Amid all the heartfelt Christmas movies about miracles and family and the joy of going home for the holidays, somehow a low-budget project about an enormous family who inadvertently leaves behind a 2nd-grader to fend off two bumbling burglars miraculously became the biggest holiday movie of them all. Home Alone — with its perfectly quotable dialogue, precocious breakout star, and soaring John Williams soundtrack — is one of the highest-grossing Christmas films of all time and has become a holiday classic in its own right. To mark its 30th anniversary, here are 12 facts you might not know about the movie.
1. The Script Was Inspired By John Hughes’ Own Travel Anxiety
By August 1989, when John Hughes was prepping for his family’s first European vacation, he was already a huge success in Hollywood. Having written and directed films including Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Hughes was known for his ability to write genuine, earnest scripts for both teens and adults — but a sudden idea got him writing from the perspective of a child.
“I was going away on vacation,” Hughes once told TIME, “and making a list of everything I didn’t want to forget. I thought, ‘Well, I’d better not forget my kids.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I left my 10-year-old son at home? What would he do?’”
According to his son James Hughes, John completed the first draft of Home Alone in nine days.
2. The Movie Owes a Lot to Uncle Buck
During filming for his 1989 John Candy vehicle, Uncle Buck, Hughes was so taken with working with then-unknown child actor Macaulay Culkin that he began considering making a movie that starred the 9-year-old, according to the Netflix series The Movies That Made Us. “While I was doing Uncle Buck, I really had fun working with a boy,” Hughes said, “and that’s one age group that I’d never worked with before.” Hughes wrote the screenplay with Culkin in mind for the lead role of 8-year-old Kevin McCallister, but Columbus auditioned at least 200 other kids to do his due-diligence. “Then Macaulay read,” Columbus said, “and you immediately knew this was the kid.”
Candy appeared in Home Alone, too, as the kind, verbose Polka King of the Midwest who offers Kevin’s mother a ride home toward the end of the movie. As a favor to John Hughes, Candy showed up for a single 24-hour stretch of filming and was paid at scale — i.e. minimum wage for Screen Actors Guild members, which was $414 for the day. "The funeral-parlor story, that was all improvised at 4:30 in the morning,” Columbus recalled. “We could barely keep a straight face on set just listening to John."
3. Director Chris Columbus Was Originally Slated to Direct a Different Holiday Classic
Director Chris Columbus was first hired to helm another holiday classic written by John Hughes, 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but he too often butted heads with its star, Chevy Chase. “To be completely honest, Chevy treated me like dirt,” Columbus told Chicago Magazine in 2015. “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.’” Columbus quit the Vacation set, but Hughes soon sent him a couple of scripts to look over. One was Home Alone.
4. Home Alone Was Almost Scrapped Before Filming Even Began
Though it was originally set to be released by Warner Bros., production was halted after it exceeded the initial $10 million budget. Luckily, 20th Century Fox was able to quickly pick up the film — which ended up grossing $476.7 million worldwide.
5. The Interiors Were Filmed in New Trier High School, Which You May Recognize From Some Other Films
“We needed to cast a house that would work for the stunts and also a house that was visually appealing and, if this makes sense, warm and menacing at the same time,” Columbus told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. “It’s the kind of house [where] if you were a kid it would be fun to be left home alone.”
The large, red brick colonial-style mansion that the McCallister family lives in was perfect for that aim (and has since become a tourist hotspot), but it was mainly used for exterior shots. (Just imagine if the family who lived there had to deal with tar on the basement steps or the possibility of a loose tarantula!) Most of the interior scenes for the home were built on a soundstage that the production crew created in the abandoned gymnasium of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. The location had become a favorite of Hughes, who based many of his movies in Chicago — it was the same high school featured in The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Uncle Buck.
6. Angels With Filthy Souls Is Not a Real Movie
The black-and-white film that a scared Kevin watches (and uses to scare off both a burglar and a pizza delivery guy) was an elaborate movie-within-a-movie. Though it was inspired by the 1938 James Cagney gangster film Angels With Dirty Faces, fans are continually shocked to learn that the film — with its famous line “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” — was just another bit of movie magic.
7. Home Alone Features the Acting Debut of Another Famous Culkin
Kieran Culkin, Macaulay’s little brother, made his acting debut as Fuller, Kevin’s bed-wetting younger cousin. As he recently recalled on The Late Late Show With James Corden, he was so young at the time that he didn’t realize his older brother was the star of the movie. "There's a part in the movie where there's a kid who gets his head counted incorrectly and he goes, 'Bye, bring me back something French!' I thought the movie was about that kid," Kieran said. Kieran went on to star in films such as Father of the Bride and Igby Goes Down, and most recently was nominated for an Emmy for his role on the HBO series Succession.
8. Producers Didn’t Feel Confident in the Film Until They Watched It With John Williams’ Score
Composer Bruce Broughton, who was wrapped up with the movie The Rescuers Down Under, had to pull out of Home Alone due to scheduling issues. Columbus floated the idea of hiring John Williams — the famed composer behind the scores for Jaws, E.T., and Star Wars, among countless others — and though it felt like a long shot, the team sent Williams a rough cut of the finished film. He loved it and agreed to create the score, including the movie’s signature song “Somewhere in My Memory.” Home Alone’s music was nominated for both Best Original Song and Best Original Score at the 63rd Academy Awards in 1991 but lost to Stephen Sondheim’s song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” (performed by Madonna for the Dick Tracy movie) and John Barry’s Dances with Wolves score, respectively.
9. Many Actors Were Considered for Joe Pesci’s Role
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Joe Pesci bringing Harry — the brains behind the Wet Bandits burglar duo — to the big screen, but other heavy-hitters including Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito passed on the role. Incidentally, at the 1991 Oscar ceremony, Pesci introduced the performance of Home Alone’s Best Original Song shortly after winning the Best Supporting Actor trophy. He won for his role as a grittier criminal than Harry though — he also starred in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas that year.
10. Old Man Marley’s Storyline Wasn’t in the Original Screenplay
The story of Old Man Marley, the rumored South Bend Shovel Slayer that Kevin’s brother Buzz uses as fodder for tales to spook the younger kids, was not part of Hughes’ original screenplay. Old Man Marley was added later by Columbus and Hughes, who felt it was important to add a sentimental angle to Kevin’s longing to be reunited with his family for Christmas. The seminal scene in the church, where Kevin talks to Mr. Marley as his redheaded granddaughter rehearses with the choir, was shot as one long take. It was Macaulay Culkin’s longest scene in the film, and the result was one of the most heartwarming moments in an otherwise slapstick comedy.
11. The Movie Made The Guinness Book of World Records
Home Alone’s $285.7 million domestic pull was enough to put the movie in The Guinness Book of World Records for 27 years as the top-grossing live-action comedy in a single territory. That’s a fairly specific record to hold, but the movie retained that title until 2017, when it was unseated by the Chinese comedy Never Say Die.
12. The Snow in the Final Scene Is (Luckily) Real
You’d think that filming in Chicago in February would have no shortage of snowy days, but the winter the crew spent filming was unseasonably warm. The script called for a “picture-perfect snowfall” for the mother-and-son reunion scene, so production planned ahead of time to drop everything if and when it began snowing. (They feared that they might not have enough money in the budget to produce enough fake falling snow.) Amazingly, a perfect snowfall began on the second day of shooting, and thus the Christmas movie’s final scene was practically filmed first — on Valentine’s Day.
Featured image credit: Mitchell Henderson/ Pexels