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May 30
2019

ISSUE

Summer 2019

Roger Corman: The Godfather of Independent Film

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

Corman directing Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra in The Wild Angels.

Legendary filmmaker Roger Corman is one of the most prolific producers and directors in the history of cinematic entertainment. A trailblazer in independent film, his creative work and output of drive-in classics has earned him monikers such as “The Pope of Pop Culture” and “The King of the B Movies.” At 92 years old and with a storied career spanning more than six decades, Corman has produced upwards of 350 feature films, with a stunning track record for turning a profit on all but a handful of his wildly inventive features.

Corman’s filmography boasts one inspired title after another, including The Beast with a Million Eyes, Slumber Party Massacre, The Devil on Horseback, Swamp Woman, Caged Heat, Nightcall Nurses, Frankenstein Unbound, and cult classics Death Race 2000 and The Little Shop of Horrors. His diverse slate also includes The House of Usher, part of the critically acclaimed adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories starring Vincent Price; The Intruder, a serious look at racial integration featuring William Shatner in his film debut; The Wild Angels, which kicked off the ‘biker movie’ cycle; and The Trip, which began the psychedelic film wave of the late 1960s.

In 1964, Corman became the youngest filmmaker to have a retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française. He has also been honored with retrospectives at the British Film Institute and the Museum of Modern Art. For his influence on modern American cinema and ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers, in 2009 he was bestowed with an Honorary Academy Award.

Corman on The Wild Angels set with Peter Fonda.

 

ORIGIN STORY

Corman was born in 1926 in Detroit, Michigan. As a young boy, he and his friends were regulars at the local theaters on Saturday afternoons, primed to catch double features. The reissue of Frankenstein and an English science fiction film, Things to Come, were among the first films to spark his imagination.

Corman initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue civil engineering, but while studying at Stanford University his interests shifted. “I was writing for the Stanford Daily and found out that the film critics got free passes to all the theaters in Palo Alto, and one was graduating. So I wrote a few reviews and was taken on as a critic. Films had been just entertainment, but now I began to analyze them. I was more interested in this, but I was graduating and earned my engineering degree. I was the failure of my Stanford class. After three days at U.S. Electrical Motors, I quit and got the worst job among my peers – as a messenger at 20th Century Fox, delivering the mail for $32.50 a week. But it was pure passion.

“At Stanford,” Corman continues, “I enlisted in the Navy College Training Program. When I left Fox, I still had time left on the G.I. Bill, which covered education costs for service veterans. I spent a term at Oxford University before coming back home with a drive to become a screenwriter and producer. I landed a job as an assistant to literary agent Dick Hyland and started writing under a pseudonym. When I sold a script with someone else’s name on it and it came back around, Dick laughed and said, ‘As long as we get the 10% commission, it’s okay!’”

Corman with protégé Ron Howard.

Jonathan Demme directs Corman’s cameo in The Silence of the Lambs.

In 1953, Corman sold his first script, The House in the Sea, which was filmed and released as Highway Dragnet. “From that sale and other outreach, I raised a grand total of $12,000 and used it to make a low-budget film that we shot in six days, called It Stalked the Floor, which was changed to Monster from the Ocean Floor. It did well, and then I produced The Fast and the Furious – a valuable title that served me well in later deals!”

He went on to broker a multi-picture deal with American Releasing Corp., later renamed as American-International Pictures (AIP). With Corman as its lead filmmaker, albeit with no formal training, AIP became one of the most successful independent studios in cinema history. Corman first took to the director’s chair with Five Guns West and, over the next 15 years, directed 53 films. He quickly earned a reputation for churning out low-budget films on a lightning fast turnaround.

Upon leaving AIP, he decided to focus on production and distribution through his own company, New World Pictures. “I had always admired the great auteurs and had a new model for the profitable regional distribution of art cinema, in addition to my films. I reached out to Ingmar Bergman to take Cries and Whispers under my cost-and-profit-sharing approach, and that started the flow of foreign films.” New World became the American distributor of the films of Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and others. In a 10-year period, New World Pictures won more Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film than all other studios combined.

