Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.
As it so happens, the mythical Land of Oz is located on a soundstage in Michigan – and James Franco’s fly is down.
“I love the shabby-chic of the clothing when you see it up close,” says a fellow journalist in reference to Franco’s costume. “Because we’ve been watching from afar, and you look very put together and perfect. Here it’s all lose threads and slightly visible insides…one of your fly buttons is undone. I mean is that kind of shabby-grunge what you’re shooting for?”
“You could’ve said it a little more discreet,” growls the actor in annoyance as he zips himself up.
Answers the reporter: “I really thought you were doing that deliberately.”
“No,” says Franco, shaking it off. The Wizard is a little surly today.
The massive soundstage we find ourselves on houses one of the spectacular sets for Walt Disney Studios’ “Oz the Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi’s prequel to Victor Fleming (and, to a lesser extent, King Vidor’s) 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Franco is seated on a metal folding chair in a small half-circle of reporters, myself included. There’s the sense that he’s been dragged here to speak with us against his better judgment, though that’s merely an observation on my part; in no way do I presume to understand the complex web that makes up the brain of an Oscar-nominated actor.
“In the beginning, he’s not the most successful magician,” offers Franco, who plays a younger version of the ’39 film’s titular eccentric. “So these are the clothes from Kansas, and it”s a way to set up his attraction to wealth, but really kind of a drive to pull himself out of the poverty of his early life. I guess the story is he grew up on a farm too, and his father struggled to make ends meet. So Oz’s life is — at least in the beginning — motivated by a need to better his economic standpoint.”
The setup is this: Small-time traveling magician/conman Oscar Diggs (Franco) is transported from Kansas to the enchanting fairytale land of Oz. Captivated by the strange new world, Oscar’s newfound enthusiasm is curtailed by witches Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), none of whom are convinced he is the great wizard the inhabitants of Oz believe him to be. It isn’t long before he discovers that this spellbinding fantasy world is far from the paradise he had imagined.
It’s no secret that Raimi’s first choice for the role wasn’t Franco but rather “Iron Man” star Robert Downey Jr., though in the end unspecified roadblocks prevented the deal from materializing.
“He was signed on I think,” says Franco when asked. “Sam said he gave him a plant at the first meeting, and when he went for the second meeting, he saw that the plant had been put aside and it was dead already and that was a bad omen.”
Following that, Disney entered discussions with “Pirates of the Caribbean” star Johnny Depp to assume the role, but those talks also fell through. That left room for Franco, who’d previously established a relationship with Raimi while working on the first three “Spider-Man” films, to board the project.
“It was a pretty easy decision [to sign on],” says Franco. “Downey Jr. had fallen out — I’m not sure why — and then they were talking to Johnny Depp and he didn’t end up doing it. So then I had a meeting with Sam, and I read the script and briefly talked about it. I don”t know, it was just kind of an understanding that we both liked the approach that there was one aspect of it that would pay tribute to the collective sense of ‘Oz’ but there would be a fresh take.”
Though the ’39 film is now far better known than its source material – Frank L. Baum’s 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” – Franco, an actor who’s become known for touting his familiarity with classic works of literature, assures of his love not only for Baum’s inaugural “Oz” tome but its numerous follow-ups.
“I actually was a fairly big reader when I was younger, and I think the first books I read on my own were The Baum ‘Oz’ books, the fourteen or fifteen that he wrote,” he says. “So like a lot of movies that I’ve done, it’s really satisfying to step into this world, because it’s material that I was fascinated by when I was younger. In a similar way with Ginsberg, when I was a little older I read him, and then got to play Ginsberg [in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s experimental 2010 biopic ‘Howl’]. This is kind of a similar experience.”
Somewhat to his credit, Franco seemed unwilling to fake an attitude of good cheer or amiability for the benefit of his interviewers during our very brief 7-minute conversation with him. Throughout, a very dense hardbound book of his sat idly by like a blunt-force weapon.
“It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love who has not a heart, and so I am resolved to ask Oz to give me one.” – Tin Woodman, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”
In a holding area adjacent to the set of Glinda’s castle, a female crew member wearing a headset is screaming at a large group of munchkins. If she has told them once she has told them a thousand times, they are talking at too high a volume and their voices are liable carry onto the stage while the cameras are rolling. Her head looks on the verge of exploding.
