From ‘Spider-Man’ to ‘Doctor Strange’: How Sam Raimi Conquered the Superhero Multiverse (Again)
In his only extended interview for ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,’ Sam Raimi goes deep on his superheroic comeback — and looks back on his whole singular career
For Sam Raimi, the final weeks of making his first superhero movie since he helped kick-start the genre’s modern era with his Spider-Man trilogy are pure multitasking madness. From his home in Los Angeles, the director is working on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in three places at once — virtually watching over composer Danny Elfman laying down a score with an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London, while also listening in on actors rerecording dialogue, and supervising the movie’s sound mix.
It all fits with a process that also had screenwriter Michael Waldron (who brought a deft comic touch to the Disney+ show Loki) finishing the screenplay while Raimi was in the process of shooting the movie. He’d taken over the project after Scott Derrickson, who directed the first Doctor Strange in 2016, exited the sequel, citing “creative differences”; with a script to redo and a shooting deadline already in place, Raimi was behind schedule before he’d even started.
But Raimi seems to relish the chaotic creation of this latest Doctor Strange movie, which hits theaters May 6th. After all, he made the gonzo indie horror classic The Evil Dead at age 20 for a mere $350,000, inventing camera techniques and pioneering new levels of homemade makeup grotesqueries as he went. Multiverse is essentially a direct sequel to three different Marvel properties: the original Doctor Strange, last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the Disney+ TV show WandaVision, with Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff on board as the film’s second lead character.
“It’s a really complex movie,” says Raimi, who used reshoots earlier in 2022 in part to clarify the story. “It’s probably the most complex movie I’ve ever had anything to do with. Not just dealing with one character, or even five characters, but multiversal versions of those characters — and each one has a storyline.”
In an age when “visionary director” has become a marketing cliché, Raimi is the real thing, his camera a living, even violent presence in his films. Career high points range from his absurdist horror masterpiece Evil Dead 2 (1987) and the comic-book-movie-without-the-comic-book Darkman (1990) to the masterful, noirish drama A Simple Plan (1998). And, of course, the aforementioned Spider-Man movies, which helped pave the way for Marvel’s current multiplex domination.
Raimi hadn’t made a movie since 2013, but at age 62, he’s ready for a whole new chapter — and as he reveals, maybe even another Spider-Man film. “I’m hoping to find my next project very quickly,” he says, “and keep it on the floor, as they say. I feel invigorated by this movie.”
How are you feeling at this point in the process?
I feel very good. When we started, we had a deadline to start shooting with a script that I didn’t really have anything to do with. And [screenwriter] Michael Waldron, [producer] Richie Palmer, the team at Marvel, and myself pretty much had to jump in and start over. I was very rushed and panicked — a lot of trepidation. But we kept working through it. And for us, the Covid delays were a blessing because it bought us more time to work on the script. We eventually got to the point where we had started shooting, even though we were still working on the script, and it went really well. Now I feel much more relieved. That part of the process is behind us.
WandaVision was supposed to come after this movie, which shifted some of the story and continuity, right? How did those changes work?
I’m not really sure what the WandaVision schedule was or how it changed. I just know that halfway, or maybe three-quarters of the way into our writing process, I’d first heard of this show they were doing and that we would have to follow it. Therefore, we had to really study what WandaVision was doing, so we could have a proper through line and character-growth dynamic. I never even saw all of WandaVision; I’ve just seen key moments of some episodes that I was told directly impact our storyline.
There’s always a larger plan at work in the MCU. How much creative freedom did you have here?
Well, let me say — and this may sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth — that Marvel allowed me complete creative freedom. However, it had to follow so many things in Marvel lore, [so] even though I had complete freedom, the previous movies and where Marvel wants to go in the future really directed the path in an incredibly specific way. Within those parameters I have freedom, but I’ve got to tell the story of those characters in a way that ties in with all of the properties simultaneously. We had to make sure, for instance, that Doctor Strange didn’t know more than he had learned about the multiverse from No Way Home. And yet we had to make sure he wasn’t ignorant of things that he had already learned. So everything was dictated by what had become before.
