Special to The Oakland Press
He has grossed some $2.5 billion bringing one of his favorite boyhood comic book heroes to life on big screens the world over.
Now Sam Raimi, director of the blockbuster “Spider-Man” movies, is on his way to Michigan to once again shoot motion pictures in his home state.
Born and raised in Oakland County, he plans to begin production in the summer locally on a small-budget otherworldly thriller dubbed, for the time being, “Room 205.”
And he’s just the latest big Hollywood name attracted to Michigan since the state rolled out the nation’s most generous financial incentives last year to get more movies, TV shows and commercials made here.
• Clint Eastwood, with his current box-office hit “Gran Torino.”
• Drew Barrymore with her upcoming roller derby movie “Whip It!”
• The brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, founders of the venerated Miramax Films.
All took advantage last year of the up to 42 percent in tax rebates Michigan offers moviemakers to shoot projects in this state.
Refunds have spurred sightings of Sigourney Weaver, Cuba Gooding Jr., Steve Buscemi, Kim Cattrell and the like on shooting locations in Oakland County and beyond.
Downriver, Allen Park is reportedly close to landing a $100-million production studio that a Hollywood movie executive with ties to Michigan is said to be bent on putting in that city.
Raimi expects to spend up to $8 million to make an American version of “Room 205,” Danish director Martin Barnewitz’s 2007 film, here in Michigan. Ghost Host Pictures, the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based horror mill that Raimi runs with longtime producer pal and fellow Detroit-area native Rob Tapert, bought the rights to remake the foreign tale.
Screenwriter Stephen Susco, who wrote the American version of the Japanese horror movie “The Grudge” for Ghost House Pictures, is helping to pen the production house’s adaptation of “Room 205.”“
‘Room 205’ ” is about a haunted dorm room,” Raimi divulged from Los Angeles, his home and work base since 1985. “It’s a neat screenplay that will become a lovely, bright Midwestern university and tell about how kids become adjusted to their new surroundings. In the midst of that, the supernatural will rear its terrifying head.”
Raimi is hardly new to tapping into moviegoers’ fears to entertain them. He has been making movies with Tapert since their days as undergraduates at Michigan State University. There, Raimi got Tapert, an economics major and his older brother Ivan’s roommate at the time, to play a college freshman who descends into madness in “The Happy Valley Kid.”
Raimi actually had dabbled in cinema well before them. Inspired as a kid by the home movies his dad would make on a 16mm Eastman Kodak, he first began to capture his own motion pictures on a Super 8mm camera his dad gave him.Now 49, he has become the A-list Hollywood director whose keen casting and dynamic visualization catapulted “Spider-Man” from the pages of Marvel comic books to an onscreen phenom starring Tobey Maguire.
Raimi is slated to begin production on “Spider-Man 4” in 2010, in fact and, he said, envisions shooting some of that movie in Michigan.“I’ll be looking at Michigan for our second-unit photography on the new ‘Spider-Man’ film,” he confirmed.The extensive infrastructure needed to crank out megabudget productions like the three “Spider-Man” movies he already has made has, for the most part, kept him in Hollywood, Raimi pointed out.
Yet he and Tapert have traveled the world to shoot TV shows such as “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.”
Tapert says the trek is simply a matter of going wherever he can get the best bang for the buck.“We look at the bottom line on every single project in determining where we ultimately end up shooting,” the St. Clair Shores native explained.
“Given that most of the projects we make, we can shoot almost anywhere, we can look at whether it’s in Romania, New Zealand, Australia, New Mexico or Canada. Film incentives are an incredibly important part of the equation.”
In fact, communities from New Mexico to New Zealand have eagerly offered hefty tax breaks and cheap labor costs for some time in order to tap into the $60 billion a year in revenue U.S. filmmakers generate. Yet Michigan didn’t offer any such perks until 2007, when the state finally introduced a graduated tax rebate of up to 42 percent.In the interim, Michigan fell out of the spotlight as a place to render stories into motion pictures.
