As encouraging as it must be for a filmmaker to be recognized or associated with just one iconic film or franchise, Sam Raimi is the creative force behind two of them. He launched his eclectic career almost 30 years ago with the original Evil Dead, a horror classic that spawned two sequels and countless imitators, and then established himself as an A-list adaptor of comic book material with Spider-Man, which also begat sequels, and perhaps more importantly, several billion dollars or so in worldwide grosses. His latest film, Drag Me to Hell, is a return to the genre material that helped make a name for himself, albeit with the sensibility of a guy who survived one of Hollywood's biggest franchises, and took a few lessons away from the experience to boot.
Cinematical recently sat down with Raimi to discuss his new film, and the director demonstrated that in addition to being a hit machine with the mind of a born moviemaker, he's also a smart, generous, and remarkably humble fellow. While discussing his work on the film, he took time to respond, and kindly, to folks who both love and hate his legacy, before deconstructing his acrobatic cinematic style, and finally, digging deep to find a few films that meant something special to him as a young cineaste. And while he managed to pick consummate summer movie experiences that, quite frankly, didn't actually happen during the summer, the convenience of a Google search and the forgiveness of a grateful nation lying in wait for his films more than makes up for his lack of seasonal accuracy.
After I saw this I told someone that it's great to see that as a filmmaker you've matured, but you haven't grown up.
Raimi: (laughs) That's funny.
The movie is unconventional but still completely true to itself, certainly in its narrative choices. What was the point to you of the movie, in terms of its themes and ideas, or simply the point of you making this movie for you as a filmmaker?
Raimi: The point to make it in the first place is to make a horror story – to entertain, thrill and scare the bejeezus out of the audience, if I can, and make them jump and shout, and if I can, make them have a good laugh too. Thematically, it's a story about a girl who tries to be a good person in this world, but succumbs to the sin of greed and makes a decision for her own self-interest at the expense of this old woman. It's a story about how she pays for that choice, and it's also a story about the digression of a character – how one bad choice leads to another and another and another until she really becomes quite a despicable character at the picture's end, even though she's very pretty and likeable, supposedly, and somebody hopefully who the audience wants to root for. That's why Alison Lohman is such a good casting choice for me in this case, because, well, she's a very good actress primarily, but mostly I needed somebody for the audience to identify with so that when she sinned against that woman, I wanted the audience to sin with her so that when Alison was punished by having this demon called up from Hell chasing her down over the next two days, that like it or not the audience would know that they had made that choice too at that time and they deserved this thing coming for her. And that "surprise" ending, whether you were surprised or not, they would know it wasn't a tacked-on piece, it was the just desserts for where they were headed and hopefully it would really scare them because of that. That's why I needed the audience to identify with Alison. The theme was about greed and its effects.
Is there a consciousness to the style that you bring to these sequences? There is definitely familiar imagery in the film that fans of your work will recognize.
Raimi: I think the way I make a horror picture probably has this kind of flavor or feel to it, and the things that scare me are not really like [realistic]. I don't like movies about serial killers, necessarily; it's too real and unpleasant for me. I like something where I can really use my imagination and be an active participant in the construction of the monster and usually that's in the world of the supernatural or the world of the fantastic, so that's why those kinds of stories about demons and the supernatural appeal to me or maybe I'm really interested in that subject. It gives me the chills and I don't find it unpleasant, either, and I love to charge up the audience. I feel the horror audience is a great audience, and I would ideally make a movie that would give them as much energy as they're willing to give to the picture. Some movies to me are like vampires – they suck all of the energy out of me and I don't like that. I like to give the audience energy if I can.
How do you design a horror movie that creates scares that are both thrilling and meaningful? Anyone can use to foley to literally surprise the audience, but you manage to create scares that are more than just momentarily frightening.
Raimi: Well, thanks for those kind words. I hope the movie has that effect on the audience, but we'll see when it opens. But I try to get dramatic results in the scares by, one, investing in this movie different than the Evil Dead movies, investing the audience in the character, spending time with her hopefully so that they would like her, hopefully so that they would understand her and want what she wanted and involved in her in a way that was more than just two-dimensional. Be connected emotionally with her so they would fear for what happened to her. That was one tool I was trying to use, but also I was trying to deliver on the scares by being more aware this time of where I thought the audience would be at any particular moment. From my experience having made those previous horror films, I've gained a little bit of awareness where I think the audience will be at any particular time – like a cabinet maker having made cabinets knowing when one leg is too short and how long these legs have to be for a cabinet that's this wide. I don't know really a concern a cabinet maker has (laughs). But I'm a little bit more aware, having made some cabinets, how they have to be constructed and I know that at its best this is a fun game for the audience with the movie. I want to try and be aware of their moves and where they think we're going to move, and sometimes giving them that move and sometimes giving them a down beat when they expect a scare, and then delivering a beat later. Or delivering with a laugh where they think a scare might be to keep them off guard, so that they're always in a world of the unexpected because I think that adds to their enjoyment and participation and surprise. Those are the techniques that I used to try to make the scares as effective as possible.
