'Doctor Strange' director Sam Raimi finds his multiverse of happiness

Metro Detroit filmmaker returns to big screen with 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,' re-entering a genre he helped bring to the masses.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

After wrapping "Oz the Great and Powerful" in 2013, Sam Raimi needed a refresh. 

"I felt that I wasn't approaching things in a new enough way, and I was afraid of boring the audience. And I felt I had to go back to school, so to speak," says the Royal Oak-born director, who kicked off his 40-plus year career with the inventively demented "The Evil Dead" in 1981 and essentially ushered in the modern superhero era with "Spider-Man" in 2002.

Sam Raimi attends the "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" world premiere at Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on May 02, 2022.

Raimi, now 62, spent nearly a decade producing works by younger filmmakers, watching how they work, oftentimes disagreeing with their decisions, he says, but absorbing lessons along the way. He also tended to his garden at his home in Los Angeles which consists of pomegranate, shiso leaves, ice cream bananas, satsuma mandarin, two types of avocados and three varieties each of plums and peaches, "learning about the universe through the little things," he says.   

From Adam Graham:'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' review

So when his phone rang in early 2020 with an opportunity to join the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe by directing a sequel to 2016's "Doctor Strange," "I thought, OK, I'm rejuvenated, I'm hungry, I'm ready to go," he says. 

He would need that might and energy for "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," the 28th film in the MCU, which opens Friday and came with its own unique set of challenges.

Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong and Benedict Cumberbatch in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."

But first, let's back up.

Raimi, the fourth of five children, knew he wanted to be a filmmaker since he was a young child. His father, Leonard, had a 16mm camera and would shoot home movies, and his manipulation of that footage is what ultimately sold a young Raimi on the magic of filmmaking. 

"He would take films of like my 6th birthday party in Detroit, and when we would get them back, he would have spliced the three reels out of order," says Raimi, himself a father of five with his wife of nearly 30 years, Gillian. "So we'd see the kids at the party, we'd see the kids going home, and then he'd cut to reel one, where the kids came to the party. And when I saw that I thought, 'oh my God, not only has my father, the genius, captured reality, but he's manipulated the time stream.' And that concept was so mind-blowing to me, that you could cut things in and out of order from what had really transpired in real life. That was a miracle which I had to get into."

At Groves High School in Birmingham he fell into a troupe of filmmaking pals, which included Scott Spiegel and Bruce Campbell, both of whom he remains tight with today; each appear in small roles in "Multiverse of Madness." Raimi's goofy home movies — "Three Stooges"-inspired comedy bits, slapstick humor and lots of pies to the face — eventually grew in size and scope, and by the time he went to Michigan State University he was taking his craft pretty seriously.

Robert Rapert, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell promoting "The Evil Dead."

His first film, "It's Murder," was made on a budget of $2,000; at on-campus screenings, it failed to make back its money. He took his licks and eventually retooled and made "The Evil Dead," a low-budget horror freak-out starring Campbell, filmed in the woods of Tennessee and Michigan. "The Evil Dead" became a sensation, due in large part to its take-no-prisoners, go-for-broke visual style, which Raimi achieved by building rigs that allowed the camera to go places it had never gone before. 

Life after Dead: Rooted in Michigan, cult hit 'The Evil Dead' turns 40

Raimi became a cult hero and made a trilogy of "Evil Dead" films, following it with 1987's "Evil Dead II" and 1992's "Army of Darkness." But he also varied his playbook, becoming not just the shock horror and comedy guy but a practitioner across all genres, making a comic book action movie (1990's "Darkman"), a Western (1995's "The Quick and the Dead," with a young Russell Crowe and an even younger Leonardo DiCaprio), a noir crime drama (1998's "A Simple Plan") a sports movie (1999's "For Love of the Game") and a supernatural thriller (2000's "The Gift").

Then came "Spider-Man" in 2002, which married his distinctive visual flair to classic comic book material, and it set the template for the modern superhero movie and showed Hollywood the possibilities of comic fare beyond "Batman," which, with only a few exceptions, is what the business had been to that point.  

