On August 8, 1989, my father, John Hughes, jotted down in a notebook a movie idea, born of traveler’s anxiety, that occurred to him during the bustle of departing for our first family trip to Europe, and set it aside. Two weeks later, after returning home, he revisited the premise: What if one of the kids had been accidentally left behind?
Over the next nine days, he completed the first draft of Home Alone, capped by an eight-hour, 44-page dash to the finale. Before finishing, he’d expressed concerns in the marginalia of his journal that he was working too slowly.
Chris Columbus, director
In 1989, I directed Heartbreak Hotel, and it was a disaster. It opened on a Friday, and by Wednesday it was only playing at two o’clock in the afternoon. Around that time, John Hughes sent me the script for Christmas Vacation. I love Christmas, so to do a Christmas comedy had been a dream. I went out to dinner with Chevy Chase [the movie’s star]. To be completely honest, Chevy treated me like dirt. But I stuck it out and even went as far as to shoot second unit [collecting establishing shots and special sequences, usually without principal actors]. Some of my shots of downtown Chicago are still in the movie. Then I had another meeting with Chevy, and it was worse. I called John [who was producing the film] and said, “There’s no way I can do this movie. I know I need to work, but I can’t do it with this guy.” John was very understanding. About two weeks later, I got two scripts at my in-laws’ house in River Forest. One was Home Alone, with a note from John asking if I wanted to direct. I thought, Wow, this guy is really supporting me when no one else in Hollywood was going to. John was my savior.
Raja Gosnell, editor
Chris sent me the script. I thought, Wow, a movie starring a kid onscreen basically alone for three-quarters of the movie. That’s bold. I was intrigued, and I loved the message that this kid believes he wished his family away, discovers his self-sufficiency, and then they come back. It had all the emotions that went with a holiday movie.
During preproduction, a budget dispute between the producers and the studio, Warner Bros., jeopardized the project. Consequently, Warner Bros. put Home Alone “in turnaround,” meaning the screenplay rights could be acquired by another studio or financier.
Mark Radcliffe, associate producer
I remember it was on a Friday when I heard Warners decided not to make it. We were about three weeks away from production. The question was, “Do we lay everyone off?” John said to just hold tight.
Joe Roth, chairman of 20th Century Fox (1989–93)
I was having lunch with Jack Rapke [Hughes’s and Columbus’s agent at the time], and he told me Home Alone was costing $14.7 million and Warners would only pay $14 million. I said, “What’s the idea?” He told me. I said, “OK, if you can get it out of there, I’ll make it.” Seemed like a no-brainer. Didn’t cost much. I didn’t have a Thanksgiving movie. I liked the idea. I loved the people involved.
The next thing, it was a Monday or Tuesday and we had a deal with Fox to move it over there.
Crucial to the film’s success was the casting of 9-year-old Macaulay Culkin. Hughes had directed him in Uncle Buck the previous year and was mindful of a particular sequence that clicked: Buck (John Candy) leaves a suburban house temporarily unattended, and Miles (Culkin) assumes guard duty, staking out the front door mail slot for potential intruders.
I think John knew all along that he wanted Macaulay in the movie. I thought he was great in Uncle Buck, but I owed it to myself as director to see other child actors. John said, “OK, take your time, do what you need to do.”
Janet Hirshenson, casting director
When this started, the question was, “Is there anyone better than Macaulay? Not likely, but let’s see.” So we did a search through New York, L.A., and Chicago. You couldn’t really have anybody over 8. It had to be a kid who believed in Santa Claus.
I ended up seeing 200 other kids, looked over hundreds of videotapes. Then Macaulay read, and you immediately knew this was the kid. I knew subconsciously that John knew that was going to happen, but it was really sweet of him to give me that sort of freedom.
With the lead role secured, attention shifted to casting the film’s villains, the two hapless and dimwitted home-invading burglars, the Wet Bandits.
Daniel Stern, played Marv Merchants
The script struck a chord in me. I hadn’t gotten a chance to express that kind of physical comedy since I was a kid. I thought, I can hit a fucking home run with this. I went to an audition for Chris. I wanted it so bad. When I left, I thought, I could do that better. It was the only time in my life I called and said, “Can I come back?” Chris told me later he was already gonna cast me, but he saw me audition again.
