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HeyUGuys Interview: Sam Raimi on Oz, Collaborative Film Making & Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man

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Sam Raimi - Oz PremiereEarlier this week we published an excerpt from our interview with Sam Raimi, where he spoke about what was (or rather, wasn’t) happening with Evil Dead 4. In the full interview, which is a rather long piece, he speaks frankly about being an entertainer rather than an artist; the intricate and collaborative process that went into designing the movie and the need for real animators rather than just a computer program; and working with actors who also direct.

He also gives his thoughts on Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man movie.

Deciding to take on the project

Yes I was frightened. I was so frightened that when they told me there was a screenplay that was like a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, I said, ‘I don’t even want to read it. I don’t want to touch that’, because it’s such a great classic. It’s my favourite movie, I don’t want to have anything to do with marring people’s great childhood memories of this wonderful film, or treading on its good name, I just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So I didn’t read it.

Weeks later, I was working on another project, and I was looking for a writer, and that screenplay again came across my desk, this time as a writing sample.  Under those conditions I would happily read it to see how good the writing was, and I unexpectedly fell in love with the story. I fell in love with the story of this selfish man, who deep within him has a good heart, but he can’t see the friendship of his assistant, or this woman who is right in front of him who is worthy of his love, because he’s so busy chasing this notion of being a great man, he can’t stop and remember to be a good man. He can’t grasp what’s truly important.

So when he gets to the land of second chances, Oz – through the influence of the Winged Monkey and through the love of the China Girl – his heart grows a little, and also he becomes worthy of Glinda’s love. And that growth of the human heart, and enlargement of the character into something better than he was, was very moving to me. And I thought, ‘if I could take this, with the same feeling I’m getting from it right now, and bring it into a movie, all will be forgiven by the fans’, because it’s a sweet and positive story, with love as the message, and I suddenly was no longer afraid.

Will he be back for a sequel?

I don’t really have a plan to direct the sequel. I’ve put into the picture one or two loose ends in case another director wants to make the picture. if Disney made a lot of money and the audience really wanted to see one then they would make one, but I was attracted to it because of the story of the growth of this human being, and I don’t think the second one would have the thing I would need to get me interested, but I couldn’t speak about what would take place in it.

Having Michelle Williams play a character in the ‘real world’ as well as Oz, and the implication that the film is in Oz’s imagination

I guess it’s open to interpretation, and in fact they did that in the classic Wizard of Oz movie, it was a dream. In Baum’s books, Oz is a real place, you could say it’s a parallel dimension that you could travel to, and sometimes there are alternate versions of ourselves; that’s how I saw Glinda. In our world I saw her as a sweet and loving soul that didn’t have the strength that eventually we find in Glinda.

We almost find Glinda in that way, Glinda is a weaker character for us, because she’s waiting for a man to come and be the hero, and it isn’t until she realises that this guy is a fraud – probably a story not unfamiliar with many women – that she has to take the reins of power and actually be the driving force of the picture. She thought she was playing the second lead, and she’s going to have to step up and be the lead. And she does a marvellous job. She first fools the people into believing he’s this figurehead, to rally them, then she tries desperately to inspire this weakling to have the guts and the courage to recognise something about himself that’s useful, and then finally she takes part in the battle, and confronts the murder of her father.

She becomes a very strong character, but I guess Baum’s always written about strong characters: his Wicked Witches, his Good Witches, I read somewhere that his mother in-law was a big influence; she was a very strong woman, she was a suffragette, fighting for the vote in the United States; but it failed to mention in the book whether she was the influence for the Good Witch or the Wicked Witch

The collaboration that went into the design of Oz

It’s through the work of a very talented group of production designers, illustrators, concept artists, animators, lighting directors, visual effects supervisors; there are whole teams of artists, just trying to impress you with the colours and their artistry in creating the world. It starts with Baum’s descriptions, and then it continues with the screenplay writer, and then you bring aboard a production designer, and you discuss what should this look like? Well, what is it described to look like? It’s very colourful, we want to make it different, surreal, but let’s make it photo real, that was what we decided to do – whatever that means.

We started with the smallest thing, we started with Denslow’s illustrations in the original Baum work, that we assumed Baum must have approved of, because they were in his books. They’re fantastic, they’re outrageous illustrations, and that was the main source of our look. The second source was the whimsy of those 1930s frames of Disney animation, like Snow White. [Production designer] Robert Stromberg went back to them, to the backgrounds, you look at the sloped roofs, the funny chimneys, the strange cartoony trees, that’s where we pulled a lot of our inspiration from, and the classic Wizard of Oz movie.

