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FEAR AND HEAVY CLOTHING 'Simple Plan' was scary project for its director

Posted 02/11/99

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Page 1, Cue
2 photos: "Sam Raimi, (top and center above) experienced Wisconsin winters and life in a small town while making his "Simple Plan" in Ashland. The movie stars Bill Paxton (left) and Billy Bob Thornton."


Brief mention of XENA in an article about Sam Raimi and his film career.


   Sam Raimi knows fear.

   "I was terrified," said the writer-director. But his recent brush with terror
wasn't the sort of supernatural experience portrayed in his horror films "Evil
Dead" and "Darkman."

   It was related to winter in Wisconsin.

   Actual ly, it had to do with the film he made here in the snow one year ago.
Raimi is a respected blood-and-guts genre director. But his new, acclaimed film
"A Simple Plan" which was shot in Ashland is a low-key, emotionally intelligent
departure for him.  

   And that's exactly what scared him.

   "It was exciting and rewarding," said the boyish looking 39-year old Detroit
native. "It was really different for me. A brand-new thing. I'd never done a
picture like this."

   "A Simple Plan" is a character-driven still-life that needed a subtler style
than the "crazy camera moves and experimental techniques" of his earlier, more
visceral films.

   "The goal was to let the screenplay and the actors tell the story," said

   "I'd just sit back and be invisible."

   Still, as with his horror films, his intention was to shock the audience.

   "Yes," said Raimi during an interview at the Toronto Film Festival last fall.
"Guilty as charged .

   "But in a different way. Not as much to shock them but to take them on a
shocking journey.

   "I wanted them to identify with these characters as real people and then to
put them in a slightly off situation where they sin, and th en watch as guilt and paranoia work on them."

   "A Simple Plan" stars Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as two wildly
different brothers who discover a fortune in stolen money in the snowy woods and
decide to keep it. It is the first in a series of morally compromising decisions
with disastrous consequences.

   Bridget Fonda plays Paxton's wife who, said Raimi, "is greediest of them all.
She's the devil."

   The film is based on the book by Scott Smith, who wrote the screen play. What
is distinctive about the film is how the snowbound rural landscape threatens to
consume the characters.

   This is where Wisconsin came in. When Minnesota, where filming was to take
place, proved snow-less, production moved to Ash land. About 20% of the film was
shot there, Raimi said.

   Pertinent sites in the film that are set in the Ashland area include a long,
lonely road where several crucial scenes take place; some wooded scenes;
sequences involving the changing of a tire and the murder of a snowmobiler; the
interior of a barber shop; and Thornton's flat.

   "What was wonderful about Ashland," said Paxton, "is that it has a similar
demographic as the town in the story. So I could wander around and get into the
rural thing.

   "The guy who plays the barber in the film is actually the barber in that

   And the scene in the barbershop "is a very cool shot," said Paxton. It
involves Chelcie Ross, who plays the sheriff. In t he scene, Ross enters the
barbershop while Paxton is getting a haircut, makes a comment and walks across
the room to get some candy out of a jar.

   "It's hard to keep me and him in the frame the whole time and not call
attention to the camera," said Paxton. "So they pivoted my barber chair at the
same time that they moved the camera. There was this guy below me moving the
chair the whole time. As a result, there's no discernible movement at all. And
this," said Paxton, "is what I love about Sam Raimi."

   Raimi found small-town life "weird. I'd never been in a hotel before, you
know, where when you walk by the desk they say, 'Sam, your wife's on the phone.'
Well, how do you know my first name? How do you know who I am? And how do you
know it's my wife?

   "It was so personal, it was kind of freaky. But it was great since that
small-town feeling was part of the movie."

   Scenes involving a crashed plane, where the money is found, were shot in the
Minnesota woods, where snow was provided by the Town of Geneva-based special
effects firm Sturm's Special Effects Intl. Inc. The town shown in the film
actually was Delano, Minn. Sturm's also provided snow for "Fargo," which the
snow-blind "A Simple Plan" res embles.

   "It was unique until 'Fargo' to tell a story in a snowy world," said Raimi of
the film by Joel and Ethan Coen (for whom he wrote "The Hudsucker Proxy"). "I
love that. It's just man and his greed and a big bunch of white. And nothi ng
else. We tried to give it its own look.

   "I'm sure the Coen brothers tried the same thing. But snow only has so many

   The snow "isolated" the characters and "increased the paranoia," Raimi said.
He also used the snow "t o great compositional effect" and was inspired by
certain Japanese artwork.

   "You take a black dot on a white background and go wide on that," said Raimi.

   The effect, he said, is to show "a little man swimming in a sea of nothi
ngness, all alone and trapped by his guilt. Snow symbolizes that events have
overtaken him. Then I would lower and lower the horizon until he became trapped
in this sea of snow."

   Thornton, who has been mentioned as an Oscar nominee for his performance as
Paxton's slow-witted brother, found shooting under such conditions conducive to
first-take performances.

   "Absolutely," said Thornton. "You don't ever need to muster anything up. You
just want to get it over with. Let's go, let's go. We were ready all the time."

   But the real trick of shooting in Wisconsin, Raimi said, was to keep "the
cheeseheads out of the frame."

   Raimi and his partner Robert Tappert broke into the business while still in

   "We saw those low-budget horror films at the drive-in and said, 'We can make
horror pictures as good as those that are out there.' So we dropped out to raise
money" for "The Evil Dead."

   Raimi and Tappert produce TV's "Hercules: Th e Legendary Journeys" and
"Xena: Warrior Princess," and are producing a young "Hercules" series for

   Now that he's shifted gears, Raimi has his sights on "a really good love
story something that moved the audience." Toward that end, he is directing the
new Kevin Costner movie, "For Love of the Game."

   Costner plays a 42-year-old pitcher whose girlfriend has left him, who learns
he is being traded and who reflects on his life while pitching a final nine

   Raimi, more comfortable working on smaller films and with lower budgets,
described the Costner film as being so "monstrously expensive that it's

   But then, what's a Sam Raimi movie without a good scare?  

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