‘Practical Magic’ Screenwriter on Creative Battles and Bringing Feminine Witches to Life: ‘We Are Not Just Men With Vaginas’ (Exclusive)

Robin Swicord tells TheWrap about adapting the film from a feminine perspective and clashing with director Griffin Dunne

practical-magic-sandra-bullock
Warner Bros.

Screenwriter Robin Swicord hasn’t seen “Practical Magic” in the 25 years since it was released. For her, it’s hard to remember much about the film outside of “trying to figure the movie out and do my best to write something that would get made and be worth it,” she told TheWrap in an exclusive interview. Swicord is Hollywood’s go-to screenwriter when the town needs a book adaptation. Her writing has defined a generation from her 1994 adaptation of “Little Women” to working with perceived unadaptable material like 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

“Practical Magic” is a bittersweet topic for Swicord, though, due to changes with the script that would eventually be credited to her, as well as Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks. Creative clashes with director Griffin Dunne compelled Swicord to “write that one off,” she said. A surprising admission given the film’s beloved status by many, especially when fall rolls around.

The film, based on Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel of the same name, follows two sisters (played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) who are ostracized in their small town for being witches. Along the way there’s resurrected baddies and a third-act possession plot that culminates in a sweet story of femininity and societal acceptance.

But while the script didn’t end with Swicord, it certainly started with her. “I really loved the experience of reading the book,” she said. Initially, she’d planned to write a faithful adaptation of the novel but, around page 75, she got to the realization that “there’s no magic here.”

“I couldn’t find the magic in the Boston suburbs,” she said. So she did what she calls “moving a boundary,” changing something fundamental about the source material that radically would change where her story could go. In this case, it was transitioning the story out of Boston and onto Vashon Island in Washington.

“I felt like it was a more likely place to be able to create women who had always been witches, who generationally had been witches, and that people would gossip about them but wouldn’t drive them away, or set their house on fire because, basically, they were tolerant,” she said.

Swicord went on to discuss adapting the novel and realizing the moment that her vision of the movie and director Griffin Dunne’s didn’t mix.

TheWrap: Was adapting Hoffman’s novel different than something like “Little Women?”

Robin Swicord: “Little Women,” I wrote it a couple of years before that; it takes a minute to get movies made. My starting place for that was if Louisa May Alcott were adapting her own book, what is the screenplay she would write? I tried to really see from her point of view. It’s a different starting place anytime you do an adaptation. On this one I was very interested in the power, the sort of unacknowledged, at that time — it’s more acknowledged now but not enough — this unacknowledged power that women [are] the source of life.

We are not just men with vaginas. We are, in fact, a group of people who are deeply connected to the life force, and there is something magical about what we can do with our bodies, that we make life. So my starting place with this was these women have all of these powers that are not understood, but people need them the way the world needs women. People come to them for help but then they’re embarrassed about that help or, having taken that help, they don’t want the world to know their problems in a small town and so the women are also avoided.

I thought about the history in Boston also with witches. That they would take women who were basically people who were good with concocting herbal remedies and who were unmarried, or they had been widowed for a while, and yet they seemed to be sustaining themselves just fine without having to be in a family or in a marriage, and how those people were set apart. They became suspect. I tried to bring that all into the contemporary world and I really responded to this idea that, in the book, [it’s] a kind of a curse.

Alice Hoffman was going after something else and having adolescent daughters and having these girls be preyed upon. I hadn’t had, at that time, a teenage daughter yet so, for me, I felt like ‘I don’t want this to be something that arouses a prurient interest in teenage girls.’ I just really backed away from that. I felt like it’s one thing to write it and it’s another thing to see it. When you’re reading in a book it’s different than if you’re asking an actor to stand there with this man in the shadows stalking her. There are a lot of decisions that I made from an emotional place.

Did you write with any casting in mind?

I didn’t. There are a number of women who would have been the appropriate age. I just didn’t worry about that. I think more about casting now because it’s just realistic, in terms of you’re never gonna get your movie anywhere close to financed unless it’s playable by people that are on the shortlist somewhere. I had faith that we would find the right people. There was a funny moment in the book where the maiden aunts speak in unison.

I called up Alice Hoffman and I said, “I’m struggling with these people who are speaking in unison. I’d like to know a little bit more about them. They’re not twins, right? One is going to be older than the other? Can you give me some sense of who the older one would be?” And she said, “No, I can’t really help you there.” And I said, “They’re going to have more defined personalities because actors are going to have to play them and they’re going to be differentiated as people. They’re not differentiated in the book. Do you have any thoughts about that?” And she’s like, “No. You know what I was thinking about when I was writing them? I was thinking about the animated movie about Sleeping Beauty and these three fairies that were floating around.

I went, “Wow, it’s so great to be a novelist.” You can just think of them speaking in unison, have them be the same age or no age. It’s a different thing when you’re sitting at your desk and you’re thinking these are going to be two great roles for two great women.

"Practical Magic"
“Practical Magic” (Warner Bros.)

What were you looking for in a director at the time? What did you think about Griffin Dunne?

What happened was [original studio] Turner Pictures got sold to Warners and Warners had different directors that they already had under contract, where they had made a two-picture deal with them. Griffin was one of those people so they offered him up to us. [Producer] Denise Di Novi and I liked him. When we met him we had just seen a movie that he had directed. It didn’t turn out to be a big hit but we thought that he had directed it well.

But I think that, very often, he and I found ourselves at cross purposes creatively as we went along. I didn’t end up staying with the project all the way through. He had a number of other people come in and do writing work. Sometimes these things happen and you don’t have any control over that as a writer. If it just stayed at Turner and Turner has stayed a studio I don’t know how it would have gone. But at any rate there were some good writers who came on it. In the end the core of what was on the screen was my intention. A lot of the scenes that I wrote were there. I feel like it passed through a lot of hands, but settled into some version of itself.

I know Griffin has talked about his version of the film being darker.

My script was not perceived as being that dark. That’s what I mean by cross purposes. Everybody comes to it in their own way. He had some personal experiences in his life, a loss that really colored the film for him, and I think that he was ready to express some of that, creatively. It was what was in him at that time. He was always pushing in that direction, but it was never meant to be that way for me. So it was probably just as well that we didn’t try to keep meeting on the same page. I hope that he got out of it what he wanted.

Was there a moment where you realized you and he just weren’t going to agree on the direction of the film?

Incrementally I felt it moving to a point where, screenwriters are writers for hire very often. But that doesn’t mean that we can do every single thing that’s asked of us, guiding that is a person’s own sensibility and my own sensibility just didn’t mesh with the direction that the film was going. There were aspects of it that I felt would be fine. There were whole areas where we were agreed. One of the things that Griffin often said to me is “I want this to be like ‘The Exorcist.’ I want you to watch ‘The Exorcist’ and I want this to be like ‘The Exorcist.’” I’d be like, “You know, this is [a story about] two gentle witches with romantic problems who help their neighbors.’”

He was speaking broadly. I don’t think he literally wanted ‘The Exorcist,’ but you try to reach for comparative things to try to reach some understanding together. I stayed in touch with Denise about it and we would talk during production, too. There were a couple of times when it seemed like if I wanted to come back I could maybe try to solve some of the things, but it wasn’t a smooth road from what I hear. I don’t know all the stories, this is just third hand from standing at the edges of it. People care about things passionately and they come from different points of view. Sometimes it meshes and sometimes it just doesn’t.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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