'Oz' director Sam Raimi faced great and powerful challenges

The Fresno BeeMarch 7, 2013 

LOS ANGELES -- Director Sam Raimi faced several major challenges in making "Oz the Great and Powerful." The biggest concern was how the legions of "Oz" fans would react to his take on the tale. If he survived that, Raimi faced creating a world completely from scratch to be the background for that story. And he was jumping into the world of 3-D for the first time and wanted to make sure he didn't make any visual mistakes.

Help with adapting the story came from "Spider-Man." Before tackling a new film based on the beloved writings of L. Frank Baum, Raimi faced the potential wrath of millions of comic book fans when he took "Spider-Man" from the printed page to the big screen. In both cases, he dared to tread on sacred writing ground. But the movies were embraced by the fans, and his Spidey trilogy made almost $2.5 billion worldwide.

Baum fans are just as loyal when it comes to their stories from the Emerald City.

" 'Spider-Man' helped me because I learned 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," says Raimi. "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 and put as much of that into this picture as I could.

"I was not a slave to the details. But I was a slave to the heart and the soul of the thing."

The focus that Raimi took with "Oz" was the battle between good and evil and how sometimes the most unlikely heroes are called on to do grand things. That's played out in how Oz (James Franco) goes from sideshow attraction to the great and powerful Wizard. Because the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" starts with the Wizard already in control of the Emerald City, Raimi wanted to show some of the skills that helped create the Wizard with this prequel. This was done by establishing Oz not only as a magician, but also as an inventor and a great fan of the inventions of Thomas Edison, particularly his moving picture machine.

And speaking of movie-making magic, "Oz the Great and Powerful" was Raimi's first foray into the world of 3-D. He spent weeks with technicians learning how to shoot a film where the 3-D effect would not cause the viewer to have eye strain or get the kind of headaches he would get after watching a 3-D movie. Raimi launches into a long explanation of what he learned that boils down to he was very cautious in how he shot and edited the movie to get the visual effect without any of the problems.

Before tackling the fictional Land of Oz, Raimi has generally worked in real-world settings. With his latest movie, everything -- from a single blade of grass to the gigantic Emerald City -- had to be created.

"Every insect is not from a library, is not from nature photography," Raimi says. "There's little zebra bees. There's strange little white-haired squirrels that are half-muskrat, half-squirrel, that inhabit this land. And there are giant creatures that lope like dinosaurs that you see only in the background. But everything had to be animated and designed. I'd never been part of anything so gigantic before."

The other pressure on Raimi was the legacy he was trying to fill with this movie. Walt Disney tried for years to make an "Oz" movie but was never able to get a project based on Baum's work off the ground. Now, Raimi has accomplished that feat and, in the process, accomplished something he had always wanted to do.

"All I wanted to do was make the ultimate Walt Disney picture," Raimi says.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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