Practical Magic: About The Production

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Sally (SANDRA BULLOCK) and Gillian (NICOLE KIDMAN) Owens have always known they were different. Raised by their aunts after their parents’ death, the sisters grew up in a household that was anything but typical&emdash;rules were for other people. The little girls ate chocolate cake for breakfast, stayed up late and studied spell books, practicing the ancient arts of white magic that had been passed down through their family from generation to generation.

Attempting to pass on the unique and powerful psychic heritage of the Owens women, Aunt Jet (DIANNE WIEST) and Aunt Frances (STOCKARD CHANNING) hope to give their nieces the strength that comes from the use of practical magic. But the invocation of the Owens’ sorcery also carries a price&emdash;some call it a curse: the men they fall in love with are doomed to an untimely death.

Watching her aunts weave spells for the lonely and the lovelorn, the quieter Sally begins to realize what she has always felt to be true&emdash;that she will never find her soul mate. Trying to distance herself from her foremothers, she denies her powers and strives to build herself a ‘normal,’ magic-free life. The more fiery Gillian, reckless and restless and thrilled by her pull over men, embraces her powers and sets out on a tumbleweed existence that leaves a trail of broken hearts in her wake.

When Gillian meets Jimmy (GORAN VISNJIC), a malevolent drifter, she unwittingly sets off a chain of explosive events that brings police officer Gary Hallet (AIDAN QUINN) onto the family porch and into Sally’s heart, while releasing a swarm of supernatural forces that threatens the lives of all the Owens women.

GRIFFIN DUNNE, who most recently directed the romantic comedy "Addicted to Love," is directing, with DENISE DI NOVI producing, MARY McLAGLEN executive producing and ROBIN SWICORD co-producing. The screenplay is by Robin Swicord and AKIVA GOLDSMAN and ADAM BROOKS, based on ALICE HOFFMAN’s popular novel of the same name. "Practical Magic" is a Di Novi Pictures production in association with Fortis Films.

Aiding the filmmakers in creating the mystical world of the Owens clan are director of photography ANDREW DUNN, B.S.C. ("The Crucible," "Addicted to Love"), production designer ROBIN STANDEFER ("Addicted to Love," "The Age of Innocence"), editor ELIZABETH KLING ("Addicted to Love," "Georgia") and costume designer JUDIANNA MAKOVSKY ("Great Expectations," "A Little Princess").

About the Production&ldots;

Producer Di Novi has always been a fan of author Alice Hoffman’s work. "The thing I love about Alice’s books is that they deal with women thrust into situations that border on the magical or surreal," she explains. "What was captivating to me about ‘Practical Magic’ in particular was that it was not only a very real story emotionally, but it was also magical with other-worldly elements to it."

"Practical Magic" is the first novel by the best-selling Hoffman to be made into a motion picture. For Di Novi, it was a true labor of love. "It’s my favorite book of Alice’s," she comments.

"The story is about loss and about feeling different," explains Hoffman. "Sally and Gillian grow up feeling that they are outcasts in some way. The other kids avoid them, talk behind their backs, throw stones. That kind of ostracism is part of the reason for the problems they experience in their lives."

The story also deals with the possible downside of love. Di Novi continues, "When Sally initially tries at love, she fails and is afraid to try again. The free-spirited Gillian is indiscriminate and is hurt by love&emdash;her relationship with Jimmy shows what happens when you come under a dark spell of someone and you lose yourself, giving away your own personal power."

When it came time for the producer to sign a director, she chose Griffin Dunne after seeing his work on "Duke of Groove" and "Addicted to Love"&emdash;a look at the foibles of the human heart. "I think Griffin is able to balance a lot of sensibilities," says the producer, "in terms of his ability to direct drama and very serious things. But he also has this very sophisticated and ironic sense of humor and I felt he would be able to hit all the right tones with this movie."

Director Griffin Dunne was enchanted by the script. "It was literally like a caldron," he explains. "Every emotion, theme and ingredient you could imagine was swirling around in it. I particularly liked the women’s use of magic; it comes right from the title. It’s about a more practical, almost holistic approach that seems like a gift that virtually anyone could have."

The producer found that, despite the richness of the history of magic, the 20th-century world still tends to classify it part superstition, part claptrap. "Today, we think that there is a separation between real life and magic," says Di Novi. "But if you really analyze life, magical things happen every day. Why do you dream about things before they happen? How can you hear your baby crying from miles away? How do you know the instant someone close to you dies? Why do you fall in love at first sight? Those kinds of things are magical. Everyday life, everyone&emdash;they’re magical even if we don’t realize it."

