Sam Raimi. Claridges. Warm Saturday afternoon in London. Days don’t get much better for me than that. In fact, you could take out the last two. But, this being Den Of Geek, we do it properly (plus the Travelodge was booked up). And while others in the interview holding room are beaming at the thought of meeting James Franco and Zach Braff (a good double act, apparently), it’s all about Raimi for me.
When I meet him in he’s dressed in a crumpled suit that looks like its bearing the weight of a thousand press junkets. Which may not be too far from the truth. Oz The Great and Powerful, a prequel-of-sorts to The Wizard of Oz, sees Raimi embark on his own journey to a strange land. After the post-Spider-man sojourn of Drag Me To Hell, this is Raimi stepping back into a world of blockbusters and gargantuan budgets.
And there are times in our fifteen minutes when the perils of walking in that land become all too clear. Even a filmmaker who’s earned nearly three billion dollars at the box office doesn’t have it easy, it seems. You can sense Raimi the great and powerful filmmaker having to give way to Raimi the studio player.
But even Raimi in blockbuster form is a dazzling experience. Oz has all the hallmarks of his inspired early films, including, most importantly, Bruce Campbell getting knocked around.
Likewise, interviewing Sam Raimi leaves you just as giddy. He punctuates his slow, considered responses with bursts of rapid fire delivery, an excitement that’s so infectious I don’t mind his answer to one question eating into about a third of our time. Fifteen minutes goes in a flash, leaving me just enough time to get to the bottom of those Evil Dead 4 rumours, find out what his middle initial M. doesn’t stand for, and hear a great Houdini anecdote.
Most important question first – was that you hitting Bruce Campbell with a stick?
Ummm … that time it wasn’t me. Because, for some reason, I couldn’t get to that position. Which is really a bummer. That actually was my actor, but usually it’s me.
How much do you get to be hands-on in a film of this size, then? You seem like a director who likes to do as much as you can on set.
I really do. And this is a very big production. So I was hands-on when it was specific to the actors. But the only way to really make a picture of this size is to delegate a lot of authority to department heads, to artists, team leaders, and make them own the picture themselves.
So my job becomes most importantly to have a vision and to communicate it to everyone. That’s really it, the best way I can put it. Versus grabbing the thing and actually making it with my own two hands.
It’s interesting you say that because there’s a great making-of on the Darkman VHS …
Really? I didn’t even know that. On the DVD?
No, the video cassette. I’m going back a while here. And in that you talk about the trade-off that comes with a bigger budget – you get professionals who are better at doing certain things than you, but who do things differently than you would so you lose a bit of control. Are you better at dealing with that trade-off now?
I’ve learned how to work in that way now, yes. And it’s a skill of communication. And it’s about listening and making sure they understand what it is that you’re asking them. And it’s about having a clear vision to begin with, so there’s something to communicate.
Was it a conscious decision of yours to go big, then? Drag Me To Hell felt like you wanting to do a smaller film again. Did you want to delve into a bigger film again after that? You were circling World Of Warcraft for a while, is that right?
That’s right; I was working on World Of Warcraft. I was going to make it but it didn’t work out because the script took longer than the producers wanted and while we were waiting I made the Oz picture. And they said, ‘Well, if you’re going to make that picture we’re not going to wait for you’. So I said, ‘Okay’. I said, ‘Hmmm, be that way!’ [laughs]
And they’ve got Duncan Jones on that now.
Yeah, he’s great. I mean, I’ve never met the guy, but I loved his picture … it was awesome, with Sam Rockwell, the one on the moon. I forget the name of it …
Oh, Moon! Yeah, so I’m sure he’s going to do an excellent job on it. I forgot what you asked me [smiles] …
Ummm … the trade off, of you losing that control versus doing everything yourself …
Right, almost everything. But I never could have made it without the help of Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell and a great crew. I don’t want to claim credit when it’s not due. But, yes, it’s much more hands on and much more invigorating and exciting. But this is … oh I know what you asked! Was I just set on making a big picture? No.
I loved World Of Warcraft the game, so I wanted to make that. But this is something else I loved and happened to be big. And I don’t think of them as trying to make a bigger or a smaller picture. I go for what excites me. The game I loved, the characters were great, the landscape’s exciting and incredible. The dynamics of those forces battling … anyways, that movie, they kicked me. [laughs]
But this one … I loved the story, the sweetness of it. I like making a movie for kids, which I’d never done before. And I remember being a kid and seeing The Wizard Of Oz and having a wonderful feeling about it.
