It’s been 30 years since John Hughes released “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” (on November 25, 1987), and perhaps somewhere out there, Steve Martin is still trapped in some crowded transport hub waiting room or some motel bed with a beer-soaked mattress.
The hit comedy proved Hughes could write about adults as well as teenagers, launched the domesticated-family-man phase of former wild-and-crazy-guy Martin’s career, and set the gold standard as the ultimate Thanksgiving-travel nightmare.
As many times as you’ve watched Martin listen to one more of John Candy‘s cheerfully pointless anecdotes, or curse out that chirpy car rental agent for standing between him and a reunion with his family, there are still some secrets behind “PT&A.” Here’s what what really happened throughout a filmmaking journey where life all too often imitated art.
2. Before he turned to filmmaking, Hughes, too, had been a Chicago-based ad exec trying to get home after making a presentation in Manhattan. Snow stranded him at a motel near La Guardia airport, then kept his plane from landing in Chicago or even Des Moines. He wound up in Phoenix, moaning over pay phones to the folks back home about his lack of a clean shirt. What should have been a one-day shuttle trip from Chicago to New York and back turned into a five-day slog.
4. Initially, Hughes was going to direct “The Great Outdoors” and hand off directing duties for “PT&A” to frequent collaborator Howard Deutch. But when Martin signed on to star, Hughes got Deutch to switch movies with him.
6. Between Hughes’s dredged-up memories and Martin and Candy’s improvisations, there was a wealth of material for the director to draw from. Martin claimed that the shooting script was 145 pages long (compared to 90 to 120 for a typical movie) and that the first cut of the movie was four and a half hours long.
8. In a weird time-travel moment, when Neal’s wife is watching TV in her bedroom, the movie that’s playing is Hughes’s “She’s Having a Baby” — a film that wouldn’t be released in theaters until the following year. In fact, there’s a fan theory that Kevin Bacon, seen early in “PT&A” in a cameo as a sidewalk rival of Neal’s who’s racing to hail the same taxi, is playing the same junior ad man he would play in “Baby.”
10.Edie McClurg, fresh from her scene-stealing role as school secretary Grace in Hughes’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” played the car rental agent at the receiving end of Neal’s profane tirade. She improvised her entire Thanksgiving-cooking-themed phone conversation in one take. Hughes was astounded. She explained to him, “John, I’m a cannibal. Just like you, I take everything in my life and I’ll use it. Everything I used in that run about Thanksgiving, all of that was just my family.”
12.Elton John was commissioned to write a theme song for the movie, but a legal dispute between Polygram (John’s record label) and Paramount Pictures — which was over who would own the recording master tapes — kept the tune out of the film.
14. Instead, Hughes came up with the ending where Del finally takes the hint and leaves Neal alone, only for Neal to realize that Del has nowhere to go and invite him to his own home. Hughes and his editors revised the ending largely through careful recutting. The sequence where a reflective Neal silently realizes the truth about Del came from an outtake, shot between scenes, while Martin had been pondering his next lines.