Column: Adapting Oz, Volume II, Part One

by Sean Gates

In 2003 I wrote the script for our film, “L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” In 2007 Clayton and I began making plans to shoot the film ourselves, an undertaking of a scale that neither of us had previously attempted.  The next set of articles in this series will chronicle the process of preparing for the 2009 shoot with Mariellen Kemp as Dorothy, Steven Lowry as Scarecrow and Leah Copeland as Glinda.

Part One: The Incredible Expanding Project

It started almost as a pipe dream.  I had a script and half a Scarecrow puppet, Clayton had a camera and some free software, and we both had grown up with Oz.  We barely knew each other, of course, we’d only been loosely communicating online for a short while.  It was autumn 2007. 

We talked often about how we would make the movie if we had the resources to do it, and those discussions invariably led to conversations about how to acquire those resources.  First we thought about making kind of a teaser trailer using my half a puppet, a Tin Woodman model that Clayton was working up on his computer, a girl in a gingham dress and whatever we could cook up to represent the Lion. 

We both put in a lot of work on pre-visualizations.  As an art major, I knew a bit about art history and thus, architecture as well.  So I had some thoughts about real-world influences that we might bring in to Oz, especially if we could afford to travel to real-world locations for filming.  If you’re going to dream, might as well dream big.  So we gathered material from the internet to represent our vision…a medieval German castle perched dramatically on a mountainside for the Wicked Witch of the West, a reconstruction of a medieval Irish peasant village for the Munchkins.  Moorish architecture in the south of Spain for Glinda’s palace, and most dramatically of all, the island monastery and medieval city of the Mont-Saint-Michel, a painting of which once hung over my parents’ bed and fascinated me as a child.

We figured for the time being that we could fake some pans across static photographs of the locations to use in a trailer, composited together with live-action and CGI footage.  The more we worked at it, the more we realized that it wasn’t going to yield the results we wanted, and at any rate it seemed a bit ambitious, and unfocused.  We wanted to show what we could really do.

So instead we chose a scene from the script that would showcase Scarecrow and Woodman in a way that we felt confident that we could pull off, and with a little help from one of my younger cousins to read a couple lines of dialogue as Dorothy, we figured we’d have a suitable proof-of-concept to drum up support for our project.  In addition to manageable characters, we’d chosen the scene because it took place in a forest, off the Road of Yellow Brick, and could therefore be easily filmed on location not far from my house.

A plan in place, we set up our first website and began taking donations from family and friends to help fund our proof-of-concept shoot.  I started sinking my paychecks into materials to build a full-body Scarecrow puppet and a puppeteer rig to operate it.  I also started looking for a suitable dress for Dorothy.  Believe it or not, that was harder than building Scarecrow.

I was doing Google searches.  That’s the first thing you need to understand.  The second is that I couldn’t think of the word “Gingham.”  I’d learned it before, but not needing it, had promptly forgotten it.  So I had to find that word again.  Once I did, every search I tried either came back with Judy Garland replicas, which we didn’t want, or dresses that would make Dorothy from the Land of Oz Theme Park proud.  And we weren’t putting THAT on a little girl. 

So I had to figure out the right search terms.  “Old West Dress” mostly brought out square-dance dresses…also not right.  I knew we needed something like what the girls wore in “The Searchers,” but I couldn’t figure out how to search that.  I dug and dug every night, Google search after fruitless Google search, until I began to narrow it down.  One thing was clear.  It was going to cost. 

By now we were well into 2008, and my aunt told me that my cousin’s summer schedule for ’09 was full.  It was just as well, I could tell that my aunt really wasn’t onboard with what we were doing and my cousin wasn’t an actress anyway.  Fortunately my father had shared our website with one of his friends and coworkers, who said she had a granddaughter who was about the right age and was an actress.  Who in fact wanted to make a career of acting.  She sent us a couple of headshots, one with her hair braided into pigtails.  She certainly looked like Dorothy.

This was Mariellen Kemp, of course.  She auditioned and instantly won us over, and to this day that headshot with the pigtails is still the one we keep on the site.  As we’ve said numerous times, finding Mare changed our simple plan of making a proof-of-concept video, to filming all of Dorothy’s role in the summer of 2009 before Mare began to age past the point of being a suitable Dorothy.  Now the pressure was on.  My Scarecrow puppet was coming along, and while I was closing in on a dress, I still didn’t have one that would do.  And now we had to get silver shoes and a basket and Kansas shoes, and who knew what else. 

Filming everything with Mare at once also meant using a greenscreen, so that we could film her role without having any sets that we couldn’t afford, or co-stars that we couldn’t possibly find in time.  So Clayton had to add that to his growing equipment list, and work out an affordable lighting solution.  This also meant that we didn’t have to worry about finding little people to play Munchkins, Winkies, etc, as we could film average people in front of the greenscreen and scale them digitally. 

We’d have been happy to film with other cast members that summer too, but we didn’t have any actors looking for roles, except a few drama students who applied online and didn’t give us what we were looking for.  In any case we only had the budget for a limited number of costumes.  I knew Leah Copeland from several years back, and I knew she was interested in acting and that she had expressed an interest in our project, so I approached her about playing Glinda.  Glinda was always represented as being average height in Denslow’s illustrations for some reason, so it made sense to film with her and Mare on set together.

There I was sketching up Glinda as an Amazon queen in an Athenian gown, all sandals, bracelets and armlets.  I started trying to find a line on something even remotely resembling the headdress she wore in Denslow’s illustrations, to absolutely no avail.  At least until I found some chain-mail headdresses that captured the elegance of Denslow’s design while adding a kind of militant edge that would suit a queen who commanded a large army.

