Sam Raimi Interview, Drag Me To Hell

Posted by: Michael

With Drag Me To Hell, Sam Raimi marks a long-awaited return to his bone-chilling roots. In his latest outing, the horror maestro and acclaimed filmmaker spins the unnerving tale of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a young woman whose idyllic world becomes a living hell when she’s placed under a merciless curse. No stranger to the genre, Raimi first sprung to prominence in 1981 with The Evil Dead and has since established himself as one of the most prominent directors working today with the Spider-Man film series (earning nearly $2.5 billion in worldwide box-office).

WATCHING DRAG ME TO HELL, IT FEELS LIKE YOU’RE A KID IN THE CANDY STORE -THAT YOU’RE DOING HERE WHAT YOU REALLY LOVE TO DO.

That’s true. I loved making this picture. We were surrounded by people that I knew and felt comfortable with. And for those we didn’t know, we seemed to be really lucky with the people who came onboard.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO RETURN TO THE HORROR GENRE?

Freedom. That was one of the main reasons. On this picture I could have complete creative control and final cut, which I actually had for the first time since my first film, The Evil Dead. I could just do what I believed in. I didn’t have to negotiate creatively with anyone. So it was refreshing in that way. I also liked working under a smaller budget for a change. Although I had done that for twenty years, for the last seven or eight years I’d been working with the luxury of Spider-Man type budgets, big studio productions. This was much more hands-on. No department heads to deal with - just the actors, and the technicians. And it’s much more rewarding I think.

HOW DID DRAG ME TO HELL COME ABOUT?

That was just by chance. My brother, Ivan, and I had written this short story in 1989. Then just a few years ago, in 2002, we adapted it into a screenplay.  I have a horror movie company called Ghost House Pictures, so I thought, why not make it into a full-fledged screenplay for the new company? We wrote it in mind with me to produce and for another director to come in and shoot it. Unfortunately that meant cutting the script so it could be made on a smaller budget. And as I started cutting, I realized that’s not why I was in it. I wasn’t there just to make a movie. I wanted to make this movie.

IS DRAG ME TO HELL BASED ON A LEGENDARY CURSE OR URBAN LEGEND?

The story is an absolute fabrication. The only aspect that we even considered doing any research for was who would be the demon that Alison Lohman’s character calls forth: The old woman. We did the most minor amount of research and discovered there are different demons that exist in many different cultures under the name of ‘Lamia’. In one culture, it’s this baby-eating God. In another, it’s a snake. In another, it’s a very sexy, but evil woman. And we thought, how interesting that they all have the same name, yet they’re all different. Maybe they’re just telling different stories about the same thing? Maybe we can tell our own story about that demon and call it The Lamia? What we really have at the core here is a timeless story concept that was used in this film, along with many others:  the idea of a character that commits a sin of greed and has to pay the terrible price for it. It’s a morality tale that many churches have told, throughout the ages. So it’s a tried and true, old horror story in the book, basically.

AND YET, VERY DISTINCTIVE, ESPECIALLY COMPARED WITH THE CURRENT WAVE OF HORROR FILMS.

I wasn’t really thinking about other films when I made this picture. I was just trying to make this story as dramatic and fun as I could. Our goal was never to follow any trends or even to try to give the audience what we thought they would want. We always tried to please ourselves - myself and my brother Ivan Raimi - when we were writing the script and in doing so, hoped that we would please the audience.

HOW DO YOU AND IVAN COLLABORATE?

I’ve worked on many scripts with Ivan. He’s a doctor by day and a writer by night. We’ve actually spent a lot of time together, writing sometimes on the Spider-Man films, Darkman, Army of Darkness, and we have a great time being together. So it’s really both great family time and great work time for us. Unless he tries to rewrite me. The quality of that family time goes down a little bit, proportional to the amount he wants to rewrite me (laughs).

HOW DID THE CASTING OF ALISON LOHMAN COME ABOUT?

I really wanted the audience to go on a journey of sin with this character. That’s why Alison’s casting was so important.  Because, really, this is a morally bankrupt character. She commits this sin of greed by throwing an old lady out of her house. And I wanted to see if I could get the audience to identify with her. I think she did a brilliant job.

