Column: Adapting Oz, Part Five

by Sean Gates

Adapting Oz, or Finding Frank

In 2003 I wrote the script for our film, “L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” This is the final part in a series discussing the process of adapting a beloved book into a screenplay. 

Moving forward, the focus of this column will shift to other aspects of the production.

Part Five: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

When I finished the script in 2003, I was feeling pretty happy about things.  But as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t really have a plan moving forward.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with the script, I just knew that I didn’t want to let somebody else go in there and rub their stink all over my work.  I had very specific visions in my head and I wanted to see them come to life.  When Clayton and I started talking Oz in late 2007, it was clear that we wanted a lot of the same things in an Oz movie.  He was happy with my script.  What I always remember is that he told me how pleased he was that so much of the dialogue was right from the book. 

Of course whenever a movie is being made, there will be changes to the script, often ones that happen on the fly during filming, or as the filmmakers realize that a change to a scene would strengthen the movie.  Now it would be fair to say that Clayton and I have clashed a number of times on stylistic decisions.  As I said, when I wrote the script I had a lot of very specific images in mind.  When you have a long history with a thing it can be a challenge to let go.  And since I’m wearing multiple hats, as writer and producer, it can be frustrating to a producer/director when the writer challenges him on storytelling decisions.  We both have our artistic integrity to maintain.  Ultimately, though, I know I’m working with a talented, creative guy who has a passion for this story and a vision of how he wants it to look.  And I don’t disagree with too much of what he wants to do. 

It would also be fair to say, however, that I’m not so in love with my work that I can’t see its flaws, or indeed room for improvement, and pretty much every change we’ve made to the script, I’ve been in agreement on.  It’s hard to deny there’s a problem, for instance, when you realize that in the script as written, Glinda is never mentioned by name.  It was also easy to fix.  Among the ladies who auditioned for roles in our movie was a lovely teenage drama student named Madeline Lovegrove, who read for several roles.  We were immediately struck by her stentorian voice – I suspect at least in part a product of her stage experience.  Her athletic build, her strong features, and that voice all made her a perfect fit for one of Glinda’s guards.   It was an obvious choice to re-title that role as Glinda’s Captain and expand her dialogue so that she asks why they’ve come to see “The Lady Glinda, ruler of the South Country.” 

One day late in the summer of 2009, I was at work when I allowed my thoughts to stray to Oz.  We weren’t far off from getting Clayton, Steve, and Mare back here for pickups in September, and I was thinking about the Cowardly Lion.  It seemed clear to me that he was not, or at least had not always been, the only lion in Oz.  But he has no given name that I am aware of, beyond “Lion,” or “Cowardly Lion.”  Scarecrow, it seemed to me, wouldn’t have a name since that’s exactly what he is – a Scarecrow.  I had no trouble with that.  The Tin Woodman was once a flesh-and-blood man, and his name is Nick.  Don’t lions differentiate between each other?  Surely they must. 

So I imagined a scene where Dorothy and the others ask the Lion his name, and he says it’s unpronounceable.  I thought it was funny.  That night when Clayton and I spoke on AIM as we regularly do, I presented my idea to him.  He liked it…with reservations.  He felt that the unpronounceable name thing was a bit cliché, as it has been done before with other characters in other stories.  I was obviously disappointed, but conceded the point.  And then Clayton brought an idea of his own to the table that was simply too good not to put in the script.  I’d detail it here, but as River Song would say, “Spoilers!”  I wouldn’t want to rob you of the enjoyment that scene will bring when you see it play out onscreen.  Suffice it to say, it’s a name gag that’s genuinely funny and serves the growing dynamic between the main characters, and I’m glad it’s there.

There are also changes that are dictated by the actual shooting.  As we’ve stated on many occasions, we filmed Dorothy’s role in 2009 because Mariellen Kemp was already on the upper edge of what we wanted Dorothy’s age to be.  Of course this means that we had to be very careful to make sure we’d filmed absolutely everything that we needed.  Usually we reviewed the footage on the TV at the end of the day to make certain that everything was good.  So what do you when two years later, you realize the one take you shot of a certain scene isn’t going to work as intended? 

This was the scene of Dorothy waking up in the guestroom in Boq’s house.  There was a technical problem with the footage and we just hadn’t caught it before.  In truth there were some possible workarounds, but as we talked it over we realized the scene in question served no particular purpose.  It was in the book, and I’d included it because it showed the passage of time, but frankly omitting it entirely, and cutting from the scene before it directly to the scene after it still takes you from a nighttime party scene to a morning breakfast.  Time has clearly passed, and it’s clear that she’s stayed the night at Boq’s.  I think if I was writing it today I’d have omitted the scene, but it was an early scene in the film and I hadn’t yet come to terms with exactly when to cut something out of the story.  I got more ruthless as the writing went on, but that early in the process I was hesitant to cut too much.  Somehow it took two years and some unusable footage for us to realize that the scene didn’t need to be there in the first place.

A change that I’ve touched on before is the Journey to Glinda’s Palace.  I had written it, cut it on the advice of a friend, reinstated it, and finally expanded it at Clayton’s request.  I’ve made no secret that I wasn’t a fan of the China Country scene.  This was an example of my later ruthlessness at work; I had omitted it entirely from my original script.  When I added it for Clayton, I made it into something I was happy with by adding peril, and thus a sense of urgency, to the scene.  I was trying, then, to strike a balance by keeping a good amount of the dialogue with the china people while keeping the action moving forward.  I omitted the stuff about Dorothy wanting to keep the princess, but I kept the milk maid and her cow, and of course the clown, Mr. Joker.  In the book, he somersaults up to Dorothy and says:

My lady fair,
why do you stare
at poor old Mr. Joker? 