And when I read the screenplay it had a spirit of love in it. And I thought, if I can bring that to the feature film version of it, although it will have its detractors, many of them, I think it will be a worthwhile experience. I think it will really give something to the audience. And I thought there’s going to be a lot of people who this doesn’t work for, because they can be cynical. You’ve got to be really open hearted, I think, to get into a picture like this. But if they can find the child within them, which I don’t doubt a lot of them can’t, I think they will enjoy it.
There is that sweetness, but there’s a great balance in the film, a nice mischievous line running through it. It reminded me of the Ifilms, especially Army Of Darkness, where you’ve got a caddish lead character who’s a bit of an a-hole sometimes. Was that in the script, or did you bring a lot of that?
I may have brought some of it. But I wanted a character who would surprise the audience a little bit, you know? It would be most interesting if we didn’t have another innocent, I didn’t want another innocent. I love the story of innocence in Oz, that’s what The Wizard Of Oz is, the movie. And I loved Alice, and that had a similar theme, and I really felt we had to go another way.
So yes, we pushed it a little bit, James and I. We made him a little caddish, a womaniser, a heel, a cheat, someone who doesn’t appreciate his friend, and we thought if we can find this guy’s heart, this will be a really interesting journey.
And we tried to make the audience aware, him always aware, secretly of a heart deep within him. So the audience just begrudgingly went along with him, so they didn’t reject him flat out right away, but said, ‘Come on, can’t you do the right thing, you idiot?’.
So there was at least that, you have to see a little bit of his goodness somewhere hiding in there to do that. And you never know if you find that balance or not. But it wouldn’t be exciting for me if we didn’t try and find the edge.
It does feels like you’ve got that ‘something new’ in here – it’s a children’s movie – but it also feels … can I say Raimi-esque in front of you?
I don’t even know what that means! Like dumb? [smiles]
Like it’s a little bit subversive, you’re going against the commercial nature of it a little bit. But in all your films your camera’s been this incredible ‘go-anywhere’ camera. Was 3D a challenge for you? This was the first 3D film where I actually shouted at things coming at me, like the water fairy …
Oh, that’s great!
I imagine that’s what it felt like watching those early 50s and 60s film, the early 3D.
Oh, yeah, well actually that’s interesting that you mention it because that is what we were going for and no-one’s ever put it that way. And my editor Bob Murawski specifically talks about it, reminding our stereographer and our visual effects supervisor … ‘Guys, we’re not going for something subtle here! We’re making a 3D movie. And we’re going to do it right like they did in the 50s and 60s.’
But there’s so much backlash against us doing that, Bob and I. Bob and I are of a similar mind. There’s so many people on production saying, ‘Oh no, it’s so crude, please don’t be so obvious like that with the 3D. Please let the depth play like in Avatar. Please, we handle it subtlely nowadays.’
And Bob and I are like, ‘You guys are out of your minds! We’re not going to do anything subtlely. This is a gimmick!’ And it’s a gimmick to be used, it’s a tool. The audience paid for the 3D, and I hate when I go see a 3D movie and I go ‘Why was that in 3D?’ You know, what was that about?
So we’re going to give it to them guys, and it’s going to be ugly. So all their good taste … they cringe, because it’s not considered good taste. But the truth is, for me 3D is a tool, like a zoom lens is a tool. It can be abused, like in the 60s … but I thought that was cool in the 60s what they did with zooms … or it can be used as another tool in your arsenal, like a very particular type of lens. It’s a storytelling device, a gimmick as Bob says.
And if a lion jumps out of the woods in the story, and the character’s surprised, it’s wrong to have it take place behind the screen. What, for good taste? No, it’s an exciting moment, I’m supposed to be scared, I should feel like the wizard, ‘The thing is coming at me!’.
So it’s going to jump out the screen, of course. That’s good taste. Good taste is giving the audience what they want. Sorry I’m getting so excited but I really had to fight with these guys. [laughs]
And same with a dialogue scene. Now, if a dialogue scene is supposed to draw me into the picture … yes, it’ll take place, dimensionally, right back on the screen, or slightly behind, so we won’t be assaulted but drawn into the conversation.
