It’s a Christmas staple, a kids classic, made £300 million at the worldwide box office and spawned four sequels. Not to mention it was the movie that made Macaulay Culkin, as Kevin McAllister, a child megastar.
Twenty-something years on, with the festive season almost upon us, we spoke to three people who were a key part in the 1990 original - cinematographer Julio Macat, editor Raja Gosnell and actress Senta Moses, who played Kevin’s cousin Tracy - about how it became such a smash hit.
‘Home Alone’ writer John Hughes had worked with Macaulay Culkin before on the 1989 comedy 'Uncle Buck’, which he also directed. One of the most famous bits of that film features Mac and co-star John Candy facing off in the kitchen.
“The rumour was the reason 'Home Alone’ came about was because of the interrogation scene in 'Uncle Buck’ between John Candy and Macaulay Culkin (see below),” says Senta Moses. “It stemmed from that - a child way beyond his years and up to no good."
The genius of John Hughes
Once he got an idea, Hughes was famous for writing his screenplays very quickly. 'Weird Science’ was penned over the course of a weekend and 'Home Alone’ was no different, with some saying it also took just two days to complete. For the actors on 'Home Alone’, working with the seminal filmmaker was a crucial part of the allure.
“John Hughes was such a part of my childhood, not just because of 'Home Alone’ but because of 'Sixteen Candles’ and 'The Breakfast Club’,” says Moses. “He was very sweet, but I was a bit starstruck, I just wanted to sit by him.”
A hungry team
With the film greenlit, the studio started to hire a production team. Julio Macat was a respected camera operator who was looking to make the step up to cinematographer.
“Because of the work I did on 'Tango & Cash’ that impressed 20th Century Fox, they gave me the opportunity to work on a little kids movie with [director] Chris Columbus, who was also starting out.” says Macat. “It was his second movie. 'Home Alone’ was the first feature I photographed.”
More recently known for launching the 'Harry Potter’ cinematic universe, Columbus was up to that point primarily a writer, responsible for penning classics like 'Gremlins’ and 'The Goonies’. But the subversive sensibility that made those movies such big hits made him the perfect choice to take on 'Home Alone’ and give it a special twist.
A child-friendly set
With Culkin and the rest of the crew on board, the production headed to Hughes’ favoured location - the suburbs of Chicago, specifically Winnetka, Illinois. Joining the cast were Catherine O'Hara as Kevin’s mother and John Heard as his dad, as well as Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the two burglars who try to break into the McCallister’s home.
“We filmed in a high school which was temporarily shut down,” remembers Raja Gosnell. “We’d pull up to work every day and they’d have sets built inside the gymnasium. Our cutting rooms were down in the band rooms and they had make-up and wardrobe set up in some other classroom. My assistant and I would shoot hoops in the other gymnasium. We had the run of this place. You couldn’t help but be a kid when you walked in there. It was like sneaking into your high school.”
Making Macaulay Happy
The filmmakers thought long and hard about how to make Kevin’s world feel authentic.
“We really liked 'A Christmas Story’ (see above) because it brought you into the world of that little boy,” says Macat. “We spent a lot of time talking about the perception of a child and where to put the camera so everything felt magnified and bigger than life.”
It was a frenetic set - packed full of the kids playing Kevin’s brothers, sisters and cousins. And despite being the star, Mac didn’t act like it.
“Macaulay and [his brother] Kieran were in there with us - it wasn’t like he was being rushed off to his trailer or anything like that,” says Moses.
Gosnell agrees. “I’d see him in the halls and he’d be running around,”
"He used to sit on my lap on the dolly and we used to joke around,” adds Macat. “Mac was fearless. He was a kid with a great personality, he was very outgoing. In spite of the fact that I know he was somewhat troubled with his family - his father was a tough character - I think [filming] was his escape. He did everything Chris told him. I felt like the set was his home away from home.
“A lot of his performance was repetition - Chris would say it and he would say, 'Macaulay, say it just like this’”. A lot of it was pieced together. It was rare that he didn’t have any energy. There was only one time, when we were shooting the stuff at the church with the old man, where Macaulay was falling asleep because it was about 11 o'clock at night. He was really worn out and you can kind of see it in his eyes.“
One of the main reasons for the movie’s success was its spectacular set pieces - the booby traps Kevin sets to foil the bad guys.
