Fantastical costumes and art direction, eccentric storytelling, lush settings, and committed performances amid a strange and wondrous fiction are all hallmarks of Singh’s singular aesthetic.
Emerald City reimagines L. Frank Baum’s classic American fairy tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for broadcast television. The 10-part series ages Dorothy of Kansas to 20 years old and gives her a non-traditional Oz face in Latin American beauty Adria Arjona (True Detective).
“We’re making a quintessentially white story for a Western audience, and you got an Indian guy making it,” Singh observed during a recent conversation with Rotten Tomatoes. “So just by definition, you’re changing the ingredients of the stew — it’s gonna taste different. If you just say, ‘Let’s try different spices,’ it ain’t gonna work.”
The series also adds emphasis to the technological prowess of the great and powerful Oz, here played by Vincent D’Onofrio as “The Wizard” — he is a modern man who tames a magical realm with science. But, like the humbug Wizard of the original novel and actor Frank Morgan’s Wizard in the famous film, he has secrets, too — secrets that Singh said he could only entrust to D’Onofrio to reveal.
“Truly, when I went in and they asked me, I just said that there is only one person that can do opera, theatrical, big grandness, and become a pathetic whining person at the same time. There’s only one guy, and it had to be him,” Singh said. “When I looked at this, I just said, ‘This is by definition, it’s a fraud. It’s a security guard who thinks, ‘How would Orson Welles play this?’”
Emerald City’s Wizard isn’t literally a security guard, but, in keeping with the source material, he is a man pretending at fantastic abilities.
D’Onofrio told Rotten Tomatoes that when he heard that Singh, his director for The Cell, was adapting the classic tale, he put himself squarely on the path to play the role.
“I was shooting Magnificent Seven, and one day Tarsem’s agent introduced himself to me on set. He was there because he was representing someone else as well,” D’Onofrio explained. “I had a few minutes in between setups. I asked him what Tarsem was up to, and he told me he was doing this Emerald City thing, that he was going to shoot all 10 hours all over Europe. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool. Tarsem doing The Wizard of Oz for 10 hours with 10 hours of content in Europe?’
“Then the next thing in my mind came: ‘Who is playing the Wizard?’ The guy said, ‘Well, they’re very close with somebody.’ I said, ‘Can we get that to stop? Can we let Tarsem know that I would like to play the Wizard?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, well, we can try.’ I said, ‘Can you do that now?’”
The rest of the story can be seen on NBC over 10 weeks in a unique television experience that indulges in storytelling liberties and visual delicacies — standard operating procedure for Singh, whose films regularly challenge convention and who has flourished in the music video and commercial realms because of his visual style.
D’Onofrio calls his director an auteur: “He’s an absolute master. You know how art is just variations on variations? Well, he’s like a master thief. All artists, whether they’re poets or whether you’re Bob Dylan or Jackson Pollock or Tarsem, it’s all variations on variations.”
And as a boss?
“He’s the captain of the ship. That’s the best kind of director: They have the strongest hold on the wheel of the ship, and yet they love you at the same time. They show tenderness and care and still have the strongest hold on the wheel. All the great directors that I’ve worked with were like that. Even Stanley Kubrick was like that.”
This actor knows directors. Recently seen on TV as Marvel villain Wilson Fisk in Netflix’s Daredevil, D’Onofrio received much acclaim early in his career for his role as mentally disturbed Pvt. Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He has gone on to appear in an incredible array of roles, including Orson Welles in Ed Wood, Edgar (the exterminator turned alien bug) in Men in Black, Robert Goren on NBC’s long-running Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Hoskins in 2015’s Jurassic World, in addition to his roles in The Cell, Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, and Emerald City.
One of the appealing features of the Oz adaptation was its collaborative openness, D’Onofrio said.
“Basically it was a yes from my friend Tarsem. Universal still had to agree and the showrunner, David Schulner, and [executive producer] Shaun Cassidy,” the actor said, relating that he read the scripts of several episodes and offered some notes.
“I didn’t want to impose on them, and I didn’t want for them to think — people get nervous about actors and especially actors like me. At my age, these days, I care more about that. I never cared about it when I was younger. These days I do care about what the tone is going into a project as far as collaboration and stuff. I want everybody to find joy in the fact that we’re going to collaborate instead of be under pressure by it,” he said.
“We found a whole new arc for my character based on the psychology of him,” D’Onofrio continued. “The whole arc of my character is rooted in this psychology that I approached David with, and then David just wrote the shit out of it, you know?”
Apparently his contribution was welcome.
“It had to be him,” Singh said. “The guy, he’s a changed person from when we first worked on The Cell. But, my God, he’s still exactly the same thing; he just does not take the work lightly, and he is so calm. He can sell you anything. He’ll just ask you for the tone, and if you think too much, too little, he literally has a switch somewhere on his bellybutton, he’ll just tweak it and damn, he’s there.”
(We didn’t ask, but it’s a safe bet that D’Onofrio does not, in fact, have a switch on his bellybutton.)
Singh’s trademark aesthetic comes through in bold visuals — a landscape punctuated by the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, a mind-melting road dusted yellow with the pollen of opium poppy flowers, billowing costumes with seemingly sentient fabric — but the production does offer representations of the traditional tale’s Toto, Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, flying monkeys (these are mechanical, though), and more.
In addition to D’Onofrio and Arjona, the cast also includes Joely Richardson as Glinda, Ana Ularu as a complex West (as in “Witch of the”), and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in a variation of the Scarecrow (here named “Lucas”), as well as Mido Hamada, Jordan Loughran, Gerran Howell, and Fiona Shaw.
It’s a different wonderful world of Oz than people are used to, but it may cast just the right spell to captivate contemporary audiences looking for a little magic in their winter TV viewing.
Emerald City airs Fridays on NBC at 9 p.m. ET, beginning with a two-hour series premiere event on January 6