Sam Raimi on Oz The Great And Powerful and Evil Dead

Oz (James Franco) and Glinda  (Michelle Williams) in Oz the Great and Powerful. Picture: Contributed
Oz (James Franco) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) in Oz the Great and Powerful. Picture: Contributed
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Sam Raimi has two new films in cinemas: a Disney family movie, and a remake of The Evil Dead. They’re not as far apart as you might think, says Alistair Harkness

There’s a moment in Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney’s new prequel to The Wizard of Oz, that could only have come from the director of The Evil Dead. It takes place during the film’s black-and-white, Kansas-set prologue, and involves the movie’s eventual hero, a callow carnival conjuror by the name of Oscar Diggs (James Franco). As Oscar – Oz to his friends – prepares for a magic show, he does a throwaway trick that results in flames shooting across the screen.

Sam Raimi. Picture: Getty

Sam Raimi. Picture: Getty

No big deal in itself, except that Sam Raimi isn’t content with confining these flames to the Academy ratio frame he’s deployed in tribute to the monochrome opening of the beloved 1939 movie. Instead he has them dart into the black space on either side of the screen, as if they’re escaping the film itself.

It’s a neat cinematic trick. On the one hand, it creates the illusion that the magical world L Frank Baum first envisioned in 1900 (and explored in a further 13 books) is so potent that it’s ready to burst through into the landscape of this film before Oz even has a chance to be whisked away from Kansas by a tornado. On the other, it feels emblematic of a director whose films harness so much chaos and energy it often feels as if the screen might not be able to contain it.

“That is how I approach filmmaking,” chuckles Raimi. “In Oz, there is a kind of magic lurking everywhere that is just waiting to be discovered and when I have my right head on, that’s really how I feel about real life.”

When he was growing up in Detroit in the late 1960s, The Wizard of Oz was certainly one of the things that opened Raimi’s eyes to that kind of magic. It was his favourite movie “times five” and he remembers it being the most touching movie he’d ever seen, but also the scariest. “That Wicked Witch … God, just the threat of her was so real. It affected me so strongly.”

What it didn’t do, surprisingly, was inspire him to become a filmmaker (at least, not consciously). “My father’s home movies were what really set me on the path to directing,” he says. He vividly recalls how, for instance, he would sit in amazement, watching footage of his fifth birthday party, thinking that his father was some kind of magician because scenes of kids eating cake and leaving his party would swiftly be followed by shots of them arriving at his house.

“He’d placed the reels in the wrong order,” laughs Raimi, “but to me it was like, my father is a genius, he’s somehow captured reality and manipulated the flow of time.”

This realisation sounds like his own Wizard of Oz, pulling-back-the-curtain moment. “That’s true,” says Raimi. “I suppose Oz is a magician and he’s putting on a big magic show with gags and gimmicks and I feel that way as a filmmaker.”

Surprisingly Raimi didn’t exactly jump at the chance to make Oz the Great and Powerful. When he first heard about the script, he actually refused to read it: “I regarded the original film so highly that I didn’t want to consider upsetting fans with another version of it.”

In the end, what appealed to him was the idea of exploring the origins of the eponymous wizard. In this version – reverse engineered from what we know about the character from the original film and the books – Oz has been conceived as a bit of a selfish dreamer. He wants greater things for himself, but when he’s transported to Oz – which Raimi refers to as “the land of second chances” – he finds great power and responsibility thrust upon him before he’s ready to deal with either, something that forces him to bluff his way through an increasingly dangerous situation until he’s ready to become the hero he needs to be. In this respect, the character is not a million miles away from Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy, Peter Parker in Spider-Man, or Norville Barnes, the guileless hero of The Hudsucker Proxy (which Raimi co-wrote for the Coen brothers).

“You know, once you say that, I guess I can see that that’s probably true, but I don’t like to analyse my own movies so much.” A beat. “Hey that’s your job, you’re the film critic; you gotta do that!”

OK, then. I suggest that perhaps he identifies with this type of character because he was barely out of his teens when Evil Dead unexpectedly propelled him into the high-pressure, money-oriented, business end of the film industry. Raimi doesn’t completely shoot down this theory, telling me in great detail about how ill-prepared he was even to make a horror movie and how, after bluffing his way through production, he ended up with a film no-one in America wanted to release.

“I showed it to distributors and they were like, ‘Kid, you’re out of your mind. You’re giving us 90 minutes of The Exorcist with none of the characters or set up.’”

It was a depressing time and things only started looking up when the film was released in the UK. “Britain is the land of second chances for me. Britain is my Oz. It was the only place that would show Evil Dead.” He remembers with great affection the promotional tour he undertook, particularly landing in Scotland with film’s special effects artist in tow. “We got pulled over at immigration and they found body parts in our bags: there were legs, an arm, a hand and a bloody head. It made for an uneasy experience.”

UK audiences loved it, though, propelling it to No 1 in the charts, which led to the film getting a US distribution deal. “If it wasn’t for the good – or bad – taste of the people of Britain, I wouldn’t be here as a filmmaker today,” he says with a chortle.

The film was subsequently vilified here as one of the main focal points for the “video nasty” debacle of the 1980s, something that made for a delicious irony when Raimi was entrusted to make the kid-friendly Spider-Man films.

That he’s been able to move in this direction without sanitising said material, though, is one of the pleasures of seeing Raimi tackle something like Oz.

“Without the darkness, it hard to have that contrasting light or brightness or sweetness,” he says when I ask how he judges the level of intensity he can get away with in a family film. “You need something for the people to fear so the hero can rise up against it.”

As for his own initial fears that fans of the original might take against any attempt to reboot Baum’s stories for a new generation, he’s sanguine about the process. It’s an issue that’s been much on his mind of late, not least because a remake of Evil Dead is about to hit cinemas, produced by Raimi and Bruce Campbell (the star of the original films) but directed and co-written by newcomer Fede Alverez.

For fans of the original worried that it will somehow diminish Raimi’s film, he’d like to impart the lesson that he learned last week when he finally sat down to watch last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man. “I’d been afraid to see it because I was so in love with Spider-Man that I didn’t want another filmmaker to make it. Then I read myself saying that and thought, ‘You must be a jerk, Sam. Just watch the damn thing. You love Spider-Man.’ So I did and it was fantastic. Letting go was a very freeing experience.”

But if Evil Dead fans find can’t quite follow this advice, they can perhaps take heart from the fact that Raimi says he is “still thinking about the possibility of working with Bruce again” on another sequel. I tell him that when I interviewed Campbell a couple of years ago, he seemed reluctant to do another one because they’d go to all the trouble of making a fourth film and the fans would complain that it “wasn’t as good as Army of Darkness”.

“Well, Bruce is his own man, whom I respect,” laughs Raimi. “But when it comes to Evil Dead, if I tell that son-of-a-gun to get into that blue shirt and pick up that shotgun and that chainsaw, he’s going to do it. He’s my actor.”

• Oz The Great And Powerful is in cinemas from tomorrow. Evil Dead follows on 19 April.