The next part of my report from my October 2011 visit to the set of Sam Raimi's OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL will be a brief one, only because we somehow managed to get a few minutes from the star of the film. It so happened that on the day we visited the courtyard set, James Franco, who plays the young wizard, and Michelle Williams were working almost non-stop, either rehearsing with Raimi or shooting. I don't think I saw Franco even sit down once, except when he was brought over to us for this brief chat. <br One of the more interesting things about Franco's involvement in OZ is that, although he was not the first choice to play the role, he and Raimi had worked together on all three original SPIDER-MAN movies, with Franco playing Harry Osborn.
The scenes we saw shot included a sweetly romantic moment at the bottom of a grand staircase leading into the courtyard with Williams. It would have been even more romantic if the pair hadn't been surrounded by children, little people playing munchkins, and a few dozen other extras. But at the end of the scene, she removes his top hat and kisses his head.
Later, Franco has a conversation with the marionette (who will be replaced by a digital character) named China Girl (voiced by Joey King), and what was especially good about that sequence was that Franco picked up the puppet in the scene from the ground onto an elevated surface so he could look at her eye to eye. I can't wait to see how that looks in the finished film.
As we were speaking to Franco, I noticed certain things about his costume and general appearance. His hair was slicked back under his hat. His black suit has the slightest signs of wear and tear--a loose thread or worn spot, all quite deliberate. We didn't have long to talk to him, but I felt lucky we got any time. So please enjoy our interview with the Wizard of Oz himself, James Franco…
James Franco: Welcome. Where are you all from?
[Answers come at him fast and furious. “LA, Chicago, San Francisco.” etc.]
JF: All right, let’s do it.
Question: What’s the key to playing a convincing con man?
JF: I mean I’m sort of a con man, 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 in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. We had Lance Burton here from Vegas, who is one of the big magicians from there, and he showed me a lot of tricks and magic, and, in that world, it’s about creating a convincing illusion and showmanship and that kind of thing.
Question: Can you talk a bit about getting involved in this project? From what I understand or recall, rumors of Downey Jr. and a bunch of people being cast first…
JF: Yeah, he was signed on, I think. Sam said he gave him a plant at the first meeting, and then when we 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.
Question: Did you get tested with a plant yourself?
JF: No, Sam didn’t get me any plants or anything. He already knew me, so…[laughs]
Question: Could you talk about your initial meetings with Sam and getting approached about the material? Was it an immediate yes?
JF: Yeah, 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 then he didn’t end up doing it. I had a meeting with Sam, I read the script, and we briefly talked about it. It was just 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 that there would be a fresh take. Mainly I think through the portrayal of Oz--because Oz as we all know in the '39 movie is an older gentleman--now you get the young Oz. So you get a different spirit into maybe a familiar and fantastical world.
Question: I love the shabby chic of the clothing when you see it up close, because we’ve been watching from afar, and you look very put together and perfect and here it’s all loose threads and slightly visible insides and one of your fly buttons is undone. Is that kind of shabby grandeur what you are shooting for?
[Everyone is laughing.]
JF: [Franco looks at his pants and realize the fly button was not meant to be undone.] You could have said that a little more respectful [laughs].
Question: I really thought you were doing it deliberately.
JF: Yeah, well Oz is, in the beginning, he’s not the most successful magician, so these are the clothes from Kansas. It’s a way to set up his attraction to wealth, but really a drive to pull himself out of kind 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 state.
Question: There’s an occupational hazard for con men, where they start to believe what they are selling. Does that happen to Oz in this film?
JF: I guess in the sense that, yeah, we play with the idea of Oz being a magician in a traveling show, so he’s not what you 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 or real magicians.
Question: When you first walked on the Yellow Brick Road, just being in a WIZARD OF OZ movie, can you describe your reaction? Can you talk about what that means to you, and what it was like?
[Franco is about to be pulled away from us, but he makes sure to answer the question first.]
JF: The Yellow Brick Road is so iconic, so it was just plain fun to be able to do scenes on the Yellow Brick Road. I was a fairly big reader when I was younger and I think the first books I read on my own were the [L. Frank] Baum OZ books, the 14 or 15 that he wrote. 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.
It was similar with [Allen] Ginsberg when I was a little older I read him and then got to play Ginsberg [in HOWL]. This is kind of a similar experience, and it’s also great because Oz is such and 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 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 now the original OZ is considered a classic, we can kind of play in this childish fantastical world, and it doesn’t have to feel like a children’s movie. So it’s really nice that way.
[Everyone thanks Franco as he’s pulled back to set.]