I hope you're a fan of the Land of Oz because over the next few weeks, I'm going to have a boatload of reports from a two-day set visit I did to the set of Sam Raimi's rather epic-in-scale prequel to the more familiar Oz story featuring Dorothy and her pals. The Walt Disney Pictures' production OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL features both familiar and brand new characters in a tale that covers exactly how Oz (real name Oscar Diggs, played by James Franco) came to be transported from his life as a small-time circus magician in Kansas to the vibrant, colorful, mysterious place of witches, munchkins, flying monkeys, and a road of yellow bricks that takes him through one magnificent place after another.
During the course of these articles, I'll walk you through as much of the story as I can, but I can say this was by far the most grandiose set visit I've ever taken part in. We saw several different sets, talked to many of the primary cast members, as well as many of the key behind-the-scenes folks, including Mr. Raimi. The visit itself took place in October 2011 at the brand new Raleigh Studios in Pontiac, Michigan (Raimi was instrumental in getting the film shot in his home state to inject some much-needed dollars into the local economy). Someone told us that the buildings that made up the studios once were an office building where 3,000 General Motors engineers used to work, and I believe some of my fellow film writers on this trip said that parts of REAL STEEL were shot here.
Regardless, the entire building had been completely taken over by the OZ production, which included eight sound stages, revolving three sets per stage. Some points of interest we were told about when we arrived were that the production was at about the halfway point; the film was shot in 3-D (making it Raimi's first 3-D film); and that although there was some talk of virtual sets, Raimi insisted on mostly physical sets, which resulted in the bottoms of many buildings being physically represented, with blue screens above them to top off each structure.
Almost as soon as we walked into the production offices, we started seeing signs of exactly what was going on here. In-costume extras--most of which were little people--walked the halls in the dozens. The first signs of Oz were making themselves known to us. In the corridors were circus signs, clearly from the early part of the film (which will be in black and white with a compressed aspect ratio--as is shown in the trailers), that said such things as "The Great and Powerful Oz," "Sword Swallower," "Fire Eater," "Contortionist," "Strongman," and, of course, "Admission 10¢" affixed to a ticket booth with a painting of Franco's Oz wearing a turban on the front.
We were first taken into the room with production art, costumes and props, some of which I can't talk about. But there it was, the story of the movie laid out before us with a model of the Emerald City entrance, hot air balloon drawings, sketches of some seriously creepy flying monkeys holding spears, and one of Oz's costumes that had an almost Mad Hatter feel to it. I noticed a throne at one side of the room that featured small lions figures etched into it that bore a strong resemblance to drawings of the Cowardly Lion in author L. Frank Baum's original "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" novel.
At this point in the tour, production designer Robert Stromberg gave us a brief rundown of what Disney version of Oz legally could and could not have in common with the 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ. Essentially, anything that was the Oz books was fair game (the Emerald City, flying monkeys, the Yellow Brick Road, etc.), but anything that was created for the movie was off limits. This included things like ruby slippers, which were actually silver in the novel. Also, specifics about character design couldn't be copied (the flying monkey look very different in this version) to the point where the shade of green used on the Wicked Witch of the East had to be slightly different. But the witches still travel by bubble. Stromberg added that his team tried to represent the rudimentary feel of the original production design using modern technology to capture the feel. And it was clear that most of these designs were taken from descriptions in the many Baum Oz books and not as much from the '39 movie.
We also saw production drawings of a haunted forrest, featuring trees with glowing, nasty eyes and mouths; a modified zoetrope that allows Oz to achieve the projected head effect we're familiar with; and a look at hot air balloon that Oz rides into a tornado that takes him to Oz.
We next discussed the characters of the three witch sisters: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams), all of whom see Oz for who he really is: an interesting jerk. But over the course of the story, he becomes a better man. As you might have guessed from the trailers and commercials, the identity of the Wicked Witch is meant to be something of a secret, and don't assume that because you've maybe seen "Wicked" that you know which witch is which. The three witches decide to help Oz defeat the Wicked Witch, and one of them actually falls for Oz.
