Robert Harling, living and working in New York City, not only distraught over his sister Susan's death, he was also upset with his brother in-law, who remarried within six months of his sister's demise. Stressed and distraught, Harling was advised by his fellow acting class workshop members to put his thoughts on paper. Harling began writing his story in a script form, which the acting class members would read and act out his stage directions. These segments developed, combined, and became the script for the off-Broadway workshop presentation, eventually becoming a full fledged drama presented professionally on stage. Ray Stark, prompted by Herbert Ross, negotiated the film rights for the property. Production Designer Gene Callahan (LSU) became involved because of his past association with Ray Stark, and his Louisiana heritage and knowledge of everything Southern. The film's schedule occurred during a Hollywood writer's strike, which required Robert Harling not be involved (rewrites) due to the writer's union contract. Ray Stark, Herbert Ross, and Gene Callahan flew to Natchitoches, Louisianna, South of Shreveport, scouting Robert Harling's town, (where the actual story occurred), for the film's location sight which would remove the production from the Hollywood union jurisdiction problem. Incognito, Robert Harling would be present during the filming and available for any rewrites. Negotiating with the President of Northwestern University, the University's satellite teachers training school facility provided a complex for production offices (principle/administrative and attendance offices); one large indoor gym for a stage, located in the central core of the building's offices, class rooms, and labs (art department, set decorating and property room, wardrobe, screening room, lunch-break room acting as a "green room"); another smaller gym which functioned both as a construction mill and stage; playground exteriors providing parking for the companies circus of support vehicles. The female cast were given each a motor home for a dressing room. A Georgia motor home and car/truck dealer provided the motor home vehicles and the film companies transportation requirements. The motor homes were delivered and parked on the school's front main entrance, on the grass lawn, fanned-lined parallel with the vehicles' nose pointed toward the school's main door entrance. Instead of yellow school buses, the front of the school facility looked like a gypsy camp with boardwalks, on top of the grass, set between the vehicles. Each morning's exodus, a driver steered a motor home to the filming location, creating another parking night-mare for the transportation captain. The male cast members were not provided a dressing room vehicle nor trailer.
When Bette Davis saw the off-Broadway play, she thought it would be a great film for her, envisioning herself as Ouiser, Katharine Hepburn as Clairee, and Elizabeth Taylor as Truvy. However, when she contacted the rights holders for the movie adaptation, she found out that they intended to cast much younger actresses.
Daryl Hannah was originally turned down for the role of Annelle. The director thought that she was too attractive. She asked if she could come in and read for the part anyway. The next day, she arrived at the studio dressed as Annelle, so unrecognisable that security refused to let her in.
Shot in the small Louisiana town of Natchitoches. Reportedly, the filmmakers made so many demands of the locals, particularly those who volunteered to be extras, that when The Man in the Moon (1991) was shot in the same town several years later, extras were very hard to find.
Ouiser mentions that she and her friends used to dress up like nuns and go barhopping when they were young. Shirley MacLaine played a woman who dressed up as a whiskey-drinking nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970).
M'Lynn's home is actually two different houses. The Cook-Taylor House, owned by the Henry Taylor family and now a Bed and Breakfast in Natchitoches, was used for the outside front of the house, and most of the scenes inside the home and in the back yard. It is on Front Street by the river and can be easily located, as it is now known as "The Steel Magnolias Bed and Breakfast." During filming, the Taylors moved out and rented an apartment.
There is no parish or town in Louisiana known as Chinquapin. "Chinquapin" is the name for a type of fish and a particular breed of oak tree. The town of Natchitoches in the parish of the same name served as the backdrop for the film. The town was named after the "NAKTOSH" Indians whose names means "chinquapin eaters". Natchitoches actually does have a large Christmas Light Festival annually. Natchitoches was also the first settlement in the Louisiana Territory.
