Dark Man Lightens Up

Dark and twisted may best describe the films of Sam Raimi—in terms of settings, as well as plots. From the bizarre and bloody camp of his Evil Dead trilogy to the backwoods thrillers A Simple Plan and the soon-to-be-released The Gift, Raimi's reputation has been built in the macabre.

But dark and twisted doesn't describe Sam Raimi, the man. In fact, Raimi is in many ways the All-American boy—turned Hollywood director, that is.

Raised outside Detroit on a diet of comic books, baseball, and Three Stooges, Raimi was among the first true independent filmmakers. He and his fellow Michigan State University buddies used a 20-minute featurette they'd made, titled Within the Woods, to raise more than $300,000 from local investors—doctors, dentists, real estate brokers—to make the cult horror classic Evil Dead, which they filmed in 11 weeks in the hills of Tennessee. Despite the surprise success of this wild, cartoon-like picture at Cannes in 1984 and its ensuing underground exposure in the States, Evil Dead didn't really make any money for Raimi's investors. That's the main reason Raimi made the bigger-budgeted, more polished Evil Dead II—that, and the fact that the director insisted on making his sophomore project one that would force the studios to let him again cast his friend, the rubber-faced Bruce Campbell, in the lead.

Consequently, it's hard to figure out to whom Raimi is more loyal, his investors or his actors. Above both, it would probably have to be his audiences. Raimi is undoubtedly a populist filmmaker. As he freely admits, nothing gives him a bigger charge than sitting in an audience at one of his screenings and watching people howl or squirm. Raimi's first rule has always been to entertain. While his early collaborators, the Coen Brothers (Joel Coen was the editor on Evil Dead, and Raimi wrote and filmed second unit on The Hudsucker Proxy), have clearly distanced themselves from their early genre flicks, such as the noirish Blood Simple and the high-octane comedy Raising Arizona, and moved into strictly art-house fare, Raimi's greatest successes, at least financially, have been with the crowd pleaser Darkman and the TV franchises Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, which he executive directed. Raimi is the king of camp, unashamed to use any trick, from slapstick to cheap special effects, to keep his audiences happy. (Raimi, as a producer, is also famous for convincing Universal to take a chance on an unproven Chinese director, John Woo, for Hard Target, Woo's first American film.)

Despite this action/horror pedigree, in recent years Raimi surprised critics with his appropriately simple A Simple Plan, and then threw audiences another curveball with the Kevin Costner romantic comedy For Love of the Game. While these films could hardly be described as intentionally obscure or high-minded, they did mark a shift in Raimi's attention to more character-based filmmaking. It turns out that this was a conscious shift, as Raimi reveals in the following interview, and a choice the director has stuck with in the upcoming drama The Gift, penned by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, and starring Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, and Gary Cole. The Gift centers around the psychic abilities of Annie Wilson (Blanchett), a small-town Georgia native, whose efforts to help an abused woman (Swank) escape from the control of her husband (Reeves) lead to murder and mystery.

How this filmmaker, renowned for his innovative technical style, his fast-paced whiplash camera movement, and his broad physical comedy, became an "actor's director," highly praised by his cast members for his sensitivity and understanding of their process, is a great story in itself, and a credit to a man humble enough to admit midway through his successful career that he needed to better learn what great actors do to become a greater director.

The happy result of this decision is just another paradox in a long list for Sam Raimi: Hollywood's creepy/All-American, cult/populist, technical/actor's director.

Back Stage West: You've always had a reputation as a great technical director, but more and more lately, you've been praised by the actors you've worked with as an "actor's director." How do you balance these considerations?

Sam Raimi: I guess I don't see them in conflict. I really learn from the actors. I try to communicate with them. We explore the scenes together. We try to understand what the scenes are about and what the characters are going through. Actors are always giving me great insight that I never had. I feel like I'm a student on any of the pictures I've made with these great actors. Both individually—with an actor and myself—and as a group, we work to know what a scene's about—and we sometimes only discover that in rehearsal. Once we understand the scene, then I understand how to present it technically. So I see them working in harmony. The synthesis of the actors and their performances and the script tells me how to shoot it. It becomes a very clear process. So I never see them in conflict, just one complementing the other.

BSW: Did you make a conscious choice to become more of an actor's director?

Raimi: It came about like this. I had been fascinated only with technique and broad burlesque early on. I love entertaining the audience. But then I felt at some point in my life that I wanted to start making the types of movies that I liked seeing. I, as a kid, would never see horror movies. They scared me, so I never watched them. It turns out that the films that I like are great performance pieces. They're subtly written screenplays that pay attention to human detail and behavior.