I suppose it’s difficult to blame her. Despite the calming, quiet presence of on-set general Sam Raimi, the soundstage becomes a veritable pressure cooker whenever K.C. Hodenfield, the film’s first assistant-director (a job that can easily be compared to that of a drill sergeant) reaches his breaking point.
“This freaks me out. I need more people on that side!” he yells, indicating a nearby green-and-gold-trimmed trolley car. Costumed extras-slash-cattle scurry to obey.
It’s all pretty surreal. Background players both large and little – men with handlebar mustaches and colorful straw hats and bow ties, women with heart-shaped braids and puffy dresses and corsets – mill about a large courtyard located in the shadow of the cream-colored stone edifice of Glinda’s beautifully-designed base of operations. A sweeping grand staircase leading up to the palace is topped by a long balcony, and beyond that a set of ornate double doors of some magnitude stand like sentinels. Climbing up the stone walls of the courtyard all around are curling green vines dotted with purple flowers; on the ground level, bushes trimmed into perfect spheres are placed carefully about the grounds. Over it all, a faintly amber light creates the impression of an enormous hearth.
As the cameras roll, Glinda emerges onto the balcony surrounded by costumed young children and elegantly descends the staircase, one little hand clasped in each of hers. She wears a slim white-and-silver dress and a delicate tiara atop a long blonde wig. Partway down, a stern older woman in costume announces it’s time for the children to head off to school.
“Awwww!” they cry in unison. As the schoolmarm ushers them along, one young girl remains behind just long enough for Glinda to lean down and bestow a gentle peck on her cheek.
At that very moment, Oscar – clad in a black top hat and tails – approaches and offers up his arm to the angelic young witch. They descend the rest of the way down the stairs together before pausing at the bottom for a round of lighthearted flirtation. At a certain point, Glinda takes her wand and with one smooth motion touches the top of Oscar’s head with it. And then…they kiss. A Disney kiss. Warm. Gentle.
Only feet away from the young couple, a yellow brick road spirals out and out in the center of the courtyard before unfurling into a straight line. It ends at a black wall.
“Only bad witches are ugly.” – Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burk), “The Wizard of Oz”
“That was a momentous occasion, I have to say,” says Michelle Williams, her porcelain doll face framed by a short blonde pixie cut and bright red scarf as she speaks with us in a very un-Oz like conference room located near the soundstage where she’s just finished shooting. “I forget who…I grabbed somebody’s arm, and I said…’Wait a second, stop! We’re on the yellow brick road!’ How many people get a chance to say…first of all, I have been thinking about stealing a little piece of the yellow brick road. But how many people get a chance to say that?”
Even out of costume, there is an ethereal, almost elfin quality to the actress. She is just warm enough, but guarded, perhaps even shy. Before she arrived, we were expressly prohibited from asking any personal questions – an understandable request given the daughter she shares with the late Heath Ledger, a continued subject of fascination even years after his untimely death at the age of 28.
Playing the role originated by Billie Burk in 1939, Williams’ Glinda (the Good Witch of the North) is many years younger and slightly more complex than her blemish-free predecessor. In this film – the premise of which is “inspired” by Baum’s novels though with many liberties taken along the way – the less-experienced Glinda is the subject of a character assassination when Kunis’ Theodora and/or Weisz’s Evanora publicly (and falsely) accuse her of being, well, “wicked.”
“I don’t think [Glinda’s] goodness is ever in question,” says Williams of her character. “But I think that she has struggles.”
Like I said: slightly more complex. Or at least, Williams wasn’t willing to divulge any of the seedier details of what Glinda’s specific “struggles” might entail. Or…well, any details at all, really.
“Have you floated yet in a ball?” someone asks.
“I’ve done some floating, I’ve done some flying,” she responds before going quiet.
“Do you have a dual character?” queries another reporter, referring to talk we’d heard earlier that each of them has both an Oz version and a Kansas version.
“Yes, yes I do,” she replies.
