The making of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz” was shrouded in the kind of secrecy that would make the Wizard of Oz proud. The public didn’t get a chance to really see significant footage from the movie until sneak-preview clips were shown at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July 2012. What was known before the clips were shown for the first time was that the movie is an origin story explaining how con man/magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs became the Wizard of Oz.
The movie also shows how Oz first meets the three witches that have crucial effects on his life: Glinda the Good Witch (played by Michelle Williams), the Wicked Witch of the West, also known as Theodora (played by Mila Kunis) and the Wicked Witch of the East, also known as Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz). Here is what “Oz the Great and Powerful” director Sam Raimi, Williams, Kunis and “Oz the Great and Powerful” producer Joe Roth said when they gathered for a Comic-Con press conference for “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
Sam, with the first three “Spider-Man” movies, you showed that you have a great way of being able to stay true to the source material while still keeping the Sam Raimi touch, whether it’s your camera work or the sense of humor you inject in it. How were you able to bring those elements into Oz while keeping it the Oz we know from the books or movies?
Raimi: As opposed the camera doing a lot of gymnastics for thrill and chill’s sake, we’re really trying to describe the fantastic world of Oz. When the camera is moving, those more dramatic types of movements are to show the depth of a canyon in Oz, or the height of a waterfall, or what it’s like to soar with Glinda in her bubbles above the beautiful environments that were created by our production designer Robert Stromberg. So the camera’s movement is used to describe the beauty and the fantastic qualities of this impossible place.
And there is a sense of humor, but I think it comes from the whimsical nature of [L. Frank] Baum’s great worlds and characters. We have a main character, [played by] James Franco, who is a little selfish as the story begins. As he runs up against those he admires — at some point, it’s primarily Glinda — his shortcomings are often a source of the humor.
Sam, after doing “Drag Me to Hell,” which was a great movie but wasn’t a big hit, did you take any lessons away from that in doing this larger tableau type of storytelling?
Raimi: I learn a lot from every movie that I make. I learn what not to do. I make a thousand mistakes, and I’m painfully aware of them. It’s not like I have to recognize, “What was my mistake here?” I’m always aware of where the wrong is.
So moving forward, I try to take that in, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I went forward with this picture with those thousands of lessons from that picture. But I can’t think of [anything] specifically. The type of film that film, that dark comedy, was just a completely different thing than this film.
This is a very straightforward family picture. I would say it’s a great, classically Disney type of movie. And it really is all about these characters and their interactions with each other, the friendships they make, how some characters are sinners, how they hurt others and how those sins can grow.
It’s about finally recognizing that the things you do in this world have consequences, and how to be the best person you can be is the story of this film. It’s about recognizing the mistakes we’ve made and moving past them, and growing into something better than you were when you started out. The most exciting type of story for me is the one with a little bit of character growth, and I think James Franco’s character has a little bit of growth in this story.
Michelle and Mila, what is it like working with a cinematic genius like Sam Raimi? And Sam, what was it like working with two of the most beautiful women in the world?
Raimi: Wow! It was great to work with them because they’re great actresses. As beautiful as they are, that would simply just become meaningless if they weren’t great actresses, and that’s what we needed for the story. They both have very complex roles and complex interactions with the other characters in the piece, and they just did a beautiful job performing. It’s very funny and realistic, and they’re a pleasure to watch. And yes, they are not hard on the eyes.
Kunis: Sam is fantastic. I don’t know where to begin. I would do craft service for Sam, if he asked me to. He is probably one of the funniest, sweetest, most gentle human beings that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Aside from being incredibly talented, he is so sincere about the projects that he chooses and the people that he casts.
He’s so supportive of everybody around him — of his crew, most importantly, and of his cast — that he’s incredibly inspiring to work with. You go to work and you want to make him happy. I think that having that every day on a 17-hour long day is the greatest gift you can give anybody.
Williams: You got the cinematic genius part right. I have never made a movie like this before. I’ve never made such a big movie before. I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know if the things that interest me and the things that concern me, Sam would have time for or patience for.