So, a few years ago, I was lucky enough to read [Scott Smith's] screenplay of A Simple Plan, and I directed that picture, which was the type of picture I like to see—and the same with the last two films I've made. But I also had to develop the ability and the understanding to work with the type of actors necessary to make these successful pictures—not financially successful but successful in terms of what they wanted to be.

With The Gift, I got help. Not only did I get help from all the actors and the great screenplay, I got help from two local acting coaches—a little from Joanne Baron and a lot from D.W. Brown. He guided me on how to work with the actors in general and gave me a lot of tips. He told me some of the basic premises he works under, which I've incorporated into this particular picture, and then was kind enough to spend a few days with me and Keanu talking about the character and raising interesting questions and suggesting approaches we might take in pulling off certain scenes. He really helped me a lot.

BSW: How much do you rehearse with actors?

Raimi: It depends on the project. We had very little time on A Simple Plan. In fact, we never really got to rehearse on A Simple Plan. We got like one day. But on this film, we had days and days of rehearsal. I would say with Cate I probably got five or six days with just her before filming. And then, when the other actors came in, I think we spent about eight or nine half-days, in addition. Those were great discovery sessions and very exciting. It was great to watch these really fine actors work across from one another. When I would be fortunate enough to be in the room with Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank, I would be thinking, I've got two of the best actors in the world here. And then they would turn to me and say, "What do you want different?" That was intimidating.

BSW: The stylized physical performance of, say, Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films is worlds away from the quiet naturalism of Cate Blanchett in The Gift. Is there a Sam Raimi type of performer? Or to put it another way, what do you look for an actor?

Raimi: Usually but not always, somebody that is already 80 percent the part. The casting is so important. That's what I look for. One, they need to be something like the part. Two, they've got to be believable. I've got to believe what they're saying and understand what they're saying. I like actors who have really done their homework and have broken down the part and made the choice about each and every thought they have in the scene.

BSW: In The Gift, for instance, how do you rehearse a scene such as the one in which Reeves' character drags his wife out of Annie's house kicking and screaming?

Raimi: First, I talked to Keanu and Hilary about how brutal it should be. Keanu made a choice about how upset he would be. What we found out together is that he's a control freak, as sometimes these husbands who abuse their wives are. They want control. So he was threatened by Cate Blanchett's character giving his wife advice without his say-so. In fact, some of her advice was to leave him. Annie represented this terrible loss of control that he was very upset about. His character had taken the step of telling his wife not to see her anymore. And when that didn't work, he took the next step of visiting Annie's house and telling her to leave his damn wife alone. And when the women defy that demand together, we felt Keanu had a license in this character to be very angry and that almost anything would be possible at that time. We wanted it to be ugly and brutal for the children to witness. And we wanted it to be real to who these people are. They're caught up in this abusive relationship that Hilary's character is too afraid and too weak to get out of.

Hilary and Keanu did some research. They talked to different people at abuse clinics. They interviewed some women who had suffered from abuse, and they interviewed some men who had been guilty of it. Then we worked it all out with a stunt coordinator because safety was a very important issue for us. We blocked out exactly what would happen, because he was going to throw Hilary down and throw Cate down and kick Hilary and throw her off the porch. Once we had talked about it, I felt that there should be an immediacy in the technique of shooting it. I felt that just one take was all that we should do it in, without cuts—because cuts imply a certain sense of control, like it had been edited, and, however subconsciously, like there has been a mind at work in the presentation. I felt the scene should be a wild and uncontrollable thing in order to get into the head of Keanu's rage. So we did it in one take, all hand-held, to further the idea of the lack of control. And it was just about the actors not being afraid to feel that anger and fear. They cut loose.

Although I will say, despite what my plan was, we eventually made cuts within the take. That's the movie business for you.

BSW: On the darker side of dealing with actors, between The Quick and the Dead and For Love of the Game, it seems that you have had to deal with your share of actor's egos. [Costner took exception with the two-and-a-half-hour "short" cut of the film.]

Raimi: Probably every director does, I would imagine. I try to work with the actors the best I can. I try to never be in a position of battling, because you have to be so in sync. It's like dancing with someone. I, for some reason, fall in love with every actor I work with—with the exception maybe of Gene Hackman [laughs].