And then Robert went to town with all these artists, and he had to create a world. You don’t just create a world, you start with the smallest building blocks, the molecules. In this case the blades of grass, the tiniest blossoms, the insects – what would they look like in Oz? And then he built out from there, multiplying, expanding – what would the field look like? What would the squirrels look like? What would the trees look like? They were all creations. Nothing from this world, our world, no field in Ireland, as Robert likes to say, is ever green enough to have survived our picture, and no mountain in Tasmania, if there are mountains there, could be fantastical enough. They all had to be designed to be true to Baum’s work.

So we look at the concept artist’s illustrations, based on our discussions, and we say, ‘no, the Emerald City needs a more different look than Glinda’s kingdom, let Glinda’s kingdom come out of her, let it be feminine. Robert, what’s a feminine style?’ he says, ‘French nouveau’, ‘all right, show me what it looks like in French nouveau’, I don’t know what French nouveau is. And he shows me it, and I say, ‘it looks good, but it doesn’t look like Glinda’s though’, and he says, ‘we could put a pearlescence’ because she has bubble magic, and I say, ‘that’s a great idea, let’s do that with her wardrobe too. Wardrobe get in here, he wants to do pearlescence on the castle, can you do it on the wardrobe too?’, ‘well, we could create a fabric that has kind of a sheen…’ and on and on, the ideas are exchanged and one department contributes to another. The illustrations start going up, they start taking on their own identity, and their own life. It’s really a wonderful creative process.

The challenges posed by having digital characters

I was really worried about the coldness of that, so what I did was I tried to bypass the computer wherever I could. For instance, two of the main characters which are the big influences on waking the heart of the James Franco character, are the China Girl and Finley the Monkey, and I did not want to revert to what was the current thinking of creating animations, which is: you get an actor to do a performance, you put the motion dots on them, and you motion capture their performance, and that capture drives the animation.

I didn’t want it interpreted by a cold computer, I’ve seen that, and it doesn’t have the heart that I crave for this project. Instead we film the actors, without motion capture, got the right emotional performances through my editor Bob Murawski, and then we took those clips and we worked one-on-one with our animation director, hand animating each one of those characters, really going for the essence and the heart of what each one of those performances was, versus the technical aspect of what the computer would capture.

That way, I think we preserved a lot of the soul of the China Girl, and a lot of the soul of the Monkey, and I think it shows in the movie. I think it was painstakingly long, but I think that they’re more human animated characters than I have recently seen.

On working with cast who are equally at home behind the camera

It was cool working with filmmakers, because they contribute quite a bit. They understand the whole picture. Especially in this movie, where there’s so many needs of the actors. They understand all the outrageous things that you do. Like I said to Zach, ‘can you walk it in a stooped way, to see how you really interact with James this time?’ he’d do that, so James gets a sense of it. Then, ‘Zach can you puppet this puppet the way you really would do it,’ he’d do that. ‘now Zach can you go in the booth and do it again’, he’d would  go do that. So he was tireless, and I think part of it was the understanding of the whole process, why these elements were necessary.

Does he feel he’s doing the same job now as he did when he started out?

I feel very similarly toward the audience, in the sense that I felt that I’m an entertainer. When I made the first Evil Dead movie I was really trying to entertain the audience, it wasn’t a work of art, it’s an entertainment. I feel the same about this. Meaning, if the audience doesn’t like it in the theatre at that moment, I’ve got nothing left to stand on. That’s all that it was supposed to do was to thrill them and chill them. I can’t walk away from these screenings if they don’t like it and say, ‘they didn’t understand it, but someone will get it years from now’; it’s only meant to entertain them. So that hasn’t changed.

My loves have changed, from just purely technical with Evil Dead, like building suspense, or ‘what effect does this cut and that cut have on the audience? What about this combination of cuts?’ the technical aspect was all that thrilled me originally. Now that I’ve become older, have become married, have had losses and found love and experienced life, I’m more interested in character stories, human stories. I’m still fascinated by the technical, but now only to support what I find more interesting: the human heart.

On Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man

It was very hard for me to see the new Spider-Man movie, I felt so attached to it, I couldn’t see Spider-Man with another director; it’s like my love, and I didn’t want to walk in on my love with someone else. It was just like that. Then I got over myself last week and said, ‘just see the damn thing’. And I did, and I loved it. I actually felt free. I thought, ‘why am I carrying around this baggage?’ Of course the next Spider-Man story should be told, and [Marc Webb] did a wonderful job telling that. I loved the movie, and I’m looking forward like a fan to the next instalment. I love the comic book, and now I don’t feel bound, and I’m really glad somebody’s remaking it again.