The long lineage of movies about witchcraft can be traced back to the silent film days when, in 1922, the dramatized documentary Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages was released. Since then, there have been mega witch hits such as The Blair Witch Project and critical darlings like recent release The Witch. Fan favorites that didn’t catch on at the box office or with critics, like Teen Witch and Hocus Pocus, later became cable-network staples.
None of these films, however, has come close to achieving a long-lasting cultural impact on a generation of fans like 1996’s The Craft. The movie, about four outcast teen girls living in L.A. who form their own coven and learn to cultivate their powers, was the perfect mix of '90s grunge with classic fantasy and horror elements.
In a year dominated by blockbusters such as Independence Day, Twister and the first Mission: Impossible, The Craft didn’t rank anywhere near the top of 1996’s highest-grossing movies. Yet the film, released on May 3, 1996, was most certainly a hit with millennials and young Gen Xers, grossing about $55 million worldwide on an estimated $15 million budget. Directed by Andrew Fleming and starring Robin Tunney as Sarah, Fairuza Balk as Nancy, Neve Campbell as Bonnie and Rachel True as Rochelle, The Craft is one of those rare films that fans still obsess over years later. (I mean, who still talks about Twister?)
“It’s such an iconic Los Angeles piece,” says Marek Dobrowolski, production designer of The Craft; it was one of his first L.A. movies after working as an art director on Blood In, Blood Out and The Last Action Hero. He adds that people of a younger generation often tell him how much they love the film. “Recently I worked on a pilot, and there was an art department coordinator, and she told me when she was 10 she saw The Craft 10 times,” says Dobrowolski, laughing. “It is not the typical [movie], but it became iconic.”
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the pop-culture phenomenon that is The Craft, we revisited many of the original filming locations and in the process met a number of property managers and administrators who told us how much they adore the movie. We also spoke with Dobrowolski, location manager Gary Kesell and key assistant location manager Brett Williams about what it was like shooting The Craft in L.A. during the mid-'90s.
EXT. AIRPORT – AFTERNOON
Confusion – dozens of PASSENGERS, SKYCAPS, all manner of PEOPLE swarm around Sarah, her father, Jenny, as the three try to find a taxi in the POURING RAIN.
The first L.A. location to pop up in The Craft is LAX and its iconic Theme Building, the futuristic structure built in 1961, which housed the airport’s Encounter restaurant from 1997 to 2013. Not only did the production have to grab a shot outside the terminal at the passenger pickup curb, but rain effects were also required, which, early in the film, set up the theme that would permeate the rest of the movie: the four elements of nature and their use in paganism.
“It’s always a challenge to shoot at the airport,” says Kesell, a location professional for 28 years, who had long runs as the location manager on TV shows like The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. “You can’t get equipment that close to the airport; it’s open when you’re shooting there.”
Filming at the airport became even more difficult in a world of heightened security after 9/11.
“Now they don’t have any areas that you can set up and do that stuff,” Williams says of filming at LAX, especially when it comes to special effects such as the rain used for The Craft.
“I shot at LAX a couple of years ago and it’s just much more difficult,” Kesell says.
EXT. THE HOUSE – DAY
An old Mediterranean Villa. Now it’s overgrown. Isolated.
Written in the script as a house in Glendale, Sarah’s Spanish-inspired house, built in 1927, actually wound up being found in Sunland, less than two miles from the high school that was eventually chosen as St. Benedict’s Academy.
“The house was kind of a big deal,” Kesell says. “They wanted something Spanish, and I kind of felt we needed something not in the middle of a neighborhood.”
“I was looking for something that had a lot of character specific for Los Angeles and the hills, so I thought this kind of Spanish architecture was very distinguished,” Dobrowolski says. “For somebody coming from another state, another city, another area, it [would be] an interesting new world. You could convey the mystery, the magic of that world much better than if this would be a generic house.”
The house interiors were filmed on a soundstage at Columbia in Culver City, but the exterior of the house Kesell found at the top of a long, private driveway was a perfect match to help set the tone of the movie. “It was lived in. We moved the family out.” He adds, “The house didn’t look that great. It was sort of weathered, and it wasn’t really a pristine house.”
