Sam Raimi Interview by Tim Nasson
Sam Raimi is back behind the camera for the third time…in the “Spiderman” movie franchise. Will he stick around for
“Spiderman 4,” “Spiderman 5″ and “Spiderman 6,” which are allegedly being made?
Sam Raimi is married to Gillian Greene, the daughter of actor Lorne Greene. They have five children together.
Sam Raimi was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, to a conservative Jewish family of Polish ancestry; his father was Leonard Ronald Raimi and his mother was Celia Barbara Raimi. His family’s original surname was Reingewertz, but was shortened to Raimi after his grandfather immigrated to the United States. His father’s close cousin was Harry Margolis who played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1941 season. Raimi is the fourth of five children. His eldest sibling, Sander, died in a swimming accident in 1968 at age 15, while on a trip to Israel. Raimi attended Wylie E. Groves High School and Michigan State University and majored in English.
Raimi became fascinated in making films when his father brought a video camera home one day and he began to make Super 8 movies with childhood friend Bruce Campbell. In college, he teamed up with his brother’s roommate Robert Tapert and Campbell to shoot Within the Woods (1978), a 32-minute horror film which raised $350,000. Reinvesting the profits from college-screenings and campus tours of Within the Woods, Raimi was able to finance production of the highly successful horror film The Evil Dead (1981) which became a major hit and effectively launched Raimi’s career to new levels. He began work on his second film Crimewave (1985), intended as a live-action comic book – the film was not successful, due in part to unwanted studio intervention. Raimi returned to the horror genre with the seminal Evil Dead II (which toned down the savageness of the original in favour of slapstick, showcasing his love of the Three Stooges). A long-time comic book buff, he attempted to adapt “The Shadow” into a movie, but was unable to secure the rights. So he created his own super-hero, Darkman (1990). The film was his first major studio picture, and was only moderately successful, but he was still able to secure funding for Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness, which turned away almost totally from horror in favour of fantasy and comedy elements. In the 1990s Raimi moved into other genres, directing such films as A Simple Plan (1998) (starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton) and For Love of the Game (1999) (starring Kevin Costner). Raimi achieved great commercial success with the blockbuster Spider-Man (2002), which was adapted from the comic book series of the same name. The movie has grossed over $800 million USD worldwide, spawning two sequels: Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3. After the completion of the Spider-Man series, Raimi is slated to direct a film adaptation of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. Prior to directing the Spider-Man films, Raimi lobbied to direct Batman Forever when Tim Burton was ousted from the director’s chair, but was rejected in favor of Joel Schumacher, whose reputation at the time outshone Raimi’s. He has also worked in front of the camera with Miller’s Crossing as a coldblooded gunman, The Stand as a dimwitted hitman, John Carpenter’s Body Bags in an unusual role as a gas station attendant and all three mentioned roles saw Raimi dying in distinct ways, and Indian Summer in what is perhaps his biggest role as a bumbling assistant to Alan Arkin. He also produced The Grudge and The Grudge 2.
Wild About Movies: What was it like coming back to direct Spider-Man the third time around?
“Sam Raimi”: It was great working on the third one in many ways and it was very difficult in many ways. The easiest thing was that the team was the same. Not just the producers who I became very familiar with and we have a shorthand way of working now, but I had the same production designer, the editor was the same, the animators were the same. They had learned how to move Spider-Man with greater grace and they had learned from a lot of their mistakes. So it was definitely easier because of the shorthand of communication. But also we had all learned a lot of lessons, so we could make new mistakes and we didn’t have to repeat the same ones. But also working with the actors, that was the biggest advantage of the third picture, because what we’re always after in scenes is to try and find a moment that will reverberate with the audience.
