Whereas most modern fantasy films emphasize world building and visual f/x gimmickry over storytelling, Sam Raimi has approached OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL with the spirit of a reckless adventurer. He's invigorated by the lush, expansive landscape of Oz, and wants his huckster protagonist, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), to nearly get killed in it as much as possible.
Like Raimi's most memorable hero, Ash*, Franco's scheming magician has no shortage of confidence and an extraordinary absence of humility. Oscar is a romantic with a heart of pyrite; he plays the part of a decent man to perfection, but sooner or later, those fool enough to believe in him realize it's just an act. Some assuage their heartbreak with tears; others take up whatever is handy and potentially lethal. With a doofus like Ash, we want to see the cocky bastard take his licks and then some; with Oscar, we want to see the scoundrel make good on his hustle.
Raimi may like to play rough, but deep down he's a softy who believes in the innate goodness of human beings. Okay, maybe this doesn't quite come through in A SIMPLE PLAN or DRAG ME TO HELL, but that's just Raimi working out his pessimism. OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, conceived as "a spiritual prequel" to Frank L. Baum's THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, allows Raimi to both imperil and redeem a charming lout without severing appendages. It also gives him the opportunity to indulge the old-fashioned, almost Capra-esque sentimentality that peeks through in the SPIDER-MAN movies and pervades the charming FOR LOVE OF THE GAME. This is Raimi paying homage to the all-ages spectacle of THE WIZARD OF OZ and Alexander Korda's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, while making the most of modern 3D gimmickry in order to give audiences a surfeit of bang for the extra bucks. On the surface, it may recall the soulless, four-quadrant cash-grabs of years past, but engage with the movie in front of you and you'll find a good-hearted, exquisitely shot movie.
This is a Sam Raimi film. This is, I think, Sam Raimi. I mean, you can have a doe-eyed outlook on the world and still be curious about what would happen if a bunch of fun-loving college kids read from the Sumerian "Book of the Dead". These things are not mutually exclusive.
Here is my interview with Sam Raimi from the OZ press day. It was only ten minutes. Thankfully, he talks fast.
Mr. Beaks: OZ has this wonderful old-fashioned feel, like a throwback to the '30s and '40s fantasy of not just THE WIZARD OF OZ, but Korda's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.
Sam Raimi: Beautiful. That's a lovely compliment to our cinematographer [Peter Deming] and our production designer Robert Stromberg, and the entire art department. I love to hear that.
Beaks: In crafting this, particularly in the way you shot and staged it, did you strive to capture a classic feel?
Raimi: I really wanted to see and feel the scope of the land of Oz, but I wasn't consciously going for an emulation of those old movies, those great, beautiful pictures you're describing. I really wanted to stay away from the close-up, and really see [Franco] interact with this fantastic environment that Baum had written about. That naturally meant getting a little wider with the camera.
Beaks: In today's studio films, we don't get to see many long-playing shots or scenes that have a chance to breathe. Do you ever feel pressure, particularly on a four-quadrant film like this, to pick up the pace and maybe not linger on one shot too long?
Raimi: At this point in my career, I don't really have anyone on the set telling me what to do - except for the actors. I count on their instincts and timing. I count on my own timing. And I count on the input from my editor - not on the set in the moment, but in dailies. I have a very tough editor in Bob Murawski, and he doesn't let me get away with anything. In fact, on this picture, I said, "Bob, did you see the dailies?" "Yeah, I saw 'em." "Did I forget anything." "Uh, one thing." "Oh? What was that?" "THE PERFORMANCE!" He's not soft on me. He lets me know when I've messed up. It's good to have an editor that you can't please, and that's Bob.
But I counted pretty much on the actors, my associates and my director of photography to tell me when something wasn't working when I thought it was. I have a very collaborative nature, I think, and I count on people's input to create the whole thing - especially on a picture like this. This really is the work of thousands of artists. The massive scale of it demands it.
Beaks: But what about incorporating 3D? I like that you were able to give us your trademark visual lunacy with a 3D flourish.
Raimi: That's very kind of you.
Beaks: How did you enjoy working with 3D?
Raimi: When the decision was made early on to go 3D... it was originally suggested by Disney, and [producer] Joe Roth really wanted to do 3D. I thought it was a great idea. I thought that 3D was a gimmick, but, like a zoom lens, it can be a gimmick or a useful tool. And I thought that going into the land of Baum's Oz, that that extra dimension really could be useful, and really could become an experience for the audience. So I embraced it, and Bob and I went forward thinking, "If they want to see the picture in 2D, we'll let them. But for those who are paying more for a 3D ticket, we really want to give 'em a 3D show! We're not going to hold back. We're going to give 'em the big 3D show! Nothing tasteful! No immersive look, depth falling away into the distance. Nothing tasteful. We're going to drag 'em into the thing, throw it at 'em, and spit it right back out." So we really went for it. We were really careful working with our stereographer not to give our audience a headache. I often get headaches at poorly-done 3D pictures, so we were very careful about the convergence, making sure it didn't jump from shot to shot to shot, turning the audience's brains into silly putty. And Bob was aware of a cutting style where he would let takes play a little bit more, so we didn't have to keep changing the convergence in our heads. I think maybe that affected my shooting style. So when you say you were grateful that shots could breathe, I think it had something to do with that.