Corman sold New World Pictures in the 1980s, but continued his work through various companies over the years – Concorde Pictures, New Horizons, Millennium Pictures and New Concorde.

Corman directing John Hurt in Frankenstein Unbound.

STANDOUT CINEMA

Corman describes what led to The Little Shop of Horrors. “I had just made A Bucket of Blood (1959), combining horror with some humor and it did very well. I had a chance to use an adjacent set about to be torn down, so I went full steam in making a comedy with a little bit of horror thrown in – that was The Little Shop of Horrors. We used a lot of the same cast and shot it in two days on a shoestring budget, finding that sweet spot between horror and humor.”

Corman shared that The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was almost a joke. “I had made a horror film where I carefully planned a sequence to make the audience scream. The key to that type of shooting isn’t the moment of screaming – it’s the building up and the breaking of that tension. It worked perfectly, but after they screamed there was laughter. I wondered, what did I do wrong? I understood it was appreciative laughter and started developing a theory on the relationship between comedy and horror.”

Progressing forward, Corman cites Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) as his first attempt at making a bigger-budget sci-fi film with extensive special effects. “When Star Wars came out, I had great admiration for the film. But I thought, wow, we are in trouble, because this is what we had been doing, only bigger and better. The only way to compete was to raise my budgets and run my own studio. So I pre-sold some producing rights to Warner Bros. and put up the other half of the money to buy a site [in Venice, California] and converted it into a sound stage. The Lumber Yard was born.”

Death Race 2000 (1975) remains one of Corman’s favorite films, based on a short story about a futuristic race where the drivers don’t only drive to win, but to knock other cars off the road. “I started thinking about violence and gladiator games and the bloodthirsty role of the audience. My idea was for drivers to get points for knocking off other cars and for how many pedestrians they could kill. It was a huge success and was voted somewhere as the greatest B picture of all time. To this day, when I hear ‘$20 for the little old lady in the crosswalk,’ I still chuckle.”

THE SCHOOL OF CORMAN

Legions of filmmakers and actors got their start with Corman, who has a remarkable penchant for spotting and cultivating talent. Among his protégés are Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Martin Scorcese, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Bullock, Robert De Niro, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Dennis Hopper, Sylvester Stallone, William Shatner, John Landis, and even current VES Board of Directors Chair Mike Chambers. Many of them have paid their respects by giving him cameos in their films, including The Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather Part II, Apollo 13, The Manchurian Candidate and Philadelphia.

He speaks with a sense of parental pride about some of his alumni.

Francis Ford Coppola: “In the late 1950s, I saw some beautiful Russian science fiction films. I went to Moscow and bought the American distribution rights. But the films had a lot of anti-American propaganda in them. I called the UCLA Film School and asked for the most promising editor among their graduate students, and they sent over Francis Ford Coppola. So Francis’ first job was cutting the anti-American propaganda out of Russian science fiction films.

“I was shooting a Grand Prix Formula One picture in Europe called The Young Racers and Francis was the 2nd AD, and we had rebuilt a Volkswagen microbus into a traveling mini studio. Once the picture wrapped, since I had the nucleus of a crew and the costs were covered, I decided to make another film and gave Francis the opportunity to make his directorial debut with Dementia 13.”

Jack Nicholson: “When I started directing, my engineering background enabled me to learn the camera and editing fairly quickly, but I didn’t know enough about acting. So I enrolled in a method acting class. Jack was in it and was just 19 years old, but clearly the best actor in the class, so I gave him his first role in The Cry Baby Killer. And he was on his way.”

Corman directing John Hurt in Frankenstein Unbound.

