Q&A: Sam Raimi on ‘Doctor Strange’ and his superhero comeback
NEW YORK — Relief was just beginning to overwhelm director Sam Raimi the morning after the premiere of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
The film, which hits theaters on Friday, has been a frantic sprint for the 62-year-old, who took over two and a half years ago after Scott Derrickson left the project over creative differences. Raimi had a script to rearrange but an immutable shooting schedule to stick to.
“Every part of this moviemaking process has been great, but every part of the process has taken too long and gotten a little too intense,” Raimi said, speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles. “I love the writing but the writing never stopped. Michael (Waldron) wrote the script throughout production. And the filming was great, but we had to do some reshoots. Also because of COVID, things got longer.
“But it’s been great,” Raimi added.
Even though his comeback was rushed, Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” kicking off Hollywood’s summer movie season, heralded the return of one of movies’ most beloved genre filmmakers. Raimi engineered the microbudget horror film “The Evil Dead.” (and its more comedic cult sequels, “The Evil Dead 2” and “Army of Darkness”) before his Spider-Man movies, starring Tobey Maguire, helped usher in the era of superheroes that followed.
And, somewhat miraculously, the latest “Doctor Strange” is an identifiable Sam Raimi film, full of playful horror, clever comedic touches and bonkers flashes. He brings a bit of craziness to the multiverse.
AP: This film bears many hallmarks of your work: Bruce Campbell, a book of the dead, and even, briefly, shots from a demon’s perspective. Do you feel like you smuggled a Sam Raimi movie into a Marvel movie?
RAIMI: I was really trying to make a Marvel movie, first of all. I guess everyone does things their own way, not trying to make them specifically anything other than what they were. I was really trying to follow the characters from previous Marvel movies and the “Wandavision” storylines had led and where all the “Avengers” movies had led. But also try to open up the multiverse as Marvel asked writer Michael Waldron for future adventures.
AP: Do you think these films, like any other genre, should bear the fingerprints of their filmmakers?
RAIMI: I think the first responsibility is to tell the story of these characters because it’s, like, episode 27. But I think it’s great that the filmmakers can do that from their own point of view as long as they work in the Marvel box, basically. And it’s a really big sandbox to play in. What they do at Marvel is they really protect the integrity of the characters. As long as you do that and as long as you’re aware of the story elements so you don’t disappoint the fans, I think it’s great that the filmmakers of the Marvel Universe exercise their personality and their style and tell the story with their own sense of panache.
AP: I think of the films “Evil Dead” and “Army of Darkness”, in part, as odes to practical effects. It’s the other end of the spectrum, with extensive CGI anything is possible. How did you adapt?
RAIMI: I love practical effects. It’s my favorite thing to do on set and it’s my favorite thing to watch in movies. But the nature of this film was so great, to travel across the multiverse, the techniques weren’t really worthy of practical effects, major techniques. There are moments for them in this movie, but it really had to be computer generated due to the scope and the amount of travel our characters went through. It would simply have been too expensive and impractical to do so practically. I love practical effects but they take time. With a giant production like this, it’s difficult to film take after take because the tube of blood is visible in the frame or the wire floats.
AP: You have made films with a small budget and unlimited freedom, and films with huge budgets but more necessary elements to juggle. What is better?
RAIMI: I like all jobs. I love the different challenges of making a low-budget film without the creative oversight of others. It’s like playing a musical instrument for an audience, however good you are, it’s all your tune and just how you want to play it. Then something like that, although there are restrictions and expectations, it’s like they give you the best symphony orchestra and say, “You’re not going to play yourself, because we have hired all the best violinists, the best percussionists, the best brass. But we’ll let you drive them.
AP: You hadn’t made a feature film since “Oz the Great and Powerful” in 2013. Since then, you have been producing and doing television for the most part. Had you been looking forward to a chance like this?
RAIMI: I took time to recalibrate my direction as a director. Yes, I was hiding a bit, producing the work of young filmmakers, trying to relearn new ways of doing my work so as not to become stale. I spent a lot of time in my garden thinking about it. So when the call came in for this picture, I was definitely ready to come back. I was hungry to make another film.
AP: Are you surprised at how superhero movies have evolved over the past 15 years, an era that your “Spider-Man” films helped to bring about? You and Stan Lee bought an Iron Man movie a long time ago that nobody wanted to make.
RAIMI: I didn’t expect it to take off in such a gigantic way and become so wildly popular. I recognized that in the work of Stanley and Steve Ditko and all of the Marvel writers and artists, there was so much to make. But I never thought they’d make a movie about Moon Knight, for example, one of their secondary or third-tier characters, or Doctor Strange, who I think was a second-tier character, and who had so much success with them. It took off beyond what I imagined.
AP: You recently said ironically that you wanted to show kids how to take a superhero picture. Is there an element of truth in that? There’s a cinematic playfulness to your films that isn’t always present in comic book adaptations.
RAIMI: No, that statement was my own insecurities, I was wondering, “I wonder if I can still do this after all these years? They do it so well now, with such great characters, such great effects, the stories are really well crafted and put together in the Marvel movies. It’s the insecure me that makes a joke like “I’ll show you!” when in fact it’s like, “I’m terrified. I wonder if I can still do this.
AP: You left “Spider-Man” disappointed with the third film and about to make a fourth. Do you feel like you had unfinished business in the genre? Does doing “Doctor Strange” heal any of these wounds?
RAIMI: It’s a way of that, it’s true. The thing about the unmade “Spider-Man” movie, we left everything very amicably, the studio and the stuff that was Marvel at the time. I just realized that I couldn’t do a good enough script in the time they had to hit a start date. So I said to Sony, “Let’s save money and don’t let the fans down.” Go ahead with this reboot. And they said, “Thank you, we’ll do that.” It was a very amicable split, so I don’t really have any unfinished business on that. Every writer dreams of something they are working on. They want to see it born into the world, so there’s always that. But this movie was very satisfying for me and fun. I loved working with the actors. This satisfied me regarding my solution for superhero images.
AP: What are you interested in doing now?
RAIMI: I’m working on a screenplay with my brother, and I’m working on another at Columbia Pictures. But I do not know. I just have to see what jumps to the surface and shows up.
AP: Is phoning Bruce Campbell an automatic call for you when you have a movie?
RAMI: Absolutely. I call Bruce and I say, “Hey baby.” And he said, “What is it now?” And I say, “I have another movie for you now.” And he says, “When does it start?”
AP: How would you describe your connection to him?
RAIMI: He’s like my brother, partner, most constant collaborator, friend that I lost a long time ago. We communicate so well. He’s my actor in those movies. He’s the guy who understands me better than anyone. He’s a real problem solver, and I think he’s a brilliant comedian and someone who will do anything to be professional and make a movie the best he can.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP