Drag Me to Hell Star Justin Long Details Collaborating With Sam Raimi and Its Legacy After 10 Years
Director Sam Raimi's breakout film came in 1981 with The Evil Dead, which might not have been a [...]
Director Sam Raimi's breakout film came in 1981 with The Evil Dead, which might not have been a blockbuster movie but cemented him as a visionary in the horror world. He followed that film with two sequels before embracing bigger-budgeted studio films in the '90s, exposing his talents to more audiences. In 2002, his Spider-Man trilogy launched, helping cause a renaissance of superhero films, thanks largely to Raimi's imaginative interpretation of the character. In 2009, Raimi returned to his horror roots with Drag Me to Hell, which fully embraced the spirit of his earlier works, enlisting the likes of Alison Lohman, Lorna Raver, and Justin Long.
Much like Raimi, Long was no stranger to the world of horror, with one of his breakout roles being as a teen on a road trip who becomes terrorized by a monster in Jeepers Creepers. After finding success with a number of comedic roles, Long came back to the horror world with Drag Me to Hell as Clay, a professor whose girlfriend inadvertently became the target of an ancient curse due to denying an elderly woman a bank loan. In the time since its release, the film's following has grown more passionate, with many horror fans considering the film to be an unofficial entry into the Evil Dead franchise, due to its embrace of horror and comedy.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Long to discuss his time on the project, his first reactions, and the film's following.
ComicBook.com: When it comes to responses from people, do you get a lot of fans who regularly bring up your work on Drag Me to Hell?
Justin Long: It seems to have lasted. I would say people seem very fond of that movie. If I could take the temperature of the people who have come up to me over the years, I would say often they speak fondly of that movie, and I get it. I loved the movie. I was really honored to be a part of it, and so grateful to have been in it. It's such a fun part of [Raimi's] canon, you know?
For all the people introduced to him with Spider-Man, the film was definitely a return to his earlier filmmaking style.
Yeah, exactly. That sense of play is so alive in that movie. In fact, I remember him saying, because I was just an eager student of his because I was such a fan going in. I tried to pace myself in terms of fanning out too hard on him. But, he was so accommodating. In fact, everyone who worked on the movie seemed to have been just a huge admirer of his and he sought advice from everyone.
That's something that really struck me about Sam, is that he had absolutely no ego, and he was I think the most collaborative director I've ever worked with. A grip would be going by, carrying equipment and he would say, "Joe, what do you think of this shot?" He would want everybody's input; PAs, craft service people. He was so egalitarian in that way and that really struck me. He was such a nice, generous person. You'd think somebody like that would, in a way, deserve not to be. Not deserve, I mean not that any should behave otherwise, but his body of work might suggest that he wouldn't be so gracious to people. But he really was, from what I observed, anyway.
But I remember asking him about that, about the difference between working on a smaller scale, which that movie was relative to what he had been doing, because he had just come off Spider-Man 3. And he compared it to, which I thought was really interesting, the difference between conducting a symphony orchestra and conducting an intimate string quartet or something. He described going around from all the different sets when they were doing Spider-Man there were things being shot simultaneously, he said. And he was like, "They would cart me around basically with a bullhorn." I don't know if he literally had a bullhorn, but it was that kind of energy. He was just conducting on a larger scale and he said there was something about this that felt so much more intimate and I don't know if he said this or I remember it this way but I think, you'll have to ask him, I think he likened it, or I just came up with this, like playing in a sandbox. And he seemed to like that. He seemed like a kid.
One of my best friends, Doug Sills, was childhood friends with Sam. In fact, Doug is an actor, a really talented actor. And Sam used to put Doug in these little movies that he did because Doug is very dashing looking. But he said he was like that. It strikes me that he never really lost that sense of play. And I think that's one of the key ingredients of his success and of his artistry, certainly for that movie, for Drag Me to Hell. There's such a sense of play and he often would reference Looney Tunes. And if you watch that movie you see what an influence Looney Tunes and Saturday morning cartoons are in the way that story is told. There's some really fun, cartoonish stuff in there. Like Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner stuff, with anvils falling on heads, cartoonish violence.prevnext
And at the time the movie came out, things like the Paranormal Activity franchise was dominating theaters, which featured much more subtle scares, so horror audiences at the time might not have connected with the over-the-top style of Drag Me to Hell or Raimi's comic book movies.
