‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ Is the Only John Hughes Movie That Fully Embraced L.A.

Director Howard Deutch looks back at an under-appreciated 1987 teen dramedy that took viewers from the Hollywood Bowl to San Pedro High

You’ve probably never thought about it, but pretty much all of the 1980s John Hughes movies were shot in Southern California. That can’t be right, you’re thinking; they’re all love letters to Chicago.

They are, and Hughes did fly back to Chicago to shoot several iconic scenes—like the downtown glee spree in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for example. But Ferris’s house is actually in Long Beach, and the majority of that film—along with Pretty in Pink; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; She’s Having a Baby; and Some Kind of Wonderful—was shot in L.A., where Hughes lived during most of his ’80s heyday.

“Our M.O. at that time was, we would go back to Chicago and we would shoot all the exteriors [there] and generally we had a little bit of cover in terms of practical locations,” says Bill Brown, Hughes’ regular producer and second unit director. “But then all of our sets were built in L.A. Ferris’ house [interior] was on stage at Paramount. When they go to the really nice restaurant, the exterior where they do the car highjinks with the father, that’s in front of Chez Paul in Chicago. But the exterior of the restaurant, when they walk in and do the Abe Froman and get a table and have lunch and all… that’s L’Orangerie on La Cienega.”

There’s only one Hughes teen film that fully embraced Los Angeles as its setting: Some Kind of Wonderful, which made its Blu-ray debut in a new five-movie set late last month.

It was directed by Howard Deutch, who also directed the hit Pretty in Pink in 1986. If you’re like me, you remember Pink as another essential Chicago movie—but in fact none of it was shot there. In reality, Molly Ringwald lives on the wrong side of the Gold Line tracks in South Pasadena, and she attends John Marshall High School in Los Feliz.

“We disguised L.A.,” says Deutch. “All John’s scripts really are meant to be in Chicago. So when they’re in L.A., it’s never really because of L.A.—except Some Kind of Wonderful.”

Wonderful came during the busiest streak for the Hughes Entertainment empire. It was in production concurrently with Planes and She’s Having a Baby, both directed by Hughes. The cinematic teen whisperer, who essentially had an auteur deal at Paramount, asked Deutch to direct his L.A. remix of Pretty in Pink—where this time the best friends do end up together. Deutch had trouble casting the film, and a chance encounter with Brian DePalma on an airplane convinced him that was a sign he should kill the film. He suggested as much to Hughes—and showed up on the Paramount lot the next morning to find a padlock on his office.

Instead, Hughes hired Valley Girl and Real Genius director Martha Coolidge, who helped further develop the script and cast Eric Stoltz as the artsy mechanic Keith, Mary Stuart Masterson as his “Drummer Girl” best friend Watts, All My Children’s Kim Delaney as Amanda Jones (the apple of Keith’s eye), and Kyle MacLachlan as Amanda’s rich douchebag boyfriend, Hardy.

Then, four days before cameras rolled, Coolidge was fired, and “creative differences” were cited. Deutch has understandably downplayed the drama, but Coolidge told her version of the story in 2011: “I actually had a great time with John, rehearsing and getting the film ready to go. There were no signs of any problems. … I had Eric get long extensions and make his hair a darker red to give him some darkness and mystery. He was very steamy.”

“I didn’t know it,” she continued, “but on the weekend prior to our shoot, John and Howard met and made up. John decided in a gesture of friendship to make the studio give the movie to Howard to direct. John never spoke to me. When I came in on Monday morning I got a call to come over to see Michael [Chinich], John’s partner and producer. No one said anything to me, but I could feel that something was wrong. The walk to the next building felt like I was walking a gang plank. Michael was in tears when I got there … I thought maybe Eric had died and the movie was off. Then he said that they would be making the film, but not with me.”

Both MacLachlan and Delaney also got the axe, and Stoltz was on the chopping block—Coolidge noted how Stoltz had just experienced something similar with his short-lived time as Marty McFly on the set of Back to the Future—but the studio insisted on keeping him. Paramount president Ned Tannen apologized to Coolidge, and paid her full salary.

Now back in the director’s chair, Deutch put his own stamp on the film by recasting a few of the parts, including Lea Thompson as Amanda. Thompson (Stoltz’s mother in an alternate Back to the Future timeline) initially passed, but she came back begging when Howard the Duck hatched and immediately rotted at the box office. Deutch and Thompson ended up marrying, and they’ve been together since 1989. (Their daughters are actors Madelyn and Zoey Deutch.)

lea thompson
Lea Thompson and Howard Deutch at the premiere of ‘Working Girl’ in 1988

Beyond that, the director says, Some Kind of Wonderful “was a train already going down the tracks, and I was always kind of playing catch up.” The film was a “broad comedy” when Deutch was initially attached, all revolving around a flamboyant date that Keith takes Amanda on all over town, winding up at the Hollywood Bowl and punctuated with a flyover by the Blue Angels. Hughes rewrote it as more of a romantic dramedy when Coolidge came on board, which Deutch was (pleasantly) surprised to learn when he retook the helm.

