Wizards and witches: Sam Raimi, James Franco and Zach Braff pull back the curtain on 'Oz the Great and Powerful'
In terms of Wizard of Oz prequels, Disney's new Oz the Great and Powerful is less "Wicked" than "Hustling Con Man Just Trying to Get By." That suggestion was always present in Frank Morgan's goodhearted fast-talker of the 1939 movie musical, and in star James Franco's Oscar "Oz" Diggs we meet the young huckster before time wore away his roguishness to reveal the big softie beneath.
Inspired by some backstory dialogue in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908)—L. Frank Baum's first and fourth Oz books—and the character of the China Princess in the former, the new movie gives us a young, untested Glinda (Michelle Williams) and introduces us to two sister witches: Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis). We also meet Finley, a small winged money (voice of Zach Braff) who's not at all like those vicious flying baboons with the teeth and the claws and the shrieking “GRAAAGH-IEEEEE.”
We spoke individually with Franco, Braff and director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, The Evil Dead) about reimagining a classic, rewriting the original script and revisiting Song of the South, of all things, to put together a family film that's an epic homage to one of world's most beloved movies.
Film Journal International: How did you come to be involved in this film?
Sam Raimi: Well, the screenplay was out there, it was developed by Mitchell Kapner, the writer, and Joe Roth, the producer, and they were looking for a director. When it was offered to me I didn't exactly want to read it because I was such a big fan of The Wizard of Oz and I thought perhaps it would tread upon the great good name of that classic film. And I thought maybe fans would be upset if you made a prequel. But a number of weeks later, I was working on another project and I was looking for a writer, and this was handed to me as a writing sample. [Raimi had been attached to an adaptation of the videogame World of Warcraft.] So that's really why I read the script. And I was very surprised to fall in love with the story and the character and I thought this actually could be a very uplifting picture. I thought if I could make the film have the same uplifting quality to the audience, all will be forgiven.
FJI: And then David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Rabbit Hole, came in at some point.
Raimi: That's exactly right. I worked with the original writer, Mitchell Kapner, on a draft and we brought it to the next level. I really wanted to employ the talents of my friend David Lindsay-Abaire, who is another brilliant writer with a unique set of skills. I hired David to do the next draft, he also did a wonderful job, and then we did one more draft with David and then shooting began.
FJI: And Robert Downey, Jr. had been in consideration to play Oz. James Franco tells a funny story about your giving a bean plant to Downey and then weeks later going to his house and the bean plant's dead and you thought that's a metaphor.
Raimi: No comment. I just don't want to say anything about that.
James Franco: That was just a story that I heard. That's not why Robert Downey didn't get it—it's not like Sam didn't want him to do the movie because he let the bean plant die. I think Sam just saw that as a foreboding kind of thing. It presaged bad things to come. But I think more than anything it was just scheduling.
FJI: Was it odd knowing Robert Downey and Johnny Depp had been in negotiations, or is that just business as usual with actors, that other people may be up for the role?
Franco: No, I didn't mind at all, especially because those are two of the biggest actors around. And not only that, I see those two as actors who are very skilled at a particular type of role. They're great at playing leading men that have comedic sides to them. You could almost say that they're the masters of that. And so I was not surprised or offended at all that Disney or Sam went to those guys before me.
FJI: Your choices of roles are really, really varied. What is it about this one that made you, of all the zillion things you do, want to do this one?
Franco: It was a chance to work with Sam Raimi again for the fourth time [after the first three Spider-Man movies]. I just love Sam—he's one of my favorite directors not only to work with, but I'm just a fan of his movies. And I've been a fan of Oz since I was a kid. I love the Judy Garland film, but I also read all the books when I was a boy. Oz has had a big place in my life for a long time. And then thirdly, I just thought they had a great approach that they were going to take advantage of—all the things that could be done today that couldn't be done 70 years ago [technologically], that the world of Oz could be rendered in a much more seamless and spectacular way. And then I loved their idea of the character, that he was not an innocent, like Dorothy going to this world, that he was anything but, so his experience of Oz would be completely fresh, and miles away from Dorothy's.
FJI: Plus, they got you the famous magician Lance Burton in to teach you magic for it!
Franco: Yeah. That was just a bonus.
FJI: And you had to keep what he taught you secret, because of the magician's code.
Franco: Well, I mean, they didn't keep my lessons secret. Everybody knew Lance Burton came out to train me. But he did let me in on some of the secrets of these magic tricks. So, yeah, I can't reveal those. It was great. It was an honor.
FJI: Zach Braff was encouraged to improv, which he does really well but which can also throw an actor off sometimes. Did the improvising make things easier, harder, or just different?
Franco: I'm used to improv because I have done several movies with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, where improv is the way you play the game. In this case, the improv was slightly different. First of all, I just love working with Zach, and the relationship between my character, Oz, and the monkey I thought was a great kind of throwback to maybe Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. It was just so fun to play.
FJI: I was seeing Hope and Crosby.
Franco: There you go. But because this movie involved so many effects, so many departments, everybody needed to be on the same page. The shots were fairly well-designed, and as we went, every department had to say, "OK, that's going to work for me in post, that is shot in a way that this effect is going to work." So Zach and I would improvise, but a lot of it was improvisation that maybe happened before the scene. If it was during the scene, then we'd have to go back and do it again. The improvisation on a Seth Rogen movie happens very differently, where you'll just turn the camera on and just keep rolling and run through the scene a bunch of times.
Zach Braff: When I met Sam, he said he wanted me to improv and come up with jokes in addition to being just the monkey's voice. He wanted me to riff with James and everything about it just seemed great. I said, "Are you sure? Because all we did on 'Scrubs' for nine years was riff jokes, so I'm going to be like a fire hose coming at you. You have to promise you're going to tell me when you want me to shut up," and he never did. There were times, though, when I pitched some elaborate tangent and he'd be laughing and like "Alright, that would be hilarious if the movie was called The Monkey. It's called Oz, so let's tiptoe back to the script.