Joe Pesci’s name came up in one of many late-night meetings until five in the morning with John. We knew he could do comedy from Raging Bull. [Pesci played Joey LaMotta, who relies on his wits to manage his irascible brother, Jake.]
Roth was pleased with Pesci’s pairing with Stern, which he likened to the comic strip Mutt and Jeff—“a tall guy and a little guy.”
Everyone assumed we were thrown together for the first time on Home Alone, but we’d made each other giggle on the set in another movie years before that we were both cut out of: I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. We played people in a mental institution. Joe walked around all the time with this rolled-up tube of architectural drawings. That was his character. And during one of the takes, there’s a Ping-Pong table in the middle of the room, and Joe takes his tube of paper and puts it up to his nose and snorts the line of Ping-Pong balls. I fell on the floor laughing. I became his friend right then.
Most of the actors playing the McCallister kids hailed from the Chicago area, though some, including Culkin’s younger brother Kieran, were cast in New York and Los Angeles.
Home Alone was a learning experience, working with kids who were that young. I wanted to hire kids who felt real. They didn’t necessarily have to start out as great actors.
Catherine O’Hara, played Kate McCallister
We’d have a kid on SCTV [the Second City sketch comedy series on which O’Hara was a regular] every once in a while, but Home Alone was the first time I worked with the rules of child actors. I don’t mean that like I’m complaining, because those kids were so cool. We’d shoot a scene with one of the kids; then, as late as one in the morning, we’d shoot my close-ups. They’d have a tennis ball on a stand, the height of the kid’s head, and the script supervisor would read the children’s lines.
I’d been narrating and directing The Wonder Years, so I’d been working with child actors. I understood what it takes to get those performances, and that’s where I think Chris was absolutely brilliant with Mac, who had such angelic qualities. You’re not necessarily casting a kid for acting abilities; you’re going with their energy. It’s their aura and what they can project, and you’ve got to handcraft it. It takes time and patience and love.
In Chicago, we worked with the talent agencies, and we went to Second City. There was a whole community there. It was always so much fun to cast the small parts out of Chicago. My God, actors galore.
The guy who played Santa Claus, who I thought was a successor to John Belushi, was incredibly funny. He was from Second City, and I remember how hilarious his audition was.
Ken Hudson Campbell, played Santa
I drove out to New Trier. Chris Farley was already there; he was auditioning, too. It was 9 a.m. Apparently, he was out all night and had just been dropped off after a night of shenanigans, shall we say. Farley was kinda making catcalls to the girls who worked in the office. I was thinking, Oh, boy! The late, great Jay Leggett was also there. Chris went first. It didn’t go very well. He walked in and walked right out. I felt I went in and hit what I wanted to hit. A few weeks later, I got the call.
Filming began in February 1990, shooting throughout the North Shore and Chicago area.
Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office (1996–present)
Home Alone wasn’t set in suburbia anyplace—it was definitely tied to Chicago, and certainly tied to the Midwest. I think that’s part of what gave it its authentic charm. There was something about the freedom and ability for Home Alone—and other John Hughes movies prior— to work outside of studio oversight and maintain creative control. There was almost a conspiratorial excitement about that: We’re going to do it our way, without people looking over our shoulder.
We built sets on the stage at New Trier [West] High School, which at the time was closed. We were able to make a deal that allowed us to use it, originally, for offices, and then we basically ended up taking over the whole school. I remember in prep, during lunch, everyone would play roller hockey in the hallways.
It was a bit of Home Alone for us—we were in this huge abandoned building that we could have the run of.
Jacolyn Bucksbaum, location manager
I’d actually scouted the [McCallister] house for Uncle Buck, and John Hughes didn’t select it. It was in my file box. When I met with Chris and John and the production designer, John Muto, to discuss the house, they wanted something more Oak Park, River Forest–like: a house that was more frame, more Victorian, not quintessential John Hughes, which was a traditional brick house. I had a hard time getting my head around it. The whole neighborhood, not just the house, had to work with all the master shots and POVs and sidewalk views. After two weeks of looking, I said to Chris, “There was this one house I remember from Uncle Buck.” We pulled up to [the house at 671] Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka and got out of the van. In two seconds, Chris said, “This is it.”
