The family name was originally Dutch, Rajanveritz, but Sam Raimi was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1959 and raised in Detroit. He's the middle of three boys. Older brother Ivan is a doctor and sometime screenwriter; younger brother Ted is an actor (he has a regular role on the Steven Spielberg TV series seaQuest DSV); both have worked with Sam. The budding filmmaker got his first camera as a child, a gift from his father, and began making little films with his friends. "I had the same influences as everyone, really," he says. "I had friends and I played baseball and watched The Three Stooges... My parents were middle-class people who happened to be exceptionally supportive of what I wanted to do, even if I wanted to do something crazy, like make movies. My dad did tell me, 'If you want to make movies, go to college first so you can bring something to them.' So what did I wind up making? Evil Dead movies."
Raimi knows the power of self-effacing mythmaking, cannily telling the story of the grade-school aptitude test that suggested he should become a handyman, then leaving the reader to conclude that his trouble shooting gifts made it possible for him to do the all-but-impossible: write, produce, and direct a low-budget film with no professional players that cut it in the same market as mega-budget studio pictures. Hailed by Stephen King ¹ as "The Best Horror Movie of the 1980's," The Evil Dead was a genuine phenomenon, a first picture of dazzling audacity that drew the media like a magnet to the wunderkind behind it, the filmmaker who was too young to get a drink in his home state.
Raimi's first movies were Three Stooges-inspired comedies, knockabout farces echoed in 1985's extremely unsuccessful Crimewave and, one suspects, in the unproduced We Saps Three, written with Joel and Ethan Coen. But Raimi realized that for his first real film, it was a better idea to go with the genre that always sells: horror.
Raimi went to Birmington Groves High School with Bruce Campbell, a handsome and personable would-be actor. At Michigan State University, he met the slightly older Robert Tapert, an acquaintance of brother Ivan's and Sam's fellow student in Shakespeare class. The three banded together and formed the grandly named Renaissance Pictures, with little more than enthusiasm and youthful ignorance among it's assets, and planned a twenty-minute featurette called Into the Woods [note], a distilled version of what would eventually become The Evil Dead. Raimi would direct, Campbell would star, and all three would beg and wheedle for money. Raimi and buddy Scott Spiegel wrote Evil Dead when the budding director was a freshman, raised money when he was a sophomore, and shot the film when he should have been a junior.
Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell dropped out of school and worked as waiters and taxi drivers to earn money for Into the Woods, then used it as a fundraising tool, showing it to potential investors-doctors, dentists, and real estate guys, mostly -- as proof that they could make a feature-length film, even though none of them ever had.
The final Evil Dead budget is reported to have been in the area of some $500,000 -- chump change -- and the film quickly became more than a movie. It was a phenomenon, a high-voltage campfire story about kids and demons in an isolated cabin and an against-all-odds triumph over low-budget adversity, put together with an exuberance and panache that eludes many more experienced filmmakers. Raimi became an overnight success story in search of a second act, his destiny strangely intertwined with the joint careers of the Coen brothers, collectively known as "the boys," with whom he once shared a house in Silver Lake.
When the Coen's postmodern noir pastiche Blood Simple was released in 1984, the most substantial credit in director Joel's bio was that of editor of The Evil Dead. Both Joel and Ethan collaborated with Raimi on the screenplay of what was to become his first post-Dead feature, Crimewave. Even in retrospect it sounds like a great idea: the meeting of noir style and knockabout sensibilities, divided between Raimi and the Coens however one sees fit. But Crimewave was a disaster, aesthetically and financially. Raimi later sneered, "Slimewave; I wouldn't use it as filler in a porno movie," and until 1990's Darkman, it looked as though Raimi was a one-hit wonder ... all the more ironic because the Coens were going from strength to strength. The offbeat comedy Raising Arizona (1987) was a hit; the brooding Miller's Crossing (1990) proved the whiz kids had heart (despite carping that the plot was modeled rather closely on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, the novel from which the phrase "blood simple" was taken); and though Hollywood horror tale Barton Fink (1991) was more admired than liked, it was admired at some length. The Coen brothers' latest film, a big-business comedy called The Hudsucker Proxy, was co-written by Raimi. With only five films to their credit, the Coens have been praised as visionaries, held up as an example of dedicated filmmakers bucking commercial trends, and profiled in the New York Times Magazine, a surefire sign of bourgeois acceptance.
