When the Disney Channel Original Movie first aired 20 years ago, Halloweentown made history. It was the first featuring a female lead, paving the way for other memorable DCOMs with headstrong teen heroines. But Halloweentown isn't just Marnie's story: it tells the tale of three generations of women joining forces to battle against evil.
The Cromwell women — Aggie (Debbie Reynolds), Gwen (Judith Hoag), Marnie (Kimberly J. Brown), and Sophie (Emily Chapman née Roeske) —aren't perfect. Marnie is set on embracing her witchy roots against her mom Gwen’s wishes, while roping in her shy-yet-curious little sister Sophie and skeptical brother Dylan in her venture to Halloweentown. And Gwen also feels misunderstood because she's desperately trying to protect her children and keep things together as a single mom. Then there’s matriarch Aggie, who, much like Reynolds herself, personifies grace while also having a bit of an edge, doing her best to keep the Cromwell tradition alive even when her daughter Gwen refuses to.
Their dynamic has its conflicts, but that’s what resonates with viewers so much. It even draws in older fans who can relate to not feeling "normal," even though it's much better to stay true to yourself rather than pretend to be something you're not. "I would hope people continue to be encouraged by it and follow Marnie and Aggie’s lead and the whole Cromwell family and stick up for what they believe in," says Kimberly J. Brown, speaking over the phone to Bustle in October.
Halloweentown became an iconic TV movie that went beyond only being recognizable to Disney Channel fans, because of the unique way it captures the magic of Halloween. In fact, fans loved it so much that it was turned into a franchise, ending in 2006 with a fourth movie. (Ending for now, at least.)
Celebrating Halloweentown’s 20th anniversary, this exclusive look back on the classic DCOM explores how it's retained its fanbase, reveals some set secrets, and wonders what that potential fifth installment might actually look like.
The Creation Of Halloweentown
According to screenwriter Paul Bernbaum, producers Sheri Singer and Steve White had called him in to write a Halloween-focused film for NBC, but the network ultimately passed. The producers then ended up working at Disney Channel, and decided to reconsider the script.
Paul Bernbaum (Screenwriter): I wrote the script — in fact, Marnie, Dylan, and Sophie are my kids' names. NBC decided to pass on it. Cut to five years later and I get a call from Steve saying, "Hey, we're doing Halloweentown, we're going to shoot it." I was stunned, because that really never happens.
Duwayne Dunham (Director): I had originally wanted to do Brink!, but they offered me Halloweentown. And Halloweentown was huge. It was a feature script, and it had feature ideas, and there’s no way we'd have the budget or the time.
The NBC version was targeted more towards an older audience, while the DCOM had to be lighter and more family-friendly. Disney Channel also didn't have the same budget as NBC, so many things had to change in the script to make it more filmable.
Dunham: We probably sat with the writers in the studio for two straight weeks going through the script. It was unheard of to allow a director to take charge of the script that way and change it so radically. But to Disney’s credit, they did. They trusted the process and we kept the spirit of the thing, and we didn’t tamper with that at all. We just made it shootable on our budget and schedule.
Bernbaum: The NBC version [of the script] was actually darker... I remember a general sequence where they were traveling at night through Halloweentown, and it just got really scary.
Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood legend. At the time, Judith Hoag was best known for her role as April in 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and Robin Thomas had had recurring roles in TV shows such as Another World and Who's The Boss?, but the rest of the cast was relatively unknown.
Kimberly J. Brown (Marnie): I loved the idea of playing a teenager who was figuring out who she was, which is such a joyous time in a person’s life as it is, and that joyousness is heavily loaded. But I think it’s so exciting to have sort of a supernatural twist on that as Marnie’s figuring out who she is. It’s not every day that you figure out that you have magical powers.
J. Paul Zimmerman (Dylan): I was 12 years old and I had actually just switched over agencies for acting. It was the very first thing that they threw at me ... I read it and loved it because I am and always have been all about sci-fi, fantasy, horror, Halloween and everything.
Dunham: Disney Channel wanted some kind of name value. And Debbie brought a certain something to it.
Judith Hoag (Gwen): There were two other very compelling things [about Halloweentown]. The number one thing was the chance to work with Debbie Reynolds. She's a legend. The second thing with that it was a really sweet script, it was a great script.
Robin Thomas (Kalabar): This was a fun project. It's Disney, so that sort of speaks for itself in terms of quality of the material. It's always fun to play the bad guy. This guy was a fun guy, a magician, and also a warlock. What better role to play?
Bringing To Life The Magic Of Halloweentown On Set
With a small budget and a network that was fairly new to creating their brand new series of original movies, the cast and crew had to work hard to create the innate magic of Halloweentown.