FJI: I see an animated spinoff.
Braff: That’s what I told him! I said the sequel is Oz and the monkey go to Finley's hometown.
FJI: The movie was shot in Pontiac, Michigan, near the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, which is your hometown, Sam. I'm sure that wasn't the reason for shooting there.
Raimi: No, it really was. That was the reason. Disney was going to take the picture up to Vancouver, where the dollar was favorable against the Canadian dollar, and Vancouver offered some rebates, I think, that were very attractive. But I asked Disney to hold off on that and let me please explore my home state, Michigan. So I was able to send some producers to Michigan and we priced it out. The state of Michigan was very helpful and really wanted the project to come there and they had a rebate system. And although I don't think it quite equaled the rebate system of Vancouver at the time, I begged Disney to let it go there and they were very kind to let me do that.
FJI: And Real Steel shot there. They have a film infrastructure.
Raimi: There's a very deep and very capable crew in Michigan.
Braff: It was great. A lot of people on the crew were really hard-working, awesome, friendly people. I lived in the town of Royal Oak while I was there and I really liked it.
Franco: I'd never filmed in Michigan before, although I had visited because when I was a young actor, I was a little overzealous and my first big job was on [the TV show] "Freaks and Geeks," created by a guy named Paul Feig, who grew up outside of Detroit. And I knew that he had based a lot of the storylines and places in that show on his own hometown. So I thought I would be like a young De Niro if I went the whole hog and went out to Michigan to just see what it was like. So I went and visited his high school outside of Detroit somewhere.
FJI: Dude, you were a young De Niro! That's exactly a young De Niro thing to do!
Franco: I guess so. I don't know if it ever helped me, but I did it.
FJI: Sam, in some scenes, especially the early sequences of Oscar's balloon in Oz, it had echoes to me of both Evil Dead, with the point-of-view shots, and also Song of the South, with that sense of Technicolor nature being alive. Am I off-base or were these some of the textures you were going for?
Raimi: You're not off-base. I wasn't intentionally going for an Evil Dead feel, but I'm the same guy who made Evil Dead and I guess stuff just comes out of me that way. And you're right, I was influenced by Song of the South. In fact, I really wanted to make this the ultimate Disney-style Disney picture. I wanted Walt Disney to be proud of this picture if he were still alive. And I went back and looked at some of the Disney pictures from the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s and I know Robert Stromberg, my production designer, went deeply into the animated pictures like Snow White to see how they were painting their backgrounds, to see how the towns and the woods that the artists painted looked in those pictures.
Braff: I feel like maybe I'm very picky and maybe perhaps too precious at times in the [roles] I choose, but, really, almost everything I've done has been something that I've had to pinch myself and be like, "I can't believe that I get to do this!" And this was another example of that, being able to be in an iconic movie like this. The fact that it was this ridiculous cast, and Robert Stromberg, who's got back-to-back Oscars, and Danny Elfman. It just kept getting better and better.
FJI: Oscar and his assistant Frank, whom you play, work for the Baum Brothers circus. Frank as in L. Frank Baum?
Braff: I asked Sam that because that's come up a lot and he was a little cryptic with what it meant. I know the writers put in lots of fun stuff like that, like Oscar's girlfriend [played by Michelle Williams in the black-and-white Kansas opening sequence] is going to marry a man named Gale [as in Dorothy Gale of The Wizard of Oz]. I don't know. For all I know, one day in a sequel you'll see Frank the assistant start jotting down notes for stories.
Raimi: It wasn't supposed to be Frank Baum.
FJI: It's confusing since the movie's prop master, Russell Bobbitt, is listed as Mr. Baum in the credits, though I don't remember Frank Baum in the movie.
Raimi: Well, he is in it, but what happened was that to pay tribute to the great L. Frank Baum, we put on the circus banner "Baum Brothers Circus." And then I needed a bit where as Oscar was running to the balloon, I wanted the owner of the circus to say, "Hey, where are you going? That's my balloon! I own half that thing!" So he ended up, it turns out, playing Mr. Baum.
FJI: This movie reunited you and composer Danny Elfman, who'd said in 2005 that working on Spider-Man 2 was "the worst film experience I’ve had in 20 years" and that "Sam was not there. He was there, but he was not the Sam that I knew. It was as close to living out Invasion of the Body Snatchers as I’ve ever experienced."
Raimi: I'm not sure he was wrong.
FJI: He also said he'd never work with you again "if I can help it."
Raimi: I did get a chance to reunite with him, and his [Oz] score was, I guess, my brightest moment in the whole movie. I always thought Batman was his best score, but for me, this is now my favorite score of his. It was great to work with Danny again. Just wonderful. I missed him and I was thrilled how much he elevated the quality of this picture.
FJI: It's nice that you guys are professionals and able to put things aside and say you know what, we both love this project and we're going to work and do this. I've seen reports that the movie had a $200 million budget.
Raimi: I'm not at liberty to say, sir.
FJI: The Oz stories are a piece of Americana—in a way, it's sort of an American fairytale.
Raimi: Yes, exactly.
FJI: And now in movies we have Jack the Giant Slayer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and on TV there's "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time," which seem like an uncredited homage, let's say, to the DC Comics/Vertigo comic Fables. What is it about the zeitgeist that we want to revisit fairytales?
Raimi: I think when times are hard, people enjoy an escape of some kind, and they want to know there's a better world out there and that despite their hard times, love rules and there's goodness in all of us.
Braff: And it was really fun to be actually, literally, standing on the Yellow Brick Road.