'Home Alone' turns 25: A deep dive with director Chris Columbus
We revisit the merry mayhem of the 1990 Christmas classic.
You guys give up, or you thirsty for more?
It’s been 25 years since Kevin McCallister’s (Macaulay Culkin) family took a trip to Paris for the holidays and left him Home Alone. With the 1990 Christmas classic returning to select theaters this weekend for a limited release, we asked director Chris Columbus to mine his memories of making the movie (still one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time). Consider this our gift to you, you filthy animal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were in an interesting place in your career when the script for Home Alone came along. Can you set the scene?
CHRIS COLUMBUS: Well, I had just done a movie [Heartbreak Hotel] that did not do very well. Well, that’s an understatement. It was really a flop. I was sort of resigned to go back to writing and then John Hughes was kind enough to send me the script to Christmas Vacation, and I was about to do that. Things didn’t work out on Christmas Vacation, and then John sent me the script for Home Alone. He actually sent me two scripts that weekend: One was Home Alone and the other one was called Reach the Rock. I read both scripts and Home Alone just appealed to me immediately. I was laughing out loud when I read the script.
Beyond the humor, what about this story grabbed you?
I thought there was a really strong emotional context to the film. I’ve always been fascinated by Christmas, even back when I wrote Gremlins. I set Gremlins, which is a very dark story, against the bright cheery time of Christmas, and I thought it was a good contrast. Christmas is a time when people are at their happiest or at their most emotionally low place in their lives, and I thought that this is a great backdrop for a kid who’s left home alone on Christmas. I think what really completely convinced me I had to do the movie was the scene in the church with the old man and Kevin. I just thought that was a beautifully written scene, and that scene on film is exactly as John wrote it. I mean, we didn’t change a word of that scene.
Did you end up making script changes after signing on to direct?
Certain little things I would add here and there. If I recall, I don’t think there was a real payoff in the script [for the final scene], where Kevin sees the old man reunited with his family at the end of the movie. I remember adding that. I think most of the changes in the script came about on set when I was dealing with certain actors like John Candy, who loved to improvise. John took those scenes and ran with them. We’d do a couple scripted takes and then we would improvise about four or five other takes, and a lot of the improvisation ended up in the film. Whereas something like the church scene was like doing a play — we did it exactly as John had written it.
Can you give us a few examples of John Candy’s improvisation?
The first thing that comes to mind is in the van when he’s talking to Catherine O’Hara, and he’s talking about being left in the funeral home alone with the corpse all night. That just came out of nowhere. That was probably on hour 23 of shooting. We were all sort of punch drunk. That was a 24-hour shoot, if I remember correctly, because we only had John for one day, so we shot all his scenes in 24 hours, and it was toward the end of it and the crew was just bent over laughing. I think when he introduces himself to Catherine O’Hara at the airport talking about the music he’s created, some of his songs that were hit singles in the polka world, all those songs that he came up with were improvised.
We talk a lot about the importance of casting the right actors in roles, but you had the double responsibility of finding the perfect house.
John had written very specific physical humor for the end of the film. And it was extremely important that the house fit the gags of the movie. Particularly from a visual point of view and from a stunts point of view. We needed a house that would work for [when] Kevin fools the burglars into thinking he’s not home alone and he attaches a [cutout] of Michael Jordan to a toy train — the house needed to work in that respect, in terms of shadows. [Also] in terms of where the treehouse was located behind the house and how Harry and Marv would be fooled into climbing across the rope and then swinging into the house. The back of the house needed to work for that. So we needed to cast a house that would work for the stunts and also a house that was visually appealing and, if this makes sense, warm and menacing at the same time. It’s the kind of house if you were a kid it would be fun to be left home alone.
Do you remember how many homes in the Chicagoland area you looked at during the scouting process?
Well, we knew we were going to shoot in the North Shore, so we were in the Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Lake Forest area, so we basically drove around for several weeks until we found the right house. And then when we found the house, I took some pictures and sent them over to John, and I remember John saying, “This is perfect. This is exactly how I imagined the house.”
The thing that strikes me about the house is that it feels very lived-in in a lovely way. It’s not a Nancy Meyers home where everything sparkles. The set design was very detailed: How did you nail down the interior look?
I wanted it to feel timeless. I remember saying to my crew, “When this movie is on TV 20 years from now — now it’s been 25 years — I want it to feel fresh. I want it to feel like it was just made yesterday.”
You also needed access to some of the neighboring homes, right? And cooperation from the neighbors?
That house across the street, we just used the exterior and we built the basement of that house and the kitchen in a high school. We built the basement in the swimming pool because we were able to flood it. We had permission from most of the neighbors. People were extremely cooperative, but then I think they were starting to get a little annoyed with us because it was a low-budget movie, and we couldn’t afford to build the exterior of the house on a sound stage, so all of those stunts that happened outside of the house happened at night. We would be shooting from like 5:30 at night to 6 in the morning. I think that the lights and the actors shouting, and me yelling “Action!” probably got on a few peoples’ nerves.
Were the night shoots problematic considering you had a child star?
Yeah, that’s why the movie is not one of those films where we did a lot of shots in one take, because I had to film all of Mac’s coverage before 10 o’clock at night so I could send him home. And then I would film anything with Harry and Marv or any other adult that was working with them later on in the evening, with me playing Mac off camera. So I was Kevin McCallister from about 10 at night to 6 in the morning. [Laughs]
John Hughes had Macaulay Culkin in mind for the role of Kevin, but you auditioned tons of kids for the role.
John was such a respectful guy as far as the directors he worked with, and I remember him saying — based on Uncle Buck— [that] Macaulay would be great for this. But I think it’s just directorial responsibility [that] I should meet other kids. I met a lot of kids — hundreds and hundreds of kids, hundreds of casting tapes. And I think one of the final meetings — if not the final meeting — was with Macaulay. We read a couple of the scenes together, and I called John and said, “He’s amazing.” Because he’s a real kid. He doesn’t look like one of these Hollywood-perfect kids. His ear is bent a little bit. He had a great voice that was not annoying, it was just charming, and he was really funny.
I’m curious: Was screaming part of the audition process? Because Kevin screams a lot in the movie.
It’s interesting, some of that was improvised. The iconic scream — the expression on the poster with his hands on his cheeks — that was pretty much an accident. That was not written the way Macaulay performed it. I thought he was going to slap on the cologne and move his hands and scream. But on the first take, he slapped his face and kept his hands glued to his face as if he had just put superglue on his face, and his hands stayed completely still as he screamed like the Edvard Munch painting. That’s why he was such an interesting kid: No one else would have done that.
This had to be a fairly intensive shoot as far as the stunts were concerned. Was there a scene you were most worried about pulling off?
I think all of the stunts Every time the stunt guys did one of those stunts it wasn’t funny. We’d watch it, and I would just pray that the guys were alive. And then they would get up and they were absolutely fine, and then we would watch the playback on video and then we were relaxed enough to laugh. [Laughs] And then I knew it would work because some of them were hysterically funny after the fact. Even what seems simple, [like] the Joe Pesci character walking up the stairs of the front of the house and doing a back flip. I really thought Troy, our stunt man, had broken his back on that first take. As I said, until we knew those guys were alive and okay, none of that stuff was funny, so I was surprised once we put the film together how well it actually worked for an audience. The last 20 minutes of that movie, seeing it in a theater was unlike anything I had experienced as a filmmaker because people were just screaming with laughter. It was great.
You must have spent a lot of time testing all those booby traps.
