Re-Visiting the Land of Oz
By Carl Kozlowski, Contributing Writer
MOVIEGUIDE® got a chance to attend the press conference for Disney’s new take on L. Frank Baum’s the Land of Oz, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. Attending were director Sam Raimi and actors James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Zach Braff.
Q: Michelle, you’ve been known for your work in indies and this is your first blockbuster. How was the experience of doing the CG visual effects and working with a big-budget filmmaker like Sam Raimi?
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Well, I knew the moment that I met Sam that it wasn’t really going to be that different from other experiences that I’ve had because he’s first of all a consummate family man and his sets feel like little homes, so it feels very cozy, and it feels very safe, and it feels like all of your ideas are welcome, even the bad ones. That’s the way that I’ve grown accustomed to working, and I had that with Sam. I think we all really had that with Sam. The thing that I’ve never experienced before is a director with an unflagging sense of humor like Sam. He really taught me a lot about how to keep your chin up, like when the day is long and things aren’t going quite as you had sort of planned them out in your head, Sam is there with a smile. Sam is there with a hand. Sam is there with a joke. He really taught me a lot about, um, uh, about, uh, keeping a good face.
Q: Sam, this movie obviously demonstrates a lot of love for the original WIZARD OF OZ. But, at the one moment when it appears to be a musical, it gets shut down promptly. Can you please talk about not going there as a musical?
SAM RAIMI: That was a tribute to the great “Wizard of Oz” picture, but early on I think the writers decided that we shouldn’t imitate that fantastic musical. There was no comparison to the great quality of music in the original, in fact. Ours was more based on the L. Frank Baum “Oz” books. So we decided not to make it a musical, and just tell the fantastical tales that he had written about, but that one number was a tribute to the great “Wizard of Oz” movie.
Q: Sam, in working with 3D for the first time, was there anything in this particular shoot that was the most challenging for you?
RAIMI: Yes, there were a tremendous amount of new challenges for me. I didn’t know anything about 3-D so I had to go to school and learn about 3-D. I had to meet with technicians and study the camera systems and go to effects houses and hear what the different visual effects artists had to say about working with the systems and I had to basically shoot some test days and see what the effects of convergence was on the audience and why the audience gets a headache. I used to get headaches at 3-D movies, and I didn’t want this movie to give people headaches.
Q: I want to ask the ladies about your big fight at the end, with the wire-work and everything. Was it painful? Fun? Or both?
WILLIAMS: I think we both really loved being on the wires.
RACHEL WEISZ: Yeah, it was very fun. I mean, it was a little scary the first day. We had a rehearsal period where these wonderful stunt coordinators who had worked extensively with Sam on the SPIDER-MAN films taught us how to fly.
RAIMI: The ladies have been very good sports, and truth is I think it’s fun for the first 20 minutes, on the wires, but around hour four, hanging up there, I know those wires, they cut into you. The straps do. They dig into your legs, into your arms, and you’ve got to always exert a great degree of muscle control to look like you’re floating on your own power, and I think it gets very exhausting and leaves its marks.
Q: Sam, was there a temptation to make Theodora a little more scary, given your background in horror? And then for the ladies, um, what was the best part about being a witch?
RAIMI: Well, I love making those horror movies, but I was really guided by Mila Kunis’s performance and what her instincts were in playing that character, and she decided that she was playing her like a woman scorned. So even though she wasn’t really thinking about the fact that she was green, she’s told me she was playing it as an innocent who fell in love, and her heart was broken, and she suffered, and she couldn’t take the suffering and wanted to end that suffering, and her sister was all too willing to let that suffering end, and it awakened something that was already there but just fueled the fire of hatred, anger, mixed with love, jealousy, and rage. Rage is a good word. That rage drove her. So I wasn’t tempted make it more like a horror movie. I wanted her to guide us and I would follow her with the camera.
Q: What was the best part about being a witch?
