From cult horror films including The Evil Dead to his blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi is a filmmaker who is hard to pigeonhole. His horror films are simultaneously vicious and humorous, and he invents entire grandiose worlds from his imagination—for example, Oz the Great and Powerful, which stars the great and powerful Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco in the title role. The two recently got together to chat about what went on behind the scenes of Spider-Man and how the director’s messy style of filmmaking has turned into a huge advantage.
FRANCO: What does a director do when faced with developing effects and a story on the scale of Spider-Man or Oz? How do you figure it out?
RAIMI: Experiment, research, talk to experts. You try to explain to artists what you see. The process of directing is one of communication, explaining to the writer and cinematographer how it’s supposed to feel. You communicate with actors about what they want and why. They then lend insight to the characters, because they’re living them inside out. Your vision gradually becomes clearer.
FRANCO: I was a supporting character in all three of your Spider-Man films, and we’ve just finished Oz, in which I play the lead. I felt you gave Tobey Maguire so much attention during Spider-Man because of your feelings for his character, Peter Parker, that I didn’t get as much of your love as he did. On Oz, for the first time I felt your full love as a director.
RAIMI: Yeah, I felt our communication went deeper with this picture.
FRANCO: There was one moment at the end of Spider-Man when we were in a cemetery in New York.
RAIMI: You always mention this.
FRANCO: Maybe I’m wrong about it. It was the last shot of the film, when the characters are burying Norman Osborn, my character’s father. You wanted me to try a couple of different lines.
RAIMI: I’ll have to check the film.
FRANCO: You said, “Say to Parker, ‘You’ll help me avenge my father; we’ll do it together.’” It’s not a bad line, but it sounded weird, so I didn’t say it.
RAIMI: That’s a mild way of putting it. You said, “I’m not saying that stupid line!”
FRANCO: In front of everybody.
RAIMI: But it’s fine. I thought to myself, He knows who this character is. Maybe he realizes he would have more self-control than that and wouldn’t make such a dramatic gesture. I never know why people say the things they do on set, but if an actor I respect doesn’t want to do something, I try to find the truth behind it. You see that as a moment of disrespect, but I see it as being in touch with something. It was an emotional place. You were suffering, feeling anger toward your father, and you weren’t about to say, “Sam, I don’t know why, but this feels wrong.” And that’s okay.
FRANCO: Tobey and Kirsten Dunst became a couple around that time. I had a crush on Kirsten, and I think I was upset about that as well.
RAIMI: Oh, I didn’t know that. Gee, that’s just like the movie.
FRANCO: Exactly. Tobey was mad at me for a while. By the second film we were cool, but that’s another reason I felt hurt, with you giving Tobey all the attention.
RAIMI: And he was getting Kirsten, like the script said he should.
FRANCO: Yes. You were the father who wouldn’t give me the love I needed.
RAIMI: Maybe I had to play Norman, the father, a bit. And you had to play your character, without that father.
FRANCO: Yeah, that’s weird. Let’s talk about Oz. When you were given the script, what did you think you needed to accomplish?
RAIMI: I thought, How does this carnival magician, this charlatan, become great? What seeds are here? I boiled it down to the story of a selfish man who becomes a selfless man and therefore a great wizard, someone who starts caring about other people more than himself. Then I knew how to handle it. I found what I loved about the movie and then enhanced the drama in every scene I could. On set I’d say, “James, how can we keep this struggle of selfishness versus selflessness alive?” How can we keep it realistic and do what the story asks, then go to that next level and keep his conscience alive so the ultimate moment is one the audience has been wrestling with, in the big and small, throughout the journey? If you can do that, it works for me. It’s in the fabric of everything.
FRANCO: I’ve found your working style is free-flowing, at least with actors. But there’s another side of you that’s incredibly meticulous. How do you balance those different approaches?
RAIMI: The best performances happen when you let actors follow their instincts, which is absolutely counter to my job as a director to tell a concise story. I’m always at odds with myself. I need the brilliance of actors without constraints, but I need the formal structure of a well-told narrative. When actors run wild, it yields great performances but destroys structure. What I’m left with is a beautiful thing that needs help. I have to repair that structure afterward, usually more than most directors, because I let it get crazier on set than most. But I’m not afraid of outrageous expressions from actors anymore. It’s the seed of greatness. And I don’t want to see how brilliant that performance will be ahead of time. I want it to be more brilliant than I could ever imagine.