On April 28, 1989, Teen Witch, a low-budget supernatural romantic comedy, opened in theaters opposite heavy hitters from Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams) and Stephen King (Pet Sematary). The film revolved around social outcast Louise Miller (Robyn Lively), who discovers on her 16th birthday that she hails from a long line of witches. Under the guidance of her mentor, Madame Serena (Zelda Rubenstein), Louise uses her newfound powers to become the most popular girl in school, and land B.M.O.C. Brad Powell (Dan Gauthier).
Starring a young cast of relative unknowns, the film flopped, earning just $27,843. But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Endless reruns on HBO — and, later, ABC Family — helped transform Teen Witch into a cult classic. Led by its most memorable musical moment, the hyper-cheesy “Top That,” Teen Witch has been name-checked on 30 Rock, re-created by fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, and spent the last 25 years cementing its place in pop culture history.
Why this odd mash-up of genres — equal parts romantic comedy, supernatural origin story, high school drama, and musical — connected with so many generations is a question that still flummoxes Robin Lively, now 42.
On the eve of Teen Witch’s 25th anniversary, she sat down with BuzzFeed to reflect upon the film’s creation, share memories from the set, reveal never-before-known details about the film’s undeniably ’80s fashions, and open up about the movie’s enduring impact on her daily life.
What is your earliest Teen Witch memory?
Robyn Lively: I don’t really remember my first impression of the script. In fact, I probably didn’t actually read the script if I’m being honest. Back then, there wasn’t much reading the script beforehand; I would have an audition, I would get the sides, and I would go in. But I distinctly remember the audition process.
I don’t know how many times I went in, but I remember feeling like it went really well. Then they asked me to come back for a dance audition. Now, I am not a dancer. But my mom raised us to believe we could do anything, so I was very confident going in there and dancing. Who knows what I did in the room, but it clearly worked. Honestly, I look back at the movie and watch myself dance and … cringe. I feel like I’m a much better dancer now.
I took all the dancing too seriously at the time. I was a little more self-conscious back then. And when I had to do the “most popular girl” spin inside the bedroom, I had twisted my ankle. I’m going to blame most of my bad dancing on the ankle.
While the movie features a lot of singing and dancing, it’s not a musical in any true sense. Did that give anyone pause?
RL: I didn’t really pay much attention to it, but I do remember that Mandy [Ingber, who played Polly] and Noah [Blake, who played Rhet] were dreading the infamous “Top That” song. They thought it was the stupidest thing ever. They hated it. In the end, they just decided to have fun with it, and, in retrospect, it’s awesome. But they were not into it, which is so funny because it turned out to be one of the most amazing and popular scenes in the whole movie.
Looking at the cast, it strikes me that all the actors playing high schoolers were aging down. True?
RL: Yes. They were all much older than me. Even Dan. I had such a crush on him, but he was the ladies’ man on set. He was super-flirty and so cute, but I played him so well. I had game at that age, I don’t even know how.
Did any of the actors date while making the movie?
RL: Dan and Lisa [Fuller, who played Randa] are married and they have a son, who is in his twenties. They dated while making the movie and got married shortly after the movie wrapped. I was heartbroken, but I still went to their wedding. Brad and Randa really lived happily ever after.
Do you think Brad and Louise lived happily ever after once the movie ended?
RL: No. No, I don’t think so. And that’s just my knee-jerk reaction. At the end, she comes full circle with everything and realizes their love was an illusion. She’s not who he think she is, and based on that, it feels like she forced him to love her.
But it seemed like he loved her even after she took the necklace off…
RL: That’s true, they did seem to actually like each other at the end. OK, let’s be magical. Yes, they ended up together forever.
I’d certainly hope so after that love scene.
RL: Oh god, that mortifies me.
RL: That was an added scene because they wanted to make it a bit sexier. If I had the chance to do one thing over, I would take that [scene] out. I really would. It’s awful. Also, it implies that something happened with Brad and Louise that I wasn’t aware of at the time. I mean, the clothes on the stairs, the bed — I didn’t know. What’s funny is my mom was super upset because she wasn’t invited on set that day. She would have thrown a fit. But Robyn was enjoying every second of it. Man, he was cute … remember that scene of him throwing the football?
Sure! In the half-shirt!
RL: That’s right! He had a cropped top on. Oh man, that’s the late ’80s for you. Embarrassing.
If that’s your least favorite scene, what is your favorite scene?
