Home Alone: A Movie That Wasn’t Supposed To Be A Hit

Home Alone wasn’t supposed to be a hit! Turns out, its production budget was a disaster, the previous projects of the movie crew had all failed and they had almost no proper experience. 23-hour long shifts made the cast furious and promising star Robert De Niro turned down his role. 

So, how did a movie that was supposed to become nothing but failure become an international Christmas hit? We’re going to reveal the most surprising secrets behind the making of Home Alone!

A tiny budget

$476 million! That is the final gross revenue, which means that Home Alone went down in history and was listed in the Guinness World Records as the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever. But almost nobody saw it coming during the production of the movie. In fact, the crew had to count every single penny and at one point the project was completely shut down. Here’s the story.

Home Alone was originally a Warner Brothers movie but the company couldn’t really see the promise of a film with no superstar in front of the camera. Plus, they’d barely heard of the director Chris Columbus, and what they had heard about his previous flop films wasn’t good.

But Warner Brothers did like John Hughes’ story so much that they were willing to give him $10 million to make his hastily written script a reality. To give you some perspective: other late 80’s movies got much more financial support... Big was bankrolled for $18 million, Tim Burton’s Batman $35 million and Back to the Future 2 got $40 million!

So by giving this early 90’s flick a mere $10 million, Warner Brothers was making it clear that they expected Home Alone to be just another low-budget family movie, made with minimal resources and visual effects.

The crew tried hard to work with what they had but midway through production expenses ballooned to more than $14.7 million. The crew never made a big deal out of it, as this sort of inflation wasn’t exactly unheard of and they thought that Warner Brothers would quite naturally understand as all the money was spent solely on the project itself.

But it wasn’t that simple... When the production company gave them a warning, the crew explained that there were no further cuts left to make without canceling the project. So that’s exactly what Warner Brother did, and simply shut down the entire movie! It was nearly a complete disaster! But just when the crying cast started packing up their stuff, this devastating blow was very quickly followed by some quite promising news.

Apparently, a few days before the horrible announcement, scriptwriter and producer John Hughes had secretly met with a creative executive from 20th Century Fox! The exec was intrigued and promised his support if Warner pulled the plug.

This shady backroom deal meant that Home Alone got the chance to start over the instant Warner withdrew support, and this time with a whole $18 million guaranteeing an at least halfway decent movie!

The “human factor”

You might think that this was a “problem solved”! But when the financial issues are only half the story, this time it was the “human factor” that got in the way. First of all, the Home Alone crew didn’t really know exactly what they were doing. They were all great people but they had minimal experience at working on a project of this size.

The only one with a strong name and reputation was scriptwriter and producer John Hughes. Director Chris Columbus had previously worked on wonderful projects before like Gremlins and The Goonies! Great! However, his role had been to write the scripts and his most recent directorial work was for a movie Heartbreak Hotel. Ever heard of it? Of course not, the studio buried it because it was complete. and epic. Failure.

So the young director really wasn’t really considered the best pick for the job on Home Alone. It’s funny to think of Columbus this way, as an untried and unsure upstart, as today we know him as the genius director of Mrs. Doubtfire and two the most heart-warming installments in the Harry Potter saga. But back then? He was very inexperienced and a virtual unknown.

So who else was on the crew? How about the director’s right-hand man - the cinematographer. Who was he? Julio Macat. And according to his profile, at the time he’d had only one previous job... and that was... an erotic comedy horror film called Out of Dark. He went from that to filming a kid for a family movie! Talk about a tonal shift!

And that’s not all. The editor, a fella who can make magic out of even the most sloppy of takes and unfinished of films - who was he? Raja Gosnell. Alright, what was he known for? Again, it was a list of rather unknown films but that’s ok, everyone has to start somewhere. What was his biggest production to date? Wait, what? Heartbreak Hotel? Again?!

Anyhow, these not-so-professional professionals somehow managed to turn their flaws into strengths. Chris Columbus’ lack of experience made him super attentive to the cast, and so his chemistry with Culkin became absolutely magical and that resulted in some perfect scenes.

Cinematographer Julio Macat was so afraid to mess up that he took a small bonus camera with him on every scene to cover the wide shots in case he ruined the planned ones. And eventually, the material from the bonus cam gave the movie some of it’s best shots, giving the movie it’s own distinct visual style.

Pursuing the genius composer

And then there’s the editor. He made a lot of versions and revisions of every scene in which he and the director went over together… but there was still something missing.

Wikimedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license/Alec McNay

Wikimedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license/Alec McNay

Columbus wasn’t very impressed by the way the musical arrangement with the existing edited scenes. So once, during a crew meeting, he jokingly said that only John Williams, the world’s greatest movie composer, could save the situation.

Everybody cracked up, John Williams was way out of the movie's minuscule budget. But Columbus was so desperate that he sent Williams the script, on the off-chance he’d be interested, and could only offer a pittance. To everyone's great surprise, Williams fell in love with the story and he agreed to come on board! And that’s how Home Alone got infused with William’s magical Christmas mood music.

