Across the Universe: From 'Evil Dead' to 'Oz, the Great and Powerful'
Director Sam Raimi tackles prequel to iconic fantasy
Making a prequel to the beloved 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" is probably not a task that a lot of filmmakers would want to take on, but leave it to Sam Raimi to get the job done. At first glance, Raimi is a surprising choice: His early films were immersed in genre, mostly gory horror (the "Evil Dead" movies), and then he later became the director who finally got Spider-Man onto the big screen (three times!) after attempts by people like James Cameron never took off.
But the backstory to one of the most popular children's fantasies of all time? While Raimi might not have seemed an obvious candidate, his love of any material he works with always shines through: A successful Raimi film is marked by the director's clear passion for what's on the screen. And with "Oz," a difficult and expensive production starring James Franco as the low-rent carnival magician who travels by tornado to the magical land and eventually frees its people from the grip of a wicked witch, Raimi was evidently enthused by the materials he had to work with.
Asked about delving into a story that has legions of loyal followers -- not just of the 1939 movie, but of L. Frank Baum's original 1900 novel, Raimi said at a recent press conference, "'Spider-Man' helped me because I learned that you can't be loyal to every detail of the book. Every filmmaker knows when you make a book into a movie, the first thing you have to do is kill the book, unfortunately. You've got to re-create it. But I decided I could be truest to the fans of Baum's great work if I recognized what was great and moving and touching and most effective about those books to me, just to me, and put as much of that into this picture as I could. I was not slave to the details, but I was a slave to the heart and the soul of the thing."
Perhaps Raimi's biggest challenge was bringing the "heart and soul" of the story -- which also features Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch, Rachel Weisz as Evanora and Mila Kunis as her sister Theodora -- to life with modern technology such as 3-D.
"There were a tremendous amount of new challenges for me," he said. "I didn't know anything about 3-D, so I had to go to school and learn about it. I had to meet with 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 and I had to basically shoot some test days and see what the effects of convergence were on the audience and why the audience gets a headache. I used to get headaches at 3-D movies and I didn't want this movie to give people headaches."
Although "Oz the Great and Powerful" could not reference anything specifically from the 1939 movie in a major way (the rights to that single film are owned by a different company, even though Disney owns the rights to Baum's other "Oz" books), there are little Easter eggs scattered throughout the movie. There is also a musical number -- although it stops short before it really gets going, unlike the songs in the original. "That was a tribute to the great 'Wizard of Oz' picture," agreed Raimi. "But early on I think the writers decided that we shouldn't imitate that fantastic musical. There was no comparison to the great quality of music in the original, in fact. Ours was more based on the Baum works, so we decided not to make it a musical."
With Raimi's background in independent films, it makes sense that Michelle Williams, who has worked largely in the independent world, would enjoy working with the director even on a big-budget extravaganza like "Oz." "I knew the moment that I met Sam that it wasn't really going to that different from other experiences that I've had because he is first of all like a consummate family man," said the Oscar-nominated actress. "His sets feel like little homes. It feels very cozy and very safe, and it feels like all of your ideas are welcome, even the bad ones. That's the way that I've grown accustomed to working, and that I like working, and I had that with Sam."
"I love Sam," said James Franco, who played Peter Parker's doomed best friend, Harry Osborn, in all three of Raimi's "Spider-Man" films. "He is one of the most fun directors to work with, and that is no small thing when a director on a film really sets the tone of just how people go about things. When you have someone like Sam, everybody is happy to be at work, everybody does their best. He's a very collaborative director, not just with the actors, but with all departments. And it really makes people want to do their best because they all feel like they're a big part of the movie -- and they are. So I love working with Sam. I'd do anything with him."
If "Oz" is a big enough hit, there's certainly enough material in the Baum books (he wrote 14 "Oz" novels) that it's not inconceivable to think that Franco and Raimi could find themselves back in the Land of Oz themselves. But in the meantime, Raimi is just pleased to have made this film -- especially for Disney, since Walt Disney himself wanted to make an "Oz" movie for decades but was never able to get it going during his lifetime.
"I learned that Walt Disney wanted to make an 'Oz' picture only recently," said Raimi. "It was a passion and dream of his, and I thought that was very touching because all I wanted to do was make the ultimate Walt Disney picture, which I thought this movie always could be. It could be for families. It could be uplifting. It makes sense in retrospect that it was Walt's dream to make an 'Oz' picture, and I hope that Walt would have appreciated and liked the movie."
"Oz, the Great and Powerful" is out in theaters Friday, March 8.