The Halloweentown Saga: Part Twoby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Last week I talked about the storylines of the different Halloweentown films and, in particular, how the first film was made.
The Halloweentown movie franchise actually has many similarities to the Harry Potter films.
A young teen who always assumed they were just a normal human discovers they have magical powers and learns of a fantasy world inhabited with strange creatures where they must defeat the evil plans of a frightening and powerful wizard. The teen is part of a magical family and needs to be trained in how to properly use their power by an older mentor who has magical abilities as well.
As witch Aggie Cromwell says in the original Halloweentown film, "Being normal is vastly overrated."
The first Harry Potter book had appeared in limited release roughly a year before the first Halloweentown movie was shown, so it is just an amazing coincidence in the core similarities between the two franchises. Of course, the Disney Channel film lacked the spectacular special effects, make-up and epic storytelling of the Potter films, but it captured the spirit of All Hallows Eve for a generation of eager young viewers.
As Marnie Piper says in the first film, "Halloween is cool. It's ancient. It's strange."
Actress Debbie Reynolds was the first person to be cast for the original film.
Director DuWayne Dunham stated, "I'm not quite sure the genesis of how Debbie got involved. We wanted something of a name [to get involved], and Debbie Reynolds is terrific. We all jumped at the opportunity to work with her. And she was; she was great! [Laughs] You know, comes from the school of one take. 'What's the matter, I didn't do it right? I have to do it again?' [she'd ask]. It was great. Debbie came from a time where you came prepared, and you knew your stuff, and you delivered. It should be one take, and move on. I think she was an education and an inspiration to all of the other actors, especially the young kids."
As executive producer Sheri Singer recalled: "Debbie had decided she wanted to open herself up to doing some television. When we saw the list, we took one look at her name and said, 'omigod, would she really do it?' This is absolutely unbelievably blessed and terrific idea for casting. And she did. We never went to anyone else."
Reynolds once said that she took the role as so her granddaughter, actress Billie Lourd, would watch something Debbie was in and actually enjoy it. In addition, Reynolds was having some financial trouble with some property in Las Vegas and needed some money.
During her short breaks during the filming, Reynolds would stroll over to an appreciative crowd of fans and introduce herself by saying, "Hello, I'm Princess Leia's mom." Her daughter was actress Carrie Fisher, who played that role in the Star Wars films.
Kimberly J. Brown who played Reynolds' granddaughter in the film enthused:
"She made it a point to tell us as kids, 'Always make time for fans and say 'hello'. That has stuck with me over the years. She appreciated the ability to entertain and make people happy, so she taught me what a gift that was to be able to do that for people.
"When you hear you're going to work with a legend of that magnitude, you never know how this person's going to be. But she was warm and gracious and it was such a good example to work with somebody like that and have her impact me so much not only professionally, but personally over the years.
"She was so talented and wise, which easily could have gone to her head, but instead she went out of her way to help others shine as brightly as they could. She'd try to move huge ladders on set just to help the crew, and looked out for every actor no matter the size their role.
"Debbie is an amazing human being, so giving and full of grace and humility, and she has the best sense of humor, ever. She just couldn't share enough of her wisdom with me when we were on the set — she had so much experience and she just wanted people to have fun and enjoy themselves. Getting to work with her has been one of the best experiences of my acting career."
Originally, they wanted a blonde to play the role of Marnie, but brown-haired Kimberly Jean Brown's audition blew everyone away.
Brown first got into acting at age 5, appearing on stage in Broadway productions of Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, Les Miserables (in which she sang solo as Young Cosette), and the Tony-winning revival of Showboat.
She was just coming off the soap opera Guiding Light, where she had received an Emmy nomination for playing the part of Marah Lewis from 1993 to 1998, when she was cast in the Halloweentown role. She also had a career as a voice actress and supplied a voice for Pixar's A Bug's Life (1998), as well as in a commercial telling the Trix Rabbit that the cereal was for kids.
As Brown told an interviewer:
"Being a young teen, it was so exciting to be part of it all. I love Marnie and everything that she stood for, so I'm really happy when people tell me how much she meant to them. Marnie always knew there was something different about her, and when she did find out about her magic, she wanted to know everything she could and really fully live in that and be herself.
"She was just always really cool in that way. I admired her determination and her sense of humor and her willingness to take on her family legacy. Who wouldn't want fly a broom and make things magically appear?
