I have a list in my head of my top ten favorite films of all time. Alongside feats of filmmaking such as Roshoman and Citizen Kane are a couple guilty pleasures like Airplane and one of Sam Raimi’s early works, Evil Dead 2. And you know what? Ramini has certainly come along way! Instead of working on a shoestring budget in the woods of Michigan, his newest film, Oz The Great and Powerful, had a block buster budget and A-list cast, and he was tackling one of the most iconic and beloved places in American film and literature, the Land of Oz.
We spoke to Sam Raimi about his new film, his cast and his vision, check out what he had to say right here:
What’s it like having the weight of the Oz on your shoulder?
Oh, I had a great sense of responsibility not to tread upon the good name and the beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz. That was my biggest fear. And it was a heavy responsibility. In fact I didn’t even wanna read the script. When I heard it was a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, I said, “I don’t wanna mess with that classic.” And so I didn’t read the script. And then a couple weeks later I was looking for a writer. And somebody said, “Read this. It’s a writing sample.”
So under that auspices I read the script. And I thought, “I’m falling in love with this story and this world and these characters.” And so I thought, “That’s why I gotta make this movie cause I feel uplifted by the end of this thing.” I love watching the main character learn how to become, you know, this selfish guy found a little bit of goodness in his heart and learned how to become this selfless individual. And that — and that could be really uplifting for the audience.
So it’s really those things that drove me to make it. And I thought, “If that’s really what I make the movie about, I won’t be treading on the good name of The Wizard of Oz at all cause it’s another positive story.”
How did you make your judgment call on what was going to be too scary and how to reign back the scary so that that it still was a child’s or a family film.
That’s something I was weighing all throughout the process. In the writing of the script I made sure there was no violence in the thing cause I really wanted to make it a family picture. And there really isn’t any violence in the thing. The worst it gets are these real scary baboons that come out of the mist where they go looking for our main characters so they hide in the cave. Or there’s a scary witch at the very end. But I thought, “I changed the makeup once or twice to make it a little less scary.”
But then I thought, when I think back on The Wizard of Oz, I remember thinking, “This is the sweetest movie I’ve ever seen. But it’s also the scariest.” It was the scariest. So I wanted to make it — I tried to find a line like you’re saying where it’s scary for the kids, but not so scary the parents think, “I shouldn’t have brought my child to see this.”
Just to the edge where the parents are about to take the kid away but the kid’s going, “No, let me stay.” So I was trying to find that line actually. And I thought, “If there’s no violence and good wins out. And then I think we should have a good scary witch and a good frightening moment with the baboon.” But I hope I found the line. I
No, (when) I started I wasn’t thinking about James. I had a long relationship with James and I really liked him very much. But I was thinking like Johnny Depp would play the part or maybe one or two other actors. And it didn’t work out for them. And then I heard that James was interested. So I thought, “I never considered James. But he has the qualities,” as I sat myself down and thought about it, that I needed. And that was good and bad qualities.
This was the story of a real heel. A cad. A two-timer. He’s not a good friend. He’s a very selfish individual. Yet he wants to be great. He wants to be something more. He just doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know what true greatness is. And through the love of this little girl who looks at him like a father and through a flying monkey who like a good friend demands he do the right thing. And wanting to become worthy of Glinda’s love, he grows as an individual. And finds a little bit of selflessness in himself.
In so doing becomes the great thing he always thought he could be. Never expecting that that was the route to become this great wizard. So James, as a young man, I had seen him be a little selfish. And a little into himself. And he had those failings. And then through the years as I worked with him I saw a generous spirit emerge working with the other actors.
I saw kindness, a consciousness form cause I knew him when he was like 21 all the way to I don’t know how old he is now. But I saw these good qualities emerge until he became a friend of mine, not just an actor and a director. And I thought, “Because I’ve seen this in his real life, he’s a good enough actor. I think we can make this work on screen.” That’s really what it was. And that’s what casting’s about for me. Finding the essence of the character in a person.
Sometimes a great actor comes in but they’re not the essence of the character. But James had all the qualities. And I’d seen a little bit of human growth within him in real life. So I thought he could portray this type of growth. The dramatic melodramatic growth onscreen in our picture.
Well I admire Evanora, Rachel Weisz’s character because she’s so nasty. And she doesn’t try and hide it. I mean she puts on illusions but she really digs who she is. And that’s really… it’s like wow! That’s like my mother, you know. (One of our gang asked, “is that on the record or off the record? ) No, it’s alright. My mother knows who she is.
I admire that about that character. But I think I love James Franco’s character. There’s so much I can identify with the — I can identify personally. Unfortunately with a character that’s more in Kansas than — than the guy he becomes. But I understand wanting to become a better person. I mean it’s a dream. Whether I’d ever have the courage of that character to do what he did I don’t know. But I can relate to the character.
I understand his failings and his simple desires and his, um, his — his low qualities. But I love the China Girl. She’s for me my sweetheart.
With the sets there was so much lushness and details. Did you go into it saying ‘I want this set to be so real for the actors to experience’ and become that or what was your thought process on that?
Well, once the look was decided by myself and the production designer of the entire production, then it came down to what are we gonna build and what would be just CGI? And yes, it was important for me to have real places for the actors to touch and see so they could ground the movie. Because it’s such a fantastical adventure, I really needed to ground it more than a regular drama with real human performances. We had to explain the emotions that we understand and can connect to.
So having them grounded was important. And that’s why we did have sets. But we also had sets because I wanted a very unique look in Chinatown, a unique look in Emerald City. I wanted the Land of Oz to be this uniquely fantastical place. The dark forest to be a particular type of scary, et cetera. So many worlds within this fantastic world. So I found because so much of the world is created by CG artists, if I could photograph a particular rock.
James Franco on that yellow brick road. Dappled sunlight happening on that yellow brick road, the CG artists — CGI artists that had to continue that world had to do just that. Just continue this look we filmed on set. With the lighting, the exposure, the detail. They don’t have to create it on their own because I thought I’d lose control of the look of the picture. So I wanted to really specifically always have some stylistic element on film that the artist’s job was to extend. Which is still a great artistic job, but at least it’s of a kind of a unique look that’s carried on.
How different was it working on this movie as opposed to other movies that you’ve done before?
Well the size of it was enormous. That took some getting used to. Because the Land of Oz is how Frank Baum wrote it has such impassible deserts, fantastical waterfalls, outrageous mountains and woods. We couldn’t really go and shoot Ireland and let it work for the green hills of Oz. Or we couldn’t shoot some great New Zealand landscape cause it just wasn’t outrageous and unique enough. So everything had to be created in the computer.
And working with the great production designer, Robert Stromberg, he did that by creating the smallest things first. The smallest blade of grass. What does it look like in Oz? What does the smallest blossom look like? And then multiplying by a thousand to see what a field might look like. And then working into building each individual tree to make it a unique thing. And everything had to be created. There was not a pocket watch that should have been, you know, manufactured by some Swiss company. No, no, it had to be an Oz watch. There’s not a vehicle. Every car — it had to be handcrafted. So the enormity of building a world was the most difficult job.
I love how you paid your respects to the original movie and portions of that was very nice to see. At the end I would like one more. So are we gonna get a sequel?
That’s very nice of you, thank you. I think that’s all up to the people of Disney Studios. Most probably the movie would have to make a lot of money for them. It would have to be critically acclaimed and the audience would have to want it. So that’s still way down the line. It’s all unknown right now, um, whether that would happen for the Disney people to make that decision.
Let’s hope so!
Photo Source: Walt Disney Studios