Ever try to get away to a quiet cabin in the country, only to have to fight with your demon-possessed hand as the house itself laughs at you? Well, I hope you brought along a double-barrelled shotgun and a chainsaw, buddy, because you – unfortunately – are in a Sam Raimi horror film.
If the name Sam Raimi is ringing a bell for you, it’s probably because Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness just came out a few weeks ago. You might also know him from the Tobey Maguire Spiderman trilogy of the early 2000s, the Evil Dead franchise, and maybe even Drag Me to Hell.
This is a guy who can churn out superhero romcoms and “splatstick” black comedy B-movie horrors alike like he was born to do it. Because he was.
He’s the kind of guy who can make memorable scenes like these…
But lately, even more than thinking about his movies, I’ve been thinking about how Raimi has had one hell of an interesting career. So much so, that I think we all have a lot to learn from him.
Heads up: from this point on, I’m going to be linking some bloody, nasty R-rated horror scenes into this article. If you’re squeamish and/or reading this at your cubicle when should be working, maybe you should skip this article. I’m also going to be spoiling some of his movies…but not the new Dr. Strange.
Who is Sam Raimi?
Born in 1959, Sam Raimi is an American film director and producer. He’s been active since the late 1970s and has made the Evil Dead franchise, the Spider-Man trilogy of the 2000s, Drag Me to Hell, Oz The Great and Powerful, a handful of other movies, and – of course – the newest Doctor Strange.
He’s known for his unique directing style which involves ostentatious shots, slapstick comedy mixed with horror, and a general propensity for breaking the rules of good taste. That this B-movie legend of the twentieth century was adopted into the Hollywood mainstream of the twenty-first was both shocking and inevitable. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute when I talk about his style at length.
(As an aside: his thirty-year wedding anniversary is coming up and he has five kids, and by all accounts seems quite well-adjusted. This is a rarity in Hollywood, and not what I personally expected to read in the Wikipedia bio of someone who depicted walls spewing forth geysers of blood in his nearly X-rated horror movies.)
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus more on Raimi’s early career. His projects started super small and without the influence of corporations or market testing to temper his creativity or ambition. In the 1980s and 1990s, Raimi was almost certainly in it for the art. But he happened to intuit the basic rules for building a career, and when I happened to read about him in a coffee table book, I couldn’t help but find his personal story instructive.
Sam Raimi’s Style
There are two broad categories of Hollywood filmmaking style – the realistic and the stylized. Realistic films seek to show the world as it is, prioritizing immersion and believability. Stylized films, on the other hand, use every movie-making trick to heighten the emotion of the scenes, often reminding you that you are watching a movie.
Raimi is definitely more on the stylized end of the spectrum. But perhaps to illustrate my point, consider the director Wes Anderson. His movies are pastel, intricately constructed dollhouses. He’s obsessed with symmetry and is never too high-and-mighty to add a kitschy or cute touch. And this only heightens the inherent melancholy of many of his characters’ arcs.
Now take Sam Raimi. He’s like an evil Wes Anderson.
His movies are fully of weird camera movements, like from the point of view of a monster chasing you through the woods. He loves zooming in on people’s faces – and important objects – in a dramatic, over-the-top way. He uses stuttery, almost stop-motion style movement at times to make undead creatures move in a less natural way. It reminds you that you’re watching a movie, sure, but it’s also creepy as hell.
There are impossible amounts of blood, but also plenty of opportunities for “Three Stooges humor.” His horror movies are both deeply funny and deeply scary. Even in his more mainstream superhero films, he keeps the weird camera movements, close-ups, and flourishes. Instead of being grounded like The Dark Knight, he reminds us that we’re watching Spider-Man or a Marvel movie – and that makes it more fun.
Of course, trying to describe film with words is a silly thing to do, so check out this clip from Evil Dead II to see what I mean. Bruce Campbell’s character, Ash Williams, tries to shoot a monster crawling in the walls only to be assaulted by a comical amount of blood for at least 20 seconds of screentime. Then the house itself and all the objects in it laugh at him, so Ash loses his mind and laughs right back. Cue the weird close-ups, the slow zooms, the stuttery movements. It’s funny, it’s creepy, and it’s wildly creative filmmaking when you consider the prior decade was marked by toneless slasher flicks.
But enough film studies for now – I want to talk about what, specifically, I think these movies can teach us all about building a career.
1. Start early, start small.
Sam Raimi’s first movie – It’s Murder! – was made in 1977 when he was 18 years old. Maybe even 17 depending on when his birthday fell. It was shot on Super 8 film stock with $2,000. A year later, he cranked out Within the Woods, a 32-minute movie which cost $1,600. This gave him enough credibility to successfully beg investors for the $90,000 needed to create The Evil Dead.
