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Famed Filmmaker Sam Raimi Talks Blockbusters, Facing Fears, and the Art of the Unexpected

First known for his cult horror movie hit Evil Dead and later for his $2.5 billion-box office smash Spider-Man trilogy starring Toby McGuire, filmmaker Sam Raimi is the rare Hollywood figure that boasts a diverse, genre-spanning career imbued with artistic risk taking. Raimi spoke to a rapt audience in Harris Hall May 3 about the challenges and rewards of working in the industry.

“It is completely different making a $150,000 low-budget horror movie and a $200 million franchise movie, but the thing that is the same is that you’re telling a story,” Raimi told the crowd. “With a low budget film, you have to do everything. It’s like you’re one person playing an instrument. But when you’re in charge of a big budget project, then it’s more like conducting an orchestra. You’ve suddenly got a whole string section… and maybe they’re far, far better at playing than you are.”

Raimi has directed and produced scores of successful films and TV shows, including A Simple Plan, The Quick and The Dead, For the Love of the Game, and, most recently, Drag Me to Hell. He also produced hit television series, including Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. Raimi was invited to Northwestern as the 2016-17 Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Visiting Artist, as part of a generous gift by Wirtz’s grandson, W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz (C75), who studied communications at the School of Communication before he became president of the Wirtz Corporation and chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The talk, moderated by Department of Radio/Television/Film associate professor Spencer Parsons, covered such topics as how to deal with pressure from the studios to conform to expectations, finding your personal style as a director, and putting your vision on the screen.

Raimi found success with Evil Dead starring Bruce Campbell, which spawned two sequels and has now been rebooted for a series on Starz, Ash Versus the Evil Dead. Headmitted that it was his brother who convinced him that they should shoot a horror movie.

“I’d been shooting comedies on my Super 8. I didn’t like horror movies. They scared me,” he said, which drew a laugh from the crowd. He explained that his brother convinced him that horror movies were the only real way to get into the box office with a small budget, and Evil Dead was born.

Still, he brought his love of comedy into the genre, and spent some time with Parsons discussing the influence of the Three Stooges on his work, and how he often infused comedy into suspenseful scenes.

“What I found in working on a horror movie is that building suspense is the same as setting up a joke: you’re setting up a scene so that something unexpected happens and you want a primal reaction from your audience,” he said. “Whether that’s a laugh or a scare, it’s all about getting them to react to something they didn’t expect.”

Raimi talked about how he thought the Three Stooges were often overlooked for their comedic talent, and talked about how their creative use of sound brought the jokes home.

“They’re underrated as comedians,” he said. “I find their use of sound to just be brilliant… and in horror films, at least fifty percent of the experience is sound. When you’re dealing with the supernatural, and the unknown, with the things that live in dark spaces, you want to give the audience seeds to grow their own imaginations, and sound is the perfect way to do that.”

During the event, Parsons showed clips of Raimi’s work, including a scene from A Simple Plan starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. Raimi said he wanted to take a different approach to this film— and take himself out of it.

“I’d just done The Quick and The Dead, which was a very stylized movie, and style was not substance, so I wanted to get back to just telling a good story,” he said. “I was done with moving the camera around, and I wanted the direction to be invisible in this film.”

Eshan Surana, a sophomore RTVF major who wants to be a director someday, asked Raimi during the Q&A about how to fight self-doubt. Raimi suggested that he surround himself with friends who are also passionate about film. “There were three of us,” Raimi said, of the group who raised money for the first Evil Dead movie. “And when one of us wised up and said, ‘we’ll never get this movie made,’ the others said, ‘oh, sure we will!’”

Surana said he idolized Raimi.

“I grew up with the Spider-Man movies,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, Toby McGuire is the only Spider-Man. But seeing Sam Raimi today and hearing him talk about his career, it humanizes him and makes me think that in a few years, I could be doing that, too.” 

– Cara Lockwood