Photography by Joshua Mellin and Heather Kaplan. Post-Production Hollywood Magic by Cap Blackard.
Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. With Ferris Bueller’s Day Off turning 30, four friends return to Shermer, Illinois, to re-create the most famous sick day in film history.
Earlier this year, a film series called Is It Still Funny? ran in Chicago. The screenings featured comedy classics like Animal House, Blazing Saddles, and Duck Soup. No matter how old those films grow, I can’t imagine not finding them hilarious. If anything, a series like that tells you more about how you’ve aged than about a particular film. That’s something I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten old enough to have aged alongside the art I love. Certain movies, music, and literature remain fixtures, but my relationship and distance to them changes as the years pass. That’s as it should be, but at times there’s a sadness in not being able to connect to an album or film in the same way that once mattered so very much to me.
The day out depicted in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off always prodded my imagination as a teen. A guy, his girl, his best friend, and a dream car speed off on an adventure together, seemingly nothing that can stop them. It’s the type of All-American adventure I envied when younger but never actually embarked on once old enough to do so. When Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, Film Editor Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, and I sat down to brainstorm a project for this anniversary, we landed on re-creating the trio’s day off rather quickly. Sure, it made sense because we live in Chicago, where the most iconic filming locations are, but part of me suspects they’ve also daydreamed their fair share of rides in that Ferrari. Just a hunch.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron borrow that Ferrari, prank their principal, and twist and shout dozens of times, and it holds up like those comedies I mentioned before. Sure, no teen has ever been such a smooth operator, no parents as blissfully naive, and no principal that hellbent on crushing a child, but after all these years, the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads are still right: Ferris is a righteous dude. But what about me? Finally, at nearly 33 years old, a chance to make Chicago my playground like Abe Froman, that seductress in the cab, and George Peterson before me. Would I get pinched, survive, or just stay at home in bed with nothing good to do? Or, more troubling yet, would I realize this once idealized adventure was one I didn’t really want to go on anymore?
It took one look at my friends Michael (Ferris), Heather Kaplan (Sloane), and Justin Gerber (Cameron) in costume to alleviate that fear. As we toured Chicago, I began hanging back and watching them walk down the street together. It was like seeing those characters I’ve known for two decades step out of the film and into my own city. Even more fun was watching complete strangers approach them wherever we went — Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, the Art Institute of Chicago — each just so excited to see them. Children 20 years younger than the film and adults who saw the movie in theaters when they were my age equally lit up when they saw Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron pass by on our adventure. At one point, we had to delay our production at the Art Institute because so many people wanted not a picture of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon… but a picture of our Cameron staring at the painting. Still fine art, I think.
Photo by Joshua Mellin
As I’ve grown up watching Ferris, I’ve come to appreciate the film as being about more than simply skipping school. It’s one of the last hurrahs for three dear friends who face uncertain futures and know that their roles in each other’s lives are likely to change very soon. As a teen, the film signified carefree adventure to me. As an adult, I see it as a warm reminder that I only have so many adventures left with my own Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron before our lives inevitably change some day. It’s the reason I still drag myself out of bed whenever Ferris calls. It’s why I spent a Saturday running around Chicago with a clipboard full of shooting locations and scenes to re-create.
To paraphrase a righteous dude: Life moves pretty fast, and I don’t intend on missing it.
Click ahead to experience our entire Ferris Bueller’s Day Off adventure in full!
Casting and Wardrobe
Cast: Michael Roffman as Ferris Bueller, Heather Kaplan as Sloane Peterson, Justin Gerber as Cameron Frye, and Matt Melis humbly as John Hughes.
Great productions are often made or sabotaged during auditions. As a director, it’s my job to know perfect casting when it drops into the backseat of my friend’s dad’s Ferrari. On rare occasions, an actor is born to play a certain role, able to instinctively tap into the essence of the character they’ll be portraying — like Ed Rooney doing Dirty Harry. When that happens, a director need only step back and roll camera. Broderick, Sara, Ruck — absolute no-brainers. Roffman, Kaplan, and Gerber — not so much. I’d like to tell you that Michael Roffman is as naturally smooth as Ferris, Heather Kaplan as wildly untamable as Sloane, and Justin Gerber as emotionally damaged as Cameron, but only the observation about Justin would be true. It took all of my skills as a director to coax remarkable performances from these three, a feat that should not go ignored come awards season.
Day Off on a Budget: Also critical to final casting decisions was the fact that Michael and Heather had dressed as Ferris and Sloane a couple Halloweens ago (both Ferris’ vest and Sloane’s jacket actually made by Heather). Given our tight budget, having two costumes already accounted for largely secured a green light for our project. Justin didn’t own a Gordie Howe jersey, but I’m sure they didn’t ask Olivier to bring his own tights to play Hamlet either.
