From director Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful imagines the origins of the wizard that was first brought to life in author L. Frank Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz, in a fantastical adventure that utilizes 3D to enhance what is truly an awe-inspiring movie-going experience. When small-time circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is unexpectedly carried from Kansas to the vibrantly beautiful Land of Oz in a tornado, he soon meets three witches – Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) – who are unsure about whether he truly is the great wizard that they’ve been expecting. In one of the biggest tales of fake it ‘til you make it, Oscar must use his magical skill and a little ingenuity to help good triumph over evil.
At the film’s press day, Collider got the opportunity to speak with producer Joe Roth during both the press conference and a 1-on-1 interview about how this project came about, his prior experience with the original The Wizard of Oz film, how involved he was in shaping which Baum tales they would blend together to tell this origin story, how important it was to center the film around a flawed hero, why Sam Raimi was the right director, assembling this talented cast, and the most challenging aspects of such a big production. He also talked about the high-risk and high-reward involved in taking on such iconic characters (he’s done it with Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Snow White), their spin on the Sleeping Beauty story for Maleficent and how crucial the casting of Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning was, how they’re approaching the Alice in Wonderland sequel, and that he hopes to go into production on a very low-budget movie based on the book Heaven is for Real in the summer. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: As a producer on a movie like this, is it a little bit nerve-wracking to know that you can’t really even see the finished product with the effects and 3D finished until pretty close to the release date?
JOE ROTH: Yeah, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but there are steps along the way. I had seen the movie in 2D, many, many, many times. The last piece that comes in is the 3D. You see examples of it, along the way, and you know the guys that are working on it, which gives you a bit more comfort.
How did you come to this? Were you brought the idea and then immediately signed on, or did you need some convincing to get involved?
ROTH: Well, the truth is that a writer, named Mitchell Kapner, came in with a couple of ideas that he didn’t sell. And then, I asked him what he was doing and he said that he was reading the Baum books to his children. I wasn’t aware that there was a series of books about Oz, so I said, “Well, tell me some of the storylines,” and the storyline that captured my attention was, who was the guy behind the curtain and how did he get there? I loved The Wizard of Oz, but Oz was there for two minutes and I didn’t know who he was. So, I thought, “What a great idea to go back to the beginning and not trample on this hallowed ground, and tell his story.
What was your prior experience with the original The Wizard of Oz film?
ROTH: Well, I watched The Wizard of Oz, as a kid. I think it came out every Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I would never miss it. It was a great, fantastical journey. It was one of those two or three movies that I couldn’t wait to see, every year, and it resonates for so many different reasons. Each of the main characters have to go through a transformation. The coward becomes a hero. Someone gets a heart. Dorothy gets to grow up. In the Baum book, it’s not a dream. In the MGM movie, it is a dream. We wanted to make sure that we were consistent with Baum’s work, and say this is not a dream, this is really happening. It’s just a really memorable piece of work for not just me, but for most everybody.
Were there a lot of ideas that you considered?
ROTH: Yeah, there was a lot on the ground, not that we shot, but that we couldn’t use in the script because it was just too much. There were all races of characters that we couldn’t use. You just try to shape it as best you can.
Was it important to make sure this was centered around a flawed hero and that it wasn’t somebody who things came too easy for?
ROTH: I thought it was very important. One of the reasons that I like origin stories is that I know where they’re going to end. I know that here’s a guy who, at the end of this story, will have done a tremendously selfless act. He will have essentially died and be seen no more in that form. So, I think that gives you room to have a flawed character because you know his end point. There were two simple, very central themes. One was that we all want to have a life with second chances, and this is a second chance movie. This man gets a second chance. And also, we all want to believe that no matter how selfish we are or can be, that there’s a selflessness in us that, when the occasion comes, we will rise to it.
Was it immediately Sam Raimi that you thought of to direct?
ROTH: It was immediately Sam Raimi that I thought of. As a producer, I went, “Okay, I’d like somebody who’s been to the top of the mountain.” The Spider-Man were certainly at the top of the mountain. I wanted somebody who has heart, as Sam does. I wanted somebody who was brave, who was a showman, who was not afraid of the technology, and who the actors would respond to. That cuts down a lot of directors. So, Sam was a guy who was at the very top of each one of those things. It would have been a very different story with someone else. If we had gone with somebody who was more interested in the technique of it, we likely wouldn’t have had the heart. If we had gone with somebody who was just an actor’s director, I’m not sure how we could have ever gotten the spectacle.
