- November marks the 30th anniversary of “Home Alone,” and Insider spoke with director Chris Columbus in celebration of this timeless Christmas classic.
- Columbus revealed behind-the-scenes stories, like how his inability to work with Chevy Chase on “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” led him to direct “Home Alone.”
- He also shared the reason people think the black-and-white movie Kevin watches in the film is real, and explained that John Candy was bitter because he felt he didn’t get paid enough for his cameo.
- In the “Home Alone” sequel, Columbus also detailed how Donald Trump forced his way into the film, which he pondered leaving on the cutting-room floor.
- The director, also known for helming “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” explained why he feels Disney Plus’ planned remake of “Home Alone” is a “waste of time.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
There are some moments from movies that will forever be seared in our minds, and one of them is an 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin putting his hands to his cheeks and screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s also one of many reasons why “Home Alone” is now a timeless classic.
Released in November 1990, the movie’s mixture of slapstick comedy and heartwarming holiday themes made it the highest-grossing domestic comedy of all time. In it Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, who protects his house using creative traps to ward off burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) after he is mistakenly left at home while his family’s in Paris.
It benefited from acting pros such as Pesci and Stern, a moving score by John Williams, a hilarious cameo from John Candy, a script written by John Hughes, and direction from Chris Columbus, who at that point in his career had already crafted the stories for “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.”
Insider had a wide-ranging conversation with Columbus in time for the movie’s 30th anniversary. He spoke about never-before-told moments from filming, shed light on why Candy was bitter years after its release, whether Kevin’s bratty antics would be too much for today’s audience, and why he thinks the planned Disney Plus remake of the movie is “a waste of time.”
Chris Columbus did ‘Home Alone’ because he refused to work with Chevy Chase on ‘Nation Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’
Insider: The start for you on the “Home Alone” project is an interesting one. You left another John Hughes-produced holiday movie, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” to take it on. Do you ever think about how that turn of fortune shaped your career?
Chris Columbus: Paul Newman once told me making a living in this business is a combination of luck and talent, and I really took that to heart. If you look back at that situation with “Christmas,” it was fraught with pain and tension with Chevy Chase, but I needed the job desperately. I had just come off a film that performed horribly, critically and commercially (“Heartbreak Hotel“), and I thought maybe I would never direct again. So it took everything in my power to convince myself to resign from “Christmas Vacation” because I couldn’t make the movie with Chevy Chase.
So I throw away this tremendous opportunity that John Hughes gave me. He believed in me. But then two weeks later he sends me two scripts, and I thankfully chose “Home Alone.” The rest is history, but that is luck. A producer can lose faith in their director if he says, “I can’t handle this guy.” That can show fear. But John didn’t waver. He might have thought, I hope, that it was a bold move on my part because I had everything to lose. At the time I was living with my wife’s parents.
When you signed on to “Home Alone” what was the biggest thing you brought to the story at the script stage?
All the humour in “Home Alone,” the slapstick humour, was written specifically by John. He was very specific about it on the written page. I sort of leaned into the emotional element a little bit.
I think probably the biggest thing I brought was Old Man Marley, in the church. Not the conversation, but I added the moment when Marley talked about not being able to see his granddaughter. I also added the very end of the movie when Kevin sees that Marley is reunited with his granddaughter. That is probably my proudest addition to the movie.
Joe Pesci still gets asked about ‘Home Alone’ to this day, according to Martin Scorsese
You guys went to Robert De Niro for the role of Harry. Did he ever seriously consider taking the role?
No, I don’t think so. It was talked about a little internally, but when Pesci said yes, I was stunned. And then Daniel Stern was too expensive for the studio, so we had another actor come in for the role of Marv. But when we did a screen test there was no chemistry between them. So I went back to the studio hat in hand, begging them to give us the money to hire Daniel Stern. And it was the right decision. They had tremendous chemistry.
And I knew Pesci was funny. He’s really hilarious in a weird dark way in “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas,” but he definitely has comedic chops, and that surprised me. I ran into Marty Scorsese after he had done “The Irishman” and he told me, “We’re out in the streets shooting and all anyone wanted to talk to Joe about was ‘Home Alone.'” Quite a compliment from the guy who directed Joe’s best work. I find it hilarious that people are still coming up to Joe Pesci and they want to talk about him in “Home Alone.”
Macaulay Culkin improvised the screaming face moment, and John Candy improvised his entire cameo
The legend is that Macaulay improvised the now iconic moment when he puts cologne in his hands
and applies it on his face. Then he screams.
When did you know that moment would work on-screen?
Kind of on set, because he wasn’t supposed to do that. If you put something on your face that burns, most people move their hands right away. So my direction to him was when you pat your face, move your hands and scream. And I think it was the first take, he kept his hands on his cheeks. We all started laughing hysterically.
We did it a couple more times with his hands off his face, but my editor, Raja Gosnell, he cut that take into the first cut that I saw and it was in there forever. It’s funny, the iconic moment from “Home Alone” was an accident.
But it’s also just an iconic movie moment in general. Are you surprised by that?
It’s ridiculous. Sometimes what happens in comedy is a ridiculous choice by an actor works. I saw that a thousand times with Robin Williams. Those are the things that end up in the movie and remain with people for years and years and years.
I mean, John Candy in the movie is a perfect example. He was on the movie for only one day, but it resulted in so much great improvisation. None of that stuff was in the script. The funeral-parlor story, that was all improvised at 4:30 in the morning. We could barely keep a straight face on set just listening to John.
John Candy felt he wasn’t compensated enough for his work on ‘Home Alone’
I believe John took a pretty low paycheck to do the cameo. Was he ever mad he didn’t ask for more once the movie came out and was huge?
