After spending probably an unhealthy number of years in high school on the hit series That ‘70s Show, Topher Grace is ready to move on to bigger and better things. But in Take Me Home Tonight, his character, aimless MIT grad Matt Franklin, isn’t quite sure what those are. Thankfully, behind the scenes Grace knew exactly what he wanted, and it was that focus on the uncertainty of the future that made the film an important experience for him both personally and professionally.
Movies caught up with Grace earlier this week via telephone to talk about his role as the star, producer and writer on Take Me Home Tonight; in addition to discussing its long road to the silver screen, he revealed a few of the sources of his inspiration, and discussed how he took the template of 1980s John Hughes movies and spin it into his own coming-of-age story.
Movies.com: This movie was delayed for a few years. What took so long?
Topher Grace: There were a lot of issues once we tested it. It tested well, but there were a lot of questions about twentysomethings doing cocaine – copious amounts of cocaine. I am actually very grateful to our first studio for giving us the money to make the film and totally understand where they were coming from, but that’s just when we were really happy that we did it with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, because they’re guys that have been to the dance before. They’re big-boy producers, and they said, which is true, [the movie] is not going to get any more dated; it’s already entirely dated, so why don’t we try to find a studio that will feel more free about embracing it. As a producer and as an actor I can say this exactly our idea of the film. I was there at the inception of the idea, and a lot of times when a film gets held it gets cut and neutered and not what people originally wanted it to be. But this is basically exactly what we were going for, and we were just really lucky that we found Ryan Cavanaugh at Relativity.
Movies.com: Was the decision to make a movie set in the ‘80s meant to be a tribute to those John Hughes, coming-of-age films that inspired you, or was it a way to avoid criticism that a coming-of-age movie set now might seem derivative if it didn’t acknowledge where some of its inspiration came from?
Grace: The way we came to it was two ways: I missed the kind of young ensemble movies that had everything – a little bit of drama, a little bit of comedy – because today you go see a film and it will be all raunch. Raunchy humor is great, but it’s all you’ll see – or all you’ll see is romance. This is kind of a four-course meal, with everything in one movie. Gordon Kaywin, my producing partner, said, well, what if we did it like Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti, where Dazed is shot in the ‘90s for the ‘70s, American Graffiti was shot in the ‘70s for the ‘50s, and if we did that it would actually bring us back mathematically to the time when John Hughes and Cameron Crowe were making these kinds of films. So we mashed the two ideas up.
It seems like every 20 years there’s a rotation – the ‘60s are the opposite of the ‘80s and the ‘70s are the opposite of the ‘90s, so it’s great to take somebody who’s maybe more like somebody who’s getting out of college today; like my character in the film, most of them are living at home with their folks after they get out of college. And then to put a character like that in the ‘80s, when everyone’s getting out of college and at this party they’re at, they have these fabulous banking jobs, and it kind of heightened the difference between him and the rest of the world.
Movies.com: How much could you relate to that quarter-life crisis, that idea that rather than being forced to do one thing, you have endless options, and it’s even more paralyzing?
Grace: You’re absolutely right – that’s what we’re kind of studying; I mean, we want to make him really bright, so you realize that’s actually his problem. It’s not that working at a video store is the best thing he can do: this guy was top of his class at MIT, he can be working anywhere and literally he can do anything, so he’s in a state of paralysis. I can’t relate to that, because at that period of time in my life, when my friends were graduating, the [‘70s]show was starting to take off; we’d been on a couple of years and I’d signed a contract for years and I was really liking it. Luckily I really liked acting. For the majority of the people who don’t know what they’re really passionate about at 23 or 24 –you don’t have to. That’s what the movie’s saying.
Movies.com: Obviously other than going on a coke bender and hooking up with a woman while a guy who looks like Jerry Weintraub watches, what experiences in the movie have you had or did you draw upon for inspiration?