That's true. And certainly not familiar with his gory, fun, early Evil Dead type stuff. Because I think he came to prominence with these other movies, in terms of public perception. I'll never forget how he indulged in those things. He'd get so excited by, the prop guy would show him what Lorna Raver's vomit was going to look like. And they would show him little tests and he would get so giddy like a kid, like really like a kid playing in the sandbox. It's the best way I can describe it. He would always pull me over, "Look at this." And he would want everyone involved. It was such a fun atmosphere.
Well in returning to form, on the original Evil Dead movies, everyone had to take on multiple roles. The actors might also be helping with props and lighting or the camera guy would be helping with sound and special effects. It sounds like, with Drag Me to Hell, it was familiar to him to get everyone's input since they were all invested in the final product.
Oh, that makes sense. I never thought about it that way. That's true. I bet you're right. I bet when you're using such skeleton crews and that's what you know, it was probably a lot more familiar to him.prevnext
Movies like Dodgeball and Waiting... might have been what audiences knew you for at the time, but one of your first big roles came with Jeepers Creepers in 2001. Were you actively pursuing a return to horror when you joined Drag Me to Hell?
No, it wasn't something that I did deliberately. Jeepers Creepers came around during when I was very new to acting. And truthfully, I would have done any movie at that point. I don't mean this as any knock against the movie, I just still can't believe it's lasted the way it has. Because with Drag Me to Hell, it was Sam Raimi, so there was a level of expectation. Like, okay, this will be something that will special whether it works or not. It will probably last a little while. But Jeepers Creepers there weren't those expectations at all. The opposite of that. It was kind of like a B monster movie. Then, in fact, they dumped it out on the worst weekend. It came out right around, it was like August 31st it came out.
And with horror, you're either an early summer event film or you wait until the fall for the Halloween season.
Yeah, I remember, even when it did well that weekend, I mean relatively, I remember it was the number one movie that weekend. And I was so excited, I was so proud and excited. And I was shooting the show Ed, I was doing this TV show at the time, and everybody at work was so nice and they were congratulating me. And then I read, and this is one of those first lessons where you learn, eventually it leads to you just not reading anything. But it was the first such lesson, it was in Entertainment Weekly said, I can't believe I remember this. It said something, I think it was, 'Jeepers Creepers was the number one movie that's out Labor Day weekend. That's like saying Leprechaun 2 is the best Leprechaun movie,' or something like that. It was some shitty way of saying that.
That aside, the fact that it lasted, that people still come up to me about it, it's very strange. I don't think the Drag Me to Hell thing is strange because it's Sam Raimi and I think it's a beautifully made movie. But the Jeepers Creepers thing still amazes me that that has lasted. Again, truthfully, not a slight against the movie. I think it's a really well-made movie, I just, at the time, I still can't believe it came out in theaters. It was a low budget and whatever.
I love horror movies, but I had no intention of seeking them out or deliberately, in fact, if anything, I would say it's a lot more challenging to work on a horror movie like that. It takes a lot more energy I think and emotional energy.
I don't think Alison Lohman gets the credit she deserves for that performance in Drag Me to Hell. She really committed to that. And it's not easy to do. I also think of really great horror movie performances are often under-sung, like Veronica Cartwright in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien is so fucking good. I watched her a lot, I got inspired by her for Jeepers Creepers. I tried to watch actors in horror movies that really commit. Even the remake of [Texas Chain Saw Massacre], those actors, Jessica Biel and those actors are so good in the movie. I love watching good acting in a horror movie. But Alison, I think, delivered such a beautiful performance.prevnext
That's definitely another takeaway from the film, was how good Alison was. Most horror fans though this was a star-making performance and it was just the beginning of her career giving great horror performances. Not only did she leave the horror world behind, but she's almost entirely left acting behind to focus on her personal life.
