Andrew McCarthy’s Hulu Docu ‘Brats’ Has Carl Kurlander Thinking Again About The Lingering Smoke From ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ – Guest Column

Editor’s Note: Journalist David Blum might have forever coined The Brat Pack era, but it was Carl Kurlander who provided the reason the infamous New York magazine article got written. St. Elmo’s Fire was a script Kurlander wrote with director Joel Schumacher, inspired by events in his life. Now an academic, Kurlander has written several guest columns for Deadline including a 35th anniversary remembrance of St. Elmo’s Fire. Why is he tapping again into those memories? He just watched Brats, the Hulu documentary that premiered at Tribeca Festival, directed by and starring Andrew McCarthy. He was part of the St. Elmo’s Fire ensemble that felt maligned by Blum’s article published the week before the film was released and became a surprise hit.

Here, Kurlander supplies some great dish — did you know Demi Moore’s drug demons almost forced Joel Schumacher to replace her with the young singer Madonna? Or that Georgetown shunned the movie for immoral activity but OK’d The Exorcist because despite the vile goings on involving a possessed child, evil didn’t win? A little of that stuff would have helped McCarthy’s docu, which gets tedious as he attempts to expunge demons, even as cohorts like Moore, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy seem to be humoring him on camera. After all, that film launched fine futures for them, even if the moniker stung. McCarthy paints journo Blum as a villain, but in fairness, The Brat Pack was a far more clever coinage than putting “gate” on the end of every scandal since Watergate. Blum also unwittingly etched into permanent Hollywood history the memory of those actors when they were young and gorgeous. Who wants to be forgotten?

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Lessons From The Brat Pack Documentary

Andrew McCarthy’s Brats documentary just dropped on Hulu where he reunites with a group of ’80s actors to examine The Brat Pack phenomenon. I watched it in a screening room across from Warner Bros with a group of college students in a University of Pittsburgh in L.A. program I am teaching. Surreal, considering that decades earlier, I was at that studio for the filming of St. Elmo’s Fire, a movie which I co-wrote with director Joel Schumacher. I was there when celebrity photographer Greg Gorman took the publicity photo with Rob Lowe, beer in hand, at the St. Elmo bar next to Emilio Estevez who was horsing around, pulling up the blazer of Judd Nelson that was splashed on the cover of New York magazine with the headline “Hollywood’s Brat Pack.” The article portrayed these actors as spoiled privileged celebrities who cared more about partying than their craft. Having been there, that was very different than the reality I experienced as I got to know the cast during the production. In his film, Andrew described the collateral damage he and the other actors went through as though the “Brat Pack” label was post-traumatic stress.  After watching Brats, I see lessons in this film both for those who grew up watching their movies, but also for a generation of young people who often long for the fame bestowed upon social media influencers, the kind that used to be reserved only for movie stars like McCarthy and the Pack.

The Freshmen Year of Life — First Jobs, First Apartments, First Love

October 1, 1984 marked my 25th birthday, and I spent it sitting on a soundstage, watching Andrew, Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham and Judd Nelson read the words of my first screenplay. St. Elmo’s Fire first sparked as a short story I had written in college to impress a waitress I had become infatuated with one summer while working as bellhop at the St. Elmo Hotel. In events which still feel like something out of a movie, it led to my winning the Duke University/Universal Studios Scholar Award. That came with a 10-week internship where in my first week at the studio, I met director Joel Schumacher. As I got him a lunch order of “gazpacho, no croutons, no sour cream, and chopped egg on the side.”

Mare Winningham, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in St. Elmo's Fire movie
(L-R) Mare Winningham, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’

A year later, I became Joel’s assistant while he was directing D.C. Cab with Mr. T.  When that stalled at the box office, Joel read the St. Elmo’s Fire screenplay I had adapted my short story into and suggested we collaborate on a new script about life after college. It would be about a group of seven friends experiencing “their freshman year of life” — first jobs, first apartments, first loves. Watching the Brats documentary, I was struck at how young the cast was — many like Andrew himself were not even old enough to graduate college. They were the same age as my students today, who are still trying to decide what to do with their lives but were dealing back then with the glare of spotlight that came with their jobs. All of us make mistakes in our 20s, but few of us have those mistakes forever preserved on celluloid for everyone to look at decades later.

