From the ER to Oz: DO screenwriter splits time between Michigan, Hollywood
Two characters approach the Emerald City in a still from Oz: The Great and Powerful. (Still courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Ivan M. Raimi, DO, has a unique way of staving off physician burnout—spending days on end holed up in his brother’s Los Angeles apartment crafting stories about demons, zombies, projectile nosebleeds and early-20th-century carnivals. Dr. Raimi and his brother, director Sam Raimi, have been writing screenplays together since their teenage years, and their efforts have yielded some high-profile, high-grossing films such as Spider-Man 3, Drag Me to Hell, Army of Darkness and Darkman.
Board certified in emergency medicine and internal medicine, Dr. Raimi practices in Ann Arbor, Mich. He schedules his shifts together so he can take several days off at a time to travel to Los Angeles and work with Sam, a process he describes as a “natural extension of play.”
Dr. Raimi recently worked as a consultant in developing certain scenes for 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, which his brother directed. Dr. Raimi worked alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Lindsay-Abaire, one of the film’s screenwriters. The movie, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, is an original story that follows the wizard on his journey to Oz, and Dr. Raimi helped develop some of its livelier fighting scenes.
Currently, Dr. Raimi is working on a horror project, and he says he might write a screenplay one day starring an osteopathic physician.
Following is an edited interview with Dr. Raimi.
You and your brother have worked more on horror and action movies. Oz: The Great and The Powerful is a children’s movie. Was it a challenge to work with a different genre?
We keep the audience in mind, and this movie is very family-oriented. My brother has kids, I have kids, and we try to think about what’s fun for us and appropriate for them. You want to have fun, and you don’t want to make a kids’ movie that’s hard for adults to stomach because it’s too juvenile, but you don’t want to feel uncomfortable taking your kids to a movie that’s too violent or too sexually inappropriate. In Oz, there’s no cursing, there’s no sex, there’s no blood, and yet at the same time I think it’s very romantic and funny and has some adventure and some horror.
Even Drag Me to Hell, as scary as it was, didn’t have a lot of gore. I don’t mind killing demons, but I prefer movies that don’t have things like psychopaths holding people in basements. That’s not my style. I love horror movies, but I don’t go for torture and gore. Not that we’re not over the top and there’s not blood, but usually we’re taking down zombies with chainsaws, not people.
Which specific scenes did you work on in Oz?
In one scene, James Franco’s character is a magician traveling the cheap magic circuit and the carnival circuit in rural Kansas. It was a lot of fun to go back to the old traveling carnival entertainers. We did a little research on these shows, the type of patter, what people would expect and the mechanical effects, and we incorporated that into the scene. James Franco really enjoyed working with us and enjoyed learning magic. I also worked on some of the scary scenes where the wizard has to go through the dark forest in Oz and confront the evil witch.
You’ve said before that you keep your movie and medical lives pretty separate.
When I’m in the emergency room, I don’t really like to talk about movies or writing or Hollywood. I find it distracting and inappropriate. When I’m writing, I guess people don’t really care that I’m a doctor, though I have been on sets when I’m there as a writer or a visitor, and I’m called in to do emergency medicine. In Army of Darkness, there was a charge down a hill at nighttime with torches and horses. Some people fell off their horses and rolled down the hill, and I had to treat them. When I was in Arizona visiting the set of a Western, The Quick and the Dead, someone had a heart attack. We had to do CPR and fly in a helicopter out of the desert into Tucson Medical Center. And there’s been more than one time on flights coming back from Los Angeles when I hear, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” I try to keep things separate. Sometimes it’s harder than you think.
An eclectic showbiz career
Dr. Raimi is a credited screenwriter in the following films, according to the Internet Movie Database. He has worked as a consultant on other movies, such as Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, The Gift and Oz: The Great and Powerful. Dr. Raimi is also the creator of the TV series Spy Game and served as a second unit director on a TV episode of Hercules and a writer on Iggy Pop’s Cold Metal music video.
- Drag Me to Hell, 2009: A supernatural curse befalls a loan officer after she denies an old woman an extension on her mortgage, which causes her to lose her home.
- Spider-Man 3, 2007: Following a meteor crash, an alien symbiote attaches itself to Peter Parker. This gives him strength but also brings out his dark side as he battles an old friend who seeks vengeance and fights a fugitive who has been transformed into the “Sandman.”
