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December 2014
Issue: July 1, 2009

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: SAM RAIMI - 'DRAG ME TO HELL'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — After directing the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi has returned to his horror roots with Drag Me To Hell, which he also co-wrote with his brother Ivan.

It tells the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, Things We Lost in the Fire), a loan officer with a devoted boyfriend, professor Clay Dalton (Justin Long, He’s Just Not That Into You), who makes the mistake of denying a home loan extension to a mysterious old gypsy woman. In retaliation, the old woman places a curse on Christine, transforming her life into a living nightmare that allows Raimi to have plenty of fun with over-the-top visual effects and cartoonish violence that includes exploding eyeballs and — yes — dropping anvils.

Joining in the fun is a team that includes DP Peter Deming (Evil Dead 2, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), production designer Steve Saklad (Juno), editor Bob Murawski (Spider-Man trilogy) and VFX supervisor Bruce Jones. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Raimi (The Evil Dead, A Simple Plan) talks about making the film and his love of post production.

Post: What sort of film did you set out to make?
SAM RAIMI: “A horror film with lots of wild moments and lots of suspense and big shocks that’ll hopefully make audiences jump. But I also wanted to have a lot of dark humor sprinkled throughout.”

Post: What were the biggest challenges?
RAIMI:  “Remembering how to work on a much smaller budget and schedule after doing three Spider-Man films! And without all the tools I had the luxury of having on those films. I knew I’d have to make the adjustment, so it was no surprise, but when I finally got to the set and had to actually adjust, it was a bit hard [laughs]. I spent the last decade doing Spider-Man and you come to rely on a lot of people doing things for you and a lot of help, but it’s refreshing and wonderful to be reminded that, as with most filmmakers, the best way to do it is yourself, with a tight team doing the main jobs.”

Post: The film was edited by Bob Murawski, who has worked on a number of your films, including all three Spider-Man movies,   The Gift and Army of Darkness. Tell us about the editing process.
RAIMI: “He visited the set a few times but was mainly in the editing room — a rented office we had in Santa Monica. He’d come to see how things were going and to let me know if he’d just cut something that wasn’t working the way he’d wanted it to, or to suggest a pick-up shot I should get for a piece he felt we needed in a sequence I hadn’t realized I needed. He’s very detail-oriented and never lets something half-finished out of the editing room. Every single take has been explored and the cuts have been explored. So we’re very close collaborators. But he was mostly watching dailies and making the first cut.”

Post: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
RAIMI: “We spent longer than we’d planned because Alison broke her leg right before a week of re-shoots we were going to do, so we had to wait a couple of months. But the release date was so far away it didn’t impact our schedule. We edited on Avid in that space I mentioned, mixed in Burbank and then did the color grading at Company 3 with Stephen Nakamura [who used da Vinci Resolve. It was CO3’s first start-to-finish feature in 4K.].”

Post: Do you like post?
RAIMI: “I love it. For me, it’s so relaxing, unlike pre-production, which is fraught with anxiety and fear about how we’re going to do things, and production, which is so rushed and a sleepless time and you’re just racing to finish every shot and worrying about focus and so on. So post is soothing and I can watch the film come together, so it’s a time of discovery for me as Bob and I fit all the pieces together.
“I see new possibilities in post, as Bob puts the film together, sometimes in a way I never imagined that two pieces of film could go together, so it yields all these surprising combinations, which is truly thrilling for me. Usually you just see in your mind that one piece will be connected to another and it’ll have a particular effect, but a smart editor like Bob can put shots together in a new way that totally changes what you’d imagined happening.”

Post: Bruce Jones (The Italian Job, Enchanted, Daddy Day Camp) was your VFX supervisor. What did he bring to the mix?
RAIMI:  “He brought a great can-do approach to the film. He felt that any visual effects shot we talked about, he could pull off — even if he didn’t know how to do it at first. He’s got a great team of artists and technicians with him, and he’s got great instincts.”

