It's Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week I talked about the making of the beloved cult Halloween film Hocus Pocus (1993) and today I want to focus on one of my favorite characters in the film.

In 1693, William "Billy" Butcherson was the boyfriend of the witch Winifred Sanderson. Unfortunately, Winifred's younger sister Sarah was quite a seductress and loved "playing" with men, so she tempted Billy to stray.

When Winifred discovered that Billy was being unfaithful with Sarah, she poisoned him on May 1, 1893 and sewed his mouth shut with a dull needle (which is why the stitches are so large) so he could not tell her secrets even in death.

Three-hundred years later she awakened him with this spell: "Unfaithful lover long since dead. Deep asleep in thy wormy bed. Wiggle thy toes, open thine eyes, twist thy fingers toward the sky. Life is sweet, be not shy, on thy feet, so sayeth I!"

She resurrected him to help her retrieve her book of magic from the three children who had taken it. Billy was not completely under Winifred's enchantment because, in the cemetery, he tried to protect little Dani and aided the children in trying to defeat the Sanderson Sisters. When the witches were finally destroyed, he gleefully went back to his grave and plopped down for an eternal rest.

Certainly, when people think of witches, it is natural to also think of a black cat but it is a little odd to include a zombie, especially in the years before zombie-mania became insanely popular in comics, films, television and more.

Writer Mick Garris had zombies on his mind because he had just performed as one in Michael Jackson's music video Thriller (1983) as he started to write the first draft of the script for the film and felt it could be a relatively inexpensive supernatural element to add to the mix. No elaborate special effects, just some make-up.

Special effects make-up artist Tony Gardner remembered, "The intention was to create a character who would walk a fine line between grotesque – because he has been dead for quite some time – and handsome. I envisioned him as a ghoulish version of Ichabod Crane (the lanky music teacher from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). He is regal, an aristocrat but very dead."

Director Kenny Ortega said he wanted Billy to be an "attractive zombie," not a drooling, mindless monster. Actor Doug Jones who played the role said that fans still tell him how Billy was their first movie crush. "It's really kind of sweet and charming to hear that," Jones said.

Today Jones is well known for the many, many characters in prosthetic make-up that he has portrayed over the years including the fish-like Abe Sapien in the supernatural film Hellboy (2004) and its sequel (2008), the Pale Man (with his eyes in his palms) in Pan's Labyrinth (2006), the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) and most prominently as the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water (2017).

His credits also include the Lead Gentlemen in television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer scary episode Hush, the alien Cochise in Falling Skies and Commander Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.

However, when he auditioned for the role of Billy he was still a struggling actor with only a small handful of credits. One of his first professional jobs was portraying McDonald's marketing character Mac Tonight (a pianist crooner with the head of a crescent moon) in over 27 commercials over three years. Said Jones:

"I started as a mime, many years ago, in college. That woke up my body to realizing that movement, gesturing, postures and body language are every bit as communicative as verbal dialogue is. That background is what I brought into my acting career with me.

"When I came out to Hollywood in 1985, I thought that I would be sitcom star. I'm a tall, skinny, goofy guy. I thought that I would make a great funny neighbor or wacky office mate in a sitcom. When I started doing TV commercials, my agent at the time knew that I had a mime background and could put my legs behind my head, which qualified me as a contortionist.

"So, I was sent out for anything physical. If there was costume work, mimes or clowns, they'd send me out. What started the ball rolling was that the first commercial I booked was for Southwest Airlines, and I was a dancing mummy.

"The only studio film I had been in before [Hocus Pocus] was Batman Returns (1992) as a supporting character (listed in the credits as "Thin Clown"). I was one of Danny DeVito's henchmen in that. So [Hocus Pocus] was my first sort of real supporting role in a major film."

The audition was held at a dance studio. The character of Billy only had one line in the original script, which meant there wasn't really anything for Jones to read.

As Jones recalled:

"For the role of Billy, [Ortega] really wanted to see a physicality and what choreography he could throw into that character to make it a more visual piece. So he gave me a scene to act out of waking up from 300 years of being dead. 'Stand up, give us what his walk would be, get from point A to point B. When you get to point B, crumple down and look up at Winifred and tell her off.'

"I remember, as I wasn't even halfway across the floor yet, from point A to point B through this choreography, [Ortega] and the assistant casting director were laughing, tilted heads back, laughing, grabbing their sides laughing. I had no idea what I was doing, but I thought, this was going pretty good. As it turned out, before I even got home, the call came to my manager that they really wanted me in the movie, so I was tickled pink."

Billy Butcherson, as played by Doug Jones, made for an "attractive zombie."

