OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL directed by Sam Raimi, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire based on the works of L. Frank Baum, with James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Zach Braff. A Walt Disney Pictures release. 131 minutes. Opens Friday (March 8). For venues and times, see listings.
Zach Braff and I are sitting in a quiet suite at the Hazelton Hotel talking about the time Sam Raimi made a monkey out of him.
"It's right back to acting basics," Braff says. "The director says, ‘Okay, be a monkey,' I'm down there in the dirt being a monkey."
More specifically, Braff was being a flying monkey - a friendly fellow called Finley, the sidekick to James Franco's stranded carnival magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs in Oz The Great And Powerful, Raimi's expansive, expensive attempt to build a fantasy franchise on the bones of The Wizard Of Oz.
Flying monkey suits being a little too old-school for the digital age, Finley was rendered with CGI, as was Joey King's China Girl. But both actors were on set with Franco the whole time.
"We didn't do traditional motion capture with the dots on my face," he says. "Sam doesn't really like that style. He wanted me on set, acting it out, and then he wanted to capture it all on video. Sometimes I would even be on the [master] camera. Usually we would do the first take with me there, even if I was just on my butt in my blue-screen pyjamas, acting it out; that would give everybody a reference for what he wanted the monkey to be doing. Someday it'll be a really rad Blu-ray feature."
Braff does appear as himself in the movie as Oz's long-suffering assistant, Frank, in the black-and-white sequence that opens the picture. "I got to be a human for two weeks," he jokes. Braff and Raimi worked to flesh out both characters, the better to mirror The Wizard Of Oz's famous doubling of its actors in its two settings.
"Frank's browbeaten, just beaten down by Oz," he says. "Whereas Finley's this childlike innocent who's never told a lie; we see him tell his first lie, and he's horrible at it. Sam has said repeatedly that Finley represents Oz's conscience; he wanted him to be this child who's pulling him toward goodness."
Like pretty much everyone I've ever interviewed, Braff has nothing but praise for Raimi as a director and collaborator.
"When I first got there," Braff recalls, "Joey King, the 12-year-old, had a point to make, and Sam turned to her and was listening as though she were a college professor. And I'm, like, rolling my eyes: ‘What could she possibly have to say?' And of course she says the wisest thing anyone's heard in the whole room the whole day - she's this precocious little girl wonder. She's the target audience for the whole movie, [and] he was wise enough and respectful enough to know that and treat her like anybody else in the room. I just fell in love with him at that moment."
As for his own directorial prospects, it's complicated. Nearly a decade after writing, directing and starring in Garden State, Braff's seen several projects fall apart before he could get them into production.
"It's been challenging," he admits. "If I could find a reason [for the collapses], it's been not owning the source material. So I went back to what worked the first time, and wrote a script with my brother, and I'm hopefully going to direct that this year."