- Army of Darkness, 1992: A modern-day man is transported back to Medieval England, where he accidentally raises an army of dead men, then leads a battle against them.
- Darkman, 1990: After surviving a brutal attack, a scientist uses a synthetic skin product he created to disguise himself and plans to attack his assailants. But the skin disintegrates after 99 minutes, leaving him little time to exact his revenge.
- Easy Wheels, 1989: A female biker gang roams the land stealing and selling babies.
Has the time you’ve spent exercising your creative muscles as a writer helped you in your medical career?
It’s a good way to de-stress because I think about something different for a while. Some people like to go canoeing, and some people love archery. This is what I do. It blows off a lot of steam.
I also appreciate the stories patients tell me. I think of how they hurt themselves, and where, and what were the circumstances, and how they felt about it. I look at it more as a story. Not a story I’m going to write necessarily, but the story of what happened to them. There’s a certain real-life drama that my patients are going through, and I appreciate what they’re going through.
When you write, are you ever inspired by the things you’ve seen in the emergency room?
Yes, but usually in a more general way. I see people struggling with a disease or with a problem, and they are from all different walks of life. I’m amazed by how people put up with illness and disease and families rise to the occasion, or other people with minimal problems can’t take it. I really admire ordinary people who are forced to deal with these extraordinary circumstances, such as diseases they never expected. It is part of the human condition that I get to see on a daily basis. I like to think that I take some of that with me and translate it into characters good and bad. I like heroic characters, and I like weasels too.
Did your medical background yield any specific characters in your movies?
In my residency, I had a teacher who was really sharp and really tough and a little bit authoritarian, maybe even tyrannical. He was my inspiration for one of the chief residents in the movie Darkman, where they’re talking about the burn scientist’s injuries and his chances, and they’re not thinking too much about how he might be able to survive. The character was played by Jenny Agutter. She gives him a nine on the “buzzard scale,” which I remember this instructor saying. It’s sort of a dark humor that doctors have.
Have you ever thought about writing about medicine?
I have, and I plan to. I have one or two stories that I may turn into screenplays. When I write, I tend to think about things that are nonmedical. But I love the idea of medicine as adventure. In fact, a friend of mine, Josh Becker, wrote and directed a movie that was played on the Syfy channel called Alien Apocalypse. There’s a character in it that actually is an homage to me. He’s an osteopathic physician named Ivan, and he’s one of the last remaining characters on earth. There are aliens, and they are controlling the humans. So it’s the story of an osteopathic doctor—an emergency room doctor named Ivan—who’s a hero in the future who heals with his hands, and he becomes a leader of the resistance against the aliens and defeats them.
I don’t know if I would write something along those lines, but I’d love to promote osteopathic principles and maybe make an osteopathic physician a hero.
I have to ask if the nosebleed scene in Drag Me to Hell could ever happen in real life.
I’ve seen some bad nosebleeds, and when you see them, they are actually a little frightening at first, especially when they’re arterial and they pump out like that. That scene is obviously exaggerated for comedic effect. But there have been many times when I’ve been sprayed with blood, and I had to duck.
The old lady in Drag Me to Hell, Mrs. Ganush, she’s an exaggeration of some patients I’ve had. It’s funny because the movie reinforced my fear of certain scary old women, so I try not to cross them now. I try to stay on their good side.
These must be some pretty interesting patients.
I’ve had a lot of patients. I’ve worked in Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan, California, North Dakota and Ohio. I’ve worked in rural, inner city and suburban settings. I’ve seen a lot of different types of people, a lot of different populations.
That’s a good perspective you bring to the table as a writer. I imagine many screenwriters stay in Hollywood all the time.
It’s fun to be out there when I’m working there, but I love that I can escape back to my world where I consider myself a physician first and a writer second. But writing is a great escape too. It’s great to not think about medicine and go somewhere else. And then after several days of intense writing, I’m glad to leave it.
Medicine is a lot more definitive. When you’re writing, you don’t know what the next scene might be, or if it’s going in the right direction, or if it’s totally going in the wrong direction. It’s hard to know sometimes. Medicine is much more clear-cut.
Do you find one to be harder than the other?
They are both hard in different ways. But I have the best two jobs in the world. I feel very privileged in both careers.