"We had really good drawings that Chris Columbus did of what he was imagining [in the stunt sequences],” says Macat.
“It was such a cartoon,” adds Gosnell. “You just had to laugh. I’m sure somebody on the internet somewhere has figured out how many bones would have been broken in real life.
In an attempt to make the action as in-your-face and funny as possible, Macat and Columbus set up what they called Bonus Cam - a small camera designed to get close to the actors while other shots captured the whole scene.
Bonus Cam and the 'Home Alone Fall’
"We started to notice Bonus Cam had the most fun angles,” says the cinematographer. “We started doing things like putting it on a cable and throwing it down a chute, to get the point of view of an iron, or putting it inside a trash can. Pretty soon Bonus Cam became the hero of the show.
“To this day, when somebody’s going to do a big pratfall stunt, they call it the 'Home Alone shot’. When you take a big fall and get air, a bunch of stunt guys I’ve worked with since call it the 'Home Alone fall’.”
Joe Pesci’s swearing
For actor Joe Pesci, it wasn’t doing the actual stunts he found the hardest.
“Pesci had a really difficult time not swearing,” smiles Macat. “A lot of the time when he was reacting to all the stuff, he wanted to say, 'You mother******!’ I think for a joke he did that once or twice, but he had to watch it because of the young kids.”
Amazing audience reaction
'Home Alone’ was scheduled for release in America on 16 November 1990. Before that, the filmmakers tested it before a preview audience in Chicago. At that point, only Gosnell as the editor, director Columbus and John Hughes had seen the finished cut.
“The first screening is always terrifying and that never changes,” says Gosnell. “We came back to screen it in Chicago and you suddenly walk into a room where there’s 500 people in there and two rows worth of executives who are worried about their jobs. The lights go down and you have no idea: it’s been you and two other people.
“The movie just worked from the beginning. People were laughing and Chris and I were looking at each other with our mouths agape going, 'I can’t believe that worked!?’ We both walked out of that screening walking on air.”
None of the people involved quite realised what its impact would be. The film opened at number one at the box office and would end up being nominated for two Oscars: for John Williams’ score and Best Original Song.
“I don’t think I had any idea what the movie was going to turn into,” admits Senta Moses. “I wish I would have known. My hair is still tragic, not matter how many times I see it.”
Culkin returned for number two subtitled 'Lost In New York’ two years later, but was replaced by Alex D. Linz for the last theatrical sequel in 1997, which Gosnell directed (there are two more follow-ups which bypassed cinemas and went straight to cable).
“I thought the sequel with Macaulay was fun,” says Macat, who worked on both 2 and 3. “But the sequel without Macaulay, even though all the parts were sort of similar and the gags were kind of similar, it goes to show you that without the chemistry of Macaulay the thing doesn’t work. You needed his humour. There was a quality about him that was mysterious that made the movie.”
A Christmas classic
The original film has since gone on to became synonymous with the Christmas television schedules. “For me it’s special because I feel like I was part of the Hughes world,” says Moses, who has since appeared in 'NCIS’ and 'The Mentalist’. “I haven’t actually seen the movie that many times. But I love the fact it’s become part of the Christmas tradition.”
“What’s so great about the movie is you really felt the world from his point of view,” adds Gosnell, who has become a recognised director of movies like 'The Smurfs’. "But no-one sat there and predicted it would do what it did.”
As for Macaulay Culkin, after 'Home Alone’, the actor dated Mila Kunis, befriended Michael Jackson and was arrested carrying drugs.
"I ran into [Culkin] when he did a movie called 'Saved’,” reveals Macat. “We talked for a while. He grew up to be kind of reserved. We laughed, like, 'wasn’t that a fun time at camp?’”
The cinematographer admits 'Home Alone’ is his favourite film that he’s been a part of, despite work on 'The Wedding Crashers’ and 'Pitch Perfect’. And even more than 20 years later, he’s still trying to emulate it.
“I’m doing this movie called 'Daddy’s Home’ (with Mark Wahlberg), it’s sort of centred round little kids again,” he says. “I keep on going back to what we did right on 'Home Alone’.
This article was first published in December, 2015.
Photos: 20th Century Fox/Everett/Moviestore/Rex/Kadzen/CBS/Carolyn Contino/BEI