WEISZ: Flying! It’s really hard to beat flying as a skill. Yeah. I would say. Yeah, flying. Number one. Number two – lightning bolts for me.
WILLIAMS: And, making little girls smile when you walk by.
WEISZ: They believed in me.
Q: My question is for all three of the actors. I’m wondering if you could talk very briefly about your experiences with the first film, the Judy Garland film, and how much you had to either draw on that or discard those memories, uh, to do the work you did here.
ZACH BRAFF: Sam wasn’t trying to remake THE WIZARD OF OZ. He saw it as that sacred classic. It was like we were gonna return to that world. So, I think that was what was exciting for us. It was a way to go back and re-visit that world without the pressure or the audacity, I should say, of trying to remake what for a lot of people is so sacred. Like everyone, I grew up on it and loved it. I remember particularly just liking the physical comedy and the way that the characters moved. I thought that was so intoxicating and fun. For us, THE WIZARD OF OZ was on in rotation and the actors who did those animals were my early experience of physical comedy and a huge influence in my whole career.
WILLIAMS: I don’t remember really the first time that I saw the movie or anything like that but I do remember the feeling I had when I first realized that the characters in her waking life were the same as the characters in her dream life. That the woman on the bicycle was the wicked witch. And, I remember being really affected once I had discovered that because I felt like somebody had been tricking me. Like, something was working on me on a subconscious level that I wasn’t aware of and that kind of freaked me out as a kid. Other than that, you know, I think it was just a great place, to take inspiration from.
WEISZ: It was the first film I remember seeing so it’s my earliest film memory. So I guess it has that kind of power and the bits that I remember my Mom taking me to the cinema. I remember being about five. I remember being really traumatized by the wicked witches. They were very, very scary. I guess I loved Judy Garland’s voice. I love how she sings. She gives me goose bumps. So, yeah, for me it’s about her singing, and it really makes me feel good.
Q: Sam, the Oz books have legions of fans who are very loyal to it. Because of that, did you have any trepidations about sort of getting into that field? Secondly, did it help having in the past done something like a SPIDER-MAN, letting you know what it’s like to deal with legions who are very loyal to the printed material?
RAIMI: Yes. SPIDER-MAN helped me because I learned that you can’t be loyal to every detail of the book. Every filmmaker knows when you make a book into a movie, the first thing you have to do is kill the book, unfortunately. You’ve got to re-create it, but I decided I could be truest to the fans of Baum’s great work if I recognized what was great and moving and touching and most effective about those books to me. Just to me. And, put as much of that into this picture as I could. So I was not a slave to the details, but I was a slave to the heart and the soul of the thing. In as many ways, as I could express it, I put it into this movie.
Q: Sam, Walt Disney wanted to tackle the land of Oz decades ago and others had bought up the rights. So I’m curious what it means to you to be able to bring to life this movie that the man who started this studio wanted to do so long ago?
RAIMI: Well, I had learned that Walt Disney wanted to make an Oz picture only recently, when the movie was almost finished. The guys in the marketing department said, “Take a look at this reel we’re putting on the DVD,” and it showed how Walt was trying to get the rights to the Oz books and how he was gonna get his army of Mouseketeers together to each play a part. That part I didn’t think was gonna work very well, actually. That’s weird. Anyways, it was a dream – a passion and dream of his, and I thought that was very touching because all I wanted to do was making the ultimate Walt Disney picture. I thought this movie always could be. It could be for families. It could be uplifting. It makes sense in retrospect that it was Walt’s dream to make an Oz picture. I hope that Walt would have liked the movie. There’s no violence in the picture so I think he would like that. He’s got some classic Disney princesses and witches in the picture. I think he would like that. He’s got those Disney, you know, little bluebirds and cuddly creatures like the blue monkeys. So I think he might have liked it. Unless he hated it. But, it’s hard to say what he would have liked. I was honored to make it and surprised to find out that he had intended to make an Oz picture.
