If Sam Raimi has a superpower it is the ability to remain startlingly unchanged over the busy decades. This is partly a physical thing. Still round of cheek and twinkly of eye, he could pass for two decades younger than his 62 years.
But it is also a question of manners. Despite having shot some of the most successful films of the century – his three Spider-Man films took $2.5 billion when $2.5 billion was a lot of money – he still combines self-deprecation with amiable chuckles and snorts.
His current task is selling the 28th entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following up Spider-Man: No Way Home, whose massive takings confirmed the pandemic was over for one type of film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sends Benedict Cumberbatch’s mad wizard back into a busy collection of parallel narratives. Raimi seems typically unflustered by the challenge.
It's a failure for me if they don't like the movie. It makes me go back to the drawing board and really think: how can I do it better?
Forty years ago, he bumbled into notoriety with his teeny-budgeted horror classic The Evil Dead. Having taught himself to shoot on his dad’s Super 8 camera, he became a hero to seat-of-the pants filmmakers everywhere. Can this really seem like the same job?
“No, they’re completely disconnected,” he says. “When I was starting out, I left college to just try and raise the money to make a feature film – which is really tough. I was a busboy. My buddies were waiters and janitors and cab drivers. We were just trying to raise the money to hire attorneys to put together the paperwork to be able to legally go out and put together an offering to make a feature – to make it to the drive-in movies. I don’t even know if they’ve got drive-ins anymore.”
Raimi was raised in Michigan to Jewish parents. His debut feature, It's Murder, starring long-time pal and frequent collaborator Bruce Campbell, was completed when he was still a teenager. He studied English at Michigan State University, but left to work on The Evil Dead before graduation. When that harmless romp was being dragged through the mud during the video nasty panic, few would have guessed he would end up shepherding a colossal project for a Walt Disney offshoot.
“All we were thinking about was just making that first step to break into the business,” he says. “We didn’t know if there’d be another feature. Or if we would even get the first one done. I never thought it would end up at this point. But I always loved movies and loved telling stories, and I feel very fortunate to have the ability to make another feature film – especially with such beloved characters as these Marvel superheroes. I feel very fortunate that they’ve entrusted me with these fan favourites. I take the responsibility very seriously.”
It took a while for the mainstream to open itself up to Raimi. Evil Dead II, funnier and slicker than its predecessor, was a great success in 1987, but the industry was not yet sweeping off-beat directors straight to high-profile blockbusters (that is more of a 21st century phenomenon). The indie boom of the 1990s made things a little easier for him. His off-centre superhero movie Darkman was a modest hit in 1990. He cowrote The Hudsucker Proxy for his friends the Coen Brothers.
Strong films such as A Simple Plan and The Quick and the Dead cemented his reputation. But it seemed like a gamble when Sony picked him to direct Spider-Man in 2002. For many he was still the video-nasty guy. He made his name by doing everything himself for next to nothing. Now he was in charge of an army.
“I love them both,” he says of the two extremes of filmmaking. “I’m a pretty good harmonica player. And one is like playing a tune on the harmonica, which is incredibly satisfying, because you do it yourself. Every note is yours. And every duration is yours.
“Every single thing is crafted by your hand. But I’m only so good a harmonica player. Whereas, in this job, directing multi-million dollar, gigantic feature films, with so many characters and expectations, it’s more like they’ve given me the job of conductor for the world’s finest orchestra.
“So I have players of strings and brass and percussion so much better individually than I ever was. Now I can work on their harmonies. But as satisfying as that is it’s still not playing the harmonica. So, each has its own worth.”
It hardly needs to be said that the gamble paid off. Not only was each Spider-Man film a smash. The series launched the superhero boom that transformed the business into its current asymmetric cash generator. Raimi’s departure from the franchise was, however, not without its traumas. These days, nobody in the boardroom would care if a movie that made as much as the overly busy Spider-Man 3 was indifferently received – see the Fast & Furious universe – but it mattered to Sam that the film wasn’t spoken of warmly.
