When Practical Magic was released in 1998, it opened at No. 1 at the box office. As a lifelong fan of the movie, which I had always remembered as more of a VHS slumber-party favorite than a major blockbuster, I was stunned by this information. But, of course, fans were into director Griffin Dunne’s supernatural romantic-comedy-drama from the jump, even though critics had little clue what to make of its hodgepodge of genres all stuffed inside a story that centers the relationships of women and treats men mostly as plot devices who have to, for the most part, die. (A particularly cringeworthy Entertainment Weekly review lamented, “The witch sisters get empowered, all right — into wild and crazy girls.”)
Here’s the gist: Many moons ago, the first Owens woman, Maria, was outed as a witch and sent to live in exile on an idyllic-looking island. She was pregnant (!), but the baby’s father never showed up to rescue them; offended deeply by this ghosting, Maria cast a spell dooming any man who would ever love an Owens woman. Generations later, young sisters Gillian and Sally Owens (childhood Sally is played by baby Camilla Belle) lose their father (see above curse), so Sally decides to cast her own spell (those who do not learn from history, etc.), conjuring a man who doesn’t exist with whom she can fall in love. Their mother eventually dies of a broken heart — sure! — so they live with their aunts, practicing witches Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing). Everyone in town thinks the aunts are weird as hell, but who cares? Jet and Frances live in a fantastic house with a massive garden, eat ice cream for breakfast, and are as committed to dramatic eyeliner as Jennifer Lopez is to a nude lip.
The sisters grow up to be Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, with absolutely perfect hair, and while Nicole/Gillian leaves the island to date around and be free, Sandra/Sally stays and marries a man, with a magical nudge from the aunts, who dies (again, curse). So she and her two daughters (one of whom is baby Evan Rachel Wood) move back in with the aunts. (This is not super-relevant, but you should know that Margo Martindale plays one of their neighbor-frenemies.) Meanwhile, Gillian gets into a tight spot when her boyfriend, Jimmy (Goran Visnjic), reveals himself to be abusive; Sally comes to save the day, but in the process — oops! — they kill Jimmy. At the aunts’ place, they try to use magic to bring him back to life, but when he obliges, he is somehow even worse than before. In the midst of all this, cute state investigator Gary (Aidan Quinn) shows up and, unfortunately for Sally, seems to fit the bill of that impossible man she conjured as a kid, which means she is doomed to fall in love with him … and therefore he will die.
All this is to say that Practical Magic is a chaotic, completely deranged movie about six different things at once: a coming-of-age tale of tragically orphaned sisters who react in divergent ways to the trauma of their youth; a spooOOooOky flick about generations of witches whose love is literally fatal to any man; a rom-com about a woman who commits manslaughter, then murder (of the same guy! He comes back from the dead, it’s a whole thing) and then falls in love with the man sent to investigate the homicide(s); a serious drama about abusive men and the violence they inflict on the women they claim to adore; a saga of outsiders cast aside by a small-minded community for being different; and a treatise on destiny.
When I called up Stockard Channing just before the 22nd anniversary of the movie’s premiere, she confessed that she hadn’t seen it in about as many years — she doesn’t like to watch her own work. But she patiently indulged all my questions about nailing the just-right witchy aesthetic, drinking tequila with her co-stars, and why Practical Magic persists as a seasonal classic.
Where am I finding you? Where are you riding out the pandemic?
I’m living in London. It’s great. I’ve been here since December.
Did you move because of the pandemic? This is not a bad time to be … not living in the U.S.
I won’t say anything about that, but I basically live here now.
Okay, so let’s talk about Practical Magic.
I hear that this is one that people really love. It’s a favorite for a lot of people.
Yes, my sister and I watched it together growing up. We revisited this VHS tape more than once.
Over the years, it’s interesting, I hear that a lot. Especially from women, which, I don’t really know why that is, but it’s great. It was a very happy time.
What was going on in your life and career when this movie came about?