Spider-Man: No Way Home was also originally supposed to be after this movie, right?
Yes, it was all on the fly. “Now this is happening. Now that’s happening.” It was a fun juggling game. I guess it must be like that for all of the directors and writers of these very big Marvel properties that now have a long history. It was a very chaotic, wonderful, creative — I don’t want to use the word “mess,” because that’s unfair — but it was just a cascade of ideas. We’d take the best ones and quickly weave together the fabric of this universe. It was very exciting, actually.
Do you feel like audiences have a certain desensitization to this type of fantastic spectacle now — that you have to keep upping the ante?
I think that’s been true for every filmmaker in every decade. When King Kong came out [in 1933], a lot of filmmakers must’ve had heart attacks. I mean, I’d watch a movie like E.T. when it first came out and think, “Oh, my God, what am I doing in this business? I’ll never make a movie that brilliant.” But as filmmakers, we’re also inspired. As much as it is a terrifying prospect to see something like that, it also sends a message that it’s possible. And I think filmmakers turn to new technologies, new ideas. There’s always ways to up the game.
Still, from the very first shot of Evil Dead, you could tell that there was something unique about your work. No one moves the camera like you. Where did that come from?
It came from limitations and trying to solve them. With Evil Dead, we couldn’t build the monster — so we had to just use its point of view. And we tried to add as much strangeness to that point of view as possible, because the audience would use whatever was given them there to build their own monster in their head. So we put a big, wide lens on the camera to make it distorted around the edges. We put it on a stick that we could raise up and lower down over objects — it was literally flying. Other times I would tape it to my hand and wave my arm up and down as I was running, trying to keep it as smooth and eerie as possible. I guess we learned our most important filmmaking lesson, which is that the audience can always create something in their mind more effectively than we can show them. We just have to provide the right tools for them to build that monster.
You’ve said you had concerns about taking this movie on, because of your Spider-Man 3 experience and some of the negative reactions to that film.
Yeah, because these characters are so beloved, and you’ve got to tread very carefully. I have a sense of the absurd that maybe people don’t want to see applied to their most-beloved superheroes. You’ve got to step gingerly when working with iconic characters. So for a time I thought, maybe it’s best that I don’t mix with these much-beloved characters. I don’t want to be untrue to them or myself.
And then I got a call from my agent, saying, “There’s an opening on Doctor Strange 2, are you interested?” I just said, “What the hell? Yeah, let’s make it.” I love Doctor Strange. The first movie was great, very original. I was intrigued with Benedict Cumberbatch, and I realized, “Oh, Kevin Feige is now the head of Marvel?” So I would work for a boss that I respected. All those things had a big hand in it.
Kevin Feige worked on your Spider-Man movies. What do you remember of him back then?
He was a hardworking young man who was working closely with Avi Arad, who was [then] the head of Marvel. Kevin was always there doing work behind the scenes and on set. Thank goodness I was nice to the kid!
Just goes to show you.
Yeah. Hi boss! [laughs]
What struck you about the way Benedict created different versions of Doctor Strange in this movie?
Noticing the little nuances that Benedict would come up with to differentiate his alter-self. Subtleties, waves of movement, distinct style of speech. He really is an actor’s actor, and he uses all the tools at his disposal quite elegantly. You can call “Action” and then just lose yourself in his performance over the next two and a half minutes. You just have to remember to call “Cut,” because he’s so spellbinding.
What characters or actors surprised you the most?
I think Benedict Wong. I didn’t know how funny he was in person, or how lively of a presence he was on set. He’s really super creative, and a great joy to work with. He really brings an energy and a sense of fun to his work that the movie really needs.
When I talked with Elizabeth Olsen, it was clear she has a very strong sense of who Wanda Maximoff is. How did that affect things?
She had just come from that Emmy Award-winning show all about her character and the character’s growth. So it would be foolhardy to try and tell her who her character is or what her character was feeling at that moment. I can craft the the story going forward with her, but she’s got to be an integral part of the storytelling or it wouldn’t make any sense.
