Roger Corman has earned his title “The King of the B’s” after making movies for more than six decades. A quick search on IMDb shows that the filmmaker has more than 400 movies to his credit. He’s known for his cult low-budget films and exploitive storylines, featuring colorful characters and sensational titles, and his eight acclaimed pictures inspired by the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe. Corman has been an invaluable mentor to many up-and-coming directors and helped start the careers of some of cinema’s finest, including Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Starting July 31, Anthology Film Archives will highlight the works of studio American International Pictures — a production company in which Corman played an integral role in making a success with over 40 films. “Ever-adaptable, AIP in the 1950s produced (and/or distributed) dozens of low-budget westerns, racecar, sci-fi, and horror films, as well as pioneering the explicitly teenage-themed movie,” Anthology Film Archives explains. “In the ’60s, the company invented the beach party genre, imported re-worked versions of Russian and other Eastern European sci-fi films.”
Corman will be attending the AIP series for several screenings. “It was an exciting time. We’re old friends,” he explained to Flavorwire of AIP heads James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. “We were working commercially, but we were attempting to put a little thought into the films and make the films better than the competition. It was a great, creative, and fun time. Every old guy says, ‘Well, the old days were better.’ But, it was a fun time, particularly in the ‘60s when everything was moving up and down.” We spoke to Corman about his time at AIP, his own independent production studio New World Pictures, feminism, and the risk of making an independent film today.
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Flavorwire: I’ve read that AIP used to come up with movie titles and posters before working on scripts and direction. Many people believe that AIP was all about quantity over quality since you made movies very quickly, but perhaps working this way offered more creative freedom. Do you agree?
Roger Corman: Well, it’s not really true. I don’t remember ever having a poster before we made a picture. Very often, we would start with a title. Generally, we would start with a subject — for instance, the Poe pictures [starting with House of Usher in 1960], which were the ones that really set AIP up with Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff.
One of the reasons the company succeeded so well is due to a clear differentiation of the responsibilities. Jim was responsible for the producing end of the pictures. Sam was a lawyer in charge of business and affairs. They never interfered in each other’s areas, whereas with other companies, I’ve seen guys in business affairs trying to make creative decisions and things like that. There, it was very clear. Sam handled the business. Jim handled the creative.
The company started when I made a picture and sold the title to Universal. I made a car-racing picture called The Fast and the Furious [in 1955]. I was looking around for distributors. I had offers from a number of established distributors. Jim and Sam were trying to start a company called American Release — we would later change the title to American International — and they made me an offer, because they didn’t have any pictures. They could start their company with The Fast and the Furious. I said I would do it, but I wanted to do it as what’s known as a “pick-up.” I wanted the cost of my picture back and a distribution deal, for two more pictures.
That started American International. I worked with them on making other films. Generally with those, it wasn’t the title we started with, it was the subject matter. Jim and I would decide on one subject. The title would come later. Occasionally, the title came before it.
I just spoke with Penelope Spheeris about The Decline of Western Civilization. And I asked about making Suburbia with you. She said, “Roger has a rule. And the rule is: he wants sex or violence every ten minutes. It’s like a formula.” You also used to say a good director has to be part artist and part businessman.
[Laughing] Well, the first rule was never a rule. I never had anything about sex and violence every ten minutes. The second one is something. Motion pictures are part business. That’s the reason they’re the number one contemporary art form.
What rules about filmmaking have you shed along the way?
Well, when you talk about sex, there was no sex in any of my pictures until the late ‘60s, I think starting with The Trip . Some nudity came in. We continued that from the late ‘60s up until around ’80 when we started stepping away from it. It was nothing more than R-rated, anyway. I would call it nudity more than sex. Nudity was something new and very saleable. But in the ‘80s it had been used so much, we stepped away from it. In the last ten years, I don’t think I’ve made one picture that has any nudity in it. It no longer has any particular commercial value. There’s just so much on the Internet and everywhere else. There’s no saleable element there. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t put nudity in a film, but I never thought it was necessary.
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One of the most exciting things about the AIP days is that there’s this great anything-is-possible vibe — an adventurous spirit. The Trip is your opus for the counterculture. You took LSD before making the movie. And you worked with some real ‘60s counterculture personalities, who became icons, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. It was the same with The Wild Angels . You cast several members of the real Hells’ Angels. Did you set out wanting to create something that really embodied the time period, or did you just want to have some fun?
I was one of the older of the young counterculture filmmakers. I believed in what I was doing. I had been doing the Poe pictures primarily in studios, and I wanted to move out into the streets. I wanted to deal with the counterculture. So, I believed in what I was doing. We all did at the time. We took it seriously.
It’s been said that Jack Nicholson wrote the screenplay for The Trip based on his own experiences with LSD and his marriage breaking up. He wanted to play the part of John, but you wanted him to focus on things behind the scenes instead. Was this true? What was your reasoning?
