What do you think being from Detroit provided you in your life?
I think it was good to come from Detroit because it’s just a very solid place to be. It’s got good, hard winters and great summers. The people there are not necessarily sweet, but they’re real and proper and hard-working and funny. Los Angeles must have been a strange place to grow up because it’s a perpetual summer day out here; there’s no sense of passing time. I think Detroit provided a stability for me. I had real solid parents, went to a really good public school system, Birmingham Public Schools, and also went to a Detroit public school, Hampton Elementary. It was great for me.
Did you ever go to the grand old movie houses when you were a kid?
When I was very young, my parents used to take me downtown and we would get dressed up in suits and ties and see a movie like Fantastic Voyage (1966).
When you were going to the movies, was there something about the experience of it that made you want to make films?
When we would see movies as kids, I think what I really loved – although I didn’t know it at the time – was the community experience of it, the fact that you’ll have 300 people who have never met each other coming together. It’s a community experience like you don’t have anywhere else now in modern society. When the lights go out, then you all are into this one person’s mind together. That’s a great experience for me. Probably going to see a good Tigers game was similar, but still, it was not as complex and unique because this is really a one-on-one emotional experience. It connects you with the people, even if you never say a word to them.
So now you’ve directed For Love of the Game, which stars Kevin Costner as a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Were you a big Tigers fan?
Absolutely. I’m still a big Tigers fan. They break my heart every year. I suffer every season.
When you started to make horror films like the three Evil Dead movies, you described them as something that would be good for a drive-in audience. What makes a good drive-in movie?
Something that does not have to be shared as a community experience, because you’re caught up in your own car. A good, scary horror picture is good, because that will work when you’re alone very well.
Did you go to drive-ins when you lived here?
Only occasionally. I went when my partner Robert Tapert (now producer of TV’s Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess) said, “Sam, what we have to do is make a movie that will sell to drive-ins because they’re the only ones that will play a real low-budget movie, and the kinds of movies they play are horror movies, so we have to learn how to make one.” Then along with (actor) Bruce Campbell, our third Detroit partner, we started to go to the drive-ins for weeks on end and saw what was out there, and tried to understand what it was we were going to have to be making.
You got really positive press for A Simple Plan, but in a lot of the coverage I detected a condescending tone of, “Well, Sam Raimi is 39 now, and he’s finally decided to make a real movie.”
I know, that was all over the place.
How do you respond when you encounter that attitude? You’ve got a sizable body of work that’s strong on its own.
I appreciate all criticism. It was nice to get positive feedback, so none of the asides that were in that stuff really bothered me. But I thought that the other films that I had made – well, some of them are not good. But I do believe they were made for a different audience, and it took as much craft to make those films as it did to make A Simple Plan. They’re just trying to do different things, that’s all. But I don’t know that one is more grown-up than another.
Do you really look back and say, “That was a good one, that was a bad one”?
I do think like that. I have ones in my mind that I kind of oversimplify as “work” and “don’t work.” I base that a lot on the audience reactions to the films, because what I want to do is make films that the audience enjoys. Unlike some pieces of art, where the artist had to express something whether or not the audience gets it or likes it, we are trying to something different, which is simply entertaining the audience. So the success or failure of the piece is quickly known to me once I sit in the audience. I made it for them to enjoy, and if they don’t like it, it has very little chance of pleasing me. My enjoyment comes from the audience watching the film and getting into it and laughing together or shouting or jumping together or feeling suspense together.
You’ve compared A Simple Plan to some of the 8mm films that you made while at Michigan State. What were those films like? Who was your audience then?
The audience for those films were just the students at Michigan State, and the subject matter was usually school life. We would tell stories of a guy trying to get along with his roommate in his dorm room and of his girlfriend who was leaving him. We told the story of a student driven mad in a movie called The Happy Valley Kid. We would shoot the scenes on campus using our classmates as the actors. These were not for film classes, these were just for ourselves to work on our craft. This was Robert Tapert, my brother Ivan, and myself just to try to learn how to make movies.
Your Renaissance Films office used to be on Nine Mile in Ferndale, didn’t it?
Absolutely. That was the best office I ever had. I just liked how normal it was compared to Los Angeles. There were so many diverse groups that would come in and out of there business-wise. Like down below, there was a seamstress.
How important has it been to continue working with the same people from Detroit?
It’s very important. My friendships from Detroit are the reason I’ve been successful. These friends allowed me to make movies. When I was down, guys like Bruce Campbell or Robert Tapert of Josh Becker or Scott Spiegel would all pick me up and push me forward, and I hope in turn I’ve supported them when they were down. That’s been the ticket to my success: their wit, brains, hard work, and their friendship. My friends and family in Detroit have all helped me. I couldn’t have done anything without them.
It must be especially important to have a support group when you’re working in a medium that requires so many people.
It’s really true, and Hollywood does not open its arms to individuals who have not done anything. You’ve got to prove your worth to them outside of Hollywood. You’ve got to prove to them that you don’t need them, and then they want you.
Interview by Serena Donadoni
First published in HOUR Detroit.