But the date sequence remained, and Wonderful became the first Hughes film to embrace its SoCal setting. The high school scenes were shot at San Pedro High School—named “San Paulo” in the film—with its stunning ocean views.

“Shooting the quintessential suburban high school in Los Angeles is very difficult,” says Brown. “One of the best looking ones is El Segundo, but it’s so close to the LAX flight path that all the sound you record there is junk. You have to loop 100 percent the exterior of that location. San Pedro High School had this really cool look.”

San Pedro was also chosen for its blue collar, “wrong side of the tracks” vibe (and the striking image of oil refineries glowing at night), and both Keith’s and Watts’s houses were located there. As were the train tracks in the opening credits montage, where Stoltz walks right up to a moving train before stepping out of the way at the last second.

“I was very nervous,” remembers Deutch, “because Eric got too close to that train. It’s not just a long, 500-millimeter lens that made it look like that. Now we’d never be allowed to shoot that scene. I was like, ‘Cut! Forget it! Let’s get out of here.’”

The gas station/auto shop where Keith works (and steals a dipstick from the human dipstick Hardy) was located on Pico Boulevard in Beverlywood. Amanda breaks up with Hardy in front of the Brick Walk shopping center in Palos Verdes. Watts and Keith have an emotional moment at a March Violets concert inside the now-extinct Al’s Bar in downtown Los Angeles.

Where the city truly shines, though, is that big date—which Keith cooks up (and cashes out his college savings to fund) as a grand gesture to impress Amanda, friend of the wealthy. They begin by eating caviar at the ritzy L’Ermitage restaurant in West Hollywood (now occupied by Koi), where Watts—reluctantly acting as their chauffuer—shoots craps with the parking valets outside. With the help of skinhead Duncan (Elias Koteas), and Keith’s other enemies-turned-friends from detention, they then have a quiet moment in an empty LACMA after dark, where Keith shows off the painting of Amanda he’s been working on throughout the movie.

Finally, they sneak into the empty Bowl. Sitting alone on its iconic shell stage—beautifully lit by the detention boys—Keith and Amanda come clean about having exploited each other, and Keith gives her an expensive pair of diamond earrings. Watts watches in pain from the cheap seats as the two kiss. It’s one of the loveliest representations of the Bowl on film—immortalizing the 1980 Frank Gehry-designed hollow fiberglass balls hovering over the stage, which went away in the 2004 redesign—and it’s even more beautiful in a year when the venue’s season is likely to be canceled for the second year in a row.

Deutch felt lucky to be granted use of the Bowl, and for such an emotional scene. “The next morning,” he says, “the report came back from the lab that all the film was scratched, and that we’d have to reshoot the entire thing. I freaked out. I didn’t even know if we could have gotten the Hollywood Bowl again. But I ended up cutting around the scratches, and so it worked.”

The action ends at a party at Hardy’s house, located on Hudson Avenue in Hancock Park. (James Spader’s rich prick from Pretty in Pink lives in a house two blocks over, on June Street—whatever that says about Hancock Park.) Keith stands up to Hardy, Amanda slaps Hardy, and life is good…when Keith suddenly realizes he’s in love with Watts, and chases her down the street at night, giving Hughes the romantic ending he’d always wanted for his characters in Pretty in Pink.

“I needed a street that felt right for the big ending,” says Deutch, “what I call the ‘great cry-off.’”

Some Kind of Wonderful opened on February 27th, 1987. It was the least commercially successful of the Hughes teen films (although at $19 million, far from disappointing), but one of the better reviewed. “At long last, the John Hughes method has paid off,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. “It has a light touch, a disarming cast, a well-developed sense of humor and a lot of charm. It also shows off, even better than the earlier films have, Mr. Hughes’ keen understanding of the world his young characters inhabit and the ways in which they might behave.”

It may also be the least remembered, forever eclipsed by Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club. It would be Hughes’s final teen movie; he shifted his focus to more autobiographical stories of adulthood before scripting several children’s films in the ’90s.

Not long after scripting this L.A. story, Hughes moved his family back to where his heart always remained: Chicago. He “wrote from the outside,” says Deutch. “He always felt like an outsider, and a lot of the characters are like that, who feel like they don’t belong. When he started to become very successful here, he became an insider, and he didn’t feel comfortable writing that way. So he went back to Chicago.”

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