The Die Is Cast
Sandra Bullock was the first of the actors to be cast in the movie. "When I looked at ‘While You Were Sleeping’ and ‘Hope Floats,’" says Di Novi, "I saw that she was able to make the characters very accessible. No matter what Sandra does on screen, you identify with her."

Bullock was very excited about the script. "I loved the idea that the integral part of this story is about two sisters who are essentially torn apart. They are just so opposite, but they really need each other. It’s like a gene was split in half and, without each other, they can’t function."

For Sally’s sister, the filmmakers wanted Nicole Kidman. "Nicole is someone who can play extreme, complex characters and bring them to life in a way that they seem totally real and not fabrication," says Di Novi. "She is also very magnetic and compelling, which Gillian has to be."

"Gillian is the wild one," says Kidman. "She chooses to leave home because the people there ridicule her and her sister for being different. I think that is one of the more important themes that Alice looks at in her book&emdash;that you should embrace your eccentricity and individuality rather than attempt to conform to what people expect you to be."

"Sally is, in a way, schizophrenic," elaborates Bullock. "She would like to be normal, but she’s not. In fact, she’s spent her entire life trying to be ‘normal.’ Her problems arise from her denial of what makes her special."

"Sandra and Nicole complement each other very well," says Dunne. "They play off each other even though they have very different energies. They want to get across, as I do, not just the tender warm aspects of families, but the stuff we are more familiar with&emdash;the fighting, the backbiting, the conflicts, the insecurities and the frailties. They are both fearless actresses who are willing to try anything."

"Griffin has a weird and wonderful sense of humor," says Kidman. "It’s such fun working with a director who has a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of the macabre."

"Nicole always seemed like the perfect person to play Gillian," comments Sandra. "I think it’s because we are so opposite, our energies are so opposite that we needed what the other person had. We have a really strong affection for one another and I don’t know where that came from. There’s a connection and it produced the chemistry we needed to play sisters."

"It’s hard to analyze," concludes Kidman. "I think it’s because we have the same sense of humor. As long as I have that with someone then ultimately, everything else just falls into place."

In casting the two aunts, the filmmakers were looking for actresses who could play the sometimes gentle, sometimes screwball humor while still possessing the stature to play strong, dignified women&emdash;qualities found in abundance in both Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing.

The director comments, "I have known both Dianne and Stockard for years and I have always admired their work. I wanted the aunts to be funny and I knew that with actresses like this, you give them the part, they come up with their own stuff and you never have to worry about them again."

Channing remarks, "Dianne and I have known each other for a really long time, because we both came to New York at the start of our careers. But we’ve never actually gotten to work together. I must say we make a very funny pair. We’re good friends and it all came together very easily and quickly."

Wiest says, "It’s funny&emdash;as an actor, I sometimes feel a little like an outsider, an observer. But the Owens women, we’re really more than outsiders. We’re actually feared and hated. It’s more than people not wanting to socialize with you&emdash;they actually cross the street to avoid you. And as a target of this ostracism, you have a choice: you can just smile and keep on saying ‘hello,’ or just shrug it off, acknowledging it as a way of life. But what you can’t do is deny who you are, which is what Sally has tried to do all of her life."

Channing adds, "According to my character, being ‘normal’ is just a lack of imagination."

The character of Gary Hallet is a very rare kind of man&emdash;a classic hero’s strength tempered with a sensitive heart. "We chose Aidan because he has a very poetic feeling about him," says Di Novi, "but he is also very grounded, warm and manly."

The actor also responded to the poetry of Hoffman’s story. Quinn replies, "There is a fable-like quality to the story. It’s basically just saying that you can use magic in everyday life. I mean, I’m working with Griffin and a great cast and almost feel guilty getting paid; that seems a little magical, doesn’t it?"

When Goran Visnjic was suggested for the role of Jimmy, it inspired Dunne to rethink the role. "It was originally written as a redneck cowboy with a kind of Texan drawl. However, when Goran’s name came up, I suddenly realized how much more interesting it would be to have a Jimmy that had come to this country and had fallen in love with the cowboy myth. He has created a bad guy role for himself straight out of a Louis L’Amour book."

Visnjic found Jimmy to be an interesting mix of Old World and new. He explains, "Jimmy came from Bulgaria to the United States and became obsessed with American culture. He drives a convertible, wears boots and a vest. But he brought a darkness with him, and he begins to develop strange magic&emdash;a black magic, you know? And after he meets Gillian, she becomes the center of his life; he cannot survive without her. When she tries to leave him, that just brings out all of the darkness in him."

From the Ground Up
Just as important to the story of the Owens family is their multigenerational home, prompting filmmakers to build it rather than to look for an existing structure.

