The first time I saw Teen Witch, I was in ninth grade and had waited an entire week — it was the Saturday afternoon movie on a local station — to tape the entire thing (along with commercials) on my family’s barely-functioning VCR. I knew nothing about the film until I actually saw it, but I was hooked from the first moment the sultry saxophone riffs sounded through the TV’s tinny speakers and Louise Miller appeared on a rooftop, dancing in a tight red dress and a diaphanous shawl thing while her love interest followed her every movement, enchanted. (Alas, it was all a dream.)
I’ve probably seen the film around 50 times now. When I worked in a video store on the weekends, I watched the movie so often (in rotation with Cats: The Musical) on Saturday nights that I was first banned from playing it and then invited to just take it home because “no one is going to rent it and it’s bothering the customers.”
Why do I love it so much? I have no idea: The film is ridiculous, it makes zero sense, and has no real plot. The best way I can describe it to others is thus: It was made in 1989 and is therefore the ’80s holding on to the ’80s in the only way that it can, with tutus, outrageous musical numbers, and a mandatory appearance by Poltergeist exorcist Zelda Rubinstein, who’s meant to guide Louise (Robyn Lively, half-sister to Blake) through her transition into full-on witchiness, which is never really explained. (Why and how is Louise a witch? The world will never know!) (This is actually another reason the video store made me take the movie home. Sometimes I’d pause it in the middle and try to engage a whole line of customers — all of whom just wanted to rent something and go — in a discussion of why the hell it mattered if the popular girl was throwing a party at the same time as Louise’s birthday shindig, because it’s not like anyone from that group was showing up to the latter, right?)
Known to millennials — and my husband — only as the “Top That” movie, Teen Witch is finally getting the credit it deserves. Along with reignited interest at midnight showings, the film became available on Netflix in February, and Slashfilm just released an amazing oral history of the movie, speaking with all the main players involved in the cult classic — Yes, even Brad! — to figure out exactly what the hell happened to make Teen Witch a reality.
Here are some amazing things you didn’t know about the film: For one, it was supposed to be much raunchier, even though its inspiration was allegedly a little girl who wanted to know why boys got a Teen Wolf but girls didn’t have a witch to call their own. And it turns out that the first version wasn’t so great. The man who ended up directing it, Dorian Walker, didn’t even want to do it at first because it was all too Porky’s. But then something changed his mind:
Dorian Walker: For whatever reason, this script just literally sang out to me as I was reading it. So I went back and made notes and in the course of the script I found right off the bat about nine places where I thought music could go in there and elevate the core story, and so armed with that I took the meeting with Trans World Entertainment. After we got through the formalities of chitchat, they asked, “So, what do you think about our script?” And I said, “Well, you know, I didn’t really care that much about the script. I thought it had a nice storyline, but it had a lot of unnecessary elements.” Like what? By this point in my career, I had turned down enough things and I had adjusted to the notion of being quasi-broke pretty well and so I didn’t really have anything to lose by sharing what my feelings were. So I mentioned a few of the unnecessary elements—like the lesbian coach, for example—and when I finished speaking, they didn’t seem happy. To them, it was like: Then why are we having this meeting? “But,” I said, “I see something in this script that I find appealing.” And so, after I just told them that their script sucked, I said, “Well, I see this as a musical. As a teen musical.” And there was a silence. And then there was a longer silence.
Anyone who’s seen the movie knows that it can hardly be called a musical even in the loosest sense of the word — a movie with random songs for no reason is more like it — but now we finally know why there are cheerleaders singing “I Like Boys” in the locker room and why “Top That!” (performed by Amanda Ingber, who, by the way, quit acting to become a yoga instructor to the stars, including Jennifer Aniston) was ever brought into existence. Can’t complain about that, right?
Nor can we complain about the fact that Robyn Lively was chosen to play the title role, one that Debbie Gibson was originally considered for. According to Lively, she was “15 and couldn’t dance,” but even if there was an amazing dancer competing against her, there was no way anyone else was becoming Teen Witch. Can you imagine the film with another ’80s sensation? (I shudder to think). But without a huge name came some problems. Per the casting director/producer:
Alana H. Lambros: And Robyn’s mother was really sweet. She came to my house because I couldn’t even afford a hair dresser in preproduction until the very end, so her mom came to the house and said, “We’ll put the extensions in her hair.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I have no money for extensions.” And I remember Robyn’s mom saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll pay for it.”
