Director Raimi Has 'The Gift'
by Tim Lammers
While it was released on a very limited basis at the end of December, it's probably a good thing that the new Sam Raimi film, "The Gift," didn't roll out nationwide at the time: People all over the country might have mistaken the title on the marquee for a holiday-themed family film -- and ended up running for the aisles in fear.
But that's not to say that "The Gift" isn't worth opening. Sure, it's not warm and fuzzy holiday fare, but moviegoers are certain to be engrossed by it. The sort of "Gift" that Raimi is giving to moviegoers comes in the form of a heart-pounding psychological thriller driven by complex characters facing horrific circumstances, complete with a chilling atmosphere of unpredictable gloom as a backdrop. It's not just a film -- it's a filmgoing experience.
But what makes "The Gift" unique is what Raimi, despite an extensive background in horror movies (defined by a wildly brilliant shooting style), didn't do with the script. The temptation to make it an exploitive horror and gore romp might have been too great for some filmmakers, but Raimi's unwavering confidence in his "A Simple Plan" star Billy Bob Thornton's (and writing partner Tom Epperson's) words prevailed.
"I really was guided by the script; I didn't want to make any stylistic statements that would call attention to myself," Raimi told me in a recent interview. "The screenplay and actors were so fine that I thought the best thing to do here was to stand back and let them tell the story. Plus, going in, I knew I had Cate Blanchett starring in the piece, so with the quality of the material and one of the finest actors out there, that it would be a unique experience."
In the film, Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, an impoverished southern Georgia psychic scorned by average folks and high society alike for using her "gift" to make a living to support her young sons. But when she's called upon by authorities to help solve the disappearance of the daughter (Katie Holmes) of an affluent citizen (Chelcie Ross), Annie must not only use her abilities to save others, but to save herself.
What's interesting is that the story was inspired not only by a real-life person, but Thornton's mother, a psychic herself. And while it's not based on a specific account of her life, it certainly planted the seed for what blossomed into a unique script.
"I was really attracted to the project by Thornton and Epperson's screenplay -- they created rich and real characters and it seemed they had a real sense of the small town that they were writing about," Raimi said. "They've got a great ear for how people speak, think and feel. And somehow, they have the magical ability to translate that into a screenplay.
"These are real people, and if you don't know them personally, you know people like them and certainly understand them. When I read the script, it was hard to put down. I believed that all these things were possible."
Having Thornton and Epperson's firsthand perspective also allowed Raimi the freedom to concentrate more on the subtleties of his characters that have made his recent films so absorbing. And while moviegoers are sure to revel in the hyperkinetic shots reminiscent of his "Evil Dead" films in the more shocking elements of "The Gift," they'll also be "psyched" to know that Raimi was also able to dedicate a greater majority of the film to the sort of suspense associated with his dramatic thriller, "A Simple Plan."
And while his days of high-energy shooting are far from behind him (look for breathtaking visuals and a humanistic story for his upcoming "Spider-Man"), Raimi's direction is clearly in the direction of a character-driven filmmaker.
"At least in terms of 'The Gift' and 'Spider-Man,' I want the audience to be pulled into the story and really get attached to the characters," Raimi told me. "I don't want them to step back and say, 'That's a cool shot.'"
Ensemble Of Talent
In addition to Blanchett and Katie Holmes, Raimi had the benefit of a wonderfully diverse ensemble cast, including Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi and Hilary Swank, hot off her Best Actress honors for "Boys Don't Cry."
But perhaps the most notable bit of casting comes with Keanu Reeves, who puts his "good guy" image at risk with a downright frightening turn as a loathsome wife abuser.
"I think he's really growing," Raimi told me. "He's not afraid to expand his powers as an actor. He's interested in challenging himself and the audience's perception of who he is. Even though he seems like a very carefree going guy in his previous films, those are really just performances.
"He's really a very dedicated craftsman and wanted to understand his character in the film with a great intensity and bring him to the screen. He came in with a lot of fire and was relentlessly hard on himself until he got the job done right."
Raimi was not only impressed by Reeves' dedication, but that of the cast as a whole. And while history has proven that large ensemble casts don't automatically translate into a successful film, there's no question that everything gelled here. Raimi, in fact, found himself transfixed by the results on the set.
"I felt myself lose myself on the set to the point where I was just watching them. I was so caught up in what was going on, so much so that I forgot to call 'Cut' once or twice," Raimi said.
Staying Behind The Camera
While Raimi's been able to work magic with his actors (that shouldn't come as a big surprise -- he was a magician as a child), he's also been known to chew up the scenery himself a few times. He's had several cameos in projects of his fellow filmmakers, but most notably, he was a scream as summer-camp flunkie in the grossly underappreciated 1993 dramedy, "Indian Summer."
In the film, Raimi played his slapstick capabilities (he's a lifelong devotee to the Three Stooges) to painful brilliance as Stick Coder, a dimwitted assistant to the camp's owner and counselor, Alan Arkin. It's the sort of performance that leaves you scratching your head afterward, asking, "When are we going to see more?"
"My wife had forbidden me to act after seeing that performance," Raimi said, laughing. Oddly enough, it's not because she's afraid he'll hurt himself: "She's afraid I'll hurt others with that acting."
Seriously, while Raimi will listen to acting offers, he truly feels at home behind the camera. And his main objective? Well, as self-absorbed as the film world seems at times, it's refreshing to know that Raimi (who's without question one of the most humble, genuine and nicest people you could ever interview) is always looking through the camera with one person in mind: He's looking at you.
"I've always looked at myself as a storyteller and an entertainer, " Raimi explained to me. "My job is to make people enjoy themselves and to tell them a story. If it's a horror movie, I try to make them jump, and if it's a lighter movie, make them laugh if possible. I just work on the stories and the moments of the actors and try to make it as clear, and dramatic or as real as possible."