A Behind the Scenes Look at How ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Cast a Spell on Rhode Island
Ahead of the cult classic sequel's release on Disney+, we learned how 'Hocus Pocus 2' magically transformed the Ocean State into Salem, Massachusetts, last fall and caught up with the lucky locals who participated as extras, crew and more.
HOCUS POCUS has more recently become a cult classic since it was released in 1993, and Rhode Island recently got in on the lights, camera and action. The sequel, Hocus Pocus 2, cast a spell on the Ocean State by magically transforming its cities and towns last fall into Salem, Massachusetts, for filming many scenes in the movie, which was released Sept. 30 on Disney+.
The original film follows the Sanderson sisters, witches including Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy), who were resurrected from 1693 by several teens. Hocus Pocus 2 takes place twenty-nine years after the original — the movie’s tagline is “We’re back, witches!” — when three high school students accidentally conjure the Sanderson sisters to present-day times in Salem (which is eerily similar to the historic architecture in Rhode Island), and they must try to stop the child-hungry witches from wreaking havoc on Salem before dawn on All Hallows Eve.
Some of the filming took place in Rhode Island last fall and into late January. The production employed local people in various roles from cast to crew, with the stars brewing up support for Rhody restaurants and food businesses while they were here. Some may say it’s all just a bunch of hocus pocus, but the memories and the movie will live on for eternity.
Here are interviews with the local people who helped bring the film back to life.
How did you first get into film?
I got into film at seven or eight years old. My dad was a sixth grade teacher, and he saw what I loved. I started making Super 8mm films, Claymation and hand-drawn animation. Every summer, living in Garden City in Cranston, I’d go, ‘It’s so boring, can we make another movie?’ And my dad would say, ‘You come up with the story. You direct it,’ and I’d get all my friends together. I did Charlie Chaplin meets Mr. Hyde. I did James Bond. I always knew I wanted to be a film director since I was a child. Then I went out to Los Angeles and UCLA and [University of Southern California] film school, traveled around the world, and made a few movies and came back home in 2004. That August of 2004, I brought “Brotherhood” from Showtime here and that became a series for three seasons.
How did Hocus Pocus 2 come to film in Rhode Island?
I’ve been working with Disney since we started our program. I think the first project we did was Underdog. We developed a great relationship, specifically with Mary Ann Hughes (vice president of film and television production planning at Walt Disney Company) and Jerry Ketcham (senior vice president for feature production at Walt Disney Pictures). We are always in touch. If I go out to L.A. I always see them. I let them know what we have going on and ask if there are any opportunities for us. We talked about new opportunities and Hocus Pocus 2 came up. Hocus Pocus 2 was supposed to be filmed in Salem. I said we have the same stuff as Salem. We have historical streets and we can double for that. Whether it’s Newport or Lincoln, and we have availability in North Kingstown to do some stage work.
I said you are going to need a place to stage the flying sequences. I said what a wonderful asset we have, we have the Cranston Street Armory and those are extremely high ceilings. I utilized it for various projects including Underdog. Sure enough, we were able to make a contract with Disney and the Department of Administration to have the Cranston Street Armory as our home base for the show. They did a lot of construction, they did flying sequences, they used the stage for the basement of the magic shop. They built a whole forest in there. A lot of the forest sequences that you’re going to see where they are doing witchy craft stuff is in the Cranston Street Armory.
I had also worked with Anne Fletcher, the director. We did a movie called 27 Dresses in Newport. Anne directed that movie. I had already been talking to Disney before she came aboard. She seconded the motion of working in Rhode Island. We pride ourselves on repeat customers that have a positive experience.
What has been the most rewarding part of the filming?
I was able to take a group of elementary school students from Providence on a school bus down to North Kingstown so they could see the interior of the magic shop. The production designer spent about forty-five minutes to an hour talking to them. They got to ask questions. We might have had thirty kids from Providence and even if we reached four or five of them, we let them know that what they daydream they can turn into a career or reality. Dreams do come true. Those are things I know would have made a difference for me as a child. We weren’t making Hollywood movies here when I was kid. I was making movies myself, but I didn’t get to go on a real set until I went out to Los Angeles. But I said if we can touch those brains, it could be a life changer. Especially when they see the film and they can say, ‘I was there.’
The most rewarding thing is also going to be when we show the film to families and Rhode Islanders and all those people who supported the film, Rhode Island Film and the tax credits. It’s something we as a state can be proud of. It’s Walt Disney: high quality, tremendous actors and performing. Hocus Pocus 2 will be shown every Halloween. It’s going to endure.
What has the impact been on tourism and the economy?
