Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In the beginning...

In the beginning.... 

     Walt had long been a fan of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books. In fact, back in the mid-1930s, just as Disney Studios was starting to search for a story that would serve as a suitable follow-up to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".  Walt had Roy inquire about the movie rights to the original "Wizard of Oz".  Unfortunately, the Baum family had just sold the rights to this best-selling fantasy novel to rival mogul Samuel Goldwyn for some $60,000. Which is how Disney Studios missed out on the chance to make an animated version of "The Wizard of Oz." 

     But even though this initial opportunity had slipped through Walt's fingers, he never lost his
enthusiasm for the Oz books, their colorful characters and spectacular settings. Which is why -- in 1954 -- when the movie rights to 11 of Baum's books became available Walt quickly snatched them up.  But Walt was really pushing to get the "Rainbow Road to Oz" movie made. Even going so far as to acquire the rights to a 12th L. Frank Baum book, "Dorothy and the Wizard of  OZ," for an amount that was said to be the equivalent of what the studio had paid for the first 11 books.

    But then the previously-announced start-of-production date in November came and went. And then -- by February of 1958 -- rumors began circulating that Disney had abandoned plans to shoot "The Rainbow Road to Oz." That Walt had suddenly tabled this project and was now searching for a more suitable production to serve as his studio's entry into the world of live action musicals.  (And finally in the early eighties) every day that ticked by -- the options that Disney had held on those 12 L. Frank Baum books back in the 1950s were losing their value. Given that many of these titles -- just like the original "Wizard of Oz" had -- were getting ready to slip into public domain. Which meant that any studio could then produce an Oz picture.

Finally, in 1980, Tom Wilhite --


the then-head of production at Walt Disney Studios -- had had enough. He was tired of seeing the company produce this seemingly endless series of mediocre films. Particularly since the studio was sitting on the movie rights to this spectacular series of children's books. So Tom began searching for a director who'd be willing to tackle the Oz project.

To hear Walter Murch tell the story, "Tom had to work his way down to the Ms before he finally found me." Murch -- an Academy-Award winning sound & film editor -- may seem like a rather unlikely candidate to direct Disney's Oz movie. But Walter's pedigree (I.E. Murch had worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the "Godfather ") was impeccable. More to the point, given that Murch had just won an Oscar for his work on "Apocalypse Now," he had a fairly high profile at the moment.  So Murch was signed to both write & direct what was then known as "Oz" ...

     The "Return to Oz" title wouldn't actually be tacked onto the film until much further on down Disney's developmental track  And -- when Wilhite
 first announced the project to the press in January of 1991 -- he revealed that Dorothy would most likely not appear as a character in this picture.  "We'll probably combine characters from various books and structure a new storyline."  But the screenplay that Walter would submit in the spring of 1982 did feature Dorothy as a character. It was also much darker in tone than the studio had been anticipating. Which caused Disney executives much concern.   Still, development of "Oz" continued. A veteran production designer, Norman Reynolds (Who had worked on "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back ") was hired to bring Baum's world to life. And work then began on the various robotically-controlled characters that would be featured in the film ...

    At this point, some $6 million had already been spent by Walt Disney Productions on "Oz." And then -- in November of 1983 -- Richard Berger (I.E. The executive who had replaced Tom Wilhite as president of production at the studio) suddenly shut down production of the picture.
As Berger explained to the New York Times back in July of 1985:

     ''The budget was up to
$27 million (Which was significantly higher than the $20 million that 'Oz' was originally supposed to cost) ... The movie was supposed to (be shot in) Algiers, Sardinia, Spain, Canada, Kansas and England ... All of Disney's recent movies had (gone) over budget. 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' had been $5 million over budget. (Which is why I) decided to close down the movie and write off the $6 million (that the studio had already invested in the picture).''

    Eventually however a compromise was reached. "Oz" 's budget was pared back to $25 million. Which meant that virtually all of the movie's on-location sequences (Which would have sent the cast & crew off to Sardinia & Algeria to shoot the scenes set in the Deadly Desert, Kisserta near Naples to shoot the Nome King's throne room sequence and Hadrian's Villa outside of Rome for Mombi's palace as well as the ruins of the Emerald City) were scrubbed. Except for the scenes that were set in Kansas (Which were shot out on the U.K. 's Salisbury Plain, near where Stonehenge is located), the entire film would be shot on five soundstages at Elstree Studios.
 The film (as Murch and his production team had originally envisioned it) never quite recovered from all these budget cuts. Though much time & effort had already been devoted to creating authentic likenesses of favorite old characters like the Scarecrow.

Now there was no money left in the budget for the complicated electronics that would have brought his face to life. Which is why the Scarecrow mostly had a fixed expression in the finished film.  As for Jack Pumpkinhead....

It often took as many as six puppeteers to bring Jack to life..

Where even the seemingly simple act of standing up and/or sitting down involved all sorts of elaborate off-screen mechanics.

    The "Return to Oz" shoot did not go well. Given that Fairuza Balk, the film's 9-year-old star, could only work 3 1/2 hours each day and that characters like Billina the talking chicken were notoriously difficult to operate, the production quickly fell behind schedule. At one point, Disney execs actually tried to remove Murch as director of "Return to Oz," only to have George Lucas intercede on Walter's behalf.   Once production was completed, Murch's movie had to deal with other problems. You see, by the time that "Return to Oz" had finally made out into theaters in June of 1985, Mouse House management had changed yet again.

   Now it was Michael Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg who were calling the shots in Burbank. And -- to be honest -- Michael & Jeffrey didn't know quite what to make of Walter's film. A PG-rated pseudo-sequel to 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" with no music that was often too dark & scary for small kids to handle.

    So while "Return to Oz" may have been the centerpiece of an elaborate presentation at Radio City Music Hall that summer, around the rest of the country this Walter Murch film didn't receive very special treatment. At that time, noted author Harlan Ellison actually accused Disney Company management of deliberately sabotaging "Oz" 's chances at the box office. Which is why he urged his readers to " ... go see it, before it disappears."  But,  luckily, thanks to VHS and DVD, "Return to Oz" has not disappeared. And while this movie may have been a real box office disappointment back in 1985 (Earning only $11.1 million during its entire domestic run), it has since gone on to be embraced by Baum enthusiasts around the globe. Who have applauded Murch's efforts to keep the look & style of this film consistent with that of L. Frank's books.