We're definitely not in Kansas in any more.
"The Wizard of Oz" remains one of the most beloved films of all time. "Emerald City," a 10-part NBC event series premiering tonight, features many familiar faces from Oz, but doesn’t ever attempt to duplicate the same magic. The producers cherry-picked different elements and characters from L. Frank Baum's various books -- there’s still Dorothy, a twister and a place called Oz. From there on, "Emerald City" explores new territory.
Dorothy is a hardened, 20-year-old nurse played by Adria Arjona and works at a local hospital. Toto stands as a frightening German shepherd police dog. Glinda is hardly a goody-two-shoes, and the Wizard has dubious intentions.
Executive producer Shaun Cassidy, who starred as Joe Hardy in 1977’s "The Hardy Boys Mysteries" and enjoyed success as a teen pop star before establishing himself as a successful producer on "American Gothic" and "Invasion," recently spoke with CBR about bringing Dorothy over the rainbow again, crafting an adult fairy tale, the state of magic in Oz and putting twists on iconic characters. In addition, Cassidy discussed the possibility of reimagining the Hardy Boys for a new generation.
CBR: How intimidating was it tackling these iconic characters?
Shaun Cassidy: If the approach had been, "Let's remake 'The Wizard of Oz,'" I would have said, "I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t want to be involved." But that was never the approach. Matt Arnold had an idea, which was picked up and run with by Josh Friedman, who is a friend of mine, and David Schulner. He got into developing it and all of us are in the same building at Universal. We’re all friends. I was working on a different show at the time on Amazon. David was working on something else, but we talked to Josh occasionally and what he was crafting. I was fascinated by his ideas. I said to him, “If this ever gets on its feet and I’m available, I’d love to work on it with you.” As fate would have it, he ended up not being on the project. The project kinda died because there was a difference in approach between the studio, network and Josh. It all sadly collapsed for nine months.
Then, they reached out to David, who had been working on it at the tail end of the Josh version. He knew where some of the bodies were buried. He was open to putting Dorothy front and center. Josh wanted to treat it as an ensemble piece. The network and studio were interested in walking in this world in Dorothy’s shoes. They called me and said, “You’ve produced a lot of big, sword-building shows. Will you work on this?” I said, “Yes,” but David and I both called Josh and said, “Why don’t you come and work in it with us?” He said, “No, no. I’m off of it. You guys are awesome. Let’s see what you can do.” It’s been this weirdly beautiful relay race with the baton being passed from one person to another. We took a lot of what Josh had done and threw our own spice in the soup and came up with our own ideas for these 10 hours.
What was the biggest challenge was not retelling or reinterpreting these stories or characters. There have been many reinterpretations. Some successful and some not. But, there has never been what we’ve set out to do, which is to take all of these characters, put them in a world that feels timeless, and, yet, feels grounded for a fantasy and very relevant in terms of a lot of subject matter we deal with. They feel very timely to these issues that are at the forefront of political discussions today.
How are audiences introduced to Dorothy in this story and what is your spin on her?
She’s older than the Dorothy of the books. Our Dorothy is a young woman. She’s 20. She’s a nurse. She is left on the doorsteps of the people she calls Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. In our story, I don’t think they are related by blood, but they were chosen by the woman who dropped Dorothy off there.
She grew up as an adopted child and she has yearned to know her biological parents. But, she has anger. She has abandonment issues. As she says in the pilot, “Wishes she was more. Wishes she were more accomplished. Wishes she was fully realized.” That may be a defensive posture because she’s afraid. It’s scary and painful. She can’t engage in relationships to any depth. Part of Dorothy’s journey is finding out who she is, finding her strength, opening her up and becoming a fully realized human being. It is a thematic journey our story is on, which is trying to find a way to marry the two forces that are currently at conflict -- magic and science. This is the story of alchemy. If Dorothy can bring those two forces together, Oz can be healed and united. Then, Dorothy can be healed.
The series also features a major character named Lucas, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Who is Lucas and what does he add to this adventure?
He is the impressionistic version of the Scarecrow. He’s a man who has lost his memory. He’s lost his brains, but he hasn’t lost his ability to think. He doesn’t know who he is. He’s been left for dead. Dorothy sort of picks him up on the yellow brick road and off he goes with her, again trying to find himself. Our Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Wizard are all searching to make themselves whole as well. Specifically, with the Scarecrow, because he’s on the same journey with Dorothy, things happen and they begin to fall in love. Of course, the rug gets pulled out from under Dorothy as Lucas gets his memory back. We find out he has a whole other life that’s going to be in direct conflict with their hopes and aspirations.
How does the Land of Oz view magic?
There’s a war raging on. The Wizard [played by Vincent D'onofrio] has come to oppress magic because he fears it. He has tried to trade his notion of science -- he’s introduced electricity and other stuff -- and brought it into Oz to oppress those who were in control before, namely the witches and the previous regime. Magic that is innately in Oz comes of nature. Magic was organic in this world and now it’s been oppressed. That’s a dangerous thing to do, to oppress the natural order of things.
What was the thought process behind making the Wizard the main antagonist?
I’m not sure he is. He’s one of them, for sure. Glinda is a pretty formidable force, too. The war is between them and Dorothy is in the middle of it. The Wizard is a very frightened, very little man. In that sense, you can say he’s very much like the Wizard of the original film. He’s a fraud. Our man is a man behind the wig. He’s a tragic figure. It’s only in his quiet moments, when he’s alone, or when he’s with people who know the truth about him, do we see a version of the real him and how sad he is and how scared he is. I don’t know if he’s an arch-villain. He’s a scared little man -- and scared little men do dangerous things.
Dorothy previously encountered winged monkeys, the Wicked Witch of the West and poppies. What obstacles does she face on her adventure this time?
They are numerous and relentless. There are the witches alone. First, it’s Ojo and then it’s West. There’s the actual landscape itself and the stranger in the strange land aspect of it. There’s the wrath of Glinda. Then there are the Wizard’s soldiers, who are hunting Dorothy to kill her.
With so many books to mine, do you have ideas for further installments?
Oh, yes. There are so many books and so many different characters. We’re looking forward to it. If we have any success at all, we will definitely dive into a second year. One of the benefits of writing all 10 years before ever shooting is David and I spent a lot of time on the set talking about, “What if we do this? Maybe we should try that. Maybe we should introduce that character.” Mother South is going to be a great character.
Shifting gears, Netflix has tapped into TV nostalgia lately and revived a couple of past series. Has there ever been discussions about updating "The Hardy Boys Mysteries?" How would you feel about those characters getting a second life?
It’s not the first time it’s been mentioned to me. Other people have suggested I revisit the Hardy Boys in my current job. I would love to do that. I’ve thought about it long before Netflix was doing it. I have a very specific take I would love to apply to the Hardy Boys. One of the challenges about the Hardy Boys is they are a very successful series of books that have been around forever. You can’t mess with them too much or change them too much. Unlike "The Wizard of Oz," it’s not public domain.
And, if you look at the stories, they were pretty simple. Even in the TV series I was in -- you can’t do a story about Joe loses his bicycle. They were turned into FBI agents by the second year because the show was fighting to add more drama to the stories. The original books are simple little stories. But, I have an approach that I’d love to apply to it. I don’t know where the rights are. I think they are at Fox. I know that Ben Stiller had been trying to make a movie, sort of a "Hardy Men" movie. If anybody is out there listening, and wants a sharp young kid to look at those "Hardy Boys" books again, I’m your guy. I think there’s a cool approach to retelling those stories now that would honor the original, and, yet, make it feel contemporary.
"Emerald City" debuts 9 tonight on NBC.