It was a very good time in my life. I was in Los Angeles, and actually Griffin [Dunne] was an acquaintance of mine and, to be perfectly honest, I had a party with a lot of mutual friends and something about that movie came up. The next evening, he rang, and I said, “I want to do it.” And it happened.
Had you read a script? Or was it just this party conversation where you were like, “Sure, sounds great!”?
It was a lot of conversation. I’d seen a script. It did happen extremely quickly, for whatever reason. I think what I remember most about preparing for it was the look of these witches.
What went into that?
I can only speak for myself — Dianne had her own situation — but I remember a lot of conversation about how this character should look. The wonderful Judianna Makovsky did the clothes. She’d done Six Degrees of Separation, and she’s just miraculous. You’re playing somebody who is hundreds of years old. I remember a makeup and hair test that didn’t work out because I wasn’t wearing much makeup. But it was a strange thing — you don’t want her to look old and haggard, because that’s not who the character is. The makeup artist — who’d worked with me and Dianne before — we had a very candid conversation, and we came up with the idea together: ballet makeup. This enormous amount of black lipstick, this, that, and the other. I remember the wig was curly and long and everything, and we just went way out on a limb with the crazy fabrics and clothing. It was kind of marvelous because it lifted [the character] out of time, if that makes sense. She wasn’t young or old. She wasn’t unattractive — she was quite attractive at times. But the more eccentric it was, the more it worked.
Were you consciously trying to reference any witches from pop culture?
No, not at all! That was one of the interesting things about it. I think also because, with my background in theater, I’ve done my makeup over the years, and I’ve done strange ones. So I was very aware of how artificial we looked, but the DP [Andrew Dunn] was wonderful and everything was very soft and beautiful. So I hope it isn’t wrong to say this — it didn’t look as much like a drag queen as it did probably in life! Or maybe it did? But he worked so well with the eccentricity of the looks, so it became otherworldly. Did it remind you of anyone?
It felt a little Stevie Nicks–y to me.
That very female, feminine thing — all those fabrics and floating things — that was especially Judianna Makovsky. Lots of beads and jewelry. Not as mobile as Stevie Nicks, probably. But that same sense of timelessness.
Do you remember having to calibrate how “witchy” to make things, seeing as the movie needed to stay grounded in reality? It wasn’t a full-on thriller.
It was really about the relationships of all these women — the aunts and the nieces and all that. That was Griffin’s focus. We weren’t playing witches; it was more like we were playing the relationships.
What was it like meeting the rest of the cast? Had you worked with any of them before?
It was a very, very congenial situation, playful. Both Nic and Sandy were enormously warm. Sandy is very, very funny and smart, and Nic was just lovely. It was a very, very congenial time, and all that coven-y thing of running around. But it’s hard work! That scene where Nic was on the floor writhing around, it went on for days. And she was incredible about it.
Where were you shooting? Were you in a real house?
It was out in Friday Harbor, off Seattle. Those were the exteriors. It was this gorgeous house. And the rest was pretty much on a soundstage and then there were locations for the stuff Dianne and I weren’t in.
I’ve read that for the midnight margaritas scene, you were all actually drunk. Please tell me everything about that.
I don’t know how drunk we were, but we decided to spiff it up with a drink. I think one of the hardest things to do is a fun, raucous party scene. By take 28, it is very hard to keep that up. I think it worked.
I also read that it was Nicole Kidman who provided the tequila.
I don’t remember. I don’t think any of us had any objections, I’ll put it that way.
Was there anything in particular that was challenging to shoot?
Once we had the look down, in terms of my situation, I was very relieved and could just go with it. It was otherwise just the usual challenges of getting a scene right, choreographing it and so on. Probably the one I mentioned earlier, where [Nicole] is sort of taken over and possessed, because there’s a lot of people in the room and it had to go all the way around. She was incredible. She just went for it every time, even when she wasn’t on camera.
I [also] remember the green-screen flying around — wearing a harness. It’s very uncomfortable. The people who do those movies all the time have my admiration.