An extraordinary amount of prep. You’re in a situation where truly people’s lives are on the line. There were significant stunt tests going on throughout shooting. We saved most of the stunts for the end of the shoot until we knew that we got them right. But again, you don’t know. Anything can go wrong on the night of shooting. The stunts were tested in the school gymnasium with a lot of pads and a lot of safety harnesses that we couldn’t put on the actors at the time because we just didn’t have the resources to erase them. Now when you shoot a sequence like that everyone would be harnessed. But there would be a lack of reality about the stunts in a weird way because the harnesses make people move differently. These guys just really did the stunts.
To a small degree, you actually filmed two movies: Home Alone and the movie-within-a-movie, Angels With Filthy Souls. Was that gangster sendup the first thing you shot since it weaved throughout Home Alone?
We shot it pretty early on in the schedule. In Home Alone 2 it was the very first day of shooting, Angels With Even Filthier Souls. It was probably the most difficult part of the shoot for me because it’s not easy to recreate the look and the feel and the sound of those movies. Thankfully, I’m obsessed with film, so I’d seen enough of them that it was kind of a painstaking task to get it right. And we had to find actors that felt like they lived in that particular time period, as well, which was an interesting thing. People kind of looked a little differently back then. I don’t know, maybe it was the camera, but we had to find actors that looked like they existed in the ’40s.
Given that that the film got mixed reviews from critics, what were your expectations for its performance at the box office?
Our expectations were very modest initially. The studio prediction was if we really have a big hit we’ll do $40 million at the box office. What was unique about the film is that it didn’t open, if I remember correctly, in 3,000 theaters. It opened in a smaller amount of theaters, so it created this story of momentum that people couldn’t get in to see the movie. It wasn’t like there was another show playing; a lot of people were turned away that first weekend. It also meant that the theaters were full, and when the theaters are full with a comedy, it’s a tremendous feeling because there’s much more of an excitement factor when theaters are full. So it created this kind of frenzy and then… word of mouth. People talked about how much they loved the movie, and they were going back to see it. And it ended up being No. 1 weekend after weekend after weekend. Which doesn’t happen anymore.
I think a lot of people probably forget it was also nominated for two Oscars for the score. Was it hard to get John Williams to sign on?
If you see an early poster for Home Alone, the credits read “Music by Bruce Broughton.” Bruce Broughton did the score for Young Sherlock Holmes, a movie I wrote, and I always wanted to work with him, so we hired him to do the score. But as we were getting closer to finishing the film we got a call from Bruce saying that he was under a deadline to finish his score for The Rescuers Down Under and he couldn’t do Home Alone. So we were left without a composer. I had known Steven Spielberg for years … Steven got me in touch with John Williams’ agent, and John agreed to screen the film and he fell in love with it. His score took the movie to a different level.
There’s an amazing conspiracy theory that Elvis made a cameo in Home Alone. Can you confirm or deny?
That’s so funny. I just talked to someone else about this. I even went so far as to go back — it’s all over the internet. You can actually look at the frames of the guy. I remember having conversations with that guy, and the movie I had just done prior to Home Alone was Heartbreak Hotel, which was about Elvis Presley! And I’m an Elvis Presley fanatic: If that were Elvis, I would have known.
Apropos of nothing really, can we talk about how the last act of the James Bond movie Skyfall is basically Home Alone?
You know what? You can say that I can’t. To be honest with you, my wife turned to me — we were watching Skyfall — she turned to me toward the end of the movie in that particular sequence and said, “This is Home Alone.” I said it’s a much more serious version of Home Alone.
Well, I’m just glad you’re aware.
That is so great that you mentioned that. You are the first person to mention that to me. I thought people must just be too afraid to talk about the fact that it’s similar. But it is.
What do you imagine a grown-up Kevin McCallister is up to today?
If we were ever going to do a reboot of the movie — which would probably not be a good idea — I think 33-year-old Kevin McCallister inherited the home from his parents, and he’s living there with his own precocious son, and Harry and Marv are sort of hanging out still seething with revenge. They want to get back into that house and they want to get Kevin’s kid. That’s sort of my little fantasy.