Zach Braff changes in his doctor's scrubs for a pair of wings in Oz the Great and Powerful, the Sam Raimi-directed Wizard of Oz prequel that opens in theaters on Friday. The former Scrubs star actually pulls double duty in the film, starting out as the human friend and accomplice of carnival-huckster-turned-(fake) wizard Oscar Diggs and then transforming into a flying monkey (don't worry, he's the friendly kind) when the action shifts to the merry old land of Oz. Braff spoke with us about his simian alter ego, working with the director of Spider-Man and the connection between the Oz franchise and a short film from his distant past.
TWoP: So your character in the Kansas-portion of Oz is named Frank. Is that intended as a reference to Oz author L. Frank Baum?
Zach Braff: That didn't occur to me, but David Lindsay-Abaire, who co-wrote the movie, did put some subtle things in there. Maybe if there's another one, we'll flash back to Kansas and see Frank jotting down some notes for some stories. I think that would be awesome.
TWoP: Of course, you spend the bulk of the movie voicing an animated flying monkey named Finley. How did you approach playing that kind of role?
Braff: I wanted Finley to be a continuation of Frank. I think that was the idea -- he's Frank in a different incarnation. Sam and I worked on finding places where there was some overlap between the characters. Obviously the adults will get it, but we wanted places where the younger kids would notice similarities. There was also the challenge of creating a character that doesn't even exist, so Sam and I really worked closely in figuring him out.
TWoP: Was Finley created via motion capture or more traditional computer animation?
Braff: It's not motion capture, because Sam doesn't like the look of that -- he feels it looks a little too computerized. It's more going back to old school animation methods, the way Walt Disney animators used to work. There's footage of the Disney animators walking around like baby deers to animate Bambi. So this was more in the spirit of that. I was on set acting out every single scene with the actors and they had video cameras on me. So the animators had all this video that Sam cut together of my performance and that's what they worked from to animate Finley's face and reactions off of.
TWoP: Were you largely acting opposite green screen, like in Avatar or The Adventures of Tintin?
Braff: No, there were very elaborate, beautiful sets that were built. It really helped the actors to be on the Yellow Brick Road or in Glinda's courtyard. Obviously the CG took over when the set ended, but it really helped not to just be standing on a big green stage.
TWoP: What sort of lessons for your own directing career did you learn by watching Sam Raimi make this movie?
Braff: Going from Garden State to directing something like this is kind of like getting out of a kayak and onto a cruise ship. It was cool to be able to watch Sam direct something on such a ginormous scale and to be such a wonderful menschy guy. I would sit next to him even when I wasn't in the scene and it was like attending film grad school. He's great at hiring a dream team of people who are great at what they do and then allowing them to contribute and really collaborating with them. I did that on my small-scale film and watching someone do it on this kind of scale -- trusting the people he hired and being genuinely interested in what their thoughts were -- that was really inspiring and made me think that I might be able to take on something so large. I'm developing a bunch of scripts right now; some are smaller, like Garden State-size that I'm hoping to direct soon and then I have a couple are definitely epic and large that I'd love to make.
TWoP: Any chance of fitting in a Scrubs reunion somewhere in there as well? Maybe on Netflix a la Arrested Development?
Braff: I don't think so, but I'd definitely love to work with Bill [Lawrence] and Donald [Faison] again on something. He and I joke about doing a buddy cop movie one day or something similar -- a nod to J.D. and Turk and finding some other funny scenario for them to be in.
TWoP: Random connection time -- I was a freshman at Northwestern University when you were there as a senior and I saw the student film you made that year, Lionel on a Sunday. I remember that movie having some Oz-type elements; has the original Wizard of Oz been a source of inspiration for you and does making this movie represent some kind of full circle?
Braff: Wow, you're the only reporter who could ask that question! Of course, there's some influence there. I loved musicals and I watched the original movie as a kid, so it was definitely a touchstone of great epic filmmaking. And the crazy thing is that it's from the '30s, but it continues to hold up so well and I think that's what we're trying to do with this film is have a movie that will stand the test of time like that. And in terms of its connection to Lionel, whenever I have dreams or nightmares or fantasies of whatever types, they're generally all about getting home, like in The Wizard of Oz. I think that's where that student film came out of, only the yellow brick road in that case was sort of this long staircase. But the idea of trying to get home, to get to safety and contentment that obviously feeds right into that story and Oz.
Watch a clip of Braff's Finley in action below
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