And not only did he have time and patience for them, at the beginning when we were rehearsing, but he had time and patience for them on the 17th hour of the sixth day. I found him to be a collaborator and a friend and a confidant and a partner in everything. I felt like it was a very holistic experience for me. It was a real melding of my work life and my personal life, my film family and my real family.
Mila, you’re playing a character that has been represented in film, as well as in animation, so many different times. Did you pay homage to any of those versions, or are you putting your own spin on it?
Kunis: I don’t know. I wish I could answer that question. No, I wasn’t paying homage because you can’t. I don’t want to give away exactly what my character is. You could never replicate, nor would you ever want to.
She’s so iconic and so fantastic, in her own right. When I tell you that I was scared going into it, it’s an understatement. Truly, I was frightened, because what you do? The only thing that I could do was try to be as honest to the character as I possibly could.
Sam gave me the gift of a back story, as to why she is the way that she is. And so I went in playing her as real as possible. As long as you believe and I believe it, hopefully everybody else will believe it.
Stepping into the world of Oz, obviously you’re in the shadow of one of the most beloved movies ever. Is there extra pressure to live up to the original “The Wizard of Oz”?
Raimi: We all love “The Wizard of Oz” movie, and we were very careful not to tread on it. We were careful to respect it. But ours is really a different story. It’s a story that leads up to “The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s a story of how the wizard came from Kansas to the Land of Oz, and how a slightly selfish man became a slightly more selfless man. And it’s the story of how he became the wizard. It’s a fantastic story that answers that question, in case any of you had that question. But it’s not remaking “The Wizard of Oz,” so it wasn’t a problem that we had to deal with. We just nodded lovingly toward it, and went ahead with telling our own story.
Our producer Joe Roth was a great aide in that. He has a lot of experience in creating fantastic worlds. He did the great Tim Burton picture “Alice [in Wonderland].” He and our production designer Robert Stromberg really created an original vision of what Baum’s work could be on the big screen.
I wish we could have used the Emerald City from the original “The Wizard of Oz.” We didn’t legally have the right to do that, or use the ruby red slippers, or a lot of other iconic elements from the 1939 film. But was okay in the end because we really were trying to tell our own story. It’s an original story, nodding lovingly toward “The Wizard of Oz." Joe, do you care to answer that question?
Roth: You answered it pretty well. This is the first time we’re talking about the film, and there’s a lot of curiosity about it. None of us would try to remake the 1939 film. The question in later Baum books was “Who was that guy?” In the 1939 movie, he’s in it for, like, three minutes. That seemed like an irresistible place to start. So in the parlance of movies, it’s a prequel.
Sam, who is Bruce Campbell in “Oz and Great and Powerful”? And will Ted Raimi also be in it?
Raimi: Yes, my little brother Ted plays a tiny part, otherwise my mother would have my head. And Bruce Campbell is in the movie. He plays a bit part because he was busy shooting his TV show [“Burn Notice”].
He took a day off and came down and just did a tiny little, few-line role for us. It’s a tiny little cameo. He’s really fun to watch in the picture. He did a great job. I can’t tell you who he is though. You’ve got to see the picture.
Sam, every film is definitely a new challenge and an evolution for you, what sort of technological challenges did you have to overcome with this film?
Raimi: This was the first picture that I ever had the opportunity to shoot in 3-D, so I had to learn a lot about the process of 3-D: how you light it and shoot it, what works and what doesn’t and what the convergence is of the different lenses. I had to, technologically, learn quite a bit. And then there’s a whole language of cutting that’s different in 3-D.
Your eye takes a little while to get used to one particular convergence, and you can’t quite cut as freely as you’re used to, nor do you want to, I found. I’m still learning about it. You don’t want to be focusing on somebody in the great distance. And then, in the next cut, come to the foreground again. It takes a moment for the audience to feel comfortable with where that convergence is, so it changes the cutting and the way the shots are constructed. So I had to learn a lot in this picture technologically bringing the Land of Oz to life.
Roth: I think one of the things Sam had to learn was patience. This cast, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Michelle was busy promoting “[My Week With] Marilyn.” She was off doing that three or four times.