Raimi by contrast, is still typed as a horror-movie director. Clever, perhaps, but hardly worthy of serious consideration, and he hasn't yet made the picture that proves everyone wrong. His two Evil Dead follow-ups, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness, are slickly directed but inconsequential; his pulp gloss on Phantom of the Opera, Darkman, was a hit without breaking any new ground. Still in his early thirties, Raimi is on the cusp of his career; he's got a more powerful pop sensibility than the Coens, whose meticulously crafted films are bigger hits with critics than audiences, but so far he hasn't managed to channel it commercially. Raimi has dubbed himself "hack of all trades," and in addition to writing and directing, he has worked as executive producer--in 1993, he helped bring Hong Kong action sensation John Woo to mainstream American audiences with Hard Target--and actor, in roles ranging from in-joke cameos to fairly substantial parts. He's a natural; Oscar-nominee Frances MacDormand (who costarred in Darkman) has praised his abilities.
Raimi himself is polite, almost deferential. It was startling enough when he was a kid promoting Evil Dead, barely out of his teens. But ten years later, he's just as well-mannered, still on his best behavior when he could easily afford not to be. He says "holy cow" and "beat the heck" and "gee whiz" without irony; he doesn't swear. He's sweet but not sappy; he has an endearing, self-deprecating edge. He doesn't talk about babes and regrets the rape-by-tree in Evil Dead; he says he wouldn't do it if he had it to do over, and he's never done anything like it since. When he says he's grateful for the good things that have happened to him, he sounds as though he means it.
This interview includes material from several interviews, the most recent conducted while Raimi was working on The Hudsucker Proxy.
| The Evil Dead has become the
stuff of overnight success legend, but it wasn't hugely remunerative. Why?
That's such a nice way of saying it: "not hugely remunerative." I never really made the Evil Dead pictures for money, which I suppose is a good thing. The first one grossed maybe $1.2 million domestically at the box office; in all the United States, the most prints of Evil Dead that were ever out at one time was about 120 ². The second one grossed somewhere around $2.2 million, and Army of Darkness, the sequel to two low-grossing pictures, wasn't a blockbuster, either. I guess the answer is that they don't have that big an audience; they're small films with a small and twisted group of people that likes them. It surprised me that Universal wanted to release Army of Darkness, I thought is was going to be another independent picture. And it was a real thrill making the movie there. I mean, they're monster central, and there's a certain feeling you get walking down the hallowed streets of Universal studios, big stages towering to your left and right, thinking, They made classics here; I'd better rise to the occasion. I'd better do the best work I can possibly do and then some so I don't degrade these hallowed halls.I'm sure many people think Evil Dead 2 was your next film, because Crimewave, which you wrote with the Coen brothers, sank without a trace.
That was so awful, it's hard for me to talk about it. The studio overpowered it, and I was a kid, twenty-two years old, and didn't understand what was happening. They bullied me out of the script I wanted; they bullied my actor out of the lead; they bullied my musician off the picture and put on a "funny" score; they got rid of my editor and cut it themselves; they controlled the mix ... The whole things was just awful. I should have walked away from it; I wasn't smart enough to take my name off it; I wasn't a member of the union so I didn't know what my rights were. I just had such a bad experience that I've got nothing good to say about it.Were you under a lot of pressure because Evil Dead had been a surprise hit--at least critically, and in terms of personal exposure for you--and you had to follow it up?
I wasn't thinking about it in those terms. I was under a lot of financial pressure, and I was under a lot of pressure when they forced Bruce [Campbell] out of the lead and I had to direct an actor I didn't know in all this comedy that I didn't think was going to walk. I felt as though they were crushing one finger at a time, then my toes, and then asking me to perform the big tap-dance sequence.You wrote Crimewave with the Coen brothers. How did you get to know them?
I first worked with Joel Coen on the editing of The Evil Dead. Rob and I drove my car from Michigan to New York, with all our film in the back. We were a little nervous; if you come from Michigan and you drive into New York for the fist time, the feeling is unbelievable. Its visceral ... the buildings that well up around you; it's overwhelming. We pulled up to the editing studio, and this weird guy tapped on the window, long-greasy-haired guy that I thought was going to rip us off or something. I didn't want to roll the window down, but he wouldn't go away... Finally, he said he was the editing-room assistant and he was there to get the film. And that was Joel. Joel and Ethan, who at that time was a statistical accountant at Macy's, and Rob and I all became good friends. We'd go out to dinner and movies and write--we were writing other things, even besides Crimewave, back then--and hang out. We were just kids...and we've been writing together ever since.Evil Dead was produced truly independently; with Evil Dead 2 you worked with Dino De Laurentiis, who's something of an exploitation legend. How did that happen?
