By late 1988 John Hughes had become one of the most powerful scriptwriters and directors in Hollywood. His back catalogue, full of modern classics ranging from 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. One that would be built on an aversion to large scale studio filmmaking. His studios of choice often intimate Chicago based locations with familiar production crews he could trust.
August 16th 1989, would see the latest John Hughes hit Uncle Buck hit cinemas. Uncle Buck was Hughes 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 what would become Home Alone. Here John Hughes new pint-sized discovery, Macaulay Culkin, would inadvertently help to shape his writing – several of Culkin’s key scenes acting as the spark of a solo adventure. Watching Uncle Buck now these scenes are easy to identify, for example, Culkin guarding the front door when Bucks girlfriend arrives. Or young Mac joyfully washing up in the kitchen, while claiming to be ‘earning his keep’.
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Columbus and Hughes
Like Hughes, writer and director Chris Columbus had become synonymous with the creation of groundbreaking movies, his writing credits ranging from, Young Sherlock Holmes to The Goonies and Gremlins. However, despite initial directorial success with Adventures in Babysitting, Columbus had struggled to find his next directorial adventure. After all, his second outing was all but disastrous with Heartbreak Hotel, temporarily halting his directing ambitions. Therefore, Columbus was encouraged and intrigued when Hughes sent over a rough screenplay for Home Alone, and somewhat surprised when Hughes asked him to direct. But, on reading the rough draft Columbus jumped on board, with both men tweaking the screenplay before Home Alone was 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. This was a time when family/comedies were seen as potential money pits with little box office potential in an industry turning toward blockbusters. However, one studio did still invest in family features; Warner Brothers. Hughes immediately approached the studio with the aim of finding funding for Home Alone. However, while Warner was enthusiastic, their agreement only stretched to a mere 10 million dollars for production and distribution; an amount not dissimilar to many independent movies of the time. But, knowing this may be the only deal in town, Hughes excepted and began work on the production. To reduce costs Hughes hired a crew who were all in the early stages of their filmmaking careers. While at the same time, he reached out to friends and colleagues from across the industry for cash-free help.
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A shoestring budget and deserted school
Pre-production work and casting began during the Christmas of 1989. In line with his unique filmmaking style, Hughes opted to set up his production offices and studios in the abandoned New Trier High School, Chicago. Trier was hallowed ground for Hughes before it closed its doors, after all this was the location for The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But now silent, its empty gym would become a sound stage for Home Alone. Meanwhile, production designer John Muto and set decorator Eve Cauley would search for the perfect external Home Alone house in leafy Winnetka, Illinois. After days of driving they would find 671 Lincoln Avenue, its size and location, perfect 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.
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 that 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 then approached Daniel Stern for the role of Marv. Stern initially accepted the part, only to then pass due to the low fee attached. His refusal would ultimately open the way for ‘Dudes‘ star Daniel Roebuck to step in. However, despite his comedy credentials Roebuck and Pesci didn’t gel and this showed on screen. Therefore, after much persuasion, Stern returned to the role just weeks after production had started.
With Kevin, Harry and Marv now in place, attention turned to Kevin’s family and Old Man Marley. Here Catherine O’Hara, John Heard and Roberts Blossom would all quickly join the cast, bringing with them a wealth of TV and film appearances. Meanwhile, the film’s young cast would include Macaulay’s younger brother Kieran in his first acting role. But, the icing on the cake came in the guise of John Candy, appearing for expenses only, 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.
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That’s all folks!
With costs spiralling, Warner Brothers were not prepared to exceed the 10 million dollar budget agreed. Its executives, doubtful of Home Alone’s potential financial gain on release. Therefore, in January 1990, Warner Brothers unceremoniously pulled the plug on the Hughes 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. Therefore just weeks after Warner stepped out, Fox stepped in, offering a slightly 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. Home Alone’s new budget, while welcome at 18 million dollars still led to significant creative challenges. These ranged from the lack of snow in Chicago 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.
Enter John Williams
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. The films original composer Bruce Broughton had become unavailable to write and mix the score needed due to production delays. Therefore, in a bold move, Chris Columbus picked up the phone to Steven Spielberg. His one request was that Spielberg contact the legendary John Williams. However, despite the bold move, 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 was a rare orchestral score for a small budget family feature. William’s brought power to the final cut, his rousing symphony reflecting the wonder of Christmas while rivalling bigger-budget scores. 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 in November 1990. In fact, early reviews had proved 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, including 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, big box office presence would rewrite the story of family/comedies 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. This small budget Christmas miracle would go on to earn the accolade of becoming the 3rd highest-grossing film of all time on its departure from cinemas, just 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.
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A timeless Christmas tale
Watching Home Alone today, its timeless quality continues to shine on screen. In part, this is 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. From its first scenes to its last Home Alone is bathed in the colours of Christmas. Here the sets, clothing and locations subconsciously reflect 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; each room a living and breathing Christmas wreath. While in contrast our villains are coated in black and grey, even down to the truck they drive, while our hero Kevin is dressed in red, green, white and blue. Of course, this subconscious use of colour has been used in the world of horror for years. But, Home Alone is one of the first comedies to employ this, ensuring the film’s subconscious 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, 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 themes of childhood wish-fulfilment and giving them a voice. Here we see Kevin bouncing on his parent’s bed, eating junk food and watching violent videos. This allows for a child’s perspective on what the freedom from family would feel like if granted. And it brings us to the link between Home Alone and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
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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 isolation, but from an adult perspective of loneliness in old age. Here the eight-year-old Kevin is the key to Old Man Marley’s reconciliation and happiness. While at the same time, Old Man Marley is the key to Kevin’s safe rescue from Harry and Marv. Here Hughes and Columbus play with themes of Christmas isolation, family and reconciliation, taking previous Christmas tales from Capra and Dickens and reflecting them through a lens of age; old and young.
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. And by embracing themes from a child’s perspective, Home Alone talks to the memories we hold of childhood innocence and the reality of their perceived wonder. However, the power of Home Alone comes from the confusion and comfort we take from the security and frustrations of our family. In a movie that not only sings with comic book humour but reflects the importance of belonging, place and forgiveness. Kevin’s journey of discovery is one of imagination, excitement and vulnerability as Hughes and Columbus take us back to being an imaginative yet insecure eight year old.
Director: Chris Columbus