"Oz the Great and Powerful" isn't exactly the first film we, as a society, might expect James Franco to star in these days. These days, we collectively expect Franco to Always Do Something Weird; his upcoming role in "Spring Breakers," for instance, as a gangster named Alien -- that feels about right. But Franco playing the Wizard in one of the most beloved stories of all time is so mainstream that, for Franco, it just may be Something Weird. Getting inside the mind of Franco and how he picks his roles (he admits he wasn't Disney's first or even second choice) is perhaps a fool's errand. But that didn't stop us from trying.
In "Oz the Great and Powerful," Franco plays Oscar (nicknamed Oz) -- a hack magician who is swept up by a tornado and transported to a magical land, where -- due to some confusion about a prophecy -- he becomes the ruler. Not everyone is happy about this: namely two sisters, played by Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.
Here, Franco explains his process for choosing roles and updates us on the long-lost behind-the-scenes "Saturday Night Live" documentary he directed, which played to rave reviews at the South by Southwest and Tribeca film festivals way back in 2010. ("It will come out," he promises.) And I continue to make my plea for Franco to star in a movie called "Hope's Promise," after the non-existent "Oscar bait" movie that Franco fooled an "SNL" audience into thinking he had made the last time he hosted.
Is it weird thinking back to the first time you saw the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz"? In an, "I'm going to be that guy someday" way.
[Laughs] No. No, in fact, I love the early "Wizard of Oz," but I can't say that my attraction to it was identifying with any of the characters as much as it was being transported to a fantastical world. If I look back on the kinds of books and movies that I was interested in when I was younger, I'd say that the common denominator was this feeling of being transported to a fantastical land. So, I love ["Lord of the Rings" author J.R.R.] Tolkien, I love ["Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank] Baum. I read all the Baum books. And I liked that idea of escaping to an alternative realm. As far as the Wizard ... no, I never thought that I wanted to play that guy.
He's such a famous character, and yet we don't really know much about him.
Well, exactly. The movie and the first Baum book are called "The Wizard of Oz," but you only see him at the end. But once the idea of seeing that guy's history -- the guy behind the curtain, who has a pretty terrifying show that he puts on with these projections and then turns out to be a kind of bumbling, strange uncle type of character when he's pulled out from behind the curtain -- I really like the idea of a character with contrasting sides to him. To find out, "How did that fairly normal-seeming guy get into the Emerald City and come to put on that kind of presentation?" So I liked that once I heard that approach.
How are you picking roles these days? For example, Oz is very different than what you're doing in "Spring Breakers."
I do like switching things up. As far as switching up tones and switching up kinds of movies. I also like switching up mediums and that kind of thing.
Kids who see a commercial for "Spring Breakers" and say, "Oh, there's that nice Oz man," are probably in for a surprise.
Oh, no, but they are movies made for very different audiences.
Which is interesting that you switch back and forth so much.
Yeah, I mean, I'm a performer. And I'm a creative person and I don't think I need to conform to any one version. What I try to do is be smart about how my different projects are framed and how they reach the appropriate audiences.
I think you have a reputation for doing "weird roles." But I don't think that's always the case because you still do movies like this and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which isn't a weird role.
Right. So when I'm hired to do a movie like "Oz," there are things about it that I'm just interested in: I love working with [director] Sam Raimi, I've been an "Oz" fan since I was a boy and I saw the character as a very fun character -- something that I could do something with. He's a comedic character in a fantastical context, and I thought that combination would be interesting. But I also knew that this was a Disney movie and them means something -- so I, in no way, want to take on this role and then start winking at the audience that, "Oh, but I'm also in 'Spring Breakers,'" or bring anything outside of what is necessary for this role. I want to fit in this world with this movie. And then, you know, when I go and do "Spring Breakers," it's the same thing: I want to fit into that world as a performer. But, that doesn't mean that with my other endeavors I can't then reflect on this material -- or maybe use this material as inspiration for other kinds of self-reflective projects.
This is the fourth movie that you've done with Sam Raimi. When you signed on for this, is it weird knowing that Robert Downey Jr. was the first choice? What's your relationship with Sam Raimi where he can call and say, "That fell though, will you do this?"
Yeah, I think even when Sam signed on, I guess Robert Downey was already connected to a certain extent. I'm not quite sure what happened there, but he didn't do it. Then I think Disney basically has to offer everything to Johnny Depp [laughs]. So he met with Johnny Depp and I think Johnny was planning to do "The Lone Ranger," so he didn't do it. And then ... I think I was next! And, at that point, Sam and I were good friends -- I consider him a close friend and I've known him for 10 years -- and we basically had a meeting and just talked about approaches to the role and to the movie. And I think we both felt very good about it.
Are we ever going to see your "SNL" documentary? I want to see that very much.
I know! Dude, you're telling me? That poor thing ... it's something I'm very proud of and it got a great response at the festivals we took it to. We had to add extra screenings at South By Southwest because people liked it so much. It's one of those projects that I had to be ... not sneaky, but the way I got that access, I had to go and shoot before I had everything signed off. Meaning that I kind of went to them because I had a good relationship with Lorne Michaels and the "SNL" people. And it started as a class project, which is how the door opened and they said, "OK, an NYU project? Sure!"
And then I realized I had all of this access that people had never been granted before. And I thought, Well, heck, I'm not just going to waste this as a class project. This could be something interesting about comedy and creativity and the show. So, we shot a feature and put it together -- and then we had to go back and first get all of the performers to sign off, which they did. And then Lorne to sign off. But then we had to get NBC to sign off. And then NBC has some big turnover of executives, so the people who had signed off before were no longer there -- so we had to get new people to sign off. And then blah, blah, blah, blah blah.
Then, we sold it to Oscilloscope. And then, really sadly, Adam Yauch died, so then all of the projects with Oscilloscope were kind of tied up in a weird way. So, now we've sold it to Focus Features ...
Which has the same ownership as NBC and Universal ...
So maybe that's in our favor. So we're just working out the final logistics, and it will come out. I don't know if anyone who is featured in the documentary is still on "SNL" [laughs], but there's a few -- Hader -- a few people hanging on. But it's still a very interesting view into that world.
This sounds encouraging. And hopefully someday we'll still see "Hope's Promise."
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe I'll make that.
It's still my dream that you will be in a movie called "Hope's Promise."
I'll think about it. You might have just inspired me.
[Oscilloscope has contacted us and asked to respond to James Franco's comments regarding the distribution of his "SNL" documentary, which follows: "With all due respect, Adam's death didn't interfere with Oscilloscope's work or the rights to any of their films. O-Scope has been waiting for the filmmakers of 'Saturday Night' to get us the necessary clearances in order to release it-- and we're still hopeful that they will as we remain huge fans of the film!"]
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.