Samantha Highfill
October 17, 2017 AT 03:30 PM EDT

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In 1995, audiences fell in love with the bubblegum world of Clueless, where Alicia Silverstone reigned supreme over high school with perfect outfits, perfect catchphrases, and perfect hair. But in the mid-’90s, Clueless was one of the few teen movies to break big. “There had been this article about how there was a John Hughes moment that had passed, and teenagers were going to see movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone,” says co-writer/director Andrew Fleming, who had made the 1994 college comedy-drama Threesome. “They weren’t seeing stories about themselves.”

And when they were, they were wish-fulfillment films like Clueless, as opposed to, say, a movie about four high school loners who wear all black and avoid extracurricular activities so they can practice incantations. But that didn’t stop The Craft from casting a spell over audiences and winning its opening weekend at the box office in 1996. More than 20 years later, the story of four young women who, through the use of witchcraft, discover what it really means to have strength has resonated with audiences as a tale of female empowerment. By breaking the mold and giving viewers female leads who weren’t “perfect,” “cool,” or even “good,” a film about magic ironically delivered one of that decade’s most relatable portrayals of high school.

UNDERCLASS ACT

The idea for The Craft originated out of a brainstorming session between producer Douglas Wick and Flatliners writer Peter Filardi before writer-director Andrew Fleming was brought in for a rewrite.

DOUGLAS WICK (producer): I was curious about the phenomenon of girls marginalized in a man’s world who suddenly come into their sexuality and have this enormous power.

PETER FILARDI (co-writer): I remember telling [Doug] that magic is historically a weapon of the underclass. Our characters had to be outsiders because real magic requires need.

ANDREW FLEMING (co-writer/director): [The script] reminded me of my high school experience because at that point, movies in high school were pink and fun and about the prom. My recollection of high school was that it was a lot of pressure.

WITCHING HOUR

With the creative team set, the film faced its greatest challenge: casting four young women who would bring that high school struggle to life (and who could make school uniforms look rebellious). It would take them nine months to settle on Fairuza Balk, Robin Tunney, Neve Campbell, and Rachel True.

FLEMING: There was not a generation of teen actors that you could draw from at that point.

PAM DIXON (casting director): We tested over 90 girls and went through probably 600. Rachel [True] was the first person cast.

RACHEL TRUE (Rochelle): I had done one other movie as a lead. This was a little bigger and more about the four girls rather than [me being] the ancillary girlfriend. I was still the black chick who didn’t have parents and had less to say, but I was in there, which was different for the time.

ROBIN TUNNEY (Sarah Bailey): I had just finished Empire Records and I was bald. I think my hair had grown out, like, an inch and my agents were like, “They’re never going to hire you looking this way.”

FLEMING: [Robin] came in and looked like a skinhead, but Pam said, “You have to read this girl.” So we put her in a wig and tested her, and she was just so good.

TUNNEY: I was testing for [Bonnie], the role that Neve Campbell eventually played, and I was incredibly mesmerized by Fairuza. There was a rebellious authenticity to her that I wish I’d had. We did the screen test and I drove Fairuza home. She was like, “I have a feeling this might be a piece of s—, and I’m not doing it.”

FAIRUZA BALK (Nancy Downs): I had agreed to do Basquiat. [Director] Julian [Schnabel] and I had become friends. Meanwhile, my agent said, “There’s this other big movie and they really want you.” I was trying to figure out if we could move dates and then I got a phone call from Julian screaming at me, saying, “You’re doing another movie!” I said, “No, I’m doing your movie.” He hung up after cursing me out, and I called my agents and they said, “We accepted The Craft.”

DIXON: The movie was about how you could be an outsider and be okay with that. Fairuza was that person.

BALK: I found the subject absolutely fascinating. I started going to shops and talking with people. I really did study occultism, which is very fascinating stuff.

DIXON: But [Neve] was by far the biggest name [because of her show Party of Five]. We tested Alicia Silverstone, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, but Neve came in and she was really, really good.

TUNNEY: When they asked me to play the lead instead of Bonnie, I was like, “That is the most boring part. That’s the girl you want to stuff in a locker and tell her to shut the f— up because she’s no fun.” My agents called me and said, “You can’t say no. It’s a lead in a studio movie.” I was afraid. I’d never been the lead in anything. I didn’t feel like I was good enough.

FLEMING: When we finally found four, I said, “Let’s do this thing where the girls walk toward the camera in their witchy attire,” and we did it in slow motion and we put Portishead over it so that you got the feel of the movie.

WICK: What got the movie finally greenlit was when we shot the four girls walking. That image made the studio say, “Okay, I get this.”

