Just like Joey King, Zach Braff is playing two characters in Oz The Great and Powerful. When the film opens in Kansas, Braff plays someone that works with James Franco in the circus. But when the film gets to Oz, Braff plays a CGI monkey named Finley that helps Oz transform into who he’s meant to be.
When the production was filming in Michigan in late 2011, I got to visit the set with a few other online reporters. Even though Braff wasn’t filming that day, he came in to talk with us. During our interview he talked about how he was cast, what it was like working on such a big production, collaborating with Sam Raimi, the challenge of voicing a character off set, working with 3D cameras, and so much 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.
It’s your day off, what are you doing here?
Braff: Sammy wanted to… “Sammy…” See? I’m so cool.
Braff: Sam wanted to talk to me about a couple of places to… [To a PR person] I don’t even know… I have never spoken to press yet about the movie, so you’ll tap me on the shoulder if I say something I’m not supposed to say?
[The PR person says he will.]
Braff: There are some things I’m not supposed to say, but I guess it’s known that in the world of Oz I’m an animated monkey and I’m Oz’s sidekick, so when… It’s my first time doing… I mean I did Chicken Little, but that was in an animated movie, so this is my first time doing an animated character in a live action movie and there are times when you don’t necessarily have to be there to be shot, so there are times when he is like “Hey…” He emailed me, “I want to find a place to keep the character of Finley alive in this sequence, so will you come by tomorrow?” And we went up to editing and he kind of showed me a sequence and he’s just so amazingly collaborative. He’s like “Where do you think Finley… What should Finley be doing in this sequence, because I haven’t really figured it out yet and I’m worried that he might be missing from this action sequence.” So we went up to editing and he showed me a sequence and it was really cool and we just kind of talked about some places where we could kind of keep the character of Finley alive during this courtyard sequence. So that’s what we do. Working with him is just so unbelievable, because he’s the most collaborative filmmaker I have ever met.
I mean you are a filmmaker yourself, but when you watch him juggling a thirty foot crane and the army of extras, including specialized extras like the characters playing the munchkins and people in the tinker makeup, and there is a set for the blue screen and with a 3D camera, does your mind just boggle at how the devil he keeps everything straight?
Braff: Every day. In fact, I can’t believe that… I remember when I made my movie, the stress of a 2.5 million dollar movie. Seeing this scale and how he’s always calm. I mean maybe he’s freaking out in his brain, but he is just so kind… I mean you could ask the office PAs and they will tell you he is the nicest man. I mean no matter who you are on this set, if you’re a background person, if you’re an office PA, if you’re the cinematographer, he is just the kindest and sweetest man and genuinely interested in what people think. You know some people are trying to be collaborative, like “Okay, what do you think?” “Okay, I’m dismissing it right away.” You will see him talk to Joey King, who is twelve, and just completely and honestly listen to her thoughts which is so smart, because isn’t she one of the target ages of the audience? A, she’s a very precocious and smart girl, but also she is like the audience you know? So I really have learned so much from watching him. He really deals with it all with a lot of patients and calmness.
Braff: Oh, see now that’s good. I hope so. That would be a cool explanation of it. I don’t know where the name came from, but the idea was like the original that people in his real life come to this world with him in one incarnation or the other and he learns from them in the ways that he couldn’t learn from them in his real life. So as Frank, I’m his much put upon assistant in Kansas and he treats me like shit and is horrible to me… Sorry, it’s Disney… “Poo.”
Braff: “He treats me like feces” and… “Cute little poos…” “Cute little Disney poos…” He treats me horribly and it’s in going to this world where I am manifested as this flying monkey…
And much more charming.
Braff: Well I’m cuter, definitely… That I’m able to… That we have a story arc where he is actually able to learn from me and trust me and in the end be my friend and give me something that I really wanted in a human incarnation, which was friendship and his acceptance. So it’s done really, really well and it’s really cool.
Braff: “Doormat” is a good way to put it. As Frank, he is the magician and I’m his magician’s assistant and I want acceptance by him, because I look up to him and he is very dismissive and condescending to me and makes it clear he has no interest in being my friend, he just wants a helper. Then we are forced to go on this journey together and Finley is assigned to sort of lookout over Oz by Rachel Weisz’s character, so begrudgingly we go on this quest together and little by little he can’t help but be charmed by this little flying monkey.
And as the monkey, you speak?
Braff: Yes, not right away. He thinks I might be mute, but in the end when… And don’t write about that, because that would be a plot ruiner maybe… I don’t know, but yes I speak.
I didn’t hear any of that.
Braff: Yeah, I guess it’s a plot reveal, so probably don’t write about it, but yeah for a fair part of it he thinks I’m mute and when push comes to shove I have to speak and we become friends throughout and then at the end he accepts me.
