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The yellow brick road ... is under construction: An 'Oz The Great and Powerful' set visit, part two

Special effects and human performances, as Michelle Williams, Joey King and Zach Braff talk about their parts to play ...

By James Rocchi Feb 1, 2013 4:22PM

(For Part One of this set visit, click here.)

Nothing will make you appreciate the physical reality of practical effects more than actually standing on the yellow brick road. Visiting the set of Sam Raimi's upcoming "Oz the Great and Powerful" in October 2011, we're moved among soundstages to see the glory that production designer Robert Stromberg has created.

In the soundstage we spend most of our time on as members of the invited press, the yellow brick road is smooth and perfect, winding and curving through what must be the center square of an Oz city, while James Franco's Oscar Diggs -- known, more familiarly, as Oz -- and Michelle Williams' good witch confer about a plan to save the whole magical land. In another soundstage, though -- one littered with dry leaves as gnarled, oddly hungry-looking trees reach for a sky that isn't there -- the yellow brick road is cracked and shattered by some disrepair or sorcery.

We're being kept in the dark, of course, but it's also worthy to note that for all of the film's practical wonders -- real trees, real leaves, a real horse tugging a cart -- there' still plenty of digital wizardry going into Franco's journey from man to myth. Take, for example, Zach Braff's Finley -- a talking monkey who serves as an aide and irritant to Franco's Oz. Braff wasn't due on-set the day we were there, but he came by anyhow -- in part because he enjoyed the process so much. And, as he notes, in part because Raimi asked him to ...

" here are some things I’m not supposed to say, but I guess it’s known that in the world of "Oz" I’m an animated monkey and I’m Oz’s sidekick, so ... this is my first time doing an animated character in a live-action movie and there are times when you don’t necessarily have to be there to be shot, so there are times when he is like “Hey…” He emailed me, “I want to find a place to keep the character of Finley alive in this sequence, so will you come by tomorrow?” And we went up to editing and he kind of showed me a sequence, and he’s just so amazingly collaborative. He’s like “Where do you think Finley… What should Finley be doing in this sequence, because I haven’t really figured it out yet and I’m worried that he might be missing from this action sequence.”  So we just kind of talked about some places where we could kind of keep the character of Finley alive during this courtyard sequence. So that’s what we do. Working with him is just so unbelievable, because he’s the most collaborative filmmaker I have ever met."

When Finley is in the scene, a stick with a dot at the end of it provides an eyeline for the other actors; Braff, meanwhile, is giving his dialogue live during the scene sequestered in a small, dark booth just off-set that not only records his voice, but also his facial expressions: "It’s really weird. Maybe you have seen, we sort of figure out on set with puppets, because they help the camera guys frame up shots and they help us all figure out 'Okay, where is he going to be?' to give James something to look at, or the other characters."

"Then, to record our faces and our voices they put us in this booth and you kind of feel the inclination to almost over express, because you really want to give the animators something juicy frame by frame to go with and so I find myself almost turning it up a little a little bit in my facial expressions, so it will really give them something to animate off of and that’s how they record our voice. James wears a little ear piece so he can hear us. I don’t think anyone has ever done it like this, so it’s kind of cool to be a part of a new way of doing it, but it’s challenging. I mean often as an actor, you are in a black box looking at monitors. It’s like being in a cockpit where you are like acting to no one, but people see it. Every once in a while some editor or one of the effects guys will be like 'I loved your reaction to that one line' and I’m like 'Thank God somebody is looking at it,' because I feel like I’m in a black box.

For all the high-tech, though, Braff's amazed by the way Raimi stays in control. "I remember when I made my movie ("Garden State,") the stress of a 2.5 million-dollar movie. Seeing this scale and how Raimi's always calm ... I mean maybe he’s freaking out in his brain, but he is just so kind… You could ask the office PA's and they will tell you he is the nicest man. I mean no matter who you are on this set, if you’re a background person, if you’re an office PA, if you’re the cinematographer, he is just the kindest and sweetest man and genuinely interested in what people think. You know some people are trying to be collaborative, like “Okay, what do you think?” (which means) “Okay, I’m dismissing it right away.” You will see him talk to Joey King, who is twelve, and just completely and honestly listen to her thoughts --which is so smart, because isn’t she one of the target ages of the audience? She’s a very precocious and smart girl, but also she is like the audience, you know? So I really have learned so much from watching him. He really deals with it all with a lot of patience and calmness."

