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‘It Happened in Hollywood’ Podcast: How George Lucas Saved ‘Return to Oz’

Return to Oz, Disney’s 1985 dark take on Dorothy Gale (played by a then-9-year-old Fairuza Balk), shares its creative DNA with Star Wars. Not only that, George Lucas saved writer-director Walter Murch’s job after Disney fired Murch from the Oz shoot.

Lucas and Murch were old friends and collaborators, having met in the film department of the University of Southern California in the mid-1960s.

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“My first memory of him was a shadowy figure behind me in the photograph developing room,” says Murch about Lucas on The Hollywood Reporter’s podcast It Happened in Hollywood. “I was trying unsuccessfully to develop one of the photographs that I had taken for an exercise, and there was this voice behind me that said, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’ And I turned around and I said, ‘Who is this guy?’ Of course, it turns out he was right. I was doing it wrong. But our friendship started off on that foot.”

From there, the two men collaborated on several of Lucas’ short films, with Murch contributing cutting-edge sound design, until they co-wrote Lucas’ first feature together, 1971’s THX 1138.

They later moved from Los Angeles to California’s Bay Area, where they established American Zoetrope studio with Francis Ford Coppola, and Murch would work on such landmark Coppola films as 1972’s The Godfather, 1974’s The Conversation and 1979’s Apocalypse Now (for which he won an Oscar for best sound and was nominated for an Oscar for best editing).

By the early 1980s, Murch was coming off the success of the Coppola-produced The Black Stallion, which he co-wrote. Disney was also watching the success of the Star Wars franchise very carefully, and so they approached Murch, seeking new ideas.

He proposed making a sequel to The Wizard of Oz — but not a musical, like the Judy Garland-starring predecessor from 1939, but one that hewed closer to the original L. Frank Baum books, which Murch adored as a child.

Disney greenlit the project, and Murch enlisted several members of the Star Wars production design crew to help bring Oz back to life — among them Norman Reynolds, the legendary production designer on the original trilogy as well as 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1978’s Superman.

Art director Fred Hole had worked on 1983’s Return of the Jedi before joining the Oz crew, and set decorator Michael Ford had worked on Jedi and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. Oz also featured Brian Henson creating and manipulating its puppet creatures, including Jack Pumpkinhead (which Henson voices) and Bilina the chicken. (Henson’s father, Jim Henson, had been approached to create Yoda for Empire Strikes Back but was busy and passed the offer on to Frank Oz, who voiced and puppeteered the creature, created by makeup artist Stuart Freeborn).

Five weeks into production, the elaborate and technically complex shoot began to fall behind its schedule, and Disney, disapproving of the footage it had seen, fired Murch from the project.

When Lucas caught wind of the development, he flew from Japan to the film’s London set to urge Disney to put Murch back on the film. He used himself as collateral, telling executives that if Murch failed to deliver the film as promised and on time, he would see to it himself that Return to Oz came to fruition. The meeting convinced Disney to rehire Murch.

Learn more about the making of Return to Oz on It Happened to Hollywood.

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