Cynthia Abendshien, former owner of the Winnetka house
We were told shooting would be four or five weeks. They gave us an apartment. But [Bucksbaum] explained that, under the contract, if they needed to knock down a wall when we weren’t home, they could do it. So she told us it was best if we remained on the premises. First of all, it didn’t take four to five weeks. They were setting up the production and dismantling everything for five and a half months. In that time, we spent maybe three nights in the apartment.
John Abendshien, former owner of the Winnetka house
In that house, there’s a master bedroom suite with four rooms. Basically, we just moved into that. We put a hot plate up there to cook. We didn’t have to cook that much, because we had full access to the food truck that the crew used, which our daughter, who was six at the time, loved.
For the most part, all the [home] interiors were done at the high school, which was important, because we had so many gags that could never really be rigged in a real house.
We always talked about making the film feel warm and comforting. That made the stunts feel even more outrageous and severe and helped the comedy quite a bit. It’s almost like the contrast in a horror film, where you have wildly awful, spectacular things happening, but the sets and the people who inhabit the world are very real. That makes the terror real.
Julio Macat, cinematographer
We thought about every shot in terms of the point of view of the kid. Because of that, we used wider angles. The height of the camera was lower than you would normally have. Our ceilings were important, because we were looking up a lot. Because we thought that kids see everything in an amplified way, we made the lights in the house feel a little bit brighter. Everything was goosed up a notch. It’s kind of the reverse of when you go back to the house where you were raised and everything seems so small.
The house kinda looks like a Christmas present: the wallpaper and the wainscoting and the reds and the greens. All the practical lights and chandeliers are little jewels.
I’m of Italian descent. In my way of looking at things, movies can either feel British—colder and more like their weather, feeling blue—or there’s the Italian way. I spent a lot of time in Florence, and the warm tones of the place are reflective of Renaissance paintings. You have beautiful golden light in a lot of places you go. That feeling made sense, especially with it being a Christmas movie. When the family goes away, they go into this colder look. We purposefully designed the airport and the sets for Paris to be on the cool side to create that contrast of going against the warm feelings of home.
The really intense rehearsals were [staging] the scenes in the house. Those were terrifying for a young director, because we had 12 or more actors. We spent an entire Saturday rehearsing that. It was like directing a battle sequence, only you’re in a kitchen with kids. The timing had to be just right. Shooting at O’Hare was intimidating as well. We had to move fast. We only had two or three takes of the entire family running down the terminal. That was nail-biting.
Chris wanted to do snow dressing as part of the background of the movie. Budgetwise, we couldn’t really afford it. On the second day of shooting, we had a blizzard. From then on, we pretty much had to bring in snow machines after it started to melt and match it for the rest of the movie. I remember that whenever the snow melted, we were spraying ice, and then they had problems with ice. The next thing, they were literally laying bags of ice to try and create snow.
James Giovannetti Jr., second assistant director
We had refrigerated semitrucks of shaved ice coming to the set. There must’ve been about 15 guys dumping tons of ice in the yard every day. We may have even got water in the house, because when it started melting, it started seeping into the basement.
The morning when Catherine O’Hara pulls up and finally gets home, it was gorgeous, real snow. The biggest snowstorm in years, and it was Valentine’s Day. Mother Nature really helped us out with that one.
One memorable component of Home Alone is the movie within a movie, the mock-noir Angels with Filthy Souls that Kevin McCallister watches and later uses to foil the burglars. Its star, veteran Chicago actor Ralph Foody, who died in 1999 at 71, wields a machine gun and tells his victim, “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.” (The shooting script originally ended with a short scene, after the credits, in which Harry and Marv watch Angels on TV in prison, surrounded by other offenders. They exchange looks when they recognize the movie dialogue that duped them.)
