‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ at 35: An Oral History of One of the Most Beloved Road Movies Ever Made

When Planes, Trains and Automobiles roared into theaters on November 25, 1987, somehow it was a sure thing and a huge risk. Its writer/producer/director, John Hughes, was coming off a string of hits (sixteen candles, the breakfast club, Y Ferris Bueller’s Day Off among them), modestly budgeted character-driven comedy-dramas whose big grosses meant big profits; main actors Steve Martin and John Candy were among the biggest comedy stars in the country. But Hughes, who had established himself as the poet laureate of the ’80s teens, was telling an adult story for a change. Martin, whose greatest film successes to date had come in big comedies, was trying to remake himself as a more intellectual screen presence. And although Candy was one of the brightest lights in the SCTV All in all, he had found very few film roles that took full advantage of his tremendous talent.

But these three comedic legends collaborated to make movie magic, and in the 35 years since its release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles has become not just a holiday perennial, but one of the most beloved comedies of the ’80s. To mark that anniversary, as well as its upcoming 4K Blu-ray and video-on-demand release, featuring over an hour of never-before-seen images,vanity fair he spoke to nearly 20 members of the film’s cast and crew, as well as the sons of the late John Hughes and John Candy.

Steve Martin (bottom middle), John Candy (right), 1987.Courtesy of Paramount/Everett Collection.

Even before a single frame of the movie was shot, the anticipation for the movie was high. “Steve Martin and John Candy have a lot of work for next February. Paramount has them hooked to star Planes, Trains and Automobiles, written and directed by John Hughes,” Marilyn Beck wrote in a syndicated column from September 1986. “Paramount is so high up on the script, and on Martin and Candy, that it has already targeted P, T, and A as their main release for next year’s holiday season.”

Bill Brown (Associate Producer/Second Unit Director): I remember going out to dinner at Ivy at the Shore in Los Angeles with [Hughes] on, like, a wednesday night. And he says, “I have this idea.”

John Hughes (Writer/Producer/Director): This movie is based on an incident that actually happened to me. When I was a copywriter, I left New York for Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend and, after a five-day delay, ended up in Phoenix, Arizona, via Wichita, Kansas. (edmonton sunday sunday, 1987)

Brown: And he was just pitching the idea for the movie.

John Hughes: There was an older guy there, a salesman who had been on the road for years. He knew everything about this kind of situation. I kind of hang out with him. He was so impressed by this guy’s understanding of the situation. (rocky Mountain News, 1987)

Brown: This is a Wednesday night at dinner, just casual, sitting around talking about it. The following Tuesday, it was a green-lit picture at Paramount.

Janet Hirshenson (Casting Director): As I recall, he came in, we had a session on a Monday and he came in and said, “Oh, I wrote a script over the weekend. I think we can do it later.”

Ira Newborn (Composer): I could write a script in a day or two. I mean, he had all these things in his head!

Brown: We ate dinner mainly at his house, but sometimes in restaurants. And they were an opportunity for him to talk about things. And then he would start working. Therefore, he usually started work after dinner and worked until four in the morning, that was his best time to write. And it would take about three nights to establish a draft.

James Hughes (Son of John Hughes): He wrote his first drafts as fast as possible, almost in a fugue state.

Tarquin Gotch (music supervisor): He would enter the zone and not stop. And you I couldn’t seize him. The phone is dead. And it can be two days.

Howard Deutsch (Director, Pretty in pink, kind of wonderful, the outdoors): He wrote and I usually fell asleep…. In Some kind of wonderful, we were doing rewrites. I woke up and said, “How did it go?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, I did this instead, I’m sorry.” And he hands me 50 pages. I say, “What is this? We were supposed to do three, four pages in Kind of wonderful.He said, “Oh, I stray. Tell me what you think of this. I really don’t know what it’s about. But I wrote it.” And it was the first half of Ferris Bueller’s day off. So that’s the guy we’re dealing with.

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