Like if someone is heartbroken, we want the audience to have felt that themselves and to get there we have to make it a real moment of truth. Something about it has to be real. However melodramatic the drama may be, there has to be truth in the actor’s performance. I met Tobey and Kirsten seven years ago and we worked on the first picture as professional people, but then our friendship deepened on the second picture and I had a much greater degree of trust in them. I think they trusted me perhaps more and we weren’t afraid of hurting each other’s feelings, weren’t afraid of saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Sometimes when you talk about emotions, words sometimes come up short when you’re trying to describe a feeling you have or a feeling that you’re lacking from an actor.
The depth of our friendship and just the closeness of our working relationship really enabled us to attempt to get at the truthful moments to a greater degree. I’m not saying that we were always successful because we weren’t. We often missed them, but at least we were very close in our relationship so that we could really speak honestly with each other about what we felt was lacking and what we felt we needed.
Wild About Movies: Can you address the anti-organic web shooter contingent? Have they finally let that slide and cut you some slack?
“Sam Raimi”i: I don’t know. Maybe not because I think what you’re referring to is in the Spider-Man comic book written by Stan Lee. He had a mechanical web shooter and there was a great objection against the fans online that I was destroying their character. But, I love Spider-Man also. What I was trying to do was take James Cameron’s idea which was actually in a story that he had written and I thought that’s a great idea of his because it makes the great spirit of what Stan Lee did so unique, that Peter Parker is a regular guy. He’s one of us and here’s a hero that we can identify with who has all the common thoughts and mishaps of any of us.
So the fact that he was a mechanical engineer and could create this special substance and this special gadget, I felt it was better to ignore in an attempt to be truer to the spirit of the character that Stanley had created versus an attempt to be truer to the specifics of every detail that he had created. So that was my goal. But these people are very upset with me, and they probably still are, and I definitely won’t say that they aren’t because they’ll even be madder.
Wild About Movies: You came up with the story for this as well as the screenplay. Did you work with your brother on this?
“Sam Raimi”: Yes, I worked with my brother and Alvin Sargent, the great screenwriter, contributed quite a bit.
Wild About Movies: So what was the challenge in coming up with this story for the third time?
“Sam Raimi”: Well this time the story was pretty much set up by the first two pictures. What wasn’t set up by the first two pictures was really influenced greatly from all the great writers and artists of the Marvel comic books of the first 45 years. It was more about sorting through the material and trying to figure out how best to conclude these story lines and where next our character, Peter Parker, had to grow to as a human being.
Wild About Movies: Talk about bringing in the new villains.
“Sam Raimi”: They came about in different ways. Here’s what we did. We first decided to approach the problem like this. Where is Peter Parker at the end of the second picture as a human being? He’s a kid in all these stories. They’re kind of coming of age stories and he learns different aspects of growing up, different life lessons in each of these films and often times in the comic books. So my brother and I spoke for quite some time and we felt that the most important thing Peter right now has to learn is that this whole concept of him as the avenger or him as the hero, he wears this red and blue outfit, with each criminal he brings to justice, he’s trying to pay down this debt of guilt he feels about the death of Uncle Ben.
He considers himself a hero and a sinless person versus these villains that he nabs. We felt it would be a great thing for him to learn a little less black and white view of life and that’s he not above these people. He’s not just the hero and they’re not just the villains. They were all human beings and that he himself might have some sin within him and that other human beings, the ones he calls the criminals, have some humanity within them and that the best we can do in this world is to not strive for vengeance, but for forgiveness. So that was what we felt would be the next broadening of his awareness as a human being
Wild About Movies: Yes, but the theme of redemption applies to more than one character. Were you conscious that this could be the thread from the beginning?
“Sam Raimi”: No, I wasn’t conscious of that at the beginning. We wanted Harry Osborne, his good friend, that relationship with Peter Parker and him to be resolved by this third picture. We had obviously set up the scenes to have some dramatic confrontation and resolution in this third one and we knew in our hearts that Harry was a good boy and good person and was just acting under the mistaken belief that Peter had killed his father in cold blood and perhaps wanting to hang on to the notion that his father was an honorable man and perhaps that he could still be the son that his father wanted him to be if he just acted a little more strongly and avenged his death. But it wasn’t as simple as that for him. Eventually the truth comes out and he finds his true self.
