Stone-cold destiny

Jan 27, 1999 at 12:00 am

"I tried to be invisible," Sam Raimi says about directing his latest film, the elegant, minimalist thriller, A Simple Plan. From another filmmaker, this statement might not seem so unusual, but from Raimi, it’s a radical shift in perspective.

When the Detroit-born filmmaker unleashed the low-budget — but highly influential — gorefest Evil Dead (1983), he established a trademark hyperkinetic style that embraced the horror genre while tweaking it with cheeky humor. Through the increasingly baroque sequels, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), the serial-killer spoof Crimewave (1985), and even his Hollywood outings — the gothic, comic book-inspired Darkman (1990) and revisionist spaghetti western The Quick and the Dead (1994) — the real star was always Raimi’s swirling, swooping, mad-dash, wildly inventive camerawork.

"The movies I make are usually screaming to entertain loudly with great insecurity, the camera racing around as much as possible," Raimi says via telephone from the New York set of his next film, For Love of the Game.

"But I had so much confidence in the script (of A Simple Plan)," he continues, "that I felt the only choice for me was to put the camera not in the most exciting or dramatic places, but in the proper place, and really allow the actors to tell the story."

The result is a chilling look at a group of good, decent people — solid, small-town Midwesterners — who are eaten alive by greed and duplicity. Two brothers (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton) find their settled lives turned slowly upside down when they uncover $4.4 million aboard a downed plane in the woods outside their snowbound hometown. As they plot to keep the money, they take baby steps toward a moral abyss.

"I was trying to put on as grand a show as possible," Raimi says of his earlier films, "make the audience laugh with what the camera does, try to make them gasp if I could. But I felt it would detract from Scott Smith’s script and from the performances (in A Simple Plan) if the camera were doing that.

"Also, I was really trying to say this is real," he continues, "and so I couldn’t make the audience aware of the artifice of the movie, and with camera movement, sometimes you do. I wanted them to lose themselves, not to stand back and say, ‘That’s a cool shot.’ I wanted to pull them into it and say, ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do now?’"

The 39-year-old Raimi has traveled a long road from the Super 8 films he made with friends while at Michigan State, but feels, in a way, that he’s found his way back to that work.

"We started to make some movies that had real characters and had touching moments," he explains, "and to explore real human behavior, but we halted that study and progression when it came time to break into the business and make a horror movie that would play at the drive-in. But now that I’ve matured, I’m interested in re-exploring that."

Not that Sam Raimi is ashamed of his filmography. A special edition release of Evil Dead recently climbed the video charts and Raimi’s work is being re-evaluated by a critical establishment that is taking the horror genre more seriously.

"When I started out in the horror industry," he says, "these films were held in very low regard. But I do think that there’s a great craftsmanship that goes into making a good horror film, and some of them are actually works of art, and I’ve come to respect that."

Even though A Simple Plan has afforded Raimi the opportunity to make a film outside the usual genre boundaries, he was hired only after a number of other directors passed — and Paxton and Thornton were already cast. Raimi was hoping to shoot in Michigan, where Scott Smith’s original novel is set, but preproduction had already taken place in Minnesota — home state of his friends and previous collaborators, the Coen brothers — and "it was too costly at that time to switch," he explains.

In making A Simple Plan, he took his cues not just from Smith’s script, but from the novel as well, and aimed to make the type of film that leaves just enough unsaid.

"I think just like everybody else," Raimi says. "I imagine things in pictures. When I read a book, I have a picture of it in my head, what the farm looks like, what the snow looks like, the face of the character as described by the writer. A good movie is like that: It allows the audience to supply some elements."