Sam Raimi: Man behind the mask

Spider-Man 2's director, Sam Raimi, is Hollywood's golden boy. It's strange to step out of the shadows, he tells James Mottram
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The Independent Culture

If you ever find yourself stuck at a party with Sam Raimi but no bottle opener, you should be aware of his party trick. He can uncap a beer bottle with his eye socket: ghoulish, but perhaps fitting for a director who made his name with the low-budget Evil Dead trilogy. "One day I'll do it for you," he promises when we meet in a London hotel. "I will perform that stunt."

Of late, it would be more appropriate if Raimi used his ocular skill to pop open the champagne. Spider-Man 2, his sequel to his 2002 film version of the web-spinning superhero, has swung past box-office records with alarming ease.

It took $40.5m on its first day in America, and passed the $250m mark in 12 days, the fastest ever. Typically, Raimi felt unable to kick back and soak up the success. "I was worried that the studio would be so disappointed if it didn't make certain numbers," he says. "I guess that was just me not knowing anything - a common state for me." As he did two years ago, when Spider-Man exceeded the hopes of its backers Sony Pictures by raking in $800m worldwide, Raimi looked at the figures with "a sort of strange fascination and detachment, as an outsider" - which, until recently, is what he was.

Evil Dead was unleashed on the world in 1981. Raimi, now 44, followed it with eight films, not one of them a hit. Box-office tallies used to make him "depressed and miserable", to the point that when he shot the disappointing Kevin Costner baseball movie For Love of the Game in 1999, (which took his previous best of just $35m), he resolved to change his thinking: "I thought, 'I better define my success in a different way than Hollywood defines theirs.'"

He had no choice. Even those of his films that drew raves - notably A Simple Plan (1998), his Fargo-esque tale of two brothers who find a stash of cash - fired box-office blanks. "I determined I would only define my success by a combination of seeing what the audience felt about the movie, my own opinion and, finally, the summation of what the professional critical world thought of the picture - and not by box office."

Wearing a charcoal suit, white shirt and navy-blue striped tie, he looks like he's here for a job, rather than a newspaper, interview. His pale round face has an on-time five-o'clock shadow, and his hair is geeky-neat with a dash of grey at the temples.

He looks remarkably alert, considering he's been up till 3am working on a storyline for Spider-Man 3, set for May 2007. But if he seems nondescript, within beats the heart of a sensitive artist. Talking himself into believing that Spider-Man or its sequel wouldn't strike it big came naturally. "It's how I survive. I get so depressed when people don't like a movie I've made that I have to come up with some other new rationale to move on to the next step."

No need to worry: the US critics salivated over the sequel. "The best comic-book movie ever," gushed the Los Angeles Daily News. "Better than the original," said AO Scott in The New York Times. "All you can ask for in a summer film," said Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.

What's impressive about the film is that it's a blockbuster that devotes more time to character than to action. While the film is packed with jaw-dropping set pieces as Spider-Man takes on the multi-tentacled Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Raimi and his screenwriters have nurtured numerous seeds planted in the original, so the subplots are more about young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) than his alter ego Spider-Man.

Set two years on, the film plays with notions of identity and deception. Parker still hasn't revealed to his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) that he is partly responsible for his uncle's death; neither has he told his friend Harry (James Franco) that it was he, as Spider-Man, who killed his father Norman's other half, the Green Goblin. He can't bring himself to tell love-of-his-life Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who's now dating a spunky-looking astronaut, how he truly feels.

Initially, Raimi wasn't sure any of this would work. Having a set release date didn't help: "That's terrifying," he says, "because the screenplay has to be done in a finite time, but no story is ever finished being written. It's hard to put artificial deadlines on when it's over. But it must end because of these deadlines. So" - a wry pause - "it's a little bit of a limitation."

Did all this get to him? He rolls his eyes. "Oh yeah. There would be moments like the production designer coming up to me and saying, 'Sam, we have to design the set now. What is it you need exactly?' I realised that in each of these situations I only had rudimentary storyboards, and often I needed to take the script in a different direction for that scene - so it was very hard to answer those questions. I just had to guess."