"The house is tailored to the action in the film," explains Di Novi. "I don’t think we could ever have found a house that could have matched our needs."

Production designer Robin Standefer (who had previously collaborated with Dunne on "Addicted to Love") labored for months researching what would constitute the perfect house for a family of witches. Once sketches were completed, it took an additional eight months to bring her initial artist’s conception to three-dimensional life.

Although the tale of the Owens women begins in the 1600s, the story of "Practical Magic" spans three decades (from the 1970s to present day), so the structure needed to be adaptable to the passing periods. "By the very nature of the family, the aunts in particular, there is a timelessness about the environment and about the house that particularly interested me," explains Standefer. "I chose a Victorian style for the house because it needed to be rambling. There are so many children in the house, so many generations. You could almost move in a circular fashion and get lost, finding yourself in different time periods. The design really developed from there. I tried to find elements of design that have stood the test of time. You couldn’t be sure if things were originally in the house in 1850 or they had been added to it in the Twenties.

"In the living room, however, I wanted to be more specifically Victorian. The parlor is the ceremonial room and I felt that this was a place where I could speak about the period of the house."

The New England-style home also features a roomy kitchen&emdash;the heart of the house&emdash;which centers around a British aga-gas stove.

"The aga is almost like a shrine," elaborates Standefer. "This is the place where they do their work; it’s where they place the caldron."

The pantry features shelves of home-canned foods&emdash;the kind of thing past generations of women used to spend their days filling which now fell to the prop department, who had to fill hundreds of jars.

The structure also features a dining room that has been converted into a work room (with the addition of a spinning wheel and a loom) and an impressive greenhouse filled with exotic plants, mysterious herbs and candle-making supplies.

The resulting structure stunned the author. "When I visited the set," remembers Hoffman, "it wasn’t really like wandering into my own imagination; it was like wandering into another person’s interpretation of my imaginary world. I was thrilled that it was so beautifully rendered; it gave me a sense of drifting through this magical world, but it was all so real."

Some of the magic was all a bit too real for the cast and crew. "We were filming a scene where we have brought a coven together," remembers Bullock, "and we had just reached an integral part where the women begin chanting together. All of a sudden, the door started slamming. Everyone saw and heard it, but we had no idea how it could be happening."

Standefer sees the house as being a very real character in the story. "The house itself has a certain magic to it. There is a whole world in this house and garden. These women are outcasts and this place is their sanctuary; it almost feels like all the emotion of the generations is caught up in its walls."

"The landscaping of the garden was also very, very important," continues Standefer. "The aunts are dabbling herbalists, and the very nature of their heritage is to live off the earth. The way they cook, the way they medicate themselves, the way they take care of their family&emdash;it’s all through the garden."

The story dictated that the house had to be built on an island, originally in New England. Because most of the filming was scheduled to take place during winter months, it was decided to re-create the New England setting in a more temperate climate. The filmmakers settled on the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

"Having been in New England I knew there is always this whiteness. It comes from the sand, glowing off the water, everything seems over-exposed," explains Standefer. "I decided to make the exterior of the house very, very white and to make the plants in the garden quite white with lavender and pale blue, the colors of the sea."

The exterior of the house was constructed in the San Juan National Park on San Juan Island. The location had an other-worldly quality to it and living on the island proved to be an extraordinary experience for members of the production. Completely unspoiled, the island and surrounding waters boast a profusion of wildlife including bald eagles, seals and Orcas. The islands also have a magnificent climate, known as the ‘banana belt;’ the area enjoys a lot less rainfall than the nearby Seattle. The production enjoyed stunning spring weather throughout their five weeks of filming while back home, Los Angelenos were suffering the rages of "El Nino."

Aidan Quinn comments, "There is palpable witchcraft in a place like this. All you have to do is stay quiet for a second, and the magic just seems to come in."

Community involvement was elemental to the success of the production. The townspeople of Friday Harbor were invited to participate in a scene depicting a Halloween celebration; almost 150 extras turned up in costumes they had assembled themselves. Many were also cast as Puritans in the opening flashback sequence when the Owens’ ancestor, Maria, is hanged.

Crew members also had the opportunity to thank the community that was so helpful during filming&emdash;makeup crew members provided demonstrations for the local theatre group and the prop department distributed blood red roses when scenes were completed filming.

The main town on Maria’s Island (home to the Owens women) was portrayed by Coopeville, a small sea-front community on Whitby Island in the Puget Sound. Standefer decided to keep to the palette of whites and pale pastel colors and had the entire town painted.

