By late 1988 John Hughes had become one of the most powerful scriptwriters and directors in Hollywood. His back catalogue of work including Train, 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 journey through the Hollywood system. Often shunning the normal trappings of the studio model, in favour of Chicago based locations and intimate production crews.
On the 16th August 1989, Hughes released Uncle Buck. His third film alongside the legendary John Candy. However, apart from providing us with another wonderful comedy, Uncle Buck gave birth to the first conceptual ideas of what would become Home Alone. With John Hughes not only formally introducing the world to Macaulay Culkin. But also writing and developing the idea for Home Alone around the pint-sized child actor.
Enter Chris Columbus
Like John Hughes, writer and director Chris Columbus had become synonymous with the creation of great films. With writing credits including Young Sherlock Holmes, The Goonies and Gremlins. However, despite his initial success in directing Adventures in Babysitting, Columbus had struggled to develop his directing talents further. With the disastrous Heartbreak Hotel all but halting his directing career. Therefore, Columbus was encouraged when Hughes sent over the screenplay for Home Alone intending to pass the directing duties to the young writer. And following some rewrites involving both Columbus and Hughes. Home Alone was finally born on paper in late 1989.
However, although the production had a director, producer and child star, studio backing was needed to allow Home Alone to start production. A challenge that often led to ‘family’ branded comedies falling at the final hurdle. Especially within a late 1980’s environment where cinema had been directly hit by VHS rental and home theatre technology.
In an attempt to secure the finance needed Hughes approached Warner Brothers. A company then known for its commitment to the family film market. With Warner duly agreeing to finance and distribute Home Alone for a mere 10 million dollars. An incredibly small budget that would, in turn, lead to the hiring of a crew who were all in the early stages of their filmmaking careers. While also encouraging both Hughes and Columbus to reach out to friends and colleagues from across the industry for help.
The shoestring budget and the deserted school
With the backing of Warner Brothers confirmed, work began on pre-production and casting during the Christmas of 1989. With John Hughes opting to take all studio work and offices to the deserted New Trier High School in Chicago. The original location for both The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. With the empty school gym becoming a potential sound stage for the production. Meanwhile, production designer John Muto and set decorator Eve Cauley searched for the perfect house in leafy Winnetka, Illinois. Eventually finding 671 Lincoln Avenue, its size and location both perfect in matching the screenplay and vision. However, while perfect in looks, the interior and doors were simply too small for the production needs. Leading to the decision to build a full-scale set of the house in the deserted high school gym. The house on Lincoln Avenue only being used for external shots and action.
Casting Home Alone
With such a limited budget, the casting 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 in turn providing a double act that could embody both fear and comedic talent. Therefore, casting co-ordinators Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins approached a number of high profile actors, including Robert DeNiro with little luck. However, for gangster film stalwart Joe Pesci, the screenplay offered an opportunity to do something completely new. And as a result, Pesci signed up, providing the production with a bankable box office name.
Meanwhile, the production crew approached Daniel Stern for the role of Marv. With the actor initially accepting the role, only to then pass due to the fee attached. Allowing ‘Dudes‘ star Daniel Roebuck to step in. A decision that would later be reversed due to early screen tests. With Daniel Stern finally agreeing to the role just weeks after production had started.
The cast was completed with the well-known film and TV talent of Catherine O’Hara, John Heard and Roberts Blossom. While the young cast of unknown’s included Macaulay’s brother Kieran Culkin in his first acting role. Meanwhile, Hughes had also persuaded John Candy to appear on an expenses only basis, ultimately adding further gravitas to the casting sheet.
However, with production in full swing problems mounted as the budget topped the 10 million dollars Warner had agreed. With production costs coming close to 14.5 Million dollars by the Christmas of 1989.
That’s all folks!
Warner Brothers were not ready to commit to a film that exceeded their 10 million dollar budget. And therefore pulled the plug on Home Alone’s production in the New Year of 1990. Allowing a close friend of John Hughes who worked at 20th Century Fox to grab the picture from under Warner’s nose. With Hughes having already held clandestine meetings with Fox when it was clear Home Alone would go over the Warner specified budget.