Other characters we were introduced to in this part of our visit include newly created "Winkies," 7-ft.-tall sentries of the witches; two types of monkeys--ones that look more like bellboys, and others that just look like winged evil; a straw soldier character that may be the template for a certain scarecrow; there's a white-bearded tinkerer with a fully loaded tool box who helps Oz build contraptions; and, my personal favorite, China Girl, an 18-in.-tall girl literally made of china and thus easily breakable. She's a CGI-created character, but she was very much a part of our visit; more on that later.
There were many a Munchin design and costume on display, as well as a certain black witches hat that will look very familiar to some. As it was in the book, many of the characters (or actors playing the characters) are represented both in Oz and in Kansas. For example, Oz's childhood sweetheart turns out to be one of the witches of Oz. We were also shown drawings of the Wicked Witch transitioning using shadows and smoke, resulting in a slightly sexier version of her costume than we're used to. There were also random renderings of different species of birds, insects, flowers, and other creatures of Oz. But the item I coveted the most was a weathered-looking wall poster labelled "Map of the Marvelous Land of Oz," credited to Professor Hagghbug," which showed a complete layout of Oz with the Emerald City at its center.
Acccording to Stromberg, one of the most interested aspects of the artwork showing Oz (the man) was that it had to be changed to show Franco's face and build after the originally cast actor Robert Downey Jr. backed out (Johnny Depp was also on board for a short time).
As we began our official tour of the many soundstages, we were joined by executive producer Grant Curtis, who took us to Stage 1, a blue screen set where the entrance to the Emerald City was being built. This was the first time we saw the Yellow Brick Road, and we were told that the bricks in the road are slightly different in each location, made to adapt to the buildings they lead up to.
One of the most impressive sets was that of China Towne, which looks like a giant tea set with staircases and had clearly been built for smaller characters. It has also been mostly destroyed, with broken walls and chips of shattered china scattered everywhere. We're told that China Girl's legs are broken in this sequence, during a raid by the Wicked Witch. I believe we see in the trailer that Oz is able to repair her.
The massive Stage 5 is a riverside location, where Oz's balloon crash lands. The deflated balloon in the water tank is fully visible. The strangest aspect to the set is that the tops of the trees have been built with the bottoms left to be extended digitally (probably because they will be animated as well). It is during this scene Oz will meet Theodora for the first time, and he finds out that his arrival has been prophesized.
I should pause here just to describe the overall feeling of walking through the astonishing sets. First of all, it was surreal to be going from soundstage to soundstage and seeing all of the costumed extras hanging out, eating lunch or prepping for the next scene. At one point, I remember spotting both Martin Klebba (from the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films) and Tony Cox (BAD SANTA) in the makeup room, and I had to contain myself. According to one of the producers, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL has a crew of 600, including 350 locals and the rest of Los Angeles, plus 150 extras (mostly locals). We couldn't pry from the filmmakers whether Sam Raimi regular Bruce Campbell had a role in the film, but we did hear that John Paxton (father of Bill and a regular in all three original SPIDER-MAN films) makes an appearance.
The other incredible aspect of this set visit was how much time we spent walking on the Yellow Brick Road, which was features on most of the stages we went into. In most cases, we'd even go out of our way to stay on the road, and I won't lie, I was tempted to grab a brick as a souvenir--they were everywhere. But whether you're a die-hard Oz fan or just a casual lover of the '39 film, walking that famed road made you feel like a childhood wish fulfilled.
Stage 6 brought us to a room in Glinda's kingdom, where we could see her bedroom and a library, featuring an ornate fireplace. Hand-painted murals are featured on some walls. We were told that a scene shot here, Glinda confronts Oz and asks him to use his con artist tricks to defeat the Wicked Witch. And it is in that scene that Oz goes from selfish to selfless man. We were also told that while Oz is an admitted confidence trickster, the witches are skilled liars as well.
