For a guy who got his break appearing on TV’s That ’70s Show, Topher Grace sure is obsessed with this ’80s thing. In this week’s new release Take Me Home Tonight — which might superficially be summarized as That ’80s Movie — Grace, who co-wrote the story and produced, stars as Matt Franklin, a talented-but-aimless college grad adrift between a yuppie career and a dead-end video clerk job in the summer of 1988. Pining after his unattainable high school crush Tori (Teresa Palmer), Matt, his sister Wendy (Anna Faris), and his buddy Barry (Dan Fogler) crash a reunion party in LA’s Valley — thus setting in motion the kind of “all-in-one-night” adventure in which the characters work out their lives via an evening of raucous misdeeds. It’s a film that proudly wears its “I Heart John Hughes” pin on the rolled-up sleeve of its sports blazer, a passion project that Grace has clearly had percolating for some time.
In keeping with that spirit, the actor decided he wanted to compile his five favorites with Take Me Home Tonight‘s flavor, and talk about their influence upon his film along the way. “I would say my favorite films that were kind of specific to what our inspirations were for this movie,” Grace says. So here they are.
Say Anything… (1989, 100% Tomatometer)
First is Say Anything…. In terms of protagonists it doesn’t get any better than Lloyd Dobler, and John Cusack is kind of like the Holy Grail in terms of awesome ’80s protagonists that are kind of lost and don’t know what they want to do. That great speech where he says “I don’t wanna sell anything… bought, sold or processed” or whatever — you know that scene? — it’s just kind of a genius way of describing what a character’s going through. Quite frankly my character in this movie is going through a very similar thing: clearly a smart guy, probably kind of paralyzed in life because he’s done it to himself. He’s kind of over-thinking everything, so the only thing he can think of is to do nothing and work at Sun Coast video.
RT: There’s definitely a Cusack element to your character. I thought of Say Anything… but I was also reminded of the character he plays in Better Off Dead.
Oh yeah, totally. There’s even a little Grosse Pointe [Blank]. Like, him older would be Grosse Pointe. That would be the reunion of this class. Plus, I mean come on, there are just such amazing lines in Say Anything…: “I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen.” And the use of music in that film, that was something. I mean all these films we looked at, and we kind of made a giant mix tape — that was the first thing we did before we even put a writer on the film. We really didn’t want to make fun of the ’80s, we wanted to celebrate the great music and the great movies of the ’80s. [Peter Gabriel’s] “In Your Eyes” is a great example of ’80s music in a good way.
The music playing when you and Teresa kiss kind of recalls that vibe. Who did that music?
That was done by Trevor Horn. He did a special thing for us, which is we got the rights to [Pete Townshend’s] “Let My Love Open the Door,” which is actually a different version, the E. Cola Mix, a lot slower — and that’s playing in the car when they first starting to flirt. So we got the rights to have him use that in the score. Trevor did, like, all the great synth scores of the actual ’80s, and we wanted to be the first movie that actually was like the ’80s. It was like we time traveled and made a movie in the ’80s and just put it in a vault and took it out today, blew the dust off and this is like the lost ’80s movie, basically. In order to do that, and not to make a big deal out of it, we did enough that it dated it but not so much that we were making fun of it. The music was the same way. We needed there to be synthesizer, but not the kind where it called attention to itself.
And Trevor was in The Buggles, whose song “Video Killed the Radio Star” opens your film.
That’s right. You know what’s really crazy, dude? It’s that Hans Zimmer was in that music video. He was in the Buggles at that time and that’s him in the video.
Less Than Zero (1987, 54% Tomatometer)
Number two I would say is Less Than Zero, which, you know… there’s a point in [Take Me Home Tonight] where we kind of go “across the tracks” in Los Angeles, which is the Hills. The Valley was a big deal; it’s where the majority of the movie takes place, but then we go to a different party, kind of a banker’s party, and that’s going over the hill into Beverly Hills. I realized when I first moved to LA that there was a big difference between the Sunset Strip and Los Angeles proper, and then going over into the Valley, which is more of a hometown community. It’s crazy that the Hills is kind of those train tracks, so to speak, and we really wanted to focus on that second party as in Less Than Zero. That’s what we were going for. The atmosphere in there, we really wanted to see that side of the ’80s too, which is very different. You would say the other side is maybe Valley Girl, and that kind of party, and this side is Less than Zero.
The outfit that you wear out is very Andrew McCarthy in Less Than Zero, too.
Oh, I was totally inspired by Andrew McCarthy, yeah.
