Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Return to Oz: "I Have the Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore"

American Film
May 1985

Dorothy meets a new cast of characters and state-of-the-art special effects in Return to Oz.
By Jean Callahan

The Emerald City is in ruins, partly because the evil Princess Mombi and the Nome King have taken over Oz and turned all of its inhabitants to stone, and partly because shooting is practically completed on the set at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood near London. The plaster cliffs are still standing near the lunch-pail trees where tin boxes hang from branches like ripening apples, but the faces are gone from the rocks where they'd come to life weeks earlier. The twenty thousand gallons of water used to produce churning white-water rapids for the scene in which Dorothy escapes Kansas and returns to Oz lie murky still.

In the Animatronics Workshop, feathered lycra chicken parts are scattered about, a headless hen exposes the network of wires that move her mechanical eyes in a dozen directions, and the Cowardly Lion's body is stored in a crate next to another containing his royal visage, fully equipped with moving latex jaws, blinking azure eyes, and a baby-blue satin bow in his blonde mane.

One one sound stage, Princess Mombi's Throne Room is in disarray as carpenters pull apart the elaborately mirrored panels that form the floor and walls and ceiling. Just next door, Fairuza Balk, the ten-year-old Canadian playing Dorothy, rides with the robot Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead aboard an extraordinary creature called a Gump -- part sofa, part camel, flapping huge palm fronds torn from a Victorian parlor plant for its wings. Five crew members operate levers controlling the facial expressions of the Gump, which twists and turns on hydraulic lifts as it flies through the sky carrying its precious cargo.

Late last summer, the hum and hammering of deconstruction provided background noise on the set of Return to Oz as the $25 million Disney project went into post-production. Disney's visit to the Emerald City has no intention of competing with MGM's classic Wizard of Oz; Return to Oz is neither a remake nor a musical. It is a fantasy adventure film full of special effects; set for release in late June, it is the first half of Disney's summer one-two punch, to be followed by the animated feature The Black Cauldron.

Return to Oz begins with Dorothy back in Kansas, the victim of recurring dreams about a magical land so vivid in her mind that she swears she has actually been there, which worries Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) and Aunt Em (Piper Laurie). They take their niece to a clinic for experimental electrical treatments to cure her delusions, and, needless to say, Dorothy hates it there. She escapes through a raging storm across a river that delivers her to (surprise!) Oz. But she finds the Emerald City under the control of sinister forces, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion turned to stone, and the Scarecrow vanished entirely. With the assistance of some newfound friends, she sets out to restore Oz to its rightful ruler.

The film introduces several fresh characters, such as the Nome King (Nichol Williamson); Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), the evil sorceress who has thirty-one interchangeable heads; the Wheelers, a nasty gang of fast-moving punks with wheels for arms and legs; and Billina, a talkative hen who takes the place of Toto.

"The film is about Dorothy going back to Oz, having questioned whether the place ever existed," explains Walter Murch, making his directorial debut with this film. "Was it a dream or was it real? And can you go back to a place that had been such a tremendous adventure for you?" As Dorothy returns to Oz, Murch, when he wrote the screenplay with Gill Dennis, returned to the series of L. Frank Baum books he loved as a child. "My mother's family were medical missionaries serving in Ceylon around the turn of the century," he says, "and they pounced on the Baum books that arrived in the mail from relatives in the United States. Those books made a tremendous impression on my mother as she grew up. The United States was the land of the Emerald City to her, living so far away, and as soon as I was able to read or be read to, she pulled out the books and made sure I got infested with the Oz strain."

Baum wrote fourteen Oz books in all (Disney owns the rights to thirteen of them), and Murch combined two of them, Return to Oz and Ozma, for the story he pitched to Disney three years ago. "Because I love the stories so much," Murch says, "I want to do them the best service. Because of a twist of history, they've been locked away in Disney's vaults for thirty years, and on the simplest level, my job is to let them out into the world where they would have been much earlier but for the way the world turns."

Murch's world almost went into turnaround last spring when the Oz project came close to being abandoned. Considered a "renaissance man" by his fellow Bay Area filmmakers, Murch won an Oscar for his sound work on Apocalypse Now and reportedly saved The Conversation with his deft editing. But as a first-time director, he developed what Oz producer Paul Maslansky calls "chemistry problems" with first assistant director Ray Corbett and with director of photography Freddie Francis three weeks into production. The AD was laid off, Francis quit and was replaced by David Watkin (Yentl, Chariots of Fire), but by the end of the fifth week, the shooting schedule was running almost a week behind and budget overruns were climbing. Maslansky says he was prepared to fire Murch by the beginning of the sixth week. "For a director, a movie is relentless" he explains. "It's like the ocean -- it doesn't stop coming when you get hit by the waves. Walter had lost a lot of his confidence."

