ENTERTAINMENT
03/05/2013 08:24 am ET | Updated Mar 06, 2013

Sam Raimi, 'Oz' Director, On Which Film Changed Him Forever

"The Quick and the Dead," a somewhat forgettable (other than its quite remarkable cast) 1995 Western starring Sharon Stone, isn't exactly the first movie in director Sam Raimi's filmography that would be thought of as career-changing.

At the time, Raimi was already the director of the cult favorites "Evil Dead II" and "Darkman." As he explained to HuffPost, he was so unhappy with his experience on "The Quick and the Dead" that it led him to smaller, character-driven movies, like "A Simple Plan" and "For Love of the Game." Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that his blockbuster series of Spider-Man films (which we discussed with Raimi, too) were later lauded for character development.

Raimi's latest is this weekend's new release, Disney's "Oz the Great and Powerful," starring James Franco as the wizard. "Oz" is a prequel of sorts to "The Wizard of Oz," though the production had to avoid any reference -- any reference! -- to events that occur in the 1939 film (which is owned by Warner Bros.) which didn't originate in L. Frank Baum's book series. So, no, you won't be seeing any ruby slippers in "Oz."

Raimi spoke about the challenges of making an "Oz" movie while toeing the legal line between the books and the film, as well as pulling double duty as the director of "Oz" and the producer of a gory "Evil Dead" remake. He also divulged why he's too scared to direct the "Poltergeist" reboot, and, yes, what directing "The Quick and the Dead" taught him about filmmaking.

Making a follow-up to "The Wizard of Oz" has been tried before. Did that concern you?

I was aware of it, [but] I wasn't really worried about the movies that didn't do that well. I had never seen them, actually. I've never seen "The Wiz" and I've never seen "Return to Oz" -- I hear "Return to Oz" is actually a great, underrated film.

Apparently it has a cult following.

Well, I'll tell you what I was worried about: not how well the other pictures had done or how they had been received, but I was worried about the fans -- that they would have my initial reaction and say, "I love 'The Wizard of Oz,' don't mess with my childhood memories or that great classic. Just let it be." Actually, I didn't even read the screenplay because I had the feeling, I thought, it's not for me.

Oh, really?

But later I was looking for a writer for another project and I read this as a writing sample from the writer ... and I unexpectedly fell in love with the story and the potential to make a movie that could still uplift the audience. And all of my fears about messing with a classic vanished. If people really love "The Wizard of Oz" -- and if I can make this picture correctly -- well, it would take a wicked witch to hate this picture because the picture's heart is in the right place.

From what I understand you had to be really careful not to infringe on the rights of the movie "The Wizard of Oz," which is owned by Warner Bros., and only draw from the Baum books.

You're absolutely right. I think it was put to me like this: Anything that's unique to the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" movie that was not in Baum's work was off-limits.

Were there arguments you had about something that you didn't think was off-limits, but was deemed off-limits?

Yes, absolutely. All the time, every day.

Which one stands out the most?

Oh, when Oscar [Franco] first came into Oz I wanted to have beautiful rainbows. When the balloon first cuts from black and white to color, I wanted there to be this magnificent refraction of light for the balloon to pass through these rainbows. But they said, "No, no, no. People may think he's going 'somewhere over the rainbow.'" I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't even have rainbows in the damn thing." So on and on it went with the legal department. You know, they're trying to protect themselves and protect Warner Bros.' rights at the same time -- we couldn't have ruby slippers.

What would it have cost to use the ruby slippers?

I don't know because they never asked.

Can this movie work as a true prequel to "The Wizard of Oz"? If someone sees this movie first, they may wonder why all of a sudden people are singing in the next one.

I never have seen them back-to-back, so I don't know what that would be like.

I guess I'm wondering if the two movies are related -- or does this movie start a brand new thing?

