Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Chicago Tribune Article

Chicago Tribune
June 30, 1985
Author: Jeff Silverman.

    Somewhere, under the rainbow, Hollywood set up a yellow-brick-roadblock it has never quite been able to get around. The year was 1939, the studio was MGM, and 10 scripts, three directors and a pair of ruby slippers later, ``The Wizard of Oz`` clicked its heels in a way that seemed to make the route to the Emerald City forever impassable to the filmmakers who tried to follow it.

    Not even Walt Disney could crack the nut. Disney had the wherewithal to snatch the rights to the 13 Oz books that followed L. Frank Baum`s original foray into the wonderful world inspired by the White City of the 1893 Chicago World`s Fair, but even Disney`s imagination, expansive as it could be, failed to map the journey. Not that he wasn`t persistent. He tried twice; two scripts were commissioned a
nd written, and a series of preliminary design sketches made, but no new movie was able to emerge from the shadow cast by the 1939 musical. Meanwhile, the books simply gathered dust on Disney`s shelves, their only likely destination the public domain.

    ``The `39 film,`` says director Walter Murch--he almost always refers to it as the `` `39 film``--``is definitely a part of the mental furniture of everyone`s life.''  Which makes Murch a kind of celluloid re-upholsterer, daring enough in his vision to strip the antimacassars from a living artifact and create a whole new piece that stands or falls on its own. His ``Return to Oz`` is neither a remake of nor a sequel to the icon that whisked Judy Garland over the rainbow and into a star. It has no songs, no dances, no Munchkins, no Wizard--and a Fairuza Balk instead of a Judy Garland. Its wicked witch plays second fiddle to a Nome King, and the anthropomorphically lovable Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion have been supplanted by a trio of characters that works by remote control. The film, to take a Baum creation, is a Horse of a Different Color, one that tries to leap over the 1939 classic to get closer to Baum's (and his illustrator, John R. Neill`s) at times dark conception of their magic kingdom, and then back again to make the most of today's wizardlike film technology.

     "It would be impossible to actually pick up and continue along the wavelength that they had started with the `39 film," Murch explains from London, where he is still remixing the "Return to Oz" soundtrack for foreign audiences. ``It took almost two generations to reach that point where we can really go back and reinvent the whole form in which the story tells itself.`` Reinvention seems the magic formula, or at least the direction with the most likely chance of success. Anything too like the original would naturally suffer by comparison. Anything too distant would miss the spirit of Oz.    

     "You can never hit the note of the `39 film again," says the 41-year-old director, "but the closer you come to trying to get that note precisely, the more upsetting it would be. It's like hitting two notes too close together on the piano. They don't harmonize. What we tried to do is go further down or further up the piano and find another note somewhere else on the keyboard that in a sense is different from the original film but harmonizes with it so when you play the two notes together they begin to produce a chord.``

    For Murch, searching for the right chord brought him precariously close to sounding the lost chord on his directorial debut. One of the industry's most respected film and sound editors, he has toiled in some of the movies` most prestigious vineyards. Through the years, he has worked closely with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Phil Kaufman, his San Francisco Bay area film-making neighbors, and, in the end, they helped Murch regain the confidence and control that had begun to erode on the "Return to Oz" set. Murch worked on both ``Godfather`` films with Coppola, and his efforts helped turn ``The Conversation`` into one of the most talked-about films of the early `70s. In 1977, he received an Oscar nomination for his editing of Fred Zinnemann's "Julia."  Two years later, he won an Academy Award for mixing Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."  With Lucas, he co-wrote "THX 1138," and then mixed "American Graffiti." Phil Kaufman offers him special thanks in the credits of "The Right Stuff." Still, Murch wanted to direct a film of his own. In the right place at the right time, he got that chance in 1980.

    The Disney brass was on the lookout for new directors. Since Disney`s death in 1966, the studio had slipped to a sort of secondary status in the Hollywood hierarchy; the brass felt an infusion of new talent could help bring them back to a community force. So Tom Wilhite, then Disney's head of production, drew up a list of potential directors who had yet to helm a feature film. Murch was on that list. "When he got to the M`s," says Murch, "Tom gave me a call."  The two met, and Wilhite asked Murch if there were a subject he was particularly interested in. Without hesitation, he said Oz. Not just for the challenge of filming something that seemed unfilmable, but for his own relationship to the stories. They played an important part of his growing up, a legacy passed on to him from his mother. Her parents were Canadian medical missionaries based in Ceylon at the turn of the century, the same time that the Oz books were being published.  "They were the biggest thing happening if you were a child," Murch explains.  "They were the equivalent of `Star Wars` today."

