A goofball gets whirled through a portal and winds up in a bizarro universe whose citizens crown him their hero—if he can defeat their worst enemy. It’s the plot of Sam Raimi’s latest movie, Oz: The Great and Powerful, and it’s also the plot of one of his most infamous films, the Evil Dead trilogy-capper, Army of Darkness. Combine that fact with his billion-dollar Spider-Man trilogy, and it’s no wonder Disney tapped Raimi to direct their relaunch of the Wizard of Oz franchise. (Especially when Frank L. Baum wrote 14 full-length Oz books.)
Few would have predicted two decades ago when Raimi was a cult-favorite horror filmmaker that he’d take over one of Hollywood’s most beloved classics. But watch The Wizard of Oz again and it makes sense, since the 1939 original was terrifying. Sure, today we picture yellow brick roads and ruby slippers and Judy Garland’s twin pigtails, but remember being five and recoiling as the Wicked Witch of the West melted down to a puddle?
Sam Raimi talked to Screen Rant about the joys of scaring children and the tensions of taking over a franchise—and the pain of watching his own films get taken over by the new reboots of Spider-man and Evil Dead.
Screen Rant: As you made the Oz: The Great and Powerful, were you thinking about how much the Wizard’s adventure in Oz parallels Ash’s in Army of Darkness?
Sam Raimi: At times, I was aware of that. I tried to change certain aspects to take it away from that, but I thought, “Not that many people have seen Army of Darkness—I hope this isn’t a problem.” But the original story was written by Mitchell Kapner, based on Baum’s work, and there are some parallels, but I thought I’d just have to make the best story that I can despite the similarities.
Although it could have been cool to put some undead people in Oz. Or undead flying monkeys.
Yes! That would be an interesting combination.
I found some old quotes by movie theater owners from 1939, the year that the original Wizard of Oz came out, and one thing they kept saying was how scary it was for children, which I think people forget—
You’re kidding. You went and found the original reactions of people to The Wizard of Oz? How did you find those?
There’s this old exhibition magazine from the ’20s that keeps their archives online. The best quote was from this movie theater owner in Missouri who said, “The witches and flying monkeys or whatever they were scared most of the kids out of a year’s growth.”
That’s hysterical—and he’s right! They were terrifying. That movie went too far. It was the scariest movie I’d ever seen, but also the sweetest movie I’d ever seen. The most emotional movie I’d ever seen, and also the best musical I’d ever seen. It’s an insane combination of things.
Do you think parents and filmmakers forget that kids want to be scared?
I do. Completely. I think they don’t want to see too much violence, but it’s fun to have a good, old-fashioned, spook-fest.
Does Return to Oz get a bad rap?
You know, I never saw it. I hear it’s brilliant. But I’ve never seen the movie. I’ve seen clips from it, animation clips, which looked really cool and wild. But I’ve never seen the whole thing.
There’s an evil witch who takes off people’s heads and stores them in a walk-in closet.
Oh my god. Sounds scary, and I’d love to see it. I’ll probably see it soon. Is it available on DVD? I’ll find it and watch it.
You had to do a balancing act while directing Oz—put in nods to the original for fans, but also deal with a legal team on set making sure you didn’t infringe too much on MGM’s copyright. For one thing, the witch who will eventually wind up under Dorothy’s house wouldn’t have been allowed to wear ruby slippers.
I think she has on black leather boots. You’re right, we wanted to pay tribute to the original Wizard of Oz movie, but we found out that because of legal reasons, we weren’t allowed to put anything in our movie that was unique to the 1939 film that wasn’t already in Baum’s work. So every time I wanted the Emerald City to look a little bit more like the ’39 classic, the attorneys said, “No. You’ve gotta change it more, you’ve gotta change it more, you’ve gotta change it more.” Finally, it set us free a little bit, I think, to find most of our own style on the picture.
