Nobody expected Home Alone to be a hit, let alone a monster hit against which all other movies that came out at the same time would be measured.
The cast, with the exception of relative newcomer Macaulay Culkin, was made up of experienced actors, many of whom had had their share of hits and misses. Despite that, nobody seemed to recognize the staying power of the movie they were in the process of making. Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci hammed it up, giving over-the-top performances as the villains, because they didn't think it mattered. Catherine O'Hara simply hoped people would like it, but didn't have expectations beyond that. Multiple actors turned down roles in it.
The movie premiered 25 years ago, in 1990, and became the most successful live action comedy movie in the United States ever, a title it still holds to this day. It was actually the most successful worldwide, too, until it was surpassed in 2011 by The Hangover: Part II. (Yes, The Hangover: Part II. )
It opened in November and stayed in theaters all the way through Easter, stretching the boundaries of what a holiday movie is and confirming the star status of Macaulay Culkin, who was 10 years old when it was released (and only 9 when they started shooting). He'd been acting since he was four, but this was his first starring role, and it changed his life. While he battled a challenging home life, he was embraced by Hollywood, even forging a friendship with superstar Michael Jackson. The two both grew up with hyper-controlling fathers, and hit stardom young, and over their lost childhoods, they bonded. Jackson even visited the Home Alone set during shooting, and Culkin appeared in his groundbreaking video for "Black or White."
The movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and so are we. Here are some fun facts you may not know about it.
NONE OF THE PARIS FOOTAGE WAS FILMED IN PARIS
While Culkin’s Kevin is having misadventures back home, the rest of his family flies off to Paris, and his parents spend a good chunk of time at France’s Paris-Orly airport trying to find a way to get back home to him. . .except that the cast never actually left Chicago. O’Hare stood in for the airport itself, and even the business class section of the airplane was built on the basketball courts of New Trier High School, which also provided a swimming pool for the scenes of Kevin’s flooded basement. Who knew that Winnetka, Illinois could sub so easily for the City of Lights?
THE MOVIE IS ESPECIALLY POPULAR IN POLAND
We know it's popular here, but in Poland, Home Alone is a Christmas tradition. Every year, it comes back on TV as a holiday event. The movie’s title there is Kevin Sam w Domu (literally meaning “Kevin is Home Alone”) and airs every year around Christmas Eve. In 2010, when the Polish channel that owned the rights decided not to air it, a special “defenders group” was created on Facebook, and protested until the network changed its mind. It was the biggest hit of the holiday season. The following year, over 5 million people tuned in, setting a new record.
JOHN CANDY SHOT ALL HIS SCENES IN ONE DAY
Home Alone was inspired by a scene in the John Candy-Macaulay Culkin movie Uncle Buck, so it seemed only fitting to make sure Candy turned up in this movie at some point. He also has a long history with Catherine O’Hara, going back to their Second City days in Toronto.
So Candy signed on to play Gus Polinksi (The Polka King) who helps Kevin’s mom start her journey back to Chicago after both of their flights are canceled. He was inspired by his character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and improvised almost all of his scenes, shooting everything in one very long day—23 hours, to be precise.
SPECIAL EFFECTS WERE DONE IN SOMEONE'S PARENTS' BASEMENT
It doesn't sound like a small number, but when you factor in the cast and producer/writer John Hughes (already a success thanks to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club, among others), 17 million wasn’t a whole lot of money for a movie, even back in 1991. In fact, they'd had to switch studios to cover the cost, after Warner dropped the project because the budget went up. (Oops.) Visual effects can be costly, so they went rogue, and hired Kevin Nordine to do the optical effects. He did all of his work out of his parents' basement in Chicago. When special effects were needed, like the bb gun mark on Daniel Stern's forehead, Nordine hand painted the film for a few hundred dollars per effect.
Nordine only has one other movie credit, Hughes' Curly Sue, which was also shot mostly in and around Chicago.
THAT SPIDER WAS THE REAL DEAL
Remember the tarantula? Well that was no stunt spider, it was the real thing. While Culkin was able to use a stand-in for the shots of the creature on his hand, Daniel Stern had no such luck. When he asked if they had a fake one, the answer was yes, but that it really just kind of sat there, so he agreed to let them shoot him with the real one on his face. . .once.
Ironically, the big worry on set wasn't that the tarantula would frighten Stern, but rather that Stern would frighten the tarantula; if he actually screamed, that's exactly what would happen. And nobody wants to frighten a tarantula! So the scream you see him make was actually a silent one during filming, a mimed scream, if you will. They went back and dubbed in the sound later.
THE MOVIE’S CAST COULD'VE BEEN VERY, VERY DIFFERENT
Remember Uncle Frank, who calls Kevin a jerk after his fight with Buzz? That part was originally written specifically for Kelsey Grammer, but he turned it down and Gerry Bamman took it on, even reprising the role again in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York two years later.
While it's hard to imagine the movie now without Joe Pesci as bandit Harry Lime, his part was originally offered to Robert De Niro, who said thanks but no thanks.
The actors considered to play Kevin's parents were among Hollywood's biggest names. Considered for Kate McCallister, played by SCTV vet Catherine O'Hara, were Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster, Jessica Lange, Carrie Fisher, and Bette Midler, among others. And the dad could've been Kevin Costner, Sean Penn, Chevy Chase, Tom Hanks, or Jack Nicholson; any of those choices would have made it a very different movie. John Heard ended up in the role, and initially complained about it; a few years later when they were shooting the sequel, he broke character to apologize directly to director Chris Columbus for his bad attitude, and since the cameras were already rolling, Columbus has his apology recorded.
Even though John Hughes wrote the Home Alone script specifically for Macaulay Culkin, Columbus still auditioned over 100 actors for the part; just to make sure he really had the right kid.
CAMERA TRICKS WERE USED TO ADD IMPACT KEVIN’S TRANSFORMATION FROM PIPSQUEAK TO HERO
This is where a good director and cinematographer earn their keep. At the beginning of the movie, they wanted Kevin to look puny and helpless, so they shot him from above, making him appear small in comparison to his surroundings. Later, when he’s taking charge of his situation and foiling the bandits, the camera moves so he’s shot from below, making him look taller, stronger, and more empowered.
Now that you know that, you can go watch the movie with an eye open for it; it's being re-released in theaters this month to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Here are a few other tidbits to keep in mind when you watch it again:
The scene where the car stops inches from Kevin's face couldn't be done with a stunt double, so they shot it backwards, starting with the car right up in his face and then backing away at high speed. It looked crappy, take after take, until they got the one sequence that worked.
When Daniel Stern is walking around in the snow barefoot, he's actually wearing rubber feet. He did not, however, wear them for stomping on the broken Christmas ornaments, which were actually made of candy. (Seems like they'd still be pretty pointy, though.)
The photo Kevin finds of Buzz's girlfriend isn't a picture of a girl at all, it's a boy in drag. They didn't think it would be nice to either the actress or the viewers to find an "ugly" girl and then make fun of her.
Joe Pesci really wanted Macaulay Culkin to be afraid of him, so he steered clear of him when they weren't shooting. The scene where he lifts Kevin up and bites his finger was real method acting, though; Culkin still bears the scar.