It Ain’t Easy Being Green :: Inside Hollywood’s Latest ’Oz’
There was an elephant in the room when the creators of Oz the Great and Powerful were conceiving their movie: that being 1939’s "The Wizard of Oz."
Though both are based on the same source materials - the novels of Frank Baum - the iconography of that first film is what audiences most associate with when thinking of the fantastic world over the rainbow.
And in the real world of Hollywood, where intellectual property is synonymous with creativity, the team behind the new hit movie faced an obstacle: The classic Judy Garland musical is owned by Warner Brothers, while Disney put together this prequel, which raised the question of how much could director Sam Raimi, screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner, and their creative team embrace the iconography of the earlier film without being accused of copyright infringement. Of course, this being a prequel, they’d be no Dorothy. But where are the ruby slippers, so crucial to the Oz legend? And while there’s an Emerald City and a green witch, they aren’t the same shades as they were seven decades go.
So the new "Oz" isn’t all that removed from "Wicked," the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel and musical theater sensation, in that it returns to Baum’s original stories for inspiration and content, leaving Dorothy and the her walk down the Yellow Brick Road for audiences to experience elsewhere.
No doubt Warners wasn’t all that happy to see the film soar on its opening weekend. The $200-million-blockbuster opened to a healthy $80 million in the United States, making for the biggest grossing opening weekend of the year so far.
They had their opportunity: in fact, as Raimi and his screenwriters (David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner) were developing this project, Warners had no less than three "Oz" projects in the pipeline. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, "There was a sequel titled ’Oz: The Return to Emerald City,’ about Dorothy’s granddaughter returning to Oz to fight new evil and written by ’A History of Violence’ scribe Josh Olson; ’Surrender Dorothy,’ a modern-day spin on the tale that was set up with Drew Barrymore’s production company; and ’The Wizard of Oz,’ Del Toro’s nonmusical version penned by ’Shrek Forever After’ writer Darren Lemke and set to be produced by the company behind the ’Twilight’ films."
None of them came to pass; instead Raimi’s re-imagining of "Oz" has given Disney entry into one of Hollywood’s most lucrative fantasy franchises.
One thing Raimi and his screenwriters decided not to do was to make this "Oz" a musical film.
"The writers decided that we shouldn’t imitate that fantastic musical," he said at a recent LA press conference. "There was no comparison to the great quality of music in the original. In fact, out is more based on the L. Frank Baum works. So we just tell the fantastical tales that [Baum] had written about [with the "Oz" books that came before the ’39 film]."
The one musical number in the new film, he did mention, serves as homage to the original.
The new film can be seen as something of a prequel to that classic, telling the story of how a con artist named Oscar Diggs, played by James Franco, goes from looking to make a quick buck and romancing the ladies in turn-of-the-20th-century Kansas to becoming the great and powerful Wizard when he gets caught in a tornado and sent to Oz. Once there he meets a trio of beautiful witches: two not-so-good sisters, Theodora and Evanora (played by Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz, respectively) and the Good Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). On his own walk along the yellow brick road, he meets Finley the Flying Monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a porcelain doll named China Doll (voiced by Joey King), whom he repairs after her town - the snarkily named China Town - is destroyed by one of the witches.
One of the bigger challenges Franco says he had in the project was that his character is a magician. How did the busy actor, who co-starred as Sean Penn’s lover in "Milk" and was Academy Award-nominated for "127 Hours," master the necessary skills?
"I got to learn with Lance Burton, who is a great magician from Las Vegas," Franco explained at the press event. "I got private lessons. It was pretty fun and I could accomplish the tricks." While some tricks didn’t make into the final print, Franco is proud that he still mastered them. Though to see them will require one-on-one time with the actor. "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!"
One of the selling points for Franco in choosing the film was friendship with Kunis, who he’d worked with before in films like "Date Night." "Mila and I have worked on many projects, at this point," he said. "When I was asked if I was interested in doing ’Oz,’ I had to have a meeting with Sam. But I had heard that Mila was either getting involved or was already signed on, so that was one of the big reasons that I wanted to do the movie."
Taking on characters from the original film and books may not have weighed too heavily on Franco but it definitely did on Kunis, whose Theodora becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. "I got very nervous about playing such an iconic character or at least playing a character that had such an iconic end result," she said. (Spoiler alert: think green.)
"I didn’t want to ruin it. I didn’t want to re-create it. And I didn’t want to re-interpret it. So in order for me to wrap my head around it, I had to make sense of her origin."
Raimi is best-known for directing for the first three "Spiderman" movies, but prior to that franchise, he was a leading name in the horror genre, having made "The Evil Dead" movies and such titles as "Darkman" and "The Gift." At first, he was unsure if he should evoke scarier elements in depicting Theodora’s transformation; that was until Kunis clued him in.
"She wasn’t really thinking about the fact that she was green," he explained. Instead she was tuned into her psychological dimension. In other words, Theodora’s a sweet girl with anger management issues. "She’s told me she was playing it as an innocent who falls in love [with Franco]. Her heart is broken and she suffers, but she couldn’t take the suffering and wants to end it. Her sister (Weisz) is all too willing to help her end that suffering by fueling her anger, something that’s mixed with love, jealousy and rage."
But, Raimi continued, "I wasn’t tempted to make it (her transformation) like a horror movie. I wanted [Kunis] to guide us and I would follow her with the camera."
Complicated stunt work often leaves actors grumbling; not so with both Weisz and Williams.
"I think we both really loved being on the wires," Williams said with Weisz by her side. In fact, it may have been Raimi’s team of stunt artists from one particular large movie franchise that put the ladies at ease.
We had a rehearsal period where these wonderful stunt coordinators who had worked extensively with Sam on these ’Spiderman’ films. So they were all experts in making people fly."
Still, she admits, "It was a little scary the first day.
Of course, all the actors had seen the original ’The Wizard Of Oz’ at some point in their lives, and have strong memories of it. Kunis, though, chose not to view it again once she signed onto the project. "I didn’t go there because there was no way of me ever doing it justice."
For Williams, she couldn’t place the actual first viewing she had of the earlier film, but did recall something that was significant for her. "I do remember the feeling I had when I first realized that the characters in her (Dorothy’s) waking life were the same as the characters in her dream life. That the woman on the bicycle was the wicked witch," she said. "And I remember being really affected once I had discovered that because a I felt like somebody had tricked me or was playing with me. Like, something was working on me on a subconscious level that I wasn’t aware of. That kind of freaked me out as a kid."
For Weisz, her memories were both good and bad. "It’s my earliest film memory," she shared. "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."
As for Disney’s gamble? Over its first weekend, it grossed some $155,000,000 world wide. On March 7, the studio announced plans for a sequel. And, yes, Warners plans on catching on its "Oz" franchise with plans (according to the LA Times) of creating an "Oz" cable TV show, a 3-D DVD re-release of the 1939 film and plenty of its own products."