For Love of the Game
DIRECTOR SAM RAIMI TALKS ABOUT HIS NEW THRILLER THE GIFT AND HIS THOUGHTS ON THAT LITTLE MOVIE HE'S DIRECTING NEXT -- SPIDER-MAN
by Anthony C. Ferrante
Director Sam Raimi may know how to create true horror on screen (case in point his original EVIL DEAD), but ask him if he loves to get scared on his own and it's a whole different matter.
"Horror movies make me uncomfortable because they're very effective," says Raimi. "I don't enjoy them often but I do appreciate the craft in a good horror film and the artistry that goes into it. I would never go to one to have fun."
While Raimi may avoid watching the conventions that are on display in most horror movies, he's still got that master of suspense touch in himself as displayed in 1998's underrated A SIMPLE PLAN and this winter's forthcoming THE GIFT.
THE GIFT is a little film Raimi directed earlier this year for under $10 million dollars and from a script by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton right before he landed the assignment of his career of helming SPIDER-MAN.
"What appealed to me about the script was that it presented the supernatural but it had real people with these dramatic interactions brought into it," says Raimi.
THE GIFT stars Cate Blanchett as a small Georgia woman named Annie Wilson who bears the "gift" of psychic vision. This is how she makes ends meet with her family of three while still coping emotionally with the death of her husband. Annie welcomes many of the town's locals with open arms, despite some prejudice against her "gift." When the disappearance of the town's tease Jessica King (Katie Holmes) rips up the town, Annie is called in by the police to help and perhaps give them some kind of lead as to where she might be -- dead or alive. Annie's decision to help is a dangerous one -- putting herself and her family in danger in the process. The film also stars Keanu Reeves as the abusive husband of Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisit, Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear.
There are many ways a film like THE GIFT could be interpreted, but Raimi took the SIMPLE PLAN route as opposed to his EVIL DEAD mode where the film became about characters and less about flashy camera moves and gross-out horror moments.
"We tried to make the film as suspenseful as possible and I recognized when I read the fine script that it was very frightening and upsetting which I think was attributed to the very real characters," says Raimi. "It took time to build them and to have Cate Blanchett in the lead role further helped the reality. This is a real person you're watching. When anything happens after that, it becomes frightening even if it's a phone call and there's no one the other end."
Casting Blanchett was very integral for Raimi who has nothing but high praise for the actress who was nominated for her tour-de-force performance in ELIZABETH.
"Cate interviewed with a lot of psychic card readers and tried to understand the process that they go through," says Raimi. "When it came time to photograph Cate's character having these visions, it was important we didn't show normal tarot cards and pretend they had some meaning to them as I saw in a lot of films. When you have Cate Blanchett you want her to communicate what she sees. It was best we used bland meaningless symbols and Cate would perform what she saw. We did that throughout the script. She was a great collaborator. If she didn't understand something in the script, she'd ask me. If I had an answer I would give it to her. If we realized we hadn't figured out that moment, we'd work on it."
Shot in 44 days with Raimi's lowest budget since his EVIL DEAD days, the director professes the short shooting schedule was quite difficult for him.
"The quickest I've ever shot a picture was A SIMPLE PLAN with 55 days but that was really hard for me," says Raimi. "This had more effects, more locations and more characters. I had to learn to work very quickly but fortunately Cate Blanchett was on the ball and made it possible. I did want to capture more of the flavor of the town but I didn't have the days to do to. I wanted to get some more shots of Cate and Greg [Kinnear] driving out to the pond to get a feeling they were on a mission, but I didn't get a chance to do that. There are a thousand details and twenty things I would have loved to have done but didn't have time to do it."
This Gothic kind of flavoring is no stranger to Raimi who not only helmed the similarly themed A SIMPLE PLAN but was also the executive producer on the underrated Gary Cole CBS thriller AMERICAN GOTHIC a few years back (Cole as appears in the film). Luckily, Raimi found the ideal location in Savannah, Georgia to create the creepy small town atmosphere of THE GIFT that made up for the lack of shooting days in many instances.
"In this film we had very little money to make the picture and we had to establish we were in the Deep South quickly," says Raimi. "So we chose the town because it had such outrageous trees -- they were fantastic creatures with gnarled arms and weird faces. It looked like something out of the WIZARD OF OZ and one of the premises of the movie is that the world of the supernatural exists. We wanted to make it real for the audience and it was a great town to shoot in because every frame we had these fantastic things that are obviously not of this earth that every day we accept as normal. It's a great way to put in the mind of the audience what they already know -- that if these trees with their fantastic shapes that have lived hundreds of years before we ever came into this world, that maybe it's a small step to think that maybe this woman does have this power. In a way it did help us tell that part of the story."
One very important positive that Raimi definitely took away from THE GIFT was the importance in casting your actors wisely so they're completely entrenched in the role. This is a technique he plans to apply in the casting of SPIDER-MAN.
"I think we're approaching it in the same way -- who is the best actor for the job but also something else has entered into it on SPIDER-MAN -- audiences have great expectations that we all have an obligation to meet on this film and that's brand new for me," says Raimi. "They already have in their minds who Peter Parker is and who Aunt May is and you can get it wrong. So not only have I got to meet their expectation, I have to go beyond that and say I've got to choose who is also the soul of the character. I may find someone who captures the soul of the character of Uncle Ben whether he looks like him or not. The key is that he truly is the guy we've come to know and hear in the comics. Actually that's a bad explanation because Uncle Ben is really only in it for about a page before we kill him."
This thinking also went into the very important casting of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in the film.
"Watching Cate Blanchett's performance for so long it was really about having a great actor in there and I think that's why I went for Tobey Maguire harder than I should have --- fortunately the studio got behind me," says Raimi. "I knew I needed somebody that could give me that same experience. Peter Parker, who I loved -- I wanted to make sure the actor was someone I could talk to in an intimate way and make sure he understood him like I did and asked the right questions. I never wanted to watch Peter Parker say something to Aunt May that wasn't really Peter Parker and be afraid to approach the actor. I didn't want any of that lack of communications nonsense. I wanted someone who would work hard at making him real. BATMAN and SUPERMAN are great movies, but they're more fantastic world movies with these super heroes in them and funny outrageous costumes. This movie is more like making it real world with a real Peter Parker -- and then something fantastic happens to him."
Paramount Classics releases THE GIFT in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on December 20 with a wide release scheduled for January 19, 2001.