If I'm not mistaken, you're going to have another interview with Sam Raimi, the director of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, fairly soon on this site, but it'll be one that was conducted after the writer (not myself) saw the film. What follows is a conversation Raimi had with a group of online writers (including me) back in October 2011 at the enormous studio housing the OZ sets in Pontiac, Michigan. And this is final report I have from my two-day set visit, which including the better part of a day watching Raimi just work on the film's largest set, a courtyard at the entrance to Glinda (Michelle Williams) the Good's modest palace, where she and Oz (James Franco) plot to invade the Emerald City to free its people from some not-so-nice witches.
One of the first things I remember seeing Raimi do after we arrived on the massive soundstage was apologize to an extra for cutting a line he had given him not long before. It speaks to Raimi's integrity that he did that personally, dressed in a familiar suit and tie, something he always wears while working as a sign of respect for the process of making movies. In the courtyard, I noticed several horse-drawn carts filled with homemade fireworks, which play a key part in the film's finale.
At several points, Raimi consulted his board filled with storyboard of the scene being shot. Occasionally, he took a highlighter and crossed out panels, either because they were finished or being eliminated. A quick visit to the pre-visualization team (sitting close to the 3-D monitor), allowed us to look at a rough version of what had been shot and what will be replaced by CG (characters or backgrounds or the tops of trees, for example).
It's worth noting that at some point during our visit, we were taken into the production office where the film's props were stored and displayed. Propmaster Russell Bobbitt (who also worked on THOR, IRON MAN, STAR TREK, and COWBOYS & ALIENS) showing us a few key props, including gold coins that are shown in the Emerald City treasure room. Although you'll never see it in the film, every coin has L. Frank Baum's profile on one side and an image of the Emerald City (with a particular brick road leading up to it) on the other. Inscribed on one side is "The World Is Filled with Wonders" (a quote from "The Wizard of Oz" book; on the other side is written "In Giving, We Receive."
Bobbitt also showed us the rather tall weapons for the palace guard winkies, the spears the flying baboons carry, various circus props, wands (Bobbit also made the witches' wands for HOCUS POCUS), ceremonial medals, leaflets and tickets for Oz's circus show ("Baum Bros. Circus"), rings, brooms, and canes. There was also what Bobbitt called "Citizen Papers" that designated that the holder was a citizen of the "Land of Oz, Emerald City, The Royal Court." One of the coolest things we saw was a map that is shown in Glinda's room that shows all of the lands of Oz; it reminded me of the familiar Middle-Earth map at the front of any of Tolkien's hobbit-themed novels.
Also among the props were a remote-controlled "rigged" compass that is mounted on the hot air balloon that takes Franco to the land of Oz. There's also a very realistic looking fake rabbit that is housed in Oz's top hat. A music box that is shown on more than one occasion in the film, used by Oz for seduction purposes was a particular treat. I also saw a scroll that read [SPOILER ALERT] "With little more than pluck and belief, we made the impossible happen. As your Wizard, I hereby decree that henceforth and hereafter, the Land of Oz will forever be free." [END SPOILER ALERT]
Watching Raimi work was a rare treat, and I was surprised how much fun he seemed to be having. There were a lot of children in this particular scene, and he never hesitated to talk to them, without seeming condescending. It was fun watching Franco and Williams smiling and laughing with Raimi between takes, and the light-hearted tone of the day's work is reflected in the finished film. Eventually, we were taken to our small conference room that we called home for a fair number of hours over the course of the two days we were there, and Raimi was brought in to chat, but not before he went around the room having everyone introduce themselves. Please enjoy one of Hollywood's last gentlemen, Sam Raimi…
Sam Raimi: Hi, everybody.
Question: I believe it was two years ago that you were first talking about this.
SR: Oh? Was I really? Was it that long ago?
Question: Basically, this project has been something that you have been attached to for a while. You were talking about it at the Saturn Awards. Can you talk about the development of this? Was this a challenging film to get a greenlight on?
SR: No, it was a very easy process to get this picture into production. Joe Roth was the producer, and Disney had been developing the script with Joe Roth and his company, and they really liked it. I think they must have thought it was a very "Disney" type of picture for them, whatever that means. I know every time a president changes, I’m sure their mandate of the type of movies they make changes. But it seems like it’s a fun family adventure and it seems like whatever that Disney image is, this really does feel like it’s right for them.
