Spider's man

Special to The Times

Most of the furnishings in Sam Raimi's office on the Columbia lot seem accidental -- things that have survived the siege of finishing "Spider-Man 2." There's the big monitor on a cart stuffed with playback devices, the tinfoil taped to the windows to keep sunlight (and inquiring eyes?) out, the well-worn couch and coffee table. But what fills the wall behind his desk is clearly no accident -- an American flag that's about as long as Raimi, at 5 feet 9 inches, is tall.

Since Hollywood is a part of our nation where the "stars and bars" in most directors' lives are not hung on the wall, and given that the very last images of his film feature a pair of such flags waving in the breeze after his hero has created them on a typical web-slinging swing down a Manhattan avenue, the question seems inevitable: What do the flags mean to Raimi? "It's the way New York is," the director says, with just a hint of a grin at the slight misdirection in his answer (he's generally as free of pretense and equivocation as a tactful man can be), "and, um, I just love this country. I'm so happy to be here. My kids aren't persecuted for their religion. All rights are protected; no one comes and slaughters you for anything you might think or believe. An incredible place."

It's so rare to hear this George M. Cohan brand of straight-up patriotism in Hollywood these days that both director and questioner sit mute for a moment. "Spider-Man 2" (opening Wednesday), with its often somber fixation on the price Peter Parker pays for being a superhero, and its moralizing refrains uttered by key players, sets the stage for an interview with Biblical overtones.

The crucial context for what Raimi is saying came earlier, as he discussed how one particular relative from his father's Jewish family fled the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Holocaust, while others his father tried to help failed to escape. But he's also said that his feelings and fears about that history are almost unutterable, and the family bloodline has been effaced in any event: "I don't want to go see that place, wherever it was in Poland. I've never even ... I don't even know the city, but nobody's alive. They're all gone."

Raimi, hunched forward in a chair literally minutes after concluding his final edit of the film, lets slip another elfin smile without changing the sidelong but attentive gaze that marks his conversational style. "I was raised a Conservative Jew in Detroit," he explains, "and I still practice Judaism now with my family here in Los Angeles, and I try to live a moral life. That's very important to me. This movie is a story of a hero, and I know all these kids are coming to see this picture, these Spider-Man movies, and look at Spider-Man as their hero. And I want to make sure that the movie has a positive portrayal -- a good role model of somebody who is good of heart and is faced with conflict and perhaps makes the hard choices, but the right choices, to be this hero. So that this admiration that is given to these superheroes in these movies is earned by Tobey Maguire and the character of Peter Parker."

A segue from the pogroms of Eastern Europe to the putatively fun summer blockbuster that is "Spider-Man 2" might seem much more difficult with anyone but Raimi. But the 44-year-old director, who five years ago was somewhere between struggling and successful, is not one to leave a pall in any room. "He's a special duck, this guy," says Avi Arad, the head of Marvel Studios, whose searching intelligence and P.T. Barnum-scale enthusiasm have created a comics-spawned trademark the film industry prizes. "You take a director like him, who really believes in family and country, and it all sounds such B.S., but it's not."

Arad cites a scene about midway through "Spider-Man 2" in which Parker, played again by Maguire, gently questions his adoptive mother, Aunt May, about a foreclosure notice. "The important statement in the scene is that everybody falls behind sometimes. [Raimi] is dealing with everyday life of real people, and Sam stayed 'real people' in his own unique way -- a successful director who will only drive American cars. And you know, with him, it's not corny. It's a way of life."

Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal met Raimi in 1989 when she hired him to write and direct a Fox television project. (The project was never filmed.) In 2001 she hired him again, as a surprise choice to direct the first "Spider-Man." Pascal recalls the evening the first "Spidey" opened, May 3, 2002. She, along with Maguire, producers Laura Ziskin, Grant Curtis and Arad and several Sony execs, "decided to get a van" to ferry them around the city's theaters to see how the turnstiles were flipping. They selected Morton's restaurant, where film world swells hang out, as a rendezvous. "It got to be 7:30, then past that, and no Sam," she recalls. Finally Curtis was inspired to check for Raimi at Arnie Morton's, described in the Zagat Survey as an "old school" steakhouse. There the resolutely untinseled Raimi and his Ford Crown Victoria ("It's built in Missouri, I think," he'll inform you) were found.

The evening soon improved as Pascal et al. began to get the numbers from Sony marketing chief Jeff Blake. They had hoped to challenge "Harry Potter's" vaunted $90-million opening weekend six months earlier. Blake's report that the Friday-night box office was headed for nearly $40 million went down well with the Champagne; ultimately the weekend would edge toward $115 million. And although "Shrek 2" made a good run at it on May 21 of this year, "Spider-Man" is still the record holder.