One of the most memorable sequences in The Craft employed an insane amount of snakes, bugs and rodents, which appeared to be taking over the house. About 2,700 snakes were used in the sequence, and some of them had to be filmed at the home’s exterior in Sunland. Kesell says, “I know that they [the snake wranglers] knew exactly how many snakes they brought, and I know that not all of them got back in the box.” So if you happen upon a snake in the Sunland area, there’s a good chance its slithery relative appeared in The Craft.
EXT. ST. BERNARD’S ACADEMY – MORNING
BUSES and CARS deposit swarms of uniformed STUDENTS. The school has a fading Catholic elegance: graceful old Mediterranean buildings, cracked, and tinged with graffiti.
Among the most filmed schools in Los Angeles, alongside John Marshall High School in Los Feliz and John Burroughs Middle School in Hancock Park, is Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga. The school, which opened in 1937, with major expansions beginning in the 1940s, is identified by the Los Angeles Unified School District as being historically significant, and therefore its design has remained mostly unaltered except to meet modern building codes. Along with The Craft, Verdugo Hills High School has played host to a long list of TV shows and films including Better Off Dead, Heathers, Beverly Hills 90210 and My So-Called Life.
Originally written as St. Bernard’s Academy, the campus of Verdugo Hills High School would be transformed into St. Benedict’s Academy, the Catholic school where Sarah meets three outcast girls dabbling in witchcraft. Multiple classrooms, quads, hallways and the football field were used in the film.
“They wanted something with a little bit of character,” says Kesell of Dobrowolski and director Andrew Fleming, “and most of the other LAUSD schools don’t have the same character as Verdugo Hills High School.”
Parts of the school are clearly inspired by Spanish mission architecture, which corresponded with the timeworn Mediterranean aesthetic the filmmakers desired. Dobrowolski says, “We felt that it had a good vibe for where those girls could be kind of influenced and start playing with black magic.”
Williams explains that, even though school was in session during filming, there were no interruptions from students. “Verdugo has done so much filming that they know how to keep their students away. They would just say, ‘OK, you’re staying out of this area, they’re filming over there today.’ They just funneled the students away from us.”
INT. CANDLE SHOP – AFTERNOON
Dark and decrepit. The proprietor, an ethereal Latina named LIRIO, eyes the Girls warily. Sarah browses the occult paraphernalia.
The location of the occult bookstore from The Craft is fairly well known to fans. Located at the El Adobe Market on Hollywood Boulevard in Thai Town, the complex is part mini-mall and part apartment building sharing a wall with the Guardian Arms apartments next door.
“We wanted it to be on a busy Hollywood street with a mini-market, with Hispanic stores,” says Dobrowolski. He adds that the filmmakers really wanted it to have a very local, Los Angeles feel.
“I’m kind of drawn to these really funky-looking locations, I always have been. Things that are really pristine are just not of interest to me,” Kesell says. “It was sort of caged in,” he says about the El Adobe Market location that was transformed into the bookstore. “There was a metal grating in front of the door and the door was arched. It just had a lot of character. It was an apartment. People were living in it at the time, so it wasn’t a store when we got there.”
It was very important to Dobrowolski that there be an interior/exterior connection so that the girls could walk down the street, through the parking lot and into the store. It conveys “a feeling of life of Los Angeles,” says the production designer.
The apartment at the El Adobe Market was also attractive, because the filmmakers were given permission to cut a hole through its rear wall into the courtyard of the Guardians Arms building. There, Dobrowolski created an overgrown garden for a scene that was eventually cut from the film. Instead, the back room of the bookstore, as seen in the movie, was created on a soundstage.
UP AHEAD – The light is red, and stays that way as they sail under it. Sarah slips down in her seat, bracing. Headlights hit their side. [A SCREECH. The ONCOMING CAR SWERVES within a few feet of them.] Sarah is terrified. Rochelle and Bonnie laugh nervously. Nancy grins at Sarah.
Downtown was a completely different world 20 years ago. “It was literally a ghost town. There were no lofts. You could walk across any one of those streets and you wouldn’t get run over; there would be no cars,” Kesell says.
