MVPs of Horror: Griffin Dunne talks drinking tequila on 'Practical Magic' set and his 'American Werewolf' mauling

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Director Griffin Dunne on the set of Practical Magic, 1998. (Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

One of the most delightful drinking scenes ever committed to film appears in 1998’s Practical Magic: Two generations of in-the-closet witches, played by Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, Dianne Wiest, and Stockard Channing, down “midnight margaritas” while dancing to Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.” (See clip below.) As director Griffin Dunne told Yahoo Entertainment, the actresses were actually drinking tequila on set — and he was right there with him, partying into the night after the cameras stopped rolling. Dunne’s latest film as director is Joan Didion: The Center Cannot Hold, a documentary about the legendary writer (also his aunt by marriage). But his extensive résumé as an actor and director also includes two Halloween classics: the aforementioned Practical Magic, a romantic comedy-thriller that has become a cult favorite, and 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, John Landis’s horror-comedy classic, in which Dunne co-stars as a werewolf victim turned wisecracking corpse. With the witchiest of holidays approaching, Yahoo Entertainment talked to Dunne about directing a Nicole Kidman exorcism, getting mauled by a low-tech werewolf, and other spooky set stories. 

Watch: The “Midnight Margaritas” scene from Practical Magic:

Yahoo Entertainment: I hope you take this as a compliment: I honestly thought Practical Magic was directed by a woman.
Griffin Dunne: I’ll take that. It’s a nice compliment.

What’s your big memory from making the film?
How beautiful that location was, Friday Harbor. And building this house that we had to tear down the day after shooting. The setting was magical, you know? There’d be dolphins and whales just watching us filming. So it was a really pleasant, easygoing shoot. And Sandy and Nicole remain friends. Yeah, it’s a really good memory.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic. (Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

What was it like shooting the climactic exorcism scene?
That was kind of intense. It was me and 12 possessed women for, it took about a week or so to shoot it. And I think they were all on the same moon cycle; they were all menstruating at the same time too. So yeah, it was truly in the land of the women there.

And you know, Nicole never does anything halfway. She wanted to bang her head on the floor, and I remember when we laid down the floor we weren’t sure where she was going to land. So rubber panels, rubber wood strips were laid out. And I just remember her, take after take, slamming her head. She looked totally possessed. I mean, I think she brought on a rash. Her skin would go bright red, from white to red to white in waves of, you know, purging. It was intense.

The relationship between the two lead sisters, and between their aunts, is so lovely and believable. Did you rehearse with them beforehand or do anything to encourage that bond?
We did certainly rehearse. I think they all understood instinctually how to do that. It was a deliberate choice to have the two sets of sisters not look anything alike. And somehow in the world of witches, that had witch logic to it.

You know, one of the most fun days we had was the last shot of the day in Friday Harbor, and then we were all going to go to the soundstage in Los Angeles afterwards, where we shot the girls all drinking tequila and they become nuts in the kitchen — well, guess what we drank? We all drank tequila and shot that scene — thank God the DP didn’t have any — but we shot it and they all went nuts, and we all danced around. I think “Lime in the Coconut” was going. And then we wrapped the scene but kept drinking and dancing to “Lime in the Coconut.”

Have you noticed Practical Magic gaining a following over the years?
Yeah. Even though it made its money back and it made a profit, the movie was not considered a success at the time. And I took a bit of a hit as a director. And Warner Bros. was a little weird about it, you know? So I was kind of in director’s jail for a while. I could never quite figure out what that was about. But what I have noticed is, every woman I’ve dated since just loves that movie and goes on and on about it. It’s just kind of grown and grown in appreciation, which I’m really happy about.

Griffin Dunne and David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London. (Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)

Let’s talk about American Werewolf, which was your first major film, correct?
Well, yes, certainly as a lead. I had a small part in two other films. But I’d never been asked to fly to London and given a ticket on the Concorde and given a per diem in cash and had to put on makeup for six hours every morning.

It’s a pretty big undertaking for a first movie.
I loved making it. I hated the makeup. I loved [special effects makeup artist] Rick [Baker]; he made the six hours bearable. The makeup’s on, and then it constricts and then it pulls on your skin and then it has to be loosened up; you have people fussing with you; you want to pass out from the fumes. The glue is kind of like airplane glue.

Rick Baker, right, applies makeup to Griffin Dunne for An American Werewolf in London, 1981. (Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)

So it wasn’t comfortable. They’ve come up with so many different techniques since then, so it was early pioneer stuff. For which Rick got an Academy Award, the very first Academy Award for makeup. 

I’d love to know what you remember from shooting the pub scene [see clip below], which I think is one of the all-time great horror movie scenes.
We shot the exterior in Wales, where we had the sign of the Slaughtered Lamb, that gruesome hanging sign. I improvised the line, “What kind of an ad is that for a pub?” and [John] Landis left it in. And then we go inside this pub. And then three weeks later we walk inside a pub that’s actually in London and we shoot it there. In the pub, a lot of the cast members were in a huge hit at the time called Nicholas Nickleby, a Dickens play, and it was an eight-hour play. In London, it was the hottest ticket you could get. So it was a lot of the cast of Nicholas Nickleby. I remember they all had to finish the scene so they could get to the theater in time. But it was intense. Nobody ever broke character; nobody ever came up and talked to us like, “Hey, kids, how are you liking America?” or any of that stuff. They just looked at us like we were cursed.

Watch: The pub scene from An American Werewolf in London:

Tell me about the scene where you’re attacked by the werewolf — was it actually shot on location?
That was in the park in London; it’s like part of Buckingham Palace. I don’t know how we got in! And it was a guy on top of a board being held up like a wheelbarrow, putting his head through the wolf mask and his hands went through these paws, and they shot it really tight and the grip would wheel the wolf head into me over and over. It was so rudimentary. And then John would just pour buckets of this blood on me, and I just would scream at the top of my lungs. But to see the actual thing, it’s absurd what I was screaming about.

Griffin Dunne in An American Werewolf in London. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

But it was pretty effective. I think that one of the lasting things about that movie, why it’s still so popular: Without people quite knowing it, they’re looking at a very low-tech movie with very high emotional production values. There’s really no special effects.

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