Wild About Movies: It also applies to Thomas Hayden Church’s character.
“Sam Raimi”: Yes, it does.
Wild About Movies: So how did you get to the two villains?
Raimi: So we decided that’s the journey Peter Parker has to go on. Then we said, what villain will best represent the conflict that can dramatize his journey? If the hero runs into this conflict, how can he learn forgiveness? We’ll make the villain piece someone who is absolutely unforgivable in Peter’s eyes to really take him to a place where the audience understands his desire for vengeance and they feel it so that the kids will think ‘Yes, bring the Sandman down, Spider-Man.’ And then by the end of the piece, you want the kids to go on this journey with Spider-Man so that they’d say, ‘No, actually as my hero, the best thing that you could do right now, the thing I’d rather have you do is forgive this man.’ We thought that would be a worthwhile summer picture and a good story for the kids if we could incorporate that.
We said okay, we’re going to make it a villain that we can make Peter Parker really feel his desire for vengeance against him in a real heavy way so the audience has a sense of relief when he forgives Sandman so it means something to them dramatically. We chose a villain that did not have such a detailed back story that I would be in defiance of those comic book fans. What I didn’t tell you is when I changed those web shooters, they sent a petition with 2,000 signatures to the Chairman of Sony to have me removed from the picture. So I’m trying to steer clear of that this time. But really we wanted someone we weren’t in defiance of because the fans do love the characters and so do I and we wanted to add to the history of one that was slightly less detailed. The Sandman I’ve always thought was a great visual character and could be a formidable foe against Spider-Man from all the great Marvel comic books and yet his background wasn’t so detailed or defined that this would be in conflict. We added to the story that he in fact was the murderer of Uncle Ben. We also liked the idea that by adding this…
It’s all about the awareness of things. Peter Parker sees things as a proud person in this picture in a very narrow way that he’s right and they’re wrong. It’s all about taking on other points of view. There are so many more truths than the simple truths of good or bad or the name as perceived. For instance, that man didn’t kill his uncle as he had thought. It was another man. This is just an example of why we felt it was right. But we also wanted something you could look back at the first picture and turn the whole thing on its head, so that by the time you got to the end, it was more than the sum of the parts. We thought that would be an interesting experience for the audience and that what they had seen in the first part was true, but there was so much more to the story. Like Peter Parker, they didn’t have the whole truth and they thought they did.
Wild About Movies: There’s talk of you being interested in The Hobbit. If you end up directing the film, would it be part of the world that Peter Jackson created?
“Sam Raimi”: I haven’t even thought about that because I don’t really know what I’m doing next. It’s so soon, my ears are still ringing from the mix on this picture.
Wild About Movies: You mention a lot of spiritual concepts in terms of forgiveness and redemption and sin, but there’s also a lot of spiritual imagery especially on these last two films such as Peter on the front of the runaway train in a crucifix form in Spider-Man 2 and then here where he takes his suit off in the church. Is that intentional and what does it all mean?
“Sam Raimi”: Well that imagery from the church is really far from the story. We wanted to be true to the comic books. It’s very similar in how it was depicted in those classic Marvel comic books of the 80’s which I’ve more recently become familiar with of how Spider-Man shed his suit and how it came upon Eddie Brock.
We were trying to pay tribute to those books. But there are a lot of literary concepts and spiritual concepts within the comic books. They reverberate and they work for me. The ones that worked for the writers, we incorporated into the story.
Wild About Movies: You seemed to have a lot of fun with Peter Parker embracing his darker side. Can you talk about creating that aspect of the movie?
