Tinseltown Sam

When he shuffles into the Four Seasons ballroom, his dark hair neatly parted and a nervous smile on his face, it takes several moments before anyone realizes the man half-heartedly waving his hand from his waist and, with a nasally, quiet voice, offering, "Hi, I'm Sam Raimi. Hi, I'm Sam Raimi," to his fans is actually, you know, Sam Raimi. The fans he's introducing himself to are actually journalists, but there's nobody in the room who didn't come here today to channel their inner-geek by chatting with none other than the director of the Spider-Man trilogy — the first two of which have become some of the highest-grossing box-office hits ever, and will soon be joined by his latest, Spider-Man 3.

"Hi, I'm Sam Raimi," the 48-year-old Royal Oak-born director repeats, making his way to the head of tables set up for him as he shakes hands and, it seems, struggles to not let the swell of attention overwhelm him.

Decked out in a black suit, crisp white dress shirt and black tie — a personal homage to legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, which he also wears on set — Raimi, who ironically eschews Hitchcock's haughty confidence in favor of a nebbish seriousness entirely devoid of pretension, takes a seat in front of a semi-circle of recording devices set out to capture his every word.

"Hi, I'm Sam Raimi," he says, again.

Raimi, who's married with five kids, has spent more than 25 years in Hollywood. His career launched with the success of The Evil Dead (1981), a cult classic he made with a gang of friends, including longtime producing partner Robert G. Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell — both of whom he grew up with in Franklin. A small hit at the time, Raimi struggled to follow up its success and only managed to score modest hits for the next two decades, including two sequels to Evil Dead (which proved hugely popular with horror fans), a couple of big-studio duds (remember The Quick and the Dead or For Love of the Game?), and a critical darling with the small crime thriller A Simple Plan. Of course, he and Tapert hit it big with their television shows Hercules and Xena, but B-grade television wasn't the same as having the clout to direct something like Batman Forever — which Raimi lost to Joel Schumacher in the '90s.

Another way to look at it is this: Today Sam Raimi is an A-list director and one of the biggest in the world, but he spent the years leading up to that as one of the most anonymous well-known directors in the business. It's no wonder then, that after all his recent successes, he seems so oblivious to his attendant celebrity status.

"I never had faith in myself at being successful [as a filmmaker]," he says. "Coming from Detroit, I never imagined it was possible to become a filmmaker making feature films. I thought I would just keep making movies until they pulled the camera from me and made me get a regular job."

Raimi's obsession with the moving picture began when he was a kid. Born in Royal Oak, he was raised in Franklin in a Jewish household alongside brothers Ivan and Ted; Ivan has since went on to co-write many of Raimi's projects, while Ted has appeared in almost every one of them. Their neighborhood's cinematic prowess wasn't limited to the Raimi household, though; as it turns out, a whole cast of future filmmakers was being raised in that suburb.

"After school, [I'd] meet with Bruce Campbell, Josh Becker, John Cameron, my old friend Bill Kirk, Scott Spiegel, sometimes my brother Ivan, my other friend Rob Tapert, and we'd get together to make pictures," Raimi begins, dropping a laundry list of names that have become known as the "Royal Oak Brat Pack."

The square-jawed Campbell, you'll note, went on to become a B-movie icon, courtesy of his role as zombie-slayer Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy; Becker is now a successful television director; Cameron produced Bad Santa and many of the Coen Brothers' movies; Kirk has a long résumé as an assistant director; Spiegel produced the Hostel movies; Ivan most recently co-wrote Spider-Man 3; and Tapert has been bound to Raimi's hip from the beginning. Such a confluence of talent is unheard of, but somehow making home videos with their Super 8 camera on the streets of Franklin paved the way.

"Usually back then — this was before videotape — we would record on audio cassette The Three Stooges from the TV, so we had a soundtrack," Raimi continues, grinning at these early memories. "For some reason, we would film ourselves in sync, acting out those shots. We did this for about 20 different pictures. I don't even know why. We just loved it so much.

"Then we started making original films, but only because we ran out of [audio cassettes]. So we didn't have a soundtrack, and everyone contributed. There was really no director. 'You run the camera. We'll do this gag. Can you get some pies from the store and we'll have a pie fight?' And then we would show them to the kids and, when they were good, they'd laugh."

But something happened then, and here maybe can be found the early markings of a director who knows how to deliver a commercially viable movie product. After discovering that there was actually an audience for what he and his friends were doing, Raimi says, "We really started focusing our desires on, 'Oh, let's make it with better pace. This one was too slow. Let's have a really big stunt, a big fall here.' The audiences would determine what we would make for the pictures and, because we wanted to make people laugh, they were all comedies."

Childhood collaborator Josh Becker remembers, "[Sam] may have been a year younger than us, but he demanded we call him the Master Cylinder." The Master Cylinder was Felix the Cat's archnemesis in the cartoon, and, more appropriately — seeing that the young filmmakers resided in the Motor City — the hydraulic device that controlled your cars' brakes. "Not that everyone paid attention to him or did what he said, but he liked to be called that," Becker adds, laughing.

The Three Stooges might have been one of Raimi's earliest loves, but his greatest inspiration came at home from a most unexpected source. "I loved making movies so much because of my father," the director says. "He'd make these home videos and show them to us, and I was so amazed that he could capture reality and play it back. I just thought that tool of his was incredible, this camera of his. I just felt it was something that shouldn't exist in my lifetime. I knew it was this miracle."

Raimi has two ways of answering questions about filmmaking. If he senses that what he says might be exploited by a journalist — say, something he discloses about casting or future projects — his words become calculated and fall from his lips slowly, with great precision. When you're directing pictures like Spider-Man, for which many fans would kill a loved one to hear spoilers about, you get good at this. The other way Raimi speaks about filmmaking is with unbridled, childlike enthusiasm. He does this whenever he's asked a question about why and what he loves about the movies as well as the years of his life before his name became synonymous with Spider-Man's.