Already, you can see a trend here. Sam Raimi started with what he had on hand and he made what he could. Forget the billionaires with windfalls from their parents – this is honest-to-God entrepreneurship right here. He turned a small amount of money into a slightly less small amount of money, and then set out to put that slightly less small amount of money to work.
And that ultimately financed Sam Raimi’s first truly memorable movie – the original Evil Dead. It came out in 1981. He was 22 years old and was probably shooting it when he was 20 or 21. He did it in the backwoods of Morristown, Tennessee with the $90,000 he raised (adjusted for inflation, about $375,000). That’s lean and scrappy.
He used corn syrup, food coloring, and coffee to make fake blood. The cast themselves found their filming location, and they settled on Tennessee because the state was not actively hostile to the filming of their gross B-movie. Thirteen people slept in that creepy cabin with no plumbing. To capture shots of the camera moving through the woods, Raimi himself ran through the woods jumping over logs, stones, and swampland.
In the end, Evil Dead made $2.7 million at the box office, exceeding its budget many times over. That was his first million-dollar success.
For those of us with less exciting jobs, the lesson is still clear: start anywhere you can. You don’t have to launch Amazon or Apple in your garage. You can make a small, profitable business and work your way up from there.
2. Establish a signature.
I’ve talked about Sam Raimi’s style at length now, but it’s important to mention again in the context of career-building. Whether you’re positioning yourself to succeed on the job market or to make a product that’s destined to sell, the value you’re proposing has to be clear. In other words, you need to be able to do something better than anyone else. You need a signature.
Sam Raimi established a signature horror style early on, and he mined that deep vein for over a decade before expanding his horizons. He stuck to it even though the critics didn’t take him seriously at first. His movies were a little too gross, a little too much in bad taste for them.
But he noticed there was a market that did like what he was making. It might not have been huge, but he had product-market fit nonetheless. Eventually, as generations came and went, the critics gradually came to realize that his movies were actually really good.
3. Be patient.
Sam Raimi might be directing Marvel movies now, but it took him 45 years of filmmaking to get to that point. His first movie on Super 8 film was made in 1997, and he didn’t have an honest-to-God smash hit until Spider-Man in 2002.
Yes, Evil Dead did well at the box office, making a few million. But in the context of the movie business, this is a modest sum. Spider-Man, on the other hand, made $825 million with a budget of $139 million.
It’s essential to start small oftentimes, and it’s essential to do something a little bit unique to succeed. But it doesn’t guarantee rapid success. In fact, most people take decades to build careers, which is why I think Sam Raimi – rather than some other big names – is such an interesting guy to look at career-wise. He built his career over decades, the way that most people do.
For massive success, the best play is to do what Sam Raimi did – do the best you can with what you have, over and over again, for decades. Your odds of big success incrementally increase which each new project you complete.
4. Take big deals when they come.
It’s important to find your voice, start small, and be patient. But when someone big comes knocking on your door, you have to answer.
In Sam Raimi’s case, that came in the form of film producer and executive, Amy Pascal of Sony Pictures, reaching out to him in late 1999. Her motivation for picking Sam Raimi, in particular, is unknown, but perhaps she was a member of the generation that was just the perfect age to see the Evil Dead franchise. Perhaps she saw his campy style and off-the-wall creativity and knew that it would be a perfect match for a comic book superhero. Who’s to say?
All we know is that Sam Raimi said yes, which was smart. Some people would turn down a deal like that because they would consider it selling out. Some would turn it down because they’re afraid of the responsibility. But if your goal is to build a big career, both are mistakes. I’m all for setting up boundaries, but sometimes, the right answer is an unambiguous “yes!”
5. Be yourself, no matter how big the deal.
When you’ve started small and scrappy, people will eventually notice your talent. When the big deals come in, there is often pressure to conform to what is expected. To do so beyond what is strictly necessary to function in the job, though, is a mistake. After all, you were the one to be picked – not someone else.
Sam Raimi could have played Spider-Man by the book. He could have eliminated the campy close-ups and stylized shots that defined his early work. But if he did, the Spider-Man trilogy – or at least the first two movies – would not be as well-liked as they were. They would be lacking in flavor, and forgotten like some of the more flavorless Marvel movies that followed a decade after. Like Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World.
Raimi is Raimi no matter what movie he’s directing. As success finds you, remember to keep your core appeal intact. Conform a little bit where it makes sense, but don’t let anyone touch your signature. To do so is to sabotage the quality of your work and to stop yourself from building a legacy.
As Hollywood directors go, Sam Raimi has one of the most approachable backgrounds. He started small, as many entrepreneurs do, found his voice, bode his time, got discovered, and stayed true to himself. These are simple lessons, but it’s often so hard to follow them when the messiness of reality intervenes.
Keep this in mind even if you are climbing the career ladder of a Fortune 500 or building a business in the most practical field. If these basic rules can work in Hollywood where everything is strange, they can work for me and you too.