They are definitely related. And I think that it's only through everyone's love of Baum's work and the original classic that this movie would be made. And it takes great pains setting up the story that Baum wrote, "The Wizard of Oz." So, it makes perfect sense that you could see both movies together. I mean, I don't think that they will exactly rhyme -- there will be some inconsistencies -- but it should be a fun experience.

There is a reference to a John Gale in this movie.

Dorothy Gale is the name of Dorothy in the story, "The Wizard of Oz." So I think [screenwriter] David [Lindsay-Abaire] in one of his drafts was having a little bit of fun. Trying to suggest, perhaps, to the astute listener that when Annie [Michele Williams] didn't marry the Wizard, she may have gone off and married John Gale. And perhaps his daughter, years from now, could have been Dorothy.

So John Gale is unique to this movie, right? He'd not in the Baum books? I couldn't find a reference to him.

Yes, I believe so. I'm not certain. [Dorothy's parents] probably both died and little Dorothy was left with her Auntie Em.

At the same time you were making "Oz," you're producing an NC-17 remake of "Evil Dead." That has to be a bizarre back-and-forth between genres? Or does it not work that way?

No, it worked that way. I'd go back and forth. I'd give my notes of the director's cut and I'd sit in on the grading sessions and help with the casting. I'd say it was refreshing to take my mind out of "Oz" for a while -- because it's so demanding. It's so much easier just to be one of the producers of a movie than it is a director. The director is like giving birth and being a producer is like smoking a cigar in the waiting room.

Do you like being the producer better? I mean, I like it when you direct, but that's just me being selfish.

The best job in the world is directing a motion picture. But I like being involved on the [production] side with other directors -- I learn from them. I love the creative process. I like to support other directors -- I love watching other directors' dailies; I learn a lot about acting and directing from watching it from the outside. It's all a creative process for me, I really enjoy it. I really enjoy both jobs.

There was a rumor that you were directing the "Poltergeist" reboot, but it sounds like you're just producing?

That's right. I'm not the only producer. There are a number of producers and MGM is going to remake "Poltergeist" and right now we're looking for directors.

Is there any chance whatsoever that you might change your mind about directing?

I'm such a giant fan of the first picture -- I'd be too afraid. I'm scared! I don't think I could match Tobe Hooper's brilliance as a director or Steven Spielberg's brilliant script that he wrote. Or his brilliant producing of the picture -- well, that I guess I will have to try.

But you're Sam Raimi and you are too afraid to direct a "Poltergeist" reboot. If you're too afraid, how are you going to convince another director to try?

I won't tell them I'm afraid.

But it's now on the Internet.

Uh oh. [Laughs] Don't print it then! Let me find the director first! It's such a classic, it's so beloved by millions -- it is a hard job.

To this day, it's so interesting to me that you made a baseball movie, "For Love of the Game." It just seems so different than what you're known for.

Well, after I made "The Quick and the Dead" -- which was the ultimate "style-fest" for me -- I felt very empty. And I felt that I cannot continue down this road of style. I need substance. So, I took a break from the movie business for a couple of years and I said that I wanted to find a picture where the script is the movie and the acting is the movie. And my wife showed me "A Simple Plan," the book from Scott Smith. And I loved it and it's a brilliant screenplay. And that's where I was then -- I was all about being invisible as the director, with no style and letting Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton and Brent Briscoe and Bridget Fonda do the heavy lifting. And I loved it -- it reinvigorated me and reminded me of why I love the movies.

Then I was only looking for a different character story. And my wife found that screenplay, "For Love of the Game," and it was only about the characters -- and my love of baseball. So I thought, I'd never done anything like this, a love story. For me, it's absolutely impossible, but I'm going to try it and stretch my muscles. And a baseball story? What would that be like? So because it's so different, I tried that. And I was in a place where I was trying to find myself as a filmmaker. I was still interested in supplementing myself to the material and letting it be what it could be. And Dana Stevens wrote a script that I really enjoyed ... and I think that's what that was about.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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