"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." - The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), "The Wizard of Oz"
Just like Baum's famed title creation, Sam Raimi is imposing only if you haven't encountered the man behind the myth live and in person. The days I was on set, I had observed him as the calm at the center of a high-stakes $200 million storm - a creature of preternatural ease amidst a constant tumult of sound and fury.
"The screenplay is based on a lot of elements of a lot of [Baum's] books," he explains, sitting down to chat with us inside the drab gray conference room that had been designated as our holding area. "In many of his books, and even more than the ones I read, he would go back and talk about the Wizard. There’s a little bit about the Wizard in the first one, a little bit about the Wizard in three and four. He went back and said, 'Here’s how the wizard got here and this was his backstory.' So what the writer, Mitchell Kapner, did was he took all those elements that were given to the audience in later books that he’s kind of rearranged…not 'kind of,' he’s put them back in chronological order of what happened to the Wizard, how the Wizard got there to the Land of Oz."
Not that there was much raw biographical material on offer to begin with; by Raimi's own admission, Kapner was forced to take "tremendous artistic license" with the rather slim back-story offered by Baum's novels.
"What might have the Wicked Witch or these other characters have been doing during this time?" he said. "Sometimes it was written about, sometimes it wasn’t. So, I think Mitchell Kapner could best speak about it, but he’s taken elements of the books and rearranged them in what could have happened. It’s a 'what if' story."
One thing I found striking about being on-set was that just like the 1939 film, Raimi's Oz was constructed as a wholly artificial world - every tree and bush and brick and blade of grass the result of exquisite human craftsmanship. As a follow-up to one of Golden Age Hollywood's most beloved films, itself shot entirely on soundstages, the approach felt exactly right.
"Nothing is really being shot outside," said Raimi to this point. "The look of Oz is so unique the way that [production designer] Robert Stromberg and his team have designed it that nothing real will fit into this world. I couldn’t even shoot a sky. Maybe Michigan clouds could have been in there because they’re pretty fantastic. But everything is tweaked in such a unique way that no street, no green field in Ireland, no wall would ever fit into Robert’s design. Everything is so unique…except his 1900 Kansas where the movie starts, but of course that all has to be faked for different reasons, because of the period. We probably could have shot a barn or a farmhouse here if we had found the right one with the right background, but there was a problem of getting the plains of Kansas, the feel of Kansas just right. In Michigan, we did not find the right look for that."
Given Raimi's affection and reverence for the '39 film - a production so close to his heart that he hesitated even cracking Baum's original novels, which he had never read, for fear they might somehow sully the experience of watching the film ("I didn’t want the books to mess up the movie for me," he admitted) - the fact that he is unable to incorporate some of its most iconic elements, including Dorothy's famed ruby slippers, is a difficult one for him to accept.
"[It's] a shame," he laments when the subject arises. "Because it’s really all about honoring that film and the books. More the film, in my opinion. But, we just had to. So I just got over [it] and thought, 'The audience is so sharp. They don’t need that.' I wish I could have used the imagery from the original film to tell those stories about the characters earlier in their lives, [but] we’re not able to. So it was something we had to get over."
Regardless of Disney's legal inability to feature certain symbolic items and makeup specifics from the original film, the branding potential of "Oz the Great and Powerful" is second to none. In Raimi's estimation, that element made it an easy greenlight for Disney executives, whose confidence was further bolstered by the A-list director's own steadfast faith in the project.
"I told them very early on, after working on the script for a couple months, 'I’m committing to this picture. I intend to make it. I’m going to put everything I’ve got into it. I really believe in it,'" said Raimi. "And I think once I committed completely to them, I felt that they were committed. And it was a very quick process to production, if that term means what I think it means. It went very quickly to go to pre-production. They made commitments to hire artists and storyboard artists and a production designer. It was very fast."
Though Raimi is a native of Michigan, where he shot many of his early films, it was merely a stroke of good fortune (read: generous tax incentives) that landed him back in his home state to shoot a Hollywood blockbuster with a budget hundreds of times greater than that of his very first feature, the 1981 horror classic "The Evil Dead."
"I wrote my first horror movie 'The Evil Dead' here and raised the money for it here. Shot some of it here in my garage. Shot one called 'Evil Dead II,' some of the miniature work and some of the ending here, edited it here. I made one called 'Crimewave' here. I would have stayed here forever, but the film business back then just was not here. So I had to move to Los Angeles. But I love the trees in the fall, the rain and the gray skies, and I like the cold," he says, before quickly adding, "[though] I wouldn’t if I had an outside job."
One particular point of pride for the director is the fact that he has in some way been able to contribute to the well-being of his home state, one of the hardest hit following the recent economic downturn.
"The state is really hurting economically, as you know," he says. "I hope that these tax incentives are good for the state. They only want it if it’s good for the state. I hope it doesn’t result in all the money going out of the state to Hollywood. I like the people here and I want them to do well and they seem like they really appreciate when they’ve got a job. ...I guess it’s similar to any place that’s really depressed. These people really appreciate the work and they’re doing a great job. People come in every day and I’ve heard people whistling. 'What’s that noise? Is that a happy person?'"
Happiness. It's a difficult commodity to come by in these uncertain times, and yet the power of Baum's vision lies in its mythical simplicity - the suggestion that the key to that elusive state of being lies within, and only within. It's an idea that has formed the basis of every cheap New Age spiritual movement over the last half century - nearly all of them primed to capitalize on a broken culture that, in its emphasis on earthly pursuits, tends to work against our own best interests - and yet still it endures as a core of eternal truth, somewhere over the rainbow.
"I think it’s universal, the story of all of us who are capable of doing good and the hero being made because he recognizes that ability within himself and he grows to do something greater than himself," says Raimi. "He grows to take part in a cause that’s more important than his selfishness or his greed. He learns the true value of the gifts that he’s been given as a magician. They can be used, not just to entertain others and for his own profit, but to uplift others, to set them free."
"Oz the Great and Powerful" hits theaters on March 8.