“It smarts terribly. It hurts when the audience doesn’t really like your movie as much as you wanted them to,” he says. “Especially when you’re like myself. I consider myself a craftsman, an entertainer and not really an artiste. I can’t say: ‘Oh, they just didn’t understand the movie.’ It really is just an entertainment. If they didn’t like it, I’ve got nothing else. So it’s a failure for me if they don’t like the movie. It makes me go back to the drawing board and really think: how can I do it better?”
Raimi moved on. The wider project continued to swell. The Marvel Cinematic Universe – of which Sony’s Spider-Man was not initially a part – was formed in 2008 and not long afterwards the Disney Empire swallowed it whole. Raimi returns to the camp as an elder statesman.
Multiverse of Madness was originally to be directed by Scott Derrickson, who powered the first Dr Strange movie to $677 million in 2016, but our old friends “creative differences” intervened and a veteran substitute was called up. It has been suggested the film is leaning more towards the horror genre in which Sam made his name.
I try and focus on the good relationships that I've had in the past and on the positive things in my life
“Well, it was really [Marvel president] Kevin Feige when he was working with Scott Derrickson, the original director of the movie – they made a statement somewhere that said: ‘This will be Marvel’s first entry into the horror genre,’ ” Raimi explains.
“And so Scott left the film after creative differences, which I don’t really know much about. Once he was gone, Marvel called me and said: ‘Do you want to take over and make this movie?’ And Scott called me and said: ‘We’d love to have you aboard.’ So I said: ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ It was very exciting that they had decided to make Marvel’s first entry into the horror genre.”
Each time a director with a singular CV arrives on a Marvel project critics wonder how much freedom they really have. To be fair, Taika Waititi did impose his own aesthetic on the enjoyable Thor: Ragnarok and, for good or ill, Chloe Zhao made a Chloe Zhao film of Eternals. But so much is pre-determined. We already know Doctor Strange as a showy conceited conjuror from Derrickson’s film. Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which Strange appeared, has set the train on its tracks.
“Well, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to break out on my own with independent films, with X-rated movies, with genre-busting films,” he says.
“It was a very specific job and I thought a fascinating job to take on. I didn’t create these characters. I didn’t create the characterisations. My job was to take them to the next step, have them interact with each other for the first time, and push the actors and the existing characters to see alternate versions of themselves in the multiverse. It was a great opportunity to stand on the shoulders of a great actor like Benedict Cumberbatch, who has already created the character, and show him alternate versions of himself.”
All of which sounds like fun. But he will still have to work within an insanely complex framework. Nobody needed to have seen Evil Dead to appreciate Evil Dead II. The Marvel films increasingly presume knowledge of earlier movies and, as Disney+ excerpts its influence, TV series such as WandaVision and What If...? Are audiences going to be lost if they haven’t already absorbed 146 hours of Marvel content?
“Well, I completely understand the importance of that question,” he tells me. “I hadn’t seen many of the Marvel movies. I’d seen about five or six when I started this job. I had to do a lot of catching up – with WandaVision and certain Avengers movies. So that I watched everything that was relevant to our story. I definitely learned from that experience that I don’t want the audience to have to do that. Even though that was an incredibly enjoyable job, I wanted anyone to come in off the street and be able to see the movie and understand it and enjoy it.”
Good for him. He has always been respectful to fans, but he has no truck with the exclusionary policing that sometimes goes on among the obsessives. He wants everyone to be in on the act. And he seems to have stayed true to those principles throughout his career. One or two films haven’t come off.
His 2013 epic Oz the Great and Powerful was, to my mind, misunderstood by unresponsive critics. But each work has the Raimi spirit. Is there anything he might have done differently?
“We don’t even have time in this interview to get halfway down it,” he says with a cackle. “But I try and focus on the good relationships that I’ve had in the past and on the positive things in my life. When I find what I’m thinking about the negative ones that’s never a good day.”
A sound way of living a life.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens on May 5th