RL: I love so many scenes for so many different reasons. I remember having so much fun filming that dog scene with Josh [Miller, who played Louise’s brother Richie] in the bathtub because we couldn’t stop laughing. In fact, you can see that I’m trying not to laugh while he’s panting like a dog. I also love the scene where everyone keeps interrupting her “date” with Brad. And I love the opening scene; although that was really painful because I had to free-fall onto guys holding their arms out, so my poor chest was bruised. Oh, and I loved those dance scenes; “The Finest Hour” was so much fun.
The half-shirt is just one example of the incredibly ’80s wardrobe. Which looks stand out to you?
RL: That’s hard because I was actually a big fan of a lot of the clothes I got to wear in that movie. In the cafeteria montage, I wear this Western-themed outfit and I remember thinking at the time, Oh, that was cute. I wish I had saved that for a longer scene. You have to love the “Finest Hour” dress, that’s a classic.
This is actually something no one knows, but my mom was really the one who created the entire style for Teen Witch. I’m dead serious. She was super involved, and is super creative, so I wore a lot of my actual clothes in the movie. Truly, Louise was my mom’s vision. She really created an iconic character.
Why do you think Louise, and the film, have become so iconic?
RL: I honestly don’t know. When we filmed it, none of us had any idea what we were doing was special. We had no idea. It was just a great movie that we all enjoyed. And then, it just sort of took on a life of its own.
The film did not do well at the box office — were you disappointed?
RL: No. I had no expectations. To be honest, I was surprised it even had a theatrical release.
When did you first realize the film was gaining a cult following?
RL: I’ll tell you when it really hit me: In the early ’90s, I went to a party with Jason Priestley, who I was dating at the time. We went to a party at Ricki Lake’s house, and she freaked out when she saw me. She’s like, “Oh my gosh, you’re Teen Witch! My gay best friend and I love your movie. We know every line, all the dance moves, all the songs.” That’s when it was still on VHS, and she literally started singing “Top That” and “Most Popular Girl.” It was crazy. That was really the first time I realized it had resonated with people.
Have you attended any of the big screenings fans organize?
RL: Yeah, a bunch of years ago, someone invited me to a midnight screening of it in at this Santa Monica theater, and I didn’t know what to expect. I wondered if anyone would even show up. Well, I was floored to see that people didn’t just come, but they came in costumes! They were dressed like me, singing along to all the songs; you would have thought I was rock star.
Like you were Shana [the rock star Louise emulates]!
RL: Yes! Exactly! And, after that, I kept doing them. I distinctly remember one in San Francisco. At the very end of that show, this guy comes up to me and immediately gets teary-eyed. He says, “You have no idea how you and this movie changed my life.” And I really didn’t have any idea. The movie took on a whole new meaning for me at that point because I never looked at it as something that could actually have an impact on people, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
You’ve clearly come to embrace the film’s place in pop culture history, even going as far as to re-create the final scene at your sister’s wedding [Blake Lively married Ryan Reynolds on Sept, 9, 2012]. Where did the idea come from to do that?
RL: Both my younger sister and brother [Eric Lively] are huge fans of the movie — they geek out on me all the time. So Eric and I decided to do this at her wedding, and, oh my gosh, when the music came on, she just about dropped to the floor. I wish I could have captured that moment, but I’ll never forget it. I had a little tube dress and tutu, and Eric and I did the whole thing. We had dance rehearsals where we’d watch the movie and press pause and play and pause and play, trying to get the moves down perfectly. That whole intricate hand thing didn’t come back to me as naturally as I thought. We eventually figured it out.
Had you ever done anything like that before?
RL: Once. For my brother’s birthday a few years ago, I re-created his favorite Teen Witch scene — with Dan! I called Dan up and said I would be forever in his debt if he helped me out. So, being the sweetest thing ever, he did. I dressed up in a turtleneck, with the long skirt, the long necklace, and put red scarves over the lamps. I wrote down all the lines on cue cards. Then I had my brother stand outside the door and walk into the scene without knowing he’d be playing my dad. So, he walks in, sees me with Dan, loses his mind, and then we act out the whole scene. It was so much fun.
The fact you’re able to gift your siblings with re-created moments from the movie just proves what an impact Teen Witch has had. Are you surprised by its enduring popularity?
RL: Not so much, because I get it now. If you had asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought so. But it does still amaze me that so many people love the movie for so many different reasons. Because of people like that guy in San Francisco who told me it changed his life, Teen Witch is my most favorite thing I’ve ever done. I see how happy it makes people, and that makes me happy. The great thing is that no one realized it was going to become all these things when we were making it. We thought we were making a very serious movie. We didn’t know we were making a cult classic. Although, I don’t think you ever do.