ROTH: The idea behind it was to find a quartet of actors who were in the prime of their careers, who only had their career ahead of them, and that a movie-going audience would know who they were and would be attractive to people. And then, what you really hope for, as a producer, is that 20 or 30 years from now, when you’re watching this movie like you would with The Wizard of Oz, this would be a step along the way of four very distinguished careers. The last person cast was Michelle [Williams], who I had wanted from the beginning, but she was living in upstate New York with her kid. It wasn’t the material or Sam. She just wasn’t ready to work. And then, once we got Rachel [Weisz] and Mila [Kunis] and James [Franco], she came to us. She never turned us down, she was just unavailable. But, I think she had a great time.
A movie like this depends on the heart of the story and, to get that, you have to rely on the soul of an actor coming through their performance, primarily through their eyes. So, when you have a character that’s a China doll, what were the challenges of still conveying that emotion?
ROTH: We had a little bit of a failsafe in that we had a master marionette actually act out the China Girl with however many strings there were. It seemed like a thousand. But, you could see the emotion coming out, in doing that, and if he could do that, then certainly our artists could render that, as well.
With all of the aspects of production that need to come together in order to pull something like this off, what was the most challenging thing?
ROTH: There were so many! There were the schedules of the actors, who were all busy doing other things, as well. Rachel was doing the Bourne movie, right in the middle of this, Michelle was promoting My Week with Marilyn, Mila was doing Ted, and James was doing 53 things, at the same time. That was nerve-wracking. And then, there’s seeing it all come together. Now, the nerve-wracking part is making sure that we, in a not heavy-handed way, tell people that this is not a remake of The Wizard of Oz. This is a story that takes place beforehand. That’s nerve-wracking.
ROTH: If you are a producer with a brain, at all – and not even a big one, but a brain – you try to at least reverse engineer thoughts. So, with Alice, we had a story that people loved, we picked out things that we thought made it memorable, we hired a fantastic visual director with Tim Burton, and had a really wonderful cast. So, when the idea of, “Who’s the man behind the curtain and how did he get there?,” I was immediately struck by the idea. Here is a movie that everybody had seen, but nobody really knew who that guy was. He was only in the last few minutes of the movie. But, I thought that was a really wonderful starting point. And then, I brought along Robert Stromberg, who I worked with as the production designer on Alice, and introduced him to Sam, and he became an integral part of that. And for me, as a producer, casting is the most fun, and I wanted to make sure that we had a cast that would stand the test of time.
You’ve taken on Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Snow White, and now you’re doing Maleficent. Do you get nervous about taking on such iconic characters?
ROTH: It’s high-risk, high-reward. These are stories that have translated into every language, and that people from every generation know, in every country. The job is for me to figure out which ones really do stand the test of time and what it is about them that makes them so universal. Once I think I’ve figured it out, which I may or may not be right about, I have to say, “Okay, how do I use modern technology and great filmmakers to make it feel fresh?”
How did you approach the Sleeping Beauty story for Maleficent?
ROTH: We flipped it on its head. Linda Woolverton wrote that, who also wrote Alice in Wonderland, and she also wrote Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. So, I’m trusting her imagination and understanding of telling a story that the curse on Sleeping Beauty wasn’t made by someone who was completely evil, and that she also had a story.
Was the casting crucial then, so that audiences would feel sympathy for that character?
ROTH: Yes. It would have been really difficult to make Maleficent without Angie (Angelina Jolie). And I think that movie will be Elle Fanning’s coming out. People will be like, “Oh, I remember Elle Fanning when she was in Maleficent. That was where I first saw her.”
ROTH: It’s a whole new cloth. In that case, I went to the writer, Linda Woolverton, who came up with a story that takes place in a different time, but has the same characters.
Do you know which of the many projects you have in development is most likely to go into production next?
ROTH: The next movie that I’m going to put into production is the opposite of the four movies I just made. It’s a very low-budget movie based on a book called Heaven is for Real. I think we’ll be in production this summer.
Is it important to you to also do those smaller films?
ROTH: Absolutely! I’m attracted by story, but I also don’t want to get caught up doing one thing, over and over again. So, I think the next two or three films that I do will be earth-bound and less monumental.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens in theaters on March 8th.