"The broom flying scene in the first movie was probably one of my favorites to shoot. That was actually our last day. We did it in front of a big blue scene in the studio, and I just remember that just feeling like a special day because it was Debbie and I up on a broom for hours. I loved that we got to see (Marnie) figure out how to be a teenager but also how to be a witch at the same time."
When actress Judith Hoag played the role of the kids' mom Gwen, she was only 17 years older than Brown, who was playing her oldest daughter, which meant that Gwen must have been a child bride.
Hoag had played the key role of April O'Neill in the first live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) movie. She went on to appear in many movies and television shows, including most recently recurring roles in Nashville and The Magicians.
Hoag recalled, "I had an agent; it was just another audition. Michael Healey, who was a head of Disney Channel, had a son who was a big Ninja Turtles fan. When I walked in, Michael said 'I'm so excited that you're here, we're huge Ninja Turtles fans in our house.' At some point I did a little autograph for his son, and posed for photos. I thought that it was a sweet script. And hearing that Debbie Reynolds was attached to it, I was like 'I'm in!'"
Joey Zimmerman, who played her son, Dylan, was a big fan of the TMNT movie. "I wanted to be a professional, so I waited until after filming the entire first movie before exploding about TMNT," he said.
Hoag told an interviewer, "Gwen was described to me as a Martha Stewart kind of character, back during her pre-prison days. She was the quintessential perfect person. Her house was perfect and her hair was perfect. Everything she cooked was perfect. I thought Gwen is pretending to be something that she's not, and she wasn't doing it well. She didn't want (her children) to celebrate Halloween even though she was from Halloweentown. Gwen's not comfortable in her skin."
While Halloweentown may have been the second DCOM to ever go into production after Brink! (1998) about inline skating, by the time it actually came out it was the fourth ever DCOM to be released.
In that first film, the Piper children are introduced to Halloweentown through a book read to them by their grandmother. Brown has revealed that several copies of the book were specially made for the movie, and are, in fact, entirely finished books. Brown was able to take one of the books as a souvenir.
"They had an artist draw that picture of me too so it would look a little like me," she recalls. "It really is a beautiful book! But there are only a few copies made for the shoot."
There was a different ending planned for the film. Marnie was to place the talisman in the middle of a magical forest. As Marnie walked through the forest to accomplish the task, she grew older and older with each step so there was the danger that she would die of old age before doing the deed.
That idea got so far along that the production company made a mold of Brown's head in order to achieve the necessary make-up effects. Since the ending was changed, Brown ended up keeping the headpiece for herself as well as the broom she rode.
Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge
The sequel to the original film Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge was filmed in Vancouver during the winter of that year. The day actress Brown, who was then 16, flew up to Canada was when she first met Daniel Kountz. Kountz played the sequel's new villain, Kal, and would, years later, become Brown's boyfriend in real life.
The pair reconnected in May 2016 to work on a project and have been a couple ever since.
Brown said, "It didn't even cross my mind (when we did the movie). He was in a serious relationship. We got along great, had a lot of fun and he was sweet and everything, but it just, we never went there. Things kind of slowly turned romantic, which was completely unexpected for both of us because neither of us were looking. All of a sudden it was just everywhere … and I was like, 'What!?' … It was amazing to us that it became prominent in the news for a minute."
During filming, Kountz got quite the surprise when it came time to conjure the portal to Halloweentown. The script reads "Kal says spell and walks through the portal." He assumed that he would be given a spell to say, but that didn't happen.
When it came time for the scene, he was asked if he had prepared a spell and the young actor not wanting to seem unprofessional answered "yes."
He got inspiration from a choir song he learned in school. "I just pulled that out of nowhere, and they ended up using it," Kountz recalls, "and I think it actually worked out pretty well."
Halloweentown High was shot in Salt Lake City, Utah. Both the interior and exterior (for carnival scenes) of Juan Diego High School, a Catholic High School was used in the filming. Posters were carefully placed and appropriate filming angles were necessary to obscure Catholic-related artwork and statues.
The scenes at the mall were filmed in Cottonwood Mall in Holladay, Utah, about 30 minutes from Salt Lake City.
The high school was the same one used in the DCOM The Luck of the Irish (2001) that had basketball competitions as a key element. The gym was used for both films with Aggie actually teaching basketball during gym class. Many shots reveal the same lockers and classrooms.
Brown was asked for her input into the script. After she left the franchise, she continued to act and worked on various projects, including studying improv, writing sketch comedy, developing some scripts and running her own YouTube channel. She also had co-authored the 32 page Halloween children's book Poppins Pumpkin Patch Parade.