The impact on tourism is huge. With Hocus Pocus 2 and ‘The Gilded Age’ filming in Newport, the Newport Chamber of Commerce conducted a study with a company out in Cambridge called Industrial Economics Incorporated. They found that for every dollar we give in tax credits, it returns $5.44 in economic activity in Rhode Island. That doesn’t include the addition of tourism after. That’s the actual production. When the show is distributed to a worldwide audience and hopefully to infinity, whether it’s streaming or Blu-ray, people will want to see where the movie was filmed. We had people coming from all over the world to visit the set and coming to the Armory. They would be outside the fence on YouTube saying, ‘We’re here in Providence looking at this castle.’ We received so much social media publicity for Hocus Pocus 2. When it first came out, it was moderately successful, and when Halloween came about, you’d find there was a real cult status. I’m also vice president of the Greenwich Odeum, and every Halloween, we show the original movie, and we sell out. I was so excited to bring the sequel of the family film here. It reaches a worldwide audience.
Location manager, Providence.
“I was in charge of finding and securing all the filming locations for the movie. Usually, they send me the script. I’ll go through and break down each filming location and then come up with ideas for where I think it would work. I lived in NYC for a while and that’s where I got into the business, then moved back to Providence seven or eight years ago, and I have done most of the big shows that have come into town. We were finishing up the first season of ‘The Gilded Age,’ when I got the call, and they said, ‘We’re doing Hocus Pocus 2, the sequel to the movie from the ’90s that so many people loved. We’re thinking of bringing it to Rhode Island.’ The biggest question was, of course, that the original film took place in Salem, so they asked, ‘Do you think Rhode Island can pass as Salem, Massachusetts?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s New England, it’s all very similar.’ Newport came to mind as Salem. We closed Washington Square for the better part of two weeks.
“One of the biggest locations was Chase Farm in Lincoln. It started off as a small thing, then it began to grow and grow. I only knew of that location because it’s where I take my dog for walks. The designer said, ‘We need a big, beautiful field where we can put up a few structures.’ We drove by and fell in love with it, and it grew into this whole town we built.
“I really liked how Newport turned out. That was my biggest contribution to the show, because from that very first phone call, I pictured that part of Newport. Everyone loved the look of it. To see it all come together, including the logistical aspect of it, it’s what we do. That was such a feat to make happen. I have to give all the credit to the Newport Police Department because they were so great in making things happen down there, and the mayor, she was awesome.” — Jamie Coelho
Cut to the Chase
Five fun facts from filming at chase farm in Lincoln. By Kaitlyn Murray
Kathy Hartley has two claims to fame in Lincoln: She is the director of the Hearthside House Museum and Great Road Heritage Campus, and is a descendant of the Chase family who owned and farmed the land at Chase Farm for more than a century before the town purchased it in 1979. Both of these earned her special access and an insider look at Hocus Pocus 2 filming at Chase Farm.
Faith, Trust and Fairy Dust
It all started with a mysterious email from Fairy Dust Productions in June 2021. “They used a Gmail account and wrote, ‘We have a great filming opportunity for Hearthside if you’re interested to have a major feature come in,’” Hartley recalls. “I’m like ‘Yeah, right, Fairy Dust?’ But I played along.”
She scheduled a visit for two days later.
“The scout couldn’t have spent more than fifteen minutes going through the house,” she continues. “But before she left, I asked, ‘What’s the movie?’ And she said, ‘It’s Hocus Pocus 2.’”
Hartley hadn’t seen the original film at the time, but she was familiar with the Sanderson sisters and knew they were from 1600s Salem, a different era from Hearthside’s nineteenth-century origins. The scout assured her, though, that they were looking for houses that could be used for modern-day scenes.
“As she’s leaving, I say, ‘Well, just so you know, we have other sites available if this doesn’t work out. We have a blacksmith’s shop and an old mill down the street. And if that doesn’t interest you, think of eighty-five acres of pristine land,’” Hartley says. “She said, ‘I’ll let my producer know.’ A week goes by and then I hear, ‘Oh my God, the director drove down Great Road, saw Chase Farm and fell in love.’”
That’s all it took. Disney got in touch with the town, secured the proper filming permits and the trailers began arriving on Aug. 18, 2021. Hearthside House provided large tents for the crew to use, and between that involvement and Hartley’s management of historic properties on the farm, she was granted daily access to the site.
“Everyone went out of their way to make my time there special,” she says. “My grandfather, Benjamin Chase, really loved Disney. On Sunday nights he would invite neighbors over and we would sit and watch ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ with the fireworks in color over Magic Kingdom. Throughout this whole thing, I’m saying, ‘He’d get such a kick out of this, that Disney came to his house and did a major movie here.’”