— 1 Gordie Howe Red Wings jersey x $70 = $70
Running Production Budget: $70
WLS 890 AM (Soundtrack): “Love Missile F1-11” (Extended Version) by Sigue Sigue Sputnik
Odds are you’ve never heard of London’s Sigue Sigue Sputnik. What country do you think this is? Right. Led by former Generation X bassist Tony James, the new wave outfit’s first single brings us into the world of Ferris Bueller with its manic pop sensibilities that oscillate between a happier Suicide and a more frantic Devo. Wouldn’t you know that Giorgio Moroder produced this ditty; listen carefully at the beginning, and you’ll hear a sample from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
You can find this track on Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s 1986 debut, Flaunt It.
Cameron’s House (It Begins)
On Location: 370 Beech Street, Highland Park, IL 60035
Cameron’s home might be the most important locale in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That cold, sterile, futuristic-looking structure houses all of Cameron’s fears, and it’s where he must return by film’s end to face them. Our 45-minute drive out to Highland Park from our Wrigleyville apartments wasn’t without its own trepidation. As we ventured farther into the opulent north Chicago suburbs, Justin grew more NRVOUS about donning a Red Wings jersey in Blackhawk country on an 80-degree day. By the time we pulled up to his character’s house, he started angrily hopping up and down in Cameron’s driveway shouting, “I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go.” Talk about life imitating art.
Luckily, it seemed like nobody was home. Cam’s mom must still be in Decatur.
Save Ferris (Community Support): Within a couple minutes of arriving at Cameron’s house, a bro and his girlfriend drove by, pulled over, and popped out to get their pictures taken with our cast. The guy did a spot-on George Peterson impression, too. (Where was he during my casting call?) A couple minutes later, we heard a tapping come from the house across the street. A middle-aged woman was motioning to us from a window to stay put. Was she calling the neighborhood watch on us? No, as it turned out, she just wanted to snap a quick picture of the cast before we left. A closed set might’ve meant fewer distractions, but we were thankful for the Beech Street love. They just didn’t want to “let our Cameron go.”
Day Off on a Budget: I asked for a Ferrari. I got a Mini Cooper. How’s that for being born under a bad sign? As depressed as I was when I found out that a 1961 250GT California was out of the question (only 55 were made and they sell for millions), I felt better when I learned that not even John Hughes could afford one other than for closeups. Edmond Dantes himself had to settle for driving and destroying a modified MGB. Us? We rented a Mini Cooper. For four people, none of whom are shorter than 5’11”, “it is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
— 1 Mini Cooper Zipcar Rental x $89 (Daily Rate) = $89.00
Running Production Budget: $159
WLS 890 AM: “Oh Yeah” by Yello
You’d have to be a fry cook on Venus to have missed Yello’s 1985 single. The Simpsons, South Park, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, American Dad!, Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success, and even old Twix bar commercials all used this silvery chunk of synthpop. But really, the Swiss band’s Billboard hit started charting when it met Cameron Frye, specifically his father’s 1961 Ferrari 250GT California, a “choice” model that recently sold for, oh, 15.1 million dollars.
You can find this track on Yello’s 1985 fourth studio album, Stella.
Hail to Old Shermer High!
On Location: Glenbrook North High School, 2300 Shermer Road, Northbrook, IL 60062
“Do you know what the fuck we found out?” Jay asks Bethany in the film Dogma. “There is no Shermer in Illinois. Movies are fucking bullshit.” For my generation, hearing that Shermer isn’t real is analogous to telling a small child that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. However, if you make it to Northbrook, IL, you will find a Shermer Road, and if you follow it like a yellow-brick beacon, you’ll arrive at Glenbrook North High School, better known to Hughesiacs as Shermer High School, where Ferris, Sloan, and Cameron are enrolled. (The interiors were shot at nearby Maine North High School, also used for The Breakfast Club.) While we’re all 15 years or more removed from high school, that didn’t stop us from worrying that Principal Rooney or Grace might be lurking around. Like good busters, we minded our P’s and Q’s. Still, that didn’t deter us from peeling out of the parking lot while blasting “Beat City” from our stereo.
Save Ferris: Would you believe that the school parking lot was entirely full with thousands in attendance ready to stand in as extras and cheer us on? Yeah, me neither. As it turned out, we showed up during Glenbrook North’s commencement, which accounted for the crowd. Still, police officers, security guards, and parking lot attendants were more than happy to let us on the set. They obviously knew who they were dealing with: Bueller, Ferris Bueller.
