The Story Behind Ferris Bueller's Day Off

John Hughes' greatest flick took a long time to get to cinemas, with ideas for the script stretching back to his youth.

In that time, Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise all came close to playing Ferris.

"The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads - they all adore him." So let's find out how a righteous dude got to take a day off school...

1. The youthful Inspirations

While he's gone on the record to deny being directly responsible for inspiring Ferris Bueller, lawyer/speechwriter Edward McNally can lay claim to some of the elements that would eventually show up in the speculative slacker.

McNally and Hughes grew up in Northbrook, Illinois, and attended Glenbrook North, where Hughes would one day film scenes featuring Sloane (Mia Sara) being comforted over the fake death of a relative.

Bueller's ability to score days off from school is easily beaten by McNally's own - while Ferris had nine days out, the future legal eagle managed 27, primarily thanks to sick notes written by his sister, Sheila.

In fact, when his younger brothers brought notes from their actual mother, the dean of the school refused to believe them, thanks to the different handwriting. Now that's comedy...

McNally used his absences for school for Bueller-alike escapades, including one trip into Chicago with friends that involved him borrowing his own father's car - a purple Cadillac.

After putting 113 miles on the odometer, the lads jacked the car up, just like as happens with Cameron's father's Ferrari in the movie, and span the tires back to take off the drive time.

While the car didn't end up crashing into a ravine, it quickly took off 10,000 miles. Yes, McNally senior did notice.

Oh, and McNally had a best friend shared with Hughes. His name? Buehler.

A seed was sown, but first Hughes needed some more life experience...

Next: The path to Ferris


2. The path to Ferris

John Hughes didn't quite drop out and go on adventures like his future creation.

But he did follow the advice he would one day write and grab his own destiny.

In 1979, he had been working at the Leo Burnett advertising company in Chicago. While he'd been a successful copywriter, his true calling was in joke material, which he'd been submitting (and selling) to comics for years before he got into the ad world.

And he'd been scribbling for the National Lampoon at the same time, under an arrangement with boss Robert Nolan at the ad team.

He even mastered one of Bueller's little tricks to win himself more time to handle Lampoon work - he'd leave a cup of coffee on his desk next to his typewriter.

The ruse? When Nolan stopped by to look for him, he'd see the coffee and figure Hughes was taking a toilet break - when in reality he was off in New York, meeting with his Lampoon bosses.

Eventually, however, he decided that he was going to switch to comedy - specifically, screenplays - full time and left his job to launch a career in movies.

While he didn't exactly hit it big right away, he did win assignments to write several scripts, including the first one he sold, Horror High (which ended up as National Lampoon's Class Reunion).

The young screenwriter was frustrated by those early days, as directors were loathed to allow him on set, and he was burning with the desire to learn more about making movies.

Still, one thing from his ad past really helped him master the art of getting films made - he had great presentation skills, could boil a story down to a one-sentence pitch before explaining it and always knew when to use humour to break tension.

Sounds a bit like Ferris, right? But before he could send Bueller off around Chicago, he had to earn his directing stripes...

Next: The films before Bueller


3. The films before Bueller

Before too long, Hughes began to see results. His script for National Lampoon's Vacation (adapted from a comically true short story he'd penned to get the magazine's attention) earned him major success when the film became a hit, with Mr Mom also arriving in 1983.

With Hollywood firmly interested in doing business with him, Hughes scored more writing gigs, including a host of script-doctoring work that got him zero credit but the money he needed to keep going.

Realising that the teen film market was once more exploding thanks to the likes of Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Risky Business, Ferris' creator turned his attention to the lives, loves, worries and triumphs of young people.

And he resolved to give them more of a voice than most, as he told Chicago Tribune movie expert Gene Siskel in 1985.

"Many filmmakers portray teenagers as immoral and ignorant with pursuits that are pretty base.

"They seem to think that teenagers aren't very bright. But I haven't found that to be the case.

"I listen to kids. I respect them. I don't discount anything they have to say just because they're only 16 years old."

And Hughes would make good on that promise, delivering the likes of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink and Weird science, either as writer or director.

