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Down the Yellow Brick Road: I Went to Oz and It Was Awesome

OZ_TRIPTYCH_DEBUT-1_thumbI have been to Paris, I have been to Rome, I’ve visited temples in the middle of Bali, but none of that could prepare me for what I saw in a suburbs of Detroit. One of the most gorgeous and luscious places I’d ever set foot in was a gigantic warehouse which housed the stunning sets of Walt Disney Pictures upcoming Oz: The Great and Powerful.

Here we were, a gaggle of bloggers from the west coast, in our winter coats and boots, in an expansive hangar that used to house a General Motors factory. And we stood out. Not because we had notebooks and voice recorders clutched in our hands, and we had yet acclimated to the chillier climate,  it was because we were not Munchkins, not donning large handlebar mustaches or wearing oddly shaped costumes. In this world created by Sam Raimi and his team of artisans, craftsmen and creative geniuses, we were the ones that stood out. Everywhere you looked there were extras all dolled up in their Oz-ish garb, there were more little people assembled than I’d ever seen in real life, bringing back memories of the Lollipop Guild.

But among the dozens and dozens of extras short and tall were movie stars, big movie stars at that. At work when we visited were James Franco (who plays the wizard) and Michelle Williams (who plays Glinda). And then 12-year-old Joey King (who plays China Girl) and Zach Braff (who plays Finley), were on the set too but they were just there to hang out and bask in Sam Raimi’s glory, the down-to-earth, charming and ridiculously talented director of Oz: The Great and Powerful.

On our trip to Oz we visited with the cast, met with the production team and interviewed the one and only Sam Raimi.

Come with me down the yellow brick road right here:

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  • The Production Designer 1 of 10
    The Production Designer
    Do you know the name Robert Stromberg? If not, you will. He is already an accomplished production designer who has two Oscars on his mantle. He started out as a matte painter and a visual effect designer and got his big break when he was hired as the production designer and art director for Avatar and guess what? FIrst time in that role he won an Oscar. He then got his second production designer gig for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. And guess what? He won an Oscar. Oz: The Great and Powerful is his third film and odds are very much in his favor that he will, yet again, win an Oscar. I could wax poetic about how amazing, lush and glorious the art deco influenced sets for Oz are. But that would take some of the fun out of it. You really should go to see the film yourself just for the dreamlike landscapes. It is fantasy at it's best, the stuff of dreams.

    I was so impressed with Mr. Stromberg's vision and aesthetic that I had to ask him if he planned on directing a film himself. In the midst of a bad cold, but still at work, he said he would love to and implied that it could be sooner than later. And the answer was sooner. He is currently directing his first feature. A BIG feature. He is directing Walt Disney Studios upcoming epic Maleficent starring the one and only Angelina Jolie. Not too shabby for a first timer!

  • The Costumes 2 of 10
    The Costumes
    I thought I had died and gone to vintage clothing heaven, and for someone who spent all her teen years scouring through thrift stores for cool old clothing, that is saying a lot. In the enormous wardrobe department, there were racks and racks of costumes, in all different muted tones and jeweled hues. Along with the racks were boxes of shoes marked with things like "Emerald City size 6 1/2." There were costumes in various lengths, from suits for the Munchkins - which hung short on the racks- to extremely long coats for the tall and lean Winkie Guards.

    It was all overseen by costumer Gary Jones who has worked on a whole slew of films from Spider Man 2 to Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to being co-costumer for The English Patient. Jones looked to the 1890s to the 1930s and the photographs of Dorthea Lange for inspiration. But the subtle hues and simpler tones stop for the witches whose beautifully crafted costumes reflect an old-world glamor accented with feathers, sequins and interesting textures and colors. The costumes for the females stars were sectioned off in an area he referred to as "our witch collection," a collection that you can tell will inspire not just many a Halloween costume but mainstream fashion (oh how much I would love to slip on Evanora's gorgeous gown!).

