Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi and out in theatres Friday, tells the Wizard’s story — that of a Kansas-born circus magician (James Franco) who stumbles into the Land of Oz and subsequently must reevaluate his ideas of good and evil. Here’s what Franco and Raimi had to say about the film:
Recently, you’ve been doing a lot of serious movies. Why did you decide to attach yourself to this more family fun, adventure film?
Well, I’ve been a fan of the Oz books — L. Frank Baum Oz books — since I was a boy. I read all of them when I was age 11. They were some of the first books that I read on my own for pleasure, and I’ve worked with the director, Sam Raimi, in three previous films and so this was another chance to work with him. And then, in addition to that, I saw the role as something I could have a lot of fun with and could be fairly creative with. He was written as a comedic character within this fantastical world, and I found that combination to be fairly unusual and I just thought it would be a juxtaposition of two different things — comedy and fantasy — that would result in something entertaining.
When taking up this project, did you have any initial hesitations about portraying this character that you had read about?
Yeah, well, because I was an Oz fan … I wanted to be sure that they had a sound approach, and I was already very hopeful because Sam was involved … and he’s just one of best directors, and I knew that they would capture the visuals of the movie very well, or at least I had hopes that they would. But I wanted to be sure that they were being loyal to certain things about Oz that people expect, and then also had a fresh take on it, and they did. They had all the elements you need in order for people to recognize the world of Oz … But then I saw that their approach to the world — the emissary into the world was not a male version of Dorothy. Fortunately, they weren’t just going to redo it with an innocent young person walking through Oz — that my character was, instead, a kind of con man that was stumbling through Oz and, and because he’s pretending to be something he’s not, he gets into a lot of awkward situations that could be played for comedy. And I thought that comedic edge would help distinguish this version of Oz from other versions.
What was your first impression or interpretation of Oscar/Oz when reading the script for the first time?
Again, you know, his character starts off as a flawed man. He’s selfish, he’s a bit of a womanizer, he thinks that happiness will come from, financial success and fame. And it blinds him to the love of the people around him. And I saw that one of the reasons to start the character off that way was that it would allow for growth in the character, and that the movie would not just be a physical journey through a mystical land, but it would also involve an inner journey of the character … that he would go from this flawed person to possibly becoming a better person.
What’s different about working with Sam Raimi now than it was when you were working on Spiderman?
I’ve known Sam for over ten years. He is one of my favorite directors to both work with and he makes some of my favorite films. When I worked on Spiderman with him, I was a supporting character and Sam Raimi identifies with his lead characters very closely. And so he very much identified with Peter Parker. And because my character was trying to kill Peter Parker, I think Sam blamed me for that, and I, not in a harsh way, but I felt like I got a little less love than Tobey McGuire on those films, just because of what the character was doing. And now that I’m the protagonist in Oz, Sam is identifying with my character. And so I felt a lot more of Sam’s love on this film.
What was it about these actors, who between them have a very diverse acting background, that makes them so perfect for their respective roles?
Well it all comes down to the casting process. I wasn’t looking for, necessarily the very best actor or actress in the world. I was looking for that actor or actress that had the qualities of the character they’re going to portray. And I guess that’s the essence of the casting process. And the old saying is, you want to find the right person for the role.
So I’m looking for — like with Mila Kunis’s character, she plays Theodora … and Theodora is a good and innocent character — so I’m looking for someone who could portray that innocence, and also she makes a turn for the wicked side. The wizard breaks her heart and first she’s heartbroken, but then a deep anger starts to stir within her, and she becomes a raging woman scorned. So I needed somebody who would portray both sides of that character. And there are a lot of great actresses, but, when I saw two movies it told me that she could handle both sides.
One was Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I saw this real positive vibe that she put out as this, I guess, Hawaiian hotel clerk. And I thought, ‘there is an innocent, positive force.’ That is, I believe she could play Theodora. And then when I saw the brilliant … Black Swan, where she had this real dark and nasty, witchy quality, that told me that she could play the other half of the role.