Lesson #1. Comedian Taylor Tomlinson jokes in her Netflix special how people often say “enjoy your 20s,” but what they forget is “your 20s suck.” It is the time you’re supposed to decide who to be at the time you are least equipped for doing so. Part of the quest of Andrew’s movie is to get past the regrets of his youth. They say those who lived through the ’60s can’t remember them. Some of us who loved through the ’80s, don’t want to remember them — embarrassed by the shoulder pads, Flock of Seagulls haircuts and the out-of-control behavior that defined that decade of excess.

Casting The Brat Pack

Screenwriters are not usually there every day during the making of a movie. Because I had been Joel’s assistant and was good at getting the lunch orders, I was there at every casting session with Joel and casting director Marci Liroff and producer Lauren Shuler Donner. Both appear in Andrew’s film. In his doc, Andrew interviews actor Jon Cryer, who read for our movie but ended up getting cast to play Ducky in Pretty in Pink with Andrew. He insists he was not part of The Brat Pack. Andrew talks to Lea Thompson, who is married to Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutsch, starred with Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, but calls herself “Brat Pack-adjacent.” Lea read for the role of Leslie, the young architect in our script, and I have the casting sheets from back then where I had scribbled “I’m in love.” After seeing hundreds of talented actors, that role went to Ally Sheedy, who had just starred in The Breakfast Club with Judd Nelson. Judd was cast as Leslie’s live-in boyfriend Alec Newberry, the congressional aide who had switched from being president of the Young Democrats to working as an aide for a Republican congressman. The overlap in casts was not a coincidence: John Hughes had an office next to Joel’s at Universal in a bungalow which also housed the office of Fast Times at Ridgemont High screenwriter Cameron Crowe. As Rob Lowe points out to Andrew, this was a time when “youth pictures” were hot, and Rob had gotten cast in our film after flying down on a Saturday from Canada where he was starring in a hockey picture Youngblood. Joel had been skeptical Rob had the depth to play the part of Billy, the group’s rakish, irresponsible womanizer. Rob convinced him after showing up in character with a six pack of Heineken. It would be a part that elevated his movie career.

Rob’s best friend Emilio Estevez also wanted to play Billy but would get stuck playing my nerdy alter ego Kirbo, the law student/waiter at the St. Elmo bar who pursues Dale Biberman. That was the gorgeous woman he met in college at a fountain that said “knowledge,” “art,” “religion,” ”life.” As Kirbo says in the script in a line taken from the short story: “She was sitting on the life side and she just smiled at me.” Then a supermodel, Andie MacDowell would play the role inspired by the St. Elmo waitress. Though Emilio and I would become close during the making of the movie, it was a role he would come to regret.

Cast as the sardonic journalist based on my one and only friend in college, Andrew McCarthy would tell interviewers that after flying out from New York, he was sure he didn’t get the part. After all, he was picked up and brought in by limo, then got driven back to the airport by Joel’s assistant, in a Volkswagen. I always thought Andrew was perfect for the part but being in St. Elmo’s sparked the Brat Pack phenomenon which Andrew has spent years trying to free himself from.

Lesson #2. As Marci and Lauren both tell Andrew so wisely in the movie, he could have embraced “The Brat Pack” label, or at least not taken it so seriously. It is now something which is memorable enough that almost 40 years later, people still remember and as the film goes on, Andrew seems to grow to appreciate that.

The Real Jules

On the St. Elmo’s Fire DVD, Joel gave me credit for discovering Demi Moore, as she ran out of John Hughes’ office following an audition. In her memoir, Demi recalls Joel’s assistant chasing her down the stairs, trying to get her to come back and read. I actually recall running after her a block on the backlot. I did so because with her flowing dark hair and leather jacket, she looked like a doppelganger for the real Jules who inspired the wild party girl character. While we had changed the character to someone who’d come from wealth, I had met that Jules while living in the laundry room of an anarchist collective in a seedy section of Hollywood, while I was writing the screenplay. When she came home drunk one night and discovered I was using her name in the script, the real Jules went crazy and ripped the shirt off my back.

Art would imitate life: Two weeks before we were to begin shooting, Joel got a call from costume designer Susan Becker. Demi had shown up for a costume fitting drunk and high, at nine in the morning.  Joel struggled with addiction in his 20s when he was a fashion star in New York, partying with the Andy Warhol crowd. He gave Demi an ultimatum to get sober or to “go kill yourself on someone else’s movie.”  He was rooting for Demi, but told me that if she didn’t get clean, he considered replacing her with a hot pop star he had just met named Madonna. As Andrew recounts in his documentary, Joel presented Demi to the rest of the cast at the table read of the script as she arrived with the sober companion which Joel and Lauren had hired for her. In Brats, Demi expressed her gratitude to Joel, and seeing the will Demi exercised to beat her demons, he predicted that she would have a big career. She went on to star in some of the biggest hits of the ’80s including A Few Good Men and Ghost.