  • The Make-Up 3 of 10
    The Make-Up
    Howard Berger is a god among film make-up aficionados. He and his team have done special effects make-up on so many films that your hand actually gets tired when scrolling down his credits on IMDB (which range from Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III to Water For Elephants.) But a notable thing about his resume is his close collaboration with director Sam Raimi. He worked on Drag Me to Hell, Army of Darkness to my personal favorite, Evil Dead 2. Plus he has seven, yes seven Academy Awards. And he'll probably get an eighth for his work on Oz: Great and Powerful. On the set Howard Berger and his team were busy, like crazy busy. They did applications on not just over 300 munchkins but had a complex Wicked Witch to put together (it was a challenge making one certain actress look hot and green).
  • The Props 4 of 10
    The Props
    Now, usually a visit to the prop department in just like visiting a junk shop: a lamp here, a sword there, a miniature Statue of Liberty in the corner. It is not usually a time of "oohs" and "awww" and "wows." But when you are working on a film with a budget of $200 million and a crew of creative masterminds who want to make sure that not a single detail is overlooked, then you end up with Russell Bobbitt's prop room, the prop master for Oz: The Great and Powerful.

    The amount of detail on the props was astounding. Some examples; there are Emerald City coins that they had made that were embossed with text saying, "The world is filled with wonder" and "in giving we receive." The man whose image appears on the coins is the one and only Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz series. Then there were the jewels. A girly highlight for me was slipping on a gorgeous 14k gold ring with a red stones. A ring that I did not want to take off and a ring that cost them thousands to have custom made. That a prop piece of jewelry could be so impressive (and expensive) shows how well thought out, accurate and true the filmmakers were with the look and feel of the props. Along with the rings and coins and knick-knacks were things like a Rube Goldberg inspired dynamite machine and perfectly balanced magic wands. I got to hold Glinda's wand and I have to say, I did indeed feel magical. I could have stayed in there all day.

  • The Puppeteer 5 of 10
    The Puppeteer
    When I was a kid I played with puppets. But they were more of the sock variety. Master puppeteer Phillip Huber takes this playful pastime into a whole 'nother level.

    Dressed in a skin tight spandex like suit, in a blue hue that can be removed in post production, Mr. Huber (of Being John Malkovich fame), brought the marionette China Girl to life. Instead of just plugging the character in via the magic of CGI, Huber controlled the 18" puppet and had her 'act' in all the scenes in the film. I may be rather jaded at times and don't often fall for the pretend, but Philip Huber made this little porcelain looking doll come to life with a huge amount of fluidly and grace. At one point during our visit, Robert Stromberg escorted a fellow blogger and I right in the middle of a scene and we were lucky enough to get a upclose glimpse of James Franco interacting with China Girl, and I can see how Franco could get lost in the scene. The man standing there in his skintight blue suit completely disappears and it's just the wizard talking to China Girl. It was fascinating enough to see in real time, I can't wait to see it on the screen.

  • The Glinda: Michelle Williams 6 of 10
    The Glinda: Michelle Williams
    Michelle Williams had a very special guest with her on the set. Her daughter Matilda. Between takes, dressed in her full Glinda the Good Witch regalia, Michelle would come, sit, giggle and chat with her 6-year-old daughter. It was adorable. Matilda, as any child in her position would be, was grinning from ear to ear. Her mother was Glinda! How could she not! After the day's shooting, Michelle changed into a leopard print sweatshirt, jeans, oversized red scarf and black ankle boots and joined us journalists in one of the complex's conference rooms. She was nervous, obviously not comfortable with this part of her job. She is more an actress than a spokesperson. During the interview, she often tugged nervously at her perfectly shaped lips while she coyly answered our questions:

    How great is it to step on set and literally be a fairy-tale figure for a bunch of kids?
    
It's the best. There's nothing better than making kids happy and seeing little girls' faces light up just at the sight of me.
    Are you going to keep the tiara?
    
I think that tiara has a price tag that I couldn't afford!
    How much inspiration did you get from the original Glinda?
    
We talked about her a lot. But Sam (Raimi_ wanted to shy away from anything that referenced her too heavily. He wanted our very own Glinda. So there's little nods in a few costumes and a couple of lines. But she's a starting-off point. I just think of her as where Glinda started. When you meet Glinda in the original Wizard of Oz, she is omniscient, she has a kind of calm. But we like to think that that's where she wound up and this is kind of more where she began.
    What's the chemistry like on set with you and James Franco, and Mila Kunis? What's the relationship like?
    
The chemistry? The sexual chemistry? (she coyly giggled) Let me tell you. What's the chemistry like? It's a ball.
    This film is quite different from your other recent movies, like Meek's Cutoff and Take This Waltz.
    