What aspects of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange were you most fond of?
I loved how it was infused with some Eastern philosophy. He really showed us such cool mind trips, like the astral forms and what it was like to take on, in a visual way, a larger consciousness. I thought that it was awe-inspiring, some of the visuals and sequences that he did. We were able to take his lead and try to move forward with something along those lines as well.
What, in your opinion, did Michael Waldron end up bringing to the screenplay process?
Wow, that guy is great. He brought an incredible imagination, and absolute awareness of Marvel history. So he really is like an expert in these characters, their interactions, their backstories. I would be dead without that. But then he brought a super-fertile imagination. He loves to have the characters interact with each other, and really show them for who they are and what their problems are. So he’s like a novelist, writing a Marvel comic book. And it’s great because that’s what’s so unique about Stan Lee’s Marvel superheroes — it’s the human aspect of them, their flaws, their mistakes, their personality quirks. Michael loves that Doctor Strange is a little bit of an egotist and has a problem with insecurity.
What were the main goals of the reshoots you ended up doing late in the process?
There’s a lot of points where the audience says, “I don’t understand this. I don’t understand this concept.” Or, “I’m aware of this concept, and then you explained it again in the third act.” “Oh, you’re right. The audience knows that already.” Or: “They had to know that in order to accept this next story beat.” A lot of it is test screenings, learning what is confusing on a complex picture like this, or learning things that have overstayed their welcome. Recognizing when something is too slow, and even though it’s a proper beat to put in, the audience doesn’t need it. They can figure that out on their own, so what seemed like a logical step now becomes, in the editing process, “Hmm. That’s slowing us down. Let’s skip it and let the audience make the leap themselves.” But it’s also about recognizing what they really like, and sometimes expanding those things that they’re really reacting well to. It’s recognizing what’s original about the picture, and when you’ve got the opportunity to, expanding upon that.
Did you see this Doctor Strange movie as a sort of chance for redemption after Spider-Man 3? There are many enjoyable things about that movie, by the way, though you’ve said some awful things about it.
I know. It was a very painful experience for me. I wanted to make a Spider-Man movie to redeem myself for that. [The aborted] Spider-Man 4 — that was really what that was about. I wanted to go out on a high note. I didn’t want to just make another one that pretty much worked. I had a really high standard in my mind. And I didn’t think I could get that script to the level that I was hoping for by that start date.
So, then, what’s this movie about for you?
This one’s really more about having enjoyed the Marvel movies quite a bit and wondering, “Do I still have what it takes to be able to make those?” I remember how hard it was — it’s like a marathon. And it’s like, “Yes, I do have it in me. I’m going to show those kids how to make a superhero picture.” [Laughs.] I’m joking. But it did have something to do with it. Things have changed since I made those Spider-Man films. New technologies, new techniques, and the development of techniques that we had a hand in implementing back in the day into new, bigger and better systems. So it was fascinating to jump back into a superhero movie 20 years after I had made the first Spider-Man.
What are some examples of the technologies from that era that you’re excited to see progressing?
Well, as simple as [legendary visual effects supervisor] John Dykstra coming down to visit me on the movie I was making called The Gift, saying, how do you want to bring about Spider-Man? And I said, “Well, John, I’ve been thinking about making a rig that we would attach to a skyscraper. And we would have to have pretty big engines on this thing to be able to drive it downward and fly over other buildings. And he said, “If you try and make a device like that, you’ll end up killing people. I’m going to stop you right now, Sam. That’s never going to work.” I said, “Then what are we going to do?” He said, “I believe that we can do it in CGI.”
And I told him I’d never seen a CGI character that I would believe as a human being. He said, “Well, look. We don’t have the tools to do it right now, Sam. But if we start developing them, the technology can be ready by the time we need it. And I thought, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. I said, “I’m in.”
What do you miss most from the Spider-Man movie that you never made?
I miss the really great cameo we had designed for Bruce Campbell.
The rumor was that he was supposed to play Mysterio.