    For his mother, each arriving edition seemed to represent home, a link with a place far away she barely remembered. ``I think they conjured up images in her mind of a country she was going back to where these books came from, and,`` he stresses, ``it was a fabulous place. She was only 5 or 6 at the time, and I think in some ways she may have gotten the subject matter of the books and Canada mixed up together. They made a big impression on her.``  On her son, as well. As soon as he was old enough to read, his mother plopped the books down in front of him. He was hooked from the start.

    In the summer of 1980, Wilhite gave Murch the go-ahead to cowrite the "Return to Oz" script, which he based on a compilation and telescoping of Baum`s second and third Oz adventures, ``The Land of Oz`` and ``Ozma of Oz.`` More brooding than his original ``The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,`` the second book chronicles the troubles that beset the Emerald City after Dorothy goes back to Kansas. In the third, Dorothy returns to Oz and helps restore Ozma to the throne that had been taken from her by evil granite Nome King and the
wicked Princess Mombi, played in the film by English actors Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh.

    When Murch handed in his first draft two years later, the studio was nervous. His conceptions both of Oz and Kansas were bleaker than Disney had envisioned. But the studio proceeded, and in late 1983, a $20 million budget was assigned to the project, and filming was set to begin in December.

     Now Murch had to find his Dorothy. An eight-city casting search yielded a 9-year-old from Vancouver named Fairuza Balk. ``In the earliest tests that we shot of her,`` Murch says,  "she seemed to slip into that character almost as if passing through an invisible wall."  And she did something else: She conjured a memory of Judy Garland without fixating on Judy Garland. ``There were so many girls that we looked at who tried to be as much like Judy Garland as possible, and I discounted them for that reason. From the very beginning, Fairuza was very aware that this will be her Dorothy. I encouraged her to become herself.`'  He spent several weeks with the young actress going over the story, going over Dorothy`s character and motivations from situation to situation. He even screened the `39 film for the cast and crew he had assembled-to put it behind them.

Then, six weeks before his start date, Wilhite`s replacement at the studio, Richard Berger, shut the production down. The budget, he realized, was closer to $27 million than the original estimate. Child-labor laws would allow Balk, who is in every sequence of the film, to work only 3 1/2 hours a day. And the script as a whole was considered too complicated and unwieldy.  "It was let known to me," says Murch, ``that if the script was cut and if it was cut in a way to make it possible to shoot in 16 weeks, that they might consider making the film after all.``

     Murch sliced 20 pages, and an inflexible 16-week schedule was established. Berger gave the green light, a budget of $25 million was set, and the film was set to roll almost entirely in England, where the exchange worked in favor of the dollar and the talent pool of technicians and crew--many who`d worked on the ``Star Wars`` movies, ``Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom`` and the three ``Superman`` films--were experienced in serving the special needs of an effects movie. Then, six weeks into the shoot the bottom fell out. Murch was already a week behind schedule. And Disney was at the end of its rainbow. Berger flew to London, and producer Paul Maslansky insisted the director should be fired. ``As we started the film,`` says Murch, ``we started to fall behind as many films do. It`s not a new experience. The difference in this case was that I was a first-time director, and there wasn`t any film they could point to where I had directed and they could say it went over by 10 days, but it turned out okay, and it made a lot of money.``

    Any film that has to rely on effects is logistically more difficult, and add to that a film trying slip out from under the shadow of a classic, with a huge budget and a 9-year-old unknown star, and you have a film likely to give executives bad dreams. ``It was,`` Murch admits, ``a high-wire act from the start.``

     Murch, naturally, was the first one to fall. ``It didn`t come out of the blue,`` he says. ``There was a mounting sense of doom that something was going to happen, and I was desperately afraid that this dream that I had carried around for all my life was going to evaporate. Or that I was going to be forced to compromise it in some unspeakable way that you just couldn`t imagine.`` Berger fired him on March 28, 1984. By 3:30 the next morning, George Lucas was calling from Japan to say he`d be right over to check things out.  Lucas looked at the footage already shot, and pronounced it ``wonderful.`` Then he went over the production schedule, and felt it ridiculously tight and should be expanded. Then, as Lucas played big brother to Murch, offering pointers and encouragement, he played politician with Berger, explaining that bringing in another director foreign to the project would only put the production further behind. After two days, Murch was reinstated, his confidence a bit shaken, but certainly on the mend.

    Lucas` mission opened a floodgate of support. In time, Coppola flew over to the set for a week. So did Phil Kaufman. And Steven Spielberg dropped in from his postproduction chores on ``Indiana Jones.``  They were, in the deepest sense, friends who were there at a time when I felt that the world had kind of caved in on me,`` says Murch. ``They reassured me that it would all turn out great, gave me some slaps on the back, and pushed me back onto the stage and said, `Go finish it.'"  Murch did. He may have even reopened the Yellow Brick Road to a new generation of filmmakers.