Sam Raimi on the set of 'Spider-Man.'

"Spider-Man" and its two sequels, 2004's "Spider-Man 2" and 2007's "Spider-Man 3," grossed a collective $2.5 billion worldwide, and effectively set the course for the movie business going forward, a phenomenon that surprised even Raimi. 

"It was very unexpected," he says, speaking during the "Doctor Strange" press junket over the weekend. He attributes the success of the genre to the source material by artists such as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and also to Marvel Studios, "which has given great attention to the characters' detail," he says. "They're really looking out for them, making sure that the representation of them is true to the comics. And they're presented with integrity." 

The films also came of age with filmmakers "that had grown up loving those comic books finally reaching the age where they could be the moviemakers showing the world how great Stan Lee's work was," he says.  

Still, Raimi's luck with the "Spider-Man" franchise ran dry by the time the flatly received "Spider-Man 3" hit screens. Spurred by the poor reviews and sour fan reaction to the capper of his trilogy, Raimi moved away from comic book movies, returning to his hardcore horror roots with 2009's "Drag Me to Hell" and going the family route with "Oz the Great and Powerful," a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" which was filmed at Pontiac's now-shuttered Raleigh Michigan Studios at the height of the Michigan film incentives program. 

Alison Lohman in "Drag Me to Hell."

In the years that followed, Raimi produced a slew of horror remakes ("Evil Dead" in 2013, "Poltergeist" in 2015, "The Grudge" in 2020) and directed several television episodes, including for "Ash vs Evil Dead," an extension of the "Evil Dead" story, which stars Campbell. 

Then came the call for "Strange." 

Raimi came on to the project — a complex, multi-tiered continuation of "Strange" as well as he larger MCU story, in addition to a follow-up to the Disney+ streaming series "WandaVision" — and replaced director Scott Derrickson, who helmed the first film and left the sequel over creative differences.

The movie was supposed to be released before "Spider-Man: No Way Home," in which Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange plays a key role, but their schedules were shuffled, necessitating significant rewrites. Shooting commenced before an ending was in place and reshoots were commissioned after principal photography was completed, taking place into March of this year. The film was finally wrapped just over two weeks ago, in mid-April, the closest to a release date Raimi has ever locked picture. 

Elizabeth Olsen in "Dcotor Strange in the Mulvtiverse of Madness."

And that's without even mentioning the COVID-related delays, which pushed production back about a year from the film's originally scheduled release date.

For his first film in a decade, Raimi was tested. But he's proud of the end result. 

"It really, I think, sticks to the Marvel lore," says Raimi, whose distinctive visual mark is all over the final film, whether it's a giant monster's eyeball splatting down onto a Manhattan street or the zombie version of Strange that takes center stage in the film's final act. "The characters are presented with integrity, and it's kind of a fun and wild ride to the multiverse." (He even made it a bit of a family affair; his son Lorne is a second unit director on the project.) 

Now that he's back, Raimi says he's back-back; "I'm ready to make another movie," he says. "I don't have a script or a project, but I feel like I could really bring something to it." 

Director Sam Raimi and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange behind the scenes of Marvel Studios' "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."

Raimi, who remains an ardent Detroit Tigers fan ("I still have super high hopes for them"), says the spirit of the filmmaker who on "The Evil Dead" was applying his carpentry skills as much as his filmmaking intuition is still there, but as he's grown as a filmmaker, so have his skills, and so has the technology at play. 

"There was none of that, 'we can't afford a dolly, what are we going to build that could move the camera in an interesting way?'" he says. "On this set, with 3,000 artists, no one wants to see me hammering together two-by-fours for some camera movement device."

But if he had to, Raimi says, he would have. 

"Whatever the job calls for," he says. 



'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness'

Rated PG-13: for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language

Running time: 126 minutes

In theaters Friday

Find the review here.