INTERVIEW: Sam Raimi Opens "The Gift," Discovers Suspense Indiewood-Style
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.09.01) — Sam Raimi loves the camera. He’s fascinated by the cinema, describes it as a “miracle,” in fact, loves its motion and its time-defying ellipses. If you’ve seen any of his first pictures, like “Evil Dead, “Crimewave,” or “Evil Dead 2,” you’d know the 41-year-old director used the camera to push the boundaries of the form, with swooshing, spinning cinematography that has made even the Coen brothers blush with envy. (The Coens and Raimi have since worked together, having collaborated on “The Hudsucker Proxy.”)
Okay, so Raimi’s aims were admittedly not for the most aesthetically high-minded of concerns, but they were in the interests of learning his craft. Raimi’s education has lead the way for a transition from horror schlock to serious-minded dramas, most notably with his 1998 thriller “A Simple Plan,” starring Billy Bob Thornton. Raimi has now embarked on another collaboration with Thornton, directing he and Tom Epperson‘s screenplay, “The Gift,” a moody Southern Gothic starring Cate Blanchett as a local psychic caught in a murder mystery.
As Raimi prepares for his biggest bout with Hollywood yet with “Spiderman,” he took some time to speak with indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about working inside the Indiewood system, directorial restraint, punishing the audience, and location contributing to story.
indieWIRE: So this film strikes me as a hybrid in some ways of both studio and independent forces. Could talk about how this isn’t a studio film, it’s you working creatively within the constructs of the system?
Sam Raimi: Well, the film has so many dark elements to it. Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson‘s screenplay has so many dark elements, that I don’t think that the studio, Paramount Pictures or Universal or any of the other big commercial companies would’ve ever financed it. It has elements of patricide, the son tries to kill the father although he’s not technically successful, it has child molestation in it. . . Did you see the film?
iW: Yeah. There’s some dark stuff in there.
Raimi: Buddy’s father has had a terrible history with his son played by Giovanni Ribisi. There’s a lot of terrible darkness in the picture. And the girl doesn’t get the guy at the end. So I think that they felt, the studios, that this was not the type of thing that they could release through their system. Their system is geared to put out 2000 prints or more over a national market where they can come up properly with an advertisement and sell it as a Rite Guard or Band-Aid or Kool Aid or something that people understand and can buy tickets to. The studio is less equipped to handle the things that take special marketing or special care. So people sometimes say, “Well, the studio, they’re just interested in making money.” It’s not even that. I think it’s more they’re set up one way. They don’t have the little teams that can go in and specially handle a picture. Not that they couldn’t develop them, but they’re just not set up that way. So I don’t think that the studio ever would’ve made this film. They thought about it and I think they finally realized when they went into marketing meetings that they couldn’t. It would appeal to a small group of people and therefore not right for them.
So Tom Rosenberg, he’s an independent financier, but somehow he’s connected to Paramount in a financial way, he has, through Lake Shore Entertainment, his own money. He makes indie pictures and somehow Paramount releases them. I’m not quite sure how that works, but he liked the script so he was willing to risk his money. I think he put up 90% of the money and Paramount put up 10% and he got all the actors and the directors and the producers to all work for scale, because they liked the material and that made it possible to be made. I think he took on the risk himself, the studio put in so little they were guaranteed a break even position, and we were free of the studio constraints of having to scale it back, so to speak. So it really was a hybrid. It gets released by Paramount Classics, not Paramount because it’s still not right for them, but Paramount Classics. I don’t quite know the company that well but they are the division of Paramount that releases smaller pictures in a smaller way.
iW: So in working with the studios, you hear different stories of people having artistic conflicts and then others who were left alone. How do you feel like working on this film was different from say, working on “For Love Of The Game”?
Raimi: “For Love Of The Game” was an expensive movie. It probably cost $50 million or something. Or Costner took a pay cut, maybe it was $40 million or something, I don’t know. But it was very different because there was the movie star, a very talented actor, Kevin Costner, but also a movie star, and a great deal of money spent, and this was going to be put out through the big system. So the expectations were: it has to be palatable to be put out for families to see and for people to like over a more general audience than 1000 theaters or 100 theaters. And fortunately, I didn’t think that there were any limitations because that’s the movie that I felt the screenplay was. It was a sweet romantic potentially uplifting story of a man who comes to terms with himself over the course of one night. Or one life. Both. So the constraints that were put on me were non-existent, because my vision of the thing was probably the same as theirs. I think the problems come when a director wants to turn it into a darker picture or wants to make it less funny or wants to make it something that they don’t — that is a different vision than maybe the studio thought it was. In this case, I think we were on the same wavelength so I didn’t really have a problem.
iW: You surprised a lot of people by doing that movie. Why did you do it?
Raimi: I was simply moved by the screenplay. It was moving and simple and I love baseball. I love baseball and I thought it hadn’t really been put on film and I wanted to see it on the wide screen format. I thought that would be exciting for the audience, like being at a game. I get so excited by some baseball games I wanted to see if I could put some of that into the picture. And I simply liked it and wanted to try something different.
iW: I feel like with “The Gift,” you’re getting back to some of the elements of the Sam Raimi pictures that a lot of us grew up on.
Raimi: I never heard that one before, Wow.
iW: “Evil Dead” is a cult classic among many of my peers.
Raimi: Wow, thank you.
iW: You must know that.