Well, I tell you why. To me, she's a great actress and all that, but this is the coolest thing about Alison is that, here's the thing I respect her the most for: she made a very conscientious choice to do that. I remember when we were shooting, we both expressed our desire to one day buy a farm and raise a family and stop acting for a little while. And the next year, she did it. She's like, "Well, I'm getting married and I think we're going to move to a farm." And she did it. She actually did it. We would talk about that a lot, what an interest we had in that kind of lifestyle. And something I never really pursued, I did to varying degrees, but never like that, never completely committed to it. And she did.
And to her credit, she did it at a time when, like you said, she could have had her pick of things to do, of projects, of acting projects. In fact, getting that role was, I think that was a really coveted part. I think Ellen Paige was going to do it and then couldn't or whatever. But Ellen had just been nominated for an Oscar and so for Alison to just get that part was huge. It was a huge vote of confidence. And yeah she could have done anything after that, had her pick, and the fact that she deliberately sacrificed that to raise a family on a farm, I think, is like the coolest, really beautiful thing.
But if you step away for a little while, it's hard to get back in there, I suppose. I don't know, it still mystifies me that people are not casting her in things the way they should be. Not just Drag Me to Hell, but White Oleander, Matchstick Men, Big Fish, such an impressive actress, such a versatile actress. It's crazy. I'm just waiting. I'm sure it's going to happen. It's just a matter of time.prevnext
And not only is Alison great in the film, but your chemistry with her helps sell the film's authenticity. While your character could have doubted her, you constantly support her, without question. You mention the collaborative process on set, so how did you to work to develop that dynamic on screen?
Alison and I had known each other, I'm trying to remember. We were about to do a movie, I think, oh man, she'll remember better. I have a terrible memory. I think it was a year or two before this, called Dodge. It was about, kind of like a Bonnie and Clyde, these two lovers in a small town and they rob a bank, I forget. It would have been really fun and I was a huge fan of hers and I think we may have met through Sam Rockwell because they had done Matchstick Men.
But I always really liked her. I got along with her so well. I remember when we were going to do that other movie, we had dinner just to talk about it and we really hit it off. It's as simple as that sometimes. If you like somebody, you feel a connection, it's so much easier to, unless you're Daniel Day-Lewis, who can probably have a connection with anyone on screen. I think it really went a long way. We laughed a lot. We just got along really well. II think it's as simple as that, especially when you're playing--my function in the movie was just to be a supportive partner to the lead. I think it didn't require a lot of effort. We just had a connection. My parents [in the film], that was an interesting casting, because I don't have parents like that. They were very waspy and attached in the movie. And Alison and I got a big kick out of that and our relationship. It was fun.
There were parts where I had to improvise, especially during that dinner scene. He was playing all of it on Alison with the cake, with the eyeball in the cake and all that, but you had to hear me in the background. So it was always so fun. Sam would just say, like, "Feel free. Go ahead, sir." And he would let me just go and knowing that it was going to be used as basically background noise. But for the most part, I think other than that we pretty much stuck to the script. There were a few things here and there and he, again, when Sam recognizes something that you, not to say that I do it well, but that I was comfortable doing it and I enjoyed improvising, he would then encourage it. But I think for the most part, it was a pretty tight script and we stuck to the script for the most part.prevnext
Cutting Room Floor
With how joyful the experience of making the movie sounds, was there anything that you filmed, improvised or scripted, that you were disappointed did make it into the final cut?
There was a lot of stuff, I remember, that got cut where you see me teaching and it debunks mythology and these mythological explanations for why things happen in the world. I approach them with a more scientific point of view. So there was a lot of that that got cut, and rightly so, it was totally unnecessary to the movie. But it was fun to shoot. We had a lot of fun shooting that. I wonder if that will ever appear somewhere in like a DVD extra or something. My brother, my little brother, was cast as my brother. He was like my teaching assistant.