There have been a lot of first times for me on this movie. The imaginary world. You see a big blue screen, but of course you won't see a big blue screen. You're going to see things flying, and you're going to see a sun setting, and you're going to see flowers turning. You're going to see things! But often you're not really able to have the real thing there when you do it. Most of the movies that I make tend to be smaller, and sort of more intimate. It's just a smaller crew. And I like things feeling like a family, so I've just tried to make this feel like a really big family. But it's a happy one because Sam's the dad, and it all comes down from there.
    Could you talk about the first time you walked on the yellow brick road?
    
That was a momentous occasion, I have to say. I grabbed somebody's arm, and I said, "Wait a second, stop! We're on the yellow brick road!" I have been thinking about stealing a little piece of the yellow brick road. But how many people get a chance to say that? It's a part of cinema. It goes beyond cinema; it's part of cultural history.
    What is your strongest memory as a fan of the 1939 film?
    
The munchkins. What do I remember the most? Well, I was in a school play, or a community theater play of Wizard of Oz, and I played a lullaby league munchkin, so I'm really drawn to them.
    Are you excited at the prospect of being a strong character who's integral to the plot and can be someone who young girls in the theater can look up to?
    
As the mother of an almost 6-year-old daughter, I'd say absolutely.
    What has her impression been of seeing this world?
    
I'd have to let her tell you. (but seeing her daughter so giddy on the set said it all).
    Are you prepared for the going to Disneyland in the future and having someone who looks just like you?
    
I don't know; they just get me here to act! They don't tell me any of this doll, park, ride business!
    What has doing such a very large film taught you about the craft of acting that you didn't expect it to?
    
 I guess I didn't realize it was this big! Sam can situate himself inside of any character and have the most in-depth conversation from that character's point of view about how they would behave in a scene. I would say, it's up there with the most collaborative environments I've ever worked on. And I got to make Blue Valentine, which was just two actors being allowed to do anything they wanted and follow any impulse at any time, no matter how ridiculous, insane, upsetting, whatever it was. But like I was saying before, I've had to flex my imagination in a way that it almost feels like a muscle that was sort of getting underdeveloped or something. And also some of the shots that we've done, we've done really long tracking shots that involve crowds and . . . you know, you land in your bubble, and you walk through a crowd, you're greeting the crowd, you're saying your lines to James, you're walking up the stairs, you're in a long dress, you can't trip on your dress, you have to keep your wand in your left hand, you're still talking to James, and then you're relating to people, and then you're coming up to the stairs and then you turn around . . . and it's all in one shot, and it's like a three-and-a-half or four-minute take, and it was so exhausting after that. I was like, "Woo! I gotta get back in the theater!" Like, the movies that I make they wouldn't have the capability, the budget, the crane to make that kind of shot. So stamina, endurance, imagination, those things are coming into play. And it's always nice to get better in areas that you're a little weak, so I'm enjoying it, and I find it as challenging as any other movie that I've made.

  • The Wizard: James Franco 7 of 10
    The Wizard: James Franco
    I'm in awe of James Franco. Not just because of his roles in projects like Freaks and Geeks and 127 Hours, but that he is just so crazily active, engaged and living in the NOW. He goes from starring on General Hospital (as a performance art statement) to writing a book, to enrolling in classes at NYU. He's like an unstoppable creating machine. But on the set of Oz, he looked tired. Very tired. But he compensates for his apparent lack of sleep with a steady and sure focus. On the set we could spy on him studying a book intensely between tacks (Into America's Dream Dump : a Postmodern Study of the Hollywood Novel by Bruce Chipman). Mr. Franco took a few minutes between set ups to hundle in a dark corner of the set with us and we talked Oz with an actor who did not seem too thrilled to break character.

    On his costume:
    
Oz is, in the beginning, he is not the most successful magician so these are the clothes from Kansas and it's a way to set up his attraction to wealth, but really kind of a drive to pull himself out the poverty of his early life. I guess the story is he grew up on a farm and his father struggled to make ends meet and so Oz's life is at least in the beginning is motivated by a need to better his economic state.
    On his journey to Oz:
    
I guess in the sense that we play with the idea of Oz being a magician in traveling show so he's not what I guess we would call a real wizard who could make lightning shoot out of his fingers. But then he comes to a land where people are actually performing magic and so there is this constant tension between real wizards and false wizards.
    On what it was like to walk down the yellow brick road the first time.
    
