During his off-hours from filming "Oz the Great and Powerful" in Pontiac, Sam Raimi would share the simple pleasures of his hometown with his children: riding bikes on paved trails, going to the Franklin Cider Mill, picking wild grapes growing near 13 Mile Road and watching fireflies.
"They thought fireflies were absolutely magical," says the director of the Disney 3D movie opening Friday. "I took them down to Wing Lake one night and they saw these beautiful fireflies dancing around."
A Hollywood power player based in Los Angeles, the 53-year-old Raimi rented a house in West Bloomfield and lived for much of 2011 near his parents, siblings and friends since childhood.
But the assignment that brought him home involved creating magic and beauty of a different kind: the world of Oz, brought to life by a combination of old-school techniques and new-school computer wizardry.
The Groves High School graduate who put himself on the map with a shoestring-budget film called "The Evil Dead" and went on to helm the "Spider-Man" trilogy is awaiting Friday's opening of his most challenging film yet.
Shooting in metro Detroit provided the PG-rated "Oz" with roughly $40 million in Michigan film incentives, plus a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, Michigan Motion Picture Studios (then called Raleigh Michigan Studios), and a work force whose depth surprised even Raimi, a Michigan native who knows first-hand the talent here.
But in another sense, the project -- which was estimated to spend $105 million and included 683 Michigan hires -- was Raimi's gift to a place that remains close to his heart. He played an important role in getting "Oz the Great and Powerful" to come to the region and gave the local film community a best-of-times moment during its worst-of-times battle against Gov. Rick Snyder's cutback to the film incentives.
Two years later, Raimi says he hopes the talented artists that he met on the biggest made-in-Michigan film ever don't have to relocate if the incentives don't continue.
"Michigan has really got great grips, woodworkers, plasterers, carpenters, film artisans, cameramen, lighting technicians," he says, reeling off a laundry list of crew positions. "Really, everything you need is in Michigan."
Raimi's early memories of the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" are of seeing it as a young boy on the small screen.
"It was on local Detroit TV, 2, 4 or 7, I don't know which, but it could only be one of those," Raimi recalls of those pre-cable days. "They used to show it, I think, on Thanksgiving or around Christmas vacation. I just remember it as being not just the sweetest movie of all time, but one of the scariest as a kid."
"Oz the Great and Powerful" has been called a "Wizard of Oz" prequel in the media, but it essentially shares only source material with the iconic movie musical starring Judy Garland. It's more accurate to call it the origin story of the Wizard of Oz, inspired by L. Frank Baum's 14 novels set in the land of Oz, which are in the public domain. There are no ruby slippers here nor any other famous images from "The Wizard of Oz."
The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner (who also did the story) and David Lindsay-Abaire centers on a small-town magician at the turn of the 20th Century. Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco of Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy) is a bit of a con man. Transported in a storm from Kansas to the strange, faraway place, he meets three witches, Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) -- one of whom is bound to turn green and westwardly wicked before the movie is over.
But this is Oscar's journey of discovery. Accompanied by a winged monkey and a porcelain doll, he will become involved in Oz's problems and eventually find out what sort of a man he really is.
Raimi says he fell in love with the story, which takes Baum's characters and puts a fresh spin on them without doing anything to upset fans of "The Wizard of Oz," which includes just about everyone. "I never felt it tread badly upon it. I think it was more like a love poem to that movie, if anything," he says.
Once Disney had committed to working with Raimi, it wanted to film in Vancouver, which has become a popular alternative to the high cost of shooting in California. "I said, 'If we're going to leave the state, I'd really rather we check out Michigan because, yes, that's my hometown, and I love it there. And there's a lot of people that are very talented in the film industry there who, given the opportunity, would do as (well as or) better than the Hollywood people.' "
The Michigan Film Office worked closely with "Oz" reps like Raimi's producing partner Grant Curtis, suggesting locations and providing information on the state's crew base. With a $40-million tax credit then factored in, the costs in Michigan were close enough to those in Canada that Disney let Raimi have his way.
The hometown success story, who has a reputation in the film industry for being a genuinely nice guy, relished working in his old backyard. "I got to see a lot of my friends that came by to say hello on the set," he says. "And I got to drive down Telegraph Road. I got to experience Michigan spring and the incredibly humid summers. Then come fall, I got to see the leaves change. ... I didn't leave until January, so I got a taste of Michigan's bitter cold," he says with a laugh. "I love winter, too, so I got a taste of all Michigan's best months."
