Set Visit: Enter the mythical land of Sam Raimi's 'Oz the Great and Powerful'
Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.
As it so happens, the mythical Land of Oz is located on a soundstage in Michigan - and James Franco's fly is down.
"I love the shabby-chic of the clothing when you see it up close," says a fellow journalist in reference to Franco's costume. "Because we've been watching from afar, and you look very put together and perfect. Here it's all lose threads and slightly visible insides...one of your fly buttons is undone. I mean is that kind of shabby-grunge what you're shooting for?"
"You could've said it a little more discreet," growls the actor in annoyance as he zips himself up.
Answers the reporter: "I really thought you were doing that deliberately."
"No," says Franco, shaking it off. The Wizard is a little surly today.
The massive soundstage we find ourselves on houses one of the spectacular sets for Walt Disney Studios' "Oz the Great and Powerful," director Sam Raimi's prequel to Victor Fleming (and, to a lesser extent, King Vidor's) 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz." Franco is seated on a metal folding chair in a small half-circle of reporters, myself included. There's the sense that he's been dragged here to speak with us against his better judgment, though that's merely an observation on my part; in no way do I presume to understand the complex web that makes up the brain of an Oscar-nominated actor.
"In the beginning, he's not the most successful magician," offers Franco, who plays a younger version of the '39 film's titular eccentric. "So these are the clothes from Kansas, and it’s a way to set up his attraction to wealth, but really kind of a drive to pull himself out of the poverty of his early life. I guess the story is he grew up on a farm too, and his father struggled to make ends meet. So Oz's life is -- at least in the beginning -- motivated by a need to better his economic standpoint."
The setup is this: Small-time traveling magician/conman Oscar Diggs (Franco) is transported from Kansas to the enchanting fairytale land of Oz. Captivated by the strange new world, Oscar's newfound enthusiasm is curtailed by witches Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), none of whom are convinced he is the great wizard the inhabitants of Oz believe him to be. It isn't long before he discovers that this spellbinding fantasy world is far from the paradise he had imagined.
It's no secret that Raimi's first choice for the role wasn't Franco but rather "Iron Man" star Robert Downey Jr., though in the end unspecified roadblocks prevented the deal from materializing.
"He was signed on I think," says Franco when asked. "Sam said he gave him a plant at the first meeting, and when he went for the second meeting, he saw that the plant had been put aside and it was dead already and that was a bad omen."
Following that, Disney entered discussions with "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Johnny Depp to assume the role, but those talks also fell through. That left room for Franco, who'd previously established a relationship with Raimi while working on the first three "Spider-Man" films, to board the project.
"It was a pretty easy decision [to sign on]," says Franco. "Downey Jr. had fallen out -- I'm not sure why -- and then they were talking to Johnny Depp and he didn't end up doing it. So then I had a meeting with Sam, and I read the script and briefly talked about it. I don’t know, it was just kind of an understanding that we both liked the approach that there was one aspect of it that would pay tribute to the collective sense of 'Oz' but there would be a fresh take."
Though the '39 film is now far better known than its source material - Frank L. Baum's 1900 novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" - Franco, an actor who's become known for touting his familiarity with classic works of literature, assures of his love not only for Baum's inaugural "Oz" tome but its numerous follow-ups.
"I actually was a fairly big reader when I was younger, and I think the first books I read on my own were The Baum 'Oz' books, the fourteen or fifteen that he wrote," he says. "So like a lot of movies that I've done, it's really satisfying to step into this world, because it's material that I was fascinated by when I was younger. In a similar way with Ginsberg, when I was a little older I read him, and then got to play Ginsberg [in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's experimental 2010 biopic 'Howl']. This is kind of a similar experience."
Somewhat to his credit, Franco seemed unwilling to fake an attitude of good cheer or amiability for the benefit of his interviewers during our very brief 7-minute conversation with him. Throughout, a very dense hardbound book of his sat idly by like a blunt-force weapon.