Joe Roth is a Hollywood powerhouse. As the producer behind such hits as the number one movie in the world, Oz: The Great and Powerful, recent blockbusters Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman as well as classics Bachelor Party (one of our Top 10 Party Movies), Young Guns and Major League, his power ranking would be high.
But, Roth is also the former head of 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney. Yeah, seriously. Roth sat down with Movie Fanatic for an exclusive chat to talk about his latest blockbuster, teased in this glorious Oz: The Great and Powerful trailer.
Roth is no stranger to the man behind the camera either. He was also the director on such hits as America's Sweethearts and Freedomland. We caught up with the Hollywood king in Pasadena recently to talk about Oz, whether he'd return to behind the camera and what a story has to say to him to put his esteemed name on it.
Movie Fanatic: Was there any thought that you’re treading on sacred ground with Oz?
Joe Roth: All of us. Actually Sam (Raimi, director) was the first one because I gave him the script and he didn’t want to read it. He said, “I don’t want to remake Wizard of Oz.” I said, “No, no. We’re not remaking The Wizard of Oz.” There’s a notion in here that’s appealing to me which is we all love Wizard of Oz. But the Wizard of Oz appears in the last two minutes of the movie and we have no idea who he is and how he got there and what kind of person he was. So, that’s interesting to me because it doesn’t tread on the core of that story. It goes back earlier and says, okay, let’s make up this story about who this guy was. That really intrigued me.
Movie Fanatic: Sam Raimi could not have been a better choice. What did you see in him?
Joe Roth: First of all, you take on something like this, you want to get someone who’s been to the top of the mountain. And the Spider-Man movies, he’s been to the top of the mountain. You wanted somebody who’s brave and wasn’t afraid of technology and CG. But what you really wanted was somebody whose work has heart and said no matter how out there the visuals were going to be that he was going to character-wise stick with the heart of the story and stick to the heart. There’s not that many directors today that you can make all those check marks off of. So he was a definite keeper.
Movie Fanatic: What does a story have to say to you in order to devote such time to it?
Joe Roth: It’s not a simple answer. I can only take you through the process. It’s if I hear a story or better yet read a story and at the end of it I go, “God, I’d like to direct that.” And then I go, “Okay, well, that must mean that it’s hit me and I’m not going to get to direct it.” So then I start to think about “Well, why am I feeling this way? What is it about it that connects with me?” And usually it’s something that runs into the kind of primal emotional field. It makes me cry or it makes me laugh. It makes me feel wonderment, great escapist fare that doesn’t feel like I’ve seen it before. I’ve been doing it for 40 years so it just kind of intuitively comes out.
Movie Fanatic: Do you remember the first time you saw The Wizard of Oz?
Joe Roth: I don’t remember the first time. I was born in ’48 and it was made in ’39. So I probably saw the movie on television in the late ‘40s.
Movie Fanatic: What about Oz so resonates with pretty much everybody?
Joe Roth: I’m not sure exactly. I know that the characters, each one of them has to go through a great transformation. And I actually prefer the book version more than the movie version. Not that I don’t prefer the movie version. In the book, it’s not a dream. And MGM made a decision to make it a dream. I sort of wished they hadn’t. But each of the main characters has to go through life-changing things that all of us have to look at -- getting courage, or getting a heart, or leaving home, or how we feel about leaving home. It’s got a lot of primal things in it.
Movie Fanatic: What made James Franco so perfect as Oz?
Joe Roth: James is a unique character. He’s involved in six or seven things at the same time. He’s got many stories going on inside his head, none of which I’d be privy to. And I think the character is complicated. The character’s a guy who wants to be Thomas Edison. But he goes around as a nickel-and-dime showman and he’s a cad. He’s a womanizer and a cad. So not that I think that James is those things, that complicated of a character. But I also think that he has a soul and it’s a question of how to get to that soul and I think the character makes that journey to find that soul.
Movie Fanatic: Any chance you’ll sit in the director’s chair again?
Joe Roth: Probably not is the answer. If I read something that just bowled me over and somehow thought that I could do as good a job as the next guy, I would. But at this stage, I’ve read so many screenplays over a 40-year period and when the very few hit me the way they hit me, I know I’d better go find Sam Raimi or David Fincher or Steven Spielberg or someone like that. I just never developed that craft the way these guys have.