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 actually was a book reader when I was younger and I think the first books I read on my own where the 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, in a similar way, with Ginsburg when I was a little older I read him and then got to play Ginsberg (Howl), this is a similar experience. It's also great because Oz is such an established place in the collective imagination, yes there's a danger of like ruining peoples expectations or their idea of Oz but I think that the spirit here is right and the intentions are right so I think that they are going to capture what people kind of think of Oz while still adding this great spirit. But it also gives as this freedom to make a movie that otherwise might be slightly childish but because it's now the original 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.

  • Joey King and Zach Braff 8 of 10
    Joey King and Zach Braff
    You know what was weird. Sitting on the soundstage and seeing Dr. John Dorian giving bear hugs to Ramona. That is Zach Braff of Scrubs being all cuddly with his co-star Joey King of Ramona and Beezus fame. In the film, Joey King voices China Girl and Zach Braff plays Finley, a flying monkey. But this was not some "let's throw the talent in the voice over studio when the movie is all shot," type thing. Joey and Zach were on the set for all their characters scenes, lending their voices in real time so the actors could react appropriately. And the brother/sister bond the two seemed to have run deep. Joey had T-P'ed Zach's voice over booth (a small dark area with a monitor and headphones) and she had posted a big Ramona and Beezus poster on his wall saying, "to my #1 fan." While in Joey's booth there was a promotional 8 x10 of Zach from Scrubs. The two really embraced the film with Zach Braff just hanging around the set on his days off and Joey spending time in a customized school room where she kept up with her studies when not delivering her lines. They both seemed like they were having the time of their lives.

    We met with the energy filled Joey King, who was so sweet, personable, and adorable and very well spoken for a 12-year-old girl.
    On What Character She Plays:
    I play two characters.  When Oz in Kansas, I play a little wheelchair girl. I meet Oz while he's doing a magic show. She asks him a favor that he can't return, really. Then I play China Girl, which is my main role. I play a little two-foot tall girl. She's really cute. She's really sassy. Oz just kind of takes her in and becomes an adopted father to her.

    You did "Ramona & Beezus", which was very grounded in reality. How exciting is it to step into the land of Oz?
    Joey King: It's really cool to say that I can walk on the yellow brick mom. My mom, whenever she steps on the yellow brick road goes, "Oooh! I'm on the yellow brick road!" I feel the same way since I saw the original "Wizard of Oz" movie. It's really exciting.

    On How She Got the Role and Swear Jars?
    My mom got the script for it and I had an audition for it. I had a callback for a screen test where they were doing it on the set, filming. I met Sam, the director. It kind of came after me but I also came after it. I'm really happy that I get to work on it. I would have been so bummed if I didn't get hired to work on it. I'm so glad I am! The set is so friendly and cool and I'm the only kid on set. It's very different working with all adults. I have a swear jar so that, if they have a potty mouth, I make them pay. That's what it's like being on set with adults.

    How much money have you made so far?
    In the swear jar? I don't know. I haven't counted. But the piggy bank's name is Dirty Word Deanna. I try to make people pay up as frequently as I can because she gets hungry. Who swears the most?
    That's a really good question. I don't know. There's a lot of swearers. Sometimes they get off easy and they don't pay but K.C. [Hodenfeld] has a down payment, so he's good for awhile. He put in 20 bucks.

    Zach Braff isn't just an actor, he is also a director. So he comes to the set not just to do his job but to learn, hence why he comes and hangs out on his days off. We talked to Zach about his role and being in awe of Sam Raimi.

    On his character and collaborating with Sam:

    In the world of Oz I'm an animated monkey and I'm Oz's sidekick, so when , it's my first time doing , I mean I did Chicken Little, but that was in an animated movie, so this is my first time doing an animated character in a live action movie and there are times when you don't necessarily have to be there to be shot, so there are times when he is like "Hey…" He emailed me, "I want to find a place to keep the character of Finley alive in this sequence, so will you come by tomorrow?" And we went up to editing and he kind of showed me a sequence and he's just so amazingly collaborative. He's like "Where do you think Finley… What should Finley be doing in this sequence, because I haven't really figured it out yet and I'm worried that he might be missing from this action sequence." So we went up to editing and he showed me a sequence and it was really cool and we just kind of talked about some places where we could kind of keep the character of Finley alive during this courtyard sequence. So that's what we do. Working with him is just so unbelievable, because he's the most collaborative filmmaker I have ever met.