Lesson #3. It is clear from their reunion that the spiritual journey Demi began back then would help Demi let go and move past “The Brat Pack.” That strength allows her to live life in the moment, a place Andrew is trying to get to through in his film.

We were not the Beatles, but…

Being a New York actor, Andrew always felt the outsider and that was one of the reasons I always identified with him. I had never had a close-knit group of friends in college like the one Joel and I had invented for St. Elmo’s Fire. But during the making of the movie, for once in my life I felt a part of the cool kids. It was fascinating to see in Andrew’s movie Ally Sheedy confessing how she felt that she never belonged in high school and how she channeled that into playing Allison in The Breakfast Club. Though she and Andrew never dated, their chemistry was electric in the scene in St. Elmo’s, when Kevin finally confesses his feelings for his best friend Alec’s girlfriend Leslie. The sex scene they shot was uncomfortable not just because of the cold water coming out of the shower on the soundstage, but Joel yelling his direction: “You’re f*cking! You’re f*cking!” at the young actors. The moment when the shower door breaks, that was real, and both actors laughed and stayed in character. It became a great moment in the film.

To get a sense of how white-hot the spotlight on this group of actors became, you need only to look at the Entertainment Tonight footage of the cast on the University of Maryland campus which was standing in for Georgetown. When Andrew jokes to Rob that they were not The Beatles, Rob smiles coyly. I know why. I was in the station wagon with him when a Teamster drove us onto the quad of College Park.

Coeds spotted Rob and mobbed our vehicle, rocking it back and forth, and screaming at him like he was John, Paul, George and Ringo. Like me, Rob’s roots were in Ohio, and he took this all with a sense of humor. He’d been a theater geek growing up in Dayton, before his divorced mother moved him and his brother Chad out to Malibu, next to Martin Sheen’s house. Rob began acting in homemade films Emilio directed with his brother Charlie and neighbor Sean Penn. Both Rob and Emilio got their big break when they were cast in Francis Coppola’s Outsiders with other unknowns including Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise, the latter of whom Andrew concedes transcended The Brat Pack label.

(L-R) Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheed and Rob Lowe in ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’
(L-R) Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheed and Rob Lowe in ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’

Lesson #4. At any age, it is helpful to remember not to take oneself too seriously, and keep going when the inevitable mud starts to fly. The reason we filmed the college scenes at Maryland was that Georgetown’s Provost Father Freeze had denied Joel permission to film there because our script had “drugs, alcohol, and pre-marital sex.” The university could not condone that. When Joel pointed out that Georgetown had let The Exorcist film there, and in that movie a 13-year-old girl masturbates with a cross and says the word “c*cksucker,” the good father retorted: “Yes, but in that movie, the devil does not win.”

“I always thought we’d be friends forever.” Kirbo. “Forever just got a lot shorter.” Kevin, looking in at the St. Elmo bar where a new gang has taken over the gang’s table.

The climax of the “Brat” documentary comes when Andrew confronts David Blum, author of the infamous Brat Pack article and the journalist who coined the term The Brat Pack.  While that article was forming, Emilio called me while David was in town and invited me to join him and David at The Hard Rock Café. He was worried that he had been too serious during the day and wanted to show Blum that he was not “all work and no play.” Initially, the article was supposed to profile Emilio and his budding director career. Emilio and Demi had started dating and I spent an afternoon at the cute bungalow which was Demi’s first house, with her reading on the couch and him typing away on a script on his 30-pound Compaq luggable computer. He had already adapted and co-starred in That Was Then, This Is Now, the novel by The Outsiders author S.E. Hinton. This new one, which would be released under the title Wisdom, would be his directorial debut. And it would make him one of the youngest writer-director-actors since Orson Welles.

I couldn’t make it that evening as I was headed to Florida to re-write another film with Joel, but instead Emilio had brought along Bright Lights Big City author Jay McInerney, whose book about young people partying in clubs proved too good a metaphor.