Three Months for Three Minutes
The production team needed a rural space to recreate seventeenth-century Salem Village, aka the Sanderson sisters’ hometown. Though the eight or so buildings were mostly facades, Hartley says it took three months to construct.
“Each one was different and from a different time period, just like how today a neighborhood will have houses built in different years. The Sanderson’s house was a very early cottage while the reverend’s was much more elegant,” she says.
The Sanderson sisters’ house was the only one on the lot that was completely furnished.
“I met the art director, and it was his responsibility to make everything realistic. They went to local antique stores and outfitted the whole thing. The care and detail included actually flying in an expert from Ireland who constructed the thatched roof,” Hartley says.
But in the end, all of that time and prep equated to little screen time. They began rolling in the film trailers, production staff, and actors on Oct. 28 and only two nights of filming were on the schedule. The scenes make up just the opening of the film and flash back to when the sisters were young girls.
The crew ended up coming back again later to take some more footage, but this time the village was spruced up to appear like the present day. A “Welcome to Salem Historic District” sign was placed out front and fictional historical placards by the houses denoted which shipbuilder or other important figure used to live there.
“Though they only filmed a few days, I think it had the biggest impact here out of any of the locations around the state. We lived with Salem Village from August when they started construction to December when they left. The magic of Hollywood was here, and then it magically all disappeared,” Hartley says.
An Authentic Setting
“Not only is Chase Farm on one of the oldest roads in the country that dates back to 1683 — so when the Salem witch trials were happening, Great Road and the Arnold House down the street were here — but they didn’t have to use props for the surroundings,” Hartley says. “Things happened naturally. A hawk literally flew over while they were filming. And they built the village right by the sycamore tree, so when it lost its leaves, it looked nice and creepy.”
The New England weather also lent a hand in the atmosphere. The rain rolled in right as the cameras started rolling.
“I think it added to the scene. You know, because it’s supposed to be in the olden days and it wouldn’t be the same with a bright sunny day. It was dark and it was dismal and it was wet and it was muddy,” Hartley recalls. “All the extras, they were in Pilgrim clothes and they were trekking back and forth and they got covered in mud. All up their skirts and soaked into the wool. It was a sight to see.”
Rumors Amok, Amok, Amok
When a notice went out alerting town officials that a controlled fire would occur on premises, whispers started floating around town (and eventually through the state, thanks to social media) that the entire village was being burnt to the ground. But the optics, Hartley says, were totally blown out of proportion. As it turns out, just one corner of the reverend’s house catches after a spell goes awry in the film. And though about ten firefighters and two fire trucks from the local station were on scene for hours to ensure everyone’s safety, nothing truly burned that night.
The crew had to do several takes that night, but luckily between the structure’s flame-retardant exterior and some movie magic involving a gas grill, they successfully captured a burning building on film.
Cult Classics Equal Cult Followings
It may just all be a bunch of hocus pocus, but the film’s fans don’t see it that way. Hartley often met people who came from all over just to visit the set.
“Once, this woman showed up and she was like, ‘Oh, can’t I get closer?’ She had driven in from Chicago,” Hartley says.
People weren’t always as polite. Hartley says another woman actually pretended to be her, claiming she had grown up in the property’s farmhouse. Others took even more drastic measures.
“The security team had ATVs because they had eighty-five acres they had to control. At one in the morning they would catch people in the trees or crawling through the grass trying to get to the village. People were flying drones overhead and down into the village to take pictures. The security team was there until December because they needed to protect the public from possible injury as the set was being taken down and prevent theft of any building materials that may have been taken as souvenirs. They said of all the jobs they worked, they’d never seen anything like it.”
And the craze doesn’t seem to be dying down.
“Just last week a car pulled in with Massachusetts plates: ‘Can you tell us how to get to the location where Hocus Pocus was filmed?’” she says. “All these months later, people are still taking the drive and there’s nothing left to see! People just want to see where the set was.”
More Filming Locations:
Washington Square, Newport; Chase Farm, Lincoln; Cranston Street Armory, Providence; Federal Hill, Providence; Rhode Island Historical Society, Benevolent Street, Providence; Aldrich House, Providence; Lakeside Cemetery, Rumford; Walgreens, East Side of Providence; La Salle Academy (interior), Providence; Moses Brown (school exterior), Providence; Magic shop, warehouse in North Kingstown.
Coming up: Conversations with set dressers and a guide to where the film’s stars dined in Rhode Island.