Sam Raimi: Along Came A Spidey
Hard to believe but fifteen years ago there was no such thing as a Spider-man movie. Now here we are and Spidey is on his second reboot. When the original Spider-man movie debuted in 2002, super hero movies were still relatively uncommon and director Sam Raimi was known primarily as the director of cult horror movies. Prior to the movie’s release, Raimi talked to Movieline about how he got the job, what controversial contributions James Cameron made to the movie and how the chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kristen Dunst may have spilled over into real life.
Sam Raimi is a whack job with a Steadicam. That’s how some might well have assessed the director-writer based on his now-classic horror film trilogy that began in 1983 with The Evil Dead, continued in 1987 with Evil Dead II and concluded (or so we think) with 1993’s Army of Darkness. Those movies deserved the international cult classic status they earned because they were vastly entertaining, wackily idiosyncratic and spectacularly well-acted by star Bruce Campbell. Hollywood suits recognized that Raimi was a comer, bursting with nerve, talent, ingenuity and manic energy. The big question was, would severed heads and the undead remain his niche market?
Raimi has since branched out in every way possible. He tried another variation on the quirky scare movie with 1990’s Darkman. He also acted in several movies, including the Coen brothers’ 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy, which he also cowrote. And, beginning in 1994, he became a TV producer with the series “M.A.N.T.I.S.,” “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “American Gothic.” Though both “Hercules” and its spin-off series, “Xena: Warrior Princess” were immensely popular, it still looked as though shock and splatter might be Raimi’s destiny. But then in 1995, he was presented with the plum assignment of directing no less than Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in the Western The Quick and the Dead. What should have been a kick tanked commercially. Still, studio heads saw potential in Raimi, which led to him being handed the reins on A Simple Plan. The project showed Raimi’s skills in working with strong actors and with creating an overwhelming sense of dread. Though his next, the Kevin Costner baseball drama For Love of the Game, didn’t do well, Raimi had gained such an excellent reputation as a capable director that he was handed the moody thriller The Gift. Next, he landed one of the most hotly sought directorial jobs in town–Spider-Man, the movie version of the Marvel Comics superhero classic.
STEPHEN REBELLO: Casting Spider-Man must have presented an interesting challenge to say the least, especially when there were so many-well-known actors, like Freddie Prinze Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio, mentioned for the role.
SAM RAIMI: It was an unusual situation because the audience is very aware of the character. They’ve been seeing pictures of Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and the Green Goblin for 30 years, and they want the actors to look like the characters in the comic books. It didn’t make sense to fly in the face of certain conventions.
Q: How did you go about casting Spider-Man?
A: Finding Tobey Maguire wasn’t hard. As soon as my wife told me to look at the video of The Cider House Rules, I was for him. I saw what a soulful performance he’d given, how real and solid he was in the picture. He had the perfect qualities to play Peter and I felt he was necessary to make a great picture. Tobey’s a wonderful actor, but he still is an unusual choice to play a superhero. The studio, the producers, the executives had enough faith in our choices as filmmakers to go with someone who was an unusual choice.
Q: Did Tobey Maguire require convincing?
A: No, he didn’t require any. I think he recognized it was a good role. We hit it off very well.
Q: How major a component was chemistry in casting Kirsten Dunst opposite Tobey?
A: The chemistry was all I was concerned about. I had a lot of great actresses who wanted this part. Once Tobey took the part, many actresses realized that he is one of the finest young actors working and to play across from him in a young love story–which is what we pushed the picture into being–was a great acting opportunity. That gave us the luxury of being able to cast only someone who had the proper chemistry with Tobey. We looked long and hard for that.
Q: So, Kirsten and Tobey had an extra spark together?
A: What we were looking for was a new kind of chemistry with Tobey and we found it in Kirsten. In retrospect, she’s an obvious choice to play Mary Jane because she’s so funny and sweet in Bring It On. But when I first met her I said, “You’re sweet and you’re kind of funny, but I don’t think you’re Mary Jane Watson.” Once I had Tobey, the criteria changed in terms of what we were casting for. But when we tested them together, I wanted to see more of them together.
Q: What were the particulars of the test?
