The yellow brick road. The flying monkeys. The green tinted witch.
These are seminal images from the 1939 iconic film The Wizard of Oz, and though no ruby heels were clicked together, The Gazette had the magical opportunity to talk to director Sam Raimi and actor James Franco about their newest project coming to theatres this week, Oz the Great and Powerful.
The film, inspired by the L. Frank Baum novels, acts as a kind of prequel to the well-known adventure of Dorothy. Franco plays the charming yet flawed Oscar Diggs, a travelling circus magician who finds himself transported to a mystical, but volatile, world.
“He’s selfish, a bit of a womanizer. He thinks that happiness will come from financial success and fame,” says Franco who, in preparation for the role, trained with famous Las Vegas magician Lance Burton. “I needed to be able to do those tricks convincingly, and to hold myself on stage like a magician in a convincing way.”
In the film, Franco performs alongside Hollywood powerhouse actors Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz. When it came to casting these roles, Raimi looked for people who could embody their character’s spirit.
“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,” explains Raimi, whose previous directorial endeavours include the Evil Dead series, Darkman and the Spider-Man films. “As the old saying is, you want to find the right person for the role.”
When it came to casting the infamous Theodora, Raimi needed an actress that could highlight both the innocence and wickedness of the character. The director saw this potential in Kunis, specifically judging from her performance in 2010’s Black Swan.
“She had this real dark and nasty witchy quality,” Raimi says. “That told me that she could play the other half of the role.”
According to Raimi, the same could be said for casting Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch.
“Primarily, I thought the most important thing with this character is a source of pure goodness. I needed an actress that had a good soul.” That’s exactly what Raimi found in Williams who, he explains, emits a positive aura. “I consider her to be a very good soul, and that’s something that couldn’t be faked by an actor. I needed her to radiate that goodness.”
While the film’s cast is promising, Oz the Great and Powerful also offers a visual representation of the world of Oz that is aesthetically unlike any other. In creating the unique environment of Oz, Raimi drew from Baum’s initial vision of this alternate world. One particular set that stands out to Raimi is Glinda’s kingdom.
“It’s so beautiful. Our production design is that of Robert Stromberg, who designed that castle in that style. I thought it was a lovely choice because it’s very feminine, and this is a female kingdom with a female leader,” Raimi explains. “I like the fact that everything in the kingdom would have a pearl essence, kind of a beautiful glow like Glinda’s bubbles, or her dress, with shimmering sheen.” Like Raimi, Franco also found inspiration in the source material.
“I’ve been a fan of the Oz books since I was a boy,” Franco recalls. “When I was age 11, they were some of the first books that I read on my own for pleasure. Because I was an Oz fan, I wanted to be sure that they had a sound approach and that they were being loyal to certain things about Oz that people expect, and then also having a fresh take on it. I was already very hopeful because Sam was involved.”
Franco’s faith in Raimi as a director comes from their previous collaboration in the Spider-Man series, which Raimi directed and Franco starred in as Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend turned worst enemy.
“He is one of my favourite directors to work with, and he makes some of my favourite films. Sam Raimi identifies with his lead characters very closely, and because my character was trying to kill Peter Parker, I think Sam blamed me for that,” jokes Franco. “Now that I’m the protagonist, Sam is identifying with my character, and so I felt a lot more of Sam’s love on this film.”
Raimi and Franco’s involvement in the film isn’t the only reunion from Spider-Man that occurred on the set of Oz the Great and Powerful. Danny Elfman composed musical scores for both films, and Raimi identifies Elfman’s work as a highlight in Oz.
“He took the drama and he deepened it. He connects so many threads like that with his music, it just enhances the whole experience for me. He enhances the mood of the picture.”
What is the mood of the picture? For Franco, it’s different from other variations and remakes of The Wizard of Oz.
“They had all the elements you need in order for people to recognize the world of Oz, but then I saw that their approach into the world was not a male version of Dorothy,” Franco adds. “My character was, instead, a kind of con man that was pretending to be something he’s not, and gets into a lot of awkward situations that could be played for comedy. That comedic edge will help distinguish this version of Oz from other versions.”
Expanding on Franco’s sentiments, Raimi hopes the audiences in Oz the Great and Powerful experience more than a few short laughs.
“Ideally, I’d like them to feel uplifted. The best thing that stories could do for us is reverberate with truth and show us the way,” Raimi concludes. “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.”