Gardner remembered that not only was Jones extremely talented physically, but that he never complained about the make-up, which took up to two and a half hours each day to apply. Gardner's Alterian company spent an entire day doing a complete headcast and bodycast of Jones and also cast his teeth, as well.

Gardner said:

"His weathered skin and gaunt look was created by using one single foam latex appliance to cover his entire face and neck. I thought it was the easiest way to keep the prosthetics as thin as possible, and be able to have the wrinkles and folds line up and move well over the entire surface of his head.

"Because it was so thin and delicate, it took two makeup artists to apply it every day: myself and Margaret Prentice. We exaggerated Doug's physical features. He has a small nose and a very narrow face onto which we could place the latex, reshaping his face, with hollowed cheeks and deep-set eyes.

"Kenny wanted him to look innocent, a Bambi-look, with doe eyes. Doug's eyes are very expressive and stand out with the make-up so it was decided not to use colored contact lenses that we had originally considered. After the first makeup test, it was agreed upon that Doug's big brown eyes were the soul to the character, and as a result, no contact lenses would be used.

"The stitches were glued into his facial appliance every day, and between shots I would disconnect them on the bottom lip so that Doug could talk and eat. It wasn't a flattering look though. He looked like a cross between a walrus and a skinny teenager trying to grow a mustache.

"In addition, he wears a full body suit, long gloves with acrylic extensions on the ends of his fingers to add length, a ratty wig and big shoes with fake toes coming through them. Underneath his costume he wears the body suit with all the textural details of a zombie, exaggerated bone structure at the knees and elbows.

"Doug wore foam latex gloves instead of hand appliances to save time during the prosthetic makeup application process, and also allow us to add some additional length to his fingertips. The gloves had acrylic finger cups inside them so that the extra length of the fingers was solid instead of floppy, and the finger cups were sculpted with long nails on them that were cast in a translucent grey dental acrylic. The foam latex gloves were not worn until just before the camera was rolling.

"Given how physical Doug was as Billy, it was also nice to be able to change out his zombie gloves if they were torn up on set, as opposed to having to stop and spend valuable time repairing prosthetic hands."

Jones recalled, "They formed a dead guy mask on me, a foam latex prosthetic makeup that gave me pronounced cheek bones and a pronounced jawline and sunken cheeks, so they could take flesh away from places that might be decayed."

As he told writer Jessica Dwyer, "First of all, my makeup was created and applied by the amazing Tony Gardner, assisted on-set by Margaret Prentice with prosthetics sculpted by Chet Zar. When you have the best artists in the world putting makeup on you, it is invigorating. Watching myself transform into Billy helped me find his voice and physical presence every day. It was also a remarkable design that was all one piece, so the entire face and neck went on quickly. Add the wig, the gloved zombie hands, the zombie leg sleeves and a torn period costume by Mary Vogt and I was ready to go."

Many filmed scenes were cut from the final version of the released film including several with the witches. Interestingly, on Jones' first night of filming he shot a scene that eventually got cut because it slowed down the pacing of the rest of the story.

As Jones once told an audience at an event: "[I was] so terrified to see [Bette Midler] face-to-face that I didn't want to make a fool of myself. And the first time I did see her, she's wearing this bright red wig and no eyebrows and buck teeth with those dinky little lips drawn on. I got the giggles and I couldn't stop. I couldn't take her seriously because she looked so incredibly goofy."

The scene was Winifred giving directions to Billy, but Billy being distracted by Sarah.

Jones continued: "Bette wants to give me some instruction on what I should be doing next, and all the while, I'm just kind of mooning over Sarah Jessica Parker. I grabbed a piece of her blonde wig and I was stroking it. I had it caught in my fingers. And when they walked away, I kind of followed them, and I got hooked onto a lamppost in the park and just kind of had this sad moment of longing as they walked away. I loved that scene. It was my very first night of work and it was just kind of a magical moment for me. And unfortunately it's not in the film."

Another Billy scene that was cut took place after the I Put a Spell on You musical number where all the townspeople are bewitched into dancing.

"When the witches are gone, I hopped up on the stage and I boogied down myself," Jones revealed. "I got to have free run of the stage and dance however I wanted to. Kenny Ortega just wanted to let me go, take the reins off and let me have at it. I had so much fun doing that. At some point, I kind of shook it off and exited off the stage, and that's what kind of carried me to the next scene where I'm outside of the party."

As Jones told writer Jessica Dwyer, "I had been a slobbering fan of Bette Midler's for many years before this movie so that first night on set with her playing a scene only a foot away from her made me get the giggles like a silly fanboy. Later in the production when we were doing the costume party scene, she took a minute during camera set-up to tell me how funny I was and how much she loved what I was doing with my part. I thought if a spotlight were to fall from the ceiling and kill me at that very moment, it would be a glorious time to die happy."

