‘Take Me Home Tonight”s Topher Grace on Making a ‘Lost John Hughes Movie’

As the entire cast of Friends that isn’t Brad Pitt’s ex-wife can tell you, the transition from television to film is not always easy for sitcom stars. For now, Topher Grace’s best film work has come during his hiatuses from That ’70s Show (Traffic, In Good Company) and he has yet to find his footing as a leading man since that show wrapped in 2006. That will change with Take Me Home Tonight, an entertaining ode to the ‘80s teen flicks he grew up on. The film takes place over one night, and sees Grace’s direction-less college grad pursuing the girl of his dreams during the party of the year. Off-screen, Grace takes credit as the film’s co-writer and executive producer. From a swanky suite in Beverly Hills, the actor tells us about why the film languished on the shelf for so long, portraying cocaine in a realistic way, and making a “lost John Hughes movie.”

When did you start developing the concept? Well, my producing partner and I – which is a fancy way of saying my buddy and I – looked at the film landscape and said, we grew up in the ‘90s with Dazed and Confused, which was 20 years in the past. Then we looked at American Graffiti, which was done in the ‘70s about the ‘50s, and we said, well, that hasn’t been done about the ‘80s and we love the ‘80s. So then we thought, let’s make the movie where we don’t make fun of the ‘80s. That hasn’t been done yet.

Right, because in most modern comedies set in the ‘80s – Hot Tub Time Machine, for example – the decade is used as a punchline. You know, I actually enjoyed that film. But it was a spoof. The first thing we did was cut out all the jokes in our film where the guy goes, “How tiny is this cell phone?” because we’ve seen it before and we really wanted it to be like a movie that we’d made in the ‘80s, like we literally went back in time and made it in 1988 and then put it in a vault and took it out now, blew the dust off of it and put it on like it’s the lost John Hughes movie.

So what year was that when you first started developing the idea with your buddy? Ah man, years ago. We’ve been friends for so long. We were roommates in boarding school, so we had a lot of shared experiences to draw on.

I’m sure a million people have said this, but it’s a lot like Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s Superbad. Nobody has said that actually.

It’s a similar movie too: a coming-of-age story told over one night… Based on two buddies who are real-life friends. Absolutely. We love that film. And they are really cool dudes. I actually had a problem that I called Evan about and he helped me. There aren’t a lot of people our age producing films, so I called him.

Did you know him well at that point? I didn’t. They had called me to ask permission to use my face on a poster for Knocked Up. I was on set and they did this scene that didn’t make it into the film called “Celebrities Around Boobs,” so there was a picture of me and then all these hundreds of boobs around my face. I still have the poster.

It’s my understanding that you wrapped Take Me Home Tonight in 2007 and then watched it sit on the shelf for years. It was very frustrating. But you’ve seen the film. It works. When we first showed it in 2008 to an audience it tested really well, but there was a fear at the former studio we were with about the cocaine use. I mean, it’s for real. We really kind of go there in the film. But we felt it was necessary. I mean, you couldn’t make Dazed and Confused without showing someone rolling a joint. Similarly, there’s going to be someone ten years from now trying to make a ‘90s film and some studio is going to be giving them crap about ecstasy.

We luckily had started the process with Imagine: you know, Ron [Howard], who was in American Graffiti, and Brian Grazer, who are two of the best producers of all time. At this time, we said, They want us to kind of neuter the film. They want us to cut out what we think is really important. By taking out the cocaine, first, it would be weird: why does [Dan Fogler’s character] Barry start acting crazy for no reason? And second, if there’s some element that’s not very truthful about the movie, it will ruin all the other elements. So we got great advice from them. They said, “Hang in there; there’s nothing that’s going to date the film because it’s already totally dated.”

So Ryan Kavanaugh, who owns Relativity and is kind of the only guy who has money in Hollywood, saw the film. Unlike some studio bosses who are 60 or 70 years old – it’s a little ironic when they tell you what kids want to see when you’re closer to the demo – Ryan is like three years older than me. So he saw it and said it was amazing and bought the film outright. Usually, when a film’s held, it’s because there are all these different cuts and it loses authorship. But this is the opposite. He let us put everything back in that we would have had to take out.

It’s interesting that you had so much trouble getting the film released since Hot Tub Time Machine has now proven that a drug-addled R-rated ‘80s party film can be profitable. Did that happen before or after you joined with Relativity? I think after and also, I don’t equate the two movies as being similar at all because one is clearly a spoof and I think they’re really different tonally.

Right. I guess it’s just the fact that… You just really love Hot Tub Time Machine.

No, no. No, I get it. It’s your favorite movie and you’re pushing it on me.

Well, I didn’t get to cover it when it came out and… And this is your chance.

Exactly. I think the difference is that our movie was not a spoof. It’s real. You’re watching real kids do real things. It would have been easier if this was hilarious cocaine. But this is real cocaine. I’ve been in a movie about kids with real cocaine – you know, Traffic – and they die. It’s no joke. But we thought we struck a balance that was okay and more importantly, it was truthful. We wanted to show a cross-section of everything that was happening at that party – essentially, I’m in a romantic movie, Dan’s in a comedy, and Anna [Faris] is in a drama – and we wanted to weave them the way that John Hughes or Cameron Crowe would have in the ‘80s.

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