The Praxis Interview: Jonathan Bernstein

December 3, 2011

by Andie Nash

Jonathan Bernstein is a screenwriter (Max Keeble’s Big Move, Just My Luck, The Spy Next Door) and author whose books have ranged from an 80’s pop culture study (Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies) to the linguistic guide (Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang). His most recent works, Hottie and Burning Ambition are two tongue-in-cheek Young Adult novels about a teenage girl with pyrotechnic superpowers that’s been described as “Clueless meets X-Men.” He recently talked with Praxis about the creative process, eighties teen flicks, and his new-found appreciation for Rob Lowe.

Praxis: Sum up your opinion on each of the following films in five words or less…
Jonathan Bernstein: Five words? Really? That’s three already!

Praxis: Okay, we’ll let you bend the rules a bit!

Pretty In Pink:
JB: Here goes—awesome soundtrack, ultimate Spader smooth douchebaggery, Harry Dean Stanton best clueless dad ever (and probably high the whole time), emotional rollercoaster of a third act and Jon Cryer breaking the fourth wall. That was five words, right?

The Breakfast Club:
JB: Stands the test of time incredibly well EXCEPT for Molly Ringwald prettying up Ally Sheedy. If that was made now, Sheedy would be gothing up Ringwald.

Weird Science:
JB: Most excruciatingly endless party scene ever.

Some Kind of Wonderful:
JB: Best bit: “Dr. Mabuse” by Propaganda over the titles. Worst bit: Eric Stoltz taking Lea Thompson to an art gallery on their big date and whispering “This is my church”

Sixteen Candles:
JB: No one who was funny in this movie was ever funnier afterwards.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
JB: The passing of time has really turned this into Cameron’s movie.

PR: Several of the “Brat Pack” actors who were big stars in the John Hughes films had careers that went off the rails in later years (Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald) while the ones who were best known for supporting roles (e.g. Robert Downey Jr., John Cusack) are now big stars. Are you surprised at who had staying power, and who didn’t? Why or why not?
JB: I’ll tell you who surprises me. Rob Lowe. To look at how stiff he was in his early movies and to see what a skilled comic actor he grew into is kind of amazing. With the others you mentioned, most of them were only as good as they material they got and, once they graduated from teen roles, whatever seemed unique and appealing about them was gone. That wasn’t the case with Robert Downey, who was always a star no matter what he was in. John Cusack’s maybe not as magnetic a personality but he accrued such goodwill from his early films–particularly Say Anything– that audiences who became fans of his in the 80s never stopped being fans.

PR: You grew up in Scotland. Were the John Hughes movies as big in the UK as they were in the US?
JB: I don’t know that they were necessarily as big but they definitely held an otherworldly fascination. Fictional depictions of British teens at the time tended towards the brutally realistic. Whereas Molly Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink was supposed to be this impoverished weirdo and yet she drove her own car and had her own phone line. It was combination of the clothes, the slang, the soundtracks, the sentimentality and the fact that every movie seemed to introduce another new star.

PR: You are one of the few males I know of who truly appreciates Pretty in Pink. What is it about the film that speaks to you?
JB: It’s so shameless. Everyone wants something that’s just out of their reach. Misfit poor girl wants rich boy. Misfit poor girl’s wacky friend wants her. Misfit poor girl’s even wackier employer wants to stay young and hip. Rich boy’s asshole friend wants misfit poor girl. Misfit poor girl’s sad sack dad wants his wife back. Everyone can relate.

PR: I noticed a sort of Andie/Duckie dynamic between Alison and David in your Hottie novels. Did you have those characters in mind while you were writing the books?
JB: Definitely. Also, Buffy/Xander. That whole unrequited love/seething resentment thing.  Sadly, I identified way more with the lovestruck dork than the handsome, good-hearted dude Alison ends up with. My lack of interest in that character was probably evident in the first book whereas in the sequel I made him the damsel in distress.

PR: That was great. I liked the idea of the boyfriend being the bargaining chip used by the villain to lure the hero. It was a refreshing twist on the “save the girl!” superhero formula.
JB: Thank you. I’m glad my “I have no idea what to do with this character” came across as a refreshing twist.

PR: How did you come up with the concept for the Hottie novels?
JB: A lot of times I have the title first and wait for something applicable to pop up. In this case, I was flipping cable channels and I went past Spiderman to the terrible Legally Blonde sequel. My immediate reaction: this movie would be way better if she had superpowers. I remembered I had the name “Hottie” stored away in the tiny recesses of my brain. Superpowers became shooting flames from her fingers when she got mad. And, ultimately, she went from being a sorority girl to a ninth grader.

PR: What is your writing process like?
JB: I half-read a bunch of websites. I download songs I’m never going to listen to. I check my Twitter timeline. I play a few games. Then, when I can’t put it off any longer, I open the thing I stopped working on the previous day. I correct all the grammatical errors, replace dud jokes with slightly better ones. Then I start a fresh page and stare at the screen. Somewhere in there some actual writing gets done.

PR: Do you find screenplays or novels easier to write?
JB: Whichever one I’m not doing at the time is easier. I’m not a particularly skilled describer of things, so going from writing INT. HOUSE. DAY to actually having to think about what the house looks like, what sort of street it’s on, what the weather’s like, who else lives there etc was a bit of an adjustment. But the big advantage of writing books over screenplays is that people read them. Maybe not many people, but you write for an audience. Whereas you have no guarantee anyone beyond an agent’s assistant will ever give a screenplay more than a cursory glance before adding it to a vast and towering pile.

PR: Is there a third Hottie installment in the works?
JB: Unlikely. The first one had a small, select audience. The sequel had an even smaller, even more select readership. But the idea has had a fairly long life. I originally wrote it as a screenplay—it got me a meeting with Stan Lee, father of the modern comic book!—then I turned it into a couple of books. Maybe there’s a Hottie comic book or cartoon somewhere down the line?

PR: I would totally read the comics. I also feel like both books are crying out for clever screen adaptations. There are so many scenes that would be fantastic on film, like the villain’s poetic comeuppance near the end of the first book, and the scene in the second book where the heroine finds herself the victim of a violent cupcaking.
JB: You’ve got me excited to see this film. How can we make it happen? I might have to try and turn it back into a screenplay after originally turning the screenplay into a book. That sounds like an awful lot of work. But you never know…

PR: What are you working on now?
JB: I have a new book called Would I Lie to You. It’s about a father-daughter con artist team who try to go straight and then relocate to the most corrupt small-town in America. If you liked Hottie, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one, too. Because publishing moves so slowly, it doesn’t come out until something crazy like the first quarter of 2013. The world might not even exist by then.
—–

Jonathan Bernstein’s books – Hottie, Burning Ambition, Knickers in a Twist, and Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies are all available on Amazon. Check out his blog, face him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Andie Nash’s new novel is now available on Kindle. (No Kindle? Get it here.)

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