Take for example how he recounts his first realization about what movies were capable of, discussing again his father's miraculous Super 8 camera. "And then he would show the rolls out of order, and that was even better because here were the kids coming to my birthday party, then they were leaving the party, then they were back at the party blowing out the candles on the cake," he says, his voice growing theatrical. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he changed the time stream.' It was incredible that that was all possible."

After graduating from Wylie E. Groves High School in Beverly Hills, Michigan, Raimi headed off to Michigan State University where life changed dramatically for him. His early fears that filmmaking could never be a viable career were about to ... well, not necessarily go away. But at least a hope that it could happen was about to enter the equation. He learned that even inspiration needs funding.

"In college, I was making a movie called The Happy Valley Kid about a student driven mad, and I rented a room to show it and I charged admission to make some of the money back from the movie," he explains. "I had spent $700 making the movie and, all of a sudden, there were like 60 people there, paying $1.50 to see the movie. Then there was a second showing and 120 more people showed up. That was like 180 times $1.50 and my partner and I thought, 'We have all this money. We can make another movie right away. We just need to have a few more shows.' Then it began to dawn on me that maybe we can do this as a way to finance things.

"So it was a banal financial decision that opened my eyes to that I could keep doing it," Raimi adds, smirking.

The Evil Dead would soon follow, which Becker explains like this: "There came a point where Sam decided that, you know, it was time to get professional, make a feature film, and it was going to be a horror movie — and that was kind of the end of our comedies." He's quick to point out, though, that "[Sam's] still retained that comedy aspect. You can see it pretty clearly in all his movies." Especially the gags, he notes, and cites the Spider-Man movies specifically.

Becker can still recall his reaction when Sony chairman Amy Pascal had decided on Raimi to direct the first big-screen adaptation of the Spider-Man comic book. "Sam, from the time he was very young, had Spider-Man posters, a Spider-Man stature — his bedroom was decorated in Spider-Man," he says. "He's always read Spider-Man. He's not kidding. He loves Spider-Man. So, when I heard he got Spider-Man, I was like, 'Well, finally they hired exactly the right guy for the job because he loves Spider-Man."

The first Spider-Man went on to gross nearly $807 million worldwide, which was due in large part to Raimi's ability to humanize Spider-Man's alter-ego Peter Parker and to make the outrageousness of a web-slinging super-hero seem utterly real. The online, anti-Raimi petitions that had arisen upon announcement of the director's involvement were suddenly inconsequential.

"Sam really put something into these movies to raise the bar for super-hero movies and comic-book movies, to make them legitimate," says actor James Franco, who has starred as Harry Osborn in the three Spider-Man films. "When I signed onto the first one, I loved Sam and I loved working with him, but I didn't know what kind of movie it would be. I knew it was going to be a big blockbuster, but I didn't realize the heart he would put into it — and the emphasis he would put on the characters and developing the characters and story."

Spider-Man 2 grossed $783.5 million worldwide, and received an outpouring of critical love that's rarely offered a comic-book movie. It seemed Raimi could do no wrong and Sony was willing to back him wherever he took Spider-Man next.

Topher Grace, star of That 70s Show and, more recently, super-villain Venom in Spider-Man 3, says, "I told Sam, when we first got together, that I thought there were only three franchises in history [besides this one] where the sequel was better than the first one: Aliens, Godfather II, and" – he smirks – "the New Testament."

Raimi took his time developing the story for Spider-Man 3, a year longer than he had with its predecessor. Peter Parker had grown up at the end of Spider-Man 2, so how should they continue?

"We approached the problem like this," Raimi begins. "Where is Peter Parker at the end of the second picture as a human being? He's a kid in these stories, they're coming-of-age stories. So my brother [Ivan, who co-wrote the screenplay], and I spoke for some time, and we felt that the most important thing Peter had to learn at this point in time is this whole concept of himself as the hero. He considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains he nabs. So we felt it would be great if he learned a less black-and-white view of life. That he's not just the hero and they're not just the villains. We're all human beings and he, himself, might have some sin in him. And those he calls criminals have humanity within them, and the best we can do in this world is to strive for forgiveness — not vengeance."

In doing this, Raimi was also trying to bring focus to something he'd realized about his protagonist — which resulted in Spider-Man landing in one of his iconic poses in front of a giant U.S. flag, a move that has caused much Internet debate. "I felt more than any other character, Spider-Man represents America," he says. "He's self-questioning, he makes mistakes, he's even hurt the ones he loves. And yet he wants to do what's best. He is powerful, and he strives to do good and risk everything for it. It's that self-questioning character who's been through this terrible darkness and is trying to find himself and trying to do the right thing, in my mind, that made it the right moment to put the American flag there."

Raimi isn't ready to speculate about Spider-Man 4, a movie that will happen with or without him according to the producers, but he does concede, "It would be very hard to say goodbye to Spidey."

When the director finally rises to depart, he lowers his head slightly and again shuffles through the hands reaching out to shake his. He smiles, he softly says, "Thanks," when compliments are given, and then he's gone. Behind him, he leaves a poster for Spider-Man 3 standing on an easel, his Hollywood triumph and, probably, his burden for some time to come.

"Mostly, I see myself as who I was for 20 years of making films professionally — and that is Mr. Low-Budget Schlockmeister Horror-Film Guy," he says. "Though, I have the occasional different picture, I always thought it was strange Amy Pascal hired me to do these films. I thought it was a bold and unusual choice. When it had that big franchise success, I thought, 'This too will pass.' I know how unusual [this level of success] is, and it won't be here for that long."

Cole Haddon is freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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