On April 6, 1998, Hollywood arrives in Washington as filming for the movie Practical Magic begins on Whidbey Island. The Warner Bros. production calls for shooting on both Whidbey Island and San Juan Island, as well as one pivotal scene near Anacortes. The big-budget film, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, brings a month of excitement, stars, money, physical changes, and controversy to the island communities of Coupeville and Friday Harbor.
Sally and Gillian are sisters torn between their witchy heritage and their desire to live normal lives. In Alice Hoffman's novel Practical Magic and the film of the same name, the girls grow up in a magical house with two aunts who are practicing witches. Through tragedy, family drama, spells, and curses, the Owens sisters finally find balance.
Practical Magic, the movie, premiered in the fall of 1998 to mixed reviews. Critics and audiences, trying hard to pigeonhole the film as a "romantic comedy," were befuddled by elements of horror and pathos.
The film did have star power: Warner Bros. snagged Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman for the parts of sober Sally and fun-loving Gillian. Veteran actors Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest play the spell-casting aunts, while Aidan Quinn provides hunk power. A not-yet-famous Evan Rachel Wood plays Sally's older daughter.
Scouting the Islands
The studio scheduled the film for production in the spring of 1998. Location scouts had to find a coastal community that could stand in for a mythical Massachusetts island. The film called for a sunny location; California was still suffering the erratic weather patterns of the 1997-1998 El Nino phenomenon, making coastal filming difficult. As an alternative, Warner Bros. turned to the relatively protected inland waters of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.
On a bluff on the west side of San Juan Island overlooking Haro Strait, the scouts found the perfect spot for the Owens House, a towering Victorian with plenty of gingerbread. No matter that there was no house there -- one would be built for the shoot!
For the charming New England town of Martha's Island, the crew chose Coupeville, a nineteen-century maritime village hugging the east coast of Whidbey Island and within the Ebey's Landing National Historic Reserve. One of the oldest non-Native settlements in Washington, Coupeville had preserved a main street of clapboard storefronts with seaside charm. Here we see Sally meet her doomed husband, the tragic accident that takes his life, the opening of Sally's botanical store, and her encounters with a possible new love.
Going Hollywood in Coupeville
Coupeville had caught the eye of Hollywood before. In 1989 the town stood in briefly for Nantucket Island in the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner black comedy The War of the Roses. However, this time the shoot called for a greater transformation. To begin with, the entire length of Front Street was painted white. Locals liked to say "Don't stand in one place too long. Anything that doesn't move gets painted white" ("Coupeville Star-struck").
False fronts were then applied to some structures, and new signs appeared. Coupeville Liquor became The Speckled Hen Grocery; Kingfisher Books became Lesher's Hardware; Toby's Tavern was transformed into The Catch and Fry; and Tartans and Tweeds (now the Knead and Feed Bakery), both exterior and interior, played the role of Sally's shop, Verbena Botanicals. A do-it-yourself farmers market sprang up at the end of the street, complete with real produce from local farmers and seafood donated by Penn Cove Shellfish. Local labor was hired for much of the prep work.
Locals were also called on to be extras and, in a few cases, singled out for roles that required speaking -- or chanting or screaming. Several local kids were cast as "chanting children," charged with taunting the daughters of Sally Owens in a sing-song voice. Coupeville resident Alice Martin screamed a warning to Sally's husband too late to save him from being hit by a truck. A local biking group was recruited to careen through town in the same scene. Travel agent Mandy Haluscsak was hired as a stand-in for Sandra Bullock, and Jack Kirschke earned a named credit as "Old Man Wilkes."
Auditions were held twice in Coupeville and once in Friday Harbor. Eighteen years after the event, most locals remembered the fun of working for $40 per day with time and a half for overtime. Coupeville High School students Venessa Matros and Linnane Armstrong were cast as extras on the film. Armstrong described it as a fun way to spend spring break:
"The farmers market scenes were the main things I was in, but like I said I didn't make the final cut. I was walking our golden retriever across the street in the scene when the guy gets hit by a truck. One of the highlights for me was getting my picture taken with Aidan Quinn. He was very nice and approachable!" (Armstrong).
Matt Iverson, now an insurance agent in Oak Harbor, pitched in as an extra and did some driving. In a 2016 interview he described how a few locals, hired as stand-ins for the stars, revolted at the low pay and quit their gigs, and recalled the final scene of the movie, where the extras were invited to don their own costumes to celebrate Halloween and witness some practical magic at the Owens House.
Of course what most remembered best were the stars. Before shooting, Warner Bros. informed merchants and residents that:
"Sadly for some, Tom Cruise [Nicole Kidman's husband at the time] will not be here during filming. Nicole Kidman is only scheduled for one day in Coupeville so she will just zoom in and out. But Sandra and Aidan Quinn will be here!" (Matthews).
Perhaps Kidman's one scene took longer to shoot than expected, but for whatever reason, the "it" couple of the day did appear in town, Cruise driving his black Blazer and wearing his trademark Ray-Bans. Word was that the pair, fresh from filming Eyes Wide Shut, had rented a house on San Juan Island overlooking the sea for the duration of filming.
