Suffolk film critic James King relives those iconic Brat Pack movies in new book
- Credit: Archant
The Brat Pack movies were an important part of 1980s cinema. Suffolk-based film critic James King has written a book which delves behind the scenes of this fun-loving period and talks to the stars who defined the era. Arts editor Andrew Clarke caught up with him
Suffolk-based film critic James King has seen a lot of films in his time. He has met and interviewed a lot of film stars during his years on Radio 1 and more recently on ITV and Sky News. But, there is one genre that the former Ipswich School student relishes more than ever, the Brat Pack movies of the 1980s.
This was the era of John Hughes, of Molly Ringwald and Pretty in Pink, of Bill and Ted having Excellent Adventures and Michael J Fox going Back To The Future.
This was a time when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Wall Street was creating millionaires and billionaires on a weekly basis, it was the era of live for today and forget about tomorrow. The atmosphere was giddy and Hollywood not only captured these hedonistic times in a series of landmark movies, they also created a new raft of young stars who went onto make their mark on a sparkling decade.
For James King, the allure of these films hasn’t diminished and he has just published a new book Fast Times and Excellent Adventures which chronicles the development of these films and charts the careers of the fresh-faced young stars, some of whom, Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster and Sean Penn have gone on to be Oscar winners.
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It’s a book that sets out to capture the feeling of a particular time. James doesn’t just talk to the stars, he also meets up with the people who made the films happen. He talks how the films came into being and how, as the 1990s dawned, they evolved into something else entirely.
You knew the era you wanted to focus on, but did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to say when you started out?
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“I grew up on Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgement High, the John Hughes movies, those were my favourite films, I knew what I wanted to concentrate on but like a sculptor with a big block of granite you have to shape it and fashion it into what you want it to be.
“I had to keep chopping away at it because it wasn’t a book where I knew where I wanted it to end up. I wanted to leave it open, I wanted to go on a journey as a writer and discover new avenues of interest in a subject I all ready loved. I thought I knew a lot about those teen movies of the early ‘80s but even I was surprised. I learnt a lot too.”
So how did you approach it? Was it a case of telling the story of Hollywood teen movies through your own experiences?
“No, I tried that, but getting a book published is quite difficult, and I had had so many different bits of advice – some said write what you know, write it from a personal perspective, others said: ‘no, write a straight-forward narrative cinema history book.’ So I tried writing it from a personal point of view but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Mark Kermode does it very well but it wasn’t me. So I opted to tell it more objectively but still, I hope, some personality comes through.”
Why those films so special?
“That period, from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s were really special. Hollywood had suddenly woken up to the fact that teenagers had money to spend and they wanted to see something made for them. That period saw a flourishing of good movies made for young people and, just as importantly, starring young people: you had future stars like Tom Cruise, Keifer Sutherland, Matthew Broderick and Sean Penn making their first movies along with people like Molly Ringwald, Phoebe Cates, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy and Ally Sheedy – all of whom were indelibly linked with that era and those films.
How did you find these stars? Were they happy going back and reliving their past?
“I interviewed Jodie Foster for the book. I knew I wasn’t going to get an hour of her time because she is incredibly busy running her own company but I sent her an email with a half dozen questions I wanted answered and she could reply at her leisure. I was then amazed that she replied within 48 hours and gave me a remarkable essay detailing her teenage years in the early ‘80s. That was one of the definite high points.
“I found that people who were happy with who they are were happy to talk, whereas people who were less secure were, perhaps, more reluctant to talk. Having said that, I found that a lot of people were willing to talk once they realised that I wasn’t interested in stitching them up and once they realised that I didn’t just want to talk to movie stars, I was talking to writers, producers and directors as well. It was just as important to talk to people behind the scenes as they were the people who got these genre-defining movies made – also I made a point of highlighting films that perhaps hadn’t had too much written about them before, films that perhaps had been overlooked.
People forget that Tom Cruise made his start in these so-called Brat Pack movies
“For me, one of the joys of those films, is looking at established actors, who we now tend to think of as the ‘old guard’ all appearing together, as youngsters, in their first movies. Tom Cruise was one of these and he appeared alongside C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon and Ralph Macchio in a Francis Ford Coppola film called The Outsiders.
