The multi-million dollar deal that signed Macaulay Culkin up for Home Alone 2 also guaranteed him the lead role in a very, very dark thriller.
The success of 1990’s Home Alone overnight turned Macaulay Culkin into the planet’s youngest movie star. That much is pretty well known. Whilst studios were used to doling out big cheques to the likes of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone at the time, suddenly 20th Century Fox was looking at paying a then-ten-year old a record sum for acting in a movie.
The deal that confirmed Culkin’s return for 1992’s Home Alone 2: Lost In New York was reportedly worth $4.5m up front, and 5% of the film’s gross takings as a back end sweetener. The film gobbled up $359m worldwide in cinemas, and my half-broken calculator tallies 5% of that as a $17.95m added payday. It’s entirely feasible that he cleared $20m for the role when the dust had settled, a rather significant upgrade on the reported $110,000 he earned for the original film.
It’s also a pretty well-known story that at the time that back then, Culkin’s career was steered in large part by his father, Kit. Allegations over Kit’s behaviour are not tricky to find online, and as Culkin himself doesn’t tend to talk about this (the pair are said to be estranged), that’s as far as I want to dig into his personal life.
When it comes to his work, though, even before his teens his father was said to be a pretty demanding force in his child’s career. So much so that he was eyeing potential projects that he wanted Macaulay to star in. Which is how The Good Son became part of the Home Alone 2 deal.
Kit Culkin was reportedly insistent that Macaulay be offered one of the lead roles in the dark thriller, and 20th Century Fox – that was backing it – was hardly likely to rock the boat there. It agreed, and as a result of that, production on The Good Son was pushed back by a year to accommodate the filming of the Home Alone sequel.
The Good Son though was a very different beast. The script had been penned by novelist Ian McEwan, and an interview in The Independent revealed that Fox approached him after he’d completed A Child In Time. He was asked ‘if he would like to write a movie about evil – possibly concerning children’. McEwan agreed on the condition that “it would be psychological and not brimstone and sulphur. The idea was to make a low budget, high class movie, not something that Fox would naturally make a lot of money on”.
The story he put together was of a 12-year old boy who went to stay with his aunt and uncle, only to discover that his cousin – around the same age as him – ‘is psychotic’. A dark film, with a dark, pre-teen antagonist. Lots of things to make Hollywood nervous.
McEwan delivered his script and it went down well. “They wanted another Omen”, he recalled back in 1993, “so the script floated around for a long time – it became one of those famous scripts that everyone had read and no-one had made”.
The turning point was a producer by the name of Mary Anne Page, who saw it and wanted to make it. It took several years to get it going, at one stage the project heading to Universal rather than Fox – but the studio ultimately turned it down. Then, two films hit big: The Silence Of The Lambs and Home Alone. Here, on the surface, was something that had flavours of both, and Fox was suddenly tempted.
Michael Lehmann, who’d made Heathers and had just survived Hudson Hawk was hired to direct. McEwan worked more on the script, and by November 1991, sets were being built. Mary Steenburgen was cast in one of the adult roles, two unknown youngsters had been cast in the two lead parts, and rehearsals were about to get underway.
And then Kit Culkin heard about the project.
He wanted his son to play the evil cousin role in The Good Son. He got his wish. The Good Son found itself on ice, and its two young leads deposed. The consequential year long delay for Culkin’s availability would also cost it Mary Steenburgen, who had other commitments.
Michael Lehmann wasn’t happy either, having been unaware that Culkin had even been sent the script. He felt he was wrong for the role, and attempts to dissuade Kit Culkin of this failed. Going back to the piece in The Independent from 1993, it even suggested that John Hughes got involved, ‘dangling other Oscar-calibre roles before the Culkins’, but Kit Culkin wasn’t budging.
Kit Culkin reportedly had other reported demands too. He ‘insisted’ that his daughter Quinn get a role in the film, and she duly did. Furthermore, he now had input over the director who was going to replace Michael Lehmann, when he decided to leave over the casting.
The person who landed the gig – Joseph Ruben – had just delivered a hit film for Fox, the Julia Roberts-headlined thriller Sleeping With The Enemy. He passed muster with Kit Culkin, and The Good Son was now ready to go – just with the price soaring from $12m to $20m. A crucial difference, given this was originally set to be a modestly-priced, dark thriller.
Now, it had the world’s newest movie star in the lead role. A role that would go utterly against what his fan base liked him for. Just look at the promo picture at the very top of this post: that was one of the images that the film was sold off the back of. With very little hint as to what the tone of the film was.
There was no ire at Macaulay Culkin himself, it should be noted. And furthermore, one upshot of the delay was that Elijah Wood – who had been on the original wishlist, but had been unavailable – was now free to co-star.
Ian McEwan stayed involved for a while and worked alongside Joseph Ruben. His five years of trying to get the film moving were at least bearing fruit – up until the second half of 1992, when he found himself no longer on the project. Ruben had hired another screenwriter to work on the script, and as McEwan told The Independent, “I found myself basically sacked from my own script”.
He, understandably, wasn’t happy. Of Ruben, he would say “naturally, when somebody who has been a guest in your house and who you’ve worked closely with then edges you off and doesn’t have the courage to phone you – they tend to shrink in your estimation. By any standard of behaviour – even Hollywood standards – that’s pretty poor”.
Ruben, to my knowledge, hasn’t commented on this.
David Loughery was the writer hired by Ruben to take over the script, but a Writers’ Guild of America arbitration would hand sole credit to McEwan. That said, from the middle of 1992 onwards, he was no longer involved in the film. He also had nothing to do with the tie-in novel, that was penned by Todd Strasser.
Come the end of 1992, Fox’s commercial nous couldn’t be questioned. Home Alone 2 – whilst not as successful as the original – nonetheless proved to be a gigantic hit. As it was cleaning up, The Good Son was now in production. It would arrive in cinemas in the US in September 1993.
The response was not good.
Whilst acknowledging how unsettling the core idea was, most critics agreed that Culkin was miscast, and damaged the tone of the picture. Could it have worked better with an unknown performer?
There were some more positive notices, and the film turned a profit. It would gross $44m in the US, following a strong opening weekend of $12m.
Notably though, that would be as good as the box office got for Macaulay Culkin thereafter. Whether The Good Son damaged his appeal is up for debate, but more likely a combination of factors – getting older, studios less willing to work with his father, the choice of projects – also played a part. There had been a plan mooted by Home Alone director Chris Columbus to make a second and third film back to back, but Fox opted against. When a third Home Alone eventually appeared, Culkin would be nowhere to be seen.
Surprisingly though, subsequent family films such as Getting Even With Dad and Richie Rich never really took off.
In the UK, The Good Son never got a cinema release at all. The content of the film was deemed a little too close to the horrific, horrific murder of two-year old James Bulger in Merseyside, and Fox opted to cancel its release over here. It would quietly slip out on video in 1995 with an edit made (since 2002, the unedited version has been available in the UK).
Ian McEwan would opt not to watch the completed feature, and subsequent features of his work – On Chesil Beach, The Children Act, Atonement, Enduring Love – have been a little less bumpy.
As for The Good Son itself? It still feels jarring that it got made with the star of Home Alone at all. It’s not a great movie, I’d suggest, but that it came out of a major Hollywood studio with a $20m budget in 1993 given its subject matter remains quite something.
And where’s the streaming service where you can find it now? Er, that’d be Disney+, where it sits in the newly-launched Star section of the streaming service. Do note if you’re tempted, though: that 18 certificate it comes with is very much earned…
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