Pictures such as “Somewhere in Time,” the 1980 love story that placed the late Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour against a Mackinac Island backdrop, and “Hoffa,” the 1992 biopic that had Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Armand Assante in downtown Detroit for its making.
“Detroit used to be the thirdlargest filmmaking community in the United States,” said Ed Gardiner, who founded the Detroit Film Society in 2007 to help reignite that intensity.
In the 1970s, before ending up in California for a while, Gardiner produced education films locally, when this area enjoyed a far more vibrant market for commercials and corporate and educational videos than now.
Even without incentives, Michigan saw a record $20 million contributed to its state coffers in 2001 with the production of several movies — “8 Mile,” “American Pie 2,” “Road to Perdition” and “Super Sucker.” Yet that revenue plunged to $2 million by 2006.
That’s because in Hollywood, cost considerations come before the array of potential movie settings Michigan is known for, be they urban landscapes, suburban settings, farmlands and waterfalls that are all here.
Cost considerations even come before whatever personal allegiance filmmakers may have to certain areas. Take Raimi and Tapert, who haven’t shot anything in this state since the 1980s, when they helmed “Crimewave,” a dark comedy penned with acclaimed filmmaking siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, and “Evil Dead II.”
Yet Raimi and Tapert both still have strong ties to where they were born and raised. Tapert makes his way to Metro Detroit yearly to visit his parents and a sister still living here. He heads north to the Frankfort and Manistee areas in the fall to fish.
Born in Royal Oak and raised in Detroit, Raimi regularly visits his parents and a brother and sister still in the area. While here, he has worked on scripts for “Spider-Man” and horror films with his big brother, Ivan Raimi, who squeezes screenwriting in with his full-time job as a doctor.
The younger Raimi also owns property in Alpena, where he spends summers with his family.
What’s more, his best friends happen to be other Detroit-area natives who have long worked with him out in Hollywood. That includes not only Tapert, but actor Bruce Campbell, indie director Josh Becker and producer John Cameron.
“I love Michigan,” said Raimi, who is married to Gillian Greene, daughter of the late “Bonanza” star Lorne Greene. “I would be in Michigan except that my business literally is out here (in Los Angeles). I’m forced to live here because this is where the industry is.”
When he had a chance to come home at least for a little while to shoot some of “Spider-Man 3,” though, Raimi opted to shoot those scenes in Cleveland instead, pointed out Dave Rumble.
As a movie location scout based in Warren, Rumble has helped nail down local shoots for such box-office hits as “8 Mile,” “Transformers” and “Dreamgirls.” He has also witnessed this area lose out to other places when it comes to where movies are shot. Take “Four Brothers,” the $40 million action flick starring Mark Wahlberg and Tyrese Gibson that director John Singleton shot in Ontario in 2005, despite the story being set in Detroit.
“Producers are always looking at the bottom line, and if they can get the same looking stuff somewhere else cheaper, they’re going to shoot there,” Rumble said.Such was the case with “Spider-Man 3.”“It was cheaper to shoot in Ohio because the streets we were shooting on had storefronts that looked a little bit more like New York than Detroit did,” Raimi explained. “But if the incentives Michigan has now had been in place, we would have had the money to adapt a set in Detroit.”
However, if things work out well while shooting “Room 205,” he noted, “we’re hoping to bring a second film to Michigan, and then follow up with more films. As much as I can I’d like to shoot in Michigan.”
Raimi, who revealed that he’d love to move back to Michigan one day, wouldn’t give details about the next movie he hopes to make here after “Room 205” because he hasn’t secured financing for it yet. But he would elaborate on his optimism for the state.
“Michigan’s got great, talented people, but there are only so many of them,” he said of the pool of grips, gaffers, cameramen and other people who work behind the scenes to bring motion pictures to fruition.
“Films that have gone there hire as many Michigan professionals as they can, and then they’ve got to hire out.“With time, more people will move there,” Raimi said. And the crew people already here are “so talented that they just need a chance to work their way up through the guilds and unions. It’s just a question of the incentives sticking.”