Lyman Frank Baum took the long way to writing “The Wizard of Oz.” Before he devised his tale of scarecrows and tin men, he worked, in no particular order, as an actor, a door-to-door-salesman, a choral singer, a newspaper editor and a convenience-store operator. That last one, in a drought-smacked part of South Dakota, served as the inspiration for Dorothy’s Kansas.
“Oz: The Great and Powerful” comes from a less dilettantish place: a producer meeting. In 2009, “The Whole Nine Yards” screenwriter Mitchell Kapner pitched Roth and his colleagues his long-held idea for an origin story about the wizard. The producer bit.
Of course, moving a mega-budget film forward in Hollywood is about as easy as getting a munchkin to dunk a basketball. Sam Mendes was interested in directing, but was sidelined by his commitment to “Skyfall.” Sam Raimi, the genre-fan favorite who is also behind cult hits “Evil Dead” and “Darkman,” was eventually hired, as was Lindsey-Abaire, to streamline the script and add a layer of character. At that point Robert Downey Jr. agreed to play the wizard, though as the months in development wore on, the actor’s desire for silver-tongued improvisation clashed with Raimi’s need for meticulous preparation. “It was clear through all these meetings that this wasn’t going to work,” Roth said.
After a flirtation with Johnny Depp, producers brought on Franco, along with Rachel Weisz as the evil witch Evanora, Mila Kunis as the good-gone-bad witch Theodora and Williams as all-around goodie Glinda. Franco said he liked the idea of taking a familiar world but “using a different kind of protagonist.” Asked whether the familiarity of the Oz setting gave him any pause, he said, “There’s so much of Baum’s world that hadn’t been touched. To let that lie dormant because people like the musical is silly.”