It was really fun. And Sam recognized that that would be, because I'm very close with my brother as is Sam, and I think that's one of the things we kind of bonded over. I think he recognized that that would be just a nice element or something. Maybe he just recognized it would be a charming element. I remember he was so sweet when he told me he had to cut that stuff out. "You know, don't feel too bad, sir, I had to cut out my own brother." So Ted [Raimi] wasn't safe either. Ted had this whole long scene, and, again, it's Alison's story, so it's her point of view. So we shot a lot of stuff that ended up being background. But I'd be more than happy to be a background actor in Sam's movie again.prevnext
As far as characters go, they manage to be these classic archetypes that are exaggerated just beyond reality, yet never quite feel exaggerated. Whether they are the heroes or the villains, they're heightened enough to be engaging but subtle enough as to not feel like full-blown cartoons.
Yeah, exactly. Even our relationship, it's like there's something so, like, "Hi, honey." There's something so chaste and I don't know what the word is. It's kind of you to say it's authentic because we did have a real connection but it's still told in this, like you said, heightened, borderline cartoonish way.
Other genre films at the time not only took their supernatural scares with subtlety, but there was also a lot of underlying irony and cynicism to things. Instead, Drag Me to Hell was much more genuine with both its scares and its protagonists.
There's an innocence to Sam's sensibility that I think was at work in that movie. And I think that's why I keep going back to that sandbox metaphor because children aren't yet cynical. That sense of wonder is still intact with Sam and just the way he would light up when he'd see a shot or a prop or something or he would reference some kind of acting that he just saw, the way he would light up, it was very childlike. And I don't know why, I'm not in his head, but I would imagine that that has something to do with why the movie, like you said, is just completely devoid of any kind of cynical trapping. There's like a real innocence and sense of play. Even though it's dark and foreboding and yeah.
And, as opposed to something recently like Hereditary, which is an exhausting emotional experience that sticks with you once you leave the theater, Drag Me to Hell felt much more like a ride with these immense highs and lows, but you were able to leave the theater and those experiences behind when you got home.
Oh, my god. I love Hereditary. There's nobody better at delivering such a palpable air, just such a gut-punch of a scare, and then in the next beat, the next frame, there's a laugh. It's almost like he's allowing the audience to catch their breath and he understands that there's such a fine line between fear and that kind of horror and comedy. Which, if you've ever seen a movie like that with a packed theater, you experience it and you really can hear it. You hear the way people react. Even Hereditary, I remember seeing it and, right after these big scares, people would jump and gasp and whatever and then it would immediately give way to laughter. I think that's just like a natural human response. It's almost like we've caught ourselves being gripped by a sense of fear and then it's the realization that, "Oh, we're in a movie theater and this is not real."
So Sam doubles down on that phenomenon where he deliberately inserts a comedic beat right after that. I'm thinking about that scene where Alison's getting thrown around the room and the way he placed the shadows and sounds, it's so powerful, the sound in that scene, getting tossed all around. And it's almost like the audience is getting tossed around. So there's a sense of relief when it's over, but then the very next shot, I think, is her saying, "Come here, kitty, kitty." And then you see her burying it. Sam's understanding of comedy is so finely tuned. And Looney Tunes is the same way. In Looney Tunes, those cuts are so important. The timing and the structure of scenes like that. And Sam just understands. I don't know that he gets the credit for being a comedic master too.prevnext
From Script to Screen
Speaking of how effective of a theatrical experience it is, what was it like seeing it in a theater with the finished visual and sound effects compared to the experience of reading the script and shooting it?
Well I should say that so much of my stuff, in fact, basically all of it was shot, I don't want to say "boring," but it was the in-between. It was the filler. I always said about this, my role was to come in and say, "Honey, I'm going to be right next door. Nothing's going to happen. Everything's fine." And then I leave and then all the crazy, fun, Sam Raimi shit happens and then I come rushing back in when it's over and I say, "What? Are you okay? What did I miss?" So there was a lot of that. So for me to get to see it all put together was such a thrill. It was all new. I think it's the only time I've done this on a job where I would go to work and I would go when I didn't have to work. I just like to watch. Again, I can't emphasize this enough, I was such a huge fan of his so I would just go and show up on set.