Grace: Oh my God, wow, love it, dude. Well, I worked at SunCoast Video when I was younger, and it wasn’t put in to be autobiographical, it was put in so we could start the movie in the mall because it was an ‘80s movie. It felt like, well, we’ve got to put in a Sam Goody and a video store, because those two things don’t exist any more; if you think about that, it’s crazy, but that doesn’t exist. Kids aren’t buying their music in a store; you and I probably grew up doing that, but SunCoast is out of business, and I guess Blockbuster is still around, but it’s about to be over. But my personal experience working at SunCoast was horrible – I had to watch Space Jam 3000 times, and I thought it was going to be a summer of like watching any movies I want in the store, and nobody bought too many units of Space Jam, so we had to watch that literally all summer. It was the worst summer of my life.
Movies.com: My friend and I were jokingly pointing out that some of those videotapes in the store were not released in 1988 when the film takes place.
Grace: Oh man, you know what’s funny in that scene was that we went for whatever videotapes we could get; it was actually very hard to get our hands on enough tapes to stock an entire store. That’s funny, because you think of DVDs as almost over because Blu-ray has moved in, and how fast this technology moves. Looking for cassette tapes in the Sam Goody scene? Oh my gosh! They were so hard to find.
Movies.com: Were there any period details that you were unable to get into the movie, even as background for the story?
Grace: What we were more adamant about was taking stuff out. The spoof movies about the ‘80s have all been made, and I love some of them, but it’s very easy to have that giant cell phone and someone says, “Look at how small my cell phone is!” What we really wanted to focus on is making it seem like how it felt to actually live in the ‘80s, which no one commented on, it was just how stuff is. It’s like no one’s going to say, “Can you believe that there’s no holograms on this iPad?” No one would say that right now, but that might be funny in a movie once we do have holograms when the hologram-phone is invented in five years. We wanted to make it like we literally took a time machine back to 1988 and just filmed it there.
Movies.com: One of the moments I laughed at in the movie was when Matt stands up on the ball and a guy, just in the background, yells, “You SUCK!” How much were those quintessential ‘80s flourishes actually seeded into the script? Were any of those things improvised?
Grace: Thank you! Stuff like that was pretty structured. We started with a list of all the things that we wanted to have in the movie, but then we have really great actors. So, like, Dan Fogler on coke is just a great excuse for a great actor to improvise. Really, there is no wrong answer when someone is blasted on that much cocaine. Chris Pratt was pretty good at that; Demetri [Martin], about half his role was improvised.
Movies.com: Were there any templates you drew upon for the characters in the film? Dan Fogler is a great sort of version of Curtis Armstrong’s character in Better Off Dead.
Grace: Oh yeah – we did that for everyone. Anna’s got this beautiful blonde hair and we kind of wanted her to be that platonic girl friend that’s in every one of those movies, so we gave her a brown wig – although it was also because we had to be twins. But we wanted to have every convention that was in an ‘80s movie and then subvert it somehow; so they steal a car, and like that’s in 500 of those ‘80s movies, but then they get caught, and they never get caught when they steal a car. Or you’ve got a platonic girl friend, but she’s the sister, so you’re not going to end up with her, or the guy who proposed to her, he’s a jerk, but there’s not that scene where he says, “Ah, I’ll just f***in’ cheat on her.” He’s totally in love with her. We just wanted the second half of the movie to have a lot of stuff where you go, I don’t exactly know where this is going – and that’s kind of what the ball was born out of, too.
Movies.com: How important was it to have a symbolic gauntlet like the metal ball to throw him into something that was a little foolhardy but gives him an opportunity to change?
Grace: Well, very important. We were looking for two things; one was a physical metaphor for everyone saying to Matt, “Stop thinking so much, roll with it – let go.” But then also we really loved in American Graffiti there’s this thread running through it where Harrison Ford is challenging people to race, trying to find somebody to drag race with. What’s great is that at the end when you feel like it should be wrapping up, it gets bigger and the stakes grow larger and the movie kind of opens up a little bit. So we wanted to have one of those moments, too. It’s been great in the theater, listening to people gasp when Matt goes under water. For what is kind of a romantic comedy, usually that would be the time when it would be getting resolved, not getting bigger.