IAR INTERVIEW: Director Sam Raimi Talks 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Monday, 04 March 2013 23:52 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Director Sam Raimi Talks 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Over the course of his thirty-five plus-years career director Sam Raimi has become one of the most respected and unique filmmakers of his generation. 

Beginning with The Evil Dead, which he made on a shoestring budget along with his childhood friends, actor Bruce Campbell (TV’s Burn Notice) and producer Robert Tapert, and continuing with Evil Dead II, Raimi showed off his true visionary style for combing terrifying horror with slapstick comedy. He would eventually finish his Evil Dead trilogy with the brilliant Army of Darkness, which abandoned the horror elements in favor of fantasy and comedy. The director would go on to make such beloved cult classics as Darkman, The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, and The Gift before creating one of the most popular franchises in film history – the original Spider-Man series. Combined, Spider-Man and its two sequels, Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, went on to earn almost $3 billion worldwide. Now Raimi returns to the big screen with the highly anticipated prequel to The Wizard of Oz, which is entitled Oz the Great and Powerful and opens in theaters on March 8th. 

The new movie was inspired by author L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and is a prequel to the classic 1939 film, however it does not feature musical numbers like its predecessor. Oz the Great and Powerful focuses on a small-time magician named Oscar Diggs (James Franco), also known as Oz, who arrives in an enchanted land called Oz, where he is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one. Along the way he meets three witches, Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), as well as a few companions for his journey including Finley the Flying Monkey (voiced by Zach Braff), China Girl (voiced by Joey King), and the Master Tinkerer (Bill Cobbs). 

As a longtime fan of both The Evil Dead and Spider-Man franchises, I was delighted recently when I had an opportunity to attend a press conference, along with several other members of the press, featuring visionary director Sam Raimi discussing his work on Oz the Great and Powerful

Fans of Raimi’s Evil Dead series, especially Army of Darkness, will be pleased to hear that Oz is surprisingly a kin to the popular horror/fantasy series. Some similarities include Raimi’s stylized way of shooting, his blend of horror and comedy, a resemblance between Oz’s witches and Evil Dead’s deadites, as well as cameos by Sam’s brother Ted Raimi, and Bruce Campbell, who in classic Evil Dead II fashion gets slapped in the face a few times. I began the press conference by asking Raimi about the similarities between his new film and The Evil Dead series, as well as not passing up the opportunity to hit his old friend in the face on screen one more time. “It's always good to hit Bruce when you can,” the director laughed. 

“But as far as what they have in common, yes, there are some similarities with the Army of Darkness movie, the third in the Evil Dead series, and this picture.” Raimi explained. “Bruce Campbell plays a character that comes from another time, back into 1300AD, and into medieval times. They think he is one of their enemies and that a plague has come upon the land. I won't retell the whole story but there are some similarities (between Army of Darkness and Oz the Great and Powerful), but they're distant. He eventually becomes a leader of those people, so that much is similar with James's character. He comes from another place and time, another reality and eventually comes to lead those people. It's very similar,” he concluded.

Following the Spider-Man series, Oz marks the forth time Raimi has collaborated with Academy Award-nominated actor James Franco, but the first time the actor has played the lead in one of his films. Raimi had this to say about collaborating with Franco this time around. “Working with James Franco was great and we developed a shorthand over those three Spider-Man movies that we were able to work on together,” he explained. “We learned to trust each other more and more as the years went on, but still it was an absolutely brand new experience working with him as the lead in this picture, because I really get into the heads of my lead heroes and work very closely with them.” 

“Because James played the best friend to Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies and someone who was trying to kill him, I never really like those guys who are trying to kill my heroes,” Raimi continued. “So I never connected with him as much as I did with like Tobey Maguire in those days. Now I was taking this journey through his eyes and we'd talk about everything. Everything had to be really understood by each other and agreed upon. Not that he would want to take me on wild explorations, not that I was trying to lock him in, we just had to understand precisely what we were going through together. So we got to be very close and share a lot of intimate thoughts because a director and actor have to agree upon what is the truth. Sometimes you have to discuss how you really would feel in these situations and it gets to be very personal. I had a wonderful experience working with James on this.”

The director went on to explain that Franco was not always set to play the Wizard and that several other actors were attached or considered before he cast his former Spider-Man star. “Originally when I joined the project, Robert Downey Jr. was attached to play the role, and I met with him about it twice. I don't think he felt the picture was right for him. Then I talked with Johnny Depp briefly and for about forty-eight hours he was thinking about it. He decided it wasn't right for him either. Then I heard James was interested and I had never thought of him, but then I began to think about what I knew about James and his history,” Raimi explained.

The filmmaker also discussed where the idea to make a prequel to The Wizard of Oz came from. “This movie is based on the works of the
great American author L. Frank Baum. All the things you see in our picture, almost all of them, were written about one hundred and ten years ago. So he had the ideas in these stories and a screenwriter named Mitchell Kapner read that book and decided to tell a particular part of what was written in those books, how the wizard got to the land of Oz, who he was and what became of him. So really it was a combination of those writers and then David Lindsay-Abaire, another writer came aboard and contributed his ideas and that's really where the idea for this thing came from.”

The new film links up well to the original 1939 classic and similarly uses black and white footage while they are in Kansas, as well as utilizing a formatted screen before going wide in Oz. However, it should be noted that the entire movie is shown in 3D. While there are no ruby red slippers, Dorothy Gale, or Toto, there are Munchkins, flying monkeys, a yellow brick road, the poppy seed field, and hidden nods to the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Another similarity between the two films is that much like the original, some actors play characters in both Kansas and Oz. Early in the film we are introduced to Annie (also played by Michelle Williams), a Kansas woman who had an affair with Oz. She breaks his heart when she confesses to him that she is going to marry “a man named Gale” because he cannot commit. Since Williams plays both Annie and Glinda, this leaves one to wonder if she might eventually become Dorothy’s mother, and a reporter that noticed this Easter egg asked Raimi about the coincidence. 

“That's David Lindsay-Abaire's tricky mind suggesting something like that so you would ask that question basically,” he admitted. “Trying to plant a seed to suggest that maybe … I don't know if we ever talked about this because I didn't want it to influence anything, but that maybe Michelle becomes the mother of Dorothy with John Gale. I didn't want to bring that up because it would be confusing, but that's what he was subtly implying. That perhaps Annie went off and married John Gale and their daughter was Dorothy. But that's David Lindsay-Abaire, always trying to weave some wild kind of tale.”

With a film as large in scope as Oz the Great and Powerful, Raimi also talked about what he unfortunately had to leave on the editing room floor. “There was so much that I had to leave out actually. I don't think it's going to show up on the DVD but there's a lot of really good, rich backstory that I had to leave out,” he explained. “The hardest thing I think I had to do on this picture was tell this ensemble story with these seven main characters and balance all their stories. There's a backstory of Glinda's father, that he had been murdered beforehand. There's so much intrigue, so I had a lot of really rich backstory with Glinda and the Master Tinker, and a relationship to her father for instance that I was very sorry that I couldn't put in the picture just because the thing got too long. I have other bits and pieces of other characters' stories too. I just had to choose which needed to be in there to keep the movie just slightly over two hours.”

Finally, as anyone who’s been to college knows, there is an old wise tale that if you play Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” while watching The Wizard of Oz, and you are perhaps a bit inebriated, that they actually fit together. Raimi was asked if that would work with his film as well. “Yes, but you've got to wait about four seconds for the needle drop and then it works perfectly.”

Oz the Great and Powerful opens in theaters March 8th. 

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