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

Sam Raimi, Michelle Williams, James Franco and others talk about putting their stamp on re-vamping a classic.

By James Rocchi Jan 31, 2013 10:58AM

On a cool and bright October day in 2011, the vast and colossal shape of the Raleigh Michigan Studios complex in Pontiac, Michigan (now known as the Michigan Motion Picture Studios after a 2012 name change) grows even bigger the closer you get to it. They used to make cars here, and you can tell -- the sprawling complex of buildings includes 7 soundstages, connected by corridors high off the ground. Now? It makes movies.

The days we visited as part of a select group of press, the halls of the Studios were jammed with extras playing the residents of Oz -- not just the diminutive munchkins we know from the 1939 'The Wizard of Oz," but also Quadlings, Tinkers and Winkies, each with distinctive styles of dress and hair, all bustling waiting for the real man behind the curtain -- not James Franco's Oscar Diggs, the two-bit magician and con artist plucked up by a tornado and brought here to find fortune and romance, but, rather, director Sam Raimi, taking the helm of a mega-budget 3D prequel/re-imagining​ of the story children have loved ever since L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" was published in 1900.

With his calm manner and dark hair cut short, Raimi looks every inch the director -- a sense of implacable calm and command, with a thousand things-to-do (or things-to-get-done) whirling through his head as he marshals his resources and personnel to combine hundred-and-ten-year​-old characters and ideas with the leading edge in technology so that those beloved places and faces can come to life. "I love Michigan. I’m from here and I’ve made all my early movies here. All my Super 8 movies, my first 16mm movies. 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. I wouldn’t if I had an outside job. You know, a lot of people in Michigan, they really don’t like that winter. After about six months it really starts to get like “Enough already.” I love it, and I love the people here ...we have incredibly talented crew members from Michigan. I’d make all the movies I could here, I just love it."

BING:  L. Frank Baum l Public Domain

Looking around, with the crew and cast busy preparing for the next shot -- a moment where Michelle Williams' white-wearing good witch confers with Franco's tattered accidental hero -- you can see the mechanics of a film this size in motion, which means jobs, as Raimi explains. "The state (of Detroit) is really hurting economically, as you know ... 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. It’s really unique … well, 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?' It’s great to be here; I love working here."

While it's Raimi who's at center of the shooting of the scene, it's Franco who's the center of the scene itself, clad in elegant-looking turn-of-the-century finery that, up close, has more than a few loose threads and frayed edges. It's that kind of shabby grandeur Franco's trying to play in his scenes as the man who becomes the wizard of Oz, as the actor explains. "Well, Oz -- Oscar -- is, in the beginning, he's not the most successful magician. So these are his 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."

Franco did his share of learning and perfecting the patter and tricks of a turn-of-the-century sleight-of-hand practitioner, too: "I mean I'm sort of a conman, but the character starts off as a magician in a traveling circus, so it's not like he's out robbing banks or scamming people like "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" or something. So we had Lance Burton here, from Vegas, he's the big magician from there. He showed me a lot of tricks and magic, and it's kind of just about -- in that world it's about -- creating a convincing illusion, it's kind of showmanship."

Franco came to the part after other notables -- like Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp -- had passed. Franco laughs relating Rami's version of meeting with Downey. "He was signed on, I think. Sam said he gave him a plant at their 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."

Franco wasn't just the last Oz standing, however, and explained how he and Raimi were of the same mind as to the feel of the film: "It was a pretty easy decision. 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. Mainly, I think maybe through the portrayal of Oz, because Oz as -- we all know -- in the 1939 movie is an older gentleman; now you get the young Oz. So you get a different kind of spirit into maybe a familiar fantastical world." Franco also notes that he didn't get tested like Downey Jr. did: "Sam didn't give me any plants or anything. I guess he already knew me, so…"

Without meaning to, Franco's brought up one of the more tricky aspects of this film -- namely, while the Oz books by L. Frank Baum are in the public domain and can be used by anyone and adapted in any way, the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" is still under copyright protection as a Warner Brothers production, and thus any of its elements and visual designs are out-of-bounds. Production designer Robert Stromberg -- who filled the same role on both "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland" for James Cameron and Tim Burton -- explains the quandary the whole film faces when asked if he can use the ruby slippers from the 1939 film. "Well, the ruby slippers were originally obviously silver in the books. The reason they became ruby slippers is because they wanted to accentuate the Technicolor, so that's a complete artifact of the movie. Yeah, Glinda has silver slippers (here). We can't use (rubies). Warner Bros. might object to that."