So I can’t really say what went on with their company and their thinking about how they proceed to production, but it seemed like the moment I came on board the picture that they had an intention to make it, and I told them very early on after working on the script for a couple of 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 [Kapner, writer] and eventually my faith in the second writer, David Lindsey-Abaire, and they saw where we could take the characters. So a lot of it was my faith in them and their visions, but I really believed we could make a great movie out of it, and I think once I committed completely to them, I thought that they were committed. It was a very quick process to production if that’s what that term means, what I think it means. It went very quickly to go to preproduction, and they made commitments to hire artists and storyboard artists and production designer, and it was very fast.
Question: With a universe of material like this, which is beloved, but not necessarily well known, is the trick to go back to the L. Frank Baum material and find elements to make fresh, or is the trick to find new elements to add to the existing skeleton and universe that Mr. Baum created?
SR: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] I really don’t know.
Question: We are getting into some deep philosophical waters. At what point do you feel like you are referentially…
SR: Can I have a multiple choice question?
Question: Let me rephrase. What’s the balance between reverentially regarding Mr. Baum’s material, which has endured on its merits for well nye a century and want to make that alive and fresh for a modern sensibility and modern movie going audience?
SR: Well when I came to the project, I had never read any of Baum’s work and I’ve only read like 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. It’s very strange; I didn’t want the book to mess up the movie for me. That was where I was at. But then I read the screenplay, which I loved, I started to read the books and appreciate Baum’s work and I was so surprised at how exactly THE WIZARD OF OZ was his first book, and his work is fresh right now. It’s brilliant and affecting, and the characters don’t need to be refreshened by anybody. However, the screenplay is based on a lot of elements of a lot of his books. In many of his books, and in even more than the ones that I’ve read, he would go back and talk about the wizard, like there’s a little bit about the wizard in the first one, a little bit about the wizard in I think three and four, and he went back and said, “Oh yeah, and here’s how the wizard got here and this was his backstory.” So what the writer, Mitchell Kapner, did was he took all of those elements that were given to the audience in later books, and he’s put them back in a chronological order of what happened to the wizard and how the wizard got there to the land of Oz.
So he’s already taken tremendous artistic license, and it’s not exactly what happened in the books. It may have been referenced, and he’s had to fill in the blanks. So when I read the screenplay, it was never really a faithful adaptation of any of the books; it was the writer piecing together what Baum had given them, and then he had to fill in a tremendous amount of blanks, because there was no information there. And what might have the wicked witches, or these other characters, been doing during this time? Sometimes it was written about and sometimes it wasn’t. I think Mitchell Kapner could best speak about it, but he’s taken elements from many of the books, rearranged them in what could have happened. So it’s a “what if” story.
Question: As a brief follow up, as a huge fan of the original film, the Warner Brothers film, do you ever feel a slight pang recognizing that there are elements you cannot incorporate?
SR: When you say “Warner Brothers' film”…?
Question: The 1939 version…
SR: Oh yeah, they own it.
Question: Since you are such a fan of that, do you ever feel the pang of “No, I can’t use the ruby shoes” or “I can’t use that specific look” for fear of litigation?
SR: Yeah, it’s the movie that I love. That’s what I fell in love with and that’s what terrified me and exhilarated me, and really 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 anyway. But I read the script, and it was a love poem to that movie and those books. I felt that it was [written by] someone who so admired the movie, and they were trying to enhance it, and for me it never took away. I also thought nothing could ever take away from that movie, it’s so brilliant and enduring,. So yes, I wanted to honor the movie. And as far as the pangs of not being able to be more accurate to the movie, because they weren’t within the rights of Disney to honor it in that way, I think that’s fine. Everything had to be re-imagined. I thought going into this project, “We shouldn’t mess with the Yellow Brick Road—the image the audience has in their mind is so powerful, they don’t need anyone to reinvent it for them. It’s fine to tell other stories having people tread upon the Yellow Brick Road; that’s what I would have liked to have seen.
Just like when we go to the Emerald City, I really don’t want our team to re-imagine it; I want to hear other stories about it and what else happened in New York. “I don’t want to see a re-imagined version of New York, I want to know what else happened in New York” so to speak. That’s the best way I can put it. These images are so engrained in our minds, I didn’t want the audience to see something astray about New York and think, “That’s not New York, though.” However just legally, we are unable to recreate the images from the film, which is a shame, because it really is all about honoring that film and the books—more the film I think 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 just used the imagery from the original film and tell other stories about the same characters early in their lives, but we were not able to. So it was something we had to get over.
Question: Can you talk about the sensation of being back in Michigan and making a movie?