Bullock and Quinn definitely were on scene. Rebecca Wheeler, who described herself as a huge Sandra Bullock fan, remembered it well:
"I went down a few times to watch and see if I could catch a glimpse of her. The town looked pretty all white. I always loved the fact that my friends and I figured out that the scene when Bullock runs into town from her house was the wrong direction from the house" (Wheeler).
Both Quinn and Cruise appear to have whiled away much of their free time playing pool. Quinn charmed the locals at Toby's Tavern in Coupeville, while Cruise was spotted at Herb's Tavern in Friday Harbor. Matt Iverson went kayaking with Quinn off Coupeville one day -- a jaunt that ended with the actor flipping his kayak.
Casting a Spell on Friday Harbor
For many moviegoers, the most memorable part of the film was the Owens House, by all accounts a character in itself. The elaborate, richly decorated Shingle-style pile erected for the filming earned a write-up in Victoria magazine in October 1998. The house, with its remarkable kitchen, conservatory, interior staircases, widow's walk, gardens, and nooks, continues to be an inspiration for decorating websites and blogs. To this day some refuse to believe that it was all film illusion.
The reality is that the house, constructed on a bare piece of land in San Juan County Park, about six miles due west across San Juan Island from Friday Harbor, was largely a hollow shell. Interiors were fashioned on a Hollywood soundstage; only the kitchen and conservatory were transported piecemeal to the house for some scenes. Gardens were constructed using a mixture of real and artificial greenery.
To obtain permission to build on county park land, the filmmakers had to agree to raise the house on a platform. Because of the spot's Native American heritage, the county parks and recreation commission would not allow any digging into the soil. The studio also had to promise to dismantle the structure as soon as shooting was complete, and this, indeed, happened the day after filming wrapped. Production designer Robin Standefer told Victoria magazine that she made a salad from garden greens just before the entire set was leveled.
The film features one more location in Washington: The blue lights of the Shell Oil Refinery on March Point near Anacortes provide an appropriately eerie background for a scene in which the sisters are forced to kill a nasty individual -- for the first time.
Charm or Curse?
Big-budget filmmaking was a mixed blessing for the small Whidbey Island and San Juan Island communities. The experience brought an influx of cash from both the 150 studio personnel and the hiring of locals for everything from painting to traffic control to work as extras. Set designers purchased many local products, reportedly scouring antique stores all around Puget Sound. Then there were the intangibles of publicity and prestige that come along with being a part of a major motion picture.
But not everyone was happy with the disruptions to daily life and commerce. In Friday Harbor, negotiations between studio representatives and the town council over parking became heated. Turning over large swaths of downtown parking to studio vehicles for a week's period had some crying foul, particularly because it meant a delay in an ongoing storm-drain improvement project. Some in the community, who remembered the filming of Free Willy (1993) and its 1995 sequel, may have had visions of Friday Harbor becoming a studio back lot. However, compromise was reached and filming went forward.
In Coupeville there were naysayers as well. Their concerns centered on street closures in the historic waterfront area and expected traffic backups, threatening loss of business. While restaurants and inns clearly would benefit from the flood of studio folk and tourists, many retailers were not so happy and complained about the low compensation offered by the studio -- $30 a day. "We're very disenchanted," said Phyllis Jackson of Ye Kitchen Shoppe, turning a phrase ("Practical Magic Welcome Falls Short ...").
Suspicion of the "temporary" changes to storefronts may have been partly justified when one business, Coupeville Liquor (in 2016 A Touch of Dutch), elected to keep the false front applied to its exterior. At least one other business, the now-defunct Penn Cove Antique Mall, decided to retain its new paint job. An editorial cartoon in the Coupeville Times mocked the high hand of the studio bosses, showing a set director paying off local contractors while the historical society and the National Park Service protested.
Somehow the town survived the week's shooting. Mayor Nancy Conard was optimistic about the long-term benefit: "After the movie comes out, I'm hoping that people will see what a charming little community this is and want to visit" ("Town Takes Stock in Wake of Movie").
In Friday Harbor, an editorial in the local paper offered a largely positive review of the whole experience:
"Thank you, Warner Bros., for providing San Juan Island with a much needed infusion of money and jobs during our typically dismal shoulder season. We hope you'll return soon. It's been a blast having you."The original figure of $3 million to $5 million which local production of the film was to bring to the county may have been second-guessed to $1.5 million to $3 million, but no matter: the financial boost has been undeniable.
"More than money, however, the studio's presence here -- or more to the point, the presence of big-name screen personalities -- has been a moral shot in the arm to the archipelago. For a month, latest dish on the movie has been the hot topic at the Donut Shop, the health club and everywhere in between" ("That's All Folks").
As for Hollywood's feelings about the experience, we can only resort to the commentary on the DVD. In the words of Denise De Novi, the movie's producer, "This movie is about magic, and that place was magical," while Sandra Bullock describes seeing orcas and bald eagles and recalls the day a seal came to watch the filming on San Juan Island: "Those islands are some of the most blessed" ("Practical Magic Commentary").