Interview: Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, the Face and Mind of ‘The Evil Dead’

"If [Ash vs. Evil Dead] is successful, you wait. There’s going to be another 'Evil Dead' movie"

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(L) Bruce Campbell, (R) Sam Raimi working on Ash vs. Evil Dead. (photo: Starz)

To celebrate this weekend’s premiere of the blood-splattered, chainsaw-wielding and downright groovy Ash vs. Evil Dead, we’ll be rolling out a new interview every day this week with the cast and creators. Yesterday was Jill Marie Jones. Finally: the duo that started it all, the once-and-future star Bruce Campbell and creator Sam Raimi. 

Get Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi into a room together and the entire Evil Dead franchise makes sense — the balance between horror and comedy, the mixture of pure fun and delirious terror, the asshole characters that you can’t help but root for. It’s all Sam and Bruce.

When the pair walked into the room for our conversation, Mr. Raimi opted to shake my hand with a quiet, polite “Hello, my name is Sam Raimi.” Mr. Campbell forwent the pleasantries and put his leather shoes on the table. Mr. Raimi had a notebook in front of him for the entire interview, either taking notes or just keeping his mind focused. Mr. Campbell almost seems like he isn’t interested in your questions at all, until he gives you the most boisterous and detailed answer you have ever heard.

I’m not kidding about that, either. There was much Evil Dead talk (the possibility of a fourth film, why we still love Ash), but the centerpiece of our chat came after I casually mentioned the state of modern day TV. Off to the races went Mr. Campbell with a 20-minute story about his time spent on 1993 soap opera Knots Landing, a story that was designed to entertain Mr. Raimi as much as it was to answer any question. It also should have derailed the interview, but it didn’t.

That’s the dynamic. That is why Evil Dead is still alive and kicking 34 years after the first film, and the reason Ash vs. Evil Dead is probably your new favorite show. Together, Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi tell stories that shouldn’t work, until they do.

“We want to please the hardcore fans shamelessly. If we do, it’s been a tremendous success. If we don’t there’s nowhere to hide, it’s been a miserable failure.”

Observer: So why is now the time to bring back The Evil Dead

Bruce Campbell: I have no idea. We made a remake a couple years ago that reminded us that at least someone is out there watching this. The response was pretty good, but people were still like close, but no cigar. They wanted the original components. The movie economics really didn’t make sense, though. I mean Army of Darkness bombed! The TV concept got kicked around. Funny thing is, by the time we got around to putting our heads into a TV show, it all happened so quickly. Meetings, boom boom boom, zip zap zoop, deal done, then we’re scrambling to start shooting in order to get it on the air by Halloween.

Did you run into any obstacles writing for a TV series as opposed to a feature length film? 

Sam Raimi: Definitely, yes. My brother Ivan and I were writing two different versions of Evil Dead 4, a feature film. I was worried about where we were going to get the money for this thing. Rob mentioned the economics are such now that we could get it from television. Ivan and I rewrote those feature ideas into a TV show,  but we don’t have any experience writing television. We had to develop the other characters. Bruce gave us some notes saying “you can’t expect me to be on screen every minute. In TV I need other characters to bounce off of that we can cut away to.”

And it changed because now we had to write in a way that a new audience can come to it and not feel like they were left behind. We had to figure out what was the right amount of reintroduction of ideas that the old fans wouldn’t get bored, and the new fans could keep pace.

You guys had the surprise premiere at Comic Con. Was there a ton of trepidation about the reaction?

Raimi: I don’t think Bruce had it, but over the years I’ve had a great amount of trepidation to even try and write the project. We had been very lucky that the fans of the Evil Dead films really seemed to like them, and I didn’t know if there was any upside in even making a fourth one. There’s a tremendous amount of downside, certainly. Nevertheless, the fans kept asking for it. We listened, we wrote it, and when we did show it the other day I felt a tremendous amount of relief. Tremendous.

Campbell: It was exciting to show it to the fans. The most is exciting thing for me is, the wait is over. I don’t have to delay, or stall, or lie, or dance around this anymore. I can just go [pounds on table] ‘October 31! Starz! 9 o’clock! You want to see it? That’s where it is!”

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(L-R): Ray Santiago as Pablo Bolivar, Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, and Dana DeLorenzo as Kelly Maxwell. (photo: Starz)

Raimi: The fans always ask Bruce.

Campbell: Oh, they tormented me. I go to these conventions all the time. I get it face to face, ‘Blah blah blah blah Evil Dead 4??’ But I’m very please to be able to answer them. It’s not like we got any pleasure by torturing them for many years. We weren’t being flip about it, we really didn’t know. I think if the remake had made like 300 million dollars we would’ve been like ‘We gotta’ make another one right now!’ It did okay, it actually did very well. But it still wasn’t quite enough to catapult us into making movies again.

