Friday, August 6, 2010

Sixty Candles

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of John Hughes and 60th anniversary of his birth in Lansing, Michigan. Although tributes to the filmmaker's legacy continue to pour in, including a posthumous award presented July 28th at the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival, few have been as heartfelt as Driver's Ed Mutiny, a low-budget independent comedy-drama that has started to successfully navigate the film festival circuit pylons.

"I fully intended on sending John Hughes the film," Driver's Ed writer-director-producer Brad Hansen reveals during an interview with FilmStew. "To hear his thoughts and to tell him what an inspiration he was. Unfortunately, he passed away right during the middle of post-production."

In terms of Hughes lore, the best way to describe the plot of Driver's Ed Mutiny is to think of what might have happened if, in the middle of their Breakfast Club detention, the characters played by Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall had hijacked Principal Vernon's car and zoomed off to the west coast together. For Hansen, the genesis of his latest film began as a five-minute comedic opera sketch while attending the University of Iowa.

Pied pier of teenage dynamics

"I watched The Breakfast Club for the first time on TV not long after we performed that skit," Hansen explains, "and I thought this would be a perfect idea to bring a Hughes-style film to light. There hadn’t been any Hughes teenage movies for quite some time, so instead of waiting for him to make another one, I decided to go ahead and make my own."

At one point in the DVD commentary, Hansen jokes that the reason he has his pretty-in-any-color high school protaganist Cole (Jillian Riley) surreptitiously pop some anti-depressants is that if Hughes and Ringwald were still collaborating today, his leading lady would be doing the same. This is just one of several direct and indirect references to the Hughes oeuvre, which most obviously include an early bit of dialogue during which Driver's Ed instructor Mr. Jackson (John Snipes) brands rebellious jock Nick (Hunter Johnson) a "Judd Nelson."

"I think the look of the film and the camera work are also very Hughes-like," suggests Hansen. "He - and most other 1980's directors - really liked color, whereas most movies these days seem to be very desaturated and only use colors from the blue or orange spectrum. So we made sure to color-correct our film with that 80's style in mind."

(l to r) Hansen, Johnson, Riley, Miller

"Also, modern films, particularly indie ones, tend to shoot entire features in hand-held, whereas 80's films were almost never shot in that fashion," he notes. "So we opted to put the film on sticks for all but a few scenes where we felt it dramatically enhanced the film in some way. It was tempting to shoot the film all in hand-held, and it would definitely have been quicker and easier. But shooting it the way we did gave it more of a Hughes vibe and added more polish."

The beginning of the film, which unfolds in a Chicago suburb, is a tip of the hat to the "Shermur IL” location that Hughes would frequently place his characters in. But for Hansen, the most important nod to Hughes in his film is thematic rather than literal.

"Throughout almost all his movies, including the “adult” ones, Hughes explored what happened when complete strangers were thrown together, and how they were able to find their place in the world because of that," he offers. "I think Driver's Ed Mutiny is a continuation of that theme."

When asked if he has considered sending a copy of his film to Ringwald, Nelson or any other members of the Hughes acting clan, Hansen replies, "No, but that’s a brilliant idea, thanks!" It certainly would be intriguing to hear the impressions of one or more of these actors after watching the film.

Passing the Hughes test

During his college years, Hansen worked as a Production Assistant on many big-budget movies such as Batman Begins, alongside separate experiences with micro-funded efforts and his own productions. He says the difference between the two worlds was striking.

"You get to know EVERYONE on a small film set, and the vibe is very social and collaborative," says Hansen. "On a set like Batman Begins, with over 300 people on the crew each day, it’s literally impossible to get to know everyone; big sets are also very compartmentalized between each group of cast and crew."

"Being a PA is a great introduction to movie sets, however," he adds. "Even from the sidelines, you can get a great view of all the time and manpower it takes to make a film, how to make your way through a set, who to talk to and what each department does. Indie film sets are the same set-up, there are just fewer people in each department and fewer departments in general, it’s just a streamlined modification of the same system."

Hansen says he is currently waiting to hear from several film festivals about possibly continuing a run that has so far included the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival, the New Strand Film Festival and the Blue Whiskey Independent Film Festival. In the meantime, having moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, he now has in his hip pocket a powerfully nostalgic calling card.

Update - 09/21/10: The stars of The Breakfast Club, minus Emilio Estevez, reunited on Monday, September 20th 2010 for a special 25th anniversary screening of the film in New York.

[Driver's Ed Mutiny]

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