But there’s no right and wrong for me. And I didn’t take one approach and just have the 3D be recessive or just gaudy. I tried to treat it like the tool that it is and enhance each moment in what I felt was the appropriate fashion.
You’re talking about wanting to go that way and the struggles you faced. When you were making those early films it seemed like you had huge struggles then. Are they different struggles now, then? Because people will see you making billions of dollars at the box office with the Spider-Man trilogy. Is it still a fight?
Yes. There’s always a struggle to fight against what is the convention or common wisdom. Which is how it’s been done before. So that struggle takes place everywhere … with the studio, to my own visual effects supervisor, saying …
I have a shot where the Wicked Witch … I think this got cut out of the movie, but she beckons Theodora to come, she’s going to put an end to her pain, she’s actually going to transform her into the Wicked Witch of the West so she wouldn’t feel her love, her heartbreak any more, a coldness will come over her. But I really wanted her to invite her and the audience in at that moment, in a big 3D shot.
And so on the set I wanted to have more convergence, but the safe way of doing it is what my visual effects supervisor was arguing. ‘No, no, it’ll be like a thorn in our side in post-production. We want to have the ability to change it’. I forget all the reasons, but primarily he didn’t want it over-the-top, I think. And I do. I want that moment where she reaches into the audience. Without it I ended up cutting out the shot, because he said, ‘Sam, the effect won’t work’. And I don’t know if that was true or not. I think it was a taste thing with him. But I said, ‘Okay, I guess I don’t know your world of post-production, I don’t want to give you elements that you can’t manipulate to make me happy at the end of the day’.
[SLIGHT SPOILER ENDS]
But, you know, when I don’t really push for the non-conventional I end up killing a little piece of the movie each and every time. So now I have that shot and it’s very manipulatable but it’s not what I wanted.
So I’m constantly fighting against convention and being safe, and I think the audience really always wants to take a new step forward and experience something in a new way. And the themes can be the same old themes that have always carried our myths and stories. There can be a broken hero who doesn’t see the truth and through the aid of his friends and loved one he grows into something greater than himself. That can be the same. Just who that guy is precisely shouldn’t be, and how it’s done and how it’s presented … at least give me a new twist on it. To make it seem fresh.
So I fight against convention a lot. And when I don’t listen to my instincts I lose those fights.
And looking ahead to your future projects, I was scanning IMDB, which is always correct and 100% accurate …
You’re not attached to anything at the moment as director. Are there things out there you’re looking to do? Or are you just really good at ducking IMDB?
No, I’m not good at ducking IMDB. They’ve added a name to me, they’ve called me Samuel Marshall Raimi, and I never knew I had a middle name. I have a middle initial, ‘M’. My mother gave it to me and she said I could choose what it was and I’m still deciding. [smiles]
But it’s so funny that they came up with the name Marshall, some writer …
Could you go on there and change it yourself?
I don’t know, I’m not sure how that works. But now I’ve read other articles and they call me Samuel Marshall Raimi, and I’m like ‘Oh, shit!’ [laughs]
But no, I don’t have any other feature films in the works right now.
Okay, very quick last question. Everyone’s going to ask you about Evil Dead 4 so I won’t do that here …
Those kids at the Apple convention kind of made me say that. I was at the Apple Store, and I didn’t really mean to say that, but they kind of pushed me.
[affects over-enthusiastic voice] ‘Come on Sam, you gotta do it!’. ‘Yeah, okay I guess I’m going to do it’ [laughs]
Can I ask quickly about The Shadow then? I love Darkman, and that seemed a response to your not being able to do The Shadow. Is that still something you’d like to do?
I’d love to. One day I’d love to. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance but the character’s so dynamic. Maxwell Grant I think was the creator and I read a few of his books, or I guess they’d be pulp magazines, but I read the reprinted books. And he’s such a great writer, it’s such a great character. You know, he knew Houdini.
I read a story once that Maxwell Grant and Houdini … and The Shadow has a lot of the qualities of Houdini – a great escape artist, master of illusion. Anyways, they were apparently going to a Broadway show, Houdini and Maxwell Grant. And Houdini’s door didn’t work. And he couldn’t get out of the car. And he turned to Maxwell Grant and says ‘If you ever tell anyone about this I’ll kill you!’. [laughs]
Samuel M Raimi, thank you very much.
Oz The Great and Powerful is released in cinemas on Friday 8th March.
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