King -- best known from "Ramona and Beezus" -- plays China Girl, yet another of the Land of Oz's fantastical inhabitants; while King provides the vocal work, the actual character will be a hybrid of a marionette (filmed on-stage with Franco, say) and computer-generated imagery. As for King, she couldn't be more excited: "It’s really cool to say that I can walk on the yellow brick road. My mom, whenever she steps on the yellow brick road goes, “Oooh! I’m on the yellow brick road!” I feel the same way since I saw the original “Wizard of Oz” movie. It’s really exciting."

And while she may not be on-set, King's presence is definitely felt -- she's in the same sort of booth as Braff, the town nestled next to each other out of sight. "Yeah! I do have to go into a booth for filming because they’re filming my face in the booth. Because (China Girl 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. Zach Braff is kind of doing the same thing and we’re in the same booth together. It’s really fun. It’s crazy. He’s really funny."

After auditions, call-backs and meeting Raimi, King got her part -- but, as she relates, working on a grown-up set with many movign parts can be a tricky place for a kid." It kind of came after me but I also came after it. I’m really happy that I get to work on it. 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." King can't say how much is in the jar, but she also knows which crew member simply folded a $20 into the jar to work from a position of having credit: "I haven’t counted. But 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 ...

King's eyes light up talking about her work -- and as the courtyard scene films, Michelle Williams is surrounded by the children of Oz (or, rather, by the kid extras playing them) with he kind of joy in their eyes that cannot be faked. Elegant and serene in her costume, Williams drops by later in hoodie and sweats to talk about what a little witchcraft can do to the eyes of a child. I asked her how great it is to literally be a fairytale figure for a bunch of kids. "It's the best. There's nothing better than making kids happy. Yeah. Seeing little girls' faces light up just at the sight of me ..."

Williams also notes that even while she's playing Glinda, Raimi cautioned her against emulating the 1939 original performance too much: "He wanted our very own Glinda. So there's little nods in a few costumes and a couple of lines. But she's really... a starting off point. I just think of her as ... where Glinda started. When you meet Glinda in the original 'Wizard of Oz,' she is omniscient, she has a kind of calm. But that's where ... we like to think that that's where she wound up and this is kind of more where she began."

Yeah, I would say that the costumes were a big collaboration because it went ... it had a lot to say about what I was thinking ... how I wanted her to begin. And the kind of spirit that the young Glinda or something has. And the costumes are a big part of telling that story. I had a lot of ideas and it was fun to implement them. And have people who are willing to collaborate and have the time and the talent and the budget to do that.

After recent work in dramas like "Take this Waltz" and "Meek's Cutoff," Williams is the first to note that she doesn't have a lot of experience with this kind of effects-heavy film. "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, and you're gonna see flowers turning ... you're gonna see things! So that, and 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."

Even Williams wasn't immune from the charms of stepping onto the film's central thoroughfare, though: "Yeah, that was a momentous occasion, I have to say. 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 that? I have been thinking about stealing a little piece of the yellow brick road. But how many people get a chance to say that? It's a part of cinema...I mean, it goes beyond cinema, it's part of sort of our culture ..."

Asked about her biggest surprise while working on the mega-production, Williams laughs. "I guess I didn't realize it was this big! didn't seem this big! I don't mean to be naive or anything,  but ... (and yet)I would say, it's up there with the most collaborative environments I've ever worked on. And I got to make 'Blue Valentine,' which was just two actors being allowed to do anything they wanted and follow any impulse at any time, no matter how ridiculous, insane, upsetting, whatever it was. I guess I didn't think of it as being that big because I worked with Sam, talked to Sam, and I knew what I was getting into. But like I was saying before, I've had to flex my imagination I think in a way that it almost feels like a muscle that was sort of getting underdeveloped or something."

"And also some of the shots that we've done, we've done 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!.' Like, the movies that I make they wouldn't have the capability, the budget, you know, the crane, to make that kind of shot. So ... stamina, endurance, imagination, those things are coming into play. And it's always nice to get better in areas that you're a little weak, so I'm enjoying it, and I find it as challenging as any other movie that I've made." finally, I ask Williams if she's ready for the pop-culture possibility of, if the film catches on, decades of seeing her iteration of Glinda in toy stores, at theme parks and on Halloween. She laughs, but still reminds us of what all the fuss and financing, sets and special effects in "Oz the Great and Powerful" are for, which is to entertain both kids and the kid in all of us: "As the mother of an almost six-year-old daughter ... I'd say absolutely."

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(The below photograph was taken of the visiting press during the set visit; your corespondent is back right, in a tie.) 

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