Beaks: Do you consider yourself a 3D convert?
Raimi: No. The cameras that I used were too loud. They took too much light. I really wanted to see the world forever. In my vision of Oz, and Robert Stromberg's vision of Oz, there was a crystal clarity in the air where you could see for miles. But this 3D system had so much of a light falloff with this half-silvered mirror that the depth of field would be shallow. So I'd run into these animatic artists and [Visual Effects Supervisor] Scott Stokdyk saying to me, "Sam, you want us to see forever, but look! The focus is falling off on your set here after thirty feet! I can't bring the focus back! They're going to think it's a bad effect! It doesn't look real!" So Bob, Scott and I had a constant back-and-forth. I wanted tremendous depth-of-field, and this 3D system that I used didn't have it. I'm not a giant fan of it. I think it was the right tool for this project, and I think our 3D team did a wonderful job. It's very effective in this film, I think. But I don't think I'm a convert for future films. It's possible, but it would really have to be the right choice for a lot of reasons. I'm so aware of the pitfalls.
Beaks: James Franco's Oz seems like your kind of huckster. Did he have a specific idea coming in as to how he'd play Oz? What was the nature of your collaboration, and was there any need for compromise?
Raimi: I never compromised, and I don't think James did either. We're very close friends and great collaborators. We read the script and talked about it and built on each other's ideas and took chances with each other. We tried to make him a full-blooded character that had aspirations of greatness, that had a certain amount of ignorance of how to be great. He also had a petty side that we tried to dramatize. He's someone who didn't know to appreciate what a loyal friend he had in Frank (Zach Braff), somebody who was low enough to cheat Frank out of well-earned money that he deserved. He's somebody who's so blind to true love that he didn't recognize it when it was standing right there in front of him. And yet something about him was still good. Something wanted to make that little girl learn how to walk if he only knew how - but he didn't have the tact to handle the situation well enough. He was so self-obsessed with his show and coming off good that he hurt her feelings. We really worked hard to create a layered and multi-dimensional character, so that the audience would like him despite his faults, and identify with him and root for him, and want him to find his heart by the climax of the picture. This was done through constant communication with James, trial and error, rehearsing the scene and talking about why it didn't feel right or what it was missing, and always talking about keeping that balance of alive: the good heart within this selfish character.
Beaks: This is a family film, but you still can't help yourself. You've got to give us a good scare here and there. And kids do love to be scared. I mean, they're horrified at the time, and may have nightmares for days (Raimi laughs), but once they're through it, it's like a roller coaster: they want to do it again, and they may want to get on a scarier ride this time. How did you approach scares in a family movie?
Raimi: Well, this movie is based on Frank L. Baum's work, and it's also a loving tribute to the great WIZARD OF OZ movie of 1939. And when I think back about what that movie was, it was scariest movie I'd ever seen in my life. It was the ultimate horror film. Not only was it the sweetest film I'd ever seen and the best musical I'd ever seen, it was also the scariest. So I thought, "If we're going to make a WIZARD OF OZ picture... if we're going to make OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL based on Baum's work, with all his fantastical monsters and creatures, it's got to have the frightening thrill of a real Wicked Witch. She's not the Kind-of-Bad Witch; she's the Wicked Witch. And those flying creatures? They've got to have some threat to them. I think kids like to be scared a little bit more than their parents think they do. We tried to find a line where it would still be a family picture, but we really didn't hold back on the thrills for the kids.
Beaks: I read that you only became acquainted with Baum's stories when you took this project on.
Raimi: Yeah, just recently. I've only read three-and-a-half of the Baum books, so I don't know much about them.
Beaks: Is this a franchise you'd like to stick with? Is there more you'd personally like to explore?
Raimi: Because it's such a big picture, that's really up to Disney. They'd probably first like to see that it was met with critical approval, what was the audiences response to the picture, do they want to see a part two, and, most importantly to the studio, did it make money? If it met all those criteria, then they would think about it. But for me, what attracted me was not the world of Baum, as I was ignorant to it. What attracted me was a concept in the original screenplay I read that I thought I could make into an emotionally moving motion picture - and that is the story of a selfish man who becomes a selfless man, and in so doing becomes this great man he thought he could always be. That, I thought, could make a great picture. Whether or not they'll ever find another concept like that in another version of OZ, I don't know.
Beaks: We recently heard that the EVIL DEAD remake had to make a number of cuts to receive an R rating. This seems appropriate, since your EVIL DEAD was Rated X at the time. (Raimi starts to smile.) Do you feel a certain sense of pride that this remake seems to be following in your transgressive footsteps?
Raimi: (Laughs) Absolutely! I'm very proud that this simple campfire story that Bruce Campbell, Robert Tapert and myself told so many years ago can be dragged out in the campfire of 2013 and told again to scare a new crowd of kids. I'm honored. It's kind of like you wrote an old song that some small group of people liked, and now a new, really cool musician wants to play it, and you can hear his riffs on it and jam with him a little bit. It's been a blast for me.
Beaks: And those notes that were once considered too extreme--
Raimi: (Playing air guitar) Bwang-bwang-bwang-bwang!!!
Beaks: So those notes are still there?
Raimi: You'll hear Fede's version of those notes. He's playing his own solo.
OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is currently in theaters. Check it out.
*At least, Ash as he evolved over three movies.