A: We flew to Germany with a video camera to see Kirsten because she was filming a movie there at the time. Tobey was as sick as a dog with a terrible case of the flu but he came along because he knew how important it was to find the right actress. He said, “Please, we start shooting in two weeks. I’ve got a 102-degree fever, which is a lot for a man my age. Can’t you just show me the tape?” I don’t know if he really said that, I’m just kidding. But I said, “Tobey, I’ve got to see you with her. That’s the only way I’m going to know about the chemistry.” He bucked up and appeared at the airport that night, all wrapped up, looking like hell, and we flew in the middle of the night to Germany. Kirsten came directly from shooting to our hotel, where we set up the camera and some lights. When we screen-tested them, it was one of those few moments where you realize, “Oh, there is such a thing as chemistry.” It’s just like they say–capturing lightning in a bottle. It was exciting to watch.
Q: If we’re to believe what we hear, the attraction was not just for the cameras. What are the pluses and minuses of working with actors who have chemistry offscreen as well as on-screen?
A: You know what? To this day I can’t swear that they are seeing each other. They’ve never told me. I’ve read most of those press articles, seen the pictures of them together, but they still haven’t told me [they’re dating]. I never knew. A magazine asked me really early on, “What about Tobey and Kirsten seeing each other?” and I said, “Well, either they’re seeing each other or they’re very good actors because they seem like they’re in love with each other on film.” The reporter called me back and said, “Kirsten said that they’re really good actors.” So, I said, “Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t open my mouth because I don’t really know.” It’s a mystery I’ll probably go to the grave with.
Q: Were you a Spider-Man follower as a kid?
A: I was always a big fan of Spider-Man. I was an avid comic book reader as a child. I had a special connection with Peter Parker. He was an outsider to the other kids, an introvert, unpopular, and some of the kids considered him a geek. I could relate to all that. I’m sure that most of the kids in America could relate to that. As teenagers, we all feel alienated, even if we’re part of the popular cliques.
Q: Peter Parker is even more than an outsider, though. He’s got a mystery about him, a destiny that readers hook into.
A: Oh, yeah. He had a secret and that was that he could rise up and do the right thing. The secret was that even though other people think you’re a geek, you’re capable of something special and extraordinary. In a very real way that’s what I could connect with. In fact, the identification was absolutely complete. It gave me hope, it was wish-fulfillment. And, besides, Spider-Man had great girl-watching.
Q: And lots of romance, too.
A: I’d think, “Even though Peter is a geek, he’s having more interaction with females than I am. And they think he’s cute. Oh, how great!” It was very exciting to see him embroiled in high school romances.
Q: Was the competition stiff among the people who wanted to direct Spider-Man?
A: I was very aware that there were many directors in front of me, directors who were much more logical choices to do a big budget A-movie, really. But from the moment my agent Josh Donen asked me, “Would you be interested in doing Spidey?” I said, “Boy, would I.” I just loved the character and story so much, it was a bummer that everybody wanted to do it. Josh then called me and said, “Now there are only five people they’re considering,” which was great because I was still one of them. The day before I went in to meet with the studio, the producers and the representatives of Marvel, I read a Variety article that said Columbia Pictures had narrowed it down to four hot directors. It was awful. I felt I didn’t stand a very good chance of convincing them that I was the right one for the job. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of hope, just tremendous desire.
Q: Apparently the meeting went well.
A: It was about an hour and a half long and I thought it had gone well, yes. About a day later, I read another article in Variety that said Sony had it down to three directors and I wasn’t listed. I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. It’s such a difficult project, I wouldn’t really have known how to make the movie anyway. I almost pity the poor guy who gets it.”
Q: How did you feel when you got the call that you won the job?
A: I thought, “I’m screwed. I have no idea how to make Spider-Man.” But I put on my best directors voice and said, “Well, when do we begin?” It was a process of sheer panic figuring out how to do it all.
Q: For years James Cameron was interested in directing Spider-Man and he had already done extensive work on a script. Did you read any of what he’d done?
A: I knew that James Cameron had written what we call a “scriptment”–a treatment, approximately 80 pages long. David Koepp, whom Columbia had hired, had read it and based his first draft screenplay upon that. Even to this day–although the film has gone through an incredible amount of drafts and iterations–elements of the Cameron scriptment are to be found in it.
Q: The fan base for Spider-Man is enormous and apparently a number of them knew plenty of details of Cameron’s scriptment.
