The film marks a reunion between Franco and Sam Raimi, his director in the Spider-Man films. Raimi, a cult figure and spook-a-blast legend, made a name for himself with 1981's micro-budget The Evil Dead, and he went on to direct A Simple Plan, Darkman, Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, and Drag Me to Hell, among others.
Franco, who played the supporting role of Harry Osborn in Raimi's superhero trilogy, had only the most effusive praise for the director, saying, "I love Sam. I've known Sam for over ten years because we did the Spider-Man Trilogy together. And he is one of the most fun directors to work with and that is no small thing. A director on a film really sets the tone of just how people go about things. And so when you have someone like Sam, everybody is happy to be at work, everybody does their best. He’s a very collaborative director. You know, not just with the actors, with all departments. 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."
Three-time Academy Award nominee Williams is far more associated with independent dramas, but was comfortable tackling a pivotal role in this massive production because of Raimi. "Well, I knew the moment that I met Sam that it wasn’t really going to be that different from other experiences that I’ve had," she explained. "Because he’s, first of all, a consummate family man and his sets feel like he makes little homes. And it feels very cozy and it feels very safe and it feels like all of your ideas are welcome, even the bad ones. And that’s the way that I’ve grown accustomed to working, and I like working, and I had that with Sam. I think we all really had that with Sam. What people have said before, and it’s entirely true, the thing that I’ve never experienced before is a director with an unflagging sense of humor like Sam. He really taught me a lot about how to like keep your chin up. Like when the day is long and things aren’t going quite as you had sort of planned them out in your head, Sam is there with a smile. Sam is there with a hand. Sam is there with a joke. And he really taught me a lot about keeping a good face."
Continuing the procession of praise for the director, Weisz recalled how Raimi enabled her to gain a better grasp on her character, Evanora, by experimenting with her costume. "It’s funny because Sam is so up for exploration. He’s making this great big budget movie. I can’t even imagine the level of pressure that he was under. He was just up for an exploration," Weisz said. "You know, my character looks a bit like a bird of prey and slightly militaristic and viv Las Vegas or however you want to see it. But because I was getting into my character, Sam was like, 'Well, you know, play around.' So Gary [Jones] and myself, the costume designer spent a couple of weeks room and I cooked up this costume, which I brought to the first screen test, where basically I looked a little bit like the Duchess of Windsor. I should be so lucky. I mean, I don’t really look anything like her. It’s this little green dress and a little crown and it was this height of my character who just desperately wanted to be queen. And Sam looked at it and just said, 'It’s just not right. You need to go back to the original thing.' But he kind of let me go. It was like part of my process, I think. It was me finding my desire to be queen. I wanted to be queen."
As witches, all three actresses played figures with a variety of fanciful powers. When asked which they themselves would like to employ in their real lives, Williams immediately replied, "Flying!"
"Flying," Weisz agreed. "It’s really hard to beat flying as a skill. Yeah. I would say. Yeah, flying. Number one. Number two: lightning bolts for me."
Whether by bubble or broomstick, that onscreen flying required each actress to spend no small amount of time dangling from stunt wires in front of green screens. "I love it," said Kunis. "I have to tell you. I do. I will do and have done all my own stunts as much as allotted."
Kunis, who is preparing to star alongside Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending, a mysterious project directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski, was nonplussed by the wire work on Oz the Great and Powerful, explaining, " I mean, apparently I like it because I keep doing movies that require wires so I guess I had a great time. But, it’s just about same. The truth is it’s not hard. It’s really not hard to be wired and to have somebody else be responsible for the wire work and your life. Your only responsibility is to sustain seventeen hours on those wires. So, I guess I do work out a little bit for that purpose. Like the movie that I’m doing that’s following up this one, I think, requires a lot more wire training than-than this one did. But at least this one I know prepped me for it."
Weisz, meanwhile, had less experience with wire work, but agreed, "Yeah, it’s very fun. I mean, it was a little scary the first day. We had a rehearsal period where these wonderful stunt coordinators who had worked extensively with Sam on the Spider-Man films. So they were all experts in making people fly."