“You are Oz’s old childhood love who he regrets losing, and then you’re reflected in the fantasy world?” someone else follows up.
“Yes I am.”
And so on.
In all fairness, Williams isn’t exactly used to journalists being interested in a film of hers while it’s still in production; prior to “Oz,” the only big-budget studio film she ever took part in was Martin Scorsese 2010 paranoia thriller “Shutter Island.”
“There have been a lot of first times for me on this movie,” she reflected. “The imaginary world. You know, you see a big blue screen, but of course you won’t see a big blue screen. You’re gonna see things flying, and you’re gonna see a sun setting. …Most of the movies that I make tend to be smaller, and sort of more intimate. It’s just a smaller crew. And I like things feeling like a family, so I’ve just tried to make this feel like a really big family. But it’s a happy one because Sam’s the dad, and it all comes down from there.”
As evidenced by the red-faced, munchkin-battering crew member I’d experienced earlier, bigger budgets nearly always result in a heightened sense of pressure during filming – something that Williams, despite the calm she exudes in person, certainly isn’t immune to.
“Some of the shots that we’ve done,” she begins. “Really long tracking shots that involve crowds and…you know, you land in your bubble, and you walk through a crowd, you’re greeting the crowd, you’re saying your lines to James, you’re walking up the stairs, you’re in a long dress, you can’t trip on your dress, you have to keep your wand in your left hand, you’re still talking to James and then you’re relating to people and then you’re coming up to the stairs and then you turn around…and it’s all in one shot, and it’s like a 3 1/2, 4 minute take. And it was so exhausting after that I was like, ‘Woo! I gotta get back in the theater!'”
She flitted out of the room soon after. I’d be lying if I said her absence didn’t leave me feeling a bit cold.
“My! People come and go so quickly here!” – Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), “The Wizard of Oz”
Our designated tour guide is leading us through the massive soundstages at a hurried pace, dipping us in and out of several fantastically intricate worlds that I’m detailing in my notepad as fast as my fingers will allow.
Stage 5 [Oz exterior]: “Riverside set on risen platform…enormous tree stump…first time wizard sees Land of Oz…dirt bank, shrubs, smaller trees, grass…”
Stage 6 [Glinda’s library]: “Room in Glinda’s castle…Glinda and Oz come together here…stone fireplace…plastic sheeting covering walls…”
Stage 7 [Emerald City throne room]: “Gold front doors…Mila Kunis crashes through window on broom…Gold window frames…split staircase…red runner carpet…high windows…Evanora – we meet her standing at top of staircase…”
Stage 2 [Whimsy Woods]: “Gnarled trees, crew everywhere setting up…blue walls…red lights in trees…bumpy yellow brick road, roots grown underneath…wagon w/ wood inside…”
And the costumes, oh the costumes. Designed by industry vet Gary Jones (whose first job was working for Oscar winner Ann Roth on the 1979 hippie-era musical “Hair”), there are a multitude of shapes and colors and designs in every size positively shimmering with creative inspiration from rack after rack after rack. I’m feeling light-headed.
“Black feathered headdress…black stretch leather witch hats…Theodora dress, claws on shoulder…Oz magician robe, purple w/ orange accents…winkie boots, platforms…”
Our tour of Russell Bobbitt’s props department, too, has my head spinning. The pen in my hand scratches and blurs. It’s much too much, all of it, and yet I can’t stop writing. I just can’t.
“Mirror…tiny butcher knife….gold coins…’The World Is Filled With Wonders’…’Baum Bros.’ circus masks…Land of Oz map…stuffed bunny rabbit…Glinda light-up wand…ruby red ring, hands grasping each side…ticket stub to Baum Bros. circus…brightly-colored scarves…Rube Goldberg-esque firework maker, colored powder on top, ‘Acme firework rocket,’ gold, copper, pulley, wheel…gold goblet, sword…music box, man and woman dancing, beautiful carved landscape under lid, crescent moon, stars, framed by tree branches, tree branches framed by red curtain scroll – ‘With little more than pluck and belief, we made the impossible happen. As your Wizard I hereby decree that henceforth and hereafter the Land of Oz will forever be free!’…brown leather satchel – for Oz…two brooms w/ gnarled handles…compass…green flag w/ gold lion herald/insignia…tiny China Girl dagger…”
A little farther on Dorothy met a most beautifully dressed young Princess, who stopped short as she saw the strangers and started to run away.
