Released shortly after the infamous New York Magazine article that dubbed its cast the “Brat Pack,” St. Elmo’s Fire was the coming-of-age movie that wasn’t The Breakfast Club and wasn’t made by John Hughes. It was about the uncertainty of life after a group of friends graduated college.
While it has become a cultural benchmark for many people who grew up in the ‘80s, the film wasn’t well-received upon its release. Besides the poor reception, a lot happened behind the scenes during production that almost changed the entire movie. It was a flawed movie, but that reflects the lives of people in their 20s.
The Film Is Responsible for the Term “Brat Pack”
A few weeks before the release of St. Elmo’s Fire, a New York Magazine writer followed Emilio Estevez around before the film’s premiere. The term “Brat Pack” was coined from this article in reference to the film’s cast who all hung out together regularly. It was a play on the “Rat Pack.”
The core members of the Brat Pack have been debated, but its key members include Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, and Andrew McCarthy. The article might have made the group more popular, but they weren’t happy with the term’s effect on their careers.
Based on a True Story
Carl Kurlander dealt with unreciprocated love from a waitress one summer while working as a bellhop at New York’s St. Elmo Hotel. The experience was so impactful that he later turned it into a short story in college. His professor was impressed and suggested he title it “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Kurlander became writer-director Joel Schumacher’s assistant and pitched the short story to him. Schumacher turned it into a screenplay, and the two worked together to rewrite it. The idea of unrequited love became the center of the movie’s plot, and the St. Elmo Hotel became St. Elmo’s Bar, where they hung out.
Georgetown University Wouldn’t Allow Filming
The film is centered around a group of young adults who have recently graduated from Georgetown University. However, none of the movie was filmed there. The board at Georgetown didn’t allow them to use the campus for scenes because they feared the movie’s adult themes would reflect poorly on the school.
Instead, the campus scenes were shot at the nearby University of Maryland, and the bar was recreated to look like the Georgetown bar. However, Georgetown allowed The Exorcist to use their campus, which had darker scenes than St. Elmo’s Fire. The university said that the devil didn’t win in the movie, so it was OK.
The Studio Hated the Title
St. Elmo’s Fire was the name of Kurlander’s short story that inspired the film, but Columbia Pictures hated the title. They sent a 35-page memo listing the issues with the proposed title and suggesting alternatives. Columbia Pictures feared that viewers wouldn’t understand the meaning and wouldn’t want to see the movie.
Columbia executives proposed Sparks or The Real World as alternative titles. However, Schumacher stuck with the original name to go along with Kurlander’s vision. Towards the end of the film, Rob Lowe’s character explains the meaning of St. Elmo’s Fire, which has to do with a scientific phenomenon.
John Hughes Helped With Casting
It seems that John Hughes, director of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, had a big part in all the teen movies of the ‘80s. Even though he didn’t direct St. Elmo’s Fire, he helped with the casting process by recommending actors he had worked with.
Hughes recommended Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson, who all starred in The Breakfast Club. Schumacher “discovered” Demi Moore when she ran past his office after Hughes stood her up for a meeting. He asked Kurlander to follow her and find out if she was an actress.
Demi Moore Had a Memorable Audition
Once Kurlander caught up to Moore, he told her they were doing a movie and wanted her to audition. She had just spent a season on General Hospital and was looking for more work. Schumacher thought she would be the perfect fit for the role of Jules.
When Moore came for her audition, she rode in on a motorcycle with the tags still on her clothes. Rob Lowe walked into his audition for Billy Hicks with a six-pack of Corona beer like he was already in character. The actors were all keen on method acting.
Emilio Estevez Wanted Rob Lowe’s Part
When auditioning for St. Elmo’s Fire, Emilio Estevez was interested in playing Billy Hicks. However, Lowe had already been offered the role after his incredible audition. Casting directors offered Estevez the part of Kirby instead because he was the main character.
Kirby is based on the writer, which is a high honor to receive. Estevez was on the rise in Hollywood after starring in The Breakfast Club, and Hughes vouched for him. It only made him an even bigger star.
Critics Hated the Movie
Today, St. Elmo’s Fire is a cult classic, but no one appreciated it when it premiered. A review from New York Magazine said, “Nobody above the moral age of 15 would enjoy this.” However, Andrew McCarthy, who played Kevin, believes the youth appeal made it iconic.
