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‘Pretty In Pink’ Director Howard Deutch Opens Up About Collaborating With John Hughes, And The Ultimate Sacrifice That Saved The Movie

When it comes to the best teen movies of the ‘80s, Pretty in Pink is consistently placed in the top tier, but if you’re only a casual fan of the film, it may surprise you to learn that it’s never before been made available on Blu-ray until this week…and be honest: it does surprise you, doesn’t it? After all, there aren’t a lot of movies that are quite as deeply ingrained in the fabric of ‘80s pop culture as the John Hughes-penned tale about the love triangle between Andie (Molly Ringwald), the girl from the less financially-stable side of the tracks, Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), the cute, well-to-do boy, and Duckie (Jon Cryer), her longtime platonic pal pining for her. It’s a classic romantic scenario, and it’s one of the decade’s defining films.

In conjunction with Pretty in Pink‘s Blu-ray release finally coming to fruition, director Howard Deutch hopped on the phone with Decider to chat about the film’s origins, the process of getting the casting just right, the soundtrack, and the original ending that proved so horrifying to audiences that they had to change it. In addition, Deutch also discussed his stint as a director of music videos – specifically, the one he did for Billy Idol – as well as one of his most famous post-Pretty in Pink films, The Great Outdoors.

DECICDER: When it comes to Pretty in Pink, the first, best place to start is probably with the man who wrote it. How did you first find your way into John Hughes’ orbit?

HOWARD DEUTCH: We crossed paths because when I started, I had a company with my partners that made movie trailers, and we were working on the trailer for – if I remember correctly – 48 Hours, with Joel Silver. And Joel wanted us to do Sixteen Candles for John, and he introduced us. And at the same time, I was doing music videos. I was just beginning my directing on the music video side. So he wanted a video as well for Sixteen Candles, so we did that, and we got to know each other through doing that work and liked each other. Neither of us went to film school, we were both from advertising originally, so it was kind of simpatico, and we became close. And that’s when he offered me Pretty in Pink.

And that was your first full-length effort as a director, right?

Correct!

What were your thoughts when you first read the script? Were you a fan of the teen movie genre?

Not really. I mean, there were certain movies that I loved at the time with that sensibility, like… The Paper Chase. I remembered I loved that movie. And there were others. But he had given me two scripts. One was called The New Kid, about his experiences when he moved to Arizona to go to high school, and the other was Pretty in Pink. And not knowing anything and not being very sophisticated about reading scripts, I reacted kind of honestly. I said, “Pretty in Pink made me cry, so I should probably do that one!” [Laughs.]

I know that casting took a fair while, insofar as picking out who was right for which role.

Oh, very much so. Originally Anthony Michael Hall was somebody we wanted to be Duckie, and he passed. The studio wanted all kinds of other actresses for Molly [Ringwald’s] part, but I knew I had to convince everybody that Molly was the one to play it, and then I had to convince her... [Laughs.] So the whole casting of that movie… For a first movie, that was a lot! I was lucky to stand up when I did.

I would’ve thought that Molly would’ve pretty much been a lock, just by virtue of her connection with John at that point.

Well, yeah, but the studio wanted to – and John agreed to – look for other people. And Molly wasn’t sure she wanted to do it. I knew, and I couldn’t think of anybody who was even close to right for it other than her. So I went and groveled and sniveled and wallowed…and she agreed!

I’ve read that Charlie Sheen was considered for the role of Blaine.

Yes, he was! But Molly wanted Andrew [McCarthy], and I was lucky enough to listen to myself – which I usually don’t – and myself said, “Listen to Molly, because she is that person. She gets this movie. She is that character in real life, and she will make it as close to a docu-version of a girl who wants to her prom as I’m going to be able to get.” So she said, “That’s the guy!” She wanted him. She had a crush on him. And she convinced me that, because of how she felt, that was the guy we had to get. And when we got together, I could see both of them flirting immediately. So I said, “I’ve gotta make this work!”

I can’t even imagine another actor in the role of Andie’s dad, but Harry Dean Stanton isn’t exactly most people’s first choice for a teen movie. How did he end up in the mix?

Oh, John wanted Harry Dean from the beginning. And Harry had no interest in it. He was like [Casually dismissive.] “No.” So we went to his house to convince him, and…somebody said to him, “You have to hurry up and decide!” And he was, like, “I’ll hurry up slow.” [Laughs.] Anyway, John rewrote for him and reworked it for him and spent a lot of time so that Harry got invested. And he ultimately said “yes.”

“I’ll hurry up slow” is such a perfect Harry Dean line.

Yeah! By the way, I worked with Harry years later. It was, like, 30 years later, and he was very ill. It was on that show Big Love. But he said to me, “Hey, what happened to that scene they cut out that I was supposed to do, when I buy the dress?” He still remembered that we didn’t shoot that scene!

Is there any particular story surrounding how you came to cast Andrew Dice Clay?

You know, I think I auditioned him. He just came in – the casting director, I think – and he was good for the part, so we used him. [Laughs.] I think that’s it!

To say that I’m a big fan of the soundtrack is an understatement, What was the process of bringing that together?

There was a lot of music that John had accumulated from the ’80s British invasion that he loved, and he’d play it for me. New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen… A lot of groups that I’d never heard of, frankly. I’d never heard of New Order. But he played me “Elegia,” that track that we used in the movie, and I was, like, “Jesus, this is gorgeous!” And we put it up against a scene after I cut it. And the process of him never forcing anything on me but just saying, “Hey, check this out…” I would be, like, “How the hell did you find that?” [Laughs.] Because I grew up in the music business, and I fancied myself pretty much ahead of the curve. But he was way ahead of everybody.