That was one of the possibilities. We had other things in mind, too, but that was one of them. And I missed Kraven the Hunter. We were going to work that character into the next Spider-Man; I always wanted to see Kraven fight Spider-Man on the big screen. I thought that would be really unique. He’s the ultimate hunter, and Spider-Man is like the most agile trickster of the skies. And I wanted to see Peter continue forward as a human being.
From the stuff that was beloved to the stuff that was not so beloved — what lessons did you take from that Spider-Man trilogy when you went into Multiverse of Madness?
Oh, that’s a good question. I guess the lesson would be [to] really follow what you believe in. I think if I had done that a little bit more in the end, then [Spider-Man 3] would’ve been a little better.
Can one do that in the context of Hollywood? Is that possible?
Yes. But sometimes it gets very difficult. By the time that Spider-Man 3 was in preproduction, I think Sony was aware that “Wait a minute, this is an asset of ours now. This is a big income-generating thing. This can’t go unsupervised. This needs to be controlled.” I think that had something to do with it.
©Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures/Everett Collection
Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is back as part of the Marvel multiverse thanks to No Way Home. So would you be open to making some version of a Spider-Man movie again, after all this time?
If there was a great story there, I think it’d be … my love for the characters hasn’t diminished one iota. It would be the same things that would stop me now that stopped me then: “Does Tobey want to do it? Is there an emotional arc for him? Is there a great conflict for this character? And is there a worthy villain that fits into the theme of the piece?” There’s a lot of questions that would have to be answered. If those could be answered, then I’d love to.
Part of what made your Spider-Man movies work is that they really were Peter Parker’s story — and the simplicity, humanity, and sweetness of the love story, which wasn’t necessarily what people expected from you.
That was something that I always found so appealing in Stan Lee’s Spider-Man comic books: that Peter Parker had a love story going on. And in fact, there were two different women that he was interested in over the course of his series. But I remember as a kid thinking “I got to get the next Spider-Man comic book, because I’m really into the romance of it.” Not that I would tell the other boys at school, because I was embarrassed.
Kirsten Dunst said that you gave her a sort of a scrapbook of famous movie kisses to prepare for the upside-down kiss. What was your thinking there?
Oh, I just wanted to let her know that this was a very special moment for the movie, and I wanted to communicate it in some way that some moments can be remembered for a long, long time if they’re done right. I just wanted to gear her up, to let her know that she’s going to be great in this, and that I wanted some of her Kirsten Dunst magic in that moment. And I think, once we had that meeting, she turned her head around to it and put on her performance magic, which Tobey did, too. They really made something special.
There’s also a certain eroticism to that moment, which is something that subsequent superhero movies haven’t always been able to touch on, even as gently as you did. It’s a tricky thing to incorporate, and yet it’s inherent in the material if you’re willing to bring it out.
Yeah. Those Spider-Man comic books, they really have sexy characters in them: all of these latex, spandex superheroes. That’s always been an aspect of the comic books. It’s some of the best boy-watching or girl-watching — if you’re a teenage kid — that’s around.
I’m not sure everyone realizes that you and Stan Lee went around trying to get a Thor movie made way back in the early 1990s. What were those experiences like?
They were great. We worked on a story based on his Thor stories, then we took it around to pitch to the different studios — and I couldn’t believe that they didn’t regard [Lee] more highly back then. This was probably 1991 or something, and he was treated like just another writer. “Oh, great. You write comic books. Big deal.” I remember going to eight different studios, and then looking at eight different rejection slips, saying “How could they say no to this?” They’d say things like, “People are kind of touchy about their gods,” and I’d go, “Yes, but it’s not like a religious picture. He’s the God of Thunder!” They so didn’t get it.
It was around that time that you’d said you were worried about being too associated with genre material, and then you made several movies, like A Simple Plan, that were far less genre-driven. In your mind, did you think you were moving beyond the types of films you’d made earlier in your career forever?
I mean, if I said I thought a certain type of genre was trapping me, I didn’t mean to say that. I’ve always looked at genre films as the place where I can get another job when things go bad. I can keep telling stories there. But I do remember after Army of Darkness came out, a reporter saying to me, “Is this going to be your last movie? Because you seem to be just doing all the same old tricks.” I just went, “Oh, my God, really?”