One more huge surprise? There was only one person that the film’s production company felt wasn’t right for the film. You may have heard of her:
Dorian Walker: So everything was coming together, though ironically, the only casting that TWE disagreed with was for one of the teachers that we wanted to cast: Ellen DeGeneres. I had seen her at some comedy clubs, we had a reading with her, I said I’d like to cast her, but this one the one place where Moshe stepped in and said no. But I couldn’t complain because we got almost everything we wanted. We had a little comedy in the movie, we had a little music and we had a very ambitious shooting schedule.
What was shooting the movie like? Aside from the producers having to try to make do with very little money and protest from teamsters, everyone agrees that it was a magical experience. Teen Witch may not have been the best makeover movie from the ’80s, but it was a makeover film, and Robyn Lively told Slashfilm that being in one was like a dream come true. Kind of weird, though, that she was 15 and Brad, her love interest, was 22. But what are you gonna do? Hollywood, you know?
Here’s a giant piece of gossip:
Robyn Lively: Oh, and this is the best piece of dirt ever: Dan and Lisa [Fuller, who played “Randa”] ended up getting married shortly after that!
Man, Kiki must have been piiiiiiiissssed.
Here are some less juicy items: the movie was shot over a winter break at Glendale High, the sound man had a heart incident on set (probably due to all the magic), and all the kids you see wandering the halls and following Louise around when she’s “the most popular girl?” All real live high school students.
But not even magic could keep the extras from being mad at the amount of time they were working or porta-potties overflowing during filming. But that’s not why any of us are here reading or talking about this, right? We really just want to know how the hell “Top That” ever became a thing. And why it’s both one of the best scenes in the film and so incredibly out of place. Mystery solved: It was never in the original version, and was only added in because the young kids, you know they like the rap:
Larry Weir [Music Composer]: We wrapped one version of the movie and then I got a call from this guy saying, “Alana’s no longer with the project, but we know that rap music is popular and we need a rap in this movie. Can you do rap?” Can I do rap? Hey man, yeah I can. So I sat down and they told me about these additional scenes and I remember putting together my song idea for Top That and walking into their office. I had a boom box with me and it was one of the hottest days of the year and I kept remembering that phrase “Never let them see you sweat” while sweat was pouring down my head as I walk into this room with eight executives. All sitting there with their arms crossed. And then I do this rap for them and they have these horrible looks on their faces. There’s dead silence and then the head guy goes, “I like it” and then they all go: I like it too! And they all clap.
Unfortunately, people in the Philippines, where it was the highest-rated movie of the year, never got to see all that magic:
Alana H. Lambros: The film did really well on video and overseas. In the Philippines, for instance, Teen Witch was the highest rated film that year. But that was because they took out our music and they put in the music from Michael Jackson’s Thriller soundtrack. But still…
I’d honestly kill to see that version. But I’d kill to see this more:
Larry Weir: But I bet here’s one thing you didn’t know: I helped Robyn record her own version of “Finest Hour,” which she sang as the wedding song for Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s wedding.
While there’s no way to do the entire oral history justice (except be jealous that I wasn’t invited to be a part of it), it’s definitely something you should head over and read regardless of whether you were a fan of the film or not, if only because you need to know about the fact that Blake and Robyn Lively recreated the “bedroom” scene for their brother (with Brad, of course) years after the movie achieved cult status. Actually, maybe I’m most jealous of not being part of that.
But if there’s one thing that the oral history, How Did This Get Made’s episode about the film, and hopefully this post has made you realize, it’s this: You need to see Teen Witch again. Need to see it. It’s not a want situation. Unlike many of the movies that came out in the ’80s (including some that are still popular today), Teen Witch was just so zany, weird, and fun that it remains compellingly watchable even in 2016. It doesn’t feel like it’s stuck in time–that was partly intentional–and I predict that we’ll all still be enjoying it when we’re 80. (We just won’t be able to do the dances anymore due to our prosthetic hips.)