Before Tarsem Singh was handed the keys to NBC’s Emerald City, the director had a few stipulations.
While the network had planned only to enlist the optical auteur of films such as The Cell and The Fall to direct the pilot of their long-gestating Wizard of Oz adaptation, Tarsem had bigger plans: He wanted to take control of the whole series.
Additionally, Tarsem wanted all 10 scripts written in advance so they could shoot his trippy take on the classic L. Frank Baum story across the globe, stopping in Spain, Croatia and Hungary.
The idea of pairing Tarsem’s signature bold palette — gripping reds and eye-catching golds — with the classic jewel-toned hues of The Wizard of Oz is a provocative idea, but to the network, the director’s requests were quite unusual.
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Emerald City’s executive producer Shaun Cassidy (Blue Bloods, American Gothic) had never produced television this way before.
At first he was skeptical of the idea.
“ ‘I don’t know, A, how you’ll survive — it’s a Herculean task to even consider — and B, I don’t know that the network will allow it,’ ” Cassidy recalled warning Tarsem. “He hadn’t done a television show before and the schedule on a big motion picture is very different than a TV series. The flexibility offered if you’re shooting it methodically gives the network a lot more say: ‘Oh, we want to change that actor, or we don’t like that story line; we want to adjust that on the fly.’ ”
But the 55-year-old native of India was adamant: “I said, ‘If you can get me the man who can make the decision, I’ll show him why I think we should go for this.’ ”
A meeting was set with NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt. “They got 15 people in a room along with Bob, and I think 14 of them were shaking their heads, ‘Don’t let this Indian take this thing away,’ ” Tarsem joked. “I just told them, ‘I can make it work, but you’ve got to give me the responsibility along with the authority. This is how passionate I am about it. But I will only put that out to you if you tell me I can do all 10.’ ”
“We really had to go do a big song-and-dance saying, ‘Trust us,’ ” Cassidy confirmed. “ ‘It’s going to be scary. We’re going to shoot everything out of sequence. The entire 10 hours are going to be [story]-boarded as one movie.’ ”
The network was apparently entertained and acceded to his requests and, on Friday, his vision of Emerald City will finally premiere after spending years in development and pre-production limbo.
Emerald City looks very different from the beloved 1939 Judy Garland film. Beginning in the modern day, Adria Arjona stars as Dorothy, a nurse who lands in the fantasy kingdom not with a little dog and a basket but a police dog and a handgun.
The magical world of Oz now features a medieval look with period dress for women and the men in tunics. The Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) has banned the use of all magic, forcing the white witch Glinda (Joely Richardson) and her sister West (Ana Ularu) into a tense peace with the Wizard.
It’s science versus magic, with the Wizard on one side — with his steampunk-y band of flying monkeys — and the witches on the other, scheming to return magic, and in turn their power, to the land.
Horse of a different color
Tarsem saw the 1939 film just three years ago and says that he enjoyed the experience and described it “like a Hindi movie, incredibly kitschy and wonderful.” But his true inspiration came from the darker world of Baum’s source material and the Emerald City scripts (which originated with former show runner Josh Friedman).
It’s a grimmer take than the original Technicolor film.
For instance, in NBC’s version, the Scarecrow isn’t an absentminded farm tool but a mentally traumatized soldier who was crucified on the side of the yellow brick road.
Tarsem confided to Cassidy that he is often sent “crappy” scripts because some believe he can make them look pretty. This wasn’t the case with Emerald City. Cassidy said the director loved the scripts and the characters but wanted to take the visuals in a different direction.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tarsem has thrown out the ruby slippers. It’s just that now they’re blood-stained combat boots.
He’s just one of many who has molded this story to fit into a new world of their own making. The director is only too happy to point out that, “if you look at the original material, they were never supposed to be ruby slippers. They were silver slippers! It was the cameraman that walked in and went, ‘Silver? We’re shooting Technicolor, it’s rubbish! I’m not going to have anybody shoot white. Make her shoes ruby. Make them red.’
“Now suddenly that becomes everybody’s bible, and when someone today says, ‘How can you not have her wear ruby?’ For me, I take what other people take as their little bible, and I have to be sensitive to it. At the same time I think they hired me for a reason.”
Tarsem urges fans to drop their emotional attachment to past interpretations and embrace his new visions by meeting them halfway.
“You’re only looking for color because of the baggage of [the movie],” said Tarsem. “People are looking for that particular color. I can’t just say, ‘Oh, here’s the finger.’ I will try to bring a certain amount of [reverence to] it. But only what I think technically feels right doing.”
“It’s not the story you think you know. It’s grittier, and it’s modern,” warns Richardson. The Emerald City incarnation of Glinda stresses that they were all trying to create “real magic” on set. “[Tarsem] didn’t want to just do CGI and big effects and everything to be done technologically, which, ironically, is one of the main themes in the story about science and magic.
“He wanted some sort of original magic. He wanted some natural magic, which meant traveling over half of Europe and getting these stunning locations, whether it was Gaudi in Barcelona or magical lakes in Croatia or some of the old museum buildings in Budapest.”
(Reality kept blending with magic as Richardson bemoaned trying to keep her character’s Gandalf-looking white dress free of mud.)
Off to be the Wizard
Emerald City also reunites Tarsem with D’Onofrio, star of his 2000 feature film The Cell. The actor actually found out about the series while filming The Magnificent Seven and immediately sought to get word to his former director that he was interested in playing the Wizard.
“This is without seeing the script or anything,” D’Onofrio said of his quest. “If you know Tarsem’s work, then you could probably understand that to hear his name connected to 10 hours of content about The Wizard of Oz, shot all over Europe — that’s a no-brainer.”
The Wizard of Emerald City, like the men behind the curtain before him, is still a con artist, and Tarsem wanted to push the character to operatic levels.
“[The Wizard] is a fake guy, completely insecure and down,” said Tarsem. “Nobody does pathetic like [D’Onofrio] and at the same time, a person who’s speaking big and grand, who thinks he’s Orson Welles. He’s just a complete fake. There is just nobody who can do that range more than D’Onofrio.”
Tarsem’s lack of television experience did make for some awkward, albeit humorous, exchanges.
“I really do credit Tarsem here because, not only did he take on this extraordinary task of doing all of these [episodes], but he also had such good will and good humor and great love for his cast and for us, his partners, and that’s a new thing for him. He’s never had people like me or [executive producer] David [Schulner] … editing, and it was a little getting used to.”
“Halfway through the thing he came to David and I on the set and said, ‘I just learned this new word, show runner — what is the show runner?’ David and I looked at each other and then I said, ‘I think that’s us.’
“ ‘Oh! So next time, I’m the show runner,’ ” he said.
Everyone who crafted NBC’s Emerald City seems acutely aware of what an ambitious undertaking it was to follow this yellow brick road.
“The network, again, I can’t praise them enough,” Cassidy repeated. “They talk about big swings. This is a big, big swing.”
- 8 p.m. Friday
- KXAS/Channel 5