Oz the Great and Powerful, if you are unaware, is Sam Raimi’s origin story for the titular character from MGM’s classic The Wizard of Oz, explaining how a simple magician (James Franco) eventually became that old man hiding behind a curtain by the time Dorothy and her friends reached the Emerald City.
As I walk into Zach Braff’s room, I suddenly regret grabbing one of the shamefully large swag bags before the interview. Generally speaking, I tend to ignore junket swag. Rarely does any of it wind up anywhere other than my building’s dumpster. But oddly enough I wanted this particular swag bag because of the thick grocery-friendly bag itself. Now I look like a gluttonous boob carrying all this shit into the room, with a large plush toy for Braff’s character, Finley the flying monkey (Braff also plays Frank, James Franco’s disrespected assistant back on Earth), awkwardly poking out of the top. It actually takes me a second to coordinate setting down all my junk so we can actually get started…
Zach Braff: I like your swag.
Josh: You’ve been a hot commodity out there.
Zach: I have heard! The monkey is already popular with the kids. I brought my nephew to the premiere. He is twelve, and he has a little eight-year-old sister that didn’t get to come. So we got [the same stuffed toy] and I told him, “Now you make sure to give this to Ella. Cause she didn’t get to come.” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll share him.” And I say, “No, no, that’s for Ella.” And he’s trying to act cool, yeah, yeah, cause he’s twelve. Then I find him asleep the next morning and he is full on spooning the monkey. So I figured Finley would be a hit with the kids.
Josh: Now, when I first heard about this movie, that they were making a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, my reaction was, “Uck.”
Zach: Everybody’s was! I’m sure everybody rolled their eyes like, “Oh boy.” But [Sam Raimi] is the perfect man for the job. A lot of movies like this have sort of a wink-wink, ironic, hey we’re going back into [that movie you all know] vibe. This version keeps the honesty and the child-like wonder of the original. And that’s a testament to Sam. He is that guy. I heard someone ask him a question about magic, saying there is no magic in the world. And Sam gasped! He said, “No magic in the world? I went into my yard this morning and the apricots were blooming!” And everyone is looking at him like, is he putting us on? But he is that guy. He’s so kind and wide-eyed. Which is bizarre since he made those horror movies. But he’s the perfect man for tapping into the heart of this world.
Josh: The original film is one of those movies that we all kind of have in our lives, whether we sought it out or not. What role has it played for you? Do you have particular nostalgia for it? As a filmmaker yourself, is it something your personally revere?
Zach: I loved the movie. I don’t know that it is one that inspired me, filmmaking-wise. But I grew up on it, like everybody did. It was one of those films, back when their weren’t a zillion channels, where it was on every year and [the flying monkeys] would give me nightmares.
Josh: And now you are a flying monkey! A cute one though.
Zach: We still have our scary baboons. My brother said to me, “Those baboons are scary.” And I said, “Well, didn’t the ones from the original movie scare the crap out of you?!” We had to have our scary baboons. But yes, Finley is a friendly monkey. Maybe this is over-thinking it, but I read into it that it was sort of a lesson for children — don’t judge all monkeys by their cover. There are good monkeys and bad monkeys. Maybe I’m over-thinking it!
Josh: Were you actually on set, covered in mo-cap dots?
Zach: Yes, I was there. But Sam doesn’t really like that style [motion capture]. It sort of becomes a conversation between the computer and the actor, as opposed to between an animator and an actor. And that’s what Sam wanted to get back to. So I was on set. And I was doing it all, crouching down in a blue-screen onesie acting it all out. And they had three video on me separate from the film cameras –
Josh: Attached to you?
Zach: They weren’t attached to me. Scott Stokdyk, who was in charge of visual effects, feels that when they’re mounted on you he gets too much camera shake and it is hard for the animators. So they had three separate video camera operators trained on me wherever I was. Sam, James and I found that the most affective stuff was when [the other actors and I] could be relating to each other, like you and I are.
Josh: How would you compare this to purely vocal acting like you did on Chicken Little (2005)?
Zach: That was unusual too in that most of my stuff was with [co-star] Garry Marshall. They realized that both Garry and I love to improv, so they ended up doing what they don’t normally do, which is put two vocal booths on the same stage so we could look at each other and just riff. With Oz it was a similar thing. Sam said, “I want you and James to riff. We want you to feel like real friends.” One of the things that people liked about Scrubs was that friendship between Donald Faison and I. And that came out of taking what the writers had come up with and running with it. To be able to do that on a movie of this scale was really cool. It makes a difference. I wouldn’t want to do it another way, now that I’ve done it in two Disney movies where they let me. There is so much to be gained. Yeah, a lot of it will be useless. But there are diamonds in the rough.
Josh: Obviously this movie is heavily green-screened. But how much of what we see was actual sets? I’ll say this for the film — I couldn’t always tell.
Zach: And that’s great. It was important to Sam that this wasn’t 300. He really wanted the sets. And he got Robert Stromberg to do his thing. He built these enormous football-field-sized sets. So a lot of the time the green-screen didn’t start until the edge of that football field. So there was a giant forest. There was a giant courtyard. An Emerald City. A Yellowbrick Road. China Town. All that stuff was real to a certain point.
Josh: I learned this from looking in the end credits — You guys shot this in Michigan, right? [Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s home state.]
Zach: Yeah. Pontiac, Michigan. That was Sam wanting this business to not go overseas and to stay in this country. It just so happened that at that time Michigan had gotten a really good tax incentive, as I understand. And they’d just completed these gorgeous sound stages.
Josh: Do you know if they were built just for the film?
Zach: No, they converted an old auto-plant. Some investors had just completed it.
Josh: I wonder if this is the new direction the Motor City is going in.
Zach: That’s a whole other topic, but I think they’re trying that. Sam and a lot of people are trying to launch a film industry there.
Josh: I know that there are something like fourteen Oz books. Is Finley a character from later in the series?
Zach: I believe he is original to the film. Inspired by other characters, but created for this.
Josh: Have you read any of the books?
Zach: No! And I feel bad about it now. During the press conference Michelle Williams was discussing her endless knowledge from reading all the books and Frank Baum biographies, and I’m just trying to hide, like, “Please don’t ask me anything about the books.”
Josh: Well, before I release you, let’s talk Garden State. Do you have any upcoming plans to hop behind the camera?
Zach: I can’t wait. I like to do a zillion different things, so my head is all over the place. But I have a script that I’ve written with my brother Adam, and I’m really inspired to get into the director’s chair this year.
Josh: No one can plan for such a thing, but Garden State ended up being one of those movies that seemed to define a specific generation, or at least a specific age-group at the time. What was it like when you realized your movie had become that movie?
Zach: Completely surprising, of course. I always wanted to make films; I went to film school. This was my first foray. No one wanted to pay for it. Every single person in Hollywood with a telephone passed on it. Finally I got a financier. Got it made and then had this record sale at Sundance. And then it became this thing. It is still playing on HBO. I just hope it isn’t lightning in a bottle because I have lots more I want to make!