HOCUS POCUS premiered twenty-five years ago, and has become a staple for the month of October, perfectly befitting the Halloween holiday--although it actually first appeared in summer, hitting theaters July 16, 1993.
The witches of Salem, Massachusetts...Winifred [Bette Midler], Sarah [Sarah Jessica Parker] and Mary [Kathy Najimy]...have managed to put a spell on us for more than two decades!
SDSA International Associate Member and social media chair Chase Helzer grew up with the film HOCUS POCUS and came up with this 25th Anniversary salute!
The questions and photo captions are by Helzer...
The photos were obtained through and with special permission from Walt Disney Archives.
Thanks to all!
The story was inspired by producer David Kirschner for his daughters, when he saw a black cat cross their path.
The film begins around the time of the Salem Witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts...
The aging Sanderson
sisters are three witches who trap a young child to reclaim their youth. With the help of a spell book and a cauldron, the sisters put together a magic potion incorporating a dead man’s toe for the purpose of consuming the soul of their captive. The sisters are interrupted by the young girl’s older brother, who tries to save the girl from the witches’ spell. Unsuccessful, he is magically turned into a black cat for eternity. By the time the townspeople arrive at the witches’ doorstep to rescue the children, it is too late. The sisters are hung for their actions...but before they are executed, Winnie,
the oldest, incants one last spell:
“On Hallows Eve, if a virgin lights the black flame candle, the witches will be back
Cutting to modern day...
High schoolers Max
[Omri Katz] and Allison
[Vinessa Shaw] enter the Salem Historic park, the Sanderson Witch Museum
on Halloween. Max
, trying to impress Allison
with his bravado, lights the black-flamed candle, saying, “It’s all just a little Hocus Pocus.” Once the candle is lit, the old house starts to shake. Realizing what they have done, the kids hide. The lit candle initiates a series of events, bringing the witches back for only a single night, unless the sisters can use their magic to steal children’s souls. Max
, his little sister Dani
[Thora Birch] and Allison,
along with Binx, the black cat,
fight back to end the witches’ terror at dawn. Friends join along the way to help, including a corpse and one time boyfriend of Winifred Sanderson
named Billy Butcherson
[Doug Jones, who also played the Amphibian Man
in the SHAPE OF WATER].
Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA International, HOCUS POCUS Set Decorator, remembers the film fondly, and the craftsmanship it took to make a story about witches coming back from death to life...
SET DECOR: A little insight, is there an interesting story on how you got the job as Set Decorator for HOCUS POCUS?
Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA International:
We made the film in 1992, after I had been in LA working as a Set Decorator for almost 10 years, after moving from the East Coast. By then I’d worked on some great character films like LA BAMBA, on location in the Caribbean on SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, and in the Boston area on SCHOOL TIES, among other projects. Since HOCUS POCUS was to shoot partially in Massachusetts, maybe that’s how I got on the short list for the film. I’m forever grateful to Production Designer William Sandell, who invited me onboard. We subsequently did several projects together. Bill’s insane love of Halloween, and boundless inventiveness, are legend.
: When signing on for this project, what did you anticipate your largest hurdle would be? Did you turn out to be right?
I have a visceral memory of the smell of rotting pumpkins in our storage rooms: we ordered hundreds of them at peak Halloween season, and tried to keep them as fresh as we could for months. When they go bad, they look OK but when you go to pick them up they have a soggy collapsing bottom and they really stink. In retrospect, a refrigerated truck would have been a good idea. We did end up finding a freeze-dried pumpkin company that saved us in the end. These are commonplace now, but at the time they were a new innovation.
But the biggest obstacle was the old standard: budget: Sandell and his skilled Art Department, including Art Director Nancy Patton with Set Designers Brad Ricker (a Marblehead MA native, and now a supervising Art Director) and Martha Johnston designed the gorgeous Witches’ House
. The Disney Execs asked for a show and tell. Bill et al created a fantastic model of the house—with the surrounding forest, water wheel, complete with removable roof and dressing inside—a miniature wonderland. It turned out the meeting was actually a demand to reduce the cost of the Production Design. “All we need is a few great actresses, snappy dialog, and black curtains,” said the Executive. Somehow, our team prevailed, and the film remains a cult hit, partly because of the classic look surrounding and supporting those great performances.
: When creating the look for the Sanderson Cottage interiors, what was your inspiration?
I’m a research hog, and love the process of finding historic detail and tweaking it just so. On a scout to Massachusetts, we saw many 17th
c homes, and I took in the Essex Nautical Museum in Salem. They had some lovely old display cases that we referred to when we made the glass-topped table for Propmaster Russell Bobbitt’s excellent Spell book
in the Sanderson Museum
. And after having done loads of Voodoo altars and temples for SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I was an old hand at potion jars and weird ingredients.
: What from your previous work prepared you for this film?
Every project is different, and I try not to repeat myself. Being quite a theatrical piece, my work for many years in theater props and scenery prepared me for the visual feast that is HOCUS POCUS. Most times I try not to shout visually, and rather approach my set decoration as the straight man for the performers. But in this film we could be quite a bit more extreme, which was a hoot. One set I’m thinking of is the Devil’s House
—where our Witches
go trick-or-treating in Salem
, and Gary and Penny Marshall play the homeowners—the gauntlet of red devil’s tridents and the white picket fence adorned with cornhusk flames! And the amazing Halloween Party
parents dance the night away...those were fun sets.
