By late 1988 John Hughes had become one of the most powerful scriptwriters and directors in Hollywood. His back catalogue of work including Trains, Planes and Automobiles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club to name but a few. However, unlike many other writers and directors, Hughes continued to plough his own unique path through the Hollywood system. His aversion to large scale studio filmmaking reflected in his use of intimate Chicago based locations and regular production crews.
By August 16th 1989, the latest John Hughes hit Uncle Buck was playing in cinemas. His third film alongside John Candy, and his 17th writing credit since 1982. However, apart from providing us with another wonderful comedy, Uncle Buck also gave birth to the first conceptual ideas for Home Alone. With John Hughes new pint-sized discovery, Macaulay Culkin, helping to shape his writing. With several of the scenes written for Culkin in Uncle Buck carrying the spark of a solo adventure. For example, Culkin guarding the front door when Bucks girlfriend arrives, asking for her driving license as ID. And young Mac joyfully washing up in the kitchen, while claiming to be ‘earning his keep’.
Enter Chris Columbus
Like John Hughes, writer and director Chris Columbus had become synonymous with the creation of groundbreaking movies. With his writing credits including, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Goonies and Gremlins. However, despite an initial directorial success with Adventures in Babysitting, Columbus had struggled to find his next venture. With his second outing the disastrous Heartbreak Hotel all but halting any future directing career. Therefore, he was more than enthused when Hughes sent over the screenplay for Home Alone, asking him to consider the director’s chair. With both men tweaking the final script together before Home Alone was finally born on paper in Autumn 1989.
Home Alone now had a completed script, director, producer and child star. However, it lacked any financial backing from a major studio. And despite Hughes name, the genre the movie inhabited would prove highly problematic in achieving support. With many of the big players in Hollywood less than enamoured by the potential income of ‘family comedies,’ in a late 80s industry turning toward blockbusters. However, one studio did still invest in family features; Warner Brothers. With Hughes immediately approaching and selling them his vision for Home Alone. But, the agreement only stretched to a mere 10 million dollars for production and distribution; an amount not dissimilar to many independent movies of the time.
Hughes excepted the deal and began work on matching the production with its small budget; hiring a crew who were all in the early stages of their filmmaking careers. While at the same time, reaching out to friends and colleagues from across the industry for help.
A shoestring budget and deserted school
Pre-production work and casting began during Christmas 1989. With John Hughes opting to set up his production offices and studios in the abandoned New Trier High School, Chicago. The school that also offered Hughes with the location for The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Its empty gym becoming a sound stage for the production. Meanwhile, production designer John Muto and set decorator Eve Cauley searched for the perfect Home Alone house in leafy Winnetka, Illinois. Where 671 Lincoln Avenue, immediately stood out from the crowd; its size and location a perfect fit for the screenplay.
However, while ideal in its exterior image, the interior doorways and corridors were simply too small for the needs of the production. A challenge that would lead Hughes to build a full-scale set of the house in the high school gym. The home on Lincoln Avenue only being used for external shots and action.
Casting Home Alone
With such a limited budget, the casting of Home Alone was to prove challenging. And while the film already had its young hero, the roles of Harry and Marv were essential in making the screenplay work. While at the same time, providing the movie with a double act who could embody the slapstick humour of the script. Therefore, casting coordinators Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins approached several high profile actors known for lacing comedy with gripping drama, with little luck. However, for gangster film stalwart Joe Pesci, Home Alone offered him the rare opportunity to do something new. And as a result, he signed up, despite the low fee; providing the production with its first bankable box office name.
Encouraged by the signing of Pesci, the production crew approached Daniel Stern for the role of Marv. With Stern initially accepting the part, only to then pass due to the fee attached. His refusal of the role ultimately opening the way for ‘Dudes‘ star Daniel Roebuck to step in. However, despite his comedy credentials Roebuck and Pesci simply didn’t work on screen. And after much persuasion, Stern returned to the role just weeks after production had started.
Kevin, Harry and Marv were now in place, and attention turned to Kevin’s family and Old Man Marley. With Catherine O’Hara, John Heard and Roberts Blossom all joining the cast, bringing with them a wealth of TV and film work. Meanwhile, a young cast included Macaulay’s younger brother Kieran in his first acting role. But, the icing on the cake was a cameo from John Candy, who appeared on an expenses only basis, as a favour to Hughes.
However, just as the production stepped up a gear, problems mounted, with the budget topping the 10 million dollars Warner had agreed. In fact, by Christmas 1989, it stood at around 14.5 Million dollars.
That’s all folks!
With costs spiralling, Warner Brothers were not ready to exceed the 10 million dollar budget agreed. With many studio executives doubtful that Home Alone could generate any financial gain on release. Therefore, New Year 1990 saw Warner Brothers unceremoniously pull the plug on production. But, Hughes was more than aware of their potential decision and had already started talks with a close friend who worked at 20th Century Fox. His clandestine set of meetings ultimately leading Fox to snap up the movie by February 1990, while also offering a larger budget.
