Retrospective Interview: Sam Raimi on swinging from Evil Dead to Spider-Man

Spider-man (2002)Sam Raimi was the perfect choice to bring SPIDER-MAN to the big screen. His early EVIL DEAD  films displayed a love of vertiginous camera work and over-the-top antics that seem eminently suitable for a comic book adaptation about a superhero swinging around buildings on a web. His later dramatic work (A SIMPLE PLAN, THE GIFT) proved him willing to turn off the visual pyrotechnics and focus on characterization and story when necessary—which came in handy when dealing with Peter Parker’s uncertainty and angst about the responsibilities brought on by his new powers. And perhaps most tellingly, Raimi had previously created one pseudo-comic book superhero in DARKMAN, a film that fused elements from action and horror films (particularly, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM) to create an original character who was part vengeful monster and part righteous avenger.

Until the blockbuster success of the Spider-Manfranchise, Raimi had remained mostly a cult figure, loved by his fans but overlooked by critics. Spider-Man put him on the mainstream map. The multi-million-dollar Sony production starred Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules) as Peter Parker, who is transformed by the bite of a genetically-altered spider (replacing the radioactive spider of the comic book) into the titular superhero. Kirsten Dunst co-starred as Parker’s love interest Mary Jane Watson, and Willem Dafoe was his nemesis The Green Goblin. Also on board were Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, with J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, Peter’s boss at the Daily Bugle. Danny Elfman (of course) supplied the music, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) supervised the visual effects. The final screenplay was credited to David Koepp (Jurassic Park), but featured uncredited contributions from several other writers, including James Cameron.

Raimi is a unpretentious and self-effacing filmmaker, and he wants fans to know that he is himself “a giant comic books fan,” even if his current workload prevents him from keeping up with all the titles being published. “I did most of my reading in the ‘70s and early ‘80s and only occasionally do I pick up comic book now. I’ve been reading the Spider-Mans and some of the Batmans. But my workload is so intense that I don’t have time to chew gum and sit on the bed and flip through the comics like I used to.”

Likewise, Raimi didn’t have time to check up on all the previous comics-to-film adaptations, in spite of his best intentions. “That was my plan,” he says. “I thought to myself early in pre-production ‘I’m going to watch every superhero picture ever made, and I’ll try to understand why they work and why they don’t work.’ But suddenly I was overwhelmed with this outrageously gigantic job of making Spider-Manand pre-production with all its departments and responsibilities, and as far as I got was the first half of Superman I. And I never got to see the rest. I saw X-Men then. So I can’t say it’s based on those pictures or that I had time to learn from them. I remembered how much I loved the first half of Superman I and X-Men was a blast, but I never got around to [any other films].”

The first Superman film sold itself with the tagline: “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.” Raimi faced a similar challenge with his web-slinger: not only using special effects to create shots of incredible action, but also using the actors and dialogue to create a sense of believability that allowed audiences to hook into the picture on an emotional level. “They did a great job with Superman,” says Raimi, citing director Richard Donner in particular. “I love that picture. It’s really emotional and uplifting and bright and wonderful, and you did believe that a man could fly in that film. They were successful. They were great effects…. We’re faced with the great challenge of making Spider-Man believable. The kids really want to soar with Spider-Man 60 stories up. They want to dance with him in this aerial acrobatics that he performs. And those illusions are…accomplished a lot of different ways. I don’t want to reveal too much because I don’t want to spoil for the kids and have them start picking them apart as tricks. I want them to be swept up into the thing. But suffice to say that Tobey [Maguire]’s performing a lot of the [action] himself with backgrounds put in and John Dykstra helping him with some CGI.”

Unlike most of Raimi’s previous output, Spider-Man has a PG-13 rating. “The movie’s really made for the whole family,” he explains. “[In] Stan Lee’s original conception, the great strength of Spider-Man was the fact that he’s a real person, unlike Superman from the planet Krypton or other fantastic heroes. He’s a kid from Brooklyn; he doesn’t have a lot of money; he doesn’t get the girls, he’s got acne. He’s a fairly average looking kid. He’s really a kid that we identify with. And this kid is vested with these powers, or perhaps cursed with this powers. But the important thing is he’s one of us. So it really broadened that base of people who could appreciate comic books. I think it completely changed the demographic at that point, because suddenly he was a real character with a love relationship, and sometimes two, and family problems. It wasn’t just about beating the [bad] guy. It was about a real human being. So I think that the picture [will] appeal to an intelligent audience, so that adults can really enjoy it, but at it’s heart it will have a lot of fun and excitement and adventure that the kids will also enjoy.”

Spider-Man (2002)Despite the superficial similarity to Darkman, Raimi insists that Spider-man has “its own style.” He adds that, “because the guys and girls who read Spider-Man comic books are so into the outrageous movement that Spider-Man generates as he swings through these tremendous arcs at like 90 miles an hour through the city of New York, it demands a much more visceral camera style than we presented with Darkman, who was a more sedentary type of fellow, so it didn’t demand the same amount of exciting movement that Spider-Man demands. So I think it’s a lot more visceral in its feeling, but not so much that the audience says, ‘Oh, that’s a cool shot.’ Because I don’t want to pull them out of the movie. I’ve got these great actors here to pull the audience into the film.”

During production of Darkman, Raimi voiced similar sentiments about not wanting to make the audience aware of “cool shots,” yet that film emerged with a fair share of delirious camera trickery. Still, the director made good on his pledge with later films in which the camera concentrated on recording the actors performances. Spider-Man is a good marriage of both techniques, now that Raimi has learned a few lessons about working with actors.

“I guess I’m learning that I don’t know anything about actors…and don’t want to know,” he laughs. “I’m joking, of course. Every picture that I make, I learn a lot from the actors. Those horror movies that I made when I got started - called Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 - they were about the exploration of what film was, and presenting the world of the supernatural was a great medium for that because you had to present something that doesn’t exist in our world. But at some point in my life, I thought I should start making the types of pictures that I’d like to see, because the films that I saw were not horror films…

“So I started to look for better material, and that attracted a finer caliber of actor, and I learned and I’m still learning how to work with actors and what they bring to a film,” Raimi continues. “And the more I learn the more astonished I am at the wonders they create. It’s all really about them; everything else is just a device, and really great stories are about human beings and their interaction and things they understand. There’s nothing wrong with a great visual. In fact, I love it. This picture is a great chance to combine both. It’s a great chance to make it visually exciting and interesting and still work with a great caliber of actor and a really fine script and a great character. It’s really a film director’s dream to make a picture like Spider-Man.”

This article was originally copyright 2002 Steve Biodrowski; it has been slightly rewritten to bring it up to date.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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