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Roger Corman had already enjoyed a prolific (and lucrative) two-decade career as a B-movie auteur by the time a little movie called Death Race 2000 raced into theaters in 1975. But that instant cult hit, which was produced for less than $1 million and wound up grossing at least five times that, holds an exalted position in Corman’s filmography thanks to its fusion of grindhouse thrills and comedy club laughs. “I was trying to combine a car-racing picture with a little bit of social commentary, and a lot of humor,” Corman tells Yahoo Movies, calling us from, appropriately enough, a moving car.
Set in the then-far off future of 2000, the original Death Race imagined an America beset by civil strife and ruled by a totalitarian leader. The only thing that unites this United States of tomorrow is the Transcontinental Road Race, a turbo-charged dash from New York to Los Angeles. Its drivers are explicitly encouraged to let nothing — including citizens — come between them and victory. Seen today, the film still delights, and not just because it offers the opportunity to see David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone duel as competing drivers, Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe. The movie is also an obvious influence on subsequent futuristic stories that seek to mingle bloody action and snarky satire, be it RoboCop or Demolition Man.
Now, with the year 2000 long since in the rearview mirror, Corman, who turned 90 last spring, decided it was time to make a Death Race that wouldn’t be dated for another few decades. Enter Death Race 2050, the latest film produced by the “King of the B’s,” directed by G.J. Echternkamp. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 17, the loose remake sets Frankenstein (now played by New Zealand action star Manu Bennett) down in the year 2050, when the USA has become a giant corporate conglomerate overseen by a despotic chairman (Malcolm McDowell) with an all-too-familiar hairdo. We spoke with Corman about taking Death Race back to the starting line, his time working with a young Jack Nicholson, and what happened with his infamous Fantastic Four movie.
Prior to Death Race 2050, the Death Race franchise was revived as a 2008 feature by Paul W.S. Anderson followed by a series of direct-to-DVD spin-offs. What were your contributions to those versions?
My work as a producer on those was almost zero. They gave me the script to the first one, and the others, and asked for my notes on the first one, but other than that I had no actual function. But I know Paul Anderson and I know what he was doing [with Death Race]. He was going for a straight action picture, which was what the first draft of Death Race 2000 was as well. When I read it, I thought there was something missing, and that’s when I came up with the idea of the drivers’ killing of the pedestrians, as a way to integrate the public with the violent sport that they love. But you couldn’t take that too seriously, so that’s when I introduced the element of comedy. When I called Universal about [their plans for] Death Race, I told them that [satire] was really essential to the original idea. So they asked me if I would like to make one. I went back to the original idea and here we are.
The film satirizes a number of contemporary social issues including climate change, terrorism, and corporate greed.
What we tried to do is take the same themes that were in the original and project them to 2050. So the United States of America has become the United Corporations of America, and the president is also the chairman. And here we got a little bit lucky. While we were shooting, we thought, “Why don’t we give the president a Donald Trump hairdo?” It wasn’t in the script, and we never dreamed he would actually become the president! So, we can say we have the first picture to portray Donald Trump as the president of the United States.
‘Death Race 2050’: Welcome to Death Race:
We also tried to pick drivers who would reflect certain aspects of today. My favorite driver, other than Frankenstein, is Tammy the Terrorist. That name just came to me, and then we tried to figure out who she might be. I didn’t want to get involved with ISIS or anything like that, so I made her into the high priestess of a new religion whose saints are Elvis Presley and Justin Bieber and so forth.
Death Race 2050 mixes the low-fi elements of the original — the practical cars, for example — with modern day technology like CGI. Having observed the rise of digital effects firsthand, how do you feel about its impact on the industry?
It’s helpful when it’s used well. Jim Cameron, who started doing some of this stuff when he worked with me making the special effects on our low-budget sci-fi films, uses them correctly. He did it beautifully on Avatar, for example. The only objection I have is when computer graphics take over and the story suffers.
Have you noticed a difference between the generation of young directors raised in the digital effects age versus the young directors you worked with in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
I think the basic art of motion pictures has been known for a long time. The difference I see in young directors now is that they are integrating more effects, which can be done well or not as well. They’re also cutting faster. If you look at a picture made just 20 or 30 years ago, you will see shots held on the screen a little bit longer, and sometimes a whole lot longer, than they are today. There’s also more camera movement, which is due to the introduction of the Steadicam, and the fact that cameras have become lighter and more portable. I was looking at La La Land the other day, and that first shot on the freeway is an amazing technical achievement. It’s all over the freeway and there’s not a cut in it. It must have taken them a week! It’s a virtuoso use of the camera.
Turning to your own work as a director, the Edgar Allan Poe films you made are so much fun to watch. Are those the movies you’re proudest of?
I’m proud of most of them! Some didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped. [Laughs] Some of those stories were no longer than two pages, so we expanded them. For example, “The Pit and the Pendulum” was only about the pit and the pendulum. So we used the story as the third act, and then tried to write the first and second acts in ways we thought would be faithful to Poe’s vision.
Do you have any good Jack Nicholson stories from your early collaborations with him?
Jack was a very good writer, and he wrote a number of scripts for me. When I made The Trip, about an LSD experience, I chose him to co-write the script. As a conscious director, I took a trip myself and had a spectacularly wonderful experience. Afterwards, we talked about the script and I said, “If this is based on my trip, it’s going to be an advertisement for LSD.” And Jack said, “Don’t worry — I had a couple of bad ones. We can put it all together.”
When I saw the recent animated documentary Tower — about the 1966 University of