“Back then downtown was our backlot,” Williams adds.
Two nighttime scenes from The Craft were shot on Broadway between Sixth and Seventh streets: one in which a creepy street preacher with a snake gets run over by a car and the other, a favorite scene among fans, as Nancy drives erratically through some traffic lights that magically turn from red to green at the last minute.
Of all the streets in downtown, though, why did The Craft specifically use this section of Broadway? “It has a lot of light on it,” says Kesell. “You have the [Palace and Los Angeles] theaters, which gives you something that makes sense to have lights on.”
Kesell and Williams arranged for many of the businesses on the block to stay open into the early morning hours or keep their lights on, because once all the stores closed and lowered their roll-down gates, there wasn’t much to see. However, having enough light for the design of the film wasn’t the only reason for keeping the stores open.
“Back then it was bad [downtown],” Williams says. “It was shady as hell. You didn’t want to be down there at night. … I had to pay everyone for a couple of nights in a row to leave their lights on so that we could see what was going on down there.”
Dobrowolski says, “You had all those theaters that were turned into Hispanic shops. It had a great foreign vibe. It was like a forgotten world, with the homeless people mingling with drug addicts. … It was like a forbidden land for girls from the Valley.”
EXT. NANCY’S TRAILER – NIGHT
It’s pouring RAIN. Nancy slogs through the mud to make it to her home, such as it is. A DOG is barking uncontrollably, tied to a leash. LIGHTNING.
Two hard-to-find locations from The Craft were vacant lots off of Sunset Boulevard just west of the 110 freeway overlooking Chinatown. Today, the pieces of land are difficult to pinpoint as development in the downtown area has run rampant since the movie was made. However, if you look closely at the scenes — one where the girls convene after the street preacher is run over, the other at Nancy’s trailer — in the distance you can spot the Twin Towers correctional facility near Union Station.
“They wanted to see lights in the background. They wanted to try to show it wasn’t in a rural trailer park,” Kesell explains.
As for the trailer itself, it had to be towed to the lot. “They wanted this classic trailer, so I found it somewhere up in Tujunga or Santa Clarita and we towed it to Chinatown,” says the location manager.
EXT. ROOFTOP – SUNSET
Sarah and Chris lie beneath the dilapidated neon “Ambassador Hotel” sign.
In an effort to avoid recycling one of downtown’s oft-used movie rooftops like the Rosslyn Hotel or the old Frontier Hotel, the filmmakers went with another historic building not normally seen in films.
Jensen’s Recreation Center, built in the 1920s in Echo Park “had this great view, and it wasn’t an obvious view,” says Dobrowolski. “We were trying to avoid clichés.” Instead of being in the middle of downtown, the filmmakers now had a view of downtown.
While prepping to shoot at Jensen’s, a freak accident occurred that put everyone on edge. “A kid on the [top] floor was pushing against the screen – I think the family had a couch or something that was up against the window – and the kid fell out the window,” Kesell says. “This is a tragedy that happened before we were filming, on the same day we were there.”
“Our medic saw it,” Williams says. “A teddy bear came flying out the window and then the kid did. And the baby landed on the ground from like three or four stories. [The medic] jumped in and called 911. We got the paramedics there and saved the kid’s life.”
Today, the building’s rooftop sign, which is prominently featured in The Craft during a date scene between Sarah and Chris (Skeet Ulrich) and can still be seen from Sunset Boulevard below, doesn’t light up. However, building owners are applying for a grant that would go toward restoring the antique signage.
INT. SCHOOL POOL – DAY
The whole DIVING TEAM, including Laura Lizzie and her Friends, as well as several coaches, are waiting. Rochelle puts her shoulders back, balances and concentrates. She bounces up and down and springs out.
The pool used in The Craft was indoors and had a retro 1960s vibe, which is hard to find nowadays as most city pools from that time have either been refurbished or demolished. There’s a pool on the same block as Verdugo Hills High School that at one time was part of the campus, but it’s an outdoor pool, today run by the city.
