‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ Editor Paul Hirsch Reveals the Secret History of Those Newly Released Deleted Scenes

'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' Editor Paul Hirsch Reveals the Secret History of Those Newly Released Deleted Scenes

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” may be an unlikely choice for a 4K transfer, but the new 35th anniversary Blu-ray for Paramount’s John Hughes comedy classic is a must-own for one very good reason: it contains 75 minutes of never-before -seen deleted and extended scenes.

For John Hughes obsessives and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” aficionados, this is like uncovering some hidden deposit of precious gems and a peek behind the curtain at the creative process of Hughes, one of Hollywood’s most elusive geniuses. (Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009 while walking in New York. He was only 59.) And TheWrap spoke with editing legend Paul Hirsch all about this new footage — and the headache that was putting this particular movie together.

A filmmaker in his own right, Hirsch was responsible for editing all-time classics like “Star Wars,” “Footloose” and “Mission: Impossible” (also “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”), with work that stretches across genres and filmmaking styles.

Wrestling “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” to the ground was a Herculean task; Hirsch details the production and post-production process in nerve-wracking detail in his insightful, incredibly entertaining memoir “A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away.”

The movie is a relatively straightforward comedy about a square ad exec (played by Steve Martin) and a slovenly door-to-door salesman (John Candy) make an uneasy pact in an effort to get home for the holidays. But on the occasion of these scenes’ resurrection, TheWrap reached out to talk about the process of working on the movie and crafting it into the holiday classic it is today.

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Hirsch remembers that a week after the end of principal photography on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” in early July, he presented Hughes with a cut. The shoot went wildly overschedule and overbudget, complicated by a looming Directors Guild strike (it didn’t end up happening) and locations that were never cooperating. Bill Brown, an associate producer and second unit director, said in a recent Vanity Fair retrospective, “What I always said about John was that he would write a really tight script, and then we would shoot our way into a big sloppy draft of a movie. And then he would cut his way back to a wonderfully tight movie.” The job of creating that “wonderfully tight movie” fell to Paul Hirsch and a small team of editors, who worked tirelessly to whip it into shape. Any kind of shape.

At the beginning of July, the movie ran for three-hours-and-45-minutes.

“It was on 24 reels. We watched 12 reels, had lunch, came back and watched the next 12 reels. He turns to me and he says, ‘It’s too long.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And then he went on vacation,” Hirsch remembered.

The studio, as Hirsch remembered “flipped,” because Hughes was gone and they wanted it in theaters that same Thanksgiving, meaning they would have to lock picture by the end of September. Still, Hughes took a VHS tape of the super long version with him (this is where, Hirsch imagines, the footage for the new home video release came from).

“He had obviously given it some thought because when he came back, we sat down and he started saying, ‘Okay, let’s go through the reels. Lose this, lose this, lose this,’ and I just pull it out of the film,” Hirsch said. By the time they were done, they had gotten the movie’s running time down to two-and-a-half hours. “We just cut out 1/3 of the film,” Hirsch said, still in amazement. “They’d shot for 85 days. I said ‘John, you know we just cut out at 20 days of shooting.’ And he just shrugged.”

One of the best bits of the newly resurfaced footage is a moment when Candy and Martin are in an airport waiting area. After asking Martin if he wants anything to eat (a gag that only works because it’s far too long), we see Candy shoving a hot dog in his mouth while smoking a cigarette. As he is shoving the dog into his mouth he’s exhaling the smoke from his nostrils, all over the rest of the chili dog. It is insane and hilarious.

“I love that shot,” Hirsch said. “I thought I’d die when I saw that. And they took it out because the women in the audience found that too gross.” Hirsch said that he heard from executives at the studio that after they removed the bit, the scores improved dramatically. Hirsch still misses it. “I thought it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Hirsch said.

Still, he admits that there is truth to what William Shakespeare once said: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” “It’s like a meal. No matter how good the food is, at certain point, you get fed up,” Hirsch said. He also pointed to the Marx Brothers movies, now seen as the height of comedy, and each one clocking in at “75/80 minutes.”