With a number of hit films under his belt, the writer/director could pursue one of his favourite stories. One drawn from moments in his own life.

Time for Ferris...

Next: The script


4. The script

While the essential story of the sneaky slacker's Chicago adventure remained the same through shooting and release, the original script for Ferris Bueller has a few telling differences.

For one, Ferris' family is bigger, with younger Siblings Todd and Kimberly featured early on (and, according to differing reports, filmed, but cut from the final print).

And our hero was originally supposed to steal a bond from his father's closet , then take it and cash it alongside Sloane at the bank to fund his wild time - which ended up on the cutting room floor, since Hughes didn't want to make him seem like a thief.

A reference to Ferris telling a radio show that he wanted to ride on the space shuttle before he dies was later snipped following the Challenger accident

There's also no dialogue for the droning economics lecture ladled out by Ben Stein's soporific teacher (you can find more on that on page 6.)

Finally, while Edward McNally and Hughes both knew a Buehler in school, Ferris' surname is largely credited to the director's childhood pal Burt Bueller.

With a script written, Hughes needed a lead...

Next: The struggle to find a Ferris


5. The struggle to find a Ferris

Given that he's the focus of the film, and on screen for a hefty chunk of the running time, it was essential for Hughes to find the perfect Ferris.

Whoever nabbed the role had to be able to pull of charismatic, cheeky, knowing, witty and free-wheeling.

And a raft of young actors - most of whom are now megastars - were considered for the lead.

Who? Try John Cusack, Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr were all considered.

And in one of those weird Hollywood six-degree situations, Michael J Fox was on a list but it was Eric Stoltz, who Fox had replaced on Back To The Future, that actually got closer to winning the role, scoring an audition for Ferris.

In the end, though, a young actor by the name of Matthew Broderick, known mostly for WarGames and Ladyhawke, landed the job.

Broderick proved to be a great choice for the lead, throwing in improvisations (including the synthesizer coughs) and dance moves.

After the film, Broderick voiced worries about being typecast since he was so identified with the role: "At the time, smartly or stupidly, I wanted to make sure that I could do other things, because Ferris Bueller was so successful that it worried me," he told The Onion.

"I'm half-Jewish, you know, so I tend to do a lot of worrying. I thought I was never going to be able to do anything else, and that something bad would happen.

"So I figured, 'I've got to do something different," and I deliberately avoided those kinds of roles for a while.

"But then I seemed to get into a period of characters that were more wishy-washy, or schlubby. And on a certain level, I never understood it, because it seemed to me I did pretty well as a wisecracker."

Despite his worries, he was the perfect Ferris. With him in place, Hughes looked for some support...

Next: The rest come together


6. The rest come together

Amazing as it might seem now, Alan Ruck was not, in fact, the first choice for Cameron.

Nope, Hughes created that part for regular collaborator Anthony Michael Hall.

"John actually had written Ferris Bueller for me. We both determined that I should move on to other things," Hall has since said.

"I needed a break. I wanted to try some new things. So I did Out of Bounds. I can only think back and thank John. He changed my life forever."

Why did Hall decide to pass? Because he'd already played Farmer Ted the Geek in Sixteen Candles, Brian Johnson the nerd in The Breakfast Club and Gary Wallace, another geek in Weird Science, and was genuinely concerned about being typecast.

After Emilio Estevez also passed, 29-year-old Ruck got the role and rest is history, including his improvised voice as Sloane's dad, which was based on a theatre director he and Broderick had acted for.

And if you thought Hughes went through a long list to find Ferris, that's nothing compared to the phone book-sized set of candidates for his sister Jeannie.

The likes of Ellen Barkin, Kim Basinger, Carrie Fisher, Melanie Griffith, Linda Hamilton, Daryl Hannah, Holly Hunter, Kelly LeBrock, Anjelica Huston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sigourney Weaver and Debra Winger all tried out for the part.

Ironically, Ferris' sis ended up played by Jennifer Grey, who was dating her on-screen brother during, and for a short time after, production.