Joe Pesci’s story

Though there were still plenty of problems left to deal with, the idea was that if the production team wasn’t the strongest, the cast could salvage the situation. But the film's main actor was a 10-year-old kid after all, who was only known for his previous role in Uncle Buck, a Disney film written and directed by John Hughes himself. It was too risky to depend on his prepubescent star power alone, and so the creators of Home Alone wanted to find a star that would attract an audience.

Robert De Niro was seen as the perfect choice for the lead Wet Bandit Harry Lime. But in the end the actor refused the offer. So Joe Pesci was offered as a lower-budget alternative. And Joe Pesci brought his own set of problems. For starters - he hated the dialogue. Whenever Pesci got the chance, he argued about how silly his lines were. But the truth was, his improvements weren’t exactly... appropriate. The real problem was that Pesci cursed. Like, a lot.

You see, the actor had previously worked on projects like Casino, Goodfellas, and Lethal Weapon 2, so the only way he could get through his dialogue was by saying some nasty words. And he obviously couldn't do that in a family movie, so it’s safe to say that he struggled a bit… However, Pesci found a solution! He came up with a gibberish-style swearing language of his very own for the character.

And it became iconic and emblematic of the leader of the Wet Bandits. Worse, though, was that Macaulay Culkin found Pesci really scary. And not just during filming. One time, when Harry had to hang Kevin up on a coat hook, he threatens the kid by saying “I’m gonna bite all your fingers off” and during one of the rehearsals, he bit him enough to break the skin!

There was just one star on the set…

John Hughes wasn't at all satisfied with his not-so-star studded cast and, as a producer, he decided to find someone super popular willing to work for a pretty minuscule paycheck. Thank heavens, that Hughes was great friends with John Candy whom he and Mac had previously worked with on Uncle Buck. Hughes asked Candy to join the project mostly as a personal favor, paying him only $414. Even the pizza delivery guy was paid more than that!

John Candy was a kind of a star and had no free time, even for highly paid projects. He obviously didn't want to spend his precious working hours on something so small. Nevertheless, he gave up the last free day in his schedule for Hughes... But Candy had no idea what he was signing up for.

John Hughes really took advantage of that one day by making John Candy work 23 hours straight to film everything he wanted. It was a horrible experience. That scene you probably adore, where John Candy and Katherine O’Hara are talking about family in the truck - was shot at 4.30 in the morning! The only way John Candy could find to fight back against Hughes’ cruel schedule was improvisation.

As you may or may not know, John Hughes hates it when somebody improvises with his script or makes even slight changes to it. And John Candy was the only one who he let do whatever he wanted. So during the scene in the airport, where Gus Polinski is talking about his band and the hits like "polka, polka, polka": that’s all pure, unadulterated Candy. At the time of filming, he was basically the movie’s biggest star. Other actors had agreed to smaller salaries and sometimes, to save some money, Columbus asked family and friends to help him out.

The casting problems

Chris practically used everyone he knew! His mother-in-law is a passenger holding his daughter Eleanor on the plane, for example. Meanwhile, his wife Monica is a stewardess on the very same flight. And his father-in-law played the police officer who delivers the hilarious line "tell them to count their kids again."

And there’s one unflattering scene we can see Columbus' son… but he isn’t actually playing a boy. You probably remember that scene where Kevin finds a picture of Buzz's ugly girlfriend. Nobody wanted to ask a girl to pose like that for a horrible picture, which is why Chris's son stepped up to help by dressing up as a girl. And it wasn’t only Columbus who brought his family members on board.

Remember Kevin’s cousin Fuller who drank too much Pepsi before going to bed? That’s actually Kieran Culkin, younger brother of Macaulay, who became quite a well-known actor in his own right in two of my favorite films. He later played the lead role in Igby Goes Down and was the uber-cool Wallace Wells in the hit cult film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Not bad!

Before the CGI-era

With the casting problems were more or less solved, the Home Alone team got stuck in with the visual effects. This was a low-budget film made in the pre-CGI era, after all. That means all those stunts and memorable funny moments were all made (and suffered) by real people.

And since there was no CGI, they had to go to some painstaking lengths to create some of those shots. Like in this scene with David Stern: when Kevin fires a BB at Marv’s face, the bullet was actually hand-painted into every frame!

But that spider on Marv’s face was absolute, 100% real. Stern let the director put a real tarantula on his face... but only for a single shot. David had to keep really quiet and not move so that the spider wouldn’t get scared and run away… or worse yet, bite him!

But like in most films, the lion’s share of the pain was borne by the stuntmen. When Harry and Marv are falling while trying to go up the stairs - that was all real! In fact, it was so dangerous and rough that after Columbus called "action", the director had to turn his face away and wait until the scene was done before he could bear to ask whether the stuntman was still ok. 

But according to interviews with the stuntmen of Home Alone, they all loved to perform those crazy set-pieces. Sometimes, you can actually spot them in the shots: especially this 30-year-old stuntman who had to portray the 10-year-old Kevin! Keep your eyes on Kevin next time he falls down from the shelves in Buzz's room or slides down a rope in his treehouse.

Thanks to the dedicated work of all the cast and the crew, Home Alone topped the box office with $17 million in its opening weekend, and held on to its number one spot for a full 12 weeks! 

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