“Sam Raimi”: Well, in this story, Peter Parker falls victim to his own pride. He starts to believe all the press clippings about himself, that he’s really this hero and somebody great. He starts to be afraid that he isn’t that person and doesn’t want to act any other way than the person that’s right. That pride manifests itself in a much darker way. Working on those sequences with Tobey Maguire and the dark Spider-Man, that was a difficult thing for me actually. It wasn’t fun for me because I didn’t like those sequences.
I don’t like watching Spider-Man go bad. It was unpleasant and I kept worrying, ‘Gee, do I really have to do this to show how rageful and vengeful he is? Do we really have to show how pride can destroy you?’ But, my brother kept telling me, ‘Yes, because he’s going to find himself again after he loses himself.’
Wild About Movies: What about the sexy, choreographed sequences? Those looked like they were a lot of fun to shoot?
“Sam Raimi”: That was fun. I agree. I was referring more to the sequence of Mary Jane and the Jazz club or his treatment of Harry Osborne in that sequence.
Wild About Movies: Was that John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever in that sequence?
“Sam Raimi”: Actually it was not an attempt to imitate that great dance sequence, but I know people have said that to me, that it’s very similar to that.
Wild About Movies: Your childhood friend Josh Becker talked about growing up with you and he said the irony was you were a smart ass and tagged along with your older brother and that you had a huge obsession with comic books. Can you talk about how accurate that is and the impact of your early filmmaking days in Detroit on Spider-Man 3?
“Sam Raimi”: Well that’s where I started, in Detroit, and Josh was my old school buddy and we would make Super-8 movies together. After school we would meet with Bruce Campbell, John Cameron, my friend Bill Kirk, sometimes my brother Ivan, my other friend Rob Tapert, and we would get together and make pictures. Usually back then, along with my other buddy Scott Spiegel who I forgot to mention, this was before video tape, we would record on audio cassette “The Three Stooges” on TV so we had a soundtrack. For some reason, we would film ourselves in sync acting out those shorts. We did this for like 20 different pictures. I don’t even know why, we just loved “The Three Stooges” so much.
Then we started making original films only because we ran out of cassettes. We didn’t have a soundtrack and everyone contributed. There was really no director. There was, ‘You run the camera. We’ll do this guy. Can you get some pies from the store so we can have a pie fight?’ They were all comedies. Then we started showing them to the kids and they would laugh. When they were good, they would laugh. So we really started to focus our desires on, ‘Oh let’s make it with better pace. This one was too slow. Let’s have a really big stunt. A big fall here.’ The audiences started to determine what we would make for the pictures, and because we wanted to make people laugh, they were all comedies. Then we started to show our films at school on the lunch hour and the kids would see them. We’d charge them a dollar, or .50 cents probably back then, and we’d show our films at lunch hour and the kids would laugh and we’d love it. Every weekend we’d get together and make our movies. Then we went off to college and I just kept making films from there. But, yes, I was a tag along kid, yeah, with my brother. That’s true.
Wild About Movies: The Venom character was not one from your comic book experience, but you found a way to integrate him into your vision. How long did it take you to get a handle on the character and figure out what to do with him?
“Sam Raimi”: To finish that question and lead into yours, that’s how the Sandman came about. We were trying to develop a character who represented that conflict for our hero. Once we finished the story, Avi, my producer and partner and the former head of Marvel comic books, said, ‘Sam listen, you are so aware of all of these 70’s villains, but you really need to incorporate Venom into this story because the fans really love Venom, and don’t be so selfish with just villains that you know and love.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t understand that much about Venom because I hadn’t really read him as a kid.
So I went to school on Venom, and Avi taught me a lot about Venom, and then Alvin Sargent, our screenwriter, he really was the voice of Venom in the writing of the screenplay and he showed me who he was. Then Topher Grace brought another life to the character until finally I had to go to school on all of these people being my teachers as to who he was. I learned who he was in trying to satisfy the comic book fans and incorporate Venom into the story.