Ironically, though, if this is successful, you wait. There’s going to be another Evil Dead movie. Think of the power of television. Starz is selling this to 150 countries. People will know of that word Evil and Dead, they’ll hear it again and again and again. And studios, you get back on their radar. You got to get on their blip, and they’ll finance you. I’m waiting for this to work, then we can go back to whatever convoluted rights holder we go back to, and try and make a deal with them.

In playing Ash, and writing Ash, how do you toe the line between who the character is, and making him straight unlikable?

Campbell: Ash always comes through. It might not be when you want it, or how you want it, but he does.

Raimi: The way Bruce plays him is what it is. We try and make him as big a loudmouth, as big a coward, as big a braggart as we can. And there’s a quality within Bruce that keeps you liking him. Bruce has got some internal mechanisms that won’t let you hate him, no matter how stupid he is. The script helps Bruce, in turn, because at the end of the day Ash is just a really good monster fighter. When the chips are down, there’s no one you’d rather be with when the Deadites come than Ash and his chainsaw, because he can kick their buttocks.

Campbell: That forgives a lot. He’s like the guy on your sales team that’s an asshole, but man his sales are off the charts. Everyone hates him on the team, but the boss is like ‘I can’t let him go, he sells more widgets than all you guys.’

In writing the show, how much is fan-service on your mind?

Raimi: It’s the whole reason for doing this. That’s what every moment of this is about. It’s not about artistic achievement, it’s not about building something that will get good critical review, or that will stand the test of time for other filmmakers. It’s about here and now, and the fans that are in that crowd or behind their TV sets. We want to please the hardcore fans shamelessly. If we do, it’s been a tremendous success. If we don’t there’s nowhere to hide, it’s been a miserable failure.

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Sam Raimi with Ash vs. Evil Dead cast members Ray Santiago (R) and Dana DeLorenzo (L). (photo: Starz)

TV is in such a strange place…

Campbell: It’s in such a good place. Nobody did television ten years ago. I look around like “you bastard actors, where were you ten years ago? Where were you when it was just television?” It wasn’t “Fargo season two oh my God!” The accolades these shows are getting are unbelievable. I did Knots Landing, that was my first television.

Raimi: Knots Landing!

Campbell What a piece of crap.

Raimi I remember it was a big deal when you get that part.

Campbell: It was a big deal! It had been on forever, like six or seven years.

Raimi: What was it about?

Campbell: Nothing. It was a soap opera that took place in like a Santa Barbara. So it’s rich people’s problems, rich people having problems with other rich people.

Raimi: Did you play a young lover?

Campbell: No, I was the assistant to Michael York. It was the first TV I ever auditioned for, and I got it right away. I was like “Well shit, this is easy!” Then I didn’t work in television for five years after that because I was so mortified at the experience. It was terrible. This was their last season. Michele Lee was the star and she ran everything. She’d tell me: “Okay Burt, you’re over here.” She blocked everything. They didn’t give a shit about quality, they didn’t give a shit about anything. I had to go to the prop guy and beg him to give me briefcase or something. I go to makeup, and the guy is like “let me pluck between your eyebrows you’ll look much more intelligent,” puts on a fucking pound of makeup. I get home and my wife says ‘Wow, you’re pretty. What are you doing, kabuki theater?”

Raimi: Who was the director?

Bruce: Oh, some schmo. He never said a word to us. I had just come from Evil Dead 2, doing ten takes, 15 takes, busting bottles over my head. Do this, do that, a lot of input, talking very closely with the director. I go to Knots Landing and I don’t even know the director’s name. I ran from television. Ah, it was horrifying, it was humiliating. And the episode is still around. [Fargo producer] John Cameron, friend of ours, was like “Yeah I was up really late last night, saw your Knots Landing.”

That is a long way from Knots Landing to Ash vs Evil Dead.

Campbell: Yeah, see you later Knots Landing. In my opinion, you needed the Knots Landings to get to the Ash vs Evil Dead. You go, “I’m never doing it like that again. That’s for squares.” Took a lot of bad TV to make great TV.

Raimi: Bruce is a good director, and he knows how to write, too. It’s a really good thing this show has come along, because we’re really in charge of it.

Campbell: I’m thankful whenever we have input. We’re in the creative arts, it should be creative, it should be a process. I think we just got fortunate. I hate the word luck, but it was serendipitous the way things came together. I just want to keep the series on the tracks for a couple years. You never want to come back after everyone makes a big deal and then flame out. I think Sam did a great job on the pilot, and the fans will go “Alright! Okay! Good!” right away. The biggest thing I’ve heard is that it feels like you’re watching the old movies. To me, what else could you want? That’s what we tried to achieve. If we did that, great. It’s up to the TV gods now.

[Note: two weeks after this interview, Ash vs. Evil Dead was renewed for a second season, prior to its first season’s premiere]  Interview: Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, the Face and Mind of ‘The Evil Dead’