When Chris Columbus was hired to direct the first Harry Potter movie, one of the things he had going for him was the absolute wealth of experience he already had with working with kid actors. That’s been a part of his career from the very beginning, even back when he was just a screenwriter thinking up stories about little monsters (Gremlins) or the exploits of extraordinary teenagers (Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes.) Once he stepped behind the camera to direct, he stuck with what he knew and made two movies in the youth-leaning vein of Goonies. Of those movies, Adventures in Babysitting was a hit, Heartbreak Hotel was not. His next movie, Home Alone, focused entirely on a single kid, and it turned into a career-defining achievement, a modern Christmas classic that endures to this day.
Columbus knew how to talk to the adorable little girl who wore the Thor helmet in Babysitting. He was able to work with the teeangers attempting to kidnap Elvis in Heartbreak Hotel. He was uniquely suited to direct Macaulay Culkin in the movie which changed both of their lives forever. Yet it was his inability to communicate with a particularly difficult adult actor which led him to Home Alone in the first place.
As revealed in Chicago Magazine‘s recent oral history of Home Alone, Columbus was originally supposed to direct National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but he quickly decided that life was too short to waste time working with Chevy Chase. That is a point of view which has been echoed throughout the rest of Hollywood over the years, be it Community’s Dan Harmon using Chevy’s own voicemails to illustrate what’s it like to work with the man or the many former SNL cast members sharing their own personal “Chevy was a f’n monster” horror stories in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. Most of the people who ended up making Christmas Vacation had nothing but nice things to say about Chevy last year. Not so much for Columbus, who didn’t go into great detail but did tell Chicago Magazine:
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.
Chicago Magazine‘s oral history of Home Alone also revealed:
1. Three weeks before the start of production, Warner Bros. put Home Alone into “turnaround” because they wanted to keep the budget to $14 million whereas the producers wanted $14.7 million. Within days, Fox swooped in to save the movie. The studio’s chairman, Joe Roth, figured it was a no-brainer. That was a fairly low budget, and he didn’t have a movie for Thanksgiving yet.
2. John Hughes wanted Macaulay Culkin, who he knew from Uncle Buck, to play Kevin. However, he let Chris Columbus go through the process of auditioning 200 other children. As Columbus put it, “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.”
4. During some scenes in the movie when Catherine O’Hara is talking to her kids, if they’re not actually in the shot with her it’s because they probably weren’t actually there when they filmed her part of the scene, as she recalled, “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.”
5. Chris Farley auditioned to play Santa.
6. The infamous McCallister house was originally scouted for Uncle Buck, and since that movie’s location manager also worked on Home Alone he brought it back up when they failed to find the right home for the McCallister’s after two weeks of searching. The owners of the house were told the production would only take five weeks. It ended up taking five and a half months if you include the time it took to set things up during pre-production and take things down during post-production. However, the majority of the interior shots of the house in the movie were actually done on a set constructed in a nearby abandoned high school.
7. They only had John Candy for 24 hours, and he did it as a favor to John Hughes. As Columbus recalls, “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.”
8. Praise the stuntmen and practical effects wizards, not Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci, for the orgy of cartoon violence in the film’s final act. According to Daniel Stern, “The stuntmen were the unsung heroes of the show. Whenever people tell me moments they like, I say, “Oh, that was Leon [Delaney].”
9. On the set of City Slickers, Billy Crystal was more interested in Home Alone‘s success than Daniel Stern was, “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?'” No, it was not. It set a new record for weeks at no. 1.
10. Today, even little kids in Iraq have seen Home Alone, as per this Stern anecdote, “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.”