Raimi: What’s shocking about what you’ve just said is it’s just funny how you’ve accepted it. You speak about it being accepted, but it was always an X-rated movie basically and it couldn’t even be released and then we had to, not make cuts, but not go with the ratings board. It’s un-rated still. It’s always been on the outside; it was only released in like 60 print run that went from city to city and then 120 prints and it’s never been that well known. So it’s funny when you say we grew up on it. When I was a kid I used to hear people talk about Howdy Doody like that.
iW: So there are certain elements in “The Gift” — I wouldn’t say it’s done in the exact same style — but there’s certainly a similar horror element in “The Gift.” Was that exciting for you to get back to that?
Raimi: No, that was not the excitement for me. For me on this one, although I agree with you, it is a return for me of suspense and the horror genre, but what was exciting was for me to have the ability to work with an actor with the talent of Cate Blanchett. And the others. And to work with what I thought was a very well written screenplay in the sense that Thornton and Epperson really have got what great writers have. They hear how people talk, they know people, they know a place, and then they’re able to write about it with a certain degree of authenticity. So I was excited to have a screenplay of that quality to work with and the actors to pull it off.
As for the horror, it was a different type of challenge, because in the “Evil Dead” movies I can go crazy. I can do anything I want. But in this movie I had to work in a particular framework where I didn’t violate the reality of the characters or the screenplay or the setting. Try and make the supernatural not as exciting and not particularly as frightening as I wanted. It was more about making it believable as a real thing that the audience could accept. So it was a strange constraint that was tough on me, because I had to use restraint. And I couldn’t hammer the audience. I couldn’t punish them in the way they deserved to be punished.
iW: What does that mean?
Raimi: Well, the audience likes a good degree of punishment and they deserve it. They deserve it, because of how they’ve treated me. I’m joking. No, a lot of people, it’s like alright you’re selling this as a horror movie? You better deliver. Give me the maximum kill, the maximum thrill, send me into overdrive. And unfortunately I was aware that there would be people out there thinking, “Oh, they’re advertising a horror movie? Okay, thrill me.” But there was a different framework that I was working in; it was more about making it believable.
iW: About that believability, it’ s more recent that people consider you as an actor’s director. This film and “A Simple Plan,” I didn’t see “For Love Of The Game,” but I know those two are really good examples of your work with actors. Do you think this is something that as you’ve grown as a director you’re paying more attention to?
Raimi: Yes it is. I got into the business just interested in the concept of the movie camera as a miracle. Just like the earliest filmmakers who had filmed trains, the French brothers who would film the first movies of reality and thrill people. That was what struck me originally, not their films but the same concept. My father would film 16mm movies of the kids and I was amazed that he could capture reality and then replay it. It was a technology that should never have existed in our world. It was like something stolen. Like when Prometheus stole fire?
I knew it was a miracle and I still do. And then the fact that he would then cut the reels out of order was even more outrageous because then he had not only captured reality, but he was messing with the time sequence that reality took place in. So those concepts were mind boggling to me and that’s why I had to get into film. So my first movies are about nothing important. I was interested in exploring that concept. What do shots mean when you cut them together in certain sequences? What effects do they have? What does the movement of the camera mean in conjunction with this ballet of images and sounds and movement and what affect does it have on the audience? So it was about filmmaking only, not about the acting or the writing of the screenplay. But as I started to look at my movies I realized what interested me as a student of film was one thing and the movies that I liked were another. Then I recently thought maybe I should start to make the type of movies that I like to see versus just experimenting with the medium of film. Because I started to think it may have been a selfish thing. I’m always reevaluating, that’s why I decided to make “Simple Plan,” “For Love Of The Game” and “The Gift.”
iW: In “The Gift,” as far as the filmmaking elements that you grew up on, you have if some very subtle special effects, but I think they’re very affective. I’m curious how much time you spent on that. I remember the skies are just fantastic. You have some great ominous skies.
Raimi: That was done through simple techniques of filtration and some optical effects shots, but mostly through the fantastic visual place that Savannah, GA is. It was more the choice of location that enabled us to get the sights on the film, Jamie Anderson‘s photography of them.
iW: How much time did you spend location scouting and spend time in Savannah?
Raimi: Most of the work was done by my production designer, Neal Spisak and he also is doing this new movie with me, “Spiderman,” and he did “For Love Of The Game” with me. He and his tiny team, because he had no money, basically I think two location scouts, spent a number of weeks down there and then I’d join them once he had done the hard work in narrowing down the locations to our finalists.
iW: Was there elements that changed in your head once you got down there, did things come to life in your head? How much do you plan before versus once you’ve found your location?
Raimi: We planned. Myself and my storyboard artist, in this case it was Jeff Lynch, planned as much as we could given the time allotted. We probably had 1/3 of the movie storyboarded. Then we would find the locations and we would look for the locations based on what we had planned. Then they would find something that had some of the elements but not all of them, so we then adapt our storyboards. And then sometimes we’ll find something that is just striking that we had not planned for and we’d try and embrace that and incorporate that into the picture. But that’s the wonderful thing about the process of movie making is that it’s an exploration and an adventure. You get to the set and you realize: “Oh, that’s why.” You get to the location and you think now I understand why Annie has a relationship with the woman next door, because every time she comes out their houses are so close together, they share a common yard. That makes sense, let’s go with that. Or if you come to a location and there’s a wall of trees between the two, you think that wouldn’t really work, there wouldn’t be a closure between then. That woman is helping with the children, helping around the house and Annie does things for her, maybe her laundry and things like that. They have this relationship, this symbiotic relationship. So the location demanded that we help create a setting where that relationship was more clear to the audience. You get there and you understand more things about the script or you understand why you can’t have things.