Earlier this month, Pascal emerged from a successful press junket screening here of "Spider-Man 2" and, accompanied by several key execs, stood near at hand while Raimi signed autographs and shook hands with some of the 300 regular folks who'd been recruited for the screening (and who greatly enjoyed Parker's descent into first-act agony, augmented by the onset of Alfred Molina's tentacled villain, Doc Ock). "We just wanted to high-five Sam," Pascal says, "but first he was there for 45 minutes talking to every kid who wanted to give him notes on the movie."

Pascal can afford a little patience with Raimi; though no one wants to spit out a number, she and the crowd who sat at Morton's that night seem quite optimistic that "Spider-Man 2" stands a fair chance of beating not just the weekend record but the ultimate tally for its predecessor, which at $403 million in domestic receipts is the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time. For Raimi, who wasn't party to the first film's back-end profit participation cornucopia, which reportedly made Ziskin $25 million richer, it's finally a large-scale payday -- he's got back-end points this time. Raimi and his wife and children (he declines, as a security precaution, to enumerate the "gaggle") recently moved to a house in a quiet Westside neighborhood, where they hope soon to install a U.S.-manufactured hybrid SUV in the driveway. "So yeah," he says with all the glee of a man planning a visit to the DMV, "I'm about to come into the big cash."

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Family affairs

RAIMI's younger brother Ted is seen in both "Spider-Man" pictures as Hoffman, the beleaguered assistant to irascible publisher J. Jonah Jameson. Older brother Ivan is an emergency room doctor back in Michigan when he's not assisting Sam, who is the third of Leonard and Cecile Raimi's five children. Ivan's helping Sam shape a script ("a character study, but with action") for Russell Crowe, and kibitzes on Sam's work as a producer. (Sam's shingle with longtime partner Robert Tapert, Ghost World Pictures, is bringing out a remake of a Japanese horror film called "The Grudge," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, this fall.) Ivan's been generally uncredited for his work on his brother's films, including not just the two "Spider-Man" films thus far but one that's currently being prepared as the third installment in the saga. "I've been signed on to write it," Sam says, in one of the self-deprecating asides that prompt you to scrutinize him for an irony that refuses to fully show itself, "and I hope to direct it."

When he was about 12, his mother decided to start a now-thriving lingerie business ("Yes, I could've been the bra king of Michigan had I stayed there"). "She told me, 'Sam, you know how I clean the house and cook you dinner every night? ... I'm not going to do that anymore. You're going to make dinner for the family every night, and the whole family is going to clean the house, and I'm going to do what I want to do now.' And I thought, 'Mom, that's not right. Wait a minute, Mom! What have you been reading? Please. You know, I'm 12 years old.... I've got to watch "The Three Stooges." I've got things to do. Got to rake leaves for money to make my Super 8 movies.' "

That was the same year his parents paid $30 to have a local painter execute a large "Spider-Man" painting for Sam's bedroom wall; his brother Sander had converted him from Superman and DC Comics (though Ziskin will affirm that they admired Richard Donner's treatment of "Superman" for film and consider it a model of the genre) to the deeper fare: "The Marvel writers and Stan Lee gave you a good dose of anguish," Raimi says. "And they also gave you some great girl-watching and great romance."

When their Detroit neighborhood "turned dangerous" with muggers, his family moved northwest of the city to Franklin, and soon thereafter he entered Michigan State University, lasting two years before he dropped out to make his first feature with Tapert, his creative partner then and now. Part of the team was Bruce Campbell, who'd become the teeth-gnashing Ash of Raimi's "Evil Dead" film and its sequel, as well as the entertainingly histrionic lead of "Army of Darkness." Campbell is seen quietly noshing scenery as the impossible usher guarding the door to Mary Jane Watson's Broadway play in a turning-point sequence in "Spider-Man 2."

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An unassuming start

The crucial thing to be said about Raimi's early horror-flick career, and even about his middle period of mainstream films -- "The Quick and the Dead," "For Love of the Game," "The Gift" and the critically lauded "A Simple Plan" -- is that it hardly seemed to be the crescendoing directorial run that would lead Pascal and Sony creative exec Matt Tolmach to hand him the reins of a franchise for which they'd fought 18 years to control the rights.

"He oozed goodness," is how Arad remembers the key meeting on the Sony lot. Says Tolmach, "We struggle with decisions all day long. Not that one. He was clearly a guy with enormous heart and conviction and love of the characters. What Sam is doing with Peter Parker is telling a very real story about a very real character in the context of a superhero movie." Ziskin sees it this way: "What you discover is that the really good directors put themselves on the screen -- their essential qualities. And Sam's defining characteristic is his great humanity."