With the backing of 20th Century Fox secured, it was full steam ahead for the production, which continued throughout the first three months of 1990. Its new budget of approximately 18 million dollars still leading to significant creative challenges, from the lack of snow in Chicago, through to the intricate stunt work needed. However, in hiring a young and enthusiastic production crew, Hughes and Columbus created an atmosphere where anything was possible.
With a first cut of the film sitting on the table in the spring of 1990, one major problem remained; Home Alone had no soundtrack. With the films original composer Bruce Broughton unavailable to write and mix the score needed. Therefore, in a bold effort to ensure the film could be completed as planned Chris Columbus picked up the phone to Steven Spielberg. His one request, that Spielberg contacted the legendary John Williams. However, Columbus never expected Williams to respond. But, after watching the first cut of the movie, Williams picked up the phone; offering to score the movie.
The result of John Williams involvement is a rare orchestral score within a small budget family feature. His rousing symphony not only embodying Christmas but also rivalling the big-budget scores of many late 80s and early 90s blockbusters. And while much of Home Alone’s eventual success came from the Hughes and Columbus screenplay and casting. It is John Williams score that elevates Home Alone above and beyond the genre of its birth.
The Christmas miracle
Any hopes for financial success remained subdued as Home Alone neared its premiere in Chicago, November 1990. With some of the early reviews less than kind, including Roger Ebert, who stated; “The plot is so implausible that it makes it hard for us to really care about the plight of the kid”.
Nobody, not even Hughes and Columbus expected a big box office haul as the movie opened in 1,202 theatres across the United States. But, Home Alone exceeded expectations, achieving a gross income of $17,081,997 on its first weekend. However, even more, remarkable was the rise to $48,287,152 by its second weekend. The result of which would see Home Alone become one of the highest-grossing movies of 1990 within just four weeks, its global release in December, matching its American popularity. Meanwhile, its small budget and big box office presence single handily rewrote the story of family movies and comedy in Hollywood.
Home Alone would go on to gross $285.8 million in the United States and Canada and $190.9 million worldwide; totalling $476.7 million by the end of its theatrical run. With this small budget Christmas miracle earning the accolade of becoming the 3rd highest-grossing film of all time on its departure from cinemas, behind Star Wars and E.T. And even today, adjusting for inflation, Home Alone ranks above both Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in box office takings.
A timeless Christmas tale
Watching Home Alone today, its timeless quality continues to shine on screen. In part due to its choice of internal sets, traditional locations and a simple festive story of the family. However, these factors are only part of the films enduring appeal, in a movie that embodies the festive season in every frame of its loving creation.
Let us start by exploring the colour palette of the film. From its first scenes to its last Home Alone is bathed in the colours of Christmas. Its sets, clothing and locations subconsciously reflecting every aspect of our vision of Christmas. For example; The McCallister house is a cornucopia of red and green, from wallpaper to rugs and ornaments; its rooms a giant living Christmas wreath. While in contrast our villains are coated in black and grey, even down to the truck they drive, with our hero Kevin in red, green, white and blue. Of course, this subconscious use of colour in ensuring audience empathy and response is nothing new. In fact, the world of horror has used this technique successfully for many years. But, Home Alone is one of the first comedies to employ this in a Christmas narrative, ensuring the film’s enduring festive appeal.
Meanwhile, Home Alone embraces the viewpoint of a child in its use of the camera, never allowing Kevin’s world to be invaded by adult perspectives. For example; low-level cameras ensure everything looks big and daunting, while even the tree Kevin cuts down is in proportion to his size. The result of this is a movie that embraces the fantasy world of childhood imagination. Taking the wish-fulfilment of an eight-year-old boy and giving it voice, from bouncing on the bed of his parents to eating junk food all day. Allowing for a child’s perspective on what freedom from the constraints of the family would be like if granted. And this brings us to the link between Home Alone and Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘.
Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, shows George Bailey a world that would have existed for his family and friends if he had chosen to jump from a bridge on Christmas Eve. While in Home Alone, Kevin’s wish for his family to disappear allows the 8-year-old to experience a world without his parents and siblings. Ultimately reversing the narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life by removing the family and not the individual. While at the same time, Old Man Marley’s story equally reflects Kevin’s but from an adult perspective of loneliness in old age. With the eight-year-old Kevin the key to Old Man Marley’s reconciliation and happiness. While at the same time, Old Man Marley rescues Kevin from the clutches of Harry and Marv who threaten the family home Kevin longs to rebuild.
The legacy of Home Alone
Like all good Christmas films, Home Alone understands the need to balance the magic of Christmas with a darker exploration of isolation and fear. The moral messages of the holiday, born in the writing of Dickens echoing throughout its timeless script. However, by embracing a child’s perspective, Home Alone also talks to the memories we hold of childhood innocence and wonder. Alongside, the confusion and comfort we take from our family around us. The result of which is a movie that not only sings with comic book humour but reflects the importance of belonging. Alongside our childhood desire to grow up faster than our minds can handle. With Kevin’s journey of discovery reminding us all of the imagination, excitement and vulnerability of being eight years old.
Director: Chris Columbus