Yes. It isn’t so much that he particularly wanted the role. He simply wrote the script. I hired him, because I knew he was a very good writer. He had written several scripts before. His career wasn’t really doing that much at that time. I knew he had experience with LSD, so I hired him as a writer. I was thinking of possibly using Jack for the role that Bruce Dern played. But I wanted to repeat some of the casting, particularly Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern from The Wild Angels, so I went with Bruce for that reason.
Can you give us an update about Joe Dante’s biopic about you and the making of The Trip, The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes ?
Yes. He seems to have found some financing. He had some financing at one time, and it fell through, but he has new financing. I know there’s a new writer working on a re-write of the script.
Who do you hope will play you in the film?
At one time, he was in discussions with Colin Firth from The King’s Speech. But after that picture, his price went too high. So, Colin is not going to be playing me, unfortunately.
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You’ll be presenting X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes at Anthology Archives, which was a big achievement considering your budget and the additional burden of getting the early special effects right. Is this one of your prouder moments from the AIP days?
Yes. It was a successful film, but it wasn’t as successful as some of the others. I thought it was a very original idea. I shot it in 15 days, which is sort of my standard. I did the best I could with the special effects. It’s one of the films I’m thinking about possibly remaking, because the idea was good. With the special effects that are available today with computer graphics and so forth, you could really do what we tried to do even better. As a matter of a fact, it’s become sort of a cult film. Stephen King wrote about it [in 1981’s Danse Macabre ] — and even wrote an alternate ending. And I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe his ending is better than mine.’
Are you actively trying to remake it now, or is it just an idea for the time being?
It’s in-between. I’m discussing with a major studio remaking a couple of my old films. We’ve already agreed on one. And I’m discussing another, which might be X.
One of your crowning achievements is the Edgar Allan Poe cycle. You’ve talked a lot about how much you loved working with Vincent Price. What’s something important you want us to know about these great movies that you haven’t been able to share before? I know they have a special place for you.
Yes, they do. One of the problems was that the Poe stories were very short. So, what [writer] Dick [Matheson] and I did very often, particularly in, say, The Pit and the Pendulum — where Poe’s story was entirely about the man under the pendulum — was that we used his story as the third act, and then created our own first two acts, in this case with John Kerr [who played Francis Barnard in the film]. We tried to put ourselves in Poe’s mind — which is impossible, but you know what I mean — to create the first two acts to lead us to the Poe story. That wasn’t the plan in all of them, but in a lot of them it was.
The other thing was that I was fortunate to have a really good crew around me, particularly Floyd Crosby as — we used to say cameraman — director of photography, who was very, very good. He won one of the first Academy Awards ever given [Crosby won the award for F.W. Murnau’s Tabu in 1931, which was the last silent film to win for Best Cinematography]. And he was semi-blacklisted. He was never officially blacklisted, but he had difficulty getting work. For instance, he did High Noon for Fred Zinnemann, but then couldn’t work for the same studio again, because Fred insisted on Floyd, and the studio went along with him. But with other producers or directors, who weren’t as powerful, the studio would not hire Floyd.
[As a result of that], I was in a position where I was able to work with an Academy Award-caliber cameraman on low-budget films. And Floyd became a good friend of mine. It was very good for me for a variety of reasons. He was an excellent cameraman, but also he knew how to work quickly. There are a lot of excellent cameramen who take all day to light a set. There are other cameramen who can light a set very quickly, but the results were not good. The beauty of working with Floyd was that he understood what had to be done under the time constraints, about three weeks, and he was able to give me comparatively first-class work.
I was [also] fortunate to have Dan Haller, who was a really good friend of mine, as the art director — today it’s production manager. Danny did brilliant work on a very, very low-budget, to create a very big look for the film. I was fortunate having a crew that had worked with me over the years. It became actually known as the “Corman crew.” When they weren’t working with me, other independents would just hire the whole crew. So, we were sort of a team working together.
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One of your first films for New World Pictures, which you co-founded in 1970 after AIP, was Student Nurses , directed by Stephanie Rothman. You gave a lot of well-known directors their start in the industry, but you gave a lot of women directors their start in the industry when no one else would. Can you talk a little bit about your decision-making with that?
People have praised me for going out of my way to hire women and being at the forefront of the feminist movement in Hollywood. It wasn’t exactly that way. It wasn’t that I was looking to hire women. I was looking to hire the best person available for the job. And it made no difference to me whether they were men or women. So, very often, the best person was a woman. I would hire that person, simply on the basis of ability. When you figure that the population is roughly 50% women — I’m making this number up, but you know what I mean — roughly half the time you’re going to be hiring a lot of women.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I have two daughters. I support them, and I think in general I would be a bit of a feminist. But, I still only hire on the basis of ability.
