Movies That Everyone Should See: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

It makes you happy just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

How could it not?

The movie is the living embodiment of youth. It’s bounding with enthusiasm, energy, optimism, individualism, exuberance… The world of Ferris Bueller is one of infinite possibilities.

And each one of them is cooler than the last

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.

What if youth were NOT wasted on the young?

What would you do? If you could do it all again? If you DID know then what you know now?

I guarantee you this. Your answer does not include going to school, either.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was the brainchild of John Hughes.

Hughes began his career in entertainment as a joke writer, and then a writer for National Lampoon. His first screenplay, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” turned into a such a successful movie that Hughes was allowed the opportunity to direct his own scripts. He made the most of it. “Sixteen Candles” is a classic teen comedy, and was very successful as well. He followed that effort with “The Breakfast Club” and “Weird Science” in succession.

He was putting together a string of hits.

But in the summer of 85, Hughes followed Studio head Ned Tanen from Universal to Paramount. Tanen had greenlit all three of his directorial efforts to date, and Hughes quickly felt friction with his successors at Universal. So when Tanen switched studios, so did Hughes.

A writer’s strike was looming, however. Hughes had less than a week to submit a draft of a movie, or he wouldn’t be able to begin a new project until the strike resolved itself. He pitched the idea for “Ferris” on a Thursday morning, kind of a counterpoint to Sixteen Candles. If that was the worst day in a teenager’s life, “Ferris” would be a movie about the best. He then worked on the script all weekend, and turned it in Monday.

The movie was greenlit Tuesday.

The casting would be critical however.

Hughes reportedly wrote the part with Matthew Broderick in mind. Broderick was a rising young star who had just completed the yet to be released “War Games”, and had been working on Broadway in Biloxi Blues. That didn’t keep the studio from looking at other actors just in case. The list of young actors they tested or looked at for the role of Ferris Bueller reads like a who’s who of Hollywood: Jon Cryer, Nic Cage, Kiefer Sutherland, James Spader, John Cusack, George Clooney, Johnny Depp. But they kept their eye on Broderick.

He had exactly what the movie needed. An innate likeability. Effortless charm. With the wrong actor, it would have been easy for Ferris’ confidence to lapse into arrogance. The audience needed to love Ferris, not loathe him. Broderick was able to bring a boyish charisma to the role that was a necessity.

They wound up getting him for the role.

They got more than that, however. Broderick also brought a friend.

Broderick had worked with Ruck in Biloxi Blues on Broadway, and when he first read the script for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, he kept picturing Ruck when he read Cameron’s lines.

Ruck had actually auditioned for Hughes before, for “The Breakfast Club”. He tried out for the role of John Bender. Ironically, that wasn’t the only “Breakfast Club” association with the role of Cameron Frye. Producers offered the role to Emilio Estevez, who (thankfully) turned it down. They also tested Eric Stoltz, but the role finally went to Ruck after all.

Which is fortunate, because Alan Ruck was as perfect for Cameron as Matthew Broderick was for Ferris. Though he was 29 at the time, he looked 18. He was slightly awkward, believably shy and extremely funny. He was totally authentic as someone Ferris would choose as his best friend. Besides which, his pre-existing friendship with Broderick gave the two a natural, contagious chemistry. It was easy to buy into the two of them as best friends.

Hughes had the two perfect leads, and a solid supporting cast. Relative newcomer Mia Sara would play Ferris’ girlfriend Sloan (Meg Ryan was actually passed over for the role because it was thought she was too charming. Almost as if she would Ferris’ thunder). Another relative newcomer, Jennifer Grey, would play his bitter, envious sister, Jeanie. She and Broderick would actually develop an on-set romance. With Jeffrey Jones and Edie McClurg providing comedic pursuit from the school, the cast was in great shape.

But getting the movie done was another matter altogether.

Hughes may have been legendarily quick in terms of producing scripts, but he actually never stopped writing. He was constantly doing rewrites, he was the type of director who would show up every morning with new pages. He was also a fan of getting a lot of “coverage”. He would shoot the scripted lines, but then keep the camera rolling and get different line interpretations, and then encourage improv. Enormous amounts of material was shot.

