Home Sweet Home Alone Director Dan Mazer Wants To Subvert Your Expectations [Interview]

If "Home Sweet Home Alone" feels like an inversion of the franchise's formula... Well, that's no accident.

Unlike past films in the series, which always feature a young kid left alone in his home who must defend his turf from scheming burglars, the villains here aren't that bad. In fact, as played by the innately likable Rob Delaney and Ellie Kemper, they're downright likable. They're just two ordinary parents struggling through a rough economic patch who think a wealthy, snot-nosed kid has made off with their valuable antique doll, which could salvage their financial woes. But that kid doesn't know why these two adults keep trying to break into his home, leading to a slapstick defense full of homemade traps that look like they really, really hurt. And for the first time in a "Home Alone" movie, we feel bad for the burglars, who really don't deserve this kind of punishment. 

That's all by design, of course. Director Dan Mazer is an unlikely fit for a family movie. He received two Oscar nominations for working on the screenplays for the "Borat" movies, and his directorial credits include episodes of transgressive comedy shows like "Da Ali G Show" and "Who is America?" His previous feature film was the R-rated raunchy comedy "Dirty Grandpa." He's not the first person who comes to mind when you need someone to direct PG slapstick comedy for the whole family. 

But it was this fresh take, the chance to make a "Home Alone" movie where you sympathize with the home invaders, that drew him to the project. When I spoke to him ahead of the release of "Home Sweet Home Alone," he compared his new film to his past work. "It's all about taking risks and doing things that people say you shouldn't do and couldn't be done and trying to subvert things," he told me over Zoom.

In our full interview, we talk about making the "bad guys" totally relatable, putting his actors through comedy hell, and why a certain character is referenced in the film but never seen.

"Can we get to a point where we empathize and sympathize with two adults breaking into a child's house...?"

Unlike previous "Home Alone" movies, the villains of this movie are good people in a bad situation, not cartoon criminals. I'm wondering how that angle came about.

Well, the challenge obviously with this movie was how to make it feel different, how to make it feel new and relevant to 2021 or 2020 when it was supposed to come out. And it felt like a really fresh take to identify with the people breaking into the house rather than the kid defending his house. And it really played into the message of what Home Alone is about, which is people doing desperate things to protect the things that are important to them, which is their family and their home. Can we get to a point where we empathize and sympathize with two adults breaking into a child's house, but doing it for the best possible reasons and obviously weird misconceptions and misapprehensions? But, ultimately, the audience has to root for them because we know that their motivation is the thing that drives all of us, which is love for our family and the desire to protect our home and the people around us, which is the same motivation as Kevin has in the original, which is he'll do anything to protect his home. And ultimately that's what our burglars are doing, but in a different iteration.

The adults watching this movie will have a different reaction than the kids. Kids will love seeing Archie defend his home, but as a man in his thirties with a mortgage, I'm like, "Oh no, this is a horror story."

[laughs] Please God, [hopefully] none of us have to end up doing similar things. Hopefully this movie goes well enough for me that I'm not forced to go and get my wife and try and burgle the homes of London to keep my family in shoes. But, what's also interesting, frankly, is that, as you say, there isn't a villain, so we root for the burglars, but we also root for Max, played by Archie Yates, who's defending his house. And the idea is that it's interesting during preview screenings where the kids just go, "Yeah, we're on Max's side," who's the kid, without understanding the nuances. And the adults went, "We can really understand what Ellie and Rob are doing and why they've been driven to this extreme situation."

"...it's all about taking risks and doing things that people say you shouldn't do..."

Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney are such inherently likable actors. They pop on screen and you're immediately on board with them. Were you ever worried that putting them through all that torment would turn the audience against you?

Yeah, absolutely. Let alone them. As a director, I felt me putting them through all that torment for eight weeks of shooting where every day they turn up on set and go, "Oh God, what are you firing at us today? What are you throwing us off today? What beatings is my body going to take courtesy of you today?" So we all were in the same situation because, not only on screen are they in innately sympathetic and identifiable, but in person they are too. And that was the key to the movie, just was to get the audience to really empathize with our lead characters. And they both have the incredible skill of being simultaneously very authentic and very identifiable, but, at the same time, brilliantly funny as well. And I don't think we sacrificed one for the other with them.

There's something subversive about this film, and how it asks you to sympathize with the burglars. It wants you to reevaluate what a "Home Alone" movie is. Was subversion the initial goal or a welcome side effect?

If we're to examine, and I wouldn't suggest anybody does this for a second, but my career, it's all about taking risks and doing things that people say you shouldn't do and couldn't be done and trying to subvert things, and sometimes more successfully than others. Similarly, what attracted me to this... a brief history of the project was that, about four years ago, my agent came to me and said, "Would you like to write a new version of Home Alone?" I said, "Absolutely not. That's a terrible idea." And not only that, I could never think of anything.

And then, two years after that, I got a call from my agent, saying, "Would you be interested in directing Home Alone?" They sent me the script and I read it, not expecting to like it, but ended up being absolutely delighted by what Streeter and Mikey, who are brilliant writers and who are the head writers, essentially, of Saturday Night Live, which in itself was a great attraction to me because obviously the history of SNL, subverting things and being dangerous and being edgy... what I didn't want to do was make a cookie cutter kids' movie that just felt safe and a rehash of what had gone before. And I think, not only did it feel edgy-ish for a kids movie, obviously it's not an R-rated comedy, but it felt like it was saying something and had the solid foundation to the story.

"I didn't want to lean too much on that old stuff."

The cast is stacked with extremely funny people, sometimes in small roles. Considering your long history with comedy projects, did you call in a lot of favors?

The cast is incredible. I didn't call in anything. When you say the words, "Home Alone", and you throw Streeter and Mikey's script at people, I think there was just an incredible fondness for it and a desire to do it. Candidly, much of the motivation for me doing this was to make something that I felt my children could watch, given that I can't let them see a single frame of anything that I've ever made before because it's so filthy. My daughter's favorite movie was Home Alone from the original, and I wanted to do something that she could watch and be proud of and show her friends at birthday parties. And I think that fed through to the cast as well, all of whom probably are a similar age and have got kids. The likes of Pete Holmes, probably his stuff that he's done before isn't immensely kid friendly. Likewise, Tim Simons. I think we all saw the opportunity to do something that captured the spirit of what we loved comedically in terms of it feeling a little bit edgier but, at the same time, we could sit down at Christmas and watch with our loved ones.

Unlike most "Home Alone" sequels after the second film, this one is directly tied to the original movies. We see the McCallister name a few times and one character from the original movies shows up. Was there ever a conversation or attempt to get Kevin McCallister in this movie, to get Macaulay Culkin back?

I think we did realize it wasn't going to happen and actually didn't necessarily push too hard because then that's what it would be about in a weird way. I was very eager that this lived on its own terms and stood on its own two feet and didn't feel too much of a callback fest. Hopefully we've struck the balance where there's enough in there where adults will watch it and go, "Oh yeah, I get that. That's good. Oh, that's funny. That's clever." And, as you say, there's I think a really clever callback to the original, with one part in there which I think seems intelligent and fresh, and not too arbitrary a token. The challenge was to make a film that lived independently. I didn't want to lean too much on that old stuff.

"Home Sweet Home Alone" is streaming now on Disney+.