A: I became aware of that through thousands upon thousands of people on the Internet who made their points of view known. They didn’t actually write to me, though one group wrote a letter to the studio petitioning John Calley to not allow me to make a particular story choice in the screenplay. They wrote that fans would rise up against the picture. It began as an original idea of James Cameron’s. In the comic book, Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and later he builds these web-shooters and develops this fluid that shoots out of them, hardens and becomes his web. That was fine in 1964 but Cameron changed it to a genetically altered spider, a super-spider, and Parker has been bitten by it, takes on some of the DNA and mutates. Besides becoming part spider, he shoots a web out of a new gland that forms in his body. I thought it was a great change and I kept it in the screenplay.
Q: Is there anything a director can possibly listen to, watch, read or absorb to prepare to direct something as huge as Spider-Man?
A: Gee, should I have prepared? [Laughs] I feel terrible now. I didn’t do much preparation. I did a lot of preproduction planning with a great team of artists.
Q: We’ve had our superhero movies over the years, for better or worse–the Superman films, the Batman movies, The Phantom, X-Men. How inspiring did you find them?
A: It was daunting because Richard Donner’s Superman is such a blast–big, uplifting, funny, exciting. Some people didn’t like Batman but I did. It was stylish and cool. I love Danny Elfman’s music and Tim Burton’s directing. Your readers may be thinking, “What’s he talking about? This or that movie is terrible.” Look, I wouldn’t make a good critic because I love most movies I see. I almost always have a great time. The movie I’m in love with now is A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There’s some negative backlash toward it, but that’s my favorite superhero picture. That kid, played by Haley Joel Osment, is my favorite superhero.
Q: Fantasy movies often rise or fall by how well or badly their “worlds” are realized. How did you envision Spider-Man looking and sounding?
A: That was very difficult. [Spider-Man production designer] Neil Spisak, myself and Don Burgess, my director of photography, worked on that quite a bit with our costume designer James Acheson. For me, the most important part of the Spider-Man story was that something extraordinary happened to an ordinary person. We felt the movie couldn’t take place in a comic book world. But at the same time, we knew that if we photographed Spider-Man against a straight, unfiltered Manhattan buildingscape, that backdrop would vomit him out. It would not hold him in the same frame. We had to find something that would be perceived as real by the audience but was tweaked just enough so that it could hold characters like Spidey and the Green Goblin.
Q: What did you come up with?
A: Neil did things like densely populating city blocks with the coolest of real buildings that could possibly be in Manhattan. In real life, you might find one every two or three blocks but, in this city, they’re of a greater concentration. It’s like Manhattan squared.
Q: What aspects of making Spider-Man most kicked your butt?
A: What was really hard was the incredible amount of planning that had to go into almost every shot. They either had a stunt element, a CGI element or a wire-rig element. Plus, it was somewhat of a complex love story.
Q: How was the studio toward you? Did you feel your shoulder was being looked over? A: I thought they were going to be all over me. I’ve never had more freedom. It turned out to be the opposite of what I thought it would be. They didn’t interfere. Not that we didn’t have our disagreements; we did. But they were very helpful.
Q: Danny Elfman, who scored the movie, told me months ago that certain changes were going to be made in Spider-Man because of 9/11. What happened?
A: Columbia made a trailer with criminals robbing a bank who escape in a helicopter and suddenly, they’re ensnared in midair and find themselves in a giant web that’s spun between the Trade Towers. I don’t think anyone knew how to react, but out of respect for the victims and families of that disaster, they pulled the trailer. Likewise, Columbia pulled a teaser poster in which the Twin Towers were reflected in Spider-Man’s eyes.
Q: What about in the movie itself? Isn’t there a scene or sequence that features the Towers?
A: I’ve read that there is a featured scene of the Twin Towers in the picture, but there isn’t. The scene in the trailer was shot just for the trailer by another director, a commercials director, although they did use footage of Spider-Man swinging that is from our movie. In our movie, the Twin Towers are seen in the background of some scenes. Probably people won’t see them but we had decided–and I thank, again, out of respect for the victims–not to take them out. The consensus now is to not pretend they never existed.
Q: What do you think of the movie?
A: It feels fun. I hope it will be fun for the audience. It’s a fine comic book story.
Q: There are people in the movie business who claim that you’re one or two movies away from joining the inner circle of big boy directors. What do you want?
A: I’ve never heard that. I’m thrilled to be working in the movie business, which is such a great collection of nutballs, artists and fakers. I love educating people. I’d love the opportunity to continue to practice the craft. That’s all I’m after.
Stephen Rebello interviewed Eric Bana for the Feb./Mar. issue of Movieline.