Upon arriving in Natchitoches, the production designer, the art director, the director, cinema photographer, location manager, and producer were based in the "Holiday Inn" for their initial meetings and production decisions. The Holiday Inn became the central home base for all arriving personnel involved with the filming company. Lori Tate, the hotel's manager, complied with requests and provided complete services for out of the ordinary requests. As the company members arrived, the hotel turned into the Magnolia Hotel! When the female cast arrived, they stayed in the hotel until their arranged rental residences were available for their lengthy film shoot. Dolly Parton moved into a river edge plantation home with picture windows facing the town's river. None of the adjacent properties had fences; open rolling green lawns separated the large houses. Spending the afternoon and evening in the residence, Dolly realized photographers with telescopic high powered lenses would invade her privacy in the property. At 3 a.m., Dolly called Mrs. Tate and annouced that she was moving back to the Holiday Inn, immediately. Dolly remained in the hotel until the local Realtor found another rental, located on a local lake. Dolly's lakeside neighbor was Shirley MacLaine, whose property had a dock-wharf. Shirley asked the realtor, "Would my nude sunbathing cause any problems?" "Only a traffic jam on the lake," was his reply.
The title has been said to suggest that the main characters are delicate as magnolias but tough as steel, but this is not explained in the movie. The only references to the two words are Ouiser's near accusation of Drum of stealing Magnolias from her tree, and then a later comment by M'Lynn that men are supposed to be made out of steel.
The Natchitoches Hospital Administration wanted the film company to film their actual emergency room and intensive care ward. Gene Callahan had serious reservations filming in the actual hospital, just in case a heart attack patient should arrive interrupting filming. This set was built in the gym-stage used as the main film interiors studio. Location managers, after the film was released, repeatedly called Hub Braden (Art Director) in L.A. asking where the hospital location was because their film's director wanted to shoot in the same hospital.
In both author Robert Harling's dramatic play and film script, reference is made of the flocks of black birds that settle in the Natchitoches township neighborhood tree tops, noisily squawking incessantly, disturbing the neighborhood peace. Home owners and their kids, in fact, would go outside, into their yards, assembling a joint neighborhood army, to drive the birds out of their neighborhood. Grabbing garbage can lids, using them as cymbals, metal pots, iron frying pans, clashing lids, pots, pans together creating a symphony of noisy sounds, disturbing the flock to fly out of their neighborhood, across town, to another tree nesting location. A few of the homeowners would use their rifles to shoot in the air to move the flocks. Two months prior to filming, the production company hired a Los Angeles "studio bird/animal wrangler and his showbiz black bird flock". Driving from Los Angeles with his assistant, the duo transported their "Hollywood showbiz wire caged black bird circus" to Natchitoches, settling at the Holiday Inn. Daily, for six weeks, including Saturdays and Sundays, the wranglers trained the flock of black birds, with blank loaded gun shots as signals, to fly from one location of trees to another group of trees, at the designated film location sight. After the sequence was filmed, the "Hollywood bird circus" returned home to "Los Angeles".
Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine said in an interview that director Herbert Ross was very difficult to work with, telling the main lead actresses they couldn't act, and singling out Julia Roberts in particular, to the point that she would be left in tears.
After jetting into Natchitoches from Beverly Hills, Herbert Ross, Ray Stark, and production members of the scout party, were examining location sights on the Main Street when an urgent cell phone call came for Herbert and Ray. Meg Ryan had agreed to be in the movie but had not signed a contract. The cell phone call announced "we lost Meg Ryan, she signed for another movie!" Angry executives were very unhappy, facing an immediate casting issue to resolve losing Meg Ryan. They had no other choice but find another actress. Flying, returning to Beverly Hills, cell phone lines were hot and heavy during the entire return flight. Julia Roberts was cast in the roll. After assembling the cast at the satellite stage (gym) mock-up beauty parlor set, Herbert Ross initiated script rehearsals. Herbert was especially tough with Julia Roberts during this week of scene rehearsals. Shirley MacLaine relieved tensions created by Herb's intense work-outs. Originally, Dolly Parton's scenes were to be filmed first, which would release Dolly for her return to Hollywood, continuing her ABC TV musical comedy second season series. The network announced her series was canceled. Scheduling was revised and Dolly remained, filming the daily planned script scene sequence.