But we still had so many influences from W.W. Denslow’s drawings—the artist that originally illustrated Baum’s work—and Baum’s descriptions themselves were the primary influence. And then Robert Stromberg, my production designer, when I told him I wanted to make the Disney-est of Disney films, he went back to the Disney archives and actually found the landscapes that he had fallen in love with as a child from Snow White, and they were a big influence on his work. And then with all those influences working on him, Robert began to paint, and we followed his lead.
When the Wizard lands in Oz, your film doesn’t just shift from black and white to color—you also changed the aspect ratio from the Nickelodeon-style squarish frame to wide-screen. It made me wonder if in 50 years, the next Oz reboot will also shift from 2D to 3D for a generation who won’t remember that movies used to only be in two dimensions.
We actually did dial up the 3D. We were already in 3D in the black and white, but I kept the conversion at a minimum. When that screen opened up, we dialed up the conversions to give it more dimensionality. And also, the sound goes from mono to stereo to surround to immersive. That’s when Danny Elfman’s track comes up with the horn. I wanted the audience to feel like they were finally tasting and seeing and feeling for the first time when they came into the land of Oz, just as a tribute to the great Victor Fleming and how his original Wizard of Oz went from black and white to color.
What were the conversations like when you started talking about casting the Munchkins? As we saw last year with the competing Snow White movies, the two approaches are very different: hiring real little people, or shrinking down famous actors.
Baum writes about the Munchkins as happy little people, so we simply cast little people. We thought that was the most logical choice. It’s the same choice they made in The Wizard of Oz movie, and we saw the logic and came to the same conclusion. It didn’t require a special effect to shrink people. We used the special effects wherever we had to to create the impossible things, but there are little people, so we used them in our picture.
In this prequel, the Wizard romances the good witch Glinda. But we know from what happens in the Judy Garland film that he eventually leaves her in a hot air balloon without much of a goodbye. Does that mean their love story is just a short infatuation?
In the books, the Wizard comes back. So in my mind, now that I see The Wizard of Oz, I think, “Oh! He’s going to come back to Oz.”
Ha! Yeah, to be with her.
So he’s just like Thor trying to get back to Jane Foster.
Twice now with Oz and Spider-man, you’ve put your own spin on an old franchise. How does it feel to have the tables turned with you producing the Evil Dead reboot, but watching new director Fede Alvarez—
I’m going to kill that guy! No, it’s just a long tradition of Hollywood to take pictures or ideas, make a movie of it, and 10 or 20 years later, make another version for a whole new audience. The only thing that’s different now is that we have DVDs, so we’re aware of the previous films that were made, whereas previous audiences weren’t.
But I feel like I’m part of a long-standing Hollywood tradition telling these stories around the campfires—and it’s probably always been this way since the time of the caveman. You hear a story around the campfire, and then that storyteller gets a little older and a new one comes along. And he isn’t making up a brand new story all the time, but he’s telling a version of the story that he heard and putting his own spin on it to make it new for the audience of that day.
Is it hard to let go and allow Alvarez to find his own way through the story?
Yes and no. I’m a producer on the film, I’m very involved in it, so I still feel like I’m a creative collaborator. But it really is his film. He’s the director. I feel like I wrote a little ditty on the banjo and some kids liked it, and now I’ve got a new young artist who’s a really cool rock musician and he’s playing a melody with me. He’s taking my tune and adding his own riffs to it, and his own harmonies, and it’s kind of cool and exciting to see the work go on in the hands of a new artist. I want to scare those kids through him, now. It’s awesome—it’s a kick-ass horror picture.
On a related note, what was the best decision Marc Webb made when rebooting Spider-man?
I love those actors, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. And I love Marc Webb and all the producers on the picture who I know personally. But I couldn’t go see the movie because it was like watching my girlfriend get married. I just don’t have the courage. I hear it’s great, but I didn’t have the courage to actually see it—it’s too sad for me.
Oz the Great and Powerful will be in theaters on March 8, 2013.