What do you remember about working with the child actors? To me, it’s one of the weirder things about being an actor, that your co-worker could be like, an 11-year-old.
Yes! The actress who just did Kajillionaire —
Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Kylie, one of Sandra’s character’s daughters.
She was just a little girl. She was lovely. They were really beautiful children in every way. They both turned out very well. I wasn’t a child actor, and I wonder how it comes around to happen like that.
Did anything about the movie feel special or different to you while you were working on it?
I will tell you one thing: When it came to releasing the film abroad, there was this clause in the contract saying that if [an actor can] speak a certain language, you can dub [the movie]. So I immediately, being ridiculous, said, “I can speak French.” Mainly because I felt like going to Paris. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my entire life. I was with this woman of a certain age who was very strict, and the minute I opened my mouth, I knew I was in trouble. Because they do it in French script across the bottom of the screen, and I had to narrate the beginning. I really did want to shoot myself. I felt so stupid. And also she didn’t speak a whole lot of English, so the two of us, plus the technicians — it was a couple of very long days, and I learned my lesson. At the end, she said that I basically had a Bulgarian accent. Somewhere in the world — or not! — there is a copy of me dubbed in French in Practical Magic. I’m sure the minute I left, they hired someone else to do it right. But I made a real horse’s ass of myself, I will tell you that.
Did you have a sense of the movie’s reception when it came out? Do you read reviews as a general rule?
No, I don’t. I try to avoid watching myself as well, which is a little tricky because I had to do the narration.
I think it was difficult to market, honestly, because it’s not a totally spooky-horror-magic film. It has this domestic-violence and abuse plot in the middle and then it’s also this sister-family-bonding story and a love story. The tone is a little all over the place.
It’s very unusual. My recollection, which may or may not be accurate, is that it had a greater life after it first opened. I couldn’t tell you if it made money; I wouldn’t be aware of that at all. But I am aware that, over the years, a lot of people like yourself have been crazy about it. So it’s lived on, which is interesting. And I don’t know why that would be. It certainly is a very unusual film. I think maybe they use the word chick flick, which would hopefully be politically incorrect these days. But whatever it was — what do you think?
I think it was rare then, and is still rare now, for a movie to have as its central relationships the connections between women — between sisters, aunts, and nieces — and for their entanglements with men to be happening on the side. The men in this movie are more like plot devices. Everything really hinges on the way these women relate to one another, which is true in life all the time but isn’t depicted all that often onscreen.
Yeah, that hasn’t changed very much either. I would totally agree with you. And God love the VHS and all the technology. People stayed home and watched it. If you looked at the movie Grease, if it wasn’t for the technology of VHS and DVDs — that’s responsible for a lot [of the success]. And I think the fact that people can pick and choose what they want to see, and it’s in the privacy of their own home, their friends’ homes, that’s the phenomenon that came on only when this duplication was possible. Otherwise, you’d have to go to the movies.
And people can access it now even more so, to the point that they’ll see it and resee it. That’s what I’ve heard when people have mentioned it to me over the years. I think it’s uniqueness, probably. And it’s very beautiful to look at. It’s well made, and the performances are wonderful. No slouches here.
When was the last time you saw the movie?
Maybe at the premiere. But I won’t see anything I’m in. I try to avoid myself! Probably it would come up — people stop you in the street and say they love the movie. But to be honest, because it wasn’t as high profile in its initial release as many other things I’ve done, I was struck over the years by how many people would mention it to me.
Of all your work, is this something you hear about a lot?
It’s up there being mentioned. Mainly by women, definitely.
Do you believe in any of the magic in the movie?
Like do I believe in real magic? And witches?
Well, even just normal-life magic — jinxes, coincidences, destiny.
I do think that coincidence is fascinating, and that is the magic of life. Otherwise, we could all plot and plan and there wouldn’t be any surprises. I think de facto we have to believe in it. That’s the stuff we can’t control even if we would like to. That’s what makes things magical. Whether you like it or not, it’s there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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