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, director Sam Raimi spoke at a press conference about how his experience on the Spider-Man trilogy taught him that you can’t be loyal to every detail of the original source material, the brief musical tribute to the original film, the challenges of ensuring the 3D wouldn’t cause the audience headaches from watching it, whether he was ever tempted to make the wicked witch scarier, doing the wire work with Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz, and what it means to him personally to accomplish what Walt Disney was never able to, in making a film for the studio that’s set in the Land of Oz. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: Did you have any trepidations about getting into this world, knowing that these books have legions of fans, and did your past experience with Spider-Man and dealing with that source material help you?
SAM RAIMI: Yes, Spider-Man helped me because I learned that you can’t be loyal to every detail of the book. Every filmmaker knows that when you make a book into a movie, the first thing you have to do is kill the book, unfortunately. You’ve bot to recreate it. I decided that I could be truest to the fans of Baum’s great work, if I recognized what was great, moving, touching and most effective about those books, just to me, and put as much as of that into this picture that I could. I was not a slave to the details, but I was a slave to the heart and soul of the thing. As many ways as I could express it, I put it into this movie.
What was it about The Wizard of Oz story that made you decide to add the theme of the history of cinema?
RAIMI: Well, what I was trying to do – and what I think the screenwriters, art department and prop department were trying to do – was to set up Oz’s knowledge as a tinkerer and his awareness of Edison’s kinescope and early motion picture cameras, so that we could properly support the idea that he could have created this technology with the help of the Tinkers, once he got to the land of Oz, in the climax of the picture. So, I wasn’t trying to do a history of cinema, as much as setting up the character with certain abilities in the first act, to let them properly pay off in the third act.
What made you decide to have the little musical tribute to the original film, but then also pull the plug on it, immediately?
RAIMI: That was a tribute to the great Wizard of Oz picture, but the writers decided that we shouldn’t imitate that fantastic musical. There was no comparison to the great quality of music in the original. Ours was more based on the [L. Frank] Baum works, so we decided not to make it a musical and just tell the fantastical tales that he had written about. But, that one number was a tribute to the great Wizard of Oz movie.
Were there any of the effects that were particularly challenging, this time around?
RAIMI: Yes, there were a tremendous amount of new challenges for me. I didn’t know anything about 3D, so I had to go to school and learn about 3D. I had to meet technicians and study the camera systems and go to effects houses and hear what the different visual effects artists had to say about working with the systems. I had to shoot some test days and see what the affects of convergence were on the audience and why the audience gets a headache. I used to get headaches in 3D movies, and I didn’t want this movie to give people headaches. They know why that happens. There are about four reasons that I learned about, but there may be more. I’m sure technical people will say, “Raimi, you’re getting it wrong!”
What I know is that you don’t want to dramatically change the convergence from shot to shot and have something breaking the screen, playing in the foreground, and then quickly go to a shorter shot where there’s something in the deep background, and then cut again to another shot where you’re playing the convergence in the foreground. It has to be delicately handled, and you have to let the audience’s eyes adjust. You have to have longer shots, if you intend to make that dramatic adjustment, or take them to a little stairway from convergence level to convergence level, so that your brains and eyes can adjust. Otherwise, you’re making the audience’s heads work so hard that you’re forcing the muscles in their eyes and their brains work in a way they’re not used to working in and it gives headaches.
You do develop a tolerance for it, though, which I developed, so I couldn’t trust my own instincts, after a time. I had to just go by the numbers and say, “What is the convergence on this? How different is it?” In addition, it’s about where images are on the screen. You don’t want to make the audience look both left and right, dramatically from cut to cut, and change the convergence. It’s just too much of a strain. It also has to do with brightness and ghosting in the background, and a minimization of that, and a contrast ratio that’s much tighter than a normal picture.
There are a lot of other technical ways to minimize stress on the audience. So, I had to learn so much about 3D. I had to learn about creating a whole world. I surrounded myself with the best artists – storyboard artists, visual effects artists, concept artists, landscape artists, greenswomen and men, and people who really knew how to create a world, from the ground up. I had never created a world before. Every single blade of grass and little blossom has been thought out by an individual artist. Every insect is not from a library or from nature photography, but it’s created by artists. There are little zebra bees that you can’t even see. There are strange little white-haired squirrels that are half-muskrat, half-squirrel that inhabit this land. There are giant creatures that lope like dinosaurs that you only see in the background. Everything had to be handmade and designed. I’d never been part of anything so gigantic before. That was a new challenge.
Because of your horror background, were you ever tempted to make the wicked witch scarier?
RAIMI: I love making those horror movies, but I was really guided by Mila Kunis’ performance and what her instincts were, in playing that character, and she decided that she would play her like a woman scorned. She wasn’t really thinking about the fact that she was green. She was playing it as an innocent who fell in love and her heart was broken and she suffered, but she couldn’t take the suffering and wanted to end that suffering, and her sister was all too willing to let that suffering end. It awakened something that was already there, but just fueled the fire, and that rage drove her. So, I wasn’t tempted to make it more like a horror movie. I wanted her to guide us, and I would follow her with the camera.
How amenable were Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz, to doing all of the wire work for their big fight scene?
RAIMI: The ladies were very good sports. The truth is that I think it’s fun on the wires for about the first 20 minutes. But, around hour four of hanging up there, I know the straps of those wires cut into you and dig into your legs and your arms. You’ve always got to exert a great degree of muscle control to look like you’re floating on your own power. That gets very exhausting and leaves its marks.
How did you decide on the design for the dresses that the women would wear?
RAIMI: Both of the ladies put a lot of input into their wardrobe and made it what it was. I don’t think they were half the outfits they turned out to be, until they added touches coming out of their character, which these particular dresses needed. And they were very important outfits because they each only change once. Glinda changes for battle. Michelle decided that her dress was a little too frilly to go into battle with. She needed a more serious outfit that was a battle dress. Evanora had a green dress because she was caring for the Emerald City. And then, when she was revealed to be wicked, the black came out.
Walt Disney wanted to tackle a film set in the Land of Oz, a long time ago, but never got the chance. What does it mean to you to accomplish that for his studio?
RAIMI: Well, I learned that Walt Disney wanted to make an Oz picture only recently, when the movie was almost finished. The guys from the marketing department said, “Take a look at this reel that we’re going to put on the DVD,” and it showed how Walt was trying to get the rights to the Oz books and how he was going to get his army of Mouseketeers together to each play a part, which I don’t think would have worked very well. So, it was a passionate dream of his. I thought that was very touching because all I wanted to do was make the ultimate Walt Disney picture. I thought this movie always could be for families, and that it could be uplifting. It makes sense, in retrospect, that it was Walt’s dream to make an Oz picture. I hope that Walt would have liked the movie. There’s no violence in the picture, so I think he would like that. There are some classic Disney princesses and witches in the picture, and I think he would like that. And it’s got little bluebirds and cuddly creatures like the blue monkey, so I think he might have liked it. Unless he hated it. It’s hard to say what he would have liked. But, I was honored to make it and surprised to find out that he had intended to make an Oz picture.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens in theaters on March 8th.