The article Blum wrote did include some nice things about Emilio, like a quote John Hughes saying Emilio’s script was so good, he wished he would have written it. And Joel Schumacher told Blum how Emilio was the best friend of everyone in the cast. But it also included some embarrassing moments. Like when Emilio tried to use his celebrity to score free passes to a movie in Westwood; or at the Hard Rock, where Emilio made a joke about a Playboy Bunny who had joined them at the table, saying how she thought you needed to pass the bar exam to become a bartender. And worst, ditching Jay McInerney so that Rob, Judd and he could check out an after-hours club. Today none of this would even merit a blog post on TMZ.

What went viral from the article where Blum created an imagined group of hot young actors who essentially had a club, and Emilio was its president. Rob was labelled “most beautiful face,” Judd “the overrated one,” Sean Penn “most gifted” and Tom Cruise “the hottest one.” It also included Tim Hutton as “the one with the Oscar.” Andrew seeks out Hutton for the film, calling him “The Godfather of The Brat Pack.”

When the Brat Pack article appeared as a cover story for New York magazine — a week before our movie was to open — Emilio called Blum and told him it had ruined his life. On a podcast decades later, Judd Nelson would later tell Less Than Zero writer Bret Easton Ellis that he wished he had decked the writer. Perhaps that is a clue why Judd does not appear in the documentary.

What is striking in the scene between Blum and McCarthy is how unapologetic the magazine writer is for having come up with this “Brat Pack” phrase. He borrowed from the Rat Pack, but it was inspired by Blum having a gluttonous dinner with his own friends, where someone joked they were the “Fat Pack.”

The damage done by the article is apparent from Andrew’s perspective as well as other actors he talked to. It marginalized them as not dedicated to their craft and discouraged them from working with each other. One is left with the question, was this a real obstacle or something of their own creation?

Andrew McCarthy in St. Elmo's Fire
Andrew McCarthy in ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’

Lesson #5. When St. Elmo’s became a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, Joel warned me “success, better too late than too soon.” Andrew and David seem to be cursed by the same self-doubt which has plagued me also: Will we all be remembered for this one moment in time rather than anything else we ever achieved? My students who were watching this documentary seemed to almost be quoting Frozen as they laughed about all this and said: “Let it go.”

The Heat This Summer Is St. Elmo’s Fire

That was the tag line for the movie on the poster that shipped out around the world in June 1985. The image for that poster, Rob Lowe, Emilio, Andrew, Demi, Ally, Judd, and Mare Winningham glaring at the camera, was taken the day we shot the music video for “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion).” (This was, as Andrew points out, the ’80s.)

John Parr had written that anthem without seeing the movie. Not aware these actors were not newbies, the British singer had offered them some acting tips from his days as a high school thespian. This did not help the actors’ mood as they were already uncomfortable from having had to wear winter wardrobe for a video that showed the St. Elmo bar having burnt down with the St. Elmo gang looking on in the rain as their favorite troubadour sang.

Though it was months after we had finished filming, Joel had wanted to get a photo of the cast for Craig Baumgarten, the Columbia executive who had been fired from the studio after greenlighting the movie.  (All the other studios had passed on the script, with Universal exec Marvin Antonowsky telling Joel: “These are the worst seven human beings I have ever read on the page.” But the image captured that day perfectly captured the angst that young people including my current students feel when facing the uncertainties and pressures of trying to define oneself in that fraught period between college and “the real world.”

Joel used to almost proudly brag that when it came out, St. Elmo’s Fire did not receive one positive review in the United States of America. Siskel and Ebert gave the movie two thumbs down, with Ebert calling the characters “shallow, self-involved and arrogant,” and Siskel encouraging him to keep going. This was particularly painful for me. Many of the characters came from people I knew and still feel great affection for. Upon hearing Siskel and Ebert talk about how the movie did not reflect the college experiences they and their friends had, Joel screamed at the TV: “Yeah, unlike you, these guys got laid!”

I understood some of the critiques as I thought our script would be an indictment of the materialism and self-involvement I saw my generation getting caught up in, during The Reagan Eighties. But instead, the loft Judd and Ally’s characters lived in and the black Jeep Demi drove in the movie became something for young people then to aspire to. St. Elmo’s Fire ended up becoming the surprise hit of the summer of 1985 and “Man in Motion” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. People continue to get married to and apparently buried to David Foster’s “Love Theme” from the movie.

