Not of This Earth
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 Spartacus a 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 Dinocroc and 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 Earth and 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.
“The audience just didn’t want to see that film at that time,” Corman says in the deliberate, carefully enunciated way he says just about everything — a voice destined for audio books. “So I came up with a different idea, that I would make films that were entertainment, particularly on the surface, but if I did have some theme that was important to me, I would put it in the picture, subtextually. If I did a picture such as The Wild Angels (1966), about the Hell’s Angels, or The Trip (1967), about LSD, or Bloody Mama (1970), about a woman gangster and her sons in the South during the Depression — on the surface, they would be the entertainment/shoot-’em-up action pictures that the audience expected, and underneath would be a little social comment from me as an added bonus. Some people wouldn’t even notice. Other people, if they did notice, would recognize that the picture was a little more complex than they expected.”
In 1970, on something of a whim, Corman started his own full-service production and distribution company, New World Pictures. And while the demands of the operation effectively put an end to his directing career, it marked the ascent of Roger the impresario, the penny-pinching paterfamilias who would give many a young filmmaker his or her (with the emphasis on “her,” for Corman has long been a forthright equal-opportunity employer) proverbial break. It was a natural transition, for Corman had already been instrumental in advancing the careers of young actors like Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, and former assistants Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola. Among the many who would go on to pass through the New World revolving door: Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, the producer Gale Ann Hurd and Titanic director James Cameron, then a lowly special-effects technician with his eye on directing. (More recent students at the Corman academy, now called New Concorde Productions, include One False Move director Carl Franklin and Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov.)
It was the heyday of grindhouses and drive-ins, and New World pumped out one hit after another — The Student Nurses (1970), Private Duty Nurses (1971), Night Call Nurses (1972) and Candy Stripe Nurses (1974)among them. But by the mid-1980s, the theatrical marketplace had all but dried up for independently distributed exploitation fare, while Miramax and the new wave of boutique art-house distributors had scooped up Corman’s foreign-language business. He admits that the last 25 years have been tougher than the first, but somehow Roger Corman always manages to land on his feet.
“When we were being forced out of the theatrical business, luckily HBO and Showtime started and suddenly we had a new market, so it didn’t bother us that much,” he says. “We were doing just as well with cable, but gradually the major studios started taking over cable too, and HBO and Showtime started making their own movies. Again, something happened: Home video came up and suddenly everything was fine. But while home video is still strong, it’s slipping a little bit. So, recently we experimented: We put 10 pictures out on video-on-demand and the results were amazing, and I said, ‘It’s happened again!’ Every single time a market has started to slip, a new one has come up.”
Corman’s just-plain-folks reasoning belies the fact that he’s an incredibly savvy businessman who has weathered industry sea changes that have crushed many a colleague. (Case in point: Cannon Pictures, the 1980s exploitation factory started by former Corman assistant Menahem Golan.) He is the king of the favorable deal: Ask him about The Fast and the Furious, the Paul Walker/Vin Diesel street-racing drama that borrowed the title of an early Corman film, and he’ll tell you how he “gave” the title, which he wasn’t even sure that he owned, to Universal in exchange for stock-footage rights to the new movie — shots he has already recycled into productions of his own. That relentless, Depression-minded frugality and aversion to risk has earned Corman his share of criticism. At the time of Corman’s last Los Angeles tribute, when he received the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s lifetime-achievement award, Variety film critic Todd McCarthy (who started out as the head of publicity at New World in the mid-’70s) complained to Los Angeles magazine that Corman had missed out on his opportunity to follow some of his more celebrated protégés into the big time: “He had Peter Bogdanovich, so why didn’t he produce The Last Picture Show? He worked with Jack Nicholson, so why didn’t he produce Easy Rider?”
But Corman begs to differ. He has few regrets, likening himself to the college football coach who looks on admiringly as his players advance to the NFL, while he stays behind, fostering the next generation of talent.
“It’s a combination of pleasure and pride to see what they do,” he says of his “graduates.” “I’m still friendly with all of them, a number of whom have asked me back to be an actor in their films, and I think one of the reasons is because I was fair. If I had said, ‘I’m gambling on your untried talent and I’m signing you for five more big pictures,’ it would not have been a fair deal, and they probably would’ve broken the contract. Instead, I was giving them a large piece of my limited resources, which was enough to make a low-budget picture, and in return I was trusting them to do a good job and giving them the opportunity which would lead them from that to a major studio.
“As I said to Ron Howard when he was directing Grand Theft Auto: ‘If you do a good job for me, Ron, you will never have to work for me again.’?”
ROGER CORMAN IN PERSON: THE EARLY YEARS | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater | Fri.-Sun., Aug. 25-27 | www.americancinematheque.com
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