What I've learned is, Don't work for a movie star, because then you're not really doing the best you can as a director. You're not telling the best story, you're servicing an ego. That's the problem with working with a movie star as opposed to working with a great actor or actress. My advice is, unless you want to suck on some abuse, work with the best actors and not the biggest movie stars—or at least know what you're getting into.

BSW: Many great filmmakers started in the horror genre—Francis Ford Coppola with Dementia 13, for example—but it seems like you got stuck there because your horror movies actually did well. How does your background in horror affect your directing of a film such as The Gift?

Raimi: Well, the Evil Dead films and this film deal with the supernatural, but that's about where the similarities stop. In The Gift, the goal was to present the supernatural as something that really existed, something that was real. I did not want to make the audience aware of the technique. I wanted to sit back and let the actors draw the audience into the story. So all of the wild technique and camera movement that I applied in Evil Dead, that had to go out the window. Creating a real world within the actors' lives, I felt, was the best tool in having the audience take the next step and believe that they were experiencing the supernatural.

BSW: From The Evil Dead to A Simple Plan to The Gift, you seem to have a dark fascination with the woods. Did the 11 weeks filming The Evil Dead in Tennessee turn you against the beauty of nature?

Raimi: Maybe. I know in the Evil Dead films I had just been studying Shakespeare for two years as a major part of my curriculum at Michigan State University and I was so taken with Macbeth. I don't know if it's Birnam Wood that comes to the castle, Dunsinane, but that's where we got the idea for the woods being a terrible thing that surrounded this cabin. Although we took it more literally. That was just a device to create a frightening and outrageous world.

In The Gift, again, the idea was to sell the supernatural as real. The choice of Savannah, Ga., helped us there. That town has these beautiful 200-year-old oak trees, these twisted forms that suggest a world beyond our comprehension. They've lived for hundreds of years before we were born, and they'll probably be here a hundred years after we're gone. So the very placement of those creatures in the film suggested that there must be worlds beyond our ken. And so perhaps it may be a smaller step to suggest that there may be a supernatural world that we also don't understand. They were used for a different reason, but yeah, I love good scary trees. They're scary.

BSW: You once said that you've made people scream and made them cry, but the hardest thing is to make them laugh. But in truth there always seems to be humor in all your movies. Do you want to do a strict comedy one day?

Raimi: If I said I made them scream and cry, I may have been talking about my investors. But, seriously, you've got to be very talented and really know how to do comedy to make a successful comedy, I think. There are very few people who can do it. Woody Allen is great at that. The Coen Brothers are great at that. But it takes a unique talent that I don't know if I have. It's a good question. If I felt confident that I could do it properly, I would.

BSW: Evil Dead was a true independent film. How has independent film changed in the last 20 years?

Raimi: It's changed a great deal. The opportunities for the independent filmmaker are fantastic now. For starters, you couldn't make a film, when I started 20 years ago, unless you had $100,000 to make it. That is an outrageous amount of money for an 18-year-old kid to raise. Nowadays, you can make movies with a home video camera for $300, and a used computer for another $250, and a bunch of videotape that you can keep recording over and dumping onto the computer. So for a very affordable amount of money now, the tools are available to make pictures. Everyone can be a moviemaker.

BSW: You start shooting Spider-Man on Jan. 8 [starring Tobey Maguire as Spidey, Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin]. Is it intimidating taking on such classic characters?

Raimi: I'm terrified. It's such a big project, and the expectations are so great. I've never really been in this situation before. Usually, I can work under the radar and no one cares. But everyone has an expectation of what Spider-Man should be, and if it isn't great, you've failed. They won't accept a pretty good Spider-Man movie. It has to be great. So it's frightening.

I'm just going to try to make it as exciting as possible and bright and fun. I'm going to try to be really true to the character of Peter Parker and his relationships I'm going to try to meet the expectations of the audience and maybe exceed them. That's my goal. Perhaps even to go to a deeper level than the expectations of the comic book format.

BSW: You grew up with comics and baseball. Now you've made For Love of the Game and are working on Spider-Man. Have you fulfilled all your childhood dreams as a filmmaker, or will we perhaps see a Three Stooges biopic?

Raimi: If there were a way to bring back Moe, Larry, and Curly, I'd do it. It was really them I loved. They were the magic. But, yes, there are still things I want to do. I love a lot of the great novels I read as a kid, like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. That was such a great tale of adventure. I'd love to make that into a picture someday. That's probably the top of my list. BSW