King of the B’s Roger Corman says spark, creativity, passion keep him going
Published: Sunday, August 01, 2010, 8:01 AM Updated: Sunday, August 01, 2010, 12:32 PM no, the real life of Roger Corman would make a lousy Roger Corman movie.
But then Corman was always a little saner, a little more practical — and a lot more commercial — than the mad men he put on screen and the wild people he worked with on set.
And while so many of his colleagues have recently, prematurely left this world — Dennis Hopper at 74, David Carradine at 72 — Corman, 84, is currently producing his 389th film. or is it his 390th?
“I really don’t know,” he admits over the phone from his Los Angeles office. “Sometimes, if someone younger — and they’re all younger — is doing a fair amount of the production work, I’ll let them take the title. it does me very little good to have another producing credit at my age, but it might be crucial to someone just starting out.”
That the famously workaholic Corman is still going surprises no one. that his old movies are still being watched, frankly, shocks him.
“most of these low-budget films, they were made for the moment,” he says. “I never expected that now, 40 years later or more, they’d be watched again. or,” he adds with a laugh, “watched back to back, so you can see all the same stock footage.”
But the pictures he made back in the ’50s and ’60s, like “X: the Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” are still Boomer touchstones. the drive-in features he produced in the ’70s and ’80s, like “Galaxy of Terror,” are now out on deluxe DVDs from Shout! Factory.
And it’s not all nostalgia. former favorites are being remade by others (a 3-D “Piranha” debuts this month). Corman’s latest straight-to-cable films — like the so-awful-its-awesome “Dinoshark” — are currently warping a new generation on Syfy.
More than half a century later, the King of the B’s is still buzzing.
By designThe usual rap against Roger Corman movies — and if he’s had a hand in it, it’s always “a Roger Corman movie,” no matter who directed — is that they can feel factory-made, manufactured to bring in the biggest return on the smallest investment.
But then Corman tends to think in precise schematics. the son of an engineer, he fully expected to follow in his father’s career. in 1943, he even entered Stanford as an engineering major.
“Then I started writing for the Stanford Daily and found out the film critic got free passes to the theaters in Palo Alto,” he says. “that sounded like a good deal, so I wrote my sample review, and got the assignment, and got my free pass. But eventually I started doing more than just enjoying the films; I started analyzing them, and I got interested.”
After school (and World War II, and more school, including Oxford), he tried engineering — for about three days. Then he quit and took a job at Fox as a messenger boy for $30.50 a week.
“that was how you started back then,” Corman says. “Jack Nicholson, a little later, he was a messenger at MGM. I met him first in an acting class we were both taking. As an engineer, I felt I knew all about the technical part of directing, but I still needed to learn something about the way the actors worked.”SHOUT! FACTORY/NEW HORIZONSA swimmer in peril in scene from the original “Piranha.”Once Corman really got started — he produced his first low-budget film, “Highway Dragnet,” in 1954 — the productions were often as mad as the villains. Always in a rush, and famously cheap — Corman’s 1990 memoir is called “How I made a hundred Movies in Hollywood and never Lost a Dime” — he never left a corner uncut.
He had a couple of days left on Boris Karloff’s contract for “the Raven”? Fine, he’d use them to shoot a second movie, “the Terror.” he had some good footage of a barn burning? Great, all his movies would now end with a fire. he could pick up a Soviet sci-fi picture, cheap? Terrific. He’d dub it, cut in some new footage of Basil Rathbone, and re-release it as “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.”
“‘the Terror,’ of course, we had the two days with Karloff, and then we’d just shoot additional scenes whenever we had the time,” Corman says, recalling his favorite bit of cinematic scrapple. “By the time we were finished, we’d had nine directors, each with their own ‘vision.’ I still can’t explain what that one is about!”
It was a strange way to make movies. But Corman was a strange figure, by Hollywood standards.
Studio executives knew him as a soft-spoken college boy who could quote the classics yet still call them on their “creative” accounting. Long-haired rebels met a square in a V-necked sweater — but walked away with a deal to star in a Hell’s Angels movie. Sharper than the sharpies, hipper than the hippies, Corman remained his own man.