And the same is true … with Michelle Williams, who plays Glinda the Good Witch. Primarily I thought the most important thing with this character is a source of pure goodness. And I needed an actress that had a good soul. So suddenly that ruled out about 90 percent of the actresses in Hollywood. [Laughs] … what I mean to say is that when you spend time with Michelle Williams, she puts out a very sweet aura. And I consider her to be with a very good soul. And that’s something that I thought couldn’t be faked by an actor, no matter how fine they were. Because when the camera gets in close, really close to the face of the actor or actress, the audience knows whether they’re true or not. They know in their heart whether or not… they can judge it from a critical point of view, I don’t know, but you can feel it. And I needed her to radiate that goodness.
What was the best part of working on the film? And also, what was the most challenging part of working on the film?
The best part of the picture for me was, as a director, was once I had worked on the thing for like two years and eight months, was to hear Danny Elfman, our composer, create such a fantastic score. Because he took the emotions that were in the movie and he elevated them. He took the drama and he deepened it, the thread, enhanced it. So he basically made everything better, he was the secret sauce that brings it to the next level. That was the best part for me, to see the movie whole and be made better and be brought together.
Um, the most challenging, I think was probably not dissimilar from other filmmakers and their ensemble movies, where there are many characters, and many back stories, and many interconnected relationship tales, and juggling what part of their back story should I include.
What part should I cut out? What part should I give the audience? And what part would be most effective if I let the audience use their own imagination to fill in the blanks? Because, that’s really the secret I think – letting the audience participate. Not spoon-feeding them everything, but giving them just enough tools to finish building the bridge and make them their own collaborator. And it’s that part about it, part of that is what to withhold.
You’re also reconnecting with composer Danny Elfman for the first time since the Spiderman trilogy, what you do think Elfman’s music will bring to the atmosphere of the film?
Well he took, um, what he did was, it was what he contributed to the atmosphere; he made the love story much deeper. And he did that by, he connected the dots. See, the Wizard inKansas, he has a love story with a girl named Annie, played by Michelle Williams, and this is a love that’s right before the Wizard, if only he would recognize it and embrace it, he would really be happy. But he’s too blind; he only sees fame and fortune and the more menial aspects ofour existence as the, as the road to happiness.
And it’s only once he gets to Oz that his eyes start to open, he becomes a little less selfish and he starts to realize that true love is the most valuable thing that one can strive for. It’s one of the stories in the picture. And so, Danny Elfman creates a love theme that he’s decided to play with Annie and the Wizard and it’s an incomplete, fragile, broken thing. But later when the Wizard meets Glinda and their love story blossoms, you’ll hear that theme in all of its orchestrated fullness.
And it helps tie the threads together, it helps you help feel that, yes, a mistake that he made in the past, could be corrected, the same love can be reborn with the new realization that it was real and important and true. And, he’s done so many things like that, connects so many threads like that with his music that, um, it just enhances the whole experience for me. But he also added great mood when those winged baboons are around, and the drums and the horns come on. They’re very primal and they get your heart beating and he’s basically, he’s the emotion of the picture. Danny is the-the heartbeat, the thrills and the, like you said in your question, he becomes the mood of the picture, he enhances the mood of the picture.
What are you most excited about for audiences to take away from seeing the film?
I’d like them to feel, and ideally I’d like them to feel uplifted. You know, the best thing that stories could do for us is reverberate with truth and show us the way, in a way that is not pushy or, preachy but … if you could recognize this is true, and that’s true, and see there is a way to be happy with material goods, without the pride, without sense of self being everything [and] all dominating, there’s a simple beauty in loving another person and friends coming together, in being selfless. And that’s what this movie’s message is, and that’s what I’d like the audience to come away with.
What advice would you give to aspiring directors looking to forward their careers after college?
I would say, be directing now, not after college. Every day you should be writing. Writing a script or a scene, every weekend, every Saturday, you should be shooting on video a scene from the script you’ve been writing. Around Sunday you should be cutting the thing, and on Monday you should be showing it to a university audience. And they won’t like your damn little picture. So you’re going to have to take it back and recut it and make it better, and rewrite it on Friday, reshoot it on Saturday, recut it on Sunday, put some music on it, and show it to them again on Monday. And they might like it a little bit better. That’s what you got to do and you got to keep doing it, just keep shooting and you will be a filmmaker. If you wait for some after school thing, or sometime in the future to start your career, that waiting will expand. You just do it now and you will always be a director. So get to work you lazy bums [laughs].
Oz the Great and Powerful premieres in Boston theatres on Friday, March 8.