I wrote the screenplay for Evil Dead 2 with Scott Spiegel, and we took it to the Embassy overseas division to see if they wanted it. They said they did, but Embassy was in the process of going out of business, so it went to Embassy Home Entertainment, the video portion of the company, and they agreed to provide the financing. But they were in the middle of sorting out their business with Coca-Cola, so they kind of strung us along for about five moths, during which time Mr. De Laurentiis called. He said, "Sam ... Sam ... I want you make a picher for me." ³ I said, "You want me to make a pitcher for you? Like you pour water in? I think a glassblower might be better at that." "I said, I want you make a picher for me!" "Oh...a picture for you. Fine, fine, what picture should I make?" Anyway, he recommended that I make a picture that he had a script for, but I told him that I couldn't because I was in negotiation to make Evil Dead 2 with Embassy. So he told me to call him when I was done.
Five months passed and he called me again. "Sam... you done with that picher yet?" "Uh, no... we're still waiting for the financing." "What! You come my office, I give you the money tomorrow!" "Wow... you bet I'll be there!" I went to his office, told him the story, let him read the script, and the next day he said, "Okay, you've got the money." I thought, hey... maybe this is the way you're supposed to do it after all. You show someone the script, they like it, and they give you the money. Then I called up Embassy Home Entertainment and said we were done waiting and I was giving the picture to Dino, who was going to give me the money tomorrow. "But we were going to give you the money tomorrow!" Yeah... tomorrow. Sure you were fellas. You were playing around with me for months... It was awful. They wouldn't return my calls or anything, and then when Dino go the picture, they got really mad at me because on the very same day they were going to give me the money for the movie. Anyway, I guess subliminally I pimped them, but my responsibility was to the investors of Evil Dead, who still hadn't made any of their money back.
You have to remember, we owed these people all this money. We got them to invest in Evil Dead by guaranteeing them they'd make money on the deal. I was saying things like, "Oh, yeah, sure; we'll double your money." Well, we made the picture, but because of the way the distribution deal worked out, we didn't make a lot of money. I shouldn't have made those promises, but I did, and they trusted me. So three years later, when I still hadn't even broken even, I figured the thing to do was write a sequel, put a big rights fee into the package for whoever made it, and that way we could break the investors even and make them a small profit.
Darkman was a departure from The Evil Dead in several respects--bigger, more character-oriented, less gross. Was it a conscious attempt to break away from the zombie stereotype?
It was a tremendous change. For the first time, actors would come to me and say, "Sam, I don't think this is the way my character would react to this," or "Sam, I think I'd be much more afraid at this moment." In the Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Crimewave the look and the style were the important things. The characters were just pawns being moved from square to square. Special effects are usually a priority for me, but in Darkman they took a back-seat to the story and character development. I wanted these characters to be believable people in a fantastic situation. Why do audiences love Star Trek? It's not for the aliens or the spaceships or the time travel; they love the characters, and that's what I wanted them to love about Darkman.
Not only was the story different from anything I'd done before, but it was also the biggest budget and biggest crew I'd ever had to work with. I had to delegate things I was used to doing myself... camera, lighting, set building; all those things had to be done by people who were hired to do them. It was a whole different world. I'd think, "Now do I want to put the camera over here, or over there? Okay, I can put it over there with a 25 mm lens... or I could put it on a dolly, yeah, that would be better, and then I could move it toward the actor with a 35 mm lens..." Then I'd think, "Just thinking that cost $250, and it went up to $600 when I changed my mind." And then I'd think about how thinking about how much it cost was costing another $125. It was a great way to go crazy. I was used to being the captain of a ship, but on Darkman I felt like I was the general of a whole fleet, and frankly, I was terrified.
 King's pretty promiscuous with quotes but was less so back in 1982 and was, in any event pretty much on the money about Evil Dead
 Though this isn't bad for an independent film, it's minuscule compared to the number of prints that go out for a mainstream release, anywhere from one thousand to fifteen hundred.
 Raimi is an excellent mimic, and his rendering of the way De Laurentiis speaks, a virtual parody of an Italian accent, is keenly accurate.