The director, who takes his job so seriously that he wears a suit on the set, faced a huge challenge. He was tackling his first digital 3D movie, which required lots of preparation before filming started.
"I had to go to school to learn about it and took what I learned and tried to apply it the best I could," he says, describing a process of reading, visiting labs and digital effects houses, talking to technicians and shooting a number of 3D tests. "It was Disney that really wanted to make the film in 3D. They thought it would be more marketable and I thought, good, because it's a really good tool to describe the world of Oz, so it worked out well for me."
Raimi assembled an award-winning team for "Oz." On board were cinematographer Peter Deming ("Drag Me to Hell," "The Cabin in the Woods,"), production designer Robert Stromberg ("Alice in Wonderland," "Avatar"), film editor Bob Murawski (the "Spider-Man" trilogy) and composer Danny Elfman, to drop a few names. Special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero ("Seven Psychopaths") and Howard Berger ("The Chronicles of Narnia" movies) were instrumental in dreaming up the looks for Oz's vast and unusual population.
Although virtual environments like those in "Avatar" are an option for big-budget spectacles, Raimi made the decision to use actual stage sets. He says he wanted to have control over the look of things that sets offered and not just shoot actors in front of green screens that would be transformed by CGI artists relying on production sketches.
"It was very important for me to have the textures on the set, so the actors could touch them and see them, make it real to them," he says, "but also so I had on film the texture of the yellow brick road, the color of the leaf that was falling on it, the dappled sunlight that was falling upon it." That way, he explains, the hundreds of CGI artists who worked in post-production "could re-create that in the computer, an extension of that world in the distance as opposed to just making it up from the ether."
Shooting started at the Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac in July 2011 and wrapped in December of that year. There were approximately 30 sets constructed for use on the seven sound stages, nearly 2,000 costumes and three dozen little people cast, most of them from metro Detroit.
The months of work left Raimi impressed with the Michigan crew. "There isn't just one or two or three great first assistant cameramen, but there were three great second assistant cameramen and two or three great third assistant cameramen available," he says of the strength of the 2011 work force, which would face a slower 2012 in the wake of a $25-million cap to the film incentives.
Raimi also admired the army of extras for "Oz," who put their hearts and souls into being part of the background. More than 750 were used.
"The Michigan extras were the best extras I've ever worked with in my life," he says. "It was like having 250 actors helping to tell the story, which makes a tremendous difference. They really make it real and they put their heart into it, even though they're only seen in the distance or walking behind James Franco."
With its spacious campus and state-of-the-art soundstages, the Pontiac studio was "absolutely wonderful," according to Raimi, who found the brand-new facility incredibly clean and functional.
Although Raimi loves working in the old Hollywood studios, he admits that they aren't built for the modern style of shooting, which requires constant loading and unloading of equipment now that different companies own the stages and the lights and so on. The Pontiac studio facility, developed on a former General Motors site and combining soundstages and office spaces, is "built for the modern technique of knowing that every other week trucks are going to come in there to load thousands of pounds of equipment."
There's a lot riding on "Oz the Great and Powerful," which is estimated to have a $200-million budget and is aiming for a big opening weekend. But ultimately, even with all the technical complexities and the visual dazzle, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is about a man facing important decisions: Oscar Diggs, aka Oz. Raimi, the man guiding the high-stakes movie, already seems to know what's important.
The married father of five is famously loyal to his family and friends. He works frequently with his brother Ivan, a Michigan doctor and screenwriter who he says helped on this picture, and also with his actor brother Ted, who's in all of his films and has a small part in this one. Two of Raimi's sons also have cameos. "They just have little bit parts as a bugle boy and a drummer boy. They don't have any lines but they're in the picture," he says.
And keep an eye out for original "Evil Dead" cast members Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker and Ellen Sandweiss, who are all credited in the cast list.
This is a PG movie, even if the previews indicate those flying monkeys are going to be pretty scary. Raimi says he wasn't daunted by having to calibrate the fear factor for a family film.
"I'm a parent, and I tried to bring it to the point where I could still bring my kids and they would really like it. They wouldn't get too scared, but that it had a little bit of edge for them, too, because the boys like to have a little bit of edge. I tried to find that balance."
Then the cheeky Raimi wit comes through. "There's no violence in this picture. It's just about the wicked witch, her laugh, the potential for harm coming from the flying monkeys," he says with a twinkle in his voice.
The man who grew up here watching the sweetest, scariest movie he could imagine will soon find out if audiences feel the same about the "Oz" he has created.