Back to Basics
'The Gift' is a low budget pleaser
By Bert Osborne

Blanchett, “psychic counselor to the stars”.

Talk about going from one extreme to the other. Sam Raimi's new film, The Gift was made on a "shoestring" budget of $9 million - roughly half of what Kevin Costner alone was paid to star in Raimi's last picture (For Love of the Game), and substantially less than a tenth of what his next project (Spider-Man) will end up costing before it hits theaters in 2002. As someone who began his career directing low-budget horror movies like The Evil Dead, it's no wonder the 41-year-old director would describe The Gift as a proverbial case of getting back to basics.

"It's like, if you're a carpenter, you wear a tool belt and you can pull out whatever you need for whatever job you're doing," Raimi explained during a recent interview. "But the tools of filmmaking are things like a crane or a dolly, and those things require money, so on a low-budget movie like this, you just bring them in when you need them. Everything had to be pre-planned because we knew we were going to have the crane on this day or the dolly on that day."

While those considerations put a definite damper on the amount of technical "spontaneity" Raimi was able to enjoy during the making of the movie, he says he chose to look on the bright side. "The great thing is it forces you to think about things in a different way. Because you can't rely on having all the tools when you need them, it challenges you to look for other, more unusual ways of shooting a scene," the director admits.

A turgid supernatural thriller (penned by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, who also co-wrote One False Move and A Family Thing), The Gift stars Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, a recently widowed mother of three young children, who makes ends meet as a "psychic counselor" in a Southern backwoods town (played by Savannah, Georgia). When one of the local yokels is murdered, Annie's other-dimensional "gift" is called upon to help police find the killer.

Among the stereotypical poor white trash on display: Keanu Reeves as a surly redneck drunk and hothead, Oscar-winner Hilary Swank as his blowzy battered wife, Katie Holmes as a slutty country-club belle, Greg Kinnear as her henpecked fiancee, and Giovanni Ribisi as a mental patient with skeletons in his closet - not at all a shabby supporting cast, given that any of these actors might have opted for bigger paychecks elsewhere.

"All of them were really impressed with the quality of the script, and Billy Bob's name probably gave it a bit of extra clout," Raimi remarks. "Besides that, I think Cate's very well thought of by the acting community at large, so once we had her on board as Annie, she was like a magnet for a lot of the others in the cast."

Raimi refers to the Savannah setting as an equally pivotal "character" in the story. "We filmed there because it's really spooky and eerie-looking. It's right on the ocean, so there was always a lot of fog, and there were these huge twisted trees all over the place, and all this great Spanish moss hanging down everywhere. It was quite visual, and it had to be, because the movie was saying that the world of the supernatural existed, and that was really suggested by the whole atmosphere of the place," he says.

Does he agree that such a supernatural world exists? Raimi pauses and replies, "It would be presumptuous of me to say it didn't. I mean, when you hear people talking about these black holes out in space, where all the laws of physics seem to be inverted, you'd think we were totally mixing up our reality with fantasy. Just because there are things out there I may not be able to comprehend doesn't mean that those things don't exist."

A sensible answer, indeed, coming from a director whose next film is based on a comic book series about a nerd who's transformed into a superhero by the bite of a radioactive arachnid.