6 Filmmaking Tips From Sam Raimi

By  · Published on April 3rd, 2013

Bridging two worlds, Sam Raimi has done something incredibly difficult as a filmmaker. He’s proven himself as the capable creator of massive budget spectacle with heart while remaining the cult hero that early fans continue to worship. He sold out without selling out. That in itself is a bold lesson in staying true to your own sensibilities no matter what the bottom line is, but there’s a lot more to learn from the man who grew to prominence by cutting off Bruce Campbell’s hand.

The key? You can’t just take a hand; you have to replace it with a chainsaw.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a very snappy dresser who doesn’t mind getting covered in blood.

Decide What’s Essential

“I’m hoping to take what I’ve learned on [Drag Me to Hell], which is an appreciation of brevity, how to be concise, and how to work on a little tighter schedule, a re-understanding of focusing on what’s important. Because when you don’t have the big budget, you don’t have a lot of time and you have no choice but to move forward. You have to decide what’s essential on the spot. That was a refreshing thing to rediscover. And I hope to bring that to the next picture.”

When Raimi returned to low-budget, full-control filmmaking (and horror), he re-discovered the need to find the indispensable with speed. It’s likely that you’re also working with a small budget, so speed can be important, but even if you’ve got $300m at your disposal, shouldn’t honing in on the essential be priority one?

Even at a point where money hasn’t entered into the picture, writing your script should be an exercise in scraping away the frivolous and indulgent to discover what your movie really can’t live without. That can be excruciating, but the pain leads to an immeasurable gain. The heart of your movie will collapse under the weight of extraneous limbs.

Make a Good Movie, and the Audience Will Like It

“When I was a student at Michigan State University studying literature and history, I desperately wanted to make movies but couldn’t figure out how to do it. So I came up with this scheme. I’d make super 8 films and advertise the showings in the local newspapers and use the University cinema. I’d charge admission, and it was a valuable learning tool for me. I would sit trough the screenings and if the movie stank, the audience would tell me so in no uncertain terms.

At this time I made comedies that didn’t work although I wanted them to be compared to the Three Stooges. Some hope huh! The audience who paid $1.50 to get in were so abusive, but after a while and after more movies, the criticisms would change to ‘Well we hated it, but not as much as the last one,’ so slowly I got better and came to the conclusion that the better you made a film the more an audience would like it. There’s a deep insight for you!

But using the students in school as a testing ground guaranteed an amazingly honest response. Once I screened one of my movies, and it cost me my $4,000 life savings, and only one person showed up at the Big Premiere. All this money and all the effort. ‘What could be worse than this?’ I thought. I soon found out. Ten minutes into the film he screamed, ‘This sucks, Shut it off and you can keep my money.’ So I did.”

That’s also not a bad plan for filmmakers who are still in college. Dare to fail miserably.

Know the Rules of Horror

Some of these might apply beyond the genre:

Wear a Suit On Set

Raimi wears a suit while directing ‐ both as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock and as a method of showing authority in the position. Let’s also call this The Tom Landry Rule.

“Nowadays everyone’s got the nose rings and the colored hair, so for me to wear the suit and tie is a different way to go.”

There’s nothing wrong with a classic, professional look.

Make a Movie Every Weekend

Perhaps the most famous advice from Raimi:

“My advice to young filmmakers is to make a movie every week in Super 8 or hi-def, write every night, and every weekend, shoot for two days. Work with actors. Work with a little 1000 watt lighting kit. Set it up, set up your shots, get a tripod. Shoot a little scene. Work with the actors. Cut those scenes together, and then the next weekend, have worked on it with sound and looping and put some music to it ‐ it can all be done for nothing nowadays with a computer.

And get a response. Get a response from the audience, and see where it’s slow, and where it doesn’t work, and where your ideas weren’t being communicated properly. Learn from that experience sitting in with a crowd, then go out and make another picture the next weekend. Just keep doing it.Make films, no matter what anybody says, and you’ll be a filmmaker.”

Agree to Take on the Big Challenge Even Before You Know How To

What Have We Learned

Keep calm and stay humble may be the biggest takeaway here. One of the main reasons why Raimi’s Spider-Man was so successful was because he wasn’t lost in the spandex glamour and shiny colors flying around; he recognized the true nature of the characters, kept what they wanted in mind, and built a (large) story from there.

His most famous piece of advice is famous for a reason though. It’s inspirational, but it’s also a reminder to get up off the couch and go achieve something, no matter how terrible. Wanna make movies? Go make ’em. No excuses.

What’s most interesting his Raimi’s relationship with the audience and his insistence on that feedback. While most directors seem to wring their hands over that part of the process, Raimi seems to actively desire that engagement regardless of whether the result will be ego-strokingly positive or disastrous. That’s refreshing. After all, it’s one thing for an auteur to wave away the significance of how his work is seen, and it’s another to live in the real world.

Have fun buying a suit this weekend (after you shoot for a while, of course).

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.