ROOTIN’, TOOTIN’ RAIMI: AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM RAIMI

Sam Raimi (Upon the release of The Quick and the Dead)
[ I have all these boring questions, Sam. ] ^ Well, lay ‘em on me baby. I’ll give you more boring answers.
[ Would you see this as your most mercenary film, in that you were primarily a hired gun – no pun intended – as opposed to being one of the originators? ] ^ Well, I had never directed a film I hadn’t written before, but I only wrote movies before because back in Detroit, you don’t get a lot of good scripts coing to Joe Blow Nobody – so we wrote our own. I knew the material very well and directed them. But I got a call from Sharon Stone and basically she wanted me to direct this script starring her. So what man can say no to Sharon Stone? So I read the script and thought it was great – which rarely happens because most of the stuff I read isn’t really for me. Not my style. But this one was really well written and Simon Moore, the screen writer, had really taken it in a different direction. People have been making Westerns recently, but he wanted to make a modern Spaghetti Western as opposed to a modern John Ford-style film. And I thought that was an incredibly cool concept. So we started looking for a really good costar for Sharon and we found Gene Hackman – who I have always loved. So I thought it would become a really dynamic movie.
[ Were you worried about directing someone else’s script? ] ^ Well, people do it all the time, but it was a frightening experience for me. I had to sit in a room with Simon for three weeks, talking it over, so I could really, fully understand why he every single description and line of dialog in there. Because the director has to know the script as well as the one who wrote it. That’s what was so frightening. How could I direct someone else’s vision? But then I realized that if I knew it as well as Simon did, I could maybe do it – and maybe bring some other things to it. I respect writers and directing someone else’s script made me respect them even more. It’s like, ‘God, this guy was done 90% of the work here’ and he deserves 90% of the credit. So when you direct someone else’s script you deserve only a small part of the credit. Not much at all.
[ As soon as they said, “Sam, let’s do a Western!” you must have had a million ideas come to mind, right? ] ^ You bet, baby! That was the first thing that happened – all those cool images with the camera sitting behind the gun in someone’s hand in super close-up and the other gunfighter in the distance. The image of a giant hat filling the widescreen frame. The great vistas with the rider in the background and a big boot stepping into the frame.
[ Which sounds immediately like something out of a Sergio Leone picture – and later from Clint Eastwood. ] ^ That’s right!
[ But most people who use that style these days do it for the sake of parody. What there some fine line there for you, especially since the film has so much humor? ] ^ I was mainly trying to use it as entertainment for the audience. This is a fun, entertaining Western for a 90s crowd. So in jacking it up, doing things that have been done before only differently, there’s always the case that they might laugh at you if you go even a little over the top. You want them laughing, but with it. It has to be cool.
[ When we first heard about the film going into production and who was going to be in it, we were like, “What’s Sam going to do?!” Because this was the first time you have worked with big-time Hollywood actors. ] ^ That’s right. Liam Neeson is a big-shot now, but not when we did Darkman. But this was a good time to try it. I’m getting old – I’m 35 now – and I just had to wonder why I was running away from this Hollywood stuff. I guess I must be afraid of it, working with top quality actors – although I regard Bruce Campbell as a top quality actor, it’s different because he’s an old friend of mine. So it was time to see what it would be like to make a big Hollywood movie. It had always been a dream of mine, but I’d never done it. So this came at a perfect time. I liked the script and Sharon was a great movie star asking me to direct it – so I thought it was a cool thing.
[ Are there advantages to working with the big names? ] ^ Well, this was my only experience, but I had Sharon, Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lance Henrikson – all great actors. So I’m not the wise sage, but with my limited knowledge, I’d say that when they get on screen, they really light it up. They’re stars for a reason – they all have some quality that makes them interesting to watch even when they’re doing nothing. So it really helps. When you have someone as dynamic as Sharon Stone as opposed to Marsha Peabody – whoever that may be – my job is a lot easier.
[ When Night of the Living Dead was released, there was a lot of speculation regarding the casting of a black actor in the lead – that it was a political statement as opposed to his just being the right man for the job. Do you think critics will be looking for deep-seeded messages for having a female lead in this particular picture? ] ^ I don’t think they will be looking for political messages because it’s so clearly an entertainment picture. I remember seeing Night of the Living Dead, and all I could think about was being scared shitless. But it was cool that an African American could be the lead, he could be the hero. But will young girls look up to Sharon’s character? I hope that they do for some qualities that she has – she’s fair, righteous, not afraid to cry and also does hard things to vanquish evil – but I hope they don’t get too wrapped up in the message of vengeance or revenge. That would be a bad thing to really promote.
[ Gene Hackman is really electrifying in several scenes, were you intimidated to work with him in any way? ] ^ Gene is so strict. He reminds me of this elementary school principal teacher I had, Mr. Little. I had to meet Gene’s approval really for him to accept the role. He was shooting Geranimo at the time, so I went to the set and met him in his trailer. He asked me what my take was on certain scenes. He said, ‘Sam, tell me about the picture.’ And then I talked for about fifteen minutes with him neither agreeing or disagreeing with me. Then he says, ‘Well, tell me about my character, Herod. Does he love the kid (his son, played by DiCaprio) or not.?’ So I told him, of course he does, that’s why he’s so mean to him all the time. And Gene just nodded, going ‘Uhummmmmm.’ So now I’m guessing, but he was just making sure there wasn’t some insurmountable difference between what he saw and what I did. So he must have agreed with some of the things I wanted to do, because he did accept the part.
[ Did you have to go through that audition process with Sharon Stone? ] ^ Yeah, but it was a lot less intimidating because she had asked me to direct the picture, so I knew she liked something about me – I had been invited. Besides, she’s more my own age.
[ The violence in the film is pretty intense at certain points and there were a number of shots that I recognized as being similar to ones that had to be cut from Natural Born Killers so they could get an R-rating. Particularly a shot where the camera is looking though a hole that’s been blown through one gunfighter’s head. How did you get away with that? ] ^ We were very careful to make the violence slightly surrealistic, so the ratings board wouldn’t just cut it out. The MPAA doesn’t like me because I have made two X-rated films (Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2) that were released without their little tags on them. So they are very strict with me, to the point that they gave a silly film like Army of Darkness and R-rating – which doesn’t make much sense. But I was very careful to make sure that particular shot was a dry image – without a lot of blood, gore or brain matter. Instead, you just have the sound of the wind blowing through this head.
[ The credits don’t really include a lot of the people you’ve worked with over the years. So how was it different to make a film without your pals? ] ^ Well, I miss a lot of the people I was working with before, but this was not really a Renaissance (Raimi’s company) production. It was a big studio production, so I missed working with Bruce Campbell – who was shooting Brisco County, Jr. – because I would have cast him as one of the gunfighters. He is in one shot – during the wedding scene – but he’s really small. He’s a grain of silver nitrate. So I didn’t get to bring the family with me. I tried to bring in my cinematographer, but it wasn’t working for Sharon – and she was a producer on the picture, so I had to work with that. There were so many groups involved. Sony wanted their own line producer to make sure I wasn’t ripping them off, so I couldn’t work with my regular person. It was a trade off, but I hope to work with my friends again.
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Posted on July 15, 1995 in Interviews by
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