Disney’s new 3D fantastical adventure “Oz The Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi, imagines the origins of the beloved wizard character first brought to life in author L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Opening March 8th, the film explores the backstory of the wizard and features a stellar cast that includes James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff.
At the recent press day, Raimi, Williams, Weisz, and Braff talked about the characters and their creative collaboration, working with James Franco, how the idea of doing a prequel came about, the distant similarities between this story and the “Army of Darkness” movie, their favorite costumes, how the production team achieved a 1930’s movie star look in a modern digital age of filmmaking, how the original illustrations inspired the film’s production design, which Oz character they identified with most, playing an old school witch, and what we can expect on the DVD.
Question: Was it easier to work with James Franco in this after doing three previous movies together?
Sam Raimi: Yes, working with James Franco was great, and yes, we developed a shorthand over those three Spider-Man movies that we were able to work on together. We learned to trust each other more and more as the years went on, but still it was an absolutely brand new experience working with him as the lead in this picture, because I really get into the heads of my lead heroes and work very, very closely with them. Because James played the best friend to Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies and someone who was trying to kill him, I never really like those guys trying to kill my heroes. So I never connected with him as much as I do with Tobey Maguire in those days. Now I was taking this journey through his eyes and we’d talk about everything. Everything had to be really understood by each other and agreed upon. Not that he would want to take me on wild explorations, not that I was trying to lock him in, we just had to have an understanding precisely what we were going through together. So, we got to be very close and share a lot of intimate thoughts because a director and actors have to agree upon what is the truth. Sometimes you have to discuss how you really would feel in these situations and it gets to be very, very personal. I had a wonderful experience working with James on this.
Q: How far back was James Franco attached?
SR: He was a new addition. Originally when I joined the project, Robert Downey, Jr. was attached to play the role, and I met with him about it twice and I don’t think he felt the picture was right for him. And then I talked with Johnny Depp briefly. About 48 hours he was thinking about it. He decided it wasn’t right for him either. Then I heard James was interested and I had never thought of James, but then I began to think about what I knew about James and his history.
Q: What gave you the idea to make a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz”?
SR: Oh, well it wasn’t my idea. This movie is based on the works of the great American author L. Frank Baum. All the things you see in our picture, almost all of them, were written around 110 years ago. So he had the ideas in these stories and a screenwriter, Mitchell Kapner, read his books and decided to tell a particular part of what was written in those books, how the wizard got to the land of Oz, who he was and what became of him. So really it was a combination of those writers, and then David Lindsay-Abaire, another writer, came aboard and contributed his ideas and that’s really where the idea for this thing came from.
Q: Did you make intentional connections to the “Evil Dead” films in this and the opportunity to slap Bruce Campbell in the face?
SR: It’s always good to hit Bruce when you can, but as far as, yes, there are some similarities with the “Army of Darkness” movie, the third in the “Evil Dead” series, and this picture. Bruce Campbell plays a character that comes from another time back into 1300AD and into medieval times, and there they think he is one of their enemies and that a plague has come upon the land. I won’t retell the whole story, but there are some similarities, but they’re distant. He eventually becomes a leader of those people, so that much is similar with James’s character. He comes from another place and time, another reality, and eventually comes to lead those people. It’s very similar.
Q: Rachel and Michelle, what were your favorite costumes and how did you collaborate with Gary Jones, the costume designer?
Michelle Williams: I think the costumes were incredibly important and we spent a lot of time working on them, to the point where I think we even pushed shooting for a day because I was still trying to get comfortable in the costume. I would spend a lot of time in the wardrobe department talking about the feel and the flow. I wanted her first dress to feel kind of like water. I wanted it to feel very dainty and very delicate, and then for her second costume, what she changes into for battle, to be something that’s more appropriate to run and walk in while still maintaining some kind of feminine shape. I guess it’s like a princess armor. What would that look like? But it was a long and important process.
Q: Which was your favorite costume?
MW: I liked the armored one, the one she changes into for battle.