It was Grey's suggestion that led to one of the best moments in the movie - Charlie Sheen's drug addled loser - since she'd enjoyed working with him on Red Dawn.

With real thesping commitment (or just his thanks to his hard-partying style) he stayed up for 48 hours to get the desired dopey effect.

Mia Sara was a fairly easy choice, but the character's name has more of a history - she was named for then-head of Paramount Ned Tanen's daughter.

Finally, there's Ben Stein, who actually does hold a degree in economics and was asked by Hughes to recite an actual lecture. The scene is entirely unscripted aside from the "Bueller... Bueller" moment at the start.

Now he had a cast in place, Hughes could shoot...

Next: The production


7. The production

Calling action for the first time on 9th September 1985, Hughes shot the majority of the movie in and around New Trier High School in Northfield Illinois.

Among the other places shot were various locals in downtown Chicago (including using a float as the Von Steuben Day Parade made its way through the city) and Glenbrook North high school, Hughes' old alma mater.

It wasn't all shot around Illinois - the exteriors of the Bueller family home (which you can see above) were filmed in Long Beach, California.

Those horrified by the destruction of the Ferrari can be assured that, thanks to budget cuts, it's actually a modified MG sports car with a fibreglass shell added.

Three were created for the movie and one really was totaled while the crew shot the ravine crash.

Having got everything he needed in the can, Hughes ended shooting on the movie on 22nd November.

He'd go into the editing room and play around with various sections - adding extra kicks during the scene where Sloane attacks Jeffrey Jones' exasperated Dean Roonie and extending the kiss between her and Ferris as Roonie watches outside the school.

One of the more controversial aspects of the film was the choice of soundtrack. While Paramount originally wanted up-and-coming acts for the movie, the studio eventually dropped the idea in favour of easily-licensed songs.

But despite Hughes' claim that, "I just used what I was listening to at the time, bands I liked. It was my own personal taste," he never agreed to release a soundtrack, worrying that the picked tunes wouldn't work together as one album.

As he locked the cut, Hughes wondered whether he'd have another success.

He needn't have worried...

Next: The arrival


8. The arrival

Ferris Bueller's Day Off opened across the pond on 11th June 1986. Back in those days, its release in 1,3030 cinemas was considered wide.

It was a near-immediate success, though it actually opened in second place against - title irony alert! - Rodney Dangerfield's Back To School.

But when you look at the box office tally, Ferris was the clear winner, making $70 million on its first run (from a budget of $6 million) and becoming the 10th highest grossing film of 1986.

Rumours persisted for a long time that a sequel might one day happen, but as the cast and their director aged, it's become less and less likely.

We're just terrified that someone will one day come along and reboot it.

Still, the original holds pride of place and has been a huge influence...

Next: The cult of Ferris


9. The Cult Of Ferris

Naturally, the minute Hughes' film got any sort of following, Hollywood wanted to capitalise on the title.

Despite the creator's objections, Ferris Bueller in sitcom form launched in 1990 and included Bill Bixby (better known as TV's Dr David Bruce Banner in the Hulk show) among its directors.

But it never quite caught on the way the movie did - and managed a short run of 13 episodes.

The appeal of Ferris lives on, however, including in re-cut versions of the trailer, such as the one above.

In May this year, the house used as Cameron's home - you know, lots of glass, surrounded by trees - was up for sale at a cost of £1.5 million.

While you don't get the Ferrari, the place does come bristling with Ferris memorabilia - including on-set pics of the cast.

Quotes from the film (including "Bueller... Bueller...") have since entered the language and at least two bands - Save Ferris and Rooney were based on the pic.

It constantly appears on Best Of lists, including Total Film's Greatest Comedy Films Of All Time back in 2000 (it took 23rd place).

And finally, it's not every film that ends up getting quoted by America's First Lady. But Ferris won that accolade when Barbara Bush (wife of the first President Bush) used his "Life moves pretty fast" line in a speech written - not entirely coincidentally - by Edward McNally.

It got a huge reaction and Mrs Bush added her own joke afterwards - "I'm not gonna tell the president you clapped more for Ferris than you did for George..."

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.