First off, the legacy. This is the Wizard of Oz we're talking about. The original Wizard of Oz movie being one of the most iconic films of all time, and Frank L. Baum's original 14-book series is also well-known and beloved. Who would want to take on the task of adding to all of that?
At first, Sam didn't want to touch it. "I had a great sense of responsibility not to tread upon the good name and the beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz," he said. "That was my biggest fear...In fact, I didn’t even wanna read the script."
It was only because someone handed him the script under the auspices of it being a writing sample that he actually read the script. He fell in love with the story, the world and the characters and thought, "That’s why I gotta make this movie, ‘cause I feel uplifted by the end of this thing."
What uplifted Sam, was the story of redemption. "This selfish guy found a little bit of goodness in his heart and learned how to become this selfless individual," he described. And that transformation of character is what eventually led him to pick James Franco to star in the film. James wasn't the first choice for wizard (Raimi considered Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp first), but he told us candidly:
This was the story of a real heel. A cad. A two-timer. He’s not a good friend. He’s a very selfish individual. Yet he wants to be great. He wants to be something more. He just doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know what true greatness is.
And through the love of this little girl who looks at him like a father, and through a flying monkey who, like a good friend, demands he do the right thing. And, wanting to become worthy of Glinda’s love, he grows as an individual and finds a little bit of selflessness in himself. And in so doing becomes the great thing he always thought he could be--never expecting that that was the route to become this great wizard.
So James, as a young man I had seen him be a little selfish. And a little into himself...And then through the years as I worked with him, I saw a generous spirit emerge working with the other actors.
This characterization of James might seem harsh, but the two banter back and forth often, and they obviously have that rapport. It's apparent that Sam has a great respect for James and values him for the person that he is, and that it was important to him to cast a Wizard who was worthy of the role.
He revealed the depth of this feeling when he later quipped that, while he loves the character Evanora because she is so nasty and doesn't try to hide it, he truly admires and identifies with the character of the Wizard. He said, "I understand wanting to become a better person. I mean, it’s a dream. Whether I’d ever have the courage of that character to do what he did, I don’t know. But I can relate to the character."
Sam appears to be a tell-it-like-it-is kind of a guy, and it's interesting that he finds it very important to look for this authenticity in the actors and actresses he chooses to play the roles in his movies. He held Michelle Williams to a high standard as well when casting her as Glinda the Good. He looked for an actress who could carry the role with a true sincerity of soul as a person, not just as an actress.
Sam also demanded authenticity with regards to the set and the animated characters. The sets were real and tangible, and even the voice-over acting was done on set with the actors and actresses present. He described the importance of the set:
Well, once the look was decided by myself and the production designer of the entire production, then it came down to what are we gonna build and what would be just CGI? And yes, it was important for me to have real places for the actors to touch and see so they could ground the movie. Because it’s such a fantastical adventure, I really needed to ground it more than a regular drama with real human performances. We had to explain the emotions that we understand and can connect to.
...I found because so much of the world is created by CG artists, if I could photograph a particular rock. James Franco on that yellow brick road. Dappled sunlight happening on that yellow brick road... the CGI artists that had to continue that world had to do just that. Just continue this look we filmed on set. With the lighting, the exposure, the detail. They don’t have to create it on their own, because I thought I’d lose control of the look of the picture. So I wanted to really specifically always have some stylistic element on film that the artist’s job was to extend.
The quest for authenticity in the realm of such a fantastical land and story drove many of Sam's decisions as a director. But he did not forget that this is a Disney movie, and Oz is a story for families. He was constantly aware of how the movie would play for families, he described:
That’s something I was weighing all throughout the process. In the writing of the script, I’d made sure there was no violence in the thing, ‘cause I really wanted to make it a family picture...The worst it gets is these real scary baboons come out of the mist where they go looking for our main characters, so they hide in the cave. Or, there’s a scary witch at the very end. But, I changed the makeup once or twice to make it a little less scary.
When Sam says there is no violence, I take that to mean that there is no violence that results in blood or gore or permanent injury. There certainly is some violence in the movie, and some scenes may be very scary to young children. I think that is all to be expected, but it's clear that Sam Raimi set out to make an Oz movie for families that is real, that honors the legacy, and that tells a story that is truly great and powerful.