Having no magical powers of his own, Oscar doesn't do quite as much flying in the movie, so Franco was spared much of the dangling work. Still, portraying an illusionist required the actor to learn a few tricks of the trade. "I got to learn with Lance Burton, who is a great magician from Las Vegas," Franco said. "And I got private lessons. It was pretty fun. And I could accomplish the tricks. There were even more tricks than made it into the film. We just had to cut some of them for time but I got to learn quite a few pretty cool tricks that if I took them to parties, I probably would get a lot of attention. But I need a lot of help from Lance to pull them off and he doesn’t travel around with me. So it’s just sort of one of the skills that I’ve learned along the way, like sword-fighting or, you know, flying a plane that I just don’t use very much after I’m done with the movie."
The titular Oscar Diggs covers a lot of ground in the film, going from the dusty black and white plains of Kansas to Oz, a land of fabulous whimsy and fearsome danger. Just as important as his escapades across Oz, however, is Oscar's gradual evolution from a vainglorious huckster to a decent man. "The character, I think, as written, was very much Sam’s idea. I think it’s one of his big contributions," said Franco. "When you deal with Oz, as a subject, you, of course have a fantastical land. So I had faith that Joe [Roth] and the designers and everyone would be able to create a spectacular world. But you don’t want just a movie that’s a journey through a fantastical world. You want the characters to have their own inner journeys.
"I think it was Sam’s idea or maybe a collaboration with the writers that the character would also have a inner journey," he continued. "And he would start off one place and then have room to grow once he got to Oz. And, I thought, as kind of selfish as he is, as much of a cad as he is in the beginning, it would never go to the point where he’s unlikeable because all of his manipulations and conning of people are sort of played for laughs. And I can’t quite blame him for being the way he is because of his history, you know? He-he grew up in circumstances where you just wanted to get out. He wanted something different. And so performing was, he saw a way out. And so he’s gone a little too far in his ambitions and it’s blinded him to the love of the people around him. But, in another sense you can’t blame the initial reasons for being the way that he is."
As played by Kunis, Theodora also undergoes some radical changes over the course of the story. The actress credited her co-stars and some central creative figures with helping her approach the character, saying, "Very rarely are you given the opportunity to have such a fantastical character. That’s the truth. And so it’s really fun. I say this because I had incredible actors that I felt safe with and I had the most incredible safety net of Sam Raimi and Joe Roth. Knowing that should I maybe not do the greatest of a take, I would get, be allowed, given another one and another one. And so I was allowed to play around and kind of have that little tennis match back and forth."
"As far as playing a witch, yeah, it’s fun," Kunis concluded. "It’s fun to play somebody that has no boundaries, that has no rules. There’s no book you can read on how to play a witch so you kind of just create your own version thereof. And it’s really – it’s great."
The new film is not quite a direct prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but even a cursory glance at Oz the Great and Powerful indicates the reverence and affection for that classic's rendition of Oz. Similarly, the cast have their own perspectives on the original film. "I don't remember really like the first time that I saw the movie or anything like that," said Williams. "But I do remember feeling I had when I first realized that the characters in her waking life were the same as the characters in her dream life. That the woman on the bicycle was the wicked witch. And I remember being really affected once I had discovered that because a I felt kind of like somebody had been tricking me or playing with me. Something was working on me on a subconscious level that I wasn’t aware of and that kind of freaked me out as a kid. Other than that, I think it was just a great place to take inspiration from."
Weisz fondly recalls, "It was the first film I remember seeing so it’s my earliest film memory. So I guess it has that kind of power. I remember my Mom taking me to the cinema. I remember being about five. I remember being really traumatized by the wicked witches. They were very, very scary. And I guess the thing I loved – I loved Judy Garland’s voice. I love how she sings. She gives me goose bumps. So for me it’s about her, her singing, and it really makes me feel good."
To find out what director Sam Raimi had to say about Oz the Great and Powerful, click right here. And stay tuned for an IAR exclusive interview with Zach Braff, who voices Oscar's sidekick flying monkey sidekick Finley.
Oz the Great and Powerful arrives in theaters on Friday, March 8th.