A Very Special Gift
Sam Raimi's latest movie has quite a cast. Christine Radish spoke to the director himself and some of his high-profile stars about The Gift and other upcoming projects in the fantasy world.
In the tiny town of Brixton, Georgia where nothing is private, the good-natured Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a recently widowed mother of three young boys who must bear the burden of the 'gift' of supernatural clairvoyance. To support herself and her family, Annie gives psychic readings to a variety of emotionally troubled and needy neighbors, from a disturbed car mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) to an abused housewife (Hilary Swank). When the young, beautiful and sexually promiscuous socialite Jessica King (Katie Holmes) disappears, her bound and ravaged body begins to haunt Annie through her visions. Short on leads, the authorities reluctantly turn to Annie for clues, leaving her to confront the darkest depths of her gift to uncover Jessica's killer before she becomes the next victim.
The film, directed by the acclaimed Sam Raimi, is a masterful balance of mystery, horror and touching family drama. In order to achieve this ideal blend, it was vital that Raimi pick the perfect actress to carry the film's emotional core. The choice of an Australian actress to play a woman from Georgia might not be the most obvious, but Raimi explained that Cate Blanchett was the only actress that he could imagine in the role of Annie. "I saw Elizabeth and then went back and saw Oscar and Lucinda and figured that it must have been obvious to everyone an the planet that Cate is the best actress working, maybe outside of Meryl Streep," said Raimi. "It was more like thinking, 'The only way I could make this movie - which rests upon the strength of the actress' shoulders who plays the part of Annie Wilson - is to get the best actress in the world, and that is Cate Blanchett.' It wasn't even a thought of, 'Can she do the Southern accent?' It was so far beyond that in my mind. It was more about, 'Am I a good enough director to work with a talent this great?' but I needed her for the picture, so I kept a blind eye to that. I never had a doubt that she was great for the role, if she would take it."
Blanchett says that the role appealed to her because it was a really human story that she connected to, being brought up herself by a single mother. "I loved the supernatural element," she goes on to say. "Basically, it's about a woman who is in a state of grief and who is completely shut down and shut off from her own capacities as a human being. I loved that emotional human thread that underpinned the story. It's quite an unusual story because there are scares in the film, but those scares are because there's a lot going an emotionally and spiritually for the characters." In The Gift, actor Keanu Reeves turns in a haunting performance as wife-beating philanderer Donnie Barksdale, a role that Raimi wasn't initially convinced he could pull off. "Like everybody else, I just came in with what I had seen him do and I thought, 'Well, you could never achieve this,"' reveals Raimi, "but after sitting and talking with him at the table, I thought he was much more intelligent than I ever gave him credit for. I bought the story of who he pretends to be in these movies. During that first meeting, he became the character and shifted in and out of him for me and I thought, 'Somehow, it's brilliant that you play Donnie Barksdale.' I think he really liked the idea of working with Cate and I know that he really liked the screenplay. He felt that this character was very well developed and it gave him a chance to expand what he was known for and to challenge himself in a different type of part."
When asked if he ever hesitated in his decision to play such an in-your-face character, Reeves replies, "For me, it was about just trying to have an authenticity for the character, so that when you saw me in the film, you would be looking at Donnie Barksdale and believe that character. That was really the hardest part. Certainly, the physical violence in the part of playing an abusive man was exciting for me as an actor - to investigate what that means. It was exciting to discover the Donnie within."
Even with the caliber of talent in the cast, The Gift had a relatively low budget in comparison. "I think the movie has a lot of dark elements in it and I think that the studio probably deemed it uncommercial," says Raimi, when talking about why the studio set the budget at $9 million. "They're set up to release movies in 2,000 to 3,000 screens and this has such wild elements in it, such as she doesn't get the guy at the end, there's the suggestion of child molestation with Giovanni Ribisi's character, there's patricide, which is not a big audience getter. I think it was looked at like a small character drama and not as a big audience pleaser, so the only way they felt that they could make it was on a small budget."
Since being nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Elizabeth, Blanchett has been living in a whirlwind. "This past year has been very hectic in a really great way," she declares. "The Gift was sort of the beginning of that. I did a play in the West End in 1999 called Plenty and then I did a film with Sally Potter called The Man Who Cried, so it was nice to be in one country for an entire year, but this past year has been crazy. I did The Gift and then went and did The Lord of the Rings, then did Heaven and now I'm doing Bandits with Barry Levinson and then I'll be doing Charlotte Gray."
If Blanchett thinks she's incredibly busy now, things are going to get a lot crazier for her with her role as Galadriel in the highly anticipated fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, the first part of which is opening in December 2001.
"I'm finished with my role now, but they're still working on the films," says Blanchett, when asked about the unique fact that all three films in the series are being shot simultaneously. "I'm in all three films, but all of my work is done. People were saying I was crazy to commit to the role, but it's one of those once in a lifetime experiences and you really sense that on the set. After The Bible, these books are the most read pieces of literature in our times. I read The Hobbit as a child, but I had never read the other books until I came to do the project, so it was fantastic. It's pretty massive with thousands and thousands and thousands of extras in prosthetic suits and Orc suits. It was really something else."
Reeves is also going to be thrust into the spotlight again when he reprises his role as Neo for the next two installments of The Matrix. Reeves explains that he was intrigued enough to agree to the sequels to the action/thriller - unlike the sequel to Speed - because they have such good scripts.
"It was just really a faith and a belief in the story and in Larry and Andy Wachowski, the directors," he said. "I believe we're going to be doing an intermingling of the two films during shooting. I started training last month and it will be about 16 months of filming. It's probably a three-year commitment for the directors. There's not much more I can say except that I know that they want to push the envelope of what is possible with a camera - the angles and how you connect the action. The second one is even more dense than the first one. There's a lot more ideas and the action is exponentially as ambitious."
Even Raimi is taking on a high profile project, as he will begin shooting Spider-Man this year with Tobey Maguire in the lead role. "I'm going to try and follow what Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, envisioned, along with all the writers over the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties that have followed in that tradition," reveals Raimi. "The reason Spider-Man is unique is because he's a regular guy, he's one of us. He's not from the planet Krypton and he's not a millionaire living in a mansion with some kid running around in tights. This is a high school kid. He's got acne, he's chasing the girls and they don't want him, he's broke, he doesn't have a car, and he's kind of a loser. I think every kid in America, and maybe internationally, thinks, 'That's me. That's exactly me.' That was what was unique about Stan Lee's take. He's not going to be Schwarzenegger, he's gonna be a kid and it's more about how these powers mess up his life."
The biggest dispute die-hard fans are having over Raimi's take on Spider-Man is that he's using organic web shooters for the character. In response to the outrage the fans have voiced in the matter, Raimi says, "It's a big controversy and it's absurd. Here's what I think: I have a responsibility to be true to the idea of what Spider-Man is - to the character of Spider-Man, to the things that make him into the myth he is and to the things that affected people. Now that's an interpretative process. I want to meet the audience's expectations and exceed them, but I don't know if the best way to do that is to literally stick to everything exactly as it is in the comic books. I think the fans are reacting to the specifics being violated without trying, in a positive way, to imagine what potential benefits could come to it."