PONTIAC, Mich. â Michelle Williams is wearing a harness and hanging a metre and a half off the ground, suspended from a wire. Sheâs holding a magic wand that lights up. She is spinning around.
On the ground, cameramen are filming while an assistant director shouts instructions. âThe timing was good. The twist wasnât good,â he says. They try it again. âThat was great. Do it again.â They do it again. âLook up with a little more immediacy.â And again. âThat was good. Go again right away.â
Half an hour later, Williams is lowered to the ground. Itâs late December in 2011, and Williams â a sweet-natured actress who shrugs off her fame but isnât so crazy about heights â is having a busy day.
For one thing, she has just learned that sheâs been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild prize for her performance as Marilyn Monroe in the film My Week With Marilyn. But thereâs no time to celebrate: sheâs in the middle of shooting scenes for the Disney film Oz The Great and Powerful, a prequel to the Wizard of Oz in which she plays Glinda, the good witch. Unfortunately for Glinda, there are also bad witches in Oz, and they end up fighting a mid-air battle that will be spruced up with computerized effects that will make it look as if they are flying.
Itâs one of 2,000 special effects shots in the movie. Visual effects supervisor Scott Stockdyk, who also worked on three Spider-Man movies, says â with only a slight exaggeration â âItâs better than all of them put together.â The witchesâ fight scene alone took three days.
Oz The Great and Powerful is being directed by Sam Raimi, a Michigan native who has returned home â to an old GM truck plant near Detroit that has been converted into the giant Raleigh Michigan Studios â to make it. âI feel like Dorothy,â he says of his return.
A lot has happened since then. Raleigh Michigan Studios has fallen on hard times: a cut in the stateâs tax credits hurt, and the studio missed a bond payment and was taken over and renamed Michigan Motion Picture Studios. Williams ended up losing the SAG award, to Viola Davis for The Help.
And the scenes that were shot in the studio have been turned into a movie, with blue-screen technology that erases the wires and make it look as if witches are in mid-air, or the wizard is really walking to the edge of a cliff on a yellow brick road, or hundreds of other bits of technological magic.
Together they tell the story of how the wizard â a charming charlatan who has bamboozled the residents of the magical kingdom â got to Oz in the first place. James Franco (replacing Robert Downey Jr., the first choice for the role) plays a small-time circus magician who makes a pass at a strongmanâs wife and then has to get out of town in a hurry.
Taking off from Kansas, his hot air balloon drifts to the Land of Oz, where fame and fortune await â at least until three witches, played by Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz, suspect heâs not all he claims to be.
The story is taken from one of the 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum that have fallen into public domain and are ripe for the movies, and while no one is talking about a sequel yet, the idea of a franchise isnât that remote.
âThere are multiple adventures and characters we havenât met yet,â says executive producer Grant Curtis. If Oz hits big, it could be a gold mine for Disney. Curtis says, âA lot of people in our business hit themselves in the head and said âWhy didnât I think of that?â â
The cost may have had something to do with it: the budget is estimated at $200 million. Itâs an immense project for everyone. Howard Berger, the Oscar-winning makeup artist whose credits include the Narnia films, calls it âa makeup artistâs dream.â
He created 100 prosthetic characters, and had to worry about such details as the right colour to transform Kunis into a green witch.
âThere were pieces of green skin everywhere,â Berger says. âI found Narnia snow in my shoes for a year. I think Iâm going to keep finding pieces of Mila Kunisâs face.â He predicts her outfit will be the No. 1 Halloween costume in 2013.
This isnât your fatherâs Oz, although. There are no ruby slippers, no Tin Woodsman, no Cowardly Lion, no Scarecrow, although the film does make references to them. And while it does have a yellow brick road, a real one made of tens of thousands of bricks that trails off into the special-effects distance, itâs not a remake of the beloved 1939 movie.
For one thing the filmmakers wouldnât dare tinker with the classic. Raimi, whose experience with the Spider-Man franchise prepared him for the extravaganza of Oz, says he liked the original so much â he calls it his favourite movie â that he was apprehensive about even reading the screenplay of Oz The Great and Powerful.
âI so loved The Wizard of Oz, I didnât want to read a script that had anything to do with it because I thought I didnât want to sully its great legacy, didnât want to tread upon its goodwill,â he says during a break in filming.
But he came to realize that nothing could hurt the memory of that movie â ânothing can touch it. Itâs just brilliantâ â and that Oz The Great And Powerful was more of a loving tribute. It also answers one of the enigmas of the Wizard of Oz story: just who is that wizard and how did he get there?
âItâs interesting in the way Wicked (a musical about the Oz witches) is interesting: one writer exploring what could have happened behind the scenes, from other perspectives. Thatâs always interesting in filmmaking.â
For Williams it was more a matter of exploring her own feelings.
âIâm a little bit shortsighted as a person and I donât think things through, which is sometimes to my detriment and sometimes to my benefit,â she says. âI just thought I really want to make this movie right now and play this character today. So, to my benefit or my detriment, weâll see.â
She says she loves the magical word it creates, especially when she wears her art nouveau Glinda costume in front of the children who play residents of her kingdom.
âI like the look on little girlsâ faces when I walk past them,â she says. âThey just wanted to touch my skirt. By the end I was pulling off little beads and pearls to give to them and they were just so delighted.â
Thereâs a little-girl innocence to Williams, and it comes out in her mounting enthusiasm.
âItâs fun to be something, to be a source of, I donât know what it is: positivity or grace or something they respond to. Itâs good. Sorry, Iâm drifting. Itâs nice to play somebody a little girl can look up to.â
Even when sheâs only pretending to fly.
(Oz The Great And Powerful opens March 8)