Sam Raimi
Photo by Hussein Katz

Sam Raimi: “It’s done in earnestness”

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Short Profile

Name: Samuel M. Raimi
DOB: 23 October 1959
Place of birth: Royal Oak, Michigan, United States
Occupation: Film director, film producer

Sam Raimi's new film, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is in theaters now.

Mr. Raimi, how would you describe the signatures of your style as a filmmaker?

As a filmmaker, you have a way of seeing things that is inherent in any telling of a story. You read a book, and images form in your mind, and as a director, you explain those images to the crew members. That's what directing is, that's what they mean when they say explaining your vision. So for me, it's really not about any conscious desire to imprint a style. It's simply: here's how I see it. This is my understanding of the material. This is what affected me, here's when I cried, we need to make sure that this moment is real, we need to make sure that your your heart is broken like I felt when I read the script. It's about communicating exactly what you feel. And that's the art of directing.

So your films are recognizably yours because they are your vision of the story.

Well, I think like any filmmaker, when I really listen to myself and I'm open to my true feelings and I don't compromise, I don't try and satisfy this person or that, I don't act out of fear that someone else won't like it or that someone else will look down upon it… When I really listen to myself, that's when I think that people might recognize my voice.

“I think the strongest thing any filmmaker can do is just be honest with themselves.”

Is that also when films work best for you as a viewer? When you can tell another filmmaker is being true to his or her voice?

Yes, I can feel it. That's when it's working. You know, I think the problem is, for storytellers, when they assume the audience wants something different than themselves. They're usually looking down upon the audience, they're usually saying to themselves, “They won't understand this, so I'll put it like this.” That disrespect is felt to the audience! I think the strongest thing any filmmaker can do is just be honest with themselves, and know that if you find something’s funny, you're connected to the human race, others will too. Not everyone! And sometimes you'll be off! But if it moves you emotionally, there's something human and true in that. And if you can just communicate that the way you felt it, you'll be doing your job.

Many of your films — the Spider-Man franchise, the Evil Dead series — are known for their deeply loyal fanbases, though. You don’t ever feel pressure to not disappoint them?

I’ve felt that pressure, sure. I don't want to let the fans down for any of my films. With something like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, my concern was making sure these great characters that have had a long history of entertaining the audience in their movies, that the fans who had been following those characters would be satisfied. The concern was not about imprinting my style or control over it, it was about recognizing where the character had been, and making sure our story and performance and direction was taking the next logical step that would satisfy and intrigue the fans. I wanted the audience to feel like they were on a continuing story. That really was my only concern.

It must be a lot to live up to, joining a film franchise when you didn’t direct the first films in the series.

It's a very different set of challenges. When I was making the Spider-Man films it was about: what will the tone be? What would the look of the film be? How can I present it to the audience? The city of New York that we presented had slightly more fantastical elements, but not so much that they were fantasy. And in that way, it held this character of Spider-Man, it didn't vomit him out, it accepted him because the city was almost as outrageous as he was. It was about finding that balance of making a superhero real and acceptable. In Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Maadness, that’s already been established, the world of Marvel has been created, the character has already been played by Benedict Cumberbatch. This is more about finding the nuance within the character, discovering within the multiverse different refractions of who he is as a human being. It was more about a detailed exploration versus a whole creation from scratch.

Apparently, you love to make sequels for exactly this reason: you can really go for it with the audience because they already know what to expect.

For me, sequels have been economical necessities. I made a movie called The Evil Dead, my first low budget horror movie, and I quit college to make it, and that did okay. And then I made a bomb that nobody would release! So the only movie I could possibly make was the sequel to the one that had a little success; so Evil Dead II kind of saved my life. It was the only movie I could make. And then in the case of Spider-Man, I set it up when we were working on the script with our writers to make sure that it had a continuation, so that the next director could pick up story threads. I didn't know I'd be directing it, but I'd set it up for a director with unresolved conflicts. I realized that I really liked the team and the crew, and I wanted to tell that story myself. So it's for different reasons that I make sequels, but it’s worked out very well for me.

“I think superhero films have earned the respect of the audience. That’s what changed in these past 15 years in the business.”

It’s now been nearly 15 years since you made Spider-Man. What’s changed in the superhero genre since then?

The thing I've noticed the most is the audience reaction to the superheroes. When I started making the Spider-Man movies in the early 2000s, they were met with a little bit more disdain, they were looked down upon much more.

Really? The Spider-Man films weren’t exactly flops.

Sure, but they weren't necessarily hits either. I couldn't find a cinematographer that wanted to shoot a movie about a spider-man, I think they thought it would be silly or it would be mocked like a lot of the later Batman movies were mocked. It was just the time period when people didn't understand the great potential that all Stan Lee’s pantheon of characters had. Now they’re not looked up as artworks, but they're appreciated for the serious pulp material that they are. I think these kinds of films have earned the respect of the audience because filmmakers and writers and actors have really taken the characters seriously. They understand them, they don't mock them. It’s done in earnestness. And I think it's earned the respect and appreciation of the fans. That’s what changed in these past 15 years in the business.

Is that kind of character exploration what keeps bringing you back to directing over other roles like producing or even acting?

Directing is the most exciting art form of the 20th century. It combines elements of photography, lighting and composition and subject matter, with stage acting, performance exploration of the human soul, and writing, which is a great art all unto itself. All this combined into one! And then this fantastic thing called editing, which none of the other art forms really have. The combination of all these forms of art togethe makes it an endlessly exciting exploration for any director. So the question is not why or how could you find it so interesting — but how can anyone not!