“Sean Penn was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and completely buried himself in his role and he has got where he has today because he stuck to his gameplan, his vision, whatever. I spoke to people about Tom Cruise and no-one had a bad word to say about him but they also all said: ‘I have never met anyone so determined to succeed.’ From day one he was utterly focussed on being a star. If you want to know why he is as famous as he is, then that driving ambition is there on screen in The Outsiders. From the age of 17, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wasn’t going to get sidetracked.
“Quite a lot of the book is about how these young actors were bunched together and labelled The Brat pack, which they hated, because they wanted to be seen as individuals. Tom Cruise quite cleverly distanced himself from the Brat Pack quite early and so did Jodie Foster. She told me: ‘I was friends with Emilio Estervez and Rob Lowe but I didn’t want to be part of a scene.”
It was a feelgood era but it wasn’t all wine and roses was it?
“No, if you look at those who have lasted, many of them took time out or distanced themselves from that Brat Pack mentality. Jodie Foster went to Yale and basically retired for most of the early 80s. Jennifer Beales also took herself off to university after Flashdance. She was in the biggest film of 1983 and she just took herself out of the running for anything else. If you look at the people who have lasted, then, by and large, they are the people who took themselves out of the Hollywood bubble for a while and grounded themselves in the real world.
“A book like this has to deal with the downside of Hollywood life, the breakdowns and the rehab stints – you can’t avoid it. Charlie Sheen was one of the biggest characters in the Brat Pack and he could fill a book on his own but I have tried to blend the more gossipy side, the who was dating who, with information about the movies themselves.
Was there anyone you were particularly pleased you managed to speak to or anyone you were disappointed that they didn’t want to speak?
“I am a huge fan of Ferris Buellers Day Off and I was thrilled to get to talk to Alan Ruck, who played Ferris Bueller’s best friend, Cameron. We chatted on the phone for quite some time and said that he was 29 when the film came out but they all looked younger than they were. He also auditioned for The Breakfast Club and was a little frustrated about always having to go up for parts as a teenager. Getting to talk to people who were in your favourite films is always pretty amazing.
“But, interestingly, for them at the time it was just another job and, for some, a not particularly thrilling job because they would have much rather been working with Martin Scorsese but most of them have found piece with it, simply because most pf the past 40 years, people like me have been going up to them and telling them what an important part they played in our formative years.
So, is there a common denominator between those who managed to break free and carve out a career on their own and those who didn’t.
“I think it largely came down to determination and talent. The ones who made it were those with something else to give and then didn’t give up. Look at Andrew McCarthy, he was incredibly popular but he’s found it very hard to break free and yet someone like John Cusack, who has been very vocal about his dislike of those films, has completely reinvented himself, Even Nicolas Cage, who maybe seen as a bit of a joke now, but he was a huge star for very many years and even won himself an Oscar. I think the hopeful message contained in the book is that talent will find a way.
Has the way that TV has changed, with Netflix, HBO and the prestige box-set series changed the way that actors careers progress?
“I think it has. Certainly the landscape is very different now. If you look at Kiefer Sutherland, TV & 24 saved his career. For many actors you find that they were incredibly popular playing teenagers but no-one wants to know them as young adults. The movies don’t really want to know, so for many actors their 30s and 40s were very lean years but suddenly they are being employed again in their 50s in older character parts and they are very good because they are experienced actors.
“The boom with Netflix, Amazon and HBO is providing more work and you find that older big-name actors are moving across to TV because the work is there – and its not just actors, the same is true of writers and directors, for many high quality television is providing a home for their ideas and an opportunity to finally realise their potential.
“One of the joys of writing this book is that it provided me with links to the bigger Hollywood story. You think that the Brat Pack movies existed in a bubble but, of course, they didn’t. They were part, an important part at the time of the Hollywood scene. I love Hollywood and Hollywood movies and the book has allowed to me to see how those films linked not only in the bigger Hollywood picture but into world culture generally. You had MTV starting up at the time and music and music video fed into the movies and the movies and the directors fueled the rise of MTV and the music video. It was a fascinating journey.”
Fast Times and Excellent Adventures: The Surprising History of the ‘80s Teen Movie, by James King, is published by Constable Books and is out now.