    On being awe on the production and how calm Sam is:
    I remember when I made my movie, the stress of a 2.5 million dollar movie. Seeing this scale and how he's always calm. I mean maybe he's freaking out in his brain, but he is just so kind. I mean you could ask the office PAs and they will tell you he is the nicest man. I mean no matter who you are on this set, if you're a background person, if you're an office PA, if you're the cinematographer, he is just the kindest and sweetest man and genuinely interested in what people think. You know some people are trying to be collaborative, like "Okay, what do you think?" "Okay, I'm dismissing it right away." You will see him talk to Joey King, who is twelve, and just completely and honestly listen to her thoughts which is so smart, because isn't she one of the target ages of the audience? A, she's a very precocious and smart girl, but also she is like the audience you know? So I really have learned so much from watching him. He really deals with it all with a lot of patients and calmness.

    I mean I really enjoy Sam so much. I'm looking forward to being his friend, not just his monkey.

  • The Director: Sam Raimi 9 of 10
    The Director: Sam Raimi
    Sam Raimi has come a long way from directing his first big feature The Evil Dead. But the apple, as they say, does not fall far from the tree. Sam Raimi was thrilled to be shooting Oz: The Great and Powerful in his native Michigan. He was in his element both of the set and off.

    Mr. Raimi is casual, down-to-earth and seems very grounded, especially for a man in charge of such an epic and monumental undertaking. Wearing a slightly wrinkled suit, he always directs while wearing a suit, Raimi talked to us about getting the film the green light, Frank Baum and the challenge of not including those iconic ruby red slippers.

    On getting the green light.
    No, it was a very easy process to get this picture into production. Joe Roth was the producer. Disney had been developing the script with Joe Roth and his company, along with Mitchell Kapner, at the time, and they really liked it. I think they must have thought it was a very "Disney" type of picture, whatever that means. I know that 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. 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 aboard the picture that they had an intention to make it. I told them very early on, after working on the script for a couple 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.

    On the source material:
    Well, when I came to the project, I had never read any of Baum's work and I've only read 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. This is very strange, I didn't want the book to mess up the movie for me, this is where I was at. But then, after I read the screenplay, which I loved, I started to read the books and appreciate Baum's work. I was so surprised at how exactly [the movie] The Wizard of Oz was his first book. 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 even more than the ones I read, he would go back and talk about the wizard. There's a little bit about the wizard in the first one, a little bit about the wizard in three and four. He went back and said, "Here's how the wizard got here and this was his backstory." So what the writer did was he took all those elements that were given to the audience in later books that he's kind of rearranged. Not "kind of," he put them back in chronological order of what happened to the wizard, 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 that was talked about, may have been referenced. He's had to fill in the blanks. So, when I read the screenplay, it was never a faithful adaptation of any of the books. It was the writer piecing together what Baum had given him, and then he had to fill in a tremendous amount of blanks.

    On the original movie and not using the ruby slippers:

    Yeah, it's the movie that I love. That's what I fell in love with and what terrified me and exhilarated me. 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 any way. But I read the script and it was a love poem to that movie, or those books, that I didn't know at the time. I felt that it was someone who so admired the movie and they were trying to enhance it and, for me, it never took away. And, I also thought, nothing could ever take away from that movie. It's so brilliant and enduring. Yes, I wanted to honor the movie.

    As far as "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 that going into this project, we shouldn't mess with the yellow-brick road. The image the audience has in their mind from the movie is so powerful, they don't need anyone to reinvent it for them. It's fine to tell other stories using it, 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 ingrained in our minds. I don't want the audience to see a story about New York and think, "That's not New York, though."

    However, just legally, we're unable to recreate the images from the film, which is a shame. Because it's really all about honoring that film and the books. More the film, in my opinion. But, we just had to. So I just got over and thought, "The audience is so sharp. They don't need that." I wish I could have used the imagery from the original film to tell those stories about the characters earlier in their lives. We're not able to. So it was something we had to get over.

  • The Yellow Brick Road 10 of 10
    The Yellow Brick Road
    One of the most amazing things was standing, walking and wandering along one of the most iconic roads ever, the yellow brick road. It's not the same road that Judy Garland skipped upon, but the power of these simple yellow bricks can not be understated, especially when you are the presence of a new classic in the making.

    Above are the journalists who went on this journey with me, a trip I will never ever forget. (I'm the blond in the middle - the third from the right).

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Oz: The Great and Powerful opens nationwide on March 8th, check out the newest trailer below.

Read more from Sunny Chanel right here.

 

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