Post: How many visual effects shots are there, and how did it break down?

RAIMI:  [Laughs] “I’m not sure of the final tally — it was in the hundreds. We used a bunch of different effects houses. Tippett Studio up in the Bay Area was a very big player, and then we also had work done by Amalgamated Pixels, Ghost VFX, KNB Effects, Home Digital, Cinesoup and IE Effects.
“Bob and I kept adding visual effects as post proceeded. In this film, the supernatural, the unseen, is almost another character, so sequences were developed — even in post — that would suggest the presence of the supernatural, and we kept on adding. The same with the sound effects, so it was a very on-going very live process in post.”

Post: Is that unusual, to keep adding effects that late?
RAIMI: “Not for Bob and I. For us, post is a very creative time where it’s not just about this factory producing the blueprinted product. It’s really a very creative, experimental time where we try and take everything that’s been written and then shot to the next level. It’s just a different form of production for us. We’re still making the film as we go.”

Post: What was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?

RAIMI: “For me the most difficult shot was getting my head around the final scene of the film, which takes place in a train station. When I wrote it, I had a misconception about how train stations work. I thought they were all like the ones in New York where the platforms are very high and the train is on the tracks on a bed many feet below. But in LA at Union Station where we shot, the tracks are only six inches lower than the platform, so all the visuals in my mind of how this scene would work, and all the storyboards I’d worked on with my artists, were all really wrong-headed.
“So a lot of the visual effects had to be created to correct all that and make the station look like I’d originally imagined it. And those were visual effects that were needed for almost every shot in the station, and people probably won’t even realize they’re effects shots. I mean, who’d spend the time and money making such effects shots [laughs]?”

Post: How important are sound and music to you?
RAIMI: “They’re crucial in a horror film. We had a great composer, Chris Young, who did a lot of horror films like Hellraiser and who worked with me on Spider-Man 3. And we had a great sound design team on this film. They were so creative and they had the same interest as Bob and I, which was using the soundtrack to create this world that didn’t exist, the world of the supernatural.
“Horror films are a great genre for filming experimentation. Not only can my DP Peter experiment with all sorts of lighting and camera techniques to create this other world, but you can use the soundtrack to give it texture and create an environment that doesn’t exist in the here-and-now.
“We did the mix at The Dub Stage in Burbank and had great mixers — Marti Humphrey and Chris Jacobson — who had amazing abilities to move sounds around and give multi-dimensional experiences through the eyes of the main character. We also created a lot of very unusual sounds and effects, sometimes suggested by Bob in the editing room originally, and then carried on through by our sound effects designers and editors, Paul Ottosson and Jussi Tegelman. Together they created some very strange, scary sounds that suggested things not of this earth. So they had to go to unusual places to plant those seeds in the minds of the audience, and I think they were very successful at it and letting their imaginations run wild.”

Post: How important is the DI?
RAIMI: “Hugely important. I’ve made films in the past without it, years ago. I remember working with lab timers on Evil Dead, Darkman, Army of Darkness, The Gift and A Simple Plan, so I have many years experience of working without it. But nowadays, I’ve become so used to the amount of control that the DI gives you over each and every shot that it would be a huge step backwards not to have it. It’s an increasingly valuable tool and I want my DPs to see their vision all the way through, and that’s why Peter spent a lot of time doing the color grading with Stephen Nakamura, who did all the Spider-Man films for me, to make sure the look of the film was exactly as he wanted it.
“They did a great job on the DI. Bob and I  love working with Stephen. He’s smart and very in tune with how Bob and I work, and he’s got a great eye for color and quality. Bob and I then did additional tweaking out of necessity, but really I try and stick with the original look that the DP and I were going for.”

Post: What’s next?
RAIMI: “The next Spider-Man installment. I’ve started on the storyboards with an artist and doing some sketches of my own, and we’re working on the screenplay. We start shooting next February.”