The Breakfast Club (1985, 90% Tomatometer)
Number three would be The Breakfast Club, which might be kind of on the nose but you can’t not put it on the list. It’s a great film and you can say it in place of naming all of John Hughes’ films, because we drew so much inspiration from a lot of his. The thing that John Hughes did, which was really the genesis of why we wanted to produce the movie, is that there were equal parts drama and comedy. Now today you’ll see a movie and it’ll be all raunchy — and it’ll be great — but it’ll be just sort of a raunchy fun time. Or you’ll go see a movie and it’ll be really romantic, so it’s all one thing. John Hughes dared to do both, to have kind of a four-course meal, and also he could have young ensembles do it. I love having worked with movie stars but I really wanted to find a bunch of young ensemble peers. The little side note is that all of John Hughes’ kids, in his films, go to Shermer High, and that’s where we talk about having gone to. At the beginning, when you see the yearbook, it says “Shermer High.” That’s the only thing that tips its hat in the movie; everything else is like, we wanted to use some conventions — you know, we wanted to steal a red car, we wanted to have a guy chasing a girl at a party, have a platonic best girlfriend — but with Shermer, we went for it.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982, 80% Tomatometer)
I would say the fourth one is Fast Times At Ridegmont High, which is like a really different version of the same thing at the same time. And you know it’s Cameron Crowe again, with Amy Heckerling, who’s amazing. I remember seeing that and it was kind of like gritty and so real. I think I saw it for the first time 10 or 15 years after it first came out, and it still was shocking and interesting. And we wanted to make sure that we had, in our film, real drug use — and the drug of the day was cocaine — and real boobs. We really wanted to go there. That’s something that I really admire in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. It’s hilarious, it’s not scared to go there and it doesn’t pull any punches. And the character work is so amazing.
And it has what may be the single greatest classroom scene ever, when Spicoli orders the pizza delivered to his desk.
I know! I mean there are those genius little bits and then it takes all these different stories and puts them into one. I just love Fast Times so much.
Dazed and Confused (1993, 98% Tomatometer)
American Graffiti (1973, 97% Tomatometer)
The fifth one? I gotta give you two. Bend the rules a little bit. These are both not in the ’80s but they were both really inspirational to the movie: Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti.
The ultimate all-in-one night, end-of-school movies.
Right. When we looked at it, at the beginning, we loved all these ’80s movies and yet this [type of story] hasn’t been done for the ’80s — the look back. It’s different from the movies that were shot in the present, because it’s implicit that there’s a message in looking back. My producing partner was my roommate in boarding school and I remember us watching Dazed and Confused — this was a film from the ’90s looking back at the ’70s — and thinking, what an amazing cast. We really wanted to take the ’80s seriously, like those films. I mean, I love The Wedding Singer, it’s a great movie, but it was only eight years out of the ’80s, and you don’t have real view then. I think it’d be very hard to make the ’90s movie now. But I think those movies, especially American Graffiti, which was the first one, really had something to say about that time. And like our film, they were always at the end of a threshold — like, they literally flew to Vietnam the next month [at the end of Graffiti], these main characters; or in Dazed and Confused you can see that kid’s about to graduate. It’s the end of an era. That’s why we set ours at a Labor Day party, so it’s at the end of summer, and it’s in ’88, so it’s kind of at the end of the ’80s. Matt Franklin is kind of like a beautiful swan in the recession, probably [laughs], but a real ugly duckling in the go-go ’80s.
Is that why you chose 1988? Apart from being able to use pop music, like N.W.A., that was changing in tone at the time?
Right, the music’s great. I mean, at the party the D.J.’s playing stuff that they had when they went to high school, so it’s kind of more of the ’80s. But we wanted the feeling that Matt’s gonna do great in the ’90s — he really is made for the ’90s. And that’s the thing that both of those movies have: the modern-day protagonist in a film from that time.
You’re like the Richard Dreyfuss character in Graffiti?
I like Richard Dreyfuss but I more identified with the Ron Howard character when I saw that movie. But yeah, look Richard Dreyfuss is amazing in that movie. It’s really interesting to me when a movie’s set 20 years in the past and it’s a period piece but it’s as close as you can get to that period. It’s implicit that there’s a message inside of it, and yet those films did a really good job of being just a fun blast to watch — there’s no kind of homework to do, you know. Plus there are two audiences when you do this 20-year thing: there’s the audience that’s just swimming in nostalgia watching it, and then there’s the audience that discovers it for the first time.
Were there any behavioral quirks of ’80s movie characters that you studied up on? I’m thinking of how you tilt your Wayfarers down when you walk into that house party.
Right — all those things, man. We shot that one and I thought, “Is this gonna work?” — and now it’s the poster.
But you’re wearing different shades in the poster — you’ve got the Back to the Future aviators on.
Ah, yeah… I think they tried a lot of different shades for the poster and I am certainly a huge Back to the Future fan — so I was not against it. I really walk up into the camera and make eye contact at the moment. So I thought, if [I don’t get to do it in this movie], then when? [laughs]
Take Me Home Tonight is released this week.