SR: I love Michigan. I’m from here and I made all of my early movies here, all of my super 8mm 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 THE EVIL DEAD 2, some of the miniature work and some of the ending here, edited it here. I made one called CRIME WAVE 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 and the rain and the gray skies, and I like the cold. I wouldn’t if I had an outside job. A lot of people in Michigan really don’t like that winter after about six months, it really starts to get like “Enough already.” But I like it.
Question: After half the year, yeah.
SR: Yeah, but I love it and I love the people here. I think they're, not to generalize, but we have had incredibly talented crew members from Michigan. They're sharp and they have got a great schooling from either Michigan or Michigan State. I don’t know the name of the college, but there’s a great computer school downtown that is training these guys in animation and computer technology that are on our high-tech teams. I would make all of the movies I could here. I just love it.
The state is really hurting economically, and I hope that these tax incentives are good for the state. I only want it if it’s good for the state; I hope it doesn’t result in all of the money going out of the state to Hollywood. I really 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. I guess it’s probably similar to any place that’s a little depressed, but these people really appreciate the work, and they're doing a great job. People come in everyday; I’ve heard people whistling. “What’s that noise? Is that a happy person?” [Everyone Laughs] It’s funny; it’s great to be here. I love working here.
Question: You guys are filming on some incredible soundstages. You love Michigan and are familiar with filming outdoors. Are you going to be able to capture any of the real outdoors of Michigan in the movie?
SR: No. Nothing is really being shot outside. The look of Oz is so unique, the way that [production designer] Robert Stromberg and his team have designed it that nothing real will fit into this world. I couldn’t even shoot a sky. Maybe Michigan clouds could have been in there, because they're pretty fantastic, but everything is tweaked in such a unique way that no street, no green field in Ireland, no wall would ever fit into Robert’s design. Everything is so unique, except his 1900 Kansas, where the movie starts, but of course that all has to be faked for different reasons, because of the period. We probably could have shot a barn or a farmhouse here if we had found the right one with the right background, but there was a problem of getting the plains of Kansas, the feel the of Kansas, just right that Michigan did not offer. We did not find the right look for that.
Question: Several people yesterday were quoting that you had the idea of a through line for the film being that of a selfish man who becomes selfless and who were utilizing your words. Is it fair to say that THE MUSIC MAN might be a bit of an influence--the con-man who comes to believe his own shill?
SR: I’m trying to remember THE MUSIC MAN. I don’t think it was an influence, but it sounds similar. I was actually in THE MUSIC MAN, I can’t remember it well enough.
Question: We don’t have many American fairytales. We’ve got Ichabod Crane and THE WIZARD OF OZ and that’s about it. How do you keep a fairytale, a kind of European fantasy, distinctly American? What do you make it about to make it resonate with an American audience?
SR: I have read that people consider Baum’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, his first book…somebody said “Oh, this is America’s first myth” or “America’s first fairytale.” I have read that, but I think it’s uniquely American, because well there’s a little bit of greed involved in it. The guy wants, and yet it’s also the story of an entrepreneur, a guy who, with his ingenuity and can-do attitude, drives off those wicked witches and saves the day. It’s also the story of people rising up for freedom, and I think that’s an American—not a myth—story of the American Revolution. Farmers—or in this case, quadlings, munchkins and tinkers—rising up to drive off the tyrants or despots or whatever you want to call the wicked witches.
So those elements are American, but I think it’s not primarily American, I think it’s universal, the story of all of us who are capable of doing good and the hero being made because he recognizes that ability within himself, and he grows to do something greater than himself. He grows to take part in a cause that’s more important than his selfishness or his greed. He learns the true value of the gift that he’s been given as a magician. He can be used not just to entertain others for his own profit, but to uplift others, to set them free and to, in this case, drive off the most dreaded villains of all, the wicked witches. I think it’s a more universal type of story than just an American story.
[Raimi is called back to set.]
SR: Yeah, I’ve got a puppet rehearsal I’ve got to look at with the China Girl. We’ve got this great puppeteer, Phillip Huber. It’s been wonderful to work with him. He's such an artist. Everything he does is beautiful, like dance or ballet, and I’m really hoping to capture all of her performance done to the finest detail that Phillip can muster and only then give it to the CG artists to enhance. I don’t want to just hold up an "X" or a stick or a rag doll; I really want to get her emotion, and he can deliver it. It’s wonderful to watch him. I don’t know if they're bringing you to the set, but to watch him perform, to get a close look of that is unique.
[He is told that Phillip will be talking with the group later.]
SR: Great. Thank you guys, I really appreciate it.