Mila was doing “Ted” and was back and forth. James was getting whatever degree he was getting. And Rachel was doing “[The] Bourne [Legacy]” at the same time. We actually shot half of her part, and then she went off to do “Bourne.” It all worked out and they all came back.
Mila and Michelle, what did you love most about the original 1939 “Wizard of Oz” film? And what did you get excited about when you were exposed to the real L. Frank Baum mythology?
Kunis: One of the first films I ever saw in the States, in 1991, was “The Wizard of Oz.” It was probably the first movie, as a kid, that I truly gravitated towards and loved so much so that my parents, in the process of me learning English, decided to get me the “Return to Oz” book as my very first book to read in English — not a picture book, but the real book. So I do have a weird connection to the original “Wizard of Oz,” including the original books. That was the first book that I read.
Williams: My association with the movie is probably like everyone’s association with the movie. You see it over and over again when you’re a kid. So to think that for this moment in time, you get to walk in the footsteps of this very beloved character, it feels like a real honor.
And then to get to know the world and the language and the characters more deeply, after you read the books, there’s a lot in the books that’s used in this movie, but there’s also a screenwriter’s imagination at work. But I did read them very carefully and with a highlighter, underlining things about Glinda and turns of phrases that she might use or how she would wear her hair. I found it very useful.
Sam, how did you get your mind around doing a film like “Oz the Great and Powerful,” since it’s so different from anything you’ve ever done before?
Raimi: You’re right, it is absolutely different than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve never made a family picture. I guess you could call the “Spider-Man” films family pictures, but those are basically action love stories. This [“Oz the Great and Powerful”] was just a completely different, otherworldly experience for me. I had never tried it before, and I didn’t know if I could do it.
But I so loved the screenplay and was so moved by so many different points. I had the goal of telling an uplifting story, and what’s uplifting about it is that the character learns to be a better person. Those things seemed right to me, and it felt like a great challenge.
I was excited by it and wanted to see the movie. More than anything, I think that’s what gives you the strength to think you can direct a movie. If you want to see it and you understand the characters, I think that’s what it is for me. That’s how it was for me, reading this.
And I didn’t understand all of the characters completely. It’s a learning process with the actors on set. But when you read the script and you think you have an understanding of the characters and how to direct the actors, that’s all it is, really. If you know the characters, you can direct it. That’s what gives you strength, and that’s what told me that I’d like to direct this picture.
How do you think James Franco has evolved as an actor since the last time you worked with him? Do you think that what he brought to the table for this character may have been affected by the fact that he is a filmmaker now?
Raimi: Yes. He’s a great collaborator, like these two ladies are … For me, James was very much less collaborative when I first started working with him. He was a real serious actor. I think he still had his James Dean hat on, and he was doing it his way.
So I worked with him with certain limitations because we couldn’t communicate about everything as deeply as we eventually did on this picture. I don’t know if that’s a result of James’ growth as an individual, or wether a director just has a much deeper relationship with their leading man and leading ladies than they do with the best friend character he played [in the “Spider-Man” movies].
But either way, what I detected was a great growing sense of openness, collaboration and patience. That’s what a filmmaker has to have buckets of. Now that James is a filmmaker, I think he understands all the things that go into a shot, and he’s developed that patience.
What can you say about the flying monkeys in “Oz the Great and Powerful”?
Raimi: In the teaser that they showed [at Comic-Con], the Wicked Witch has an army of flying baboons, and we saw a glimpse of them. Our first animation was completed on them, but we’re actually still developing them. The teaser demanded that they come out right now, so this is the first glimpse of them, but we tried to keep them a little darker than I would’ve otherwise. She commands them to rule for all of Oz. There’s also a flying monkey in the story that’s different from the baboons. It’s a nice flying monkey, so don’t worry.
Michelle, is this your first movie your daughter will get to see? Do you think she’ll
Williams: She’s seen one other movie that I’ve made. She saw a very small movie that I made — and I think she was one of the only people that saw it — called “Meek’s Cutoff.” And she sat through it.