YOU NEVERTHELESS PUT HER THROUGH QUITE AN ORDEAL.

Yes, I was worried that she - well, anybody - wouldn’t put up with all the things that we had to do to her. I tried to be upfront about it, well, without telling her everything I would have to do to her, because I was afraid she wouldn’t take the part (laughs). I just wanted to warn her a little bit, so to speak. But I had to do some pretty awful things to her. I mean, I choked her all the time with that old lady character played by Lorna Raver, grabbing her by the throat. I threw her out of a car, threw fake candy-glass at her, put her in a harness and whipped her around a room for hours on end, buried her alive under 800 pounds of mud.  And that was just the first week (laughs).

NO ONE LIKE YOU IS CAPABLE OF SCARING US AND AT THE SAME TIME MAKING US LAUGH. IS THAT IMPORTANT TO YOU, MIXING HUMOR WITH HORROR?

It is for me, because I can’t take it any other way. I think it’s because I’m a coward at heart. When I see things, I can’t even approach them without looking at the funny side of it. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. And for some reason, that’s how I present my horror. I can’t quite explain it, except to say I think I’m the most affected person by horror. The only way I can even attack it is by trying to see the humorous side at the same time.

WERE YOU ALWAYS A HORROR FAN?

I’ve always liked ghost stories. As a kid, I liked sitting around the campfire or some dark room at night and having friends tell scary stories. There’s a collective energy that goes through the people that are listening and a great sense of anticipation if you’ve got a good story teller. There’s a giddiness you feel, like you want to scream, but you really shouldn’t. Then there’s a great release moment where the tension breaks and you, as a listener, scream in terror. Of course, it’s not only fun to listen to those stories, but it’s fun to tell them too. At least for me. I mean, everybody’s attention is so wrapped on what you’re saying. Everybody is so in tune with the story and that’s incredibly exciting. You all feel the chill together. You all feel the anticipation. You all scream together. It’s great to connect with people on that level.

WHAT FILM FIRST INTRODUCED YOU TO THE GENRE?

The first horror film that had a tremendous impact on me was George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead. I was probably about ten years old and my sister snuck me into the theater under her coat, if you can believe that. It was a crime that was committed against me, watching that film (laughs). I was too young. And it blew my mind, the terror. I could not believe it. I was so terrified watching that film (laughs).

MANY YOUNG FILMMAKERS LOOK UP TO YOU. WHO DID YOU LOOK UP TO?

I admire the work of Stanley Kubrick and Fellini and Bergman who I studied briefly in school. And I love Hitchcock. I think he is the master of storytelling in general, not even suspense. He really knows what information the audience needs to communicate a story point. No more, no less. His brevity is still refreshing and brilliant. You can learn a lot by watching Hitchcock.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE SPIDER-MAN FILMS THAT YOU BROUGHT TO DRAG ME TO HELL?

The Spider-Man films taught me a lot about digital effects. I mean, the main character in those films, often times, is a digital effect himself. So the level of expertise has to be excellent. I’ve spent many hours on each of those Spider-Man films working with some of the most talented people in the business. I was able to take that and apply it in different types of ways than perhaps has been applied before to the effects in Drag Me To Hell. For instance, we were able to do some of the makeup effects through digital effects, which is quite an uncommon situation to have in a horror film. In essence, we were able to composite the different technologies and have digital effects augment the physical makeup effects which, I think, brings it to a new threshold.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?

Spider-Man 4 will be my next film. It’s being written right now by a really fine playwright in New York, David Lindsay-Abaire.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM DRAG ME TO HELL THAT YOU HOPE TO APPLY?

I’m hoping to take what I’ve learned on this picture, which is an appreciation of brevity, how to be concise, and how to work on a little tighter schedule, a re-understanding of focusing on what’s important. Because when you don’t have the big budget, you don’t have a lot of time and you have no choice but to move forward. You have to decide what’s essential on the spot. That was a refreshing thing to rediscover. And I hope to bring that to the next picture.

WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FILM?

What I want is for the audience to laugh, jump, scream, grab their girlfriend and feel they really had a great time at the end of that hour and a half. That’s how I’d measure the success of this film.

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