I first saw Practical Magic in a Los Angeles movie theater in 1998. I was a stressed-out, overworked graduate student at UCLA, and the movie was pure bliss, transporting me to a lovelier world where magic was commonplace and as simple as a spoon stirring tea by itself, a breath lighting a candle, a bowl full of petals scattering into the wind to bring true love. I wanted to live in that film and not my one-room studio apartment in this lonely new city.
Watching the film is like sinking into a warm, scented bath. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a lush, magic-tinged world, with two irreverent, fabulous, parasol-carrying aunts who serve chocolate cake for breakfast and have dance parties at midnight and who also happen to be powerful, kickass witches? And who doesn’t want that fiery blood-bonded sisterhood, that place you can always come home to after forging your way out into the world (even if it’s Los Angeles you’ve fled to)? I feel like part of me did live in that film—and has ever since.
I didn’t realize how un-alone I was in this affection until I first posted an image of the house in the film on Faerie Magazine’s Facebook page: that gorgeous white Victorian with the wraparound porch, white picket fence, and blooming, wild gardens; that indoor conservatory filled to the brim with plants and one thick, crumbling spell book. So many other women loved it too! The house, the film, the book, that homespun, everyday magic that’s of this world, or could be if you believed that “being normal is not necessarily a virtue.” I wasn’t the only one who wanted to live in that world and its celebration of glamorous, extraordinary outcasts.
All that intense adoration for the film made me curious. I spoke with the movie’s producer, Denise di Novi, who plucked up Alice Hoffman’s glimmering novel when it was still in galley form, about the movie’s nearly cult status. (She also produced dozens of great movies, including one of my other all-time favorites, Edward Scissorhands.) “Practical Magic wasn’t a huge hit when it came out,” di Novi says, “but it seems to havestood the test of time. Today I have ten-year-olds tell me it’s their favorite movie!”
Why did she select the book? Di Novi has loved witches since she was a little girl, when there “weren’t a lot of powerful female figures for girls and women to look up to.” Witches, she says, “were exciting, with their powers and magic, and the book presented them in a believable, practical way.” She especially responded to Hoffman’s magic realism, the way that the book made magic out of the ordinary day-to-day work women do and take for granted—cooking, gardening, healing with herbs—and made the witches such charismatic and lovable figures, when historically they had “suffered for being independent women living outside of traditional boundaries.”
What a wonderful (witchy) power, to take a beloved novel and bring it to life onscreen! Hoffman herself visited the Warner Bros. set in Los Angeles, where all the house interiors were built (the house exteriors were all shot on one of the San Juan Islands, in Washington), and told me that “walking into that kitchen I felt like I was walking into my own book.” It was the dream kitchen, she says: “oldfashioned, beautiful, big enough to hold a ton of people.” Hoffman believes that there are two reasons (besides that dream house) the movie is still so loved: “First, women are fascinated with the icon of the witch and the sisterhood she represents. Second, the fantastic actresses in the film, and the sisterhood and friendship they portrayed. You don’t often see female relationships so central to a film.”
As it happens, the film not only featured that starry quartet of actresses—Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Sandra Bullock (who was also a producer), and Nicole Kidman—but also boasted a female producer (di Novi), line producer, and screenwriter, not to mention a bevy of child actresses, two of whom (Camilla Belle and Evan Rachel Wood) grew up to be stars in their own right. All the girls and women loved the subject matter—how could they not?—and bonded on the set, di Novi says, almost forming a kind of coven of their own. To this day, they’ve remained in touch. In fact, Hoffman is still close friends with di Novi and is the one who put me in touch with her. I love the thought of these little covens forming as women circle together to create magic, no matter where or when these gatherings take place—and no matter what dreams they bring to light for the rest of us.
Article from 2017 Autumn Practical Magic Issue #40 Order