After having scouted multiple area pools including Santa Monica High School, the filmmakers ventured south to the indoor pool at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach. Poly is also no stranger to filming. Movies like American Pie, The Insider and American Beauty have made use of the campus, though the school told us that The Craft was the first movie to shoot there. The Poly pool was specifically attractive because of its large windows and skylights, which afforded the filmmakers a lot of natural light. “That was a very important thing. Sometimes those pools are dark and dingy and you can’t really see much except artificial light. This had a nice atmosphere and openness,” says Dobrowolski.
The pink-tiled girls’ locker room at Poly was used for a couple of scenes in the film, including one where Rochelle’s stuck-up, racist classmate, Laura Lizzie, cries in the shower as her hair falls out — the result of a spell placed on her.
EXT. BENEATH A TREE
The Girls set up a makeshift altar against the trunk of a tree: it includes CRYSTALS, CANDLES, WILDFLOWERS and a few PHOTOS, including the one of Sarah’s mother, a CEREMONIAL DAGGER, etc.
The girls go to the woods to form a sacred bond to one another and set their intentions as to what powers they would like to cultivate. The oak tree where the girls perform this ceremony was perhaps the most difficult location to find for The Craft.
Dobrowolski says, “It [had to be] this magical tree in the middle of a magical oak tree forest, if you can call it that. There was a journey to that place; the butterflies appear,” adds the production designer of the early use of CGI elements.
“A lot of crazy legwork went into finding that tree,” Kesell says. He scouted places like Big Bear and Frazier Park near the north end of the Grapevine during the winter and had to take snowmobiles to get to the locations. Eventually Kesell found a tree that the creative team liked. Others, however, were not happy. “Everybody kind of chastised it,” Kesell says of the tree he found at Wood Ranch in Simi Valley. “My producers were kind of like, ‘Can’t we just go to Griffith Park or someplace relatively close by?’”
Dobrowolski says that wouldn’t have worked. “Griffith Park was too manicured. We really wanted a place that was untouched.”
In 2016, finding the actual oak tree from the film could be as difficult as trying to find a tree when Kesell was first looking for one. Wood Ranch in Simi Valley no longer appears the way it did when the film was shot. Only a couple of years after the film came out, the area had been massively developed with homes, parks and a country club. Upon contacting the Simi Valley film office, we learned it had no records for The Craft since protocol requires it to save film permits and other related documents for only 10 years.
Twenty years later, Kesell could not recall exactly where the tree was, though he had been curious to look for it a number of years after the film was released. He says, “About 10 years ago I was drifting in the same area while scouting, and I had a hard time finding the road that led to the movie ranch, because the whole area had been developed with McMansions.”
Because oak trees over a certain size are largely protected in California, the magical tree from The Craft likely is still out there, but today it could easily be in someone’s backyard.
INT. CHAPEL – DAY
The Chapel is full of STUDENTS listening to a PRIEST, as Sarah, Bonnie and Chris enter, bow and make their way up the aisle.
Finding the St. Benedict’s Academy chapel was a challenge — to say the least — because it wasn’t actually located on the Verdugo Hills campus as was the chapel exterior, which today is the school’s music building.
“It was important that this church be more like a chapel in school,” Dobrowolski says. “Not too big, not too grand: something that can accommodate 100 students and had the similar color texture as the school.”
Upon rewatching The Craft, we guessed that the church was most likely not one of the commonly filmed, prominent Catholic churches of Los Angeles due to its size and the content of the film. Any filming in a Catholic church requires script approval from the Archdiocese, and a film about witchcraft probably was not going to be highly regarded.
“Finding a church that looked Catholic, that had a lot of the Catholic icons in it, that would let us shoot was difficult,” says Kesell, who couldn’t call to mind the name of the church. “I remember I had to go back and forth and talk to the father a number of times.” Perhaps it was the influence of witchcraft, but somehow the church did not ask for script approval.
A Google search for “small Los Angeles church” produced a thumbnail image of a church that appeared to have an altar similar to the one seen in the film: a man in a boat atop a mosaic of waves made of turquoise, blue and white tiles. That image led us to a Facebook page with some larger photos of St. Peter’s Italian Catholic Church, which made sense since St. Peter was a fisherman.
