Sam Raimi is several filmmakers in one: the bratty Three Stooges-loving kid who made the Evil Dead pictures; the canny producer of television camp like Xena: Warrior Princess who became a family man while also pursuing a career of "serious" pictures like For the Love of the Game and A Simple Plan. And now, he's the unlikely director of Spider-Man.
The film doesn't feel calculated in most respects, but it is a superhero origin story, intended to launch a series of blockbusters. "We weren't looking at it like that," Raimi, in his ever-present suit and tie, said one recent Saturday in a Los Angeles hotel suite. "We were just trying to take the things we so loved from 40 years of Spider-Man comic books and translate them to the big screen. I think, inherent in those comic books are stories about real people with real problems -- and exciting conflicts. It's a story of one young boy who struggles to become a hero. We had one concern, just one -- taking all that fine material and making a good picture out of it."
Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee's seen it and supposedly liked it. But Raimi is cagey about hearing other responses. "You saw only the second screening. I've started to read reviews. Maybe I shouldn't speak about them. It seems funny. I dunno, I'm just going to wait and see what the real response is. I need a real crowd of kids. This movie has gotta play in front of a crowd of kids, then I'll know what's what. The studio's very happy, so happy they've started work on the new one, and brought me on board. This is supposed to be an audience-pleasing picture. Five hundred twelve-year-olds. Then I'll know.
"With their parents," he adds quickly, "since it's PG-13."
What should Spider-Man give those kids? "Here's what I was thinking about kids. I knew when I got this job, and it's a job I never expected to get, because I loved Spider-Man so much and I never dreamed I'd have the job. You know how some people say, 'It's a dream job'? I didn't even dare to have the dream."
Raimi confesses that as a boy in Detroit, his parents had even given him a painting of Spider-Man in the late 1960s, in the days before ubiquitous posters. "This movie? I knew it would be a money-maker, a big superhero picture. For good or bad, I knew that millions of kids would go to this movie and point to the guy in the mask and be like him. We'd have all this unearned admiration for the person on the screen. So I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to provide somebody, a character on the screen that is worthy of that. I not only wanted to make the parents feel good about it, [but] I didn't want to do a disservice by providing a bad role model. I actually wanted someone worthy of respect. I didn't want to have too much bad language or violence in the picture."
Tobey Maguire makes an unexpectedly good Peter Parker, earnest without being annoying, hopeful without being a Pollyanna. Raimi says the balance comes from relentless preparation. "I think it's hard for the actors to remain in character, but it's our guiding light. If we didn't know exactly where they come from, we'd be lost in any given moment. It's a writing process before it's a directing and an acting process. But if you go through it, you know the right thing to do, you're not guessing. 'Should he stand here or there?' That shouldn't even be a question if you know what he wants."
The events of September 11 led to several scenes being altered, but the Twin Towers have not been removed from the background of shots. While much of Manhattan is stylized on enormous sets and through computer animation, "Erasing them would say that these people with ideas of the mass destruction of innocents would have won. I couldn't do that. We were going to use the scene in the trailer where a helicopter is caught in a web between the Towers, but seeing it with an audience afterwards, it got an enormous cheer. And that was great. But it's the kind of thing you don't want a cheer for; it would take you out of the movie. But when it happened, I wasn't thinking about the movie, honestly. Then, I thought, oh we've got the Twin Towers in the picture."
Raimi, 41, says he's the kind of grown-up kid who would obsessively follow the production on the Internet, "just older. I had to stop listening, though. Their spies in the studios would have reported about some storyboard idea I'd just had, I'd find out all these kids hated the idea. I just had to stop listening to that. The best way to please them is just to follow in my heart what I've always felt about the comic. It's the only honest way to make a picture, not to chase everyone's opinion."
For Ray Pride's full review of Spider-Man, see the Film section on page 35.