Rachel Weisz: I’ve never done a film where my costume was as important as it was in this one. I feel like I’ve mainly been in jeans and T-shirts and a scrubbed face, so the costume was 99% of my character which I feel came from putting that costume on. I feel like it was a cross between something very regal and glamorous, and also like a bird of prey and also something slightly militaristic with feather epaulets, a feather collar and feather headdress. Basically, I have one dress, one shape dress which changes from emerald green to black when I show my true colors to the audience, and they know that I’m really bad and not good. I feel like she is kind of like a military dictator in a way. She’s ruling the citizens of the Emerald City with a very cruel hand. She’s a very mean, mean lady, but she also really wants the throne. She desperately does. That’s all she really wants is that throne, so I think it was a cross between a glamorous queen and a military bird of prey. How does that sound?
Q: Was there one aspect of your costume that you contributed to?
RW: Yes, I think my feather collar would go up and down according to my hairdos, so I was adjusting my collar.
Q: The female actors in this movie actually look like movie stars of the 1930s. How were you able to achieve that look in this modern, high definition digital world?
SR: I think it was just the ladies, the way they carried themselves, the way they put themselves forward, the energies that they created about themselves. The wardrobe helped support them, the makeup and the hairstyles probably. I guess Robert Stromberg’s fantastic production design also set a frame for them to present themselves in that way, but they really put out those energies, and I think that’s the thing that we’re really watching and that you’re attuned to.
Q: Was lighting a factor?
SR: Yes, absolutely. Peter Deming, our director of photography, did a wonderful job lighting these ladies. Sometimes he couldn’t light them though like the old movie stars because we had a lot of demands from the set and from the blue screens. It meant there’d be a lot of blue spill on them, so he was doing a lot of just trying to keep the blue off them. I wish I could have given the ladies better beauty lighting all the time, but fortunately I had three striking women in these leads and it doesn’t matter how you light them.
Q: For the production design, did you go back to any of the original illustrations?
SR: We went to the Denslow illustrations, the original illustrations. Baum’s descriptions were the first source of inspiration for the look. I would say Denslow’s illustrations, the original illustrations, were the second source of inspiration. And I think a third source of inspiration or four, were the old Disney animated frames. Robert Stromberg went back into them and looked at the landscapes, the trees and the mountains and we were greatly influenced by that, and then I think the fourth source would be the original “Wizard of Oz” movie.
Q: Did you have to delete any scenes that could be on the DVD?
SR: There was so much that I had to leave out actually. I don’t think it’s going to show up on the DVD, but there’s a lot of backstory and really good, rich backstory that I had to leave out. The hardest thing I think I had to do on this picture was tell this ensemble story with these seven main characters and balance all their stories. There’s backstory when you come on, there’s a story of Glinda’s father that had been murdered beforehand. We come in the middle of a lie. Evanora is telling us that it was Glinda that did it. There’s so much intrigue, so I had a lot of really rich backstory with Glinda and the Master Tinker and a relationship to her father, for instance, that I was very sorry that I couldn’t put in the picture just because the thing got too long. I have other bits and pieces of other characters’ stories, too. Evanora gives a great performance with her sister. I just had to choose that which needed to be in there to keep the movie just slightly over two hours.
Q: How did you go about creating the character of Finley?
Zach Braff: It was really Sam and I. We found it together. When I first met him, and this was the most exciting thing, he had me at hello. He had me at “Will you meet with Sam Raimi?” I wanted to be able to work with him because I’m such a fan. When we met, he said, “I want to create this character together. He isn’t fully figured out yet. It’s important that he be Oz’s conscience.” He said, “I want to come to set and have you and James find this friendship and figure it out together.” And that’s what we did. I didn’t think on a movie of this scale that there’d be time to do something like that, but Sam made it a priority. James and I became friends, and Sam would allow us to riff a little bit and improv, and that’s where it came. Sam said, “I really want the animators to go off of your facial expressions.” I was very conscious all the time that there were these three video cameras usually on my face and body, even when it wasn’t my shot. You want to do good for the other actors, but normally when it’s not your take, you don’t always do it 100 percent. For me, I realized that those video cameras were on me all the time, so I really had to do it every single time as best as I could. Fortunately, the animators really ran with what I did and animated my facial expressions. Sam, do you want to comment in case I’ve left something out?