And so, it was after that I thought, “I don’t want to be doing the same old tricks. I want to be trying to do new things.” I tried to branch out, doing different things that I hadn’t done before — like a Western [1995’s The Quick and the Dead], or a crime thriller, or other things that just hadn’t occurred to me to do. That’s really why I made those films in the Nineties, from all those different genres. I was trying to stretch and learn and grow as a storyteller.
It did seem like you were trying a number of different techniques for that run of four movies [from The Quick and the Dead to 2000’s The Gift] a lot of times.
That’s exactly right. I thought, “I’m not going to rely on the camera to be flashy or splashy. I’m going to make the audience invest in these characters. I’ve got to learn more about how to tell a story not just through the lens, but through people.” And I learned a lot of that from working with great actors: Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, Cate Blanchett, Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman.
By the time I applied for the job on the first Spider-Man, I finally had 10 years of experience working like that — and thank goodness, because those Spider-Man movies and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness took everything I knew about filmmaking, from directing actors to knowing visual effects. It taxed every field of learning that I have had the wonderful opportunity to experience in this industry.
So what, overall, was the hardest part of making this new movie?
I think the hardest part was the time deadlines, not having the story or the script [ready] … being halfway into it and not knowing what the ending was. Michael’s trying to stay a couple days ahead of us with the next page coming out of his computer printer, and it’s hard because you want to make sure that everything is supporting the whole — that the themes are running through the picture. But when you don’t quite know everything about the picture, it’s hard to do that job as effectively as possible.
Let’s say there’s a character from another universe — maybe from the Marvel movies that Fox did — who suddenly shows up in the movie. That’s very exciting for the audience, but it feels like that excitement of recognition could push you out of the story. How do you balance that?
I think if that situation appears, sometimes the best answer is to just let the character who’s experiencing this new character react truthfully. Now, if there was a famous character from another universe that appeared in Multiverse of Madness, I’m not sure that our Doctor Strange would even know who he was; he might blow him off and not make it any big deal at all. I think a truthful response can sometimes be the funniest or the most engaging for an audience. You put them in a position like, “Man, you don’t know who that guy is? Oh, my God!” It’s like if some schmo was meeting James Bond onscreen for the first time, and said, “Buddy, you’ll have the martini the way I serve it. Get me?” “Don’t you know that’s James Bond?!” That’s a different kind of fun for the audience to have.
What did you make of the fact that there’s this book called “the Darkhold” that I believe is involved in this movie. It seems like a cousin, at least, of the Necronomicon, from your Evil Dead movies.
I do know about the Darkhold from WandaVision and the comic book, but I’m not allowed to say whether it’s a part of this picture or not. I’m sorry.
Either way, it must amuse you that it bears some similarity to the Necronomicon.
Yes, it is a source of much mirth for me. If it was in the movie, that is, it would’ve been funny.
You bounced from Spider-Man 3 into Drag Me to Hell [Raimi’s highly underrated 2009 horror movie], and then there was Oz the Great and Powerful [a riff on L. Frank Baum’s Oz characters]. That was in 2013 — and this is your first film since then. Were you planning to retire at that point?
No, I just couldn’t find a script that I really loved. I didn’t feel passionately about something enough to direct it as a feature film. It was a long time, and it was unpleasant. I really do love directing. It’s all I really know how to do.
Your friendship with Joel and Ethan Coen has always fascinated me. What have you learned from them over the years?
A really strong work ethic. And we did more than just movies like Crimewave, or me asking for help on Darkman, or writing short stories together, working on the Hudsucker Proxy screenplay. We did other things, too, that maybe were never published or released. But their work ethic was astounding. They would sit down at that typewriter for like 14 hours straight. And then just break to go to Denny’s, come back and go back to it. The next morning was just the same way: A cup of coffee, we’d begin, and it wouldn’t stop. It’s like, “Oh, my God, these guys are freaking serious writers. They don’t do anything but write and pace.” Hours would go by with Ethan and Joel thinking and thinking, looking for the right line or the right insight. I was humbled and impressed and laughed my head off. And the few times that I could contribute on their level, I felt very rewarded.