There was certainly a little resentment on John’s part. It was a deal between him and John Hughes at the time. I never met John Candy before he came on the movie. I don’t know if John ever got any kind of compensation from Fox. We did a movie together after that, “Only the Lonely,” and there were a couple times on set when he would make a cutting remark about Fox and what he was paid.
Looking back, are there any scenes that still bug you? Is there a scene you feel that you could have done better?
It’s been 30 years so any of that I kind of stopped thinking about five to 10 years after it came out. But because we didn’t have CGI back then, there were challenges. I remember the BB gunshot â€” when Kevin fires the gun at Mav when he pokes his head through the dog door â€” the way we got that effect, and this is a true story, we paid a guy living in his mother’s basement in Chicago $US600 to hand paint that BB going into Marv’s head. So that was an animated effect. A guy with a paintbrush in a basement for six frames hand-painted a BB. This was an $US18 million film, so, for our budget, I’m pretty happy how it turned out.
Columbus doesn’t know if Kevin could be as bratty if the movie were made today
Uncle Frank’s line to Kevin after he causes the soda spill at dinner â€” “Look what you did, you little jerk” â€” do you think you’d be able to pull that off in a movie today?
I’m curious, why do you think it wouldn’t work today?
Personally, having two kids, if my brother said that to one of them in a setting like that, I would not be silent like Kevin’s father (John Heard) is in that scene.
I probably would have handled it with a reaction from John, yeah, or a line from him. In today’s world, Uncle Frank would have said it, and then John Heard would have said “Frank.” It’s much funnier without any reaction at all.
I remember John Candy had young kids at the time the movie opened, and they watched the film, and his one son was in love with the movie. He was going to the theatres to see it all the time. And because of that, he started to develop Kevin’s attitude that he had in the beginning of the movie. Kevin is a smartass. So John would complain that his son was talking to him the same way Kevin was to his parents.
Honestly, maybe today we wouldn’t be able to get away with Kevin’s attitude toward his mum. He’s pretty tough on her before he goes up to the attic. He’s kind of a jerk to his mother.
This is something that has always bugged me: Why does Kevin make up that fancy microwave dinner before Harry and Marv show up only not to eat a single bite of it?
I have never talked about this. [Pauses.] Interesting. I have no idea. And if memory serves me, he set up this dinner and the guys show up? That is a mystery to me. Maybe something was cut, but that footage is long gone. I have no idea why that happened, but all this is going to make me go and rewatch it later today.
Many people â€” including Seth Rogen and Chris Evans â€” thought ‘Angels With Filthy Souls’ was a real movie
Has it got back to you that both Seth Rogen and Chris Evans thought “Angels with Filthy Souls” was a real movie?
I have heard about that. And this is probably why people think this: “Home Alone” is one of the last films shot with an old carbon-arc lighting system that was popular back in the 1940s through 1960s for Technicolor films. That means you have to put a carbon piece of charcoal into each lamp and it creates a warmer and richer light to shoot.
Hollywood movies were doing lighting that way 30 years ago?
My cinematographer insisted on it. So when you look at the movie, with it also being shot on film, it really has a warm and rich quality. But we also shot the “Angels With Filthy Souls” scene the same way. So that richness of black and white made it look like a movie from that era, and I think that’s why some people think it’s a real movie.
Donald Trump demanded to be in ‘Home Alone 2’
After the success of “Home Alone,” you directed the sequel, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Out of all the sequels that would follow in the franchise, this is the most memorable because Donald Trump has a cameo. What do you remember from shooting the Trump cameo?
Like most locations in New York City, you just pay a fee and you are allowed to shoot in that location. We approached The Plaza Hotel, which Trump owned at the time, because we wanted to shoot in the lobby. We couldn’t rebuild The Plaza on a soundstage.
Trump said OK. We paid the fee, but he also said, “The only way you can use the Plaza is if I’m in the movie.” So we agreed to put him in the movie, and when we screened it for the first time the oddest thing happened: People cheered when Trump showed up on-screen. So I said to my editor, “Leave him in the movie. It’s a moment for the audience.” But he did bully his way into the movie.
Columbus says the planned ‘Home Alone’ remake by Disney Plus is a ‘waste of time’
Are you involved at all with what Disney Plus is doing with their “Home Alone” remake?
No, nobody got in touch with me about it, and it’s a waste of time as far as I’m concerned. What’s the point? I’m a firm believer that you don’t remake films that have had the longevity of “Home Alone.” You’re not going to create lightning in a bottle again. It’s just not going to happen. So why do it? It’s like doing a paint-by-numbers version of a Disney animated film â€” a live-action version of that. What’s the point? It’s been done. Do your own thing. Even if you fail miserably, at least you have come up with something original.
I can even be accused of it myself, with “Home Alone 2.” That movie is basically a remake of the first “Home Alone.” Does it need to exist? Yes, because some of those stunts make me laugh really hard, but I just don’t believe it should be done. There’s going to be a “Stoned Alone” with Ryan Reynolds. God only knows what that will be â€” a stoner version of “Home Alone?” (This was in development at Fox before it merged with Disney.) Listen, have fun. I just feel, do something new. Life is short.
In 30 years, have you been able to figure out why “Home Alone” is so timeless?
I feel it’s because it has an emotional connection with people. Sure, people love to laugh and it’s fun, but it’s centered on a specific time of the year when people are hopeful and happy. I think it’s the perfect movie for people to sit around the living room with your entire family and watch it.
And the John Williams score helps tremendously. When we heard John’s score against the picture for the first time, it was overwhelming how emotional the movie became. It changed the movie is all I can say.
But it does make me feel really great to flip around the channels this time of year and “Home Alone” is playing on one channel and [my other directing/producing efforts] “Harry Potter” is playing on another, and “Christmas Chronicles” is on Netflix. It’s a strange but good feeling.