Humans are hard-wired for routine and certainty. But deep down below the order-obsessed instinct, we also long for spontaneity. We secretly seek a startling breach of decorum, a shattering of expectations. It’s why we’re so entranced by flash mobs, why we’re moved rather than peeved when someone interrupts a performance of Shakespeare in the Park to propose to a longtime girlfriend, and why the 600-person theater at LACMA gleefully explodes when Fred Savage unceremoniously tosses aside the stand with his Ferris Bueller’s Day Off script on it, tears his microphone from its harness, and dubsmashes his way through an inspired rendition of “Twist and Shout.”
That shook it up, baby, now.
Since its inception in 2011, Film Independent’s “Live Read” series at LACMA’s Bing Theater has acquired near-mythological status among film buffs. In fact, the unqualified term “Live Read” occupies its own, disambiguated entry on Wikipedia, a sure sign of this event’s exceptional nature.
Wunderkind screenwriter/director (and USC grad) Jason Reitman tossed out the idea for a staged screenplay reading over dinner one evening with Elvis Mitchell, Film Independent curator at LACMA. Reitman wanted to open up the magic of the script read — through experience to a (slightly) larger audience, and Mitchell, for one, was intrigued.
At the 30th installment of the monthly Live Read series, Reitman picked a beloved, teen-comedy classic: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The buzz for each Live Read begins to build as soon as tickets are released into the ether — and then snapped up within minutes by eager LACMA and Film Independent members, nearly as quickly as the tickets for the latest Star Wars installment. Only in L.A.
The difference is, however, that the Live Read only exists for those 600 people, in that room, on that evening. Each reading is alone in the universe. Each time, a different script is selected, and a different assortment of actors is chosen. (Days — or even hours — before the reading, but long after every ticket has been purchased, Reitman reveals the names of the participating actors via his Twitter feed.) There is no video recording, no photography save for the single house photographer hired to provide proof that the event did indeed actually occur. In the age of internet virality, this phenomenon is a rarity; the experience must actually be experienced. As Aaron Burr from the hip-hop Broadway smash “Hamilton” says (regarding, I’m sure, a similarly historic event in American history): You’ve got to be in the room where it happens.
Part of the inexorable draw of Reitman’s Live Read series — for actors and attendees alike — is the nature of the scripts he chooses to revisit. Films directed by Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and John Hughes have made multiple appearances alongside modern classics such as American Beauty, Manhattan and The Usual Suspects. Reitman calls it “archaeology.” Indeed, the Live Read is a way of revisiting past films rather than remaking them, accomplished not by adding splashy digital effects or by infusing them with updated metaphors, but by returning to a time before the moving image, before, even, the mass audience. Before The Graduate carved its place in film history, it existed merely as words on a page.
Reitman delightfully plays with cinematic history, toying with the interactions between the script and the guest actors, and between the guest actors and the original actors. An all-grown-up Fred Savage, who played the titular role in this month’s reading of Ferris Bueller, reprised his role as the sick grandson in the December 2011 reading of The Princess Bride. For a 2012 reading of Shampoo, Kate Hudson was picked to play the part originated by her mother, Goldie Hawn. Often, actors who played one role in the original film are invited to slip into another character’s skin, as with Cary Elwes playing the villainous Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride instead of the heroic Westley, and Mark Hamill shifting from padawan Luke Skywalker to wizened Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi in last December’s The Empire Strikes Back. Reitman also loves to swap genders and races, as with his all-female Glengarry Glen Ross and his all-black Reservoir Dogs.
The actors participate in these Live Reads for free and don’t rehearse beforehand, sometimes only meeting minutes before heading out on stage to read together. Most of the actors at the Ferris Bueller Live Read come from a comedy background, and though the series purports to present a makeshift cast reading lines from an established script, the best moments arise from spontaneous deviations from the script; the pregnant pauses, the vocal tics, the impromptu dance parties.
When the theater doors finally open for this month’s reading of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” we find our seats quickly, fingering the “SAVE FERRIS” pins doled out with our tickets — a gag alluding to the widespread illusion throughout the film of Ferris Bueller’s ailing health. A man in a Red Wings’ Gordie Howe jersey saunters down the aisle, channeling Bueller’s friend Cameron and his odd choice of attire. (No Chicagoan in his right mind would wear an enemy Detroit jersey around the city as Cameron does.) On stage, eight copies of the original John Hughes screenplay lie in wait, the pages obscured behind identical, illuminated script-reading stands.
Jason Reitman emerges from backstage to thunderous applause. He explains his choice of script by noting the enduring allure of John Hughes’s seminal ode to youthful enthusiasm (Reitman’s thematic summary: “Adults are zombies”) before welcoming his crew of actors to the stage: Fred Savage as Ferris Bueller himself (originally played by Matthew Broderick); Martin Starr as Bueller’s anxious best friend, Cameron; Jason’s sister, Catherine Reitman, as Bueller’s girlfriend, Sloane (originally Mia Sara); Clark Gregg as Bueller’s nemesis, Dean Ed Rooney (originally Jeffrey Jones); Mae Whitman as Bueller’s high-strung sister, Jeannie (originally Jennifer Grey); and Michaela Watkins as Rooney’s secretary, Grace (originally Edie McClurg).
The actors take their seats. The hush is immediately broken by an isolated “Go Cubs!” cry from the audience. It is unclear whether the fan is sending good vibes to the Chicago Cubs featured in the film or the real-life team that had just clinched its first ever post-season division at Wrigley Field. Either way, I imagine Ferris and his buddies would echo the sentiment.
Just like that, we’re underway. Reitman takes charge of the action descriptions as a screen behind the stage indicates the setting: a photo of the Bueller house, the high school, the fancy restaurant, the police station. Fred Savage garners early laughs by adopting an exaggerated croak for Ferris Bueller’s “sick voice,” but Michaela Watkins — star of Reitman’s new Hulu dramedy, “Casual,” and five-time Live Read veteran — earns guffaws throughout the evening for her embodiment of Rooney’s bluntly sincere secretary, Grace.
Most of the actors keep the body language to a minimum, save for the occasional fire-and-brimstone glare from Clark Gregg’s Rooney, and Martin Starr’s deadpan interpretation of Cameron’s catatonic breakdown. But “Parenthood” alum Mae Whitman takes her shrill reading of Ferris’s neurotic sister, Jeannie, to another level, twitching in her chair with palpable disgust whenever she encounters someone who idol-worships her wayward brother, driving most of the script’s comedy. She also, quite spontaneously, locks lips with James Van Der Beek, who — to the surprise of almost everyone in the room — wanders on stage for a brief comedic interlude involving Jeannie and a juvenile delinquent, originally played by Charlie Sheen.
In the script, Ferris Bueller’s famous “Twist and Shout” bonanza occurs alongside Cameron and Sloane’s bleak discussion about the uncertainty of life after high school. The scene presents John Hughes at his finest, encapsulating the bittersweetness of youth at its finest. And when Fred Savage lip-syncs like his soul depends on it, diving into the audience with wild abandon, he very nearly becomes the legendary Ferris Bueller. The element of “make believe” is always present in entertainment, all the more so at an event resembling a bare-bones radio play. But even for the cynic with the hardest of hearts, it is impossible to witness Savage’s euphoria and not get caught up in the moment. You could almost see Bueller’s impish grin as he gazes into the camera and croones: “They bought it!”
For more information on future events at Film Independent at LACMA, please visit http://www.lacma.org/series/film-independent-lacma.
This piece originally appeared on Neon Tommy.