Somehow we knew about this guy Ralph Foody. He read [for the part], and John and I thought he walked out of a 1939 movie. John wrote all that dialogue brilliantly, and it felt just like one of those movies. I didn’t shoot it traditionally; I shot it all in cuts so it felt like a real ’40s film. To this day, people are still fooled by Ralph’s performance. They think that’s an old movie. Those Chicago actors like Ralph were old pros. They reminded me of British actors.
Another standout performance is Roberts Blossom’s as Old Man Marley, the so-called South Bend Shovel Slayer, whose conversation with Kevin at church precedes the madcap finale. (Blossom died in 2011 at 87.)
He had the most amazing look, and he was a fabulous actor. They don’t usually come together. He had that face. I cry every time they do that church scene, still.
Shooting that church scene was a kind of weirdly spiritual moment. It was one of the few times on the movie when the actor made my job easier with Macaulay, because he was so gentle and worked so well with him. And Macaulay was really focused in that scene. And it was because of Roberts. He just commanded Macaulay’s attention. It was a magical moment.
John Candy also maximized his limited screen time. Portraying Gus Polinski, Polka King of the Midwest, he escorts a stranded Kate on the final leg of her circuitous journey home to reunite with Kevin. (Candy died in 1994 at 43.)
Candy came in for 24 hours. It was amazing that he had that kind of energy and enthusiasm on a movie that he probably did for scale, if he got paid anything. He did it as a favor to John. I was a little nervous and intimidated to meet him, because of the Chevy Chase experience.
Ken Hudson Campbell
I remember around Second City people saying, “You’re doing a John Candy movie? Are you in a scene with him?” And I’m like, “Nah, just a scene with a kid.” Then, of course, it wasn’t a John Candy movie at all—he just had a cameo.
We’d planned for a very long day for Candy. We built the airport set close to the interior truck set so we could bounce back and forth. Catherine meets him at the airport, and we went straight into the back of the truck, which made the shooting easy. We ran out of time. That’s why you never see a shot where Catherine and John part ways. The truck pulls up to the house in Winnetka and nobody ever gets out. We had no time.
I remember being on that stage. John Hughes was there, and I swear we worked for 21 hours straight, improvising. Candy would start a bit. John Hughes would start a bit, and Candy would pick up on it, and we would just go with it. It was all in the moment. We’d start a ridiculous conversation and go as far as we could. Chris told me later how we couldn’t use most of it. He laughed and said, “You’re supposed to be looking for your kid, and you’re just having a good time with these guys in a truck.”
It is the sequence before Kate’s return, however, that truly defines Home Alone. To defend his home from the burglars, Kevin sets a series of elaborate traps, each more punishing than the last.
The end of the movie seems incredibly complex, but it is, for the most part, a series of vignettes, each with a beginning, middle, and an end. There was the setup of the trap, here comes the victim, and then the trigger is pulled. It didn’t get complex in the sense of a car chase or battle scene, where you have five balls in the air at any given time. It was really a question of getting in and out and keeping Kevin involved so there wasn’t a sense that the house is just a machine. His little responses—“Yes!”—were sort of the most critical part. We didn’t have a lot of choices for the ending, particularly because you couldn’t put the stuntmen through one or two more of those takes.
Freddie Hice, stunt coordinator
In the script, the stunts were written, but they weren’t fully defined. There was a lot of room to invent and play with them. Chris and John allowed us to invent as we went along. The stunts we did on Home Alone, no one had ever done before.
Getting the stunts to feel real and violent was crucial, because John and I used to talk about how violent stunts were funny but the softer stunts weren’t. It was getting those gags that were more dangerous and making absolutely sure the stuntmen weren’t getting hurt. Literally, three or four times while shooting Home Alone and Home Alone 2, I thought those guys were dead. There was no CGI [computer-generated imagery]. It was kind of terrifying to watch. Only after they got up and came to the monitor to watch playback did we actually laugh.
In the old days, if someone fell or slipped on marbles or whatever was in the script, guys would just kind of fall down. We wanted to up the ante and make these guys literally look like they were hitting a patch of black ice—feet up over your head, flat on your back. It changed the way people did pratfalls in the movie business. Every comedy for the next 15 years, everybody would call for an interview and say, “We want that Home Alone fall.”
