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On any given day, one can find B-movie magnate Roger Corman doing more or less the same thing he’s been doing for the last 50 years, in the same office he’s been doing it in for 30 of them — manning his desk in a cramped, sparsely furnished two-story building on the cusp of Brentwood where posters advertising his signature exploitation fare (Carnosaur, Piranha) jostle for wall space with those promoting the high-class foreign films (Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Truffaut’s Small Change) he distributed in the 1970s, as if the one was no different from the other. An African American woman in early middle age, who I assume to be an assistant, shows me in and introduces herself as the company’s “operations manager” — a title, she goes on to explain, that’s Corman-speak for “chief cook and bottle washer.”
I’ve come to talk to Corman about his long, if not so varied, career on the occasion of an American Cinematheque tribute focusing on his early years as a shoestring producer-director, back when he made inimitable quickies like Not of This Earth(1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters(1957) and Creature From the Haunted Sea(1961) — movies that proved, decades before Snakes on a Plane, that all you needed was a title and the rest could come later. Not that the formula has changed significantly in the decades since. On this particular day, our interview is interrupted by an urgent call Corman must take from an executive at cable television’s Sci-Fi Channel, where he’s in negotiations to produce a film called Cyclops. It will be based on the classic Greek myth, but transplanted to ancient Rome, because, you see, Corman knows that there’s a really great Roman Coliseum set in Bulgaria, built for a network miniseries version of Spartacusa few years back, which he figures he can rent for a song.
As for the change in setting? “In the Greek myth they kill Cyclops,” Corman tells me after completing the call, his voice rising with excitement as he goes. “What really happens is that they thought they killed Cyclops, but they didn’t, and this is his descendent, a couple of hundred years later. So we’ll start out with rumors that there’s a Cyclops that’s out in the hills somewhere and has killed some Roman traitors. Somebody will say, ‘That’s an old Greek story. The Greeks were the original liars. Nobody would believe that.’ And then somebody else will say, ‘No, Cyclops is really out there.’ They eventually capture Cyclops, bring him to Rome, and the climax is that he fights a group of gladiators in the Coliseum.” Oh, and if that doesn’t work out, Corman already has a back-up plan to shoot the movie in Peru.
Welcome to the Roger Corman dream factory, where schlock is the business and business is still good.
The American Cinematheque event isn’t the first time Corman has been so feted: As early as the 1960s, he was the subject of retrospectives at the Cinémathèque Française, the Museum of Modern Art and the British Film Institute. Yet how odd to think of Corman as a legend, or a master, when he seems as committed as ever to a feverish work pace (since the publication of his 1990 memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, he’s made nearly 200 more), and when his most recent producing credits include films called Dinocrocand Scorpius Gigantus. “The answer is very simple,” Corman says when I ask what keeps him going. “I love making motion pictures, and I will continue to do so as long as I’m physically able.” By the looks of it, that could be quite a while. Tall and slender at 80 and preppily attired in oxford shirt and khakis, he still bears traces of the youth athlete who excelled at tennis and basketball. And when he talks about his work, his eyes light up with boyish enthusiasm.
Corman was a child of the Great Depression, the son of an engineer father who decided, when Roger was 14, to retire and move the family to Beverly Hills. There, Corman rubbed shoulders with the children of the moviemaking elite. Halfway through his undergraduate studies at Stanford, he abandoned plans of following in his father’s footsteps and set his sights on breaking into Hollywood. The rest is close to a Cinderella story: In 1948, Corman took a job as a bicycle messenger at Fox and quickly advanced to the story department, where he offered notes on a script that would become The Gunfighter(1950), Henry King’s strange death-dream Western starring Gregory Peck. By 1954, after a brief stint studying English literature at Oxford and drinking in existentialism in Paris, he sold his first screenplay, Highway Dragnet. Later the same year, he produced his first independent feature, Monster From the Ocean Floor.
Corman made his early pictures fast and cheap but totally in control, often two or three for the price of one (as with the storied “Puerto Rico trilogy,” comprising Creature, The Last Woman on Earthand Battle for Blood Island) or in as little as two days’ shooting time (1960’s legendary The Little Shop of Horrors). There are unheralded gems in there too, like the disarmingly clever and funny A Bucket of Blood(1959), about a lonely waiter-cum-artist whose attention-grabbing sculptures give new meaning to the term “life study.” Best of all is The Intruder (1962), a startling political drama set at the dawn of integration in the American South, with William Shatner terrifying as a gentleman devil trying to turn (back) the historical tide. That movie was a departure for Corman, and one of his only commercial failures, though he’s quick to note that it has recently gone into profit on DVD.
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