When you made the Evil Dead films, you really defined a style of horror that hadn't been seen before, and you return to some of those here as a byproduct of your directorial style. How fair is it to grant a filmmaker who has a genre pedigree a degree of forgiveness when or if he continues to use hallmarks or flourishes that he helped invent?
Raimi: Well, first of all, grant me no quarter if you're talking about me. Let me hide nowhere. Come after me with your worst, because I can't stop you anyways, so I might as well be bold about it (laughs). Second of all, I don't look at me doing anything. I'm just trying to make an entertainment the best I know how for the audience, so you as a critic have to just be as cruel and ruthless as you can be, or honest as you can be or whatever. Filmmakers shouldn't hide behind any excuses, where he's from or what his past has been. Between you and me, I was just trying to take what I knew about characters that I had learned from many years of working with actors and try and put a real human being into the center of a genre I have explored before. It may appear to you like it's the same thing, but to me as a filmmaker it was a very different experience. Every day on the set it was about the character at the center of one of these things that I had done before, so it changed everything. For me it was a wonderful, different experience, but I can't be somebody than I'm not, though, and I can't make a film a particular way because people may think it looks too much like something I've done. What I don't want to be part of the equation is how people perceive me; I don't want it to be about me, I want it to be about the story and how the character may feel, and I just have to approach the movie in the way that I think would be the most interesting or dramatic. Every one of us has a point of view and we do things in a particular way, and I can't escape it, nor do I want it to be the driving force. It would pollute the process.
Do you have a quintessential summer movie, or some movie that you became obsessed with?
Raimi: Well, the one that I was obsessed with going to was I was in high school and I knew nothing about film, but I'd always been a big fan of John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I thought it was brilliant and I'd seen it on TV only. I just assumed that Mr. Huston had passed away; I mean, it was such an old movie, 1949 or something. Here it was 1976, I think, and I saw an advertisement in the newspaper that Rudyard Kipling's classic The Man Who Would Be King was coming out, and that it was directed by John Huston. I absolutely could not believe that John Huston was still around, and he had made this movie, and I was going to see it. I don't think it was the summer, because I don't know when it came out. [Editor's Note: it was released Dec. 17, 1975.] But I'd never been so excited to see a movie in my life up until that moment, but Mr. Huston was still around and he was making this movie and I was blown away by the movie and how great it was. Almost 30 years later, after Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I knew he had done The Maltese Falcon before that, I could not believe that a filmmaker could be that great 30 years later.
I went with the highest hopes and he blew me away beyond what I had expected. That's a movie I was obsessed with at the time, and then another one although it wasn't a summer movie, skipping high school afternoon session to see it with my buddy Bill Kirk, Martin Scorsese's classic with the great Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver. [Release date: Feb. 8, 1976.] My life changed forever when I saw that movie. I wanted to make movies, but I didn't know they could be so beautiful and so powerful. And Bernard Herrman's score, his last, maybe, I'm not certain, there may have been one more but it was absolutely his finest. I mean, one of his finest. It was breathtaking, the whole experience. But again, this was definitely not summer, it was school time. Those two and one more: when I was shooting Evil Dead with Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert back in 1979, maybe it was December of '79, but Star Trek The Movie was coming out. [Release date: Dec. 7, 1979.] Directed by Robert Wise, who had made my favorite horror movie of all time, The Haunting, and who had made my favorite musical, West Side Story, he was going to make my favorite television show with the original actors of all time, with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I could not believe it, and we drove about an hour to get to this theater, leaving the set. That was a great experience for me, seeing William Shatner working with Robert Wise – how awesome would that be.
Are there any movies you're particularly looking forward to seeing this summer?
Raimi: Yes. I'll tell you, I'm looking forward to Terminator. The trailer looks cool, really cool. I'm looking forward to Up, I only saw the teaser some time ago but that looked really cool. It looked great, and they've never failed.