TUNNEY: That is the oddest thing for something that eventually became a feminist film. It was, like, shaking t–s and Portishead.

Photofest

But even though the studio understood the feel of the film, it took them a while to agree on the look of the female leads.

FLEMING: My pitch was: What if those four weird girls in high school were witches, but what if they dressed like The Cure? But we shot in order. So the first week was the nerdy version of the girls, with Neve in that big windbreaker and Robin in that shapeless dress. That was the first week of footage and the studio said, “We don’t like the look.”

TUNNEY: It was all about my wig at the beginning — you could tell it was a wig. I would go in two hours earlier than anybody else and they’d wax my hairline. It was like a Chinese torture experiment and it never looked good. I think the studio felt we looked dumpy.

FLEMING: It did get kind of testy, but soon enough everybody was on board. Driving up to the first preview, there were girls were dressed like [our characters], and I thought, “We’re onto something.”

FALLOUT GIRL

With the cast and the look of the film figured out, the filmmakers could focus on the actual story. As the movie progresses, the characters begin to explore their powers on screen, beginning with Rochelle’s revenge on Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), the school’s racist bully, whose hair mysteriously begins to fall out.

TRUE: In the original script, before they decided to go with someone nonwhite, my character was bulimic. And then once they cut that out I was like, “My issue is that I’m black? No, my issue is not I’m black; the world’s issue is that I’m black.”

FLEMING: I witnessed a lot of bigotry in high school, so I made Rochelle black.

CHRISTINE TAYLOR (Laura Lizzie): Every time I would say the line “Because I don’t like negroids,” I would stop and apologize [to Rachel]. Laura’s just so mean, which is why they needed to make her suffer. I remember being in the hair chair for hours. They put my hair into a bald cap and would pack on swatches of the hair that was supposed to be falling out.

SNAKES ON A STAIR

As the girls’ powers grew, so did weird on-set occurrences, whether it was inexplicable weather on the beach or an all-too-realistic encounter with snakes during the final showdown between Nancy and Sarah.

FLEMING: We picked the beach location with a park ranger where, even during a storm, we would not be anywhere near waves. But anytime one of them started the incantation it really did seem that the waves would get higher, and there was one point where this rogue wave came in and wiped the set out.

TUNNEY: The snakes were real. The rats were real and the maggots were real. I was in shock. They threw a rat on my head and it smelled. I was completely freaked out.

FLEMING: Supposedly that was the record number of any kind of animal in one scene. The animal guy got 10,000 snakes [for] that shot in the staircase. It was a weird night.

Peter Iovino/Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

There was one scene that would garner extra attention when The WB premiered a new show, Charmed, in 1998. Its theme song? Love Spit Love’s cover of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” — the same song that plays when Nancy, Rochelle, and Bonnie first introduce themselves to Sarah after school.

FLEMING: That cover of the Smiths’ song was my idea. I wrote a pilot of The Craft for Fox. The WB wanted to take it and Fox wouldn’t let it go. And then the next year, Charmed came out.

TUNNEY: Charmed is a rip-off of The Craft. It was completely obvious to the point that people would think I was on Charmed for years after.

It’s a mistake people rarely make anymore, with The Craft‘s legacy lasting more than two decades. And it all started when the film won its weekend at the box office despite an R rating).

FILARDI: I wasn’t surprised that the film found an audience, but the studio was. They called me in weeks later and said, “We underestimated this film. If we had known we might have marketed it differently.” It should have never been rated R.

FLEMING: [The rating] was a surprise because we actually sent the script to the MPAA for rating in advance, and we had held off on any really hard language or nudity or graphic violence because we wanted a PG-13. They said, “This is an R.” When we asked why, they said, “Because it’s about devil worship and teens and we don’t want to encourage that.” I told them Paganism is not devil worship; it’s actually a line in the movie.

WICK: [The rating] was all about teen suicide. There was an idea that if you never talked about it, teens wouldn’t think about it. That’s where we got punished for a certain level of reality.

And yet it’s that level of reality that has made The Craft remain a topic of discussion, especially among women. There’s even a remake — complete with a script — under way at Sony.

TUNNEY: Somehow it still speaks to everybody’s inner teenage girl. I went to a bachelorette party where everybody had to bring their guilty-pleasure movies and Natalie Portman brought The Craft. She was too embarrassed to take it out because I was there. She was like, “Is this flattering or insulting?”

TRUE: I can still go anywhere in the world, just about, and get a hemp bracelet for free.

BALK: I still get tweets about it. What an honor to have been part of something that people love so much

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