After supervising several rewrites on the initial "Spider-Man," Tolmach found himself in charge of a screenwriter bake-off on "Spider-Man 2" that's resulted in a story credit shared by David Koepp and the team of Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, a thank-you and a payday for Michael Chabon (responsible for, among others, a wry pizza-delivery scenario), and a sole screenwriter credit for veteran Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People"): "Alvin brought all that emotional depth and realism," Tolmach says. "These are not movies about spectacular special effects and set pieces, though God knows we have them -- but I think all that in Sam's mind would be meaningless if you weren't dying inside for this kid."

Kirsten Dunst, subject of many a lingering Raimi close-up as her Mary Jane Watson struggles to awaken the decisiveness Peter so lacks ("I'm sure Peter's a virgin -- he's like a little boy in so many ways"), found Raimi ever alert to the actors' needs: "Sam is open, and I'm so impressed because he's always being asked to see this or that while we're shooting [Raimi's design and computer graphics teams were catching up to revisions even as he shot the film], and he still has time to look me in the eye and talk to me about the scene; he knows that's the most important thing."

Maguire, referring to a delicate moment opposite Rosemary Harris' Aunt May, recalls, "He makes it quiet, he makes the set as thin as it can be and gives me whatever time I need, and then it becomes a small movie set -- like a little independent film movie set, but one where you have a decent amount of money and you can take your time." Maguire famously almost didn't make the film after his reps told the producers that his back was in danger of permanent damage from the rigors of "Seabiscuit," but he says the misunderstanding was ironed out without rancor. As for the scene where Parker takes a monumental pratfall and staggers off holding his sore back, the actor demurs at calling it "a wink to the audience ... but I was aware some people would probably get that."

As self-effacing as Raimi seems to be, he's clearly confident in his knowledge of his title character and, more important to him, of the boy-becoming-a-man inside the suit. Parker suffers reverse after reverse early in the film -- financially, romantically, career-wise and spiritually. For this Raimi has no apologies. "Peter is on a journey toward responsibility in this second 'Spider-Man' film, and he's wrestling with all the sacrifices we all have to make to be responsible. He's learning what the cost of being responsible is, and I wanted him to live sort of a life out of balance. The audience loves to watch Peter Parker be punished, though -- they really do -- and in doing it, they punish themselves. It's a weird business.

"I didn't think, 'Is this too dark, or is this too down in the first act, for it to be a big global hit?' Global hits usually aren't so down and miserable. But what I did say to myself was that I've got to satisfy this audience, and what they seemed to be attracted to in the first picture were the characters.

"So I need to delve into the characters deeper now to truly satisfy them. They don't want more special effects. They don't want bigger spectacle. They want a continuation of the story that becomes more complex and that takes them to a fuller understanding of who these people are."

In the first "Spider-Man," our hero saves the day when Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin attacks the World Unity Day festival, and he goes swinging through the streets whooping. That's not unlike the feeling at the end of the film's sequel. Does Raimi feel that one occasion when the sin of pride is justified is when one has helped society?

"Don't you? I do. I do, and I think everybody does. We all want to do good for each other, and stories of heroes -- I think that's their worth -- remind us that's right. That 'I too want to risk something to help others, to have this wonderful feeling about myself just like I do for this character I identify with when he does the right thing.' That's why we like these stories. They show us the way."

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On the Web

To see scenes from "Spider-Man 2," visit www.calendarlive.com /spiderman2.

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Fred Schruers can be contacted at calendar@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday June 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction Columbia executive -- Today's Calendar section article on Sam Raimi, director of the "Spider-Man" movies, refers to Matt Tolmach as a Sony creative exec. Tolmach is president of production at Columbia Pictures. For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction American flag -- Sunday's Calendar section article on Sam Raimi, director of the "Spider-Man" movies, noted that an American flag filled the wall behind his desk. The phrase "stars and bars," which refers to a Confederate flag, was used in error to describe it. It should have said "Stars and Stripes." For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 04, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction Columbia executive and American flag -- Last Sunday's Calendar story on Sam Raimi, director of the "Spider-Man" movies, referred to Matt Tolmach as a Sony creative exec. Tolmach is president of production at Columbia Pictures. Also in that story, there was a reference to an American flag filling the wall behind Raimi's desk. The phrase "Stars and Bars" to describe it was used in error; it should have said "Stars and Stripes," because the former refers to a Confederate flag.
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