But the Force was with him. To the rescue came Murch's good buddy George Lucas, with whom he'd studied at USC and worked at Zoetrope on THX-1138 and American Graffiti. When Lucas heard Murch was in trouble, he hopped a plane from Tokyo, where he'd been visiting Paul Shrader on the set of Mishima. By early April, the Bay Area Mafia had rallied around one of its own. Lucas's pal, Steven Spielberg also dropped by the Oz set for a day and Francis Ford Coppola spent five days there. A little moral support and Murch was on the job again. With the help of Malansky, the producer of Police Academy, who is known for his ability to bring in a picture on budget, the movie was back on schedule by mid-May. After all, Murch's problems paled in comparison with the troubles MGM experienced on the 1939 Oz, a film that had to contend with ten different scripts; four different directors; 124 midgets, many of whom had never acted before; and one very difficult child star.

The new Dorothy seems far from a problem child. Perched atop the mechanical Gump heaving back and forth on hydraulic lifts, Fairuza good-naturedly tosses herself around and generally seems to be having fun. "I wish I were," says her mother, Cathryn Balk. "It's kind of frightening watching her up there." Fairuza has done all her own stunts, including landing on a ledge of Nome Mountain after being dropped out of the crashing Gump, hanging from a wire harness. "She did eleven takes of that jump," her mother says. And twice she hurled herself into the rampaging five-foot-deep "river" built into an Elstree sound stage while rain and wind effects created a stormy night. "It was pretty nerve-wracking," says Cathryn Balk. "All you'd see were these two little feet for what seemed like whole minutes before she'd resurface."

Disney's Dorothy has no ruby slippers for those little feet, but the Yellow Brick Road is still there -- only this time it's paved with special effects. Ian Wingrove, who created much of the wizardry for Never Say Never Again and Return of the Jedi, supervised mechanical special effects, including the Gump and the river set. For the Gump, Wingrove collaborated with Lyle Conway, whose Animatronics Department fashioned the Gump's head; Wingrove's crew designed the flying-machine body. Conway worked with Jim Henson on The Great Muppet Caper and helped develop the characters for The Dark Crystal. For Return to Oz, he also produced twenty-five electronically controlled hens to stand in for the real Plymouth Rock chicken who plays Dorothy's pet Billina.

Will Vinton headed up the Claymation Department, creating effects such as the sequence in which the King materializes out of Nome Mountain. "Originally, in the Baum books, the Nome King was a funny little round elf, a sort of Santa Claus character," Vinton says. "But we wanted to make him bigger, more threatening -- he is the chief antagonist of the story, the biggest threat to Dorothy and her companions. So we came up with a concept whereby the King actually lives in the rocks and moves about in them. As the story progresses, he becomes more human -- evolving from rock to an animated creature to Nicol Williamson."

Norman Reynolds, who has won Academy Awards for his work as production designer on Raiders of the Lost Ark and as art director on Star Wars, rounds out Return to Oz's production team as designer of its elaborate sets, including the petrified Emerald City, Princess Mombi's ostentatious palace, and the Nome King's evil empire.

Return to Oz premieres in New York City when Disney takes over Radio City Music Hall for the summer. Last winter, there was a fuss when the Rockettes vowed to picket Disney's runs of Return to Oz and The Black Cauldron if they were not allowed to be part of the summer stage show. The production of Oz had weathered worse -- the near-firing of its director, the ouster of Ron Miller as Disney's head, an attempted stockholder takeover -- and managed to stay on track through the transition period following the appointments of Michael Eisner as chairman of the board and Frank Wells as president. The movie seemed to have a life of its own.

Inevitably, Return to Oz will be compared with what Maslansky and Murch refer to as "the '39 film." The disastrous Wiz will be recalled, as will sundry other efforts to mine The Emerald City. "Disney was going to make one of the Oz stories in the fifties," says Murch. "They were going to cast the Mouseketeers, and it was going to be a musical. They actually went as far as a pilot program for television, and then they decided not to do the film. Then they revived the project again in the sixties, not with the Mouseketeers, but with the idea of making an Oz picture. But then Walt Disney died in '66 and there were no more attempts after that until us."

Grounded in a faithful adaptation of the Baum books and jazzed up with eighties-style effects, Return to Oz, Murch hopes, will be the fantasy for which we've all been waiting.

Make sure to check out the wonderful fan site Walt Disney's Return to Oz for a wealth of information about the film!