SR: That’s exactly how it happened. The only note I would change is the animators didn’t really run with what he did. Usually, it was the editor and myself would find them slightly straying from what he did and that was an effort to get back to it. And it’s not a straight translation. I mean, Zach really is a great actor and he has real emotion. That was our guide. That’s why we didn’t want to do motion capture, which is a modern technique like with “Avatar” where they put these dots that capture your motion and then through a computer, it translates it to your three dimensional avatar or puppet or monkey. But we didn’t want that. We wanted to capture the essence of what he had done if that makes any sense, so that’s why we asked to go through a human animator, so they would study the film and understand what that expression meant and they would go to the essence of it and recreate it. It was an artistic process.
ZB: Another thing I thought was cool about it, because I thought it was going to be motion capture too when I first got the role, was I remember seeing old Disney footage of animators studying baby deers when they were drawing Bambi, and it reminded me of that because Sam was like, “I don’t want to do the dots on the face. I want the animators to really study what your face does and then draw from that.”
Q: Which Oz character do you most identify with?
SR: God, I don’t know. I identify with all the good characters. I don’t identify with the Wicked Witch. I never understood the wizard in the first one. That’s part of the reason I was so interested in making this. How did he ever get in that situation? I guess the one I identify with most is Annie, maybe in the opening of the picture, because she’s wise and she’s found love and she understands the worth of love and the meaning of it. This poor sap who she’s hopelessly in love with doesn’t love her back. I really understand how she feels and feel bad for her, and I think I most identify with Annie, Glinda’s alter ego.
RW: But really, you’re the wizard. He is the wizard, right?
SR: Not me.
MW: I personally have a real affinity for The Cowardly Lion.
Q: Annie mentions a man named Gale. Is that an homage or hint that she could be Dorothy’s mom?
SR: That’s David Lindsay-Abaire’s tricky mind suggesting something like that so you would ask that question basically, trying to plant a seed to suggest that maybe. I don’t know if we ever talked about this, because I didn’t want it to influence anything, that maybe you became the mother of Dorothy. Did we talk about that?
MW: No, we never did.
SR: With that man, John Gale. I didn’t want to bring that up because it would be confusing, but that’s what he was subtly implying, that perhaps Annie went off and married John Gale and their daughter was Dorothy, and maybe Annie grew up to become Aunty Em. But that’s David Lindsay-Abaire always trying to weave some wild kind of tale.
Q: What’s it been like to promote this movie?
MW: I’ve actually found in some ways it’s not as labor intensive as doing a smaller film, because smaller movies don’t have the money to buy ads and put up posters, and this movie does. Also, the cast is so big so there’s a lot of people who can go out and talk about the film and service it in different ways. I actually have found that it’s not the same. It’s actually easier than promoting a small movie because small movies need you because they don’t have anything else.
Q: Michelle, how much did you turn to the original movie and how much was just on the page?
MW: Well, what I saw on the page was very different from the original film. I saw somebody who had the kind of spunk and vigor of a ‘30s, ‘40s screwball romantic comedy heroine. But, I really wanted to do that voice. I really wanted to speak in that high little lilting voice that she had. But Sam and I spoke very early on about it and he said something very smart, which is that there’s a reason that Glinda doesn’t go down the Yellow Brick Road in the original movie, and it’s because she’s fully formed. She doesn’t have anything that she’s looking for, and thus, she isn’t as relatable. We wanted to make a Glinda that was a little bit more human.
Q: How different is playing an old school witch versus a modern day witch?
RW: What is a modern day witch?
Q: Like in “Harry Potter” or “Beautiful Creatures.”
RW: Oh, I see. Old school witches… Michelle just mentioned ‘30s references, screwball comedy, and I feel like she has really screwball moments, very subtle but really clever and very funny. My mom used to love black and white movies, and we used to watch tons of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck movies. I sort of grew up with this in my imagination of female villains. They were just great female villains. I think it’s gone a little bit out of fashion recently to be like a bad dame, but I had lots of them in my memory. In the black and white days, they were all over the place. It’s only recently, since I think the ‘80s, that women have to be so terribly likeable. It’s exhausting, speaking personally, in film I mean.
Q: Do you have a special affinity for the wicked witches?
SR: No, I don’t like wicked witches. They scare me. I’m deliciously frightened by them, but I don’t have an affinity toward them.
Q: If we were to sync up Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to the film, would it also make sense?
SR: You’ve got to wait about four seconds for the needle drop and then it works perfectly.