Lori Tate, since the filming ended, has become the town of Natchitoches' official historian and city guide of the film's filming location sights. She appeared in the film as Mrs. Latcherie Sr. in the wedding scenes. Knowing everybody in town, she was a wonderful source for specialty set props and for sources in the area. Lori directed the Production Designer to the baker who made the pink wedding cake and the groom's red velvet Armadillo shaped cake. The lady baker made several test Armadillo cakes for cutting tests, just to make sure the deep red cake batter color, after baking, was red. Lori Tate became the art department's favorite and brightest source in town. When an armadillo had been run down about a mile from the Holiday Inn hotel, Lori added daily flowers to the sign "killed in a role casting stampede for the part of Truvy".
Herbert Ross employed a unique twist in the cemetery scene. M'Lynn is dramatically sobbing over the death of her daughter only to have things turned around by Clairee who invites M'Lynn to take a punch at Ouiser, causing all the ladies (except Ouiser, of course) to laugh hysterically. He used this same technique in the 1976 film "The Turning Point" where Emma and Deedee were physically fighting and ended up laughing and hugging. Shirley Maclaine played in both these scenes as Ouiser in this film and Deedee in the other.
This movie was based on a play written about a sister of Phi Mu Fraternity. Susan Harling was a member of the Kappa Iota chapter and her brother Robert Harling wrote the play on which the movie is based.
Decorator Lee Poll purchased six gross orders of artificial magnolia blossoms which the greens department tied to all the location magnolia trees' umbrella heads. Producer Ray Stark and director Herbert Ross never spared expenses in their filming plans for the Natchitoches "Steel Magnolias" location filming. During a preliminary location scout with production designer Gene Callahan, Herbert Ross declared "we need more old oak shade trees planted to shade our lady actors!" The production designer returned to the art department, announcing "Herbert needs some oak trees planted in Truvy's yard. About six! Order them!" Gene's art director Hub Braden began the search for "old oak trees" with enough top shape to shade the entire location house for Truvy's exterior beauty shop side yard. After a week, Braden reported finding the trees was an easy job, a source in Atlanta, Georgia. Discovering another nursery-tree source located near Dallas, Texas, that had the six "old oak trees" costing $35,000.00 each, guaranteed by the nursery to survive the move and transplanting. Transporting the trees for transplanting was easy, which included highway permits from both Texas and Louisiana State highway divisions. Oak trees have a life cycle of 900 years; 300 years of growth, 300 years dormancy, the final 300 years to expire! The movie's production offices had taken over the University's grammar school facility, with producer Ray Stark using the principal's office as his office. Ray Stark completely aware of Herbert's demand for shade trees, was with Herbert in his production office when Gene joined their private conference-meeting, discussing filming plans including the shade tree request. In exasperation, Gene yelled, "You both are....just...plain CRAZY" and departed their meeting. Returning to the art department office, Gene had decided, announcing, "Kill the six '300 year old oak trees.' "
On the DVD's commentary track, Herbert Ross describes how Georges Delerue was not his first choice as a composer for this film. Another "well known" composer's music was rejected but he fails to say who.
Robert Harling's mother was on set during the filming of the scenes while Shelby was in the hospital. During the scene when Shelby is taken off life support she was asked if she wanted to leave. She declined, saying that once the scene was over she wanted to see Shelby - Julia Roberts - get up and walk away.
Herbert Ross wanted an authentic feel to the hospital scenes, so he hired the doctors and nurses who tended to Susan Harling (basis for Shelby) during her last days in hospital to play themselves during Julia Roberts' scenes on life support.
When Robert Harling last spoke to his sister Susan, he was telling her how hard it was to be a writer in New York and have people consider his work. His sister commented on how she wished she could help him somehow but she didn't know what she could do. When she died after surgery, Harling wrote the play that this movie is based on in her honor (with Shelby based on Susan), thereby making him an established and respected writer.
Each significant event in the movie falls around a holiday. Shelby's wedding: Easter; Shelby's return and pregnancy announcement: Christmas; Shelby's surgery and her son's birthday celebration: 4th of July; Annelle's baby shower and Shelby's collapse: Halloween; Annelle goes into labor on Easter.