Q: James, what was it like to work with Sam Raimi again after SPIDER-MAN, but for a completely different film now?
FRANCO: I love Sam. I’ve known Sam for over ten years, because we did the SPIDER-MAN Trilogy together. He is one of THE most fun directors to work with and that is no small thing, when a director on a film really sets the tone of how people go about things. When you have someone like Sam, everybody is happy to be at work, everybody does their best. He’s a very collaborative director. You know, not just with the actors, with all departments. It really makes people want to do their best because they all feel like they’re a big part of the movie, and they are. So, I love working with Sam. I’d do anything with him.
Q: James, I saw that you had to learn magic for the movie. What was that like? Have you used it in real life since, to kind of show off?
FRANCO: Yeah. I got to learn with Lance Burton, who is a great magician from Las Vegas. I got private lessons. It was pretty fun, and I could accomplish the tricks. There were even more tricks than made it into the film. Uh, we just had to cut some of them for time, but I got to learn quite a few pretty cool tricks that if I took them to parties, I probably would get a lot of attention, but I need a lot of help from Lance to pull them off, and he doesn’t travel around with me. So, it’s just sort of one of the skills that I’ve learned along the way, like sword fighting or flying a plane that I just don’t use very much after I’m done with the movie.
Q: You’ve worked with Mila [Kunis] on DATE NIGHT, so how was that coming back to working with Mila again?
JAMES FRANCO: Well, I’ll answer the second part first. Mila and I have worked on many projects, at this point. Some very big, like OZ or DATE NIGHT, and some smaller projects that I’ve pulled her into. While we were in Detroit, she did a movie with some of my students from NYU and we’ve done Internet things, so I love working with Mila. So when I was asked if I was interested in doing OZ, I’d heard that Mila was either getting involved or was already signed on, and so that was one of the big reasons that I wanted to do the movie. We have great dynamics. Not only is she a great actor, I think one of the great things about Mila is she’s just a great collaborator. She’s very easygoing, acting on her feet, doing improvisation, figuring things out in very organic way. That’s how I like to work so I’ll anything with Mila.
Q: Your character is cocky, look-looking for greatness, a heart-breaker, and then, you know, you want the audience to also feel sympathy for you. How do you walk the line on how bad to be at times?
FRANCO: The character as written was very much Sam’s idea. I think it’s one of his big contributions. With Oz, you have a fantastical land, but you don’t want just a movie that’s a journey through a fantastical world. You want the characters to have their own inner journeys. So Sam’s idea was, that the character would also have an inner journey. As kind of selfish as he is, as much of a cad as he is in the beginning, it would never go to the point where he’s unlikeable because all of his manipulations and conning of people are sort of played for laughs.
I can’t quite blame him for being the way he is because of his history, you know? He grew up in circumstances where, you know, you just wanted to get out. He wanted something different. So performing was, he saw a way out. And so, he’s gone a little too far in his ambitions, and it’s blinded him to the love of the people around him. In another sense you can’t blame, you know, the initial reasons for him being the way that he is.
Q: James, you’ve got one of the greatest careers, and I was just wondering, how do you find the balance between doing a mainstream project like this and some of your more, shall we say, “adult” type of projects or extreme experimental things? Do you ever get any flak, over what might push the envelope a bit in these films, that they might scare off studios and executives for their other projects?
FRANCO: I do many different kinds of projects, but I try and be very responsible about how and where they’re released, and I know that they’re for different kinds of audiences. So, when I do a film that’s released at Sundance, you know, I feel I’m entitled to do material that pushes boundaries because that’s an audience that, um, can take it and there’s a place for those kinds of movies and-and that’s one of the places. Then when I do a movie like this, I know what the intention is, and I’m not going to try and bring in material or anything that doesn’t fit in this world. It’s my job to align myself with the intention and tone of this world. So, it’s just a matter of knowing the kind of project I’m doing and fitting myself into that.