Roger Corman on the art, and business, of moviemaking

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Iconic writer, director, and producer Roger Corman.
Iconic writer, director, and producer Roger Corman.

To some he’s the king of exploitation, to others he’s the ultimate independent filmmaker, but everyone agrees that Roger Corman is an entertainment industry legend. After liberating himself from the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s, Corman became a writer, producer, and director for hundreds of projects—from elegant Edgar Allan Poe adaptations to knockoffs of knockoffs of mainstream blockbusters. Occasionally, he would make art in, say, the 1960 film The Intruder, about racial integration. His hallmark works include Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, starring the Ramones; Piranha (1978), a Jaws riff featuring flesh-eating fish; and Battle Beyond The Stars, a cheapie clone of Star Wars. Oh, he also gave iconic filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and James Cameron their first opportunities to tell stories.

Except for The Intruder, all of these films and many more Corman titles are currently available on Shout Factory’s Shout! Cult and Scream Factory streaming channels, providing a showcase for his extensive and eclectic output. Corman spoke to The A.V. Club about his illustrious, and sometimes infamous, career, including his proudest achievements—and the money they lost—lessons he’s learned, and the changes he’s witnessed over his 70-plus years in the entertainment industry.

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AVC: Do you own all of your films, or is there shared ownership because of the different companies you’ve worked with over the years?

RC: I sold my film library in 2018. Half of them went to the Shout Factory, and it was an overall deal, and the other half went to Ace Films of Hong Kong, and they were primarily interested in the Asian rights. So most of my library is now owned by either Shout Factory or Ace Films.

AVC: Are there films you specifically wanted to retain control over?

RC: I would have liked to retain a couple of the films, but the deal was for my whole library. And so I just sold the library.

AVC: You famously broke off early in your career from 20th Century Fox after you didn’t receive credit for your contributions to The Gunfighter. What lessons did you learn along the way about the importance of getting proper credit?

RC: Well, the first thing I learned was the importance of the director. My degree from college was in engineering, so I had little knowledge of films. But from the beginning I realized that the power laid partially with the producer and heavily with the director, and I started as a writer, and what got my career started was I sold a screenplay, and I realized at that time that credits are very important in Hollywood. So I just asked the producer if I could help him on the set and get an associate producer credit, which I did. And based upon that, I wrote and produced the first couple of films, and then I saw what the directors were doing, and I began directing at that point.

AVC: Is there one film in your catalog that stands out to you, in terms of quality?

RC: Well, from a personal standpoint, I would probably pick The Intruder, which is a picture I made in 1960 with a new young actor in his first film, Bill Shatner, playing the lead. It had to do with racial discrimination in the schools in the South. That got wonderful reviews and won a couple of minor film festivals—and it was the first film I ever made that lost money.


The Intruder (1962) trailer

AVC: How do you measure the success of your films? What sets the good ones apart from the rest?

RC: Well, a couple of the films are not so good, but basically what I would consider to be a success is to be partially a commercial success, and heavily just the quality of the films. For instance, when the major studios were run by people like Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck and so forth, they understood that making films is partially a business and partially an art, and they made some great films. They also made some not-so-great films. The studios are now run by businessmen and they’re only interested in the money. And their films are not doing so well because they fail to realize that it is both an art and a business.

AVC: You mentioned The Intruder, which you consider your first serious film. When it didn’t succeed commercially you began injecting social commentary into exploitation films. What was behind that shift?

RC: Well, if The Intruder had been a not a money loser, I would have continued making films like that. But instead I made films in which I brought in certain commentary that was important to me. But it was when I made the transition from the Poe films. They’d all been successful and [American International Pictures, the distributor] wanted me to make another Poe film. And I said, “I’m starting to repeat myself—these films are starting to look alike. I want to get out of the studio and I wanted to shoot in the streets.” And that led to my making of The Wild Angels, the story of the Hell’s Angels. And from then on, I shot partially in the studios, but very heavily in the streets. And I think we gained a great deal, both from an artful standpoint and a commercial standpoint by going into the streets. The studios were still primarily shooting in the studios.

AVC: To say that your films have developed a cult following would be a major understatement. Are there titles that you feel that deserve a place next to more commercial genre classics?

RC: I would probably take one picture, Masque Of The Red Death. Those films had been very successful in England, and the English distributors suggested to AIP that I make a Poe film in England to take advantage of the English subsidy. And so I went to the studio that I was going to be working at, and Dan Heller, my art director, and I went to what is called the scene dock, which is where they saved the flats that are most important from previous films. And we saw the flats from, I think it was A Man For All Seasons, and the flats were phenomenal. So we used those flats, which must have cost a fortune to make, plus some additional ones that Dan created, so that Masque Of The Red Death had the best production value of any of our Poe films. I thought it was maybe the best film, and it also looked the best.


The Masque of the Red Death - Vincent Price (1964) - Official Trailer

AVC: Have there been thresholds that you would not cross in terms of depicting something on film, whether it was gore, violence, or sexuality?

RC: It probably would be one thing, which applies to the Poe films, which is that horror films today hinge on brutality, where you cut somebody’s arm off or something like that, which is a cheap way to get a thrill. And I stayed away from that. And the horror was by indirection and what’s really important is that you can’t just have a horror scene, you must build up to them—and it’s the buildup, the sense of impending horror that causes the horror scene itself to work.

AVC: You gave a number of major filmmakers their start. Did you know from the first day that these people were going to become so big?

RC: Well, I didn’t know what big successes they’d become. I believed they were going to have successful careers. But the number of Academy Award winning directors who started with me is just amazing. I wasn’t aware that they were going to go that big.

AVC: Is there a filmmaker you haven’t worked with who would have been a good fit in your system?

RC: David Cronenberg had a good career as a Canadian director. I think his films are a little bit similar to mine. And I have to admit, in some respects some of them might be better. But I think he is probably the one.

AVC: What have you learned over the years about the best way to draw out creativity in young filmmakers without stifling them, or letting them get lost in their ambitions?

RC: Well, I ask them on their first film to talk about what theme they’re working on, because directing is partially setting up the camera, partially working with the actors. But to me, more important, each film must have something in it that is important to either the producer, the writer, or the director that makes directly or indirectly some sort of statement. And I believe that is very, very important.


The Wild Angels (1966) HQ trailer

AVC: You joked in the 2011 documentary Corman’s World that giving these filmmakers a chance to work with you meant that they would never have to work with you again. Have you maintained relationships with these filmmakers? And do you have any resentment that you gave them these opportunities and then they moved on?

RC: No, there’s no resentment. I’m proud of how well they do. As a matter of fact, I’m on good terms with all of them. And so many of them have cast me in small roles in their pictures that Screen Actors Guild called me and said, “You have to join the Guild.” I said, “It’s just a joke between the directors and me.” And the guy from the Guild said, “The joke has gone on too long. You’re working more than half of our actors.” So I joined Screen Actors Guild and it turned out it was a good move, because now I get residuals as a director and I also get residuals as an actor.

AVC: There are more people making movies now for different companies and different studios than ever. How much of those opportunities are because of the availability of technology?

RC: What you’re saying about giving these opportunities, I think is correct, particularly from the money and production value. The use of digital filmmaking saves you a lot of money. And using modern equipment in general is so light and portable, you can go about anywhere you want. Where I when I was directing, we had the big Mitchell cameras—which were great cameras, but they were so heavy that it took two guys to move them around. And now filmmaking has become so efficient, and from a technical standpoint, so easy. I think it’s a wonderful development.