As told to
Roger Corman’s contribution to cult cinema and the American mainstream – by virtue of his association with New Hollywood figures such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese – makes for an extraordinary cinematic legacy. Since the 1950s, he has cultivated an image as the ultimate guerrilla filmmaker and exploitation king. We met up with the legendary schlockmeister recently to find out what makes him tick.
“Well, it’s probably not as good as ‘Emperor of the As’. I’ve been called worst things and I’ve been called better things. I accept it. One of the best things I’ve been called is The Pope of Pop Cinema. That one I liked.”
“I think all motion pictures are a combination of art and business. If you’re a painter all you need is yourself, some paint and a canvas. With film, you can’t do it yourself. You need money to make it and money to pay the crew. Then, automatically, you’re in a business.”
“I made The Little Shop of Horrors in two days and a night. I had to make very low-budget films because it’s all the money I had. It was an economic necessity but also, looking back, there was something psychological about it because I made a couple of films with longer schedules and I was getting tired.”
“The film was about racial integration in the South and racial integration of schools. The Intruder is about an agitator (played by William Shatner) who comes to this small town. It was something I believed in and I made it with my own money. I hoped it would move me into a different area. It played well at film festivals but was a financial failure and it changed some of my theories on film. I came up with a theory – it was only ever vague – that films can work on two levels. On the surface level it will be the entertainment that the audience comes to see. Underneath the surface will be a theme or comment that is important to me, but will always be subordinate to the entertainment. Afterwards I felt it had been too much of a lesson – as if I’m trying to teach the country a lesson. And that’s not what films are about.”
“It was a semi-blacklist and a very strange thing. Some studios would work with him and some studios wouldn’t. He shot High Noon starring Gary Cooper for Fred Zinneman, so he was able to make big films but some directors wouldn’t work with him. During one of those times, he was a cameraman for me and I realised he was a brilliant cameraman. Whenever he was available, I always went back to Floyd. I think he won the first Academy Award ever given for Cinematography. I wasn’t aware of his work for FW Murnau at the time, but I certainly became aware of it [later on]. He was very good and he could work quickly. I found there were cameramen who worked quickly but whose work wasn’t so good. Some cameramen do excellent work but work very slowly. He was the only cameraman I ever met who could work quickly and at the same time do good work.”
“I got tired. I had directed 58 or 59 films in 15 years. I was shooting a picture in Ireland, Von Richthofen and Brown, a World War One picture. On my way to the set, I’d come to a fork in the road. One was to Galway Bay and the other to Dublin [where the film was shooting]. I used to think, ‘I’m so tired I think I’ll just drive to Galway Bay and sit on the beach,’ but I didn’t. I went and shot the film. I made too many films too fast and I was working almost constantly. I thought I’d take a year off – the traditional sabbatical – and go back to directing but during the year I started my own distribution company and it became success, so I stayed with that.
“Universal had done some market research with the result being that a picture called ‘Roger Corman’s Frankenstein’ would be a success and they asked me if I wanted to direct the film, and I said no. There were so many Frankenstein pictures and I didn’t care what their research said. They offered me more and more money and I said if I could find a new way to treat the Frankenstein story that I would do it. Brian Aldiss, a science-fiction writer, came up with Frankenstein Unbound, which had to do with a diplomat who time-travels back to the 19th century and I thought that was something I could do. I changed the character from a diplomat to a scientist because I wanted a scientist from the future to come back to meet Dr Frankenstein.”
“I was making low-budget films and I had a choice about who I could hire. I could hire competent directors, just generally competent on that low-budget level, or I could gamble with new young people (like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese) who didn’t have much experience – or sometimes had no experience – but who I felt could do good work. I took a chance and they did exceptionally good work. I felt it was better to take a chance with the hope they would do something extraordinary, and generally they did. Very few of the people who started with me did not go on to have careers. I was convinced they were very talented but I had no idea how far they would go.”
“I was the squarest guy in a fairly wild group, including Jack Nicholson, who wrote the screenplay [for 1967’s The Trip]. I took LSD as a conscientious decision as a director, otherwise, I wouldn’t know what I was shooting. One of the most beautiful places I know is Big Sur, which is south of San Francisco. I decided to go there and, to my great surprise, people heard I was going to trip. Suddenly there was parade of cars all going up to Big Sur and we had to work out something like a production schedule – with a person who wasn’t taking LSD looking after a person taking it. I still remember it. It was wonderful. But I couldn’t base an entire film on my experience otherwise it would be propaganda for LSD. I talked to other people who had had bad trips, and tried to balance that with Jack Nicholson’s script.”
“When James Cameron made Titanic it was the most expensive film ever made, but it was the biggest-grossing film ever made. When he made Avatar that was then the most expensive film ever made but, again, the biggest-grossing film. When Jim Cameron spends that much money you can look at the film and you can see why and it’s all up there on the screen. You can see why it cost so much money. If you’re spending money at that level for a film, I totally understand that. It’s when you spend that much money and you don’t get that level – that’s when I say there’s something wrong here. I’ve been around long enough to see cycles come and go and I think we’re seeing a period where there will continue to be these $100-200 million dollar films, but there will be less of them, because too many have failed recently.”
“I have some regrets but pretty much all I can say is this: I’ve always tried my best and I’ve never been a ‘take-the-money-and-run’ director. No matter what the budget or subject, I’ve always said I’ll make the best film I can make under the given circumstances.”
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