This sort of technique could certainly yield benefits, such as Ben Stein’s legendary, droning history teacher. Stein was originally supposed to simply read the class roll call off-camera, but the teenaged extras playing students kept cracking up. Hughes called an audible and moved Stein on camera. When that worked well, he encouraged Stein (a political speech writer brought in for his monotone voice) to ad-lib a lecture.

So the creative style certainly could yield wonderful results, but the movie was coming in over schedule and over budget. Eventually things got so out of hand, the studio imposed a shut down deadline on shooting. Hughes finished prior to being shut down, but the difficulties continued into post. Reportedly Hughes was enamored of the creative process, not the post production process. By the time “Bueller’s” moved to editing, Hughes was already enthused about “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, yet he still faced a mountain of footage.

The first cut of the film was two hours and forty-five minutes long. Substantive changes needed to be made. Two younger Bueller siblings? It’s as if they never existed. Louie Anderson’s character? All his lines were left on the cutting room floor. Charlie Sheen’s character’s family and back story? Gone. A trip to a strip club, Ferris playing air guitar. Gone. Gone. They used extensive test screenings and made substantive changes based on test audience reactions. Slowly the movie took shape.

The most important changes made during the edit related to the shaping of Ferris’ character. Ferris’ infamous addresses to the audience initially had much more cynicism and snark. He had many darker monologues that needed to be cut – such as one pertaining to the threat of nuclear war. The fear of eventually becoming like your parents and losing your youth was also spoken to much more directly. Even some of Ferris’ behavior was changed, such as excising a scene where he cons his father into revealing where he kept his savings bonds so that Ferris could steal them in order to fund the day.

In the end, Ferris was left confident, easy-going, and enthusiastic. He acknowledges the issues of the world, but never gets caught up worrying about how to face them. Life is easy, doors will open. It was one of Hughes’ intentions to create a character who didn’t take himself too seriously, who didn’t worry so much about the future, who vivaciously enjoyed life. Hughes’ most famous movies spoke to the teen condition, and he wanted Ferris to stand as a counter-point to the problem-beset characters that had previously populated his films.

And how does the world look when it lays at your feet?

Hughes made sure to show us. With plenty of helicopter shots of Chicago, and a one day whirlwind tour of some of the city’s most fun and famous places – the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field, The Art Institute of Chicago – Hughes showed Ferris turning the key to the city. His principal couldn’t catch him, his sister couldn’t stop him, his peers held fundraisers for him, his girlfriend wanted to marry him… a parade wasn’t held in his honor, but he made it wish it was.

He spent the day driving the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California.

“Ohhhhhh Yeah.”

But the character development in the story belongs to Cameron Frye.

Cameron, almost Ferris’ alter-ego, is a nervous worrier. His hypochondriac sensibilities preclude a true enjoyment of life. It’s only by embracing Ferris’ philosophies throughout the day that he’s able to break free of his anxieties… instead of curling up into a ball of fear when the miles wont roll off the Ferrari, Cameron gets angry and kicks the shit out of it. His hostilities aren’t misplaced, either. The car is both symbolic of his father’s neglect and the place to hit his father where it hurts the most. In the end the car is destroyed, but even if it hadn’t been, Cameron would have damaged it unmistakably anyways. A confrontation with his father loomed.

The cowardly lion found his courage.

Through Cameron, Hughes also slips in a subtle comment about parenting. Ferris’ parents might be a little clueless, but they’re attentive. Doting. Caring. The neglectful environment of Cameron’s museum-like home can have a negative impact on children. Surrounded by love and affection, fully protected and supported, kids have the ability to grow confident and care-free. If ignored and isolated, their outlook on life will certainly not be as positive.  

John Hughes died on Aug 6th, 2009, but not before leaving us with many wonderful films. Movies that are widely adored.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” may arguably be his best.

It’s still beloved today because it speaks to the desire of for freedom and independence in all of us. We all want to make our own rules, no one wants to be restricted or be taxed with bullshit. It’s an infectious comedy about the joys of youth and the intoxicating power of rebelliousness. Ferris is carpe diem personified. The living embodiment of joie de vive.

The movie leaves you with the feeling that there’s something about the human spirit that’s irrepressible.

Which is why it still resonates with us today.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.


52 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

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