Lesson # 6. Joel used to say “you cannot do what you criticize” and if he had listened to the critics, he would not have had the long directing career he had after St. Elmo’s Fire. And as David Blum pointed out, for better or worse, his Brat Pack article helped ignite the movie and the careers of the cast. As Demi says to Andrew, you have to not listen to that negativity.

St. Elmo’s fire — Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere

A few years back, one of my former students was interviewing Rob Lowe for a Vanity Fair video, where Rob complained he never really got the “death by air conditioning” scene in St. Elmo’s Fire. Where Demi Moore’s character is trying to freeze herself. Furthermore, he was still bothered that his character Billy seems to deny the very existence of St. Elmo’s fire as a scientific phenomenon. I was incensed until I went to the Wikipedia entry where under St. Elmo’s fire allusions cite everyone from Shakespeare to Darwin. It states “In St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Rob Lowe’s character Billy Hicks erroneously claims that the phenomenon is ‘not even a real thing.’ ”

Joel had me write the speech that Billy delivers in the movie after a marketing executive at Columbia wrote a 35-page memo on how horrible the title was, suggesting it be changed to “Sparks” or “The Real World.” In those pre-Google times, I got two xeroxed pages from studio research which stated that there was no St. Elmo, it was just a nickname sailors had for St. Erasmus. And there was no fire, as it was just electro plasma charges in the sky that appeared during storms. When they saw St. Elmo’s fire, sailors took it as an omen that they would be okay.

The scene Rob was referring to happens near the end of the movie, when Demi Moore’s character has had a breakdown after getting fired from her job and having all her furniture and her black Jeep repossessed. Jules has locked herself into the apartment, all the windows open. Dressed only in a thin white T-shirt, she was trying to freeze herself to death. When Demi found out this had come from my life— after a girl in college broke my heart — she pulled me aside, and asked if perhaps it would be more emotionally raw, if she were naked. I understood her point artistically but told her I thought it might be a bit distracting.

Billy finally gets into Jules’ bedroom, and trying to comfort his old friend, telling her all this drama she is going through isn’t real:

It’s like St. Elmo’s fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them… there was no fire. There wasn’t even a St. Elmo. They made it up. Just like you’re making all this up.”  

I wonder, is this also true about “The Brat Pack?” Andrew and the other actors throughout the Brats documentary insist that there never was a Brat Pack. It didn’t exist. Was “The Brat Pack” just a mythological creation playing into our fantasies about the lives of celebrities? Someone recently told me who had seen St. Elmo’s in the 1980s, that for him Breakfast Club was like Woodstock, a feel-good film everyone could identify with, whereas St. Elmo’s Fire was like Altamont — messy and full of drama — both on and off-screen.

After Andrew’s documentary ended, I asked my students if it resonated with them. Most had not seen many of these films, and they have grown up where the fame experienced by the members of The Brat Pack is no longer the domain of just movie stars, influencers on TikTok and Instagram. One of the students shared how, during the pandemic, she had been part of a group of online cosplayers which gave her a sense of community. Until one of them blew up and became huge, leaving the group to hang with more popular and “prettier” cosplayers who had even bigger followings. 

Brats should answer many questions for fans of these films and for those who find themselves curious about the ’80s. But one question remains: Why, after 40 years and despite all its flaws, does St. Elmo’s Fire still burn brightly? Somehow, new generations rediscover this St. Elmo gang, and identify with their flaws as they struggle to navigate the real world. Perhaps it is because in the end, the movie is about friendship and being there for each other.

Whatever pall The Brat Pack article might have put over the movie and these actors, the excellent job these talented actors did in portraying the St. Elmo gang was so believable that after years of not seeing each other for decades, we view them as friends as we watch them reunite in Brats.

I am saying a little prayer to St. Elmo that the Brats documentary will help some of us get closure and perhaps, like Andrew has, embrace a past they had been ambivalent about. Perhaps it will even help some young people today as they struggle to navigate that perilous time between college and the real world, allowing them to realize that they are not alone.

Or as Rob Lowe’s character says in the movie, … “We’re all going through this… . This is our time on the edge.” Maybe one night they will wander into a CVS, and, hearing “Man in Motion” blaring over the speakers, find themselves singing along as John Parr cries out: “I can climb the highest mountains/cross the wildest sea/ I can feel St. Elmo’s fire/burnin’ in me…”

Carl Kurlander is a screenwriter and teaching professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He lives blocks from the waitress who inspired his first short story “St. Elmo’s Fire” and the movie with whom he remains lifelong friends.

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