Zimmerman: The heroes of the very first Halloweentown are the townspeople. It was taxing because they were working all the time and on top of that, it’s Halloweentown but we shot it in July of ’98 and it was unbelievably hot in Oregon. It was like one of the hottest summers that they ever had, so there were people with these huge — the fish guy mask, and the crazy alien mask and stuff, and people were passing out.
Thomas: When I was standing on the balcony of City Hall, I was yelling down at the crowd below. I remember that they didn't put a body mic on me. I was having to project my voice down. There were fans. [I was] 150 feet or so from the camera. That was challenging. I blew my pipes out.
Dunham: About the only thing that was expensive that we kept was the skeleton, Benny the taxi driver. He was built and articulated... but it was a great character, so it justified the expense.
Zimmerman: [Filming the scene where Benny grabs Dylan] was probably one of the funnest days of my life. To get to do the scene where I’m like fighting with a skeleton just made all of dreams come true ... It was a combination of all these people doing the face at the same time and body movements from the cab. They just fix the hands in my shirt or whatever it was. So wasn't as much me struggling, but jumping around, as there is almost no force applied from the fake skeleton.
Thomas: As the mayor-magician Kalabar, I had to learn magic tricks. That was not one of my skill sets. I had to practice with a cane, I practiced with an appearing cane and coin tricks where I pull a lollipop out of my ear and a coin out of [Sophie's] ear. That was fun.
Remembering Debbie Reynolds
The Halloweentown star passed away on December 28, 2016, just one day after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher. Reynolds appeared in all the Halloweentown films, forming a close bond with many of her co-stars throughout the years.
Hoag: Debbie told me and I have never forgotten it, "Judith, if you don't have fans you don't have a career." I used to laugh and say, "Debbie would pose with a coat hanger." She said, "Oh, no, no, this is my career right here. This is my bread and butter."
Brown: I actually have a note from her that she gave me when we wrapped the third movie that I’ve had framed all of these years. I keep it in my office so I can look at it every day and just kind of be reminded of her spirit and her highly infectious, joyous energy ... She’d always been so encouraging of me, and we actually spent a lot of time together socially after the third movie, so we were able to continue our relationship outside of shooting the films, which was just so special to me.
Hoag: My favorite thing was to sit with her and have a glass of wine. That was the best because then then the stories really came out. She wasn't a big drinker so it was just one glass. But boy, that was all she needed, and all the stories would start to come out. It was so fun, but certainly stories you can't necessarily repeat.
Brown: I remember one day there was this ginormous ladder, and they needed it moved, and she went over and tried to push it and move it for the crew, and they were like, “No, no, no, Ms. Reynolds, stop!” She’s just very giving and wanted everybody to shine as brightly as they could, and that was something that always stuck with me as well.
Hoag: You're actually not supposed to [move things on set]. Because there are different unions and the person who moves the ladder actually belongs to a union. But sometimes you've got to keep moving — they're running out of daylight or they're running out of time and you just hop in and do it and that's really old school, like, "Hey kids, let's put on a show."
Zimmerman: Emily was 6 years old in the first movie, this super adorable little kid. And Debbie’s warming up to her and going, “I’m Debbie Reynolds. It’s nice to meet you. Do you know who I am?” Emily has no idea. And Debbie goes, “Oh, well, do you know Princess Leia from Star Wars? I’m Princess Leia’s mother.” This is back in '98, before Star Wars really kicked in again, and Emily goes, “No I have no idea who you are.” And Debbie goes, “Oh well I’m just a crazy old lady then, don’t even listen to me.”
Thomas: I remember we were doing one scene in an ice cream shop, and she said something to me that was spicy and I was trying to remember it and I don't want to make something up just to be clever, but I just had a belly laugh. That's who she was, she was sweet and spicy. And that's why people loved her.
Zimmerman: We were shooting Halloweentown High inside the house and something happened in the backyard and we all go running out there. I think Debbie was in the front. We were all trying to figure out who should go in first. I was trying to run out and [said] "Kimberly, you run behind me." And Debbie goes, “Oh you just want her to run behind you so you can feel her boobie on your back.” Where would you even expect that in a million years coming out of Debbie Reynolds?
Bonding On Set
The cast ended up working on four films together (with the exception of Brown, who was replaced in the fourth movie, much to fans' dismay). But turning Halloweentown into a franchise was in part possible thanks to the close bond that the cast members had — and still have.
Brown: We really, truly enjoyed spending time together and making the movies together and exploring the different aspects of our characters’ relationships and having some fun, and I think that translates on screen.