What’s it like working in that booth with Joey and stuff?
Braff: It’s really weird. Maybe you have seen, we sort of figure out on set with the puppets, because they help the camera guys frame up shots and they help us all figure out “Okay, where is he going to be?” to give James something to look at or the other characters, for me it’s mostly James, because most of my stuff is with him and then to record our, as you know, to record our faces and our voices they put us in this booth and you kind of feel the inclination to almost over express, because you really want to give the animators something juicy frame by frame to go with and so I find myself almost turning it up a little a little bit in my facial expressions, so it will really give them something to animate off of and that’s how they record our voice and James wears a little ear piece so he can hear us. I don’t think anyone has ever done it like this, so it’s kind of cool to be a part of a new way of doing it, but it’s challenging. I mean often as an actor you are in a black box looking at monitors. It’s like being in a cockpit where you are like acting to no one, but people see it. Every once in a while some editor or one of the effects guys will be like “I loved your reaction to that one line” and I’m like “Thank God somebody is looking at it,” because I feel like I’m in a black box.
Is this a project that you went after? Did it come after you? How did you get involved?
Braff: I got involved I think… Yeah, definitely when I read it I wanted to be a part of it. I thought it was so cool and I’m a big fan of Sam’s and I had never been involved in anything giant like this, so I thought that would be a great fun experience both as an actor and a filmmaker to witness filmmaking on this scale. I had never even visited a set like this, so I definitely wanted that life experience and it just sounded like a great project. I’m sure my agents and everybody were going after it for me and I think Sam’s wife, who is a really big fan of the movies I have done and liked my acting, and I think she was a champion on the inside, because I think he had heard of me, but not seen all of my work, so I think she was like my champion on the inside saying “You’ve got to see this…” As the story has been relayed to me now, she was the one saying “You haven’t seen this? You’ve got to see this!”
Braff: (Laughs) We went to dinner… We went to a couple of dinners with them and they are just great. I mean I really enjoy Sam so much. I’m looking forward to being his friend, not just his monkey.
You guys are filming in 3D. Obviously you are in the booth, so you are not really seeing it, but as a director what have you taken away from the experience and these Red Epic cameras?
Braff: It just looks amazing. Did you guys get a chance to look with the glasses at the screen?
Braff: You should have them do that if you can. There’s one monitor that’s like a big plasma and it’s 3D and if you look at it with the glasses on you can already see the 3D and there’s another one where they layer in what’s going to be on the blue screens, so you can kind of… Obviously it’s very rough, but you can kind of get a rough estimation and it’s so cool. I’m a film geek man. I love toys. I love everything in filmmaking, so for me to just be around this technology is just so cool to watch it being used for the first time, some of the stuff. I don’t know how many movies have done the 3D with the Red cameras, but it’s got to be one of the first or early up there.
[He’s told it’s “Near the top.”]
Braff: Yeah, it’s funny, because you know whenever you go to a normal set the camera has been made by a company with cleaned lines and everything, you look at this 3D camera and it’s just like a ball of wires, because it’s the two cameras shooting one for each eye and there are so many wires connecting them. I imagine in a couple of years it will all be in a box and look a little more like one thing, but I always laugh at it when I see it, because it’s so funny “They are making this giant movie with this big ball of wires.” It looks like the borg or something, but it’s cool… Like I said, I just love the technology and the gadgetry and all of the things they have come up with is really fun to watch.
They’ve created a very real world here with costuming and visual look and design and what have you and not as a participant in the film and not as a creator yourself, but just as a fan, a film nerd as you were saying, what one thing made you go…
Braff: Well I just had a funny moment where I was walking with Sam up to editing with a couple other crew members and this background guy… He’s first name is Marty… I forgot his last name, but he was in Pirates. He is one of the little people playing the munchkins… He was on Scrubs actually for a handful of episodes as one of the janitor’s sidekicks, but we are going upstairs and a guy in full munchkin costume gets off and he’s like “Hey guys. Hey Marty.” And I’m like “I’ve been away for a week, do you guys realize that we just got on an elevator and munchkin in full costume came out?” Everyday… On the way to you I passed a schoolroom full of children in full costumes. There are so many things… Visiting the sets… I wander around and some people just sit, in their down time, in their trailer. I like explore… I’ve got a bike. I go to sets that they are building just because the film geek is strong in me.
So when they say “Come in on your day off,” you are like “How soon can I get there?”
Braff: Yeah, exactly. I mean it’s better than sitting in the apartment doing nothing, so yeah I love being here and it’s a great group of people. Everyone is really… Everyone is just nice. All of the cast is so sweet and everyone gets along and it’s just a good vibe. You would think since this is a giant movie that it’s going to be impersonal. That’s what I thought, but it really is a solid good group of people. Everyone is very sweet.
