Sam Raimi Talks Pulling Material from Baum’s Books, Crafting the Look of Oz, Not Tarnishing the Original, & More on the Set of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

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In the fall of 2011, when Oz The Great and Powerful was filming in Michigan, I got to visit the set along with a few other online reporters.  During a break in filming, even though he was incredibly busy, Sam Raimi sat down with us to answer some questions.  He talked about the challenges of making the film, pulling material from L. Frank Baum’s books, having to be careful about using certain elements due to fear of litigation, filming in Michigan, how the entire film is being made on soundstages, and a lot more.  Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.

Before getting to the interview, if you haven’t seen the latest trailer I’d watch that first:

If you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview click here. Otherwise the full transcript is below.

sam-raimi-the possessionCould you talk about the development of Oz: The Great and Powerful and if this was a challenging film to get the green light on?

Sam Raimi: 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. Certainly, a lot of that was my faith in Mitchell, and eventually my faith in the second writer, Dave Lindsay-Abaire, and they saw where we could take the characters, so a lot of it was my faith in them and their visions. I really believe we can make a great movie out of it.”

And I think once I committed completely to them, I felt that they were committed. And it was a very quick process to production, if that term means what I think it means. It went very quickly to go to pre-production. They made commitments to hire artists and storyboard artists and a production designer. It was very fast.

With a universe of material like this which is beloved but not necessarily well known, is the trick to go back to the existing L. Frank Baum material and find elements to make fresh or is the trick to find new elements to add to the existing skeleton and universe that Mr. Baum created?

Raimi: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Can I have a multiple choice question? [laughs]

What’s the balance between reverentially regarding Mr. Baum’s material, which has endured on its merits, for well nigh a century and wanting to make that alive and fresh for the modern sensibility of a modern movie-going audience?

Raimi: 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, Mitchell Kapner, 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’s put them back in chronological order of what happened to the wizard, how the wizard got there to the Land of Oz.

Oz-The-Great-and-Powerful-James-Franco-Mila-KunisSo 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. There was no information there.

What might have the Wicked Witch or these other characters have been doing during this time? Sometimes it was written about, sometimes it wasn’t. So, I think Mitchell Kapner could best speak about it, but he’s taken elements of the books and rearranged them in what could have happened. It’s a “what if” story.

Do you ever feel a slight pang recognizing certain elements of the 1939 film that you can’t use, like the ruby slippers or that specific look, for fear of litigation?

Raimi: 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.”

Oz-The-Great-and-Powerful-Michelle-WilliamsHowever, 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.

Can you talk about the sensation of being back in Michigan making a movie?

Raimi: I love Michigan. I’m from here and I’ve made all my early movies here. All my Super 8 movies, my first 16mm movies. I wrote my first horror movie The Evil Dead here and raised the money for it here. Shot some of it here in my garage. Shot one called Evil Dead II, some of the miniature work and some of the ending here, edited it here. I made one called Crimewave here.  I would have stayed here forever, but the film business back then just was not here. So I had to move to Los Angeles. But I love the trees in the fall, the rain and the gray skies, and I like the cold. I wouldn’t if I had an outside job. You know, a lot of people in Michigan, they really don’t like that winter. After about six months it really starts to get like, “Enough already.”

Oz-The-Great-and-Powerful-James-FrancoI love it and I love the people here. I think they’re, not to generalize, but we have incredibly talented crew members from Michigan. They’re sharp and they’ve got great schooling from either Michigan or Michigan State or, I don’t know the name of the college, but there’s a great computer school downtown that is training these guys in animation and computer technology. They’re on our high tech teams. I’d make all the movies I could here, I just love it.

The state is really hurting economically, as you know. I hope that these tax incentives are good for the state. They only want it if it’s good for the state. I hope it doesn’t result in all the money going out of the state to Hollywood. I like the people here and I want them to do well and they seem like they really appreciate when they’ve got a job. It’s really unique…well, I guess it’s similar to any place that’s really depressed. These people really appreciate the work and they’re doing a great job. People come in every day and I’ve heard people whistling. “What’s that noise? Is that a happy person?” It’s great to be here; I love working here.

Oz-The-Great-and-Powerful-James-FrancoAre you going to be able to capture the real outdoors of Michigan in the movie?

Raimi: No. Nothing is really being shot outside. The look of Oz is so unique the way that Robert Stromberg and his team have designed it that nothing real will fit into this world. I couldn’t even shoot a sky. Maybe Michigan clouds could have been in there because they’re pretty fantastic. But everything is tweaked in such a unique way that no street, no green field in Ireland, no wall would ever fit into Robert’s design. Everything is so unique…except his 1900 Kansas where the movie starts, but of course that all has to be faked for different reasons, because of the period. We probably could have shot a barn or a farmhouse here if we had found the right one with the right background, but there was a problem of getting the plains of Kansas, the feel of Kansas just right. In Michigan, we did not find the right look for that.

Several people were quoting that you had the idea of a through line for the film as being that of a selfish man who becomes selfless. Is it fair to say that The Music Man might be a bit of an influence, the con man comes to believe his own shill?

Raimi: I’m trying to remember The Music Man. I don’t think it was an influence but it sounds similar. I was actually in The Music Man, I can’t remember it well enough.

oz-the-great-and-powerful-posterWe don’t have many American fairy tales. So how do you keep a fairy tale distinctly American? What do you make it about to make it resonate with an American audience?

Raimi: I have read that people consider Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” his first book, America’s first myth or America’s first fairy tale. I have read that. But I think it’s uniquely American because there’s a little bit of greed involved in it. The guy wants. It’s also the story of an entrepreneur, a guy who, with his ingenuity and can-do attitude, drives off those wicked witches and saves the day. It’s also the story of people rising up for freedom and I think that’s an American, not a myth, but an American story of the American Revolution. Farmers and, in this case, Quadlings and Munchkins and Tinkers, rising up to drive off the tyrants or the despots or whatever you want to call the Wicked Witches.

So those elements are American, but I think it’s not primarily American. I think it’s universal, the story of all of us who are capable of doing good and the hero being made because he recognizes that ability within himself and he grows to do something greater than himself. He grows to take part in a cause that’s more important than his selfishness or his greed. He learns the true value of the gifts that he’s been given as a magician. They can be used, not just to entertain others and for his own profit, but to uplift others, to set them free and to, in this case, drive off the most dreaded villains of all, the Wicked Witches. I think it’s a more universal type of story than just an American story.

Oz the Great and Powerful opens on March 8th.  For more from my set visit:




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