Zimmerman: For a long time after the movies, I was still living at home with family, and my parents were friends with Kimberly’s parents. We would go to see them quite often and throughout the year and stuff, and when I moved away from L.A., I ended up losing touch with everybody.
Hoag: One of my favorite things is to like go have lunch with Kimberly or go hike or something, we just love hanging. I don't really see the other guys. Emily lives far away and Joe, he's kind of far away.
Thomas: I hadn't seen anybody in 20 years [until this year's "Spirit of Halloweentown" festival]. When I got there and went down to baggage claim, there's this guy standing there in a trench coat with a carry-on bag, and he looks and points to me, and I look and I went, "Oh my god, that's J. Paul Zimmerman!" We were supposed to get to work, and I get into this sort of like a green room waiting area, and there's this young gal standing there and she's looking to me, and she smiles and I introduce myself. "Hi, Robin Thomas." And she said, "Hi, I'm Sophie." And I totally didn't recognize her at all. It was Emily, and we hugged.
This summer, Brown seemed to confirm that she was in a relationship with Daniel Kountz (Kal), her former co-star, in a romantic Instagram post. And fans were obviously thrilled.
Brown: I’m glad the fans get a kick out of it. And it’s kind of funny, because every time something is posted, there’s usually a new group that sees the picture for the first time and is like, “Wait a minute, what?” It cracks me up. I’m so touched that people even, not only care who I’m dating, but that they wanted to know more.
Embracing The Halloweentown Fandom
Two decades after the movie first aired, it still has a steady and ever-growing fanbase, in part made up by those who watched it when it first came out, who have showed it to their own children.
Brown: I still get recognized daily and people write me these beautiful notes about how the movie helped them when they were growing up and how it helped show them that they didn’t have to be normal to fit in and how they really grasped on to that concept. I’ve heard people say that it was their high school yearbook quote and just that that that overall message really got them through different periods in their life.
Zimmerman: I was recognized by a family and with them was a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5. Clearly, not even born by the time I did the last film. And the family is going, “Hey, nice to meet you.” They look to the little girl and say, “Do you recognize that guy?” And she goes, “Dylan!” I almost had a heart attack!
Hoag: I was really fortunate because I did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I know for sure the first thing on my obituary will be that I played April O'Neil. But it's going to be followed closely by I was Gwen in Halloweentown. That movie has some real staying power.
Brown: I think also with social media and all of that over these past years has been really incredible to watch the gifs and the cosplay ... I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that something like this would happen.
Dunham: It's always fun when somebody comes up to you and says, “Oh, Halloweentown, I love that movie.” In the history of things that I’ve done, I expect somebody to say, “Oh, Star Wars, you worked on Star Wars” or Raiders of the Lost Ark or maybe Homeward Bound or even Little Giants. [Dunham edited Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark before becoming a director.]
Thomas: It's really funny because I'll go other film events or premieres of shows and people come up to me, and they go, "Oh! Halloweentown! Kalabar!"
Zimmerman: I think it was last year when I started seeing tattoos, people at Spirit of Halloweentown were showing up with these amazing Halloweentown tattoos of pumpkin and stuff, with quotes from the movie. I didn’t even know what to say!
Another Halloweentown sequel?
Brown: I’m open to anything, and I’m so humbled that people want to see more and still want to talk about it.
Zimmerman: Let’s absolutely do it again. I’ll do it, we need everyone to get on board. Yes, please, let’s do it!
[Zimmerman texted post-interview to say that he's considering writing a treatment for a Halloweentown sequel about Halloweentown at night.]
Hoag: I think that there is more story in these stories. I think it would shift to now the Marnie character and she's the mom and it's her kids. And I think there's still more that can be mined in Halloweentown. Kimberly should be back, because we need our Kimberly back.
What Makes Halloweentown So Special, 20 Years Later
Most DCOMs do make fans feel nostalgic, but there's something particularly special about Halloweentown's staying power.
Bernbaum: I think up until High School Musical, Halloweentown was the most successful original movie they had.
Dunham: The experience of watching [Halloweentown] is not too unlike the memories that we have of trick-or-treating when we were kids. It’s scary, but not too scary, it’s fun, there’s a little bit of independence there, and you’re running around with your friends. Maybe when people see it they remember the fun of that, the fun of going out on Halloween.
Hoag: I think the dynamic of women is so complicated and so beautiful. I have three generations that will come up to me and say "My mom and I used to watch this movie, now I watch it with my daughter." To me, that's just thrilling. I love seeing anything that empowers women.
Brown: It has a lot of magic and love, and I would want everybody to know that they’re loved and accepted and sort of all the themes that go along with the movie.