But this is certainly the one she’s the most excited about that I’ve ever been involved in. She spent six or seven months on this set. She came to visit every day, and it was a real playground for her. Sam will say she was my most special and honored guest. She sat behind the monitor.
Kunis: She is the sweetest girl on the planet, you guys. You have no idea. [Michelle] does a wonderful job raising her.
Raimi: Yes, she did. [She’s an] angel.
Kunis: She’s really, really good.
Williams: Thanks, you guys!
Sam, why do you think production companies tend to make more remakes, prequels and sequels? And what do you think that does to movies as an art form?
Raimi: Well, I only know what I read in the trade papers, and they say that not sure things but they’re less gambles than original work, and the audience seems to enjoy going to them. When they like a character, they want to return to it. There’s a natural desire to see a character they like come back again in additional stories. That’s more of a producer question. Joe, will you take that one?
Roth: We don’t have a lot of time. Sequels are easier are sell. [Original films] are a real risk that generally take filmmakers or a movie star to open. These movies we tend to get involved in are every expensive movies, and you hope that you get it right. These are stories that people all over the world, whatever language they speak have some kinship to it.
The stage musical “Wicked” is another “Wizard of Oz” original story. Did “Wicked” have any influence on “Oz the Great and Powerful” screenplay?
Roth: We used Baum’s books as a road map, and we wanted to stay within the thesis of “Who is that guy behind the curtain?” We wanted to make that the really central idea.
Michelle, since “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the biggest movie that you’ve done so far, in terms of the movie’s budget, what was the biggest day-to-day adjustment in working on a movie of this size?
Williams: There were more choices on the lunch table. I honestly mean that.
Roth: I think you were surprised that it wasn’t that different.
Williams: I was really surprised because this isn’t my territory. I haven’t made a movie this big before, and I was worried about whether I would fit or feel comfortable. In rehearsals, I said to Sam, “This is the most unique experience I’ve ever had because I’m having so much fun!”
He made this environment where he made you feel like all your ideas were welcome, and he really listened to them and really took them on. It was such a collaborative experience and I just had a blast. It felt as close-knit as the very small movies that I’ve made.
Mila and Michelle, what are some of the differences in acting styles when you’re working with green screen or 3-D?
Kunis: You know, I was a little surprised at the lack of green screen that was used in this film. As far as the aspect ratio of things, it was ultimately blue screen when you’d look very far into the distance. But in regard to the difference between an independent film and a film like this, it’s the sets.
The sets were so elaborate and so detailed, and they were incredibly tangible. The big, gigantic, oversized flowers that you’ll see were there. When you see the film, you’ll understand. As much green screen as there was, you didn’t really need to use that much imagination because it really was built up, in front of you.
So what I thought was going to be difficult, it actually required very little of it. They built magical sets. The Emerald City was a set. Glinda’s castle was a set. Whimsy Woods was a set. The river.
There were so many things. There’s a waterfall sequence that was real. It’s insane what they were able to put into a stage. I think that that’s probably where most of the money went.
Roth: In Hollywood, there’s a stage of a certain size. We were in Detroit. We had seven stages. Each stage was twice the size of a Hollywood stage. So they were all filled with enormous sets. If you thought it was all green screen, it was gigantic, fully realized sets.
Kunis: It was truly magical. It really, really was.
Michelle, will there ever be a “Dawson’s Creek” reunion in some form?
Raimi: You were the fan favorite on “Dawson’s Creek.”
Williams: The fan favorite?
Raimi: I never saw “Dawson’s Creek.”
Williams: I would very happily do a reunion show, but I don’t know what it would be. My character died in the end, so there are certain limitations for me. I would either have to come back as a ghost, or be shot through a lot of gauzy, hazy light as my 19-year-old self.
But I’ve always said that I would really love to. I think, independently, we’ve all been saying that. At some point, I hope that it does happen. I hope that it’s a way to honor the past and what a big deal it was for the four or five of us, and what a big deal it was for people who loved and watched it.
For more info: "Oz the Great and Powerful" website