Return to Halloweentown
Sara Paxton, who played the part of Marnie Piper in the final film, Return to Halloweentown, said:
"It was so much fun! Lucas [Grabeel] was great. We filmed us kissing, but it was cut from the film. The whole cast was great. We got to do stunts and special effects. Probably the most challenging stunt was when I had to be hanging from a broom and flying without a harness.
"I was flying through the air on this broom with Lucas and me on the back of it. I was so scared I started crying. Lucas tried to cheer me up and make me feel better. Also, I would have to wave my arms in the air and pretend to make a spell, and then I would have to pretend that something had happened. They added the special effects later. It was pretty hard pretending that I was making things float and stuff like that.
"I had watched all of the (Halloweentown) movies when I was little. That's why I was so excited to get the part. I love those movies! My film was shot in Salt Lake City, Utah. We couldn't really find a lot to do there, because it's more like a snowboarding and ski town and it was summertime. So we'd just hang around together and watch TV and order pizza.
"The first one was shot in Oregon, but I believe the other two were shot in Salt Lake City. Actually, most Disney Channel Original Movies are shot with the same production company in Utah. I went there when I was 12 to film my first Disney movie [2001's Hounded].
"It's six years later so the people there didn't really recognize me. But they have a picture of every single movie on the wall in the production office so I pointed to [Hounded] and said, 'That's me!' Happy memories came flooding back!"
Director of Return to Halloweentown Jackson said, "[Paxton] was great and wonderful to work with and I felt like she had a young spirit that the story needed. I have no regrets about recasting the role with her."
Scenes from the first Halloweentown movie were filmed in the Riverfront District in St. Helens, Oregon. Every Halloween season since the movie premiered, the town gets into the spirit of the movie by installing its own Jack O' Lantern in Courthouse Plaza (that was used for Halloweentown's town square), along with other scary touches like pumpkin-themed flags flanking the official building.
The town's businesses, merchants, and local government stage an annual "Spirit of Halloweentown" festival for locals and tourists that lasts the entire month of October. The town always decorates the streets to replicate scenes from the franchise.
The event became even more widely popular in 2015, when actress Brown attended. Attendance increased dramatically and Brown also attended the following year.
"The city recreates the town square from Halloweentown as it was featured prominently in the movies," Brown said. "The townspeople will dress the town square and much of the downtown to look like it did in Halloweentown and for the past two years, I went out to kick things off, light the pumpkin and get the monthlong activities started. It's so much fun — people come out in costume, fans of the movie, it's a great experience — very fun."
In 2017, the entire "Piper family" Kimberly J. Brown, Judith Hoag, Joey Zimmerman and Emily Roeske, from the movie franchise showed up to dedicate a special monument to Debbie Reynolds during the October 14 lighting of the Jack O' Lantern at Courthouse Plaza and the casting of a "spell" from the movie. Between 40,000 to 50,000 people visited the event in 2017.
Reynolds died on December 28, 2016 at age 84, one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died. For many years on Halloween, Reynolds would wear her Aggie costume and surprise young trick-or-treaters who happened to knock on her door.
"We wanted to do a special tribute to her and her role as Grandma Aggie and have a small monument set up there for her. It was nice to go back and honor Debbie. It's such an honor that people want to come and hang out and see where it was filmed," actress Brown said. "Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this is what we would be doing two decades later."
Why has the Halloweentown franchise remained so popular even to new audiences?
Actress Brown laughs:
"If I may be so bold to pontificate, I think the movies have remained so popular for several reasons. For one thing, several people like the idea of a town where it's Halloween all the time — there's the whole element of a place where magic exists and being able to do things with magic powers — people really enjoy that fantasy element of the series.
"There's also the aspect of there being a family as the main characters — they kind of have the best of both worlds, being able to live both in the 'normal' world and in the more magical, fantastical Halloweentown world.
"My character, Marnie, was 13 years old when she discovered she had these magical powers, which she learned to embrace. I think that's something that people can relate to, especially teenagers or people who are just becoming teenagers — there are so many changes going on in a person's life at that age. I think seeing a character who was undergoing these radical, magical changes in her life that she was having to get used to was something they could relate to."
Disney has no official plans to continue or reboot the franchise but creator Singer said she is eager to do a fifth movie. "I'd have to get Disney Channel to get on-board, but I would like to," she said. "I have ideas of how I would do it. There was some talk about a year and a half ago but then it didn't happen. I have pitched the idea of doing it as a musical. There's also ways to do a prequel. It's not something I haven't brought up several times before."