I know for part of that movie I had a whole chunk where I shot this other movie. I shot this movie in Michigan, Youth in Revolt, so I couldn't be going back and forth and I certainly couldn't justify flying back to go to work when I didn't have to work. So I missed a lot of the fun stuff. And Alison would tell me how grueling it was, I would hear how grueling it was and that she was being put through the ringer and never complained, always showed up, really positively. And she can obviously speak more to this but I guess it sounded like it was a very difficult shoot for her, a lot of that stuff, the mud in the graveyard. So I didn't really have to get all that dirty.
So when I saw it for the first time, a lot of that stuff was new and exciting and obviously the sound and score. It was really thrilling. I remember thinking like, "Oh god," because I saw it before it came out, we were supposed to do press for it and they wanted us to see it. I remember thinking, "Oh, people are going to lose their minds over this." Then you start listening to all the predictions and you get carried away with forecasting how it's going to do and so then when it doesn't, it's disappointing, which it's going to be because, again, it's just a life lesson. You should never value that stuff. I mean, if I had been a studio executive who released it and that was my job, I would be justified in being disappointed. For Sam's sake, I would want people to see it and for my own, selfishly. But the truth is, there was nothing disappointing about that movie and certainly the fact that it has lasted this long is very cool. But not surprising. But it was a thrill to see it for the first time.
I saw it with an audience. That's when you get the full effect of a movie like that is to see it opening weekend. I saw it in Times Square, a theater in Times Square. I was with my family, it was the best. It was so fun. I'll never forget that.prevnext
One of the biggest surprises of the movie is that Alison's character ultimately gets dragged down to Hell. The curse is a result of her own desire to get a promotion at work, ultimately making a decision out of her own self-interest instead of doing what she could to help the old woman. Do you think her character deserved what she got?
No, not that level. Although, I don't know. It's a morality tale so I guess that's not really the point. The point is that she was told what would happen and she didn't do the things she had to do to not have that happen. So I don't know, it's a pretty harsh lesson to learn.
Claiming someone deserved to be taken down to hell to be tortured for all eternity is a difficult thing to do.
True. It's also so hard for me to separate, I feel like my mother, it's hard for me to separate Alison from the character. I guess that's the genius of casting somebody like Alison. She's so sweet and likable. Even if like a fraction of Alison's likability and kindness and sweetness comes through in that performance, then it's so difficult to not root for her. I did a horror movie called Tusk and I felt it was really important, I remember telling the director, Kevin Smith, that it was really important to make the character unlikable and to almost make it like you have to root for him to meet his demise. Because the whole movie was about him being turned into this walrus so it's body mutilation movie. But it's difficult, right? Because then you have a lead character, and that's one of the first lessons, you've got to root for your lead character. But if awful things are happening to the lead character, you want there to be at least some comeuppance.
And with somebody like Alison doing that part, it's really hard to remember the moral. It's hard to remember the moral lesson that she's going against, the moral law that she's breaking, because she seems so innocent. And you understand why. It's very relatable why she would do that. We've all done things that are, I think, somewhat morally questionable and told little white lies here and there. I think she comes across as such a good person in the move that it's hard to root for somebody like that getting that fate.prevnext
You recently started up a podcast, Life Is Short, where you interview various filmmakers and actors. Podcasting is a new avenue for you, have you made interesting revelations through the experience?
I thought it would be fun because I love long-form interviews and I'm really long-winded, as you can tell now, you have firsthand experience with now. But I never thought it would be as fulfilling as it's been. It's been really creatively satisfying and I get to do it with my brother. It's been really fun. It's interesting just to hear how people approach life. And how similar a lot of people are. I've learned a lot about myself through examining other people's approaches to life. I think it made me more empathetic to other people's journeys and positions and ideologies and it's just been a really positive, such a fun thing.
I just hope we get to keep doing it. I don't have crazy ambitions for it. It's just fun, I get to chat with these people that I really admire, some of whom I know better than others. But sometimes it's fun to even talk to the people that I know well or I thought I knew well. And I get to ask them things that don't really come up, like about career stuff and heavier stuff about existence and mortality. It's been really gratifying.
You can keep up with Justin Long by listening to his podcast, available at the Life Is Short with Justin Long official website.prev