When it comes to the new film Oz the Great and Powerful, it's only fair to pay some attention to the man behind the curtain: director Sam Raimi, who took on the Wizard of Oz prequel after completing the original Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi's work tends to careen from childlike innocence to some very adult scares — sometimes within the same movie — and that's a dichotomy that only continued when I met him in person: Here was a 53-year-old man, cordial and professional in a suit and tie, who ended our interview by offering me the gift of a fantasy coin he had minted for Oz's Emerald City currency. Before that, we discussed his Oz star James Franco, the recent explosion of comic-book movies, and the work he'd put in on two big, aborted projects: the World of Warcraft movie and his unmade fourth Spider-Man film.
The last film you directed was a much smaller movie, Drag Me to Hell. Did that give you the tools you needed to take on Oz?
Yes, it certainly reinvigorated me. It allowed me to be more nimble again and to work quickly. Directing a big movie can feel like you're trying to steer this supertanker through the ocean — "Begin to throw the right rudder!" — with sixteen people pulling those switches. Those smaller pictures, they bring me back to the basics and sharpen me up so that I can again handle something of this magnitude.
By the time you had finished Spider-Man 3, did you feel like that "back to basics" move was something you sorely needed?
Yes, I really did. I absolutely needed it. When a picture gets really gigantic, there's a tremendous amount of delegation of authority that must take place. For example, on a big film, sometimes you have to explain that this table on set is going to have to be moved slightly, and then they have to call in the prop person in their department to move it … versus just picking it up and moving it yourself! [Raimi strides into the middle of the room and lifts the coffee table for emphasis.] And when I had to stop myself and say, "Can you call the prop master, please?" it's so debilitating to work that way. You lose your feel for things after a while when you can't just grab the damn table and move it.
What do you remember about your first impression of James Franco, back when he was one of the actors auditioning to play Peter Parker in Spider-Man?
I thought he was an incredibly talented young man, and a little smug. But as I got to know him, he only improved as an actor, and I saw him come out of his shell a little bit to become a more generous actor. More of a soul developed. A richer person developed. And he's a good collaborator: As time went on, he came up with an incredible amount of ideas for his characters that I've used in the pictures.
A friend who worked on the first Spider-Man film told me that in between takes, Franco would secrete himself in the corner of the set to read James Joyce.
He always needs to be stimulated, I think. If you talked to him about sports on the way to set, his eyes would sort of glaze over. "James, the Tigers are playing tonight!" "Oh, the Tigers? Oh. Great. That's great." But if you said there was a new play opening up in Royal Oak, Michigan, he'd say, "What's the play? Who are the actors?" He's into painting and art and books and literature and history, and he needs a constant injection of the creative in order to survive. It's almost like a sickness, this addiction to creative stimulation that he needs. It's fascinating.
When you were making the Spider-Man movies, you had pretty much the only superhero franchise around. That's obviously changed since. Have you kept up with the other comic-book movies?
I did see The Avengers, and I loved it. I thought it was brilliant. Joss Whedon is an extraordinarily talented filmmaker … and in fact, in 1994, I was making a western called The Quick and the Dead and having a script problem, and I came to the studio and said, "Can you find me a writer? I've shot this movie, and the end isn't quite working." And ultimately, the movie didn't quite work. But they suggested Joss Whedon, who was doing Buffy, so I met Joss and he saw the movie, and he helped me solve this ending in one afternoon. I thought, Damn, you're a good writer! I wish I could have had you rewrite the whole movie and save this picture! But I'll never forget how good he was, and how precise, so when I saw The Avengers, I was not surprised that his name was on it. It's a very hard job to take all those heroes and all those stories and know exactly what bits the audience needs and what they don't need.
I hope enough time has passed that you feel comfortable talking about Spider-Man 4, which was in preproduction and began casting but fell apart before shooting began. What happened there?
It really was the most amicable and undramatic of breakups: It was simply that we had a deadline and I couldn't get the story to work on a level that I wanted it to work. I was very unhappy with Spider-Man 3, and I wanted to make Spider-Man 4 to end on a very high note, the best Spider-Man of them all. But I couldn't get the script together in time, due to my own failings, and I said to Sony, "I don't want to make a movie that is less than great, so I think we shouldn't make this picture. Go ahead with your reboot, which you've been planning anyway." And [Sony co-chairman] Amy Pascal said, "Thank you. Thank you for not wasting the studio's money, and I appreciate your candor." So we left on the best of terms, both of us trying to do the best thing for fans, the good name of Spider-Man, and Sony Studios.
I know you'd been pursuing Anne Hathaway to star in Spider-Man 4 … she was going to play Felicia Hardy, right?
Did you see her comic-book movie debut in The Dark Knight Rises last year?
I didn't get to see Batman yet, because I've been working nonstop on Oz, but I hear she's great in it. I'm not surprised, because I loved what she was doing with the auditions for Spider-Man 4.
You're no longer attached to the World of Warcraft movie, and now Duncan Jones is making it.
I loved his movie Moon, and I think he's a strikingly talented director. I bet that if anyone can do a great job with it, it's him.
What was the biggest obstacle on that project?
Robert Rodat was working on the script, and it was taking a long time. I think they were getting a little antsy at Legendary, the production company. Actually, what happened was even more complicated, so let me go back a little bit. First, they asked me if I wanted to make it, and I said, "Yes, I love World of Warcraft, and I think it would make a great picture." So I read a screenplay they had that was written by the guys at [Warcraft developer] Blizzard, and it didn't quite work for me. I told them I wanted to make my own original story with Robert, so we pitched it to Legendary and they accepted it, and then we pitched it to Blizzard, and they had reservations, but they accepted it. Then Robert wrote the screenplay, and only once he was done did we realize that Blizzard had veto power, and we didn't know that. And they had never quite approved the original story we pitched them. Those reservations were their way of saying, "We don't approve this story, and we want to go a different way," so after we had spent nine months working on this thing, we basically had to start over. And Robert did start over, but it was taking too long for the people at Blizzard, and their patience ran out. Honestly, I think it was mismanagement on their behalf, not to explain to us that the first story was vetoed long ago. Why did they let us keep working on it? Were they afraid to tell me?
You're reviving the Oz franchise with this film; meanwhile, other filmmakers have taken on the franchises that you left behind, what with last year's Spider-Man reboot and this year's Evil Dead remake.
I didn't see the Spider-Man reboot. I know Marc Webb is a great director, and I love Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, but as much as I love those people and Amy and Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad, I just don't want to go to my girlfriend's wedding, with all due respect. I guess that means I'm a bad loser? I just love her too much! I just have to wait. It would be hard to see her with someone else … with all those other men!
What about the Evil Dead remake? You're involved with that as a producer, and fan anticipation is very high. Is it flattering to realize that this small film you made in 1981 still commands such a loyal following?
I don't look at it that way. Rather, I look at it as, "What a sorry state the world is in that it has come to this!" [Laughs.] The lowest-budget, B-movie, drive-in picture is elevated to this status? That's really how I look at it!