Dorothy wanted to see more of the Princess, so she ran after her. But the china girl cried out:
“Don’t chase me! Don’t chase me!”
She had such a frightened little voice that Dorothy stopped and said, “Why not?”
“Because,” answered the Princess, also stopping, a safe distance away, “if I run I may fall down and break myself.”
“But could you not be mended?” asked the girl.
“Oh, yes; but one is never so pretty after being mended, you know.” – Frank L. Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The China Girl dances lightly on the ground in front of us, every delicate movement of her miniature body manipulated by the strings of a God-like puppeteer standing over her. I get down on my knees and watch her there in her Lilliputian blue dress, smiling as if she can see. There is a beautiful fragility to her pale porcelain skin and her big, sensitive eyes. In the instant she claps her tiny hands together, she becomes real. She becomes a living thing.
“I play two characters,” says Joey King, the spunky 12-year-old actress whose credits include “Ramona & Beezus” and the 2011 rom-dramedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” “In Kansas, when Oz is in Kansas, I play a little wheelchair girl. I meet Oz while he”s doing a magic show. She asks him a favor that he can”t return, really. Then I play China Girl, which is my main role. I play a little two-foot tall girl. She”s really cute. She”s really sassy. Oz just kind of takes her in and becomes an adopted father to her.”
In case you hadn’t picked up on it, King is the voice and face of China Girl; the body will not be hers but rather a creation of Raimi’s visual effects team. The marionette described earlier is provided merely as a reference point for the other actors, including Franco, whose character befriends hers in the course of his epic journey.
“I have to go into a booth for filming because they”re filming my face in the booth,” she told us. “Because [my character is] only two-foot tall, I can”t really be out there squatting so I have China Girl”s body and my head”s on her. It”s very interesting. It”s like nothing I”ve ever done before. It”s not like a voiceover and it”s not like being on set. It”s really different.”
Unlike a great many child actors I’ve encountered, King doesn’t speak like an adult; she’s squirmy and inelegant and gawky, endearingly so. She’s funny and doesn’t know it.
“I”m really happy that I get to work on it,” she says of the film. “I would have been so bummed if I didn”t get hired to work on it. I”m so glad I am! The set is so friendly and cool and I”m the only kid on set. It”s very different working with all adults. I have a swear jar so that, if they have a potty mouth, I make them pay. That”s what it”s like being on set with adults.”
Ok, a kid actor with a swear jar – not exactly unprecedented. Except King’s has been given a name.
“The piggy bank”s name is Dirty Word Deanna. I try to make people pay up as frequently as I can because she gets hungry,” she says. “[First assistant director] K.C. [Hodenfield] has a down payment, so he’s good for awhile. He put in 20 bucks.”
Cynicism comes easy if you spend enough time hanging around Hollywood movie sets, but unlike her more seasoned collaborators, King hasn’t yet encountered the potentially-crippling weight of disillusionment. I like that about her.
“It was really fun getting to film in a circus,” she tells us of shooting the Kansas scenes. “They turned a studio into a circus and it really looked like a circus. They had all the tents set up. It was really, really fun filming in a circus scene. I think Oz is pretty amazing, though, and I love filming in Oz. There”s the yellow brick road. Everything is there. Glinda”s palace. The Emerald City.”
This being a Walt Disney production, one reporter half-jokingly inquires if she’ll be receiving a lifetime pass to the company’s Anaheim park for all her hard work and dedication.
Answers King: “I love Disneyland, but my favorite is California Adventure. I love the big rides. I love Tower of Terror, which I just went on a couple of weeks ago. I was so scared, but I had so much fun. I love California Screaming [and] Soaring Over California. I love Disneyland because the teacups are so awesome. But California Adventure is the best. So I am hoping they give me a pass!”
Later we watch over the monitors as King rehearses inside the booth. From this vantage point she nearly gives the impression of a neon-clad, pre-pubescent Betty Boop – all exaggerated facial expressions and fluttering eyelids.
All of this is preparation for the filming of a scene that will see Oscar meeting the China Girl on the yellow brick road. The puppeteer (name: Phillip Huber) takes his place on set with the marionette, and as Raimi yells “action” the extras spring into motion, moving to and fro carrying baskets and sacks and other assorted items.
With the cameras rolling, Franco – sullenly loitering about in his top hat and tails between takes – approaches the China Girl and bends down to speak with her as Huber meticulously controls her every move. In the booth, King mimes wildly, acting out every line with an aplomb to be envied. There is no subtlety to this China Girl, but such is the Land of Oz. As I stand there watching, the distinctive scent of peanut brittle wafts past my nose.
“Just try and stay out of my way. Just try! I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” – The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), “The Wizard of Oz”
“I will tell you what our statistics are as of last night,” says special makeup effects artist Howard Berger as he takes us on a tour of his impressive studio. “There are these characters called ‘Winkies” who are the witch”s guards, and we have done 72 Winkies so far; ‘Tinkers,’ which is the make-up I have just finished here, we have done 337 Tinkers; ‘Munchkins,’ we have done 383 Munchkins so far, and we are not even halfway there as far as the scenes that involve these characters, so my projection is that we will be close to 3,000, 4,000 [makeup] applications. That also doesn”t include the witches and other ‘hero” make-ups during the whole of the film.”
A veteran craftsman and co-founder of KNB FX, one of the industry’s most in-demand makeup effects studios, the Oscar-winning Berger has racked up an impressive resume during his three decades in the industry, with major credits including “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Grindhouse” and last fall’s “Hitchcock” starring Anthony Hopkins in facial prosthetics. Still, “Oz” may rank as his most demanding production to date.
“I literally have the monstrous arsenal I have never, ever had on a film, but it needed that because the scope of what our work is on the film is so gigantic,” he says. “Today, I just finished my third make-up, and I”ve got two other make-ups to do today; the average is between three to five make-ups per make-up artist, which is really absolutely ridiculous. And we have about a six hour, six and a half hour build prior to call. So on Monday mornings, when we have a 6am crew call, we are here about two o”clock in the morning starting, then as the week goes, it just goes on and on. Today is Thursday and I”m a little delirious.”
One of the most daunting challenges faced by Berger and his crew was coming up with an iconic new look for the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton in the ’39 film and by another actress who will remain nameless (Mila Kunis or Rachel Weisz? Disney publicity would rather I not say) in “Oz the Great and Powerful.” One particularly frustrating aspect of designing the film’s big baddie can be blamed on Disney’s inability to replicate specific elements from “The Wizard of Oz” – a result of MGM’s stranglehold on the rights to Baum’s first book as well as the on-screen look of several of the resulting film adaptation’s most iconic touchstones.
“We…had to be very careful of not crossing over into the Margaret Hamilton make-up, which was really difficult,” Berger says. “We kept going back and forth, for a month, and for a while, the Witch wasn”t going to be green, and we were like, ‘Well, that”s never going to fly. How can you have ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ and not have a green Witch?’ But Disney kept saying, ‘Well, there”s not going to be a green Witch. It should be flesh, or maybe do a little yellow,’ so I tried a bunch of different make-up tests and they never really worked, but we finally found a green that Disney was happy with and felt we weren”t in issue with the other people that own the rights to ‘Oz’ products.”
Indeed, with Berger’s designs in constant transition and modification during production, the Mouse House’s legal team no doubt had their work cut out for them. “A big thing for Disney was the mole on [the Wicked Witch’s] chin,” Berger tells us at one point. “We tried a mole and Disney was like, ‘Neerr! No mole.'”
In spite of the challenges that come with working on a production of such massive scale – particularly one laced with such an intricate web of thorny legal issues – getting to work with Raimi again was a huge added bonus for Berger, whose relationship with the director goes back nearly to the beginning of his career; one of his very first jobs was working on “Evil Dead II,” an experience that led to gigs on subsequent Raimi films including “Army of Darkness” and “Drag Me to Hell.”