Stage 7 was the majestic throne room of the Emerald City, with marble-looking floors and walls, a red-carpeted grand staircase, with gold accents on everything. The lion-adorned throne that we saw in the art room was meant for this room. There are giant emeralds behind where the throne would be Apparently, there's a sequence in which one of the witches comes crashing through a giant window on her broom. Connected to that sequence or not, this room is where we meet Evanora for the first time, as this is her home. Another fun little aspect of the tour is how much we were allowed to walk on the sets. The site of 10 or so journalists ascending and descending this massive staircase was very funny.
Stage 2 featured a splinter unit (Raimi bounces back and forth between a couple units during the course of a day) in a set made up like an expansive dark woods that includes a cemetery, where much of the Yellow Brick Road is overgrown or covered with dirt. Apparently the splinter unit is preparing to shoot a scene involving "Winkies," giant characters that seem to act as palace guard types. In order the do these scenes, the production had to find actors ranging in height from 6 ft. 8 in. to 7 ft. 2 in. tall. It is on this set that Oz meets Glinda for the first time as she is honoring her dead father in the cemetery.
On our way to the costume shop and make-up department, we see more costumed extras as well as animal handlers with cages loaded mostly with birds that look like crows. The sense of activity and energy is palpable and exciting.
The costume department is unbelievably expansive and bustling with activity. We first meet costumer Gary Jones, whose credits include SPIDER-MAN 2, seven films with Gary Marshall, and even the movie HAIR for director Milos Forman. There are somewhere in the neighborhood for 5,000 costumes in this giant, open room, most for the extras. Jones said about 50 percent of them are rented (with a large percentage of that being vintage clothes, presumably for the Kansas sequences) and the rest are made. Jones made the interesting point that his department got a chance to see the pre-visualization sequences, and while they didn't get any costuming ideas from seeing that, it did give them an idea of how CG might be used and interact wit the clothes.
Getting into the specifics of the witches' costumes, there's a slight nod to Glinda's costume from the '39 film, but with modern touches such as more flexibility and skin. Evanora's black dress is one of Jones's favorite, and it shows off a corseted design. He said all of the witches are corseting, even if you can't see it. Jones mentioned that the costumes for the small and tall actors were fun to play with. The Munchkin costumes were almost designed square, while the tall soldiers' uniforms were practically sculptures that you step into. By re-imagining all of these Oz clothes, Jones felt he was redefining Halloween and Oz-themed Disneyland attractions for years to come.
Somewhat by accident, we spot a line-up of familiar looking black witch hats that clearly belong to the Wicked Witch, which inspires Jones to pull out her revamped dress, which features a slightly stylishly tattered look to be worn with tights underneath and talons on her shoulders and collar. It's a beautiful, borderline sexy creation that was a real treat to examine. On the other hand, Oz's costume is a simple, long coat with a green vest and white shirt with black tie and watch chain. When we spoke to Franco the following day, we did notice that his clothes were deliberately stressed and worn, as to appear ragged. We were also shown a purple robe Oz wears when he's putting on his magic shows in Kansas.
One funny moment in the costume shop occurs when we spot a couple rows of actor headshots with their character names underneath, which didsn't seem that significant until we noticed a few familiar faces whose names we were not given as being part of this production. There will be a couple of fun cameos for Sam Raimi fans.
Another costuming sidenote: It turns out that make-up guru Howard Berger designed the monkeys and their jackets, and handed his designs to the CGI team.
I think I'll stop Part 1 here because beginning with the next part to this series (hopefully next week), I'll have quite a few interviews for you, including ones with Howard Berger, master puppeteer Phillip Huber, actors Joey King, Zack Braff, James Franco, Michelle Williams, and the man behind the curtain of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, Sam Raimi. Stay tuned for more adventures on the Yellow Brick Road.
Speaking of which… And if you don't know which one is me, I'm the handsome one.