You actually wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with the Coens in the Eighties, way before they ever made it, correct?
Right. We wrote that over the course of a few years. Joel and Ethan had started it, then they got me into it. And then they put it away for a long time, as they do with some of their scripts. Then one day, they said, “Sam, we’re gonna shoot it. We got the financing. Do you want to be second unit director?” I said, “Yeah, sounds great.” So I got to shoot a lot of fun little bits that they had planned. Second unit directing is really a fun job. Especially when you’re working for your friends. And they do all the hard work.
Did you direct the skyscraper plunge?
Just some shots in it, like the point of view. And some of the montages. The stuff without the main characters, usually. Really, I was just the tool. They pointed my camera in certain directions and told me to do this and that, and I did.
The word is that Ethan Coen might be done as a filmmaker. Do you believe that we might not see any more Coen brothers movies?
No! I think there’s got to be more Coen brothers movies. As long as the sun rises, there’s gotta be another one. I love them.
When did you realize you wanted to become a filmmaker professionally?
I think it was when I was in 10th grade and met Bruce Campbell and my buddies Scott Spiegel and Tim Quill, who were all making these Super 8 movies. And it was like, “Oh, my gosh, these guys get together every weekend. They’ve got partners. Somebody can film. Somebody can throw the pie. Somebody can take the pie in the face. This is everything we need.” One kid had costumes, like two suit jackets from a garage sale. Another kid had a tripod, and I thought, “It’s possible. I can join up with these guys, and they have similar interests.” That really was a giant advantage for me to find somebody else after making movies for three years on my own from the age of, like, 12. Suddenly I actually could take it on as something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It seemed possible at that point.
Before you ever made a directly comic-book-influenced movie, to what extent did comic books influence the way that you approach filmmaking?
They were always a tremendous influence on me, especially all the great artists from Marvel comic books or the DC comic books. I read them as a kid constantly. And when it came time to design shots for the movies that I was making, I naturally went to the only illustration story system that I was aware of, which were comic books.
When you’re directing a gigantic movie like Multiverse again, are you still working from a certain muscle memory that you built up from when you were making low-budget movies for fun?
Not as much as I should be. Because that’s what I should be doing with every shot and every moment, thinking “What’s the best technique?” Not simply “We’ve got to make the schedule, put it on a crane. I know it can work from there. It may not be the absolute best choice, but we’ve got to keep momentum going for this unit, because I’ve got to get off this stage by five o’clock today, and they’re going to tear it down.”
You suffered a terrible loss in your family when you were young. How did losing your older brother affect you?
That was my brother Sander, and he was a great inspiration to me. He’s the one that first showed me Spider-Man comic books. And he was a magician on the side. I remember he would perform at kids’ parties. And I learned a lot of my desire to perform from him. So he had a tremendous influence on me. He passed away when he was only 16 years old. I was 10 at the time. So I didn’t get to know him as well as I wish I could have. But he was a super-positive role model for me.
And I feel like in his absence, I pushed more into the field of magic to try and provide for my parents what they had lost in him. And that love of magic was very similar to my love of filmmaking. When I started to move out of magic, I moved into filmmaking, another way to manipulate time and space and entertain the audience and mystify them and throw them. So I think I got a lot of my love of filmmaking indirectly from my brother Sander.
You were also pretty skilled as a stage illusionist, right?
I would perform at county fairs — not even state fairs, county fairs — and kids’ parties, where it’s like 23 of these little monsters in front of me. I would perform a magician’s repertoire of illusions, and I’d make balloon animals, and try as hard as I could to get out of there before the last balloon animal was given out. Because by then the first kid pops their balloon and they want another one. You can end up getting caught at a kid’s party, making balloon animals for like two hours if you don’t do it efficiently and quickly, then pack up and get out.
Is there a metaphor in there somewhere?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. I don’t know. You’ll have to find it.
From Rolling Stone US.