Tourism is an essential part of the local economy so it was decided to keep the main street open during filming. Storefronts were covered with facades while signs informed tourists that the shops were still open for business. The whole town became a part of the filmmaking process; one of the local restaurants doubled as an extras’ housing area while clientele at other establishments had a grandstand view of Hollywood movie-making.

The aunts, although appearing to be in their fifties or sixties, are actually more than one hundred years old, and their clothes reflect their lifespan. (Their apparent youth is aided by their knowledge of exotic herbs and by the partaking of particularly noxious brews.) As with the Owens house, the costumes are an extraordinary mix of eccentric period pieces and current fashions, with designer pieces often matched with antique clothes appropriate for women who have lived for more than a century.

The Art of Flying
A story about a family of witches cannot be told without at least a little bit of flying, broomstick or no. Griffin Dunne brought in visual effects supervisor John Scheele to get the ladies off the ground.

The sequence had been carefully planned by Scheele and SFX coordinator Burt Dalton. Initially, Scheele extensively pre-visualized the sequence for director Dunne using a CGI simulation of the scene with 3-D figures.

"This gave us a very tight road map of how to shoot the green screen performances of the actors," explains Scheele. Once the scene had been fully mapped out, Burton then designed an elaborate rig which enabled all six of the actors to fly at the same time.

Although a green screen would be utilized in the scene (with that portion being staged in a San Juan county fairground building), the actors themselves still had to levitate off the roof of the house. Dressed in cliched witches’ costumes, Bullock, Kidman, Wiest, Channing, Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip teetered on the widow’s walk of the house more than 25 feet from the ground. As the three-generational family of witches (wearing intricate harnesses concealed beneath their costumes) swung out into the air, director Dunne played recorded dance music for the women to "groove" to.

The visual effects weren’t limited to the art of flying. John Scheele was also responsible for the creation of Jimmy’s ghost and his possession of Gillian, which involved some very complicated and newly created processes.

"When we had our first visual effects meeting," explains Scheele, "both Robin Standefer and I came to the table with the same concept&emdash;that of basing the look of Jimmy’s ghost on the style of the daguerreotype photographs of the 1850s. Those haunting pictures of dead ancestors and fallen soldiers really inspired us to create something new based on an archaic photographic process. The daguerreotype process is more of a proto form of photography and it looks more like a laser holograph than a photograph. It is like a dark mirrored surface that, when moved in a certain way in the sunlight, makes the image visible."

In order to re-create that look, Scheele researched the CGI tools that were currently available and found them lacking. "J. Riddle and the team over at Cinesite immediately began developing new software. They created what they call an optical flow software, which analyzes and predicts the motion of a figure as it moves across the screen. It creates a distortion of that image that looks kind of like a wave form moving over the figure. If you can imagine the momentum of someone walking and, as they stop, the image of their movement crests and swarms over them. In movement, the image of Jimmy’s spirit is unfocused. But if he stays very still, the focus of his image would collapse and become relatively sharp."

The possession of Gillian by Jimmy also required an innovative approach. "Jimmy is drawn back to Gillian," continues Scheele. "He seeks to merge back with her and even into her. There are a couple of remarkable scenes where we are working with both the real photographic images of Nicole and Goran and cyber scans, which produce 3-D images of their faces. At certain times we can see Jimmy’s face rise up inside Gillian’s. He is literally lurking inside her. It’s like looking at him through amniotic fluid. At first you see him indistinctly, but as he rises up to the surface of her face he takes it over&emdash;her eyes become his eyes."

The greatest challenge for the effects team was the fact that it was necessary to create these complicated shots on location in Friday Harbor, rather than in an equipped stage in Los Angeles. "We took the mountain to Mohammed," says Scheele. "We took all the tools we needed and created a SFX stage in the indoor tennis court at the San Juan Island fairground."

"This story illustrates the many aspects of love&emdash;between sisters, between mother and daughter, between men and women," comments Di Novi. "I also thought it was a very beautiful love story that deals with destiny, and how people find one another. We all have the secret fear that we are never to find true love; it is our secret wish that there be one perfect person for us out there and that destiny will bring us to that person."

Both Bullock and Kidman, who conducted extensive research into the history of witchcraft before embarking on their roles, came away with a more ‘practical’ view of the ancient art. Sandra comments, "I read every book on witchcraft I could get my hands on and what was really interesting is that the word ‘witchcraft’ is so dated. We talked to so many women who, according to the books, would be defined as witches, but basically they are just more in touch with something larger, spiritually, than we are."

"Love is the ultimate magic," concludes Hoffman, "the ultimate spell, without reason, often making no sense. We spend our lives trying to make those kinds of things practical&emdash;why do I love him, why does he love me? Basically, it’s just magic."

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