Corman with Bridget Fonda and John Hurt on the set of Frankenstein Unbound

“From that sale [of his first script in 1953] and other outreach, I raised a grand total of $12,000 and used it to make a low-budget film that we shot in six days, called It Stalked the Floor, which was changed to Monster from the Ocean Floor. It did well, and then I produced The Fast and the Furious – a valuable title that served me well in later deals!”

—Roger Corman

Corman at work at New Horizon Pictures.

Corman with Vincent Price, star of The House of Usher.

James Cameron: “He started with me as a model maker for Battle Beyond the Stars, and is the only person I ever gave a raise to and promoted in the middle of a picture. To show his ability on an outer space picture, he had designed the spaceship, but there was an issue with one of the walls of the craft. The next day, Jim went to a store, got some cartons, glued them, sprayed them with aluminum paint and added some dials, but was concerned that we went over budget to solve the problem – by spending $12. It was his talent that enabled him to solve a problem for $12 that ultimately made Titanic look like something that had double the production budget.”

ON TECHNOLOGY AND IMAGINATION

“Visual effects were a part of our early films, but we just built the creatures and put people in the suits. We moved into other effects using optical printing and matte shots, and we used process shots, like when filming someone driving a car, you would shoot the moving background and then put the car in front of the process screen.

“I remember a reissue of a Hitchcock film that used process shooting and the audience laughed at it. No one laughed when the original came out, but today they look so crude. The work being done today digitally is the best that’s ever been done. But 50 years from now, people might laugh at what we consider state of the art. Now that we can create anything you can imagine with CG and technology, I think sometimes the special effects are emphasized over the story. It should still be about effects serving the narrative.

“And I think some elements in horror films should be left to the imagination. Like the outrageous films with people cutting off their limbs. To me, that’s a crude way to get a shock. You should set shots up, but leave it to the audience’s imagination, because everyone perceives things differently. In that way, audience members are left to create the horror that fits their psyche. Five hundred audience members, that’s 500 different interpretations – a creative storyteller’s playground.”

Director Corman setting up a shot.

Corman directing Boris Karloff in The Raven.

“Now that we can create anything you can imagine with CG and technology, I think sometimes the special effects are emphasized over the story. It should still be about effects serving the narrative.”

—Roger Corman

Corman presents the Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature award at the 17th Annual VES Awards.

Corman with VES Board Chair Mike Chambers, one of his early protégés, at the 17th Annual VES Awards.

LAST WORDS

“I’m still making one, two films per year, and my last one was made with the Chinese equivalent of Netflix. I welcome technical advancements and new venues for more films to be made and seen.

“What continues to drive me is story. It’s the originality of the idea, knowing that you can never be 100% original. I think it was Picasso who said, ‘If you can add one small thing to art, that is a full career.’ I’m aware of what has come before, but I try and find something new to bring to every project. I’m still dazzled by the opportunity to bring those stories to life.”

Martin Scorsese on Roger Corman

“Making films under the aegis of NYU’s Film Department and attempting an independent feature film taught me a lot. But working for Roger on Boxcar Bertha was a real film school. It was the same for all of us—that includes Jonathan Demme, Allan Arkush, Paul Bartel, Jonathan Kaplan, Francis Coppola and Monte Hellman before us, and so many others. You learned as you worked, on pictures that were made to be shot and cut and finished and released on a real and extremely tight schedule.

Roger taught us all about economy, and I don’t just mean the business end of moviemaking. He gave us a real sense of economy of means. In other words, this was the schedule, this was the budget, these were the demands, and those were the conditions, that was your framework. Wishing for more days or more money was just so much wasted time. He taught us that if you looked squarely at what you had as opposed to what you didn’t have, then what initially seemed like limitations became opportunities. And, within that framework, he gave us tremendous freedom.

Roger understood the economics of the business perfectly, but he also understood the necessity and the beauty of individual expression. That was rare at the time, and it’s almost unheard of now. That’s why so many of us owe him so much.”


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