Day Off on a Budget: It costs absolutely nothing to loiter on public school property. Shermer High forever!
Running Production Budget: $159
WLS 890 AM: “Beat City” by The Flowerpot Men
Not to be mistaken with ’60s British pop group The Flower Pot Men, this ’80s British electronic act stayed relatively under the radar throughout the Thatcher era before restarting as Sunsonic. “Beat City” was their only debatable hit, but hey, if you can make one great song, there’s no need to weep for the future. In the film, the punky new wave anthem tips off Ferris’ day off as he literally pulls a fast one on Rooney by picking up Sloane in person and speeding off. What a snot-nosed punk!
You can find this track on The Flowerpot Men’s 1987 studio album, The Janice Long Session. Good luck.
Reclaiming the “Save Ferris” Water Tower
On Location: 1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook, IL
The great running gag in the film is how the community — including the student body, the English Department, the Chicago Cubs, and the cops at the station — rallies around Ferris, praying for him to return to health. Ferris isn’t just a pillar of the community; he appears to be its entire foundation, the one person preventing civilization from collapsing into chaos. And the grandest gesture of all — even more so than classmates collecting for his new kidney (“they run around 50 G’s or so”) — comes when goodhearted locals paint “Save Ferris” on the town water tower. While that original message of support has long since been removed, we decided that it was time we brought it back. When in Shermer…
Save Ferris: After experiencing nothing but hospitality in Shermer, a pedestrian was clearly concerned as we posed for photos in front of the water tower. She seemed even more worried when we started to climb up the tower ladder carrying paint cans and brushes. Save Ferris Again, god bless!
Day Off on a Budget: We found the paint and brushes near the base of the water tower, so no expenses were incurred. I wonder if that Pepsi collection can has seen 50 G’s since our message went up. Not if Jeanie Bueller has anything to say about it. Heartless wench!
Running Production Budget: $159
Italian Village and “Professional” Parking Garage
On Location: 71 West Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60603 (Italian Village sign) and 172 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL, 60602 (parking garage)
Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron learn an important lesson at the parking garage: Never entrust your father’s priceless automobile to a “professional” (“a professional what?”), especially if that attendant is original Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson. We learned a lesson, too: Full-service is a dead concept. Not only was there no valet, but everything was entirely automated. You can’t improve a guy’s attitude with a finski if there’s no guy.
Day Off on a Budget: While we didn’t have to tip anyone to take “extra special care” of our Mini Cooper, the parking rates have inflated quite a bit since Ferris’ joyride. We opted to street park up north and take public transportation downtown.
— 8 CTA transfers x $2.50 = $20
Running Production Budget: $179
WLS 890 AM: “BAD” by Big Audio Dynamite
The Clash’s singer and guitarist Mick Jones got weird and funky with Big Audio Dynamite, fusing together all sorts of genres, from his rootsy punk rock and swinging dance hall touchstones to more eclectic fare like hip-hop and reggae. The band’s 1985 deep cut “BAD” echoes throughout a downtown Chicago garage when Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane pull up with the Ferrari. It’s fitting; they are being “BAD”. But maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Ferris isn’t such a bad guy. Cameron, on the hand…
You can find this track on Big Audio Dynamite’s 1985 debut, This Is Big Audio Dynamite.
On Location: Willis Tower, 233 South Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL, 60606
Arguably the single most iconic visual from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off captures Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron leaning against the windows of the Sears Tower skydeck, 103 stories and 1,353 feet above Chicago. As each stares out at the same breathtaking view, we learn so much about who they are by what they describe. Sloane sees peace, Ferris sees possibility, and Cameron sees his dad (pending doom). Thirty years later, I’m sure hearing the thoughts of our own cast as they looked out over the city would have been no less revealing. Staring out from 1,353 feet acts like a truth serum; everyone opens up.
Save Ferris: No longer The Sears Tower (renamed in 2009) or the world’s tallest building (anyone … anyone? … right, Burj Khalifa in Dubai), as was the case when Ferris and friends visited, everything else about Willis Tower still screams, “Save Ferris!” Between the 103rd floor Ferris-themed gift shop, the Sloane and Cameron stunt-double mannequins, and the Official Abe Froman Sausage (priced to consume at $5.99) available in the snacketeria, we could have spent the whole day at that altitude partying like it was 1986.
Day Off on a Budget: I thought elevators were usually free. John Hughes took us to a tourist trap! Pony up.
— 4 Adult Passes x $22.00 = $88.00
Running Production Budget: $267