Upon calling the church to arrange a time to take photos for this article, the administrator asked what the film was about. We said it was about a group of outcast girls in high school, apprehensive, like the crew, that the church wouldn’t allow us to take photos due to the nature of the film. However, the church accepted our request, and, when we arrived, the same administrator told us she looked up the film to get more details. She was fairly certain that the archdiocese wouldn’t have approved The Craft for filming at St. Peter’s or any other Catholic church in L.A. For a moment we thought the jig was up, but the administrator happily let us take our photos.
St. Peters’ Italian Catholic Church, located on N. Broadway near Chinatown, is the National Italian parish for Southern California and still houses that unique altar of St. Peter, made in Italy in 1976.
ANGLE UP – A HUGE NEO-DECO APARTMENT BUILDING
When Nancy uses her powers to inflict a heart attack upon her scumbag stepfather, killing him within seconds, a large life insurance policy pays out to Nancy and her mother, allowing them to move from their rundown trailer into a high-rise apartment building. Again, the filmmakers went to Long Beach and found an apartment at Harbor Place Tower on Ocean Boulevard.
“It was just so hard to find a high-rise apartment. I scouted a lot of them on Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood,” Kesell says.
“At that point in time, Los Angeles did not have a lot of interesting new development, condos where people would move in, like downtown now,” Dobrowolski adds. “Long Beach had that allure. … The fact that it’s by the ocean, it says a lot about Los Angeles kind of living.”
The filmmakers shot inside one of the Harbor Place apartments and also took over a couple of other units on the same floor for staging.
EXT. BEACH – NIGHT
Bonnie finishes laying a ring of stones in the sand. Nancy starts a fire in the middle. Sarah finishes lighting a circle of black candles. She looks at the snake in the jar.
When Nancy decides it’s time to invoke the spirit of Manon, the all-powerful deity that embodies the entire universe, the girls head to Leo Carrillo Beach in Malibu to perform the ceremony.
Perhaps the most filmed beach in movies, Leo Carrillo is where Daniel-san first learned the crane kick in The Karate Kid and where Frankie and Annette played Beach Blanket Bingo.
Using the beach’s cave meant that the shoot had to be carefully timed, because it fills up with water at high tide. While the tide may have been accommodating during certain parts of the beach shoot, at other times it didn’t play nice. On multiple occasions, even after getting verification from the park ranger, the tide would come in very high and wipe away the stone circle set up by the art department.
Kesell says that while Leo Carrillo Beach might not be used as much as it used to be, it’s definitely one of the more interesting beaches to shoot, especially at night. “Beaches can be pretty boring to film,” he says. “All you see is black. The reason I like Leo Carrillo a lot is that there’s a crest, so there’s something to light and you can see something. You’re not in the middle of a black hole.”
Interestingly, when Fairuza Balk began chanting during one of the takes at Leo Carrillo, power to the generator was lost. “There were a lot of things that one can say happened because of the nature of the movie,” says Dobrowolski, laughing, “and I think we should keep it like that, because there was definitely magic happening on the other side of the camera.”
EXT. TREY’S HOUSE – NIGHT
A big California Tudor Mansion with drunken KIDS spilling out onto the lawn. BMWs and sporty Nissans jam every conceivable parking spot.
When the homeowner of the originally chosen party-scene house in The Craft learned of a stunt that involved someone falling out of a window, he quickly decided against allowing the home to be used as a location. At the last minute, Kesell had to find a new house.
“I knew [Chateau Bradbury] was something we could go to quick.”
Chateau Bradbury, the stately mansion built in 1912 by the family who founded the town of Bradbury, is located in neighboring Duarte in the San Gabriel Valley. Until a few years ago, the house was a premier location for special events. Today the house is listed as the Hon Los Temple, a Taoist spiritual center. Multiple emails and phone calls to request permission to photograph the house were not returned.
All scripts excerpts from The Craft by Peter Filardi and Andrew Fleming. Please keep in mind that some of these locations are on private property. Do not trespass or disturb the owners. Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.