Sam Raimi unwraps a decidedly different ghost story in The Gift
by Patrick Lee
Director Sam Raimi, known both for his early Evil Dead supernatural films and his later, more mature movies, such as A Simple Plan, combines both impulses in the upcoming psychic thriller The Gift.
The film stars Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, a small-town clairvoyant who is enlisted to help find the missing daughter of the town's most prominent citizen. Keanu Reeves portrays Donnie Barksdale, a menacing wife abuser who crosses Annie's path. The film, which was shot in Savannah, Ga., also features an impressive cast that includes Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank and Greg Kinnear.
Ironically, The Gift started as a small, independent film, but soon attracted significant star power, based in part on the script by Oscar-winning writer Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson.
For Raimi, the film offered the chance to return to supernatural themes, but with a different approach than in his earlier movies. Raimi, Blanchett and Reeves took a moment to speak with Science Fiction Weekly about The Gift, which opened in Los Angeles Dec. 20 and will open nationwide Jan. 19.
Sam Raimi, why did you choose to make The Gift?
Raimi: It was too good to pass up. I really enjoyed Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson's screenplay. It really told me that they had lived in this town, that they knew these people and that they had an ear for how they sounded. All of those things. And somehow, being great writers, they were able to translate that into a dramatic piece and capture it. It was so vivid when I read it that I wanted to be involved with it and help tell the story.
The whole thing is a big deal to do. I started from getting the rights and putting all the financing together, all the development money together. Going out and casting the actors, getting them involved, doing all their contracts as well. Plus having to prep the whole movie to direct it and do the whole movie as well. And I was the only writer on set, so I had to do all the rewrites on set as well. So I had just so many hats that I was wearing at the same time. I slept literally two hours a day the whole time we were in Prague, and I got no days off. Sunday was our day off. But it was no day off for me, because I would be storyboarding what I didn't have time to storyboard.
How would you distinguish this film from your earlier supernatural movies?
Raimi: Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2--the early horror movies that I made--were about trying to show the supernatural as an outrageous, funny, bold, exciting and terrifying force. ... In this movie ... the point of view is so different, because the goal was to service the screenplay and the actors' performances, and [to] try to present the supernatural as something that was real.
This film started out pretty small, but some big names became attached to it.
Raimi: It didn't change that much. It was about an $8 million movie. It ended up being a $9 million movie. And originally, no one was cast. ... But Cate Blanchett became interested, and that was the one condition I had in making the film, that she do this part. And she did it. And then, what happened was, a lot of great actors really admire Cate. ... During every audition that that we would have, newcomer or old pro, they'd refer to Cate Blanchett as the next Meryl Streep. The actors believe that she's outrageously good. So what happened was, all of these fine talents that might not normally work for scale, or work for such a small picture, or not both at least ... they were drawn because of the quality of the screenplay and the fact that Cate Blanchett was starring.
Did you audition Keanu Reeves?
Raimi: No, I didn't audition him. What happened was, when they said he was interested, I said, "You must be crazy." And then they said, "He wants to meet you." I said, "Yeah, but I don't want to meet him, because I don't want to meet him and then say no. It'll only make it worse." And they said, "Let him meet you." So I go into this meeting, thinking, "Ah, I'm dreading this meeting."
So he came in, and I found out that I had been fooled, like everybody's fooled by movie actors. ... But in this case, I just thought he was that kid from [Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure]. But he turned out to be this very intelligent young man, very dedicated to the craft of acting. ... And then he slipped into the part, in little bits and pieces, and suddenly I saw, in that moment, that Donnie Barksdale could be this sexual animal also. And that became a very new and exciting idea to me. And I suddenly thought, "Yes, that makes sense, that he's a sexual creature. I want to know why [Hilary Swank's character is] attracted to him." ... And in fact, to make Katie Holmes' relationship believable, I started to realize that attractive quality could help me there [also].
Your style in The Gift is very subtle.
Raimi: It was a different approach that the screenplay guided us all in, which is that this is a real woman and a real family, and the supernatural exists. So we wanted to ... make it real. We wanted Cate to first establish that she was real and her family was real, so that the journey of the supernatural would be terrifying, not because of the extreme or exaggerated effects or camera movement, but rather because you care about this woman and her family. And when the slightest thing happens, however subtle, in the world of the supernatural, and it might threaten her, it has greater impact because you believe her.
What was your spookiest moment?