: What type of research was needed for this film?
This was before the era of Internet research, so we worked with library books, the Warner Research Collection, and museums. Art Department Coordinator Angi Neff shares my love of history: she was a huge help in this regard.
Jumping between periods meant looking deeply into 17th
Century Massachusetts at the time of the Salem Witch Trials, old colonial graveyards, old New England homes, present day quirky community museums, Halloween décor, high school classrooms, teenage boys’ bedrooms: whatever the set, I always have a grounded base of selected imagery to work from.
: Since the film starts 300 years back from present day, how much aging did you do to the Sanderson sisters’ cottage?
In the 17th
century, the house was dirty, as you might expect from a small coven of nasty witches, but lived in. In the current day, the house been changed from when the sisters lived there: it’s a community museum, a repository for random objects and furniture that townspeople bequeath to them. Filthy and abandoned, it’s really aged and dusty. Our Special Effects team, led by Terry Frazee, used spider webs and dust guns with Fuller’s earth to create much of the effect, along with wax and paint aging from our Scenic Artists. In those days we could use the kind of cobweb guns that used rubber cement, which made fabulous webs. Nowadays OSHA has us limited to the kind that uses glue sticks, alas. Doesn’t quite catch the light right.
: How much of HOCUS POCUS was filmed on location in Salem, Mass?
Was the Sanderson Cottage based on a real cottage?
How much was built on stage at Walt Disney studios in Burbank?
As always, it’s a long story. Kudos to Location Managers Lori Balton and Debbie Laub, and Massachusetts-based Assistant Location Manager Jeff MacLean (Now a Location Manager in his own right) for fitting the puzzle together.
We built the interior and exterior of the gabled house, based on an amalgam of 17th
Century New England domestic architecture such as the House of Seven Gables, onstage at Disney Studios. We also built onstage the historic graveyard where Billy Butcherson
pops up. However, the graveyard where Max
has a run-in with the young toughs is a historic cemetery in Marblehead, MA called Old Burial Hill. And Thackeray Binx’s
Century farmstead was filmed in a historic town called Salem Pioneer Village. Max’s
high school was shot in a closed elementary school in Salem, and his home was a lovely late 19th
Century house in Salem, but his room was a stage set, since it had to explode. Allison’s
house was a fine historic home in Salem. The interior of the Halloween Ball
was filmed at the MacArthur, formally the Park Plaza Hotel in LA, and the exterior at the Salem Town Hall. The Devil’s House
we shot in Whittier, CA. If memory serves, we shot about a month on location, in Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts, after prepping for months there.
: Were you able to find the props and set pieces at prop houses or did you have to source them or build them?
For makes, what comes to mind are: the big witches cauldron, the aforementioned display case, the cages that the boys were confined in, all the Halloween decorations, and a great portrait of the witches by artist Jay Fisher. At Prophouses: Buyer Patti Garrity, SDSAI (Now a Set Decorator in her own right) helped me find many treasures. In those days we had resources that are no longer with us: Paramount Property had a great stash of old stuff under Stage 18, 20th
Century Fox had a big warehouse in Culver City full of treasures, the dearly departed House of Props was a gold mine, and Disney Props had some key items. Warner Brothers was more disheveled than it is now, and had a basement full of old creaky stuff. We found loads of crusty iron fireplace dressing, candle chandeliers and torchieres, a great breakfront for the potions. We took advantage of liberal Production Rental deals, managed by Lead Chris Spellman (now a Production Designer).
SET DECOR: You spoke of the craftmanship on the film, what part are you most proud of?
We vowed we wouldn’t use any store-bought Halloween decorations. So we made EVERYTHING from scratch. From carved pumpkins, to scarecrows, witches, ghosts, you name it. It was a blast. There was a layered quality to HOCUS POCUS that I continue to strive for in my work.
SET DECOR: Since the film is somewhat of a technical marvel—witches flying, the dead brought back to life and out of the ground, talking cats, and so much more—was there a challenge with having to work around the strings, cranes and pulleys?
How much of the set pieces had to be modified because of this?
And candles! How many did you have and how did you determine overall lighting?
The department in the Art diaspora most affected by the flying was Greens. Although he’s not credited, I’m almost sure Frank McEldowney was in charge. He did a great job accommodating the various units shooting the flying stunts, providing the realistic forests on stage, and providing autumn foliage well before the leaves fell in New England.
Yes, we burned loads of candles. Don’t you just love Propmaster Bobbitt’s black candle?
: Looking back 25 years, what part of this film are you excited to tell us about on its Silver Anniversary?
I’m thrilled that we were able to welcome HOCUS POCUS Producer Bonnie Bruckheimer to speak at the SDSAI’s 25th Anniversary celebration. She has always been so generous in her inclusion of women, and her understanding of the importance of the Arts of film in her teaching at USC and elsewhere. I’m proud of the friendships that I’ve sustained from these years in my career, with fine craftsmen and women. I’m honored every time a young crewmember tells me they grew up watching HOCUS POCUS. And I loved working with Director Kenny Ortega, a kind, talented artist who really appreciated what we gave him to work with.