Integral to the stunt work was Troy Brown, a former professional bull rider who doubled for Pesci. “Troy is one of a kind,” says Hice. “If I had 10 of him, every movie I made, I wouldn’t ever need another guy.” But initially, Hice was concerned that Brown was too tall and too heavy for the part.
When Home Alone came around, there weren’t any stunt guys available who were the size of Joe Pesci. Everyone was gone making Days of Thunder. Remember that Tom Cruise deal? So I called my wife and asked her to go to my friend’s house where Troy was staying. I said to take a tape measure and the bathroom scale and get his height and weight and call me back. And I said not to ask him, because all stuntmen lie about their height and weight. Sure as shit, he’s a little too tall, little too heavy. But when we got to Chicago, I asked the costume department to make his coat a little bit longer so Troy can bend his knees. After Troy had done a couple huge falls, Chris Columbus walked over and goes, “OK, Troy. You can stand up now.” We thought we were so clever about it, but Chris had never bought into it.
Doubling for Stern was Leon Delaney, a veteran of the action films Predator and Total Recall, whom Hice was relieved bore a strong resemblance to Stern.
I get to the icy steps and pretend to slip, and Leon comes in and does it. We cut and move on to the next shot, and I’m like, “Fuck, dude. You just did that four times!” It wasn’t funny to watch. Well, it was sorta funny. I’d walk away with a feeling of absolute gratefulness and awe. The stuntmen were the unsung heroes of the show. Whenever people tell me moments they like, I say, “Oh, that was Leon.”
If you’re gonna go down steps, you’ll break your back. In a kind of half-ass rehearsal the day before, Leon just couldn’t get down the steps very good. We wanted a cartoonish-looking wreck, and it wasn’t fast enough. John Mikels was John Hughes’s favorite standby painter. We took a piece of plywood and laid it down those steps, and Mikels painted the stairs onto the plywood. With the definition, it looked like stairs, which allowed Leon to throw his legs up and hit on his back and fly out of the frame. Nobody knows that. It’s just one of those weird Hollywood tricks.
Michael Wilhoit, supervising sound editor
All the pratfalls were unique. We took a frozen roast beef and hit it against the ground to get the sound of a body hitting the ground. We’d put a soldering iron onto chicken skin to make the flesh bubble and sizzle. Everything was handmade. We wanted the sound to be realistic but also have some humor in it. We played the sound effects big and bold, as if they were part of the score.
Those things got really funny when we got the actors on the ADR stage [to overdub additional dialogue]. Because it was stunt guys taking the falls, there weren’t yells or reactions. One of my favorite moments is when Kevin puts the tarantula on Danny Stern’s face. He couldn’t actually physically scream when there was a tarantula on his face—he didn’t want to freak it out. He was just pantomiming. I remember this very clearly on the ADR stage: Danny turns to me and says, “You want me to scream like a girl?”
One of the enduring legacies of Home Alone is the Oscar-nominated score by the legendary John Williams, composer for Jaws, E.T., and Star Wars.
We didn’t expect to get him. Even the teaser poster [for the movie] had Bruce Broughton’s name on it, who scored Young Sherlock Holmes, which I wrote in 1984. Someone at my agency got a finished print to John Williams. He looked at the film and fell in love with it. John called me and said he’d love to do the score. I was shooting Only the Lonely in Chicago, so I couldn’t go to the scoring. We got cassettes mailed to us. I remember breaking for lunch and sitting eating lunch with the crew and playing the Home Alone score for the first time on a boom box. It was one of the great moments of my life. I thought, This score is going to be in our film? It was fantastic. It elevated everything.
The movie went from an 8 to a 28 when John Williams got involved. We had a little movie starring kids that worked. When John Williams got involved, it became a classic.
At that time, there were no computers. It was all 35 mm magnetic film. It was very old school, and yet it was a cutting-edge mix. Oftentimes, composers would play over action. John Williams and I decided he would lead the music up to the critical moment of the sound and then the sound effect would be the payoff. If the music had run all the way through, it would have been more cartoonish.