Raimi: Savannah, Georgia ... they say is the second most haunted town in America. [I was staying] in a house that was pretty freaked out. ... When I was shooting, and I was on a night schedule, I get about five hours of sleep, and it's in the morning, and I ask my wife to take the kids out, because they always poke me and stick me with things and torture me. So I had been asleep about two hours, and I heard this banging of the kids upstairs, running up and down the steps, slamming the doors. ... I get to the bottom of the stairs, I look up. The door slams. ... I walk up the stairs. I open the door. There's nobody in that room.
And there's a picture in that room of this woman, this portrait, this old-fashioned portrait that freaks me out. ... There's no one else in the house. The doors are locked. ... Then I said to the real estate agent, "Look, that picture is freaking me out. Can I take that picture off the wall?" ... She says, "I'm sorry, but the owner said that picture has never been removed from that wall. It was the woman who built the house 150 years ago. It's part of the historic thing about the house. ... She died in this room." "OK, thanks a lot." She left. I took it right down. I just turned it back against the wall. It just so freaked me out, I didn't want to look at her anymore.
Cate Blanchett, how did you approach this role of a psychic?
Blanchett: I don't work in a reactive way. I don't think, "How can I make this different?" It's, "How can you unlock what is actually in the script?" As an actor, apart from meeting the director and knowing who else you're going to be working with, your first connection with the project is the script. And I loved the script. I thought it was really unusual. And I couldn't quite pin it down. And I think there's a lot of films around at the moment which ... you enjoy ... the first time you see them, but they don't really leave you with anything. And I think The Gift is kind of unusual, because there are so many threads to it.
Tell us about your character, Annie Wilson.
Blanchett: Her struggle is very quiet and incredibly private, and she's very locked down and very shut off, because of the fact that she has not dealt with the grief of being a survivor. ... She's the one who's alive, and she couldn't prevent her husband from dying. And being shut off means that it's much easier for her to listen to other people's problems, rather than listen to what's going on in her own life, and in a lot of ways, ignoring her family. ... I've seen that. It's very difficult for young men or women, when their spouses die and they're left with children. . ... Their relationship with their children often becomes incredibly painful, because they remind them of the family life that they had with someone that they loved.
What challenges were there for you to play a Southern character?
Blanchett: It's very easy to fall into a cliché, particularly of the South, and what that means. How one speaks and how one behaves, and spending time there. We just didn't want to make them clichés. We wanted to make them real.
How was it working with Sam Raimi?
Blanchett: It was divine. He is a true collaborator. And I loved going to work every day. Because there were a lot of challenges making the film, not only because of the material. It was a quite intense shoot, because of time restrictions. And Sam was truly creative. Instead of railing against the restrictions we had, budgetary or whatever, he would just find a way within those restrictions to come up with the best solution. And you'd think, "Wow, even if we had $50 million more, that would still be the best solution." And it was fantastic like that.
How was it shooting the scenes where Keanu Reeves was threatening you?
Blanchett: It was very intense. ... Being yelled at by anyone. I was really concerned for the children. And Sam is absolutely fantastic with kids. And it was really important, with those children on the set, that they knew that this was acting. And they were able to find that extraordinary balance that children can do, of knowing it's play, but actually investing themselves completely. I fell in love with them. They were beautiful kids.
Keanu Reeves, did you have to audition for the role of Donnie Barksdale?
Reeves: One of the producers had the idea of me for the part. They went to my agents. And I got a script and read it. And then they told the idea to Sam, and Sam was like, "Ohhh kay. I'll take the meeting." And then I came to him, and I remember going to their office, and just speaking about the part, and telling him what I thought, you know. And then it came back to me that he was interested in me playing the part.
I wasn't conscious of his reticence when I first met him. I didn't know that he was ... taking a meeting. But I found out quickly. ... When I was speaking to him, he said, "What did they tell you when you came here?" And I went, "Oh, I'm auditioning. OK." And so then, I had an audition, basically.
Why did you take this role?
Reeves: Because of the script. Because of Cate Blanchett. Because of [wanting] to do something different. But not just different for difference's sake. ... I haven't had a chance really to play a part like that, to play a wife-beater. And I found the character very dynamic. It was a great break for me to play such a part. It's something I want to do. I'd like to be able to play different parts and do different kinds of parts.
Tell us about your character.
Reeves: I always felt that the character, though damaged, had a sincerity to him, and an emotional vulnerability to him. That's the base of what he is. He's emotionally damaged because of suffering something as a kid, and not being able to extricate himself from that consciousness. And I think in the courtroom, he gets a chance. "I swore I'd tell the truth. Yeah, I'm a wife-beater. Yeah, I do that." ... Somehow, humans always kind of relate to the humanity in all our human monsters. ... He gets to show his vulnerability. Frustration. He's getting cross-examined. ... And you see why he resorts to violence. He's out of control. And he wants control, physical control.