For “Oz the Great and Powerful,” it all came down to the casting process.
“I wasn’t looking for, necessarily the very best actor or actress in the world,” said director Sam Raimi about his upcoming film. “I was looking for that actor or actress that had the qualities of the character they’re going to portray.”
A cinematic prequel to L. Frank Baum’s beloved novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the film examines the life of Oscar Diggs, a mediocre magician and con man who stumbles into the Land of Oz and is expected to fulfill the role of the Great Wizard.
As seen in his direction of the “Spiderman” Trilogy, Raimi is a firm believer in the sincere and heartfelt portrayal of his characters, even when the story is fantasy. This 3-D adventure not only includes the striking visual aspects of the mythical land of Oz, but incorporates a vivid character study that follows the growth of each respective individual from good to evil and vice versa.
Played by James Franco, a veteran of Sam Raimi movies, Oscar Diggs is a flawed man. Blinded by the temptation of wealth and fame, he refuses to see the happiness that is right before his eyes.
“One of the reasons to start the character off that way was it would allow for growth,” Franco said. “The movie would not just be a physical journey through a mystical land, but it would also involve an inner journey of the character. That he would go from this flawed person to possibly a better (one).”
Sam Raimi took great care in casting actors who could portray dynamic characters.
“Like with Mila Kunis … she plays Theodora, a good and innocent character,” he said. “So I’m looking for someone who could portray that innocence and also she make a turn for the wicked side.”
One of the three witches who inhabit the land of Oz, Theodora is an innocent and naïve character who is blind to her sister Evanora’s evil plans. She falls for the womanizing magician who at first leaves her heartbroken, “but then a deep anger starts to stir within her, and she becomes a raging woman scorned.”
When casting Glinda the Good Witch, Sam Raimi was infatuated with Glinda’s innate and pure goodness.
“I needed an actress that had a good soul,” Raimi said. “So suddenly, that ruled out about 90 percent of the actresses in Hollywood.”
With her “sweet aura,” Raimi snatched Michelle Williams up for the role of the kind-hearted witch who develops a love affair with Oz, played by James Franco.
In keeping with the original 1930s movie, most characters in the movie play duel roles, simultaneously portraying characters that interact with Oscar as a magician in Kansas and acting as amplified versions of themselves in the land of Oz.
“The Wizard in Kansas, he has a love story with a girl named Annie, (also) played by Michelle Williams, and this is a love that’s right before the Wizard, if only he would recognize it and embrace it, he would really be happy,” Raimi said. “But he’s too blind; he only sees fame and fortune and the more (menial) aspects of our existence as the road to happiness.”
When Oscar arrives in Oz, he meets Annie’s alter ego, Glinda, who opens his eyes to what he had taken for granted back home in Kansas, thus highlighting one of the major themes of Baum’s books: that happiness and true friendship are right at home.
Composer Danny Elfman, who collaborated with Raimi for the first time since the Spiderman trilogy, helped portray a deeper love story between Oscar and Glinda, Raimi said.
Elfman threads the same theme song throughout the beginning of the film when the love between Annie and the Wizard is “an incomplete fragile broken thing,” Raimi said.
“But later, when the Wizard meets Glinda and their love story blossoms, you’ll hear that theme in all of its orchestrated fullness,” he said.
Franco was intrigued to play a main character whose background was not clearly defined in the original book by L. Frank Baum, giving him freedom to play around with the character’s personality.
“He was written as a comedic character within this fantastical world, and I found that combination to be fairly unusual,” Franco said.
As the title character, he had his hesitations of playing the male version of Dorothy.
“They weren’t just gonna redo it with an innocent young person kind of walking through Oz,” Franco said. “Instead (he’s) a kind of con man that was stumbling through Oz pretending to be something he’s not. He gets into a lot of awkward situations that could be played for comedy.”
As for working with Raimi again, Franco felt they connected in a way they didn’t have an opportunity to when he was a supporting character in the Spiderman series.
“Sam Raimi identifies with his lead characters very closely, so he very much identified with Peter Parker,” Franco said. “And because my character was trying to kill (him), I think Sam blamed me for that. I felt like I got a little less love than Tobey Maguire on those films. And now that I’m the protagonist in Oz, um, Sam is identifying with my character. I felt a lot more of Sam’s love on this film.”
Raimi, a true storyteller, not only identifies with the protagonist of his films, but the themes of love, loneliness and friendship that are present throughout “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
“What inspired me about the Wizard of Oz movie, was the character’s sense of love that they have for each other,” he said. “We learn from the Wizard that all of us are complete, all of us broken, lonely individuals, (yet) we have within us the thing to make us complete if we only recognize it.”
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is in theaters March 8.
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