While collaborating on the mix in Los Angeles, Wilhoit and Gosnell were convinced the film had blockbuster potential. The next step was to screen it for a test audience back in Illinois.
When we previewed the movie for the first time in Chicago, it was amazing. You’re in a situation where the audience was literally running from their seats to go to the bathroom or to get popcorn, and they were running back to their seats. It was like a rock concert. John [Hughes] and I kept looking at each other. That’s when we knew we had something special.
Soon after, I went up to visit George Lucas because Fox was trying to reclaim the Star Wars [prequels]. While I was visiting with him, he said, “You know you’ve got a big hit coming? The one about the kid.” When I asked how he knew, he said he’d seen the trailer in the theater. He told me, “The movie business is binary. The light is either on or it’s off. If it’s on, there’s nothing you can do to screw it up. If it’s off, there’s nothing you can do to turn it on.” The light was on.
We were thrilled that Fox really backed the movie and got us a Thanksgiving release date, which was perfect for this. We were all worried about Rocky V, but the movie played all the way through the holidays and had a record number of No. 1 weekends. [Twelve weeks in total. The film took in $286 million at the U.S. box office.]
Today, if a movie is No. 1 for two weeks in a row, they give you a plaque. Tom Sherak [then the head of distribution at Fox] and I would meet in his office on Friday nights and stay up late, watching the grosses come in. In all the 42 years I’ve been doing this, there was never a higher time than that four-month run.
I’d been in the movies for over a decade, and I’d never been involved in a picture where anyone gave a shit about how much money it made. I’m shooting City Slickers when Home Alone comes out, and every day Billy Crystal would come walking in with a Hollywood Reporter and say, “Hey, your movie is No. 1.” “Oh, cool,” I’d say. Then every week he’d keep coming back in, like he was tracking the phenomenon. Billy is the one who kept saying, “What the fuck is going on with this movie? Twelve weeks?!” I’d say, “Is that normal?”
A hit of that magnitude, it seemed to go beyond celebrating the film. It gave everybody this validation and legitimacy, which is not always easy within the Chicago film industry, where there is a sense of transience or a sense that the real headquarters was elsewhere. Even for people who saw the film, not just those who made it, Home Alone gave them a sense that we’d been valued to a greater extent. It didn’t seem postcard, backdrop, just another Hollywood take on life in the Midwest. I think that’s what blew people away by the success. It gave them a sense of, “Wow, we’re a part of that.”
I have family in Torino, Italy. They loved it. I also have family in Argentina. In Italian, the movie is called Mom, I Lost the Plane. In Argentina, it’s Oh, the Poor Angel. Being foreign, I can tell you: Home Alone has an international theme. Other countries, especially poorer countries with less means, have to be more resourceful. So seeing a little kid who is resourceful and can protect his home resonated with everybody, especially kids who have nothing, who put together a toy from sticks and stones. I think that’s why everybody responded to it, because the theme is empowering kids.
A steady stream of visitors [to the house in Winnetka] started during filming. Then, after the movie came out, it accelerated.
One day, we looked outside and there was an Asian man in a suit with a chauffeur taking his picture on the steps. We chatted him up a bit. I asked, out of curiosity, if he had a card to give me. He was chairman of the Bank of Tokyo. He explained that he’d been in Chicago on business and he had just a little time and this was his adventure for the day.
Soon after that gentleman’s visit, the ambassador of Japan called ahead to ask to take pictures. When he came, I was just blown away. Ahead of him, several limousines stopped and geishas got out and lined up on the sidewalk to have their picture in front of the Home Alone house as well.
Anywhere I go, I’m the Home Alone dude. In 2003, I went to visit troops in Iraq. I was at a base camp, and they wanted to take me into Baghdad, to a jewelry store that they’d secured. They said I could buy earrings for my wife. I was like, “What? All right.” So we go in these cars into Baghdad, and as I’m walking into the jewelry store, we get surrounded by kids going, “Marv! Marv!” Like 16 Iraqi kids in the middle of a war zone in Baghdad still recognized me from Home Alone. That movie is everywhere.