You’re quite as stiff
and prim as if
you’d eaten up a poker!

Nick demands that the clown show Dorothy some respect.  As I recall the clown then randomly stands on his head and says, “that’s respect, I expect.”

But with the trees trying to break down the wall around the China country, and all the people in a panic fearing that they might be smashed to bits, I felt that six lines of verse would slow things down.  The intended tone of this scene, as I wrote it anyway, was pure chaos.  So everybody’s screaming, the wall is cracking, the ground is shaking, a church has just been smashed by four weird people who fell out of the sky, and a cow has been spooked and broken a leg clean off.  The milk maid is screaming for a mender, people everywhere are in full panic mode, the princess implores our heroes to leave before the whole place is destroyed, and in the middle of all this chaos the clown tumbles up and says:

Why do you stare at poor Mr. Joker?
You look as if you’d swallowed a poker!

“You show her some respect!”

“That’s respect, I expect.”  And he’s gone.  It’s just a bit of chaos in an already chaotic environment.  That was how I justified it.  But my abbreviated version of the poem did not sit well with Clayton, who feels it doesn’t have any rhythm.  To this day I think this version of the scene demands a shortened poem, but the good thing is he’s an animated character.  Either the longer poem will work or it won’t, and if it doesn’t we’ll have every opportunity to go with the shorter one instead.  So I’m not sweating it.  One or the other of us will be vindicated, and either way it won’t hurt the movie.

That’s just a fact of screenwriting.  Things do get changed, if not during filming then in the editing room.  Not everything you write is necessarily going to make it to the final cut of the movie.  That’s okay, because it has to be about what serves the film.  I try not to have any filler, but what works on paper won’t always work on the screen, and in any case as I said this was my first adaptation and especially in the beginning, I was afraid to assert myself too strongly on Baum’s work.  It’s also easy to get really into a dialogue between two or three characters and let it drag on longer than it should, so there’s always the chance of lines being dropped from conversations.  It’s a pretty talky script.  I like dialogue, especially when it can be used to build and demonstrate a dynamic between characters.  And who DOESN’T love these characters? 

We’ve already trimmed a couple of lines in editing. One that comes to mind is in what we’ve come to call the CS, or the Concept Scene.  If I was titling chapters on a DVD I’d call it “The Rescue of the Tin Woodman.”  All you really GOOD Oz fans will appreciate that one.  Anyway it was a minor adjustment; but as Clayton cut the scene together and then shared it with Drew, our VFX Supervisor, they both agreed that two lines of dialogue had to go.  I say two lines; really it’s just two words.  When Dorothy and Scarecrow are oiling Nick’s joints, Scarecrow asks him “Better?”  And Nick says, “Much.”  But these lines slowed down the oiling montage, and weren’t really necessary in any case.  So they decided to jettison them.  When I watch the scene now I forget they were even there.  Seriously, I had to dig out my script to figure out what in the hell they’d cut, and even then I couldn’t figure it out.  Clayton had to tell me.  If the writer doesn’t even miss it…I’d say it’s a good cut.

Sometimes I suggest these changes myself.  A lot happens in eight years.  As you all know we filmed Marie Rizza’s role as the Wicked Witch of the West over the summer.  Clayton had edited together a version of the scene we were going to present at Banner Elk, and we drove out to Marie’s apartment to re-record her dialogue since we rarely get usable audio on-set.  Either we’re outdoors with real-world mechanical noises getting in the way…or we’re in Norm’s garage with real-world mechanical noises (A/C, anyone?) getting in the way.  At any rate, I’d made a decision in 2003 that I no longer thought was a good one. 

As I’ve previously noted, when I wrote the Wicked Witch scenes I felt that I had to make her as threatening as possible since she couldn’t actually harm Dorothy.  There had to be menace, a sense of violence waiting to happen in all of her scenes.  And I wanted to make her as mean as possible.  So when the monkeys have destroyed the Scarecrow and Woodman, and have delivered the Lion and to the Witch’s dismay, Dorothy to her castle as well, she threatens Dorothy to establish her own dominance. 

The line I wrote, and which all of our WWW candidates read in audition, was “Come with me, and mind everything I tell you; or I’ll make such an end of you that the fate of your two stupid friends will pale in comparison.”  Every audition we had, apart from Marie, the actresses read that line like a bitchy valley girl telling a classmate to stay away from her boyfriend.  I was thinking about that one night over the summer as I drifted off to sleep, and it occurred to me that the reason they were reading the line that way is because that’s the way the line LOOKS.  And that maybe with a character like the WWW, fewer words are better. 

The next day I talked it over with Clayton and he agreed with me that the thing to do was to take that line back to Baum:  “Come with me, and mind everything I tell you or I’ll make an end of you.”  On paper it doesn’t seem to flow.  But in performance it can be exponentially more threatening, and part of the reason for that is because of where the line ends.  It’s a threat, but my version ends on the word “comparison.”  Baum’s ends on the word “you.”  Which is the way a threat ought to end, when you think about it.  So Clayton was able to adjust the flow of the scene a little, and we had Marie record the line as Baum wrote it.  You didn’t see the Witch’s mouth at that moment anyway.  A couple of weeks later, when we re-shot parts of that scene, we had her perform it with the Baum line.

In the end that’s just part of the process.  Whenever you’re making a movie you’re constantly editing, shortening, expanding, sculpting out the story as you want it to be.  It’s stronger for the work we continue to put into it. 

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