But he's pleased with the result. "Most sequels are bigger and more spectacular and louder and more thrilling. I really wanted to make this more intimate. I wanted to make the audience identify with what the characters felt in a way more common in an independent film, rather than big-grossing films. [Without knowing it] they let me make this little independent love story inside this bigger machine of an action picture."

With an impressive array of writers - including Alvin Sargent, who won an Oscar for Ordinary People, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon and Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar - Raimi interweaves literary and psychological metaphors with web-like symmetry. Mary Jane stars in a production of Oscar Wilde's play of dual identities, The Importance of Being Earnest. She, too, undergoes transformation on a nightly basis. Likewise, Parker's sexual orientation is touched upon, as at one point in the film he loses his ability to shoot his web-spinning fluid. How often are Hollywood heroes unable to get it up?

A father of three, Raimi has been married for 11 years to Gillian Greene, the daughter of Bonanza's Lorne. No surprise, then, that he toned down the violence because he wanted it to be "a family experience". It's a move that impacts upon Molina's Doc Ock; less complex than Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, he's also less scary. "I didn't think that part of the experience was making the parents feel uncomfortable about the level of violence," Raimi says. "I wanted them to enjoy it fully, and not be concerned their children were watching something they shouldn't. Not in this picture. The horror movies I make have a very different goal - they're trying to shock and outrage and terrify the audience."

Raimi, the fourth of five children and raised in Michigan, has always made film-making a family affair. His older brother Ivan wrote Army of Darkness (1993), the third Evil Dead instalment, and Darkman (1990), Raimi's previous stab as the superhero/villain genre. His younger brother Ted has had parts in many of Raimi's films, including the latest.

Led by their father, who ran a furniture store, and mother, who owned a lingerie shop, the family became very close after Raimi's elder brother Sander drowned in a swimming pool at the age of 15. Raimi has said of that trauma: "It colours everything you do for the rest of your life." Undeniably, the fragility of existence is a theme that dominates his oeuvre.

His father gave Raimi his first Super 8 camera when he was 13. "My parents supported me and let me bring all the kids into the house and stage bank robberies to film," he recalls. "But there was a schism when I said that's what I wanted to do professionally. Then they thought I had lost my mind, and they weren't going to support me on that. That was healthy for me, too, as I had to support myself as a bus boy, a waiter and a 16mm film projectionist, and raise all the money myself - and it gave me a great sense of individual power."

Dropping out of Michigan State University after 18 months, Raimi and a couple of friends set about making Evil Dead, primarily to turn out something cheap for the drive-in market. It was the archetypal five-in-a-cabin horror narrative, enlivened by the visceral camerawork that would become Raimi's trademark. He followed it with the disastrous Crimewave, a romp penned by his old friends Joel and Ethan Coen, that set his stall out for a while as a director of few dimensions.

It's only recently - with A Simple Plan, the psychological mystery The Gift and now the Spider-Man films - that Raimi has got into character, so to speak. Merging his interest in style with a new-found love of substance, he's operating on a level that wins him critical, cult and commercial kudos. When he says: "I'm more enamoured of movies now than ever before," it's hard not to believe him.

Having set up Ghost House Pictures (he's producing a remake of the Japanese horror film The Grudge, with Sarah Michelle Gellar), Raimi wants to keep his hand in his favoured genre. With Sony set to distribute, he's their brown-eyed boy right now, and he knows it. "Hollywood allows people who have made successful financial pictures to have one or two shots at doing anything they want. But that time will pass quickly. It's probably a three-year window where I'm allowed to do that before I'm back on the street."

Ever the pessimist, Raimi is "absolutely" convinced this will happen. Is he frightened, like Spider-Man, of losing his power? The question brings him up short, but then he says: "I've gone so long without power - I just never expected to have it at my age - that I realise it is a transitory thing. It's not really mine, in as much as I am the beneficiary of it from the Spider-Man franchise. And, yet, I don't want to lose the power. It really offers me something."