Hirsch can’t pinpoint why there was so much footage since he wasn’t with the production on location, but he struggled as was meant to be a simple sequence of Candy and Martin’s characters at a cheap motel ballooned to a 25-minute extravaganza. “It’s either that they were improvising or John was staying up late at night writing pages and handing them out in the morning. I don’t really know,” Hirsch said. “He could write as fast as he could type. He wrote the first 60 pages of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ in one night.”

Complicating the process was the fact that Hughes essentially broke up with Hirsch while they all struggled to complete the movie. “I got along great with John until I didn’t,” Hirsch said. He’d seen the pattern play out in others around him – Hughes would level over-the-top compliments at them, tell them he never wanted to work with anybody else and then, out of nowhere, drop them. Several actors, including James Spader and Molly Ringwald, have spoken about similar experiences.

“I didn’t feel good about it for a long time,” Hirsch said. Forced to complete work on the project with the filmmaker no longer speaking to him, requests would come in through producer Bill Brown. And Hirsch would shuttle information back to Hughes through Brown. Hirsch called the experience “bruising” and shared something that Paul Schrader told him in 1974 (Hirsch also edited the Schrader-penned “Obsession”): “You don’t come to Hollywood to make friends.”

When “Plains, Trains and Automobiles” finally opened on November 25, 1987, they were hopeful that it would at least win the weekend box office. “We lost to ‘Three Men and a Baby,’” Hirsch recalled. “We were very disappointed.” But Hirsch had a bigger ambition. One that eventually came true: “I think we all hoped that it would become a perennial that would get played every year on Thanksgiving. And what we hoped for turned out to have happened. It has become a beloved perennial, Thanksgiving favorite.”

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Incredibly, Hirsch stayed in Hughes’ orbit. He was attached to two Hughes scripts that never saw the light of day – “The Nanny,” that was set to star Marianne Sägebrecht from “Baghdad Café” (which Hirsch said was about “spoiled kids whose parents are very wealthy, and they go away on vacation and leave the kids in the charge of this German nanny who is like a prison camp officer”) and “Larry’s Late for Living,” which sounds sort of like the uber-Hughes script about a man who is just having trouble getting to work for a meeting, that would have starred Bill Camp.

Hirsch was also set to direct “Dutch,” which eventually did get made (and shares a Thanksgiving setting with “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”), but he was replaced by Peter Faiman, an Australian filmmaker and a confederate of Rupert Murdoch (Murdoch’s Fox was putting out “Dutch”). After shooting, Hughes called Hirsch and begged him to help: “John called me and said, ‘Listen, I’d feel much better if you would cut ‘Dutch.’ I don’t really trust this guy.’” At the time, Hirsch was working for Fox as a “fix-it guy” (“turning awful movies into bad movies”) and the experience on “Dutch,” in part, served as something of a wake-up call. Hirsch’s directorial aspirations were no longer a priority. “I decided I’d rather be working steadily than hanging around waiting for somebody to give me a chance,” Hirsch said. He then re-teamed with Brian De Palma on 1992’s “Raising Cain” and, a few years later, a little movie called “Mission: Impossible.”

And as utterly mind-blowing these deleted scenes from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” are, Hirsch points to a wealth of additional Hughes-related material that has yet to be uncovered. Bill Brown told Hirsch a story of going into Hughes’ office outside Chicago, either after his memorial or the memorial of his surviving wife Nancy Hughes, who died in 2019. “The office was filled with stacks of scripts up to your waist with a narrow path between the stacks. There were so many scripts stacked along the floor,” Hirsch said.

There was one deleted scene that will never see the light of day, at least according to Hirsch. (It’s definitely not on the new disc.) “I’m not going to give you the context,” Hirsch said. He said the scene takes place in a diner. “And there’s a shot of everyone in the diner pantomiming pulling on a rubber glove,” Hirsch said. When I asked for more – anything, really – Hirsch refused. “I’m pretty sure it’s not going back in,” Hirsch said, coyly.

Although the return of these deleted scenes, long thought lost to the sands of time, shows us that anything can happen.

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is currently available to purchase on 4K with these new deleted scenes on their own separate bonus disc.

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