It seems like there’s something really cool about Sam Raimi coming back to Michigan. In a way, that was the thought of Garden State, coming back…
Are you able to tap into that fondness that he has for the area?
Braff: Yeah, he loves the area and you know he really hired a lot of people… He’s so loyal. There are people who have one line in the movie who were in his first movie. He just loves the area, love Michigan, and yeah that is a nice aspect of it. Unfortunately he doesn’t have any time to… I keep trying to get him out to have a beer with me, but I imagine on Saturday all he wants to do is lay down, but I doubt that’s what he’s doing. He’s probably rewriting something. I mean the guy just works nonstop and you will be here at two in the morning and he has his tie all the way up and perfectly quaffed. Meanwhile I’m like, when I’m directing, like pulling my hair out.
Would you ever want to make a film this big? Is this the kind of…
Braff: Yeah, I mean why not? It’s a fun dream to have. I look at someone like Jon Favreau who started making comedy dialogue movies like the kind that I’m drawn to now and now look at him. He’s so talented with what he did with the Iron Man films, so I think it’s possible. It isn’t instantly what people think of me for or what necessarily what I think for myself, not something I would write, but I would love to. Yes, the answer is yes, one day.
Talk a little bit about… We haven’t seen your look in the circus. Talk a little bit about filming those sequences and also we know you filmed in black and white, talk a little bit about the fact that you did film in black and white.
Braff: That’s cool. Black and white 3D has to be the first maybe. I’m guessing.
I have not seen that. Or rather since the 1950’s.
Braff: Right, but I mean like modern Red Epic black and white 3D, it’s got to be the first I think. I don’t know. It was really cool. That was when we first started, so you know this whole stage, the size of the one we are on now, was a turn of the century circus in Kansas, so the attention to detail, the costumes… It was a really, really fun way to start the movie. I was a human being, which was fun.
Braff: You know, I had period clothes like James and I had like period side burns and my hair is sort of slicked over and we are doing the beginning of a tornado, so they have these giant wind machines going and hundreds of extras running around in mayhem. I don’t know… It’s hackney to keep saying the word “surreal,” but it’s just so bizarre. There you are and there’s a wind storm and there’s people in turn of the century circus costumes running by you and those tumbleweeds flying and Sam yelling on a megaphone and eventually James’s character get into this hot air balloon and they have the basket flying across the stage and it was a really, really fun thing to be a part of.
Can you talk a little bit about the costume you are wearing and did you have… I mean the costumes are amazing on this. Did you have any input at all in your look or were you sort of like “I’m in.”
Braff: Well I was in with whatever they said, but yeah they asked my opinion on a couple of things. It’s kind of like in the spirit of what James has on now, but not as fancy. They are a little distressed, because we don’t have any money, so it’s sort of like a dapper look with a vest and bowtie and those things that keep your sleeves up and that thing, but it’s all sort of worn down. Sam kept saying “This guy probably only has two shirts, if that” and so the look was very “We are trying our best to put on a show, because we are magicians, but we don’t have any money and we are probably sewing our clothes every night.” So that was kind of it, almost like… I kept saying like Fagin and the Artful Dodger. Artful Dodger was in tails, but they had rips in it, so it was kind of like distressed dapper.
Braff: (Laughs) “Shabby chic,” but not like a big over stuffed couch.
Just really briefly, a lot of what Mr. Franco’s performance in this is him giving a performance of a man giving a performance. He is Oscar, but he has to be Oz. What would you say is a key to you for understanding your performance as Finley?
Braff: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think it’s just… I think my job is… All of our jobs, we serve Oz becoming a good person. You know whether you want to believe that the world is all in his imagination or it’s a real universe, it seems to me that he’s a good man who has gotten caught up in so many things in life and lost a sense of who he is, so it’s almost like all of the characters in the movie come together. It’s like in the first one the point was to teach Dorothy the importance of home and I guess other things, the importance of all of the other things she learned on her journey. So this is like a story… This is a story of how all of these people, this whole universe comes together to make a good man the great man that he could be.
Thank you very kindly for your time.
Braff: Thank you guys very much for coming out. I appreciate it.
Nice talking to you.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens on March 8th. For more from my set visit:
- 30 Things to Know About Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful From Our Set Visit; Plus Video Blog Recap
- 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
- Michelle Williams Talks Creating Her Own Glinda, Working with Sam Raimi, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful
- James Franco Talks Why He Signed on, His Reaction to Seeing the Yellow Brick Road, Plant Omens, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful
- Joey King Talks Playing Two Characters, Making Adults Put Money in a Swear Jar, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful