
I asked him if he would be my pen pal.
He said yes.
"I'd be honored to be your pen pal. You must understand at times I won't be able to get back to you as quickly as I might want to. If you'll agree to be patient, I'll be your pen pal."
For two years (1985-1987), John Hughes and I wrote letters back and forth. He told me - in long hand black felt tip pen on yellow legal paper - about life on a film set and about his family. I told him about boys, my relationship with my parents and things that happened to me in school. He laughed at my teenage slang and shared the 129 question Breakfast Club trivia test I wrote (with the help of my sister) with the cast, Ned Tanen (the film's producer) and DeDe Allen (the editor). He cheered me on when I found a way around the school administration's refusal to publish a "controversial" article I wrote for the school paper. And he consoled me when I complained that Mrs. Garstka didn't appreciate my writing.
"As for your English teacher…Do you like the way you write? Please yourself. I'm rather fond of writing. I actually regard it as fun. Do it frequently and see if you can't find the fun in it that I do."
He made me feel like what I said mattered.
"I can't tell you how much I like your comments about my movies. Nor can I tell you how helpful they are to me for future projects. I listen. Not to Hollywood. I listen to you. I make these movies for you. Really. No lie. There's a difference I think you understand."
"It's been a month of boring business stuff. Grown up, adult, big people meetings. Dull but necessary. But a letter from Alison always makes the mail a happening thing."
"I may be writing about young marriage. Or babies. Or Breakfast Club II or a woman's story. I have a million ideas and can't decide what's next. I guess I'll just have to dive into something. Maybe a play."
"You've already received more letters from me than any living relative of mine has received to date. Truly, hope all is well with you and high school isn't as painful as I portray it. Believe in yourself. Think about the future once a day and keep doing what you're doing. Because I'm impressed. My regards to the family. Don't let a day pass without a kind thought about them."
There were a few months in 1987 when I didn't hear from John. I missed his letters and the strength and power and confidence they gave me and so I sent a letter to Ned Tanen who, by that time, was the President of Paramount Pictures (he died earlier this year). In my letter I asked Mr. Tanen if he knew what was up with John, why he hadn't been writing and if he could perhaps give him a poke on my behalf.
I came home from school soon after to find an enormous box on my front porch filled with t-shirts and tapes and posters and scripts and my very own Ferris Bueller's Day Off watch.
And a note.
"I missed you too. Don't get me in trouble with my boss any more. Sincerely, John Hughes."
1997. I was working in North Carolina on a diversity education project that partnered with colleges and universities around the country to implement a curriculum that used video production as an experiential education tool. On a whim, I sent John a video about the work we were doing. I was proud of it and, all these years later, I wanted him to be proud too.
Late one night I was in the office, scheduled to do an interview with a job candidate. Ten minutes or so into the call it was clear that he wasn't the right guy, but I planned to suffer through.
Then the phone rang.
1…2…3…4…a scream came from the other room and 1…2…3…my boss Tony was standing in my doorway yelling, "John Hughes is on the phone!!"
I politely got off the phone with the job candidate who was no longer a candidate and
Hit. Line. Two.
We talked for an hour. It was the most wonderful phone call. It was the saddest phone call. It was a phone call I will never forget.
John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that "they" (Hollywood) had "killed" his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.
He also told me he was glad I had gotten in touch and that he was proud of me for what I was doing with my life. He told me, again, how important my letters had been to him all those years ago, how he often used the argument "I'm doing this for Alison" to justify decisions in meetings.
Tonight, when I heard the news that John had died, I cried. I cried hard. (And I'm crying again.) I cried for a man who loved his friends, who loved his family, who loved to write and for a man who took the time to make a little girl believe that, if she had something to say, someone would listen.
Thank you, John Hughes. I love you for what you did to make me who I am.
Sincerely, Alison Byrne Fields.