“If Sam comes to us [i.e. himself and KNB co-founder Gregory Nicotero; partner Robert Kurtzman parted ways with the company in 2003] and says, ‘I want to shoot this monster movie in the backyard of my house – would you come?’, we would be there in a heartbeat,” he tells us. “We love working with Sam so much, and this is like shooting a film in his backyard, although this is a $250 million backyard. It”s the most expensive student film ever!”
As for the workload on “Oz,” Berger wasn’t kidding – hanging from racks in every direction are hundreds if not thousands of prosthetics. There’s even a bag filled with witch fingers. “Somehow we always run out of noses for Munchkins,” he muses when addressing the production’s more specific challenges. “It”s amazing. We do 30 or 40 Munchkins a day, that”s 40 noses, so they go fast. Back [at KNB headquarters] in L.A….they are 24/7 running [prosethetics for] Munchkins and Winkies and Tinkers and Witches and all that crazy stuff.”
One major contributing factor to Berger’s daily workload is the production’s use of new and emerging technologies – specifically 3D and high-definition digital video, neither of which the industry vet is particularly shy about offering his opinions on.
“The 3D and HD is terrible,” he says bluntly. “I can”t say how much I hate it. If I could find Mr. HD, I would stab him in the head. I”m a purist as far as film goes and I am not a fan at all of 3D and I am definitely not a fan of HD. I don”t feel that it gives you that cinematic film quality that film does. Film has grain and digital has pixels, and pixels have sharp edges, and it is really, really hard. …It”s just frustrating to me because I like film – that”s what I grew up wanting to do – and the whole new process is a big change.”
It’s fair to say that had the decision been Berger’s to make, “Oz the Great and Powerful” would have been filmed with good old-fashioned 35mm film stock – modern technology be damned. “It doesn”t look right,” he says of HD. “I can”t tell what I am looking at: on set, it looks great to me, then on the monitors, it looks alright, then there”s a booth – the Booth Of Death, I call it – which really shows you what it looks like, and that”s horrifying beyond belief. I”m like, ‘What!? That”s going to be in the movie?’ …You don”t need it to be that real. We are making a film. If you want to have real life, disconnect yourself and go out into the real world and look at real people for God”s sake.”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” – The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), “The Wizard of Oz”
Just like Baum’s famed title creation, Sam Raimi is imposing only if you haven’t encountered the man behind the myth live and in person. The days I was on set, I had observed him as the calm at the center of a high-stakes $200 million storm – a creature of preternatural ease amidst a constant tumult of sound and fury.
“The screenplay is based on a lot of elements of a lot of [Baum’s] books,” he explains, sitting down to chat with us inside the drab gray conference room that had been designated as our holding area. “In many of his books, and even more than the ones I read, he would go back and talk about the Wizard. There”s a little bit about the Wizard in the first one, a little bit about the Wizard in three and four. He went back and said, ‘Here”s how the wizard got here and this was his backstory.’ So what the writer, Mitchell Kapner, did was he took all those elements that were given to the audience in later books that he”s kind of rearranged…not ‘kind of,’ he”s put them back in chronological order of what happened to the Wizard, how the Wizard got there to the Land of Oz.”
Not that there was much raw biographical material on offer to begin with; by Raimi’s own admission, Kapner was forced to take “tremendous artistic license” with the rather slim back-story offered by Baum’s novels.
“What might have the Wicked Witch or these other characters have been doing during this time?” he said. “Sometimes it was written about, sometimes it wasn”t. So, I think Mitchell Kapner could best speak about it, but he”s taken elements of the books and rearranged them in what could have happened. It”s a ‘what if’ story.”
One thing I found striking about being on-set was that just like the 1939 film, Raimi’s Oz was constructed as a wholly artificial world – every tree and bush and brick and blade of grass the result of exquisite human craftsmanship. As a follow-up to one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most beloved films, itself shot entirely on soundstages, the approach felt exactly right.
