Home Alone has become as much a part of Christmas as It’s a Wonderful Life.
The 1990 feature made Macaulay Culkin a household name and was No. 1 at the box office for an incredible 12 weeks. It topped $285 million in domestic box office when a movie ticket went for half what it costs today. It is listed in the Guinness World Records as the highest-grossing live-action comedy of all time.
Nearly a quarter-century later, everyone is familiar with the premise of the film: eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Culkin) is accidentally left alone over Christmas when his parents (Catherine O’Hara and John Heard) and siblings sleep in and then race to the airport for a trip to Paris. Two dim-witted burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) try to break into his house, but the lad outsmarts them with various booby traps and hilarity ensues.
The film almost didn’t get made. Warner Bros. pulled out at the last minute and 20th Century Fox stepped in, boosting the modest budget by a few million dollars. Executive producer John Hughes was said to have penned the script in two weeks after being charmed by Culkin while directing Uncle Buck.
“He loved this boy and he just cranked out the script,” says Julio Macat, ASC, the cinematographer on Home Alone. Macat went on to shoot five Hughes productions and is currently shooting Daddy’s Home with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in New Orleans.
“I’ve done 36 films,” says Macat, “and this is still by far my favourite.”
Home Alone was Macat’s first film as a cinematographer. He was teamed with a young director just making a name for himself, Chris Columbus, who went on to shoot Only the Lonely with Macat as well as helm the first two Harry Potter films.
Columbus had seen some Christmas commercials Macat had shot for McDonald’s as well as some second unit work. “We hit it off and I knew this was my chance,” says Macat. “One of my motivators was fear. I thought every day they were going to figure out I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Macat contributed significantly to the look of the film. He says he and Columbus drew inspiration from A Christmas Story, a holiday favourite made by Canadian director Bob Clark. “It was the story of a little kid. Everything was centred around him and he wanted his rifle and stuff — that was kind of the flavour.”
To that end, Macat suggested pitching his camera lower than usual, shooting many scenes at wide angles to see this world from Culkin’s perspective. “We really got into the mind of a young kid.”
Macat had great success with a small, ground-level camera he called the bonus cam. “We’d put it in a spot and Joe Pesci would plop right in front of it. By accident, we started seeing that the bonus cam was getting the funniest moments.”
Macat remembers Culkin as “this phenom, so mature and cute.” He has warm memories of the entire cast, singling out Toronto-born O’Hara. “She was wonderful and an amazing comedic actress.” John Candy had a key cameo in the film, giving O’Hara’s frantic mother character a lift through the snow from an out-of-town airport. “We only had one or two days with him,” says Macat. “That was a great cameo for the movie.”
Computer-generated effects cost around $10,000 a pop back then, Macat figures, forcing the production team to come up with some old-fashioned, and cheaper, mechanical solutions. Just as Culkin’s Kevin would jerry-rig turntables and cut-outs to make it look as if adults were in the house, Macat was cutting into Christmas ornaments, adding mirrors and creating effects in the camera.
A favourite shot was when Kevin walks into the church. “We lit the street so beautifully,” says Macat. “We were just inspired.”
The film inspired children. “It’s because it’s really empowering,” says Macat. “The concept that a young kid could overcome his fear and defend his home … what kid wouldn’t love watching that?”
Tonight on CBC at 8 p.m. and Dec. 19 on YTV.