DETROIT - During his off-hours from filming Oz the Great and Powerful in Pontiac, Mich., Sam Raimi would share the simple pleasures of his Birmingham hometown with his children: riding bikes on paved trails, going to the Franklin Cider Mill, picking wild grapes growing near 13 Mile Road and watching fireflies.
"They thought fireflies were absolutely magical," says the director of the Disney 3D movie opening Friday. "I took them down to Wing Lake one night and they saw these beautiful fireflies dancing around."
A Hollywood power player based in Los Angeles, the 53-year-old Raimi rented a house in West Bloomfield, Mich., and lived for much of 2011 near his parents, siblings and friends since childhood.
But the assignment that brought him home involved creating magic and beauty of a different kind: the world of Oz, brought to life by a combination of old-school techniques and new-school computer wizardry.
Raimi, who put himself on the map with a shoestring-budget film called The Evil Dead and went on to helm the Spider-Man trilogy, is awaiting the opening of his most challenging film yet.
Shooting in the Detroit area provided the PG-rated Oz with roughly $40 million in Michigan film incentives, a brand-new, state-of-the-art studio and a work force of surprising depth.
But in another sense, the project -- which was estimated to spend $105 million and included 683 Michigan hires -- was Raimi's gift to a place that remains close to his heart. He played an important role in getting Oz the Great and Powerful to come to the region and gave the local film community a best-of-times moment during its worst-of-times battle against Gov. Rick Snyder's cutback to the film incentives.
Two years later, Raimi says he hopes the talented artists that he met on the biggest made-in-Michigan film ever don't have to relocate if the incentives don't continue.
"Michigan has really got great grips, woodworkers, plasterers, carpenters, film artisans, cameramen, lighting technicians," he says, reeling off a laundry list of crew positions. "Really, everything you need is in Michigan."
Raimi's early memories of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz are of seeing it as a young boy on the small screen.
"It was on local Detroit TV, 2, 4 or 7, I don't know which, but it could only be one of those," Raimi recalls of those pre-cable days. "They used to show it, I think, on Thanksgiving or around Christmas vacation. I just remember it as being not just the sweetest movie of all time, but one of the scariest as a kid."
Oz the Great and Powerful has been called a Wizard of Oz prequel in the media, but it essentially shares only source material with the iconic movie musical starring Judy Garland. It's more accurate to call it the origin story of the Wizard of Oz, inspired by L. Frank Baum's 14 novels set in the land of Oz. There are no ruby slippers here nor any other famous images from The Wizard of Oz.
The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner (who also did the story) and David Lindsay-Abaire centers on a small-town magician at the turn of the 20th century. Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco of Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy) is a bit of a con man. Transported in a storm from Kansas to the strange, faraway place, he meets three witches, Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) -- one of whom is bound to turn green and westwardly wicked before the movie is over.
But this is Oscar's journey of discovery. Accompanied by a winged monkey and a porcelain doll, he will become involved in Oz's problems and eventually find out what sort of a man he really is.
Raimi says he fell in love with the story, which takes Baum's characters and puts a fresh spin on them without doing anything to upset fans of "The Wizard of Oz," which includes just about everyone. "I never felt it tread badly upon it. I think it was more like a love poem to that movie, if anything," he says.
Once Disney committed to working with Raimi, it wanted to film in Vancouver, which has become a popular alternative to the high cost of shooting in California. "I said, 'If we're going to leave the state, I'd really rather we check out Michigan because, yes, that's my hometown, and I love it there. And there's a lot of people that are very talented in the film industry there who, given the opportunity, would do (as well as or better) than the Hollywood people.' "
The Michigan Film Office worked closely with reps like Raimi's producing partner Grant Curtis, suggesting locations and providing information on the state's crew base. With a $40-million tax credit then factored in, the costs in Michigan were close enough to those in Canada that Disney let Raimi have his way.
Raimi faced a huge challenge. He was tackling his first digital 3D movie, which required lots of preparation before filming started.
"I had to go to school to learn about it and took what I learned and tried to apply it the best I could," he says, describing a process of reading, visiting labs and digital effects houses, talking to technicians and shooting a number of 3D tests. "It was Disney that really wanted to make the film in 3D. They thought it would be more marketable and I thought, good, because it's a really good tool to describe the world of Oz, so it worked out well for me."
Raimi assembled an award-winning team for Oz. On board were cinematographer Peter Deming (Drag Me to Hell, The Cabin in the Woods), production designer Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland, Avatar), film editor Bob Murawski (the Spider-Man trilogy) and composer Danny Elfman, to drop a few names. Special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero (Seven Psychopaths) and Howard Berger (The Chronicles of Narnia movies) were instrumental in dreaming up the looks for Oz's vast and unusual population.
Although virtual environments like those in Avatar are an option for big-budget spectacles, Raimi made the decision to use actual stage sets. He says he wanted to have control over the look of things that sets offered and not just shoot actors in front of green screens that would be transformed by CGI artists relying on production sketches.
"It was very important for me to have the textures on the set, so the actors could touch them and see them, make it real to them," he says, "but also so I had on film the texture of the yellow brick road, the color of the leaf that was falling on it, the dappled sunlight that was falling upon it." That way, he explains, the hundreds of CGI artists who worked in post-production "could re-create that in the computer, an extension of that world in the distance as opposed to just making it up from the ether."
Shooting started at the Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac in July 2011 and wrapped in December of that year. There were approximately 30 sets constructed for use on the seven sound stages, nearly 2,000 costumes and three dozen little people cast.
Raimi's loyalty at work
There's a lot riding on Oz the Great and Powerful, which is estimated to have a $200-million budget and is aiming for a big opening weekend. But ultimately, even with all the technical complexities and the visual dazzle, Oz the Great and Powerful is about a man facing important decisions: Oscar Diggs, aka Oz. Raimi, the man guiding the high-stakes movie, already seems to know what's important.
The married father of five is famously loyal to his family and friends. He works frequently with his brother Ivan, a Michigan doctor and screenwriter who he says helped on this picture, and also with his actor brother Ted, who's in all of his films and has a small part in this one. Two of Raimi's sons also have cameos. "They just have little bit parts as a bugle boy and a drummer boy. They don't have any lines but they're in the picture," he says.
And keep an eye out for original Evil Dead cast members Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker and Ellen Sandweiss, who are all credited in the cast list.
This is a PG movie, even if the previews indicate those flying monkeys are going to be pretty scary. Raimi says he wasn't daunted by having to calibrate the fear factor for a family film.
"I'm a parent, and I tried to bring it to the point where I could still bring my kids and they would really like it. They wouldn't get too scared, but that it had a little bit of edge for them, too, because the boys like to have a little bit of edge. I tried to find that balance."
Then the cheeky Raimi wit comes through. "There's no violence in this picture. It's just about the wicked witch, her laugh, the potential for harm coming from the flying monkeys," he says with a twinkle in his voice.
The man who grew up watching the sweetest, scariest movie he could imagine will soon find out if audiences feel the same about the Oz he has created.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)