So, no ruby slippers, no songs, none of the classic designs of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion -- and a few other complications to deepen the issue, as Stromberg explains as he waves his hand towards the imaginary landscape: "It gets even into that view right there, for instance; that Emerald City with the poppy fields and the yellow brick road is an iconic image. Even though it's a completely different city and our yellow brick road has nothing to do with theirs, it's those things in order that you can't do. So that makes it somewhat difficult. So as much as I would like to play a lot more respect, my hands are tied ..."

Franco, though, worked hard to create a character who could grow up to be the bellowing, bluffing man behind the curtain in the 1939 film, even as he's startled by the existence of real magic: "We play with the idea of Oz being a magician in a traveling show, so he's not what we would call a real wizard, who can make lightning shoot out of his fingers. But then he comes to a land where people are actually performing magic, so there is this constant tension between real wizards and false wizards."

For the real James Franco, though, and not the character of Oscar Diggs, stepping foot on the yellow brick road isn't a trip into fantasy but rather a reflection on the reality that brought him here: "Yeah, the yellow brick road is so iconic, and it was just plain fun to be able to do scenes on the yellow brick road. And 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. So like a lot of movies that I've done, it's really satisfying to step into this world, because its 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 I got to play Ginsberg (in "Howl"). This is kind of a similar experience. It's also great because Oz is such an established place in the collective imagination. Yes, there's a danger of ruining people's expectations or their idea of Oz, but I think that the spirit here is right, and the intentions are right. So I think they are going to capture what people kind of think of Oz, while still adding this great spirit. But it also gives us this freedom to make a movie that otherwise might be slightly childish, but because the original 'Oz' is now considered a classic, we can kind of play with (and in) in this childish fantastical world and it doesn't have to feel like a children's movie. So it's really nice."

And for Raimi, the desire to re-visit the world of Oz isn't just about 3D magic or special-effects creations like Zach Braff's talking monkey or Joey King's walking porcelain magical China Girl (about which more later) -- it's about telling a new story in a familiar fantasy world in a way that makes it fresh, as he explains: "When I came to the project, I had never read any of Baum’s work and I’ve only read four of the books now. First of all, I so loved the movie "The Wizard of Oz" that I was afraid to read versions of it that were not exactly what I loved so much about the movie. This is very strange, I didn’t want the book to mess up the movie for me; this is where I was at. But then, after I read the screenplay (for "Oz the Great and Powerful,") which I loved, I started to read the books and appreciate Baum’s work. I was so surprised at how exactly [the movie] "The Wizard of Oz" was his first book. His work is fresh right now. It’s brilliant and affecting and the characters don’t need to be refreshed by anybody."

Rami's quick to explain that while "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a new script, it owes a lot to bits and pieces cribbed from all of Baum's work. "However, the screenplay is based on a lot of elements of a lot of his books. 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 books three and four. Baum 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."

Kapner's work was then given a polish by David Lindsay-Abaire, of both "Rise of the Guardians" and "Rabbit Hole," and Raimi knew he had a project he wanted to make. Still, I asked him if he felt any pangs about not being able to re-create or pay homage to specific images from the 1939 film; his answer was that of a fan, not a director:

"Yeah, it’s the movie that I love. That’s what I fell in love with and what terrified me and exhilarated me. I didn’t want to have anything to do with a screenplay having anything to do with that movie because I didn’t want to mess with it or tread upon its fine nature or use it in any way. But I read the script and it was a love poem to that movie, or those books, that I didn’t know at the time. I felt that it was someone who so admired the movie and they were trying to enhance it and, for me, it never took away. And, I also thought, nothing could ever take away from that movie. It’s so brilliant and enduring. I wanted to honor the movie."

"As far as 'pangs' of not being able to be more accurate to the movie because (those moments) weren’t within the rights of Disney to honor it in that way, I think that’s fine. Everything had to be re-imagined. However, just legally, we’re unable to recreate the images from the film, which is a shame. 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. We’re not able to. So it was something we had to get over."

But even before that issue came up, Raimi was more than ready to take on Disney's implicit challenge of making a much-loved world of dreams and visions come to life for a whole new generation: "It seemed like the moment I came aboard the picture that (Disney) had an intention to make it. 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.' I love the characters and I saw where we could take the characters. Certainly, a lot of that was my faith in Mitchell, and eventually my faith in the second writer, Dave Lindsay-Abaire, and they saw where we could take the characters, so a lot of it was my faith in them and their visions -- I really believe we can make a great movie.”

In Part Two of "The yellow brick road ... is under construction," Zach Braff, Joey King and the film's creative crew talk about making the film's vision come to life, as well as Michelle Williams talking about her glorious, glamorous, slightly goofy chance to play Glinda ...


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