The favorite story that Jones tells at events is that he actually had real moths in his mouth for the brief scene where he cuts his mouth open. Winifred had sealed his mouth and in the cemetery using a knife he grabbed from Max, Billy is finally able to cut through the stitches.

Ortega thought it would be funny that if when Billy finally opened his mouth for the first time in 300 years all the accumulated dust and a live moth would come flying out. However, this was in the years before CGI, so it would have to be accomplished physically.

Alterian's Vance Hartwell created a latex rig, much like a dental dam for Jones' mouth to stop the moths from going anywhere but out of the mouth. It was essentially a latex pocket attached between upper and lower dentures which completely blocked Jones' throat.

There was a small hole in the very back of the pocket so that Jones could cough some air through it and force the Fuller's Earth (a traditional movie effects safer alternative to real dirt) and the moths up and out of his mouth.

The rig had Fuller's Earth added to the bottom and then animal handlers came in with tweezers and gently added moths atop the dust inside the reservoir and all of this was supervised by an ASPCA representative.

During the scene, Jones would cut the stitches and blow both the moths and the dust out of his mouth. The scene had to be filmed several times. In one instance it took so long to set up the shot and the dirt and moths remained in his mouth longer than usual that the saliva started to build up.

When Ortega yelled "action" and Jones cut the stitches and went to blow out the dust and moths a puddle of sludge just poured out of his mouth onto the ground.

Each time, Gardner glued Jones' pre-cut mouth stitches back together with a prosthetic adhesive so that it would be easy to cut.

"When I cut my mouth open I was supposed to just say 'Bitch!' to Bette Midler," Jones disclosed. "At the time, I was like, 'It's a kids' Disney movie'. That was a conversation that I wanted to have with Kenny Ortega on the night that we shot that scene. And I told him, 'I'm not comfortable just throwing the B-word out when our audience is going to be kids expecting a Disney happy movie. There's gotta be a more creative way that's actually going to sell this movie better than that'. So the line that I ended up saying was one that I came up with by myself. Kenny approved it, loved it, and that's what stayed in the movie. And that's when I cut my mouth open, coughed out the moths and the dust and said, 'Wench! Trollop! You buck-toothed, mop-riding, firefly from hell!' That became a favorite quote from the film."

As a Halloween film released in July, it did not do as well as was hoped although it did make a modest profit.

Jones recalled his initial disappointment:

"When we were making this, this was one of my first feature films ever, so I was thinking, 'OK, this is the one; this is gonna be the hit that takes me to the moon'. It did not do the box-office figures at all that we had hoped for, and kind of went into obscurity in the theatrical box-office world. Not knowing what would happen in the future, I thought, 'There was my big chance. It's over.' Of course, it wasn't.

"Every parent now shares the movie they grew up with with their kids. I had no idea this would happen, because I didn't know what technology was going to turn into. I didn't know that Hocus Pocus would be one click away on every computer and TV screen in the world, and it would become like The Wizard of Oz of Halloween. I had no idea it was going to do that. None of us did. It was just a happy surprise.

"When I do speaking engagements and my credits are announced, Hocus Pocus always gets the biggest cheers. There's been talk of doing a 20-year-later sequel that I would have been a part of. I loved that idea and I would just love to reprise Billy Butcherson again. I was actually approached and asked about that.

"I love that character so much. He's beloved to me. So, the recent announcement of a reboot took all of us by surprise especially when none of us was asked. A cheap reboot is so unnecessary when the movie is incredibly relevant to this day and it's timeless. It doesn't need a facelift, it doesn't need it. It's timeless. You can't even tell what year it was made when you watch."

As Gardner has shared, for the initial resurrection scene of Billy:

"The ground in the area where his grave was located was built off of the stage floor high enough to allow for the pneumatic rig that Terry Frazee's physical effects crew had built that would make the earth rise and fall, and also push Billy's coffin up and out of the ground.

"Doug was fine with doing this stunt himself – which was good, because his makeup would have looked pretty humorous on anyone else. Once Doug was settled into the coffin, it was lowered down into the ground, a breakaway coffin lid was laid down over Doug, and then loose dirt, moss and leaves were piled on top of that. Once we got the 'all clear' and the machinery started up, Doug was on his own. I think they had their shot on the first take."

For Billy's final appearance, another grave was dug separately from the grave that Billy originally rose out of, so that there was enough depth to hide a stunt mat in the bottom of it so that Jones could fall back into the grave and completely out of shot.

Jones recalled 25 years after the film, "Stepping onto that set was like stepping onto an attraction at Disneyland. The Sanderson house and the cemetery were my personal favorites. Especially when I was buried alive in my grave with dirt and all, so I could push my way out of that casket to wake up when summoned."