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The Slumber Party Massacre has two women behind it. The film was directed by Amy Holden Jones and written by Rita Mae Brown, who was an activist in the feminist movement. There’s so much subversive feminist commentary in this film, it’s fantastic. It’s great to see some exploitation directed at men and male bodies. I know it was written as a parody of sorts, but I’ve read that you filmed it straight. Can you talk about this?
It started off simply as horror film. Rita Mae Brown wrote the script. Amy Holden Jones directed it, but worked with Rita and me — although it was primarily their work. They put together a picture that satisfied what the requirements were. And we did have nudity in that picture. But, they also put some personal thoughts of their own in it, and they put a little bit of humor in it as well. Rita is an excellent writer. And Amy has gone on to have a very, very good career. These were two very talented women working on a subject that in other hands could have been a cheap exploitation film. It is still an exploitation film, but it has a quality that enabled it to stand alone. They understood they were making an exploitation film, but they also knew they had a great deal of freedom.
You are known for some degree of sex and female exploitation in your movies, but your handling of female sexuality in your films has always been pretty straightforward. As my editor and I once agreed, everyone has their fair share of sleazy moments.
You also offer us some social commentary in films like Student Nurses where women enjoy sex, and they’re liberated, but there’s also an abortion subplot. I know your wife Julie has worked closely with you behind the scenes. Has she been a source of advice about your depiction of women or women’s subjects?
These pictures started before Julie was working with me. But I remember with the scripts for a number of them, for quite a while, I would explain to the writer what I wanted. And I would get back — always in treatment form, I believe in treatments before going to the screenplay — the girls set up the way I wanted. They would have a problem to be solved. But in these scripts, their boyfriends would solve the problem. And I remember how many times I would say to the writer, ’No, they must solve the problem themselves.’ It killed the whole idea if their boyfriends come in and solve it. That was something that seemed, to me, self-evident, but I remember many times having that same discussion.
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The state of independent filmmaking is in a really strange, but exciting place. We have some massive successes, but then we have masters of their craft like Abel Ferrara and Frederick Wiseman turning to crowdfunding for support to make new movies and coming up short. They’re not getting funded. I feel like it’s incredibly tragic that we’ve let some of our most creative filmmakers fall by the wayside. What’s your take on this? And what can we do to help?
I wish I had an answer. It is easier to make a low-budget picture today than it has ever been. When I first started, we had those big, heavy cameras. All the equipment was heavy, hard to move around, and built for studio work or large crews. Today, you have these small digital cameras you can hold in your hand. And the other equipment, the lighting, the sound, the grip, everything is light and easy to work with. It’s portable and cheaper to make a film with.
So, it is easier to make a low-budget film today than it has ever been. But, it is [also] harder to get distribution for a low-budget film than it has ever been. This is a problem I’m dealing with myself. When I first started, every picture I made, no matter how inexpensive, got a full theatrical release. I have not had a picture in a number of years that has had anything other than maybe a token theatrical release, just to set it up.
Today, very few independent medium and low-budget films get a theatrical release. Occasionally, one or two will, and every now and then they will be successful, but they’re really exceptions to the rules. So, the directors you mention, Ferrara and so forth, are facing exactly the same problem. It doesn’t make much difference anymore whether you’re a veteran, such as me, or somebody just starting out. We’re all faced with the same problem. It’s easy to make a picture and very, very difficult to get enough of a distribution in order to break even and get your money back.
Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are trying to get distribution? What can they do?
The only thing is — and this is so obvious, it’s almost a little dumb to say it — you just have to make a better picture than somebody else. Make a better quality picture, generally, and make a better picture on a commercial subject. Most of the successes are still on commercial subject matter. There’s a huge amount of independent production being made — as I say it’s so easy to make — but almost all of them fail commercially.
I know people younger than I am who are retired. They just say, ‘I made my money, and I’m not going to beat my head against a wall. I’m quitting.’ I was having lunch with [ Piranha producer] Jon Davison a few weeks ago, who came to me as a young guy straight out of the NYU film school and went on to make a number of big-budget films, and he’s retired. I said, ‘Jon, you’re a young guy who is retired. Maybe it’s time for me to retire.’ And he said, ‘You’re too old to retire.’ [Laughing] That’s a line I’m going to use. I like the line.
Is there a production company or filmmaker working today in the same vein you’ve been working in for many years that you’ve taken notice of?
Well, a number of them. The first name that comes to mind is Jason Blum. Jason has had solid success with these low-budget exploitation films. He went on, last year, to produce Whiplash. So, maybe he’s moving more towards major films, I don’t know, but Jason is the closest to what I was doing. He really does do what I said — he makes them better than the other guys.