Interview: Sam Raimi Talks Making ‘Oz The Great And Powerful’, Sequels, Disneyland, Shooting 3D and More
Posted on Friday, March 8th, 2013 by Peter Sciretta
I just love this photo of Sam Raimi sitting on the yellow brick road as he looks over storyboards and notes. I’ve had a couple chances to talk to director Sam Raimi about Oz The Great and Powerful, once on set as part of a roundtable in late 2011 and again after seeing the movie a couple weeks ago. After the jump you will get to read both interviews.
Peter Sciretta: You’ve made big movies at big corporations before, but Disney is a bit different. How different was it in making a movie at the mouse?
Sam Raimi: I wanted to make OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a movie that Walt Disney himself would have been proud of, so my goal was even more Disney than Disney. I wanted the whole family to go see this movie, for it to be sweet and uplifting, for it to be a little scary, but mostly be a very special experience for the family as a whole to go see it. Had my goals been different, my experience may have been very different.
Peter Sciretta: Working in that environment, when you’re developing the film, is there any eye to “We need something in there that might, if this film is successful, become a theme park ride” or anything like that? Or is that just an afterthought?
Sam Raimi: They are very careful at Disney. They didn’t force me to think of the movie like that. They just wanted me to make the best movie, but it’s not to say that Sean Bailey didn’t take me out to a dinner with the head of Disney’s Imagineers and say “What ideas do you have for the park if it were successful?” “How about a bubble ride…” They wanted to know “What environments are special, what should we be thinking about?” I said, “Well Whimsy Woods is really interesting.” I described the environment and showed them pictures. “Glenda’s Kingdom is quite beautiful, maybe if you ever did something…” They listened to me. Obviously they have their own ideas, but they wanted to hear what I had to say and probably if they ever made a sequel, they would invest in something like that. I don’t think they would ever do it, I was told, on a first picture.
Peter Sciretta: If they ever did something like that, would you want to be involved?
Sam Raimi: Sure, but I don’t think they’d want me.
Peter Sciretta:You know, judging by the advertisements, the world looks hugely computer created, but there are tons of sets and practical stuff. Can you talk about that?
Sam Raimi: Sure. Well we wanted a really absolutely new experience for the audience as far as the look of the picture, what Baum’s world would really be like, what the land of Oz would be like, and we wanted to make it as photoreal as possible actually, so we started, Robert and I, with the idea that we would build as many sets as possible and in all cases we would have them for the actors to feel rooted in, grounded and really feel like they were in a real place. And we really tried to keep the CG to the extension of that world, the impossible extension of those fantastic mountains or hills or waterways or outrageous cloudscapes, but primarily we wanted… as crazy as it was to look photoreal…. I hope it’s not an impossible sentence I’m making, but… and we thought we had achieved that through building as much of the foreground of each shot as possible, but also in addition it was our way of controlling the look of the film. We wanted…. Within the Land of Oz there are many different looks. There’s the look of the Emerald City. There’s the look of Glenda’s Kingdom. There’s kind of a bubble like sheen to everything that’s quite beautiful with golden sunlight. There’s the look of the Dark Forest, mysterious and thorny and dark and very contrasty. So every one of these lands have a different designed look and we wanted to shoot sets in the foreground, so that when we gave the film to the CGI artists they would see how that dappled sunlight was falling on the bricks. They would see how textures of his skin reacted as it brushed against these twigs. We always had a lot of detail for the artists to use, so they simply… well not “simply,” but their job was to continue that landscape to keep it really consistent world to world. Do you understand what I mean by that?
Peter Sciretta:Yeah, definitely. Compared to the original WIZARD OF OZ, you could see where the sound stage ends, here it feels like a more real world.
Sam Raimi: Great.
Peter Sciretta: In terms of the CG, it’s interesting to see Joey King and Zach Braff’s characters and how you brought them to life. Can you talk a little bit about that process? It’s very different than a lot of what I’ve gone to see of what other filmmakers have done.
Sam Raimi: More than anything, the strength of this script was the humanity in it and that’s the strength of the great classic WIZARD OF OZ movie. So I challenged my visual effects designer with “How can I make these characters more human than human? I want to capture Joey’s performance absolutely. I want to capture Zack’s performance absolutely. I don’t want a CG performance.” Then he said, “Then we will do just that. We will capture them with the camera. We won’t do the motion control. We won’t have their performance drive some computer android.” So what we did a was we filmed them and then we interpreted it through the heart of a great animator, our animation director. He would look at the takes that Bob Murawski, our editor, had selected of that performance and that animator would look at it and simply animate by hand these CGI characters really working from the heart, not being driven by a computer to capture the essence of what they were performing versus the letter of what they were performing.
Peter Sciretta: That makes sense. It’s so weird, you’d think performance capture should imitate the reality, but it never usually feels real…. It seems robotic.
Sam Raimi: I just didn’t want it, nor did Scott Stokdyk want it interpreted through a computer on this particular picture.
Peter Sciretta: This is the first time you have directed a 3D film, right?
Sam Raimi: Yes.
Peter Sciretta: Can you talk about how that process is different, in developing, filming and editing?
Sam Raimi: I had to learn a lot about it. I didn’t know anything about 3D when I started and I had to go to 3D school and shoot tests and talk to cinematographers and go to visual effects houses and see different versions of 3D footage and really learn about it. And the difference… it’s less different than I thought it would be from shooting a regular 2D picture. In some ways the dimensionality takes care of itself, but still you really want to design the shots with midground, foreground, background, so they have a lot of breath of dimension, so the audience can feel it. You want to stay away from it in dialog scenes I’ve found, with my tastes, so the audience can really focus on what’s being said and getting to the character what they are feeling. There are times where I learned I needed to pull back on it and times I really wanted to push it. I wasn’t… There are very tasteful directors like James Cameron who did that beautiful job with AVATAR, but I have a little more lowbrow approach and not only do I like the dimensionality to move off into the distance, but I’m not adverse to having things jump out at us. I feel if someone is paying extra money for these tickets, they get the 3D show and in the 2D version I can diminish those effects. I mean it doesn’t have to be like that. I have a slightly different version for the 2D experience.
Peter Sciretta: Oh, really?
Sam Raimi: Yes.
Peter Sciretta: I really loved the 3D, especially in the beginning with the snow and the fire…
Sam Raimi: Great.
Peter Sciretta: I love how you weren’t conservative with some of the 3D effects.
Sam Raimi: Thank you. Bob Murawski, my editor really was a big believer in that and I agreed with him.
[Warning: The next answer may contain spoilers]
Peter Sciretta: If this is successful, as I hope it is, where do you go from here? Everybody seems to be where they are where the next one picks up or almost, so what more story is there to tell?
Sam Raimi: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I haven’t even thought about it. (Laughs) I did try and set it up so that… I tried to make it seem like a complete ending, so that the audience would be fulfilled, but at the same time, I made sure that Evenora got away with her wicked baboons and so did Theodora, so that anything is possible if they decided to make another one. I wanted them to be set up with the proper ammunition.
Peter Sciretta: Do you personal think that Oz ever wakes up from “this dream world”?
Sam Raimi: I don’t think he’s asleep.
Peter Sciretta: You don’t?
Sam Raimi: In my mind, Oz is an alternate dimension that this gentleman has actually travelled to and there it’s a land of second chances. He finds himself in this new place, like someone coming to America.
[publicist comes over to end the interview]
Peter Sciretta: Thank you very much, Sam.
Sam Raimi: Thank you. I’ve got a gift for you. These coins were the props used in the movie. Only fifteen hundred of them were made.
Peter Sciretta: That is incredible. That’s Frank Baum (on the front of the coin), right?
Sam Raimi: Yeah, we are pretending that he’s King Pastora, Glenda’s father, but I used the image of L. Frank Baum and on the back is one of my themes of the picture.
Peter Sciretta: “Emerald City: In giving, we receive.”
Sam Raimi: Yes.
Peter Sciretta: That means a lot to the main character, right?
Sam Raimi: That’s right.
Peter Sciretta: Thank you very much Sam.
On Set Roundtable Interview
We visited the set in the fall of 2011 with other online bloggers, and conducted the following roundtable interview with Sam:
Question: Could you talk about the development of Oz: The Great and Powerful and if this was a challenging film to get the green light on?
Sam Raimi: No, it was a very easy process to get this picture into production. Joe Roth was the producer. Disney had been developing the script with Joe Roth and his company, along with Mitchell Kapner, at the time, and they really liked it. I think they must have thought it was a very “Disney” type of picture, whatever that means. I know that every time a president changes, I’m sure their mandate of the type of movies they make changes. But it seems like it’s a fun, family adventure and it seems like whatever that Disney image is, this really does feel like it’s right for them. I can’t really say what went on with their company and their thinking about how they proceed to production, but it seemed like the moment I came aboard the picture that they had an intention to make it. 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. I love the characters and I saw where we could take the characters. Certainly, a lot of that was my faith in Mitchell, and eventually my faith in the second writer, Dave Lindsay-Abaire, and they saw where we could take the characters, so a lot of it was my faith in them and their visions. I really believe we can make a great movie out of it.” 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.
Question: With a universe of material like this which is beloved but not necessarily well known, is the trick to go back to the existing L. Frank Baum material and find elements to make fresh or is the trick to find new elements to add to the existing skeleton and universe that Mr. Baum created?
Raimi: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Can I have a multiple choice question? [laughs]
Question:What’s the balance between reverentially regarding Mr. Baum’s material, which has endured on its merits, for well nigh a century and wanting to make that alive and fresh for the modern sensibility of a modern movie-going audience?
Raimi: Well, when I came to the project, I had never read any of Baum’s work and I’ve only read four of the books now. First of all, I so loved the movie The Wizard of Oz that I was afraid to read versions of it that were not exactly what I loved so much about the movie. This is very strange, I didn’t want the book to mess up the movie for me, this is where I was at. But then, after I read the screenplay, which I loved, I started to read the books and appreciate Baum’s work. I was so surprised at how exactly [the movie] The Wizard of Oz was his first book. His work is fresh right now. It’s brilliant and affecting and the characters don’t need to be refreshened by anybody.
However, the screenplay is based on a lot of elements of a lot of his books. 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.
So he’s already taken tremendous artistic license and it’s not exactly what happened in the books that was talked about, may have been referenced. He’s had to fill in the blanks. So, when I read the screenplay, it was never a faithful adaptation of any of the books. It was the writer piecing together what Baum had given him, and then he had to fill in a tremendous amount of blanks. There was no information there.
What might have the Wicked Witch or these other characters have been doing during this time? 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.
Question: Do you ever feel a slight pang recognizing certain elements of the 1939 film that you can’t use, like the ruby slippers or that specific look, for fear of litigation?
Raimi: Yeah, it’s the movie that I love. That’s what I fell in love with and what terrified me and exhilarated me. I didn’t want to have anything to do with a screenplay having anything to do with that movie because I didn’t want to mess with it or tread upon its fine nature or use it in any way. But I read the script and it was a love poem to that movie, or those books, that I didn’t know at the time. I felt that it was someone who so admired the movie and they were trying to enhance it and, for me, it never took away. And, I also thought, nothing could ever take away from that movie. It’s so brilliant and enduring. Yes, I wanted to honor the movie.
As far as “pangs” of not being able to be more accurate to the movie because they weren’t within the rights of Disney to honor it in that way, I think that’s fine. Everything had to be re-imagined. I thought that going into this project, we shouldn’t mess with the yellow-brick road. The image the audience has in their mind from the movie is so powerful, they don’t need anyone to reinvent it for them. It’s fine to tell other stories using it, having people tread upon the yellow-brick road, that’s what I would have liked to have seen. Just like, when we go to the Emerald City, I really don’t want our team to re-imagine it. I want to hear other stories about it and what else happened in New York. I don’t want to see a re-imagined version of New York, I want to know what else happened in New York, so to speak. That’s the best way I can put it. These images are so ingrained in our minds. I don’t want the audience to see a story about New York and think, “That’s not New York, though.”
However, just legally, we’re unable to recreate the images from the film, which is a shame. 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 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. We’re not able to. So it was something we had to get over.
Question: Can you talk about the sensation of being back in Michigan making a movie?
Raimi: I love Michigan. I’m from here and I’ve made all my early movies here. All my Super 8 movies, my first 16mm movies. 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. I wouldn’t if I had an outside job. You know, a lot of people in Michigan, they really don’t like that winter. After about six months it really starts to get like, “Enough already.”
I love it and I love the people here. I think they’re, not to generalize, but we have incredibly talented crew members from Michigan. They’re sharp and they’ve got great schooling from either Michigan or Michigan State or, I don’t know the name of the college, but there’s a great computer school downtown that is training these guys in animation and computer technology. They’re on our high tech teams. I’d make all the movies I could here, I just love it.
The state is really hurting economically, as you know. 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. It’s really unique…well, 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?” It’s great to be here; I love working here.
Question: Are you going to be able to capture the real outdoors of Michigan in the movie?
Raimi: No. Nothing is really being shot outside. The look of Oz is so unique the way that 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.
Question:Several people were quoting that you had the idea of a through line for the film as being that of a selfish man who becomes selfless. Is it fair to say that The Music Man might be a bit of an influence, the con man comes to believe his own shill?
Raimi: I’m trying to remember The Music Man. I don’t think it was an influence but it sounds similar. I was actually in The Music Man, I can’t remember it well enough.
Question: We don’t have many American fairy tales. So how do you keep a fairy tale distinctly American? What do you make it about to make it resonate with an American audience?
Raimi: I have read that people consider Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” his first book, America’s first myth or America’s first fairy tale. I have read that. But I think it’s uniquely American because there’s a little bit of greed involved in it. The guy wants. It’s also the story of an entrepreneur, a guy who, with his ingenuity and can-do attitude, drives off those wicked witches and saves the day. It’s also the story of people rising up for freedom and I think that’s an American, not a myth, but an American story of the American Revolution. Farmers and, in this case, Quadlings and Munchkins and Tinkers, rising up to drive off the tyrants or the despots or whatever you want to call the Wicked Witches.
So those elements are American, but I think it’s not primarily American. 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. 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 and to, in this case, drive off the most dreaded villains of all, the Wicked Witches. I think it’s a more universal type of story than just an American story.