The Dorothy dress-hunt turned a corner when one of my Google searches returned a Laura Ingalls-inspired prairie dress.  Okay, the fabrics were wrong.  But that was the dress.  Turns out it was the catalog of a seamstress from Houston who specializes in historical costumes for girls.  She had a large array of prairie dresses that were all variations on the same pattern, with different available fabrics for dress, pinafore, and bonnet.  Nearly any of these dresses would have been perfect, but none of them were listed in blue gingham.  After blundering around fruitlessly for another hour or so, I went back to the website with the Laura Ingalls dress and browsed around some more.

As it happened, the site also offered replica Judy Garland Dorothy dresses, made to order, which meant she stocked blue gingham. I found that she also did custom costumes for plays.    So I talked it over with Clayton and we decided I should call her and see if she would make a custom prairie dress.  I'd be a fool not to.  After a few tries I finally did get through, and we talked at some length about what we needed in costumes. I had to convince her that I wasn’t interested in a Garland replica dress.  That I was doing something different and I wanted exactly what I told her I wanted.  A blue gingham prairie girl dress with a white pinafore and a pink bonnet.  I had sketched up not only Glinda, but Dorothy’s Emerald City dress as well, complete with careful notations.  I e-mailed them to her, we discussed fabrics, and she got to work. 

Then there were the shoes.  Loeb had drawn her in Mary Janes, which is what Judy Garland wore and also what the girls in The Searchers wore.  I’d have been okay with that, but I had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t historically accurate.  So I did some research and learned that girls would probably have worn flat-soled button-up shoes.  With all the searching I’d been doing, I’d started stockpiling web addresses for sites that dealt in Victorian clothing, medieval clothing and weaponry, and old west gear.  Among these was a website that specializes in American historical clothing, and they had replicas of those shoes.  Too late I thought to check Denslow, and sure enough, though I’d taken the hard route…I’d found the right shoes. 

Now this may sound like I was doing all the work.  That would not be true.  Clayton was working on a growing list of equipment that he had to come up with, including a very expensive greenscreen which we absolutely could not do without.  And because he was about to shoot nearly every scene of the film, usually with only one cast member, on that greenscreen, he had a LOT of careful planning to do.  He was also still working on the Tin Woodman.  We were, after all, still planning to have the proof-of-concept together in fairly short order after our summer shoot.  Clayton and I both had to sign off on a costume or prop before it was purchased, and we split up the purchasing duties as evenly as possible.  Mostly, though, he was happy to let me deal with the actual searching.  He has less patience for it than I do, and he trusted me to get it taken care of.  Besides, I kind of enjoy it. 

In addition to the costumes, props, and puppet, I also had to get some simple objects built for Dorothy to interact with.  Green objects that could be keyed out with the screen, but that would give Mare something physical to interact with when she had to sit, climb, or lay on something.  We had it simplified down to a box, an adjustable table, and a short section of fence.  These, however, were simpler, and less interesting to me than the hunt.  So I focused most of my efforts on the things that would be seen on-camera. 

Imagine my horror, then, when mere days before the scheduled shoot, the dresses came in and none of them was right.  The Glinda gown was a shapeless affair in too-heavy fabric, the sleeves on the gingham were short and poofy in the Garland style instead of the three-quarter sleeves that the prairie dress was supposed to have, and the Emerald City dress was, frankly, a disaster. 

A few e-mails and a phone call later, and the seamstress and I had reached an understanding.  I’d send the Emerald City dress and the gingham back, and she would swap out the sleeves on the gingham.  She insisted that one of her girls had simply assumed that because it was for Dorothy, that she should give it short sleeves to make it closer to Judy Garland’s dress.  It was like I’d been talking to a bowl of Grape-Nuts.  She had also promised to make a few cursory adjustments to the bell dress that I knew wouldn’t help.  After this, we had agreed, we would do no further business with each other.  My stomach was aching.  If I couldn’t get a decent Emerald City dress for Mare to wear, we were well and truly ruined.  Because I couldn’t imagine any circumstance under which I would allow this first version of the dress to go in front of Clayton’s camera.

By now you’ve heard the story of how my friend Chris led me to Barbara Miller, who made the lovely Emerald City dress that Dorothy is pictured wearing in several of the images on our website.  We got the Gingham dress back in time for the start of filming, but we had to wait a week or so before we could pick up the Emerald City dress from Barbara.  She delivered in a big way. 

However, I hadn’t gotten the green table, box, or fence together before Clayton arrived.  I think the last thing I’d done before he got here was to use a rag to rub black shoe polish into a bright, fresh wooden flower cart.   I’d bought some of the parts we needed to build our green objects, but Clayton and I had to make the first of a seemingly endless series of Lowe’s runs to buy more raw materials.  We spent our evenings cobbling together a table, a box, and a PVC fence.  Every night we were up until two or three AM painting things green in the yard, and ruining a fair bit of grass.  

In the end we didn’t film anything on location.  Whatever magic once resided in the forests of my childhood had disappeared, whether due to its age or my own, or some combination of the two, I can’t say.  The Scarecrow rig also turned out to be extremely cumbersome for Steve to wear, and especially to maneuver in.  Having tested it myself I know exactly how miserable it is to wear.  You become mostly helpless.  It’s not a good feeling.  Attempting anything with that rig on location would have been a nightmare.  For good or ill, Scarecrow is strictly studio-bound.  And by studio I do mean “garage.”

What began as a simple, one-scene proof-of-concept video had evolved into a complicated summer shoot that neither of us was fully prepared for.  It’s not an ideal way to make a movie, but Mare’s talent changed everything we thought we were going to do.  While the methodology might be unorthodox, and has definitely posed some challenges for us as we progress, in the end it’ll be made worthwhile by her performance. 

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