The backing of 20th Century Fox secured, production continued on Home Alone through the first months of 1990. With several creative hurdles still to overcome in bringing the film in against its new budget of approximately 18 million dollars. Ranging from the lack of snow in Chicago, through to the physical stunt work needed. All of these challenges encouraging a young production crew to think outside of the standard studio filmmaking box, with the crew’s passion for the project and creativity, leading to a final wrap on filming during March 1990.
John Williams creates a memory of Christmas
Despite a first cut of the film being produced in the spring on 1990, Home Alone remained void of a soundtrack. The films original composer Bruce Broughton being unavailable during post-production to write and mix a score. Therefore Chris Columbus decided to pick up the phone to Steven Spielberg. Asking the director if he would send a cut of the film to the legendary John Williams. With Columbus never expecting that Williams would agree to the role of writing Home Alone’s score. However, in a miracle of networking, Williams agreed to the project, bringing with him his gravitas in film score composition.
The final result is a score that wraps the film in a world-class symphony. While embodying Christmas, family and comedy in equal measure. In turn providing Home Alone with a unique aesthetic, rarely seen in small budget family comedies. A full orchestral score that equalled many of the blockbuster films of the late 80s and early 90s. Ultimately creating one of the enduring factors in the success of the film.
The Christmas miracle
Hopes for financial success on the release of Home Alone in November 1990 remained subdued. Especially on receiving a damning Roger Ebert review.
The plot is so implausible that it makes it hard for us to really care about the plight of the kid.Roger Ebert – November 16th 1990
Premiering in Chicago, the home of its birth. Home Alone opened in 1,202 theatres across the US, on its November 16th 1990 release. Achieving a gross income on $17,081,997 on its first weekend. With this figure rising to $48,287,152 by the second weekend. In turning blowing away any fears of financial failure. However, the success of this small budget Christmas movie was not to end there. With the early December release of Home Alone in both Canada and the UK reflecting the North American box office success.
Ultimately leading Home Alone 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. Leading to the accolade of it being the 3rd highest-grossing film of all time on its departure from cinemas. Sitting just behind the likes of Star Wars and E.T. While 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 even today you can’t help but be struck by its timeless quality. In part due to its choice of internal sets, traditional external locations and simple story. However, these factors are only part of the films enduring appeal for audiences.
Let us start by exploring the colour palette of the film. Home Alone is bathed in the colours of Christmas from the first scene to the last. Embedding themes of Christmas into our subconscious in the same way as classic horror uses colour to emote fear or apprehension. The McCallister house provides us with a cornucopia of red and green, from wallpaper to rugs and ornaments. Subsequently acting as a giant Christmas wreath in construct. While in contrast our villains are coated in black and grey, even down to the truck they drive. Immediately singling them out from the comfort of the Christmas world we enter.
This use of colour dovetails with a film where the camera embraces the viewpoint of a child. From low-level camera shots to wide-angle views, creating a world that is seen from Kevin’s perspective. All wrapped into a film 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. 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. In turn, dovetailing Kevin’s solitary experience with that of the elderly and lonely ‘old man Marley’.
However, Home Alone equally embodies themes from Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol. Not only in the name of Kevin’s elderly neighbour ‘Marley’ but also in the characters of Harry and Marv. Who are in essence, the ultimate scrooge double act. Their motivation based purely on the potential financial gain of Christmas, rather than its meaning. Both men representing a threat to home, family and the meaning of Christmas. Their actions ultimately leading Kevin to realise the worth and importance of the family unit and his place within it.
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 the structure and script of the film. However, it also embraces the childlike perspective of films such as A Christmas Story. Placing a child’s view of Christmas, family and adventure at its heart. In essence weaving the comic book darkness of Gremlins, with the moral messages of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. While topping the mix with the child’s eye view of A Christmas Tale. Ultimately creating a delightful mix of all four classics, in a movie that has not only become essential Christmas viewing. But also embedded itself into wider pop culture.
Director: Chris Columbus
This article is dedicated to the memory of…
John Hughes 1950–2009
John Candy 1950–1994
Roberts Blossom 1924–2011
John Heard 1946–2017
Macaulay Culkin also appears in The Good Son
John Hughes also appears in Coming of Age – The Essential Collection
Chris Columbus also appears in The Goonies