“Nothing is really being shot outside,” said Raimi to this point. “The look of Oz is so unique the way that [production designer] Robert Stromberg and his team have designed it that nothing real will fit into this world. I couldn”t even shoot a sky. Maybe Michigan clouds could have been in there because they”re pretty fantastic. But everything is tweaked in such a unique way that no street, no green field in Ireland, no wall would ever fit into Robert”s design. Everything is so unique…except his 1900 Kansas where the movie starts, but of course that all has to be faked for different reasons, because of the period. We probably could have shot a barn or a farmhouse here if we had found the right one with the right background, but there was a problem of getting the plains of Kansas, the feel of Kansas just right. In Michigan, we did not find the right look for that.”
Given Raimi’s affection and reverence for the ’39 film – a production so close to his heart that he hesitated even cracking Baum’s original novels, which he had never read, for fear they might somehow sully the experience of watching the film (“I didn”t want the books to mess up the movie for me,” he admitted) – the fact that he is unable to incorporate some of its most iconic elements, including Dorothy’s famed ruby slippers, is a difficult one for him to accept.
“[It’s] a shame,” he laments when the subject arises. “Because it”s really all about honoring that film and the books. More the film, in my opinion. But, we just had to. So I just got over [it] and thought, ‘The audience is so sharp. They don”t need that.’ I wish I could have used the imagery from the original film to tell those stories about the characters earlier in their lives, [but] we”re not able to. So it was something we had to get over.”
Regardless of Disney’s legal inability to feature certain symbolic items and makeup specifics from the original film, the branding potential of “Oz the Great and Powerful” is second to none. In Raimi’s estimation, that element made it an easy greenlight for Disney executives, whose confidence was further bolstered by the A-list director’s own steadfast faith in the project.
“I told them very early on, after working on the script for a couple months, ‘I”m committing to this picture. I intend to make it. I”m going to put everything I”ve got into it. I really believe in it,'” said Raimi. “And I think once I committed completely to them, I felt that they were committed. And it was a very quick process to production, if that term means what I think it means. It went very quickly to go to pre-production. They made commitments to hire artists and storyboard artists and a production designer. It was very fast.”
Though Raimi is a native of Michigan, where he shot many of his early films, it was merely a stroke of good fortune (read: generous tax incentives) that landed him back in his home state to shoot a Hollywood blockbuster with a budget hundreds of times greater than that of his very first feature, the 1981 horror classic “The Evil Dead.”
“I wrote my first horror movie ‘The Evil Dead’ here and raised the money for it here. Shot some of it here in my garage. Shot one called ‘Evil Dead II,’ some of the miniature work and some of the ending here, edited it here. I made one called ‘Crimewave’ here. I would have stayed here forever, but the film business back then just was not here. So I had to move to Los Angeles. But I love the trees in the fall, the rain and the gray skies, and I like the cold,” he says, before quickly adding, “[though] I wouldn”t if I had an outside job.”
One particular point of pride for the director is the fact that he has in some way been able to contribute to the well-being of his home state, one of the hardest hit following the recent economic downturn.
“The state is really hurting economically, as you know,” he says. “I hope that these tax incentives are good for the state. They only want it if it”s good for the state. I hope it doesn”t result in all the money going out of the state to Hollywood. I like the people here and I want them to do well and they seem like they really appreciate when they”ve got a job. …I guess it”s similar to any place that”s really depressed. These people really appreciate the work and they”re doing a great job. People come in every day and I”ve heard people whistling. ‘What”s that noise? Is that a happy person?'”
Happiness. It’s a difficult commodity to come by in these uncertain times, and yet the power of Baum’s vision lies in its mythical simplicity – the suggestion that the key to that elusive state of being lies within, and only within. It’s an idea that has formed the basis of every cheap New Age spiritual movement over the last half century – nearly all of them primed to capitalize on a broken culture that, in its emphasis on earthly pursuits, tends to work against our own best interests – and yet still it endures as a core of eternal truth, somewhere over the rainbow.
“I think it”s universal, the story of all of us who are capable of doing good and the hero being made because he recognizes that ability within himself and he grows to do something greater than himself,” says Raimi. “He grows to take part in a cause that”s more important than his selfishness or his greed. He learns the true value of the gifts that he”s been given as a magician. They can be used, not just to entertain others and for his own profit, but to uplift others, to set them free.”
“Oz the Great and Powerful” hits theaters on March 8.