“I’ve always had a rebellious personality,” Corman admits. “if there’s a theme in my movies; I guess it’s the conflict between the individual and society. I’ve always tried to get that little statement in, but at the same time, I’ve always been careful not to make it overwhelming. if people don’t pick up on the subtext, that’s fine, too.”
An inimitable style
Critics, at least, were beginning to pick up on the director’s style. although even Corman’s most elaborate Poe movies were shot in three or four weeks, “the Masque of the Red Death” had some lovely camera movements and use of color. “Tomb of Ligeia” staged several lengthy sequences without dialogue.
He thought about running a major studio (he had an offer, he says, but “I chafe at authority.”) he tried to make a film of “a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (but couldn’t get the money together). he toyed with directing an adaptation of a John Updike novel (but balked at the restrictive studio contract).
Uncharacteristically indecisive, he decided to do — nothing.
“I felt I’d take a year off and then return,” he says. “But I quickly found out sabbaticals bore me. so I started a new company, new World, and started producing and then that just took over, and suddenly it seemed I’d retired from directing. But, you know, I’d directed something like 55 films in 16 years. it was time for a change.”
Except for one film — “Frankenstein Unbound,” in 1990 — Corman hasn’t had a directing credit since.
“I do miss being on the set,” he says. “But it’s a little late to question that decision. and at my age, I think I’m probably better off just producing. although there’s that Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still working at 101 ”
Even if he never directs again, Corman’s legacy is secure. his no-budget “little Shop of Horrors” is still funny, and the Poe pictures minor classics. “the Intruder” — one of the rare Corman films to lose money — was an early look at racism; as a distributor he imported works by Bergman, Fellini and Herzog — one of the reasons the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave him an honorary Oscar last year.
But there was another reason: For more than half a century, Corman has both cheekily exploited and cheerfully helped young talent, giving first breaks to everyone from Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne to Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron, fostering several generations of great American filmmakers.
Martin Scorsese? “I put him on ‘Boxcar Bertha,’ the studio wanted to fire him after one day,” Corman says with a laugh.
John Sayles? “I’d liked a couple of his short stories, gave him ‘Piranha’ to write.”
Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard — all started out by working for Roger Corman.
No one stayed longer than they had to. (Corman’s tongue-in-cheek promise on “Grand Theft Auto,” Howard said, was “if you do a good job for me now, you’ll never have to work for me again.”) But Corman stood up for them while they were there. and he takes an avuncular pride in their success now, still showing up to play bits in their films. (He was a party guest in Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.”)
“There were always three things I looked for in a young person,” says Hollywood’s most successful mentor. “the first was intelligence — because while you might be lucky with one or two pictures, I’ve never known a consistently successful writer, director or producer who wasn’t intelligent. the second was, you had to be willing to work — it can be a glamorous business but it’s also very, very hard physically.”
And the third?
“That’s the tricky one,” Corman says. “the first two, I can judge very quickly. I’ve been a writer, director, producer — even occasionally an actor — and perhaps that gives me a little more of a background than most people when it comes to judging talent. But the third thing that I always looked for — that someone has to have to succeed — is the creative spark. and, honestly, that’s a lot harder to pinpoint.”
Or it would be, if he weren’t so modest.
Because although he doesn’t seem to realize it, Roger Corman’s image of the ideal filmmaker — smart, tireless and fired by some strange little quirk of imagination — just happens to be a dead ringer for Roger Corman.
IF YOU’RE INTERESTED
The Roger Corman Cult Classics series — including “Galaxy of Terror,” “Piranha,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Death Race 2000” — is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. For more information, visit shoutfactorystore.com
FEEL! the bone-snapping, blood-freezing terror as a smart boy from a nice family graduates from college and begins his career.
HEAR! the sighs of forbidden pleasures as he quietly builds his own business and methodically mentors a new generation.
SEE! the mind-melting trip of a lifetime as he grows in stature in the community and raises a family with his wife of 40 years.
Stephen Whitty: (212) 790-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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