And yet arguably the most famous musical moment in the film is Duckie lip-syncing and dancing to Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness.” I’ve talked to Jon Cryer about this before, and I want to say that the song was your pick. Am I remembering that right?

You know, my memory is that it was a combination decision. I definitely wanted that. But in the end, it was blessed by John. There were other songs in contention, though. Jon Cryer was lobbying for – and was very good at doing – a Rolling Stones song. But originally it was just a little moment where he comes sliding into the store and there’s a song playing. That’s what was in the script. But we made much more out of it, because it’s all I really knew at the time. I’d been doing all these music videos, and I thought, “I’d better try something else here.” So I asked [choreographer] Kenny Ortega, and he said, “Sure!” So we made a little thing out of it. We never expected it to become iconic.

I remember Jon said that the amount of time it was going to take to get it right was a little intimidating, because it was going to take longer than you really had to work with.

Yeah, we took like half a day to do it. It freaked everybody out. [Laughs.] But as you see, it was well worth it!

As far as the ending of the film, did you foresee that the original version – where Andie ends up with Duckie – was going to be an issue, or were you surprised when test audiences reacted the way they did?

We were shocked. We almost had a heart attack. And then we had to figure out how to reverse-engineer it and make it work. Paramount was flipping out. But it took a long time to figure out. John just came into the editing room and said, “I got it! I know what to do now!” And he sat on the floor – he always liked to sit on the floor – and he told us.He said, “We have to cut the part where Andrew comes with somebody to the prom. He has to come alone. And then by doing that, then Jon can sacrifice himself. He can make the ultimate sacrifice and say, ‘Go with that guy.’ And then he’ll be taken care of. We’ll protect his character by giving him that little Duckette.[Laughs.] And then he handed us the pages, and me and my editor, Richie Marks, who’s a brilliant editor… It was, like, boom! We knew it was gonna work.

Do you think Duckie would’ve eventually ended up with Annie Potts’ character?

[Cackles.] No, but it would’ve been a great relationship!

I wanted to circle back to your music video work for a moment and ask you about the experience of working with Billy Idol on his “Flesh for Fantasy” video.

Oh, my God. I don’t remember, because we were all so high. [Laughs.] I was awake for four straight days!

[Writer’s note: This is not an exaggeration. In Idol’s memoir, Dancing with Myself, he writes of the video, “Our first day ended up going thirty-six hours. The second day went about twenty-four hours.”]

It was crazy.The whole experience was interplanetary. I was grateful for the opportunity. He’s brilliant. At the time my company had just finished working on a trailer that he loved, and he said, ‘Let’s get that guy!’ So I was lucky enough to get it. It’s really not a reason, but I got it anyway! And I worked with Perri Lister, a choreographer he liked. In fact, I think that was who he was dating! But she helped forge together a concept for the writer I was working with, and…it became what it became!

Even all these years later, when I was working with Guillermo del Toro on his series The Strain, he said, “I love the Billy Idol video you did!” [Laughs.] When I met him for the first time, it was in the show’s offices, so there were a bunch of people around, and he said, “Do you have diarrhea?” I said, “What?!” ] He was, like, “With all the work we have to do, I would!” I said, “Okay, well, it was nice to meet you, but I don’t have that, so…” But then he said, “I want to talk about your work!” And he went over all the music videos I’d done, which I hadn’t talked about in twenty years! But he knew everything. And Billy Idol, he really liked that.

The thing I remember is that I’d been up for four days, and I wore contact lenses, so when I finally fell asleep at the end of the shoot, I slept for, like, twenty hours…and they were stuck in my eyes! So that’s my lasting memory of that video!

Having just gotten the “one last question” warning, I’m going to bypass Some Kind of Wonderful in favor of asking about another classic film you helmed: The Great Outdoors.

Well, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd were amazing, but it was a very difficult movie for me, because I never really felt like I was the right guy to do it, because it was so broad. So I was struggling with my own sense of the tone of the movie the whole time, trying to make it fit more. The comedy of it was easy, but the emotional part was more difficult to plumb. So there was that, but there was also the challenge of making the movie.

There was supposed to be water skiing, but it was snowing, and the weather wouldn’t cooperate. And John, who I loved and adored, had a big beard at the beginning. A big, huge beard! And the studio said, “Howie, he’s gotta share that beard! We can’t see his face!” I said, “No, no, no! No, that’s his character! He wants the beard!” They said, “No, we want it off. And you’re gonna tell him.” So I told him, and he was very upset about it, and not happy. So that was the first thing that didn’t go well. And then he was afraid of the bear, and I made him work with the bear, and every time he had to work with the bear he was unhappy. And I loved him. He was the most sweet, generous man in the world! So it was hard for me whenever I had to make him unhappy.

So it was a difficult movie for me, and then it didn’t open well and didn’t look like it was gonna do well. It tested terribly. I remember Tom Pollock, who was the head of Universal, telling me I’d never work again. Nobody would even talk to me! It was all those terrible things you hear about in Hollywood…and they all happened to me on that movie! [Laughs.] But then after the movie started to do well, everybody started to call me again. And I thought, “These people are terrible!” But now here we are 30 years later, and families still seem to like the movie!

Will Harris (@NonStopPop) has a longstanding history of doing long-form interviews with random pop culture figures for the A.V. Club, Vulture, and a variety of other outlets, including Variety. He’s currently working on a book with David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. (And don’t call him Shirley.)

Where to stream Pretty In Pink

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