While many people loved Lowe’s performance, there were a lot of negative reviews about his portrayal of Billy Hicks. In 1986, he won the Razzle for Worst Supporting Actor. Surprisingly, none of the young adult movies at the time got great reviews but subsequently turned into classics.
Demi Moore Was Given an Ultimatum
Like her character Jules, Moore struggled with addiction during the filming process. She had to be ordered off set when she showed up high, and the director almost fired her. Schumacher gave her an ultimatum to get clean, or he would replace her.
Moore ended up doing a short stint in rehab to get clean so she could complete the movie. She stopped drinking and doing drugs only to play a character who had a coke problem. Luckily, Moore didn’t fall back into her addictions after the film.
Mare Winningham Was Pregnant
A large part of Mare Winningham’s character’s storyline was that she was still a virgin. However, Winningham was pregnant while filming St. Elmo’s Fire. She portrayed Wendy Beamish, and her life was very different from Wendy Beamish’s. They also used Winningham’s pregnancy to change Wendy’s story.
Winningham’s belly was growing with her pregnancy, so Schumacher embraced it by having Wendy struggle with her weight. Winningham’s brother was also in the film. He played a member of Billy’s band, The New Breed. He’s a singer and guitar player in real life.
Wendy’s Parents Were a Divorced Couple
Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten played Wendy’s parents in the film. In real life, the two actors were married from 1957 to 1962. It must have been odd to play a married couple when they had been divorced for so many years by then.
Their daughter, Talia Balsam, is a noted actress as well. She appeared in Mad Men with her husband, John Slattery. Balsam, like her parents, went through a divorce as well. She was married to George Clooney in 1989, and they divorced four years later.
Ally Sheedy Was Horrified by Her Steamy Scene
It wasn’t until the day she filmed the steamy scene with Andrew McCarthy that Ally Sheedy realized there wouldn’t be a romantic fade out before they have sex. She couldn’t wait for the scene to be over because she didn’t know McCarthy would have to be on top of her.
When they filmed it, Schumacher was a bit too harsh on Sheedy and yelled at her. She burst into tears, and McCarthy yelled at him. Schumacher later admitted that he felt horrible for the way he treated Sheedy and regretted his actions.
“St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” Was Written About a Paralyzed Athlete
David Foster and John Parr were attempting to write a theme song for the film, but Parr wasn’t inspired to write the lyrics. To help them create the theme song, Foster shared the story of Rick Hansen with Parr. Hansen traveled the country for his Man in Motion tour.
Hansen’s tour promoted spinal cord injury awareness. Parr was inspired and wrote the lyrics to promote Hansen but made it vague enough so that it worked for the movie. When Parr saw the TV segment about Hansen, he wanted to help spread his story. Han
The Boys’ Chant Was an Inside Joke
In the film, the “Booga Booga” chant that the male characters do was a joke from a real-life incident involving Estevez, Lowe, and Nelson. Lowe told EW, “We were always so pissed off about how there would be rich, foreign guys in the corner stealing the girls we were interested in.”
When the boys were in the bars or clubs, they would hear these men sitting around talking. Lowe said it sounded like they were saying “buggala, buggala, buggala.” The three would repeat it, and Schumacher added it to the film.
This Scene Still Embarrasses Demi Moore
At the end of the film, Jules opens all the windows in her apartment to freeze herself to death because she is depressed. However, Moore told EW that she hates this scene because it’s cringeworthy. Even today, she has trouble watching it.
Schumacher defended the moment, saying, “The part was satirical and tongue-in-cheek. She’s so dramatic all the time. Demi did it fantastically, but it was ridiculous.” He added that it would have taken a long time for someone to freeze themselves in Georgetown; it’s not Antarctica.
The Movie Poster Was a Candid Photo
When we look at the poster for St. Elmo’s Fire today, it is like the ultimate vintage version of “squad goals.” The cast photo in front of the bar was taken while they waited for the lighting to be adjusted. It captured them as if they were truly friends.
It looked like they were a group that would have hung out even if they weren’t in a movie together. The picture became the movie’s poster, and it looked authentic—the producers liked that the image was candid.
Rob Lowe Was Asked to Perform His Sax Solo
There is nothing that screams the ‘80s quite like a Bruce Springsteen-esque band featuring a saxophone player. Lowe’s Billy Hicks perfected the ‘80s rock n’ roll saxophonist with his mullet and dangling earring. However, he couldn’t actually play the instrument.
Years after the film, Lowe was asked to perform his iconic sax solo for Bill Clinton at a Hollywood fundraiser. The house band approached him to play his St. Elmo’s Fire solo, and he didn’t want to say no. Therefore, the band played the solo while Lowe pretended to perform it.
Anthony Edwards and Lea Thompson Auditioned
Like most films, St. Elmo’s Fire had a lengthy casting process. Schumacher and casting directors met with hundreds of potential cast members, including Anthony Edwards and Lea Thompson. They made significant impacts elsewhere.
Edwards was rejected from the movie but had his big break a year later in Top Gun. Thompson also auditioned for the film, but it was a blessing in disguise that she didn’t get the part. She later appeared in the biggest blockbuster movie, Back to the Future.
The Film Gave Andie MacDowell Her Big Break
Although she wasn’t considered a member of the Brat Pack, Andie MacDowell had a career breakthrough in the film. St. Elmo’s Fire was the second screen role for the model-turned-actress, who made her debut in Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
St. Elmo’s Fire was the first-time audiences heard MacDowell’s natural voice. Her supporting role as Dale helped MacDowell launch her acting career. She later starred opposite Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which firmly established her as an actress.
Emilio Estevez and Andrew McCarthy Were Roommates During Production
Not only did they star as friends in the film, but Estevez and McCarthy were also pals in real life. The two played roommates in St. Elmo’s Fire and shared an apartment close to the set to prepare for their roles. However, McCarthy tried to distance himself.
Although McCarthy was friends with the cast, he hated the Brat Pack label more than anyone else. After the movie wrapped, McCarthy refused to work with the rest of the Brat Pack. He wanted to distance himself from the title because it hurt their careers.
Ally Sheedy Had Competition for the Role of Leslie
Like many of her St. Elmo’s Fire costars, Sheedy was an up-and-coming name in the ‘80s. After her debut in Bad Boys and WarGames, Sheedy started to get more significant roles. However, landing the part of Leslie in St. Elmo’s Fire wasn’t easy.
Producers considered actresses like Meg Ryan, Melanie Griffith, Elisabeth Shue, and Jamie Lee Curtis to play Leslie. Luckily, Sheedy made the cut. After the film, her career slowly declined because of her attachment to the Brat Pack and other problems in her life.
Joel Schumacher Became a Blockbuster Director
While the critics hated St. Elmo’s Fire, the film didn’t hurt Schumacher’s career. It was his third theatrical feature, and the movie helped him become a successful director throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. He followed the ‘80s classic with 1987’s The Lost Boys.
Schumacher went on to do various projects, including the supernatural thriller Flatliners, the tragic romance Dying Young, and the controversial Falling Down. His most notorious film was when he took over for Tim Burton to direct Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
Demi Moore and Emilio Estevez Struck Up a Romance
After meeting on the set of St. Elmo’s Fire, Estevez and Moore started dating. They continued dating after the film wrapped and eventually got engaged. She starred in his directorial debut, Wisdom, but their relationship ended before they walked down the aisle.
This was just one of many high-profile relationships for both actors throughout their careers. Moore went on to marry Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher. However, she hasn’t remarried since her divorce from Kutcher in 2013. Meanwhile, Estevez married Paula Abdul, but they divorced after two years.
Andie MacDowell Broke Both Arms
When MacDowell met Schumacher for the first time, both her arms were broken. He wondered if she would be able to do the film, but her fractures healed in time for production. MacDowell explained that her injuries occurred in an acting class.
She explained that her character was supposed to pound on the floor in her New York acting class. MacDowell got carried away with the scene and fractured her arms. She had two casts, which must have looked ridiculous, but she had them removed before the movie began.
Billy Joel Could Have Been a Cast Member
While writing the script for the film, Schumacher listened to Billy Joel’s Songs From the Attic and incorporated many of its songs into the script as placeholders. Schumacher sent the script to Joel with an offer asking him to play a bartender.
Unfortunately, Schumacher never heard back from Joel. The bartender role went to Blake Clark. Producers signed with Atlantic Records for the film’s soundtrack, hoping to get Peter Townshend, but he passed away. So Schumacher hired producer David Foster instead.
Andrew McCarthy Kept to Himself
Some of the cast members hung out between takes, but McCarthy chose to have alone time when they weren’t filming. He would listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman. McCarthy didn’t want to hang out with the others during his downtime.
Meanwhile, Estevez spent his downtime writing screenplays, and Nelson read Billy Budd between takes. The rest of the cast would joke around and goof off between scenes. Despite some people keeping to themselves, the cast was a tight-knit group that got along well.
Andie MacDowell Was Intimidated by Her Costars
When MacDowell joined the film’s cast, she hadn’t hung out with the group before. Most of them had worked together before St. Elmo’s Fire, so she was intimidated because they all seemed so cool. They also had a close bond, but she wasn’t in on it.
MacDowell remembers going to a party and watching Moore dance. She said, “She was just free and wild and spontaneous. I felt like a fly on the wall, watching these exotic creatures.” By the end of the film, MacDowell became friends with her costars.
Rob Lowe Still Gets Asked About Billy Hicks
Many of the actors went on to have successful careers, but they had mixed feeling about the film. Lowe’s character was the paradigm of a bad boy-man child. People still come up to Lowe and tell him they loved the movie and Billy.
Even Gwyneth Paltrow has said Billy Hicks is one of her favorite movie characters. Lowe said Paltrow can recite every line in the film. It never ceases to amaze Lowe how many people are still obsessed with the movie. He thinks it was everyone’s first guilty pleasure.
Demi Moore Thinks the Movie Was a Game Changer
When the cast was interviewed in 2017 to look back on the film after three decades, Moore said it was the first of its kind. There weren’t movies about young people struggling with emotional adult issues. Therefore, St. Elmo’s Fire opened the door for this.
Moore said the film gave a voice and place for young actors to be seen in a different light. The movie was a game-changer for the generation. Although she dealt with personal struggles on the set, Moore doesn’t regret the film because it helped her career.
Andrew McCarthy Failed His Audition
During the audition process, McCarthy made a huge mistake. When he met with the studio executives, he was terrified and sat on the couch “like a lump.” McCarthy said he failed the interview and was sent home with the director’s assistant.
On the ride back to West Hollywood, McCarthy realized what had happened and told the assistant how much he wanted to be in the movie. Schumacher’s assistant relayed the message, and Schumacher replied, “Why the hell didn’t you act like it with the important people, you idiot?”
Andrew McCarthy Stayed Busy After the Film
After St. Elmo’s Fire, McCarthy tried to distance himself from the Brat Pack name. However, it didn’t affect his career much. Since the ‘80s, he has had steady roles. In recent years, he directed The Blacklist and starred in Good Girls and The Family.
McCarthy has also directed Orange Is the New Black. He might have stopped working with his Brat Pack pals, but he hasn’t forgotten the group that launched his career. McCarthy said it was one of the few films in which he didn’t have a cringeworthy moment.
Judd Nelson’s Career Stalled
To this day, Nelson is still best known for his roles in St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club. He had a few other significant parts, but nothing has been as memorable. In recent years, Nelson has had a recurring role in Empire.
Nelson also voiced several characters in the cartoon Transformers: Power of the Primes. He has a few projects that are still in development, but there is always a chance for him to make a big comeback. Nelson said acting in the film caused him to lose opportunities.
Ally Sheedy Never Stopped Acting
Although Sheedy never stopped acting, she only stars in low-budget indie movies today. By the end of the ‘80s, her films were becoming less successful. It was the beginning of the end of her Hollywood career. Sheedy didn’t want to compromise her values or change herself for roles.
Today, her characters are more complex, but Sheedy doesn’t make much money. She said, “I may be poor, but I’m happy.” Sheedy has been vocal about her experiences in Hollywood and why she left the movie business because of its toxic treatment of women.
Mare Winningham Experienced Tragedy
Since her role in St. Elmo’s Fire, Winningham has had steady supporting roles in movies and TV series. However, her personal life has been much more turbulent than any of her on-screen roles. After having five children with her second husband, she remarried and divorced for the third time.
Tragedy struck her family in 2005 when her oldest son Riley committed suicide at the age of 23. It took a while for her to recover from her son’s sudden death. As of 2020, Winningham has been dating actor Anthony Edwards.
Andie MacDowell Revived Her Career
In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, MacDowell’s career was booming with hits like Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, she had steady roles that were less memorable, but she recently revived her career in a Netflix series.
MacDowell stars in Netflix’s hit series Maid as Paula. The show was one of the best shows of 2021 and received critical acclaim. She was also featured on the cover of Vogue Poland, which had people talking because MacDowell has embraced her gray hair.
A Bowling Alley Birthday Party Helped Andie MacDowell Join the Group
When MacDowell joined the film’s cast, she was intimidated by her costars. She was also a newbie in Hollywood. She said, “Here were all these young Hollywood actors, and I’m from Gaffney, this tiny little dot in South Carolina.” However, they quickly inducted her into the pack.
While celebrating Lowe’s 21st birthday in a bowling alley, the group made her feel like she belonged. MacDowell praised Estevez, saying, “I told him I was frightened, and he said not to worry, that acting was like dancing; you just get up and do it.”
Rob Lowe and Mare Winningham’s Ages Mismatched the Group
Although they were playing people who had just graduated college, Lowe and Winningham were an ill-suited couple, and their ages didn’t make sense for the film. Lowe was barely 21 when the movie premiered, but his party boy character was supposed to be around 23 or 24.
Meanwhile, Winningham was 26; she had married in 1981 and had two children. Her fresh out of college virginal character was far from the person she was in real life. They were the outliers of the group as the oldest and youngest.
Fans Were Annoyed by This Mistake
Lowe’s character claims that the phenomenon of St. Elmo’s Fire doesn’t exist. Fans (and Lowe) are still annoyed by the mistake in his speech because, scientifically, Elmo’s fire occurs during thunderstorms when there is high voltage in the air between the cloud and the ground.
Billy says there is no St. Elmo or a real fire, which might be accurate, but Kurlander apologized to the scientific community for causing the misperception. The phenomenon is actually a real thing that sailors saw as a good omen when they made it through storms at sea.
The Film Would Be Different Today
As part of Kirby’s storyline, Estevez gives off stalker vibes. People say if the film were remade today, Kirby’s crazy pursuit of Dale (MacDowell) would not make the cut. After a test screening of the movie, the Chairman of Columbia Pictures told Schumacher to remove the subplot.
Schumacher kept it in because the interactions between the characters were taken from Kurlander’s real life. There might be an underlying stalker feeling, but that is not the message they were trying to portray because that is not how it happened to Kurlander.
Madonna Almost Had a Small Role
The director and casting people saw hundreds of auditions throughout the casting process. Many singers came in who were trying to cross over to actors. One of those people was a young Madonna. She didn’t have much acting experience besides a few music videos.
Although she hadn’t been in a film before, Schumacher knew she would be a superstar. Therefore, he was unsure if she would accept a small part in the movie. He also considered her for the role of Jules when Moore went to rehab.
A Fictional Character Inspired Andrew McCarthy’s Lines
McCarthy’s character, Kevin Dolenz, had several witty lines in the film, lifted from Ian Shoales, a fictional pop-culture critic created by Merle Kessler. The fictional character from the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater inspired the writers as they thought about Dolenz’s dialogue.
Ian Shoales appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and MTV’s The Cutting Edge Happy Hour. St. Elmo’s Fire gave a special thanks in the credits to the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. Merle Kessler was happy to see that his character inspired the role of Kevin.
What Has Made St. Elmo’s Fire So Popular?
Although the reviews were negative when the film premiered, it had become a cult classic over the years. While it wasn’t Schumacher’s best film, it endures because it perfectly captures an unforgettable time in everyone’s lives. Everyone experiences that uncertain time after college.
Besides its relatability, the film’s cast is iconic because all those actors became big names in Hollywood. Devoted fans can rattle off all their names without even looking them up. The movie changed the generation and young people today love it too.