Wild About Movies: Sony has announced there is going to be Spider-Man, the Broadway musical with Julie Taymor, and that they are also planning to do Spider-Man 4, 5 and 6. Are you going to have anything to do with either of those?
“Sam Raimi”: I’m not involved in the musical. That sounds very exciting and I’d love to go see it though. I love U2 so that’s going to be great and Julie Taymor’s picture was great. “Frida” is the only one I saw, but I loved that picture. I saw the LA production of Lion King.
That was staged beautifully. I don’t know if that was her staging, but that was fantastic. But no, I’m not involved in that. And yes, Sony is making 4, 5 and 6, but I haven’t had time to even think about involvement and I don’t want to assume that they are definitely going to ask me to do it. I don’t want to be presumptuous about that. Not yet I haven’t.
Wild About Movies: Would you like to?
“Sam Raimi”: If there was a great story to tell and I had a really good take on where the character could grow to now, then I think it would be great. But I’d have to have a tremendous passion to do it because so many people love Stan Lee’s character. If I didn’t think I could do it fantastically, than I should step aside and let a younger director come in who loves the character and said he could do it with the greatest passion on the earth.
Wild About Movies: If you do it, do you think you’ll take a break in between and perhaps direct another movie like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?”
“Sam Raimi”: I wasn’t going to be directing that picture actually. I would definitely need a break. Right now I couldn’t. I just don’t know.
Wild About Movies: With so many years of Spider-Man in your life, you don’t have the feeling like you want to say goodbye to Spider-Man?
“Sam Raimi”: It would be very hard to say goodbye to Spidey.
Wild About Movies: What’s going on with Ghost House, your production company?
“Sam Raimi”: Ghost House Pictures is a company that I have with my partners, Rob Tapert and Mandate Pictures. We make supernatural, spooky horror fare.
Wild About Movies: What projects do you have coming up?
“Sam Raimi”: Right now we’re finishing up the post production on “30 Days of Night” based on the graphic novel with Steve Niles. Jeff Lynch, a second unit director that I worked with on this film, somebody I really respect and a friend of mine, he’s going to be directing a film called “Drag Me to Hell” and that’s a nonstop low budget horror picture. That’s in preproduction.
Wild About Movies: How about “The Evil Dead” franchise? What’s the status on that?
“Sam Raimi”: I would definitely like to make another “Evil Dead” film with Bruce Campbell one day. I don’t know when, but I would definitely like to do it and I love working with Bruce.
Wild About Movies: For the action sequences in this movie, when everybody is in costume, are those all stunt men or was that digital?
“Sam Raimi”: Usually when he’s got the full costume on, it’s either a stunt man or it’s digital. However, if it’s ever a performance issue like if Spider-Man ever stops and stands or if he ever lands in frame and has to be in some place emotionally, it’s Tobey. Even though you can’t tell, I can tell. It’s such a big difference when you put Tobey in the outfit. He’s performing the character and it comes through the outfit. But anything that’s dangerous or that wouldn’t look physically sound, we go with the CG character.
Wild About Movies: If there is a new series of Spider-Man trilogy, do you think it should be a new Spiderman?
“Sam Raimi”: I don’t know. I would have to make that choice probably based on what the story is and what the characters are, but I couldn’t say. It would be very hard to be involved without Tobey and Kirsten, for me at least.
Wild About Movies: Since we’re talking about all these big franchises that you may be attached to, is that something you’re comfortable with, being a franchise guy now?
“Sam Raimi”: Well I know that that will pass. Mostly I see myself as who I was for the 20 years of making films professionally before my Super-8 days and that was Mr. low budget slockmeister horror film guy. You know low budget crime thriller or low budget supernatural thriller. Although I have the occasional different picture, I always thought that it was strange that Amy Pascal hired me to do this film. I really loved the film and I wanted it, but I thought it was a bold and unusual choice. When it had that tremendous success, this big franchise, I realized this too will pass. This is a very strange experience and I realized how unusual it is and I know that it won’t be here long.