LOS ANGELES — You would think Sam Raimi would be able to cope with just about anything after surviving the intense pressure that accompanied making three movies from the iconic Spider-Man comics.
But even the mild-mannered Raimi admitted he had anxious moments after he agreed to direct The Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, which opens March 8.
First, he needed courage; it would be his first movie in 3D. He had to give it lots of heart, too; the non-musical would surely be compared to the revered Judy Garland film classic.
Most daunting of all, Raimi would have to use his considerable brain power to fashion the film into a Disney production. Walt Disney always wanted to make another Oz film based on one of L. Frank Baum’s 14 fantasy books but never got around to it.
“And I had never created this kind of world before,” said Raimi with his cast at a Pasadena hotel suite. “All I wanted to do was make the ultimate Disney picture.”
Certainly, the Oz world from the Garland movie is familiar to most of us, but the latest yarn occurs before Dorothy arrives to face off with the Wicked Witch of the West on her Yellow Brick Road journey.
In this new fantasy tale, small-time circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) ends up in a vivid dreamland after a tornado dislodges him from a Kansas stop over.
Oscar, a con man, is mistaken for a problem-solving Wizard after he arrives, so he gets involved in the local scene but can’t help himself, or his shifty ways, when he mingles with three witches who have a past and a grudge to settle.
As the witches plot and plan, Oscar tries to figure out how he can exploit his Wizard status with only winged-monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays Oscar’s earthly circus assistant) to give him guidance.
Little does the unsuspecting Oscar know that Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) have supernatural powers beyond their ability to fly. Evanora can create lightning, Theodora makes fireballs and Glinda commands water.
Complications develop when Theodora falls for Oscar but is seemingly rejected, which causes all of Oz to break loose into chaos, defined by eye-popping special effects and the latest in performance capture.
All things considered, Raimi wanted to offer more than eye-candy for the whole family.
“The movie’s also about finally recognizing that the things you do have consequences,” said Raimi. “It’s about recognizing the mistakes you make and moving past them, and growing into something better than you were when you started out.”
Lucky for the cast and crew — who created their movie magic at seven sound stages in Pontiac, Mich. — they had the affable Raimi to lead the way on what all agreed was a challenging adventure.
“He is one of the most fun directors to work with,” noted Franco who played Harry Osborn in Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies. “He really sets the tone. If you have somebody like Sam there, everybody is happy, everybody is included and everybody wants to do their best work.”
Certainly, Weisz, Williams and Kunis were excited about portraying such memorable characters, but more than a little hesitant to distinguish their portrayals in a brazen way.
“But it is fun to play somebody who has no boundaries,” said Weisz of her conniving Evanora.
Williams agreed, but she had to adjust, at first, to the size of the production and the demands of acting in almost empty stages.
“I haven’t made a movie this big before, and I was worried about whether I would fit or feel comfortable,” she said. “Sam made this environment where you felt welcome, and so were your ideas, and he really listened to them and really took them on.”
New to all three actresses was the cabled wire work used to simulate flying. Raimi called on his Spider-Man stunt co-ordinator Scott Rogers to make it happen.
For a change, Franco didn’t have to participate in the exercise. “I did a lot of wire work on Spider-Man,” he said. “And I know what you have to do to make it look like your flying, so I was not that jealous.”
“It’s really not that hard to be wired, because the responsibility is with the stunt people,” said Kunis. “What you have to be responsible for is being up there for 17 hours.”
Like Kunis’s witch, Williams’ Glinda is iconic but the actress tried to ignore referencing The Wizard of Oz. So did Kunis, whose Theodora transforms into a nostalgically evil likeness after a series of events.
“In order for me to wrap my head around what I was doing I had to think of Theodora in a separate context,” said Kunis. “Here is a girl who falls madly in love and she doesn’t have the emotional tools to deal with rejection.”
Mostly, she tried to avoid the original wicked witch performance. “I wasn’t going to touch it,” she said. “What I do is a love letter.”
In most respects, that’s what Raimi was hoping to accomplish with Oz the Great and Powerful.
“We all love The Wizard of Oz movie, and we were very careful not to tread on it, and we were careful to respect it,” said the director.
“But our story is how the wizard came from Kansas to the Land of Oz, and how a slightly selfish man becomes a slightly more selfless man in the process.”