Sam Raimi would have been a legend even if he hadn’t done a thing after the beloved Evil Dead trilogy. But his ambitions carried him beyond that and into the realm of Hollywood’s directing elites. He’s dabbled in different genres in The Quick and the Dead and For Love of the Game. He’s tackled giant blockbuster projects like the Spider-man films. He’s developed quieter, more adult pictures like A Simple Plan and The Gift. And just when we think he’s done with horror, he turns around and delivers an underrated gem like Drag Me to Hell. With Oz the Great and Powerful, he returns to big-budget filmmaking, this time with one of the most iconic movies ever made looming over him. He spoke about the challenges of shooting it at a recent press day for the film.
Question: In addition to being a history of Oz, this movie is also a kind of a metaphorical history of the cinema. Going from a carnival sideshow attraction to becoming a great force that can motivate crowds and inspire people to great things. What was it about The Wizard of Oz story that made you decide to merge these two themes together?
Sam Raimi: What I was trying to do and what I think the screenwriters, art department and prop department were trying to do, was to set up Oz’s knowledge as a tinkerer. His awareness of Edison’s kinescope and early motion picture cameras supports the idea that he could create this technology with the help of the tinkerers once he got to the land of Oz. So I wasn’t trying to do a history of cinema as much as set up the character with certain abilities in the first act to let them properly pay off later.
Q: This movie obviously demonstrates a lot of love for the original Wizard of Oz. But the one moment when it appears to be a musical, it gets shut down promptly. Can you please talk about, um, not going there as a musical?
SR: Early on I think the writers decided that we shouldn’t imitate that fantastic movie, especially the songs. There was no comparison. Ours was more based on the Baum works, and seriously, how do you even begin to approach that other film as a musical? We went with Baum, the fantastical tales that he wrote about. At the same time, we wanted to tip our cap here and there: to pay tribute to the great Wizard of Oz movie and its incredible legacy. The musical number came out of that.
Q: Was there anything in this particular shoot that was the most challenging for you?
SR: 3-D to start with. I didn’t know anything about 3-D so I had to go to school and learn about 3-D. I had to meet with technicians and study the camera systems and go to effects houses and hear what the different visual effects artists had to say about working with the systems. I had to basically shoot some test days and see what the effects of convergence was on the audience, and why the audience gets a headache. I used to get headaches at 3-D movies and I didn’t want this movie to give people headaches.
You don’t want to dramatically change the convergence from shot to shot: have something breaking the screen plane in the foreground and then quickly go to a shorter shot where there’s something in the deep background, and then again cut to a shot where you’re playing the convergence in the foreground. It has to be delicately handled. And you have to let the audience’s eyes adjust. So you have longer shots, if you intend to make that dramatic adjustment. Or take them to a little stairway from convergence level to convergence level so that their brains can adjust and their eyes can adjust. Otherwise you’re making their heads work so hard, it’s forcing the eyes and the brain muscle to work in a way it’s not used to working. That’s what gives you headaches. You do develop a muscle for it, though, which I developed. So I couldn’t trust my own instincts after a time. I had to just go by the numbers.
Anyways, I had to learn so much about 3-D. I also had to learn about creating a whole world. I surrounded myself with the best artists. Not just actors but artists. Storyboard artists, visual effects artists, concept artists, landscape artists, greensmen and people that really knew how to create a world from the ground up, because I had never created a world before. Every single blade of grass and little blossom has been thought out by an individual artist. Every insect is not from a library, is not from nature photography. It’s created by artists. There’s little zebra bees, you can’t even see them. That was a new challenge.
Q: Was there a temptation to make the witches a little more scary, given your background in horror?
SR: I love making horror movies, but I was really guided by Mila Kunis’s performance and what her instincts were in playing that character. She decided that she was playing her like a woman scorned. She’s told me she was playing it as an innocent who fell in love and her heart was broken and she suffered and she couldn’t take the suffering and wanted to end that suffering. Rage is a good word. That rage drove her. I wasn’t tempted to make it more like a horror movie. I wanted her to guide us and I would follow her with the camera.
Q: The Oz books have legions of fans who are very loyal to it. Did you have any concerns as far as that went?
SR: Yes. Spider-man helped me because I learned that you can’t be loyal to every detail of the book. Every filmmaker knows when you make a book into a movie, the first thing you have to do is kill the book, unfortunately. You’ve got to re-create it. I decided I could be truest to the fans of Baum’s great work if I recognized what was great and moving and touching and most effective about those books to me. Just to me. And put as much of that into this picture as I could. Hopefully, that kept me from being a slave to the details. But I was a slave to the heart and the soul of the thing. In as many ways as I could express it, I put it into this movie.
Q: Walt Disney wanted to do an Oz film for decades and never could. How does it feel to finally get the project made at his studio?
SR: I learned that Walt Disney wanted to make an Oz picture only recently, after we were done shooting, when the movie was almost finished. The guys in the marketing department said, “Take a look at this reel we’re putting on the DVD.” It showed how Walt was trying to get the rights to the Oz books, and how he was gonna show the stories on The Mickey Mouse Club and get his army of Mouseketeers together to each play a part. That part I didn’t think was gonna work very well, actually. It was weird. But anyways, it was a dream: a passion and dream of his, and I thought that was very touching because all I wanted to do was make the ultimate Walt Disney picture. I thought this movie always could be it. It could be for families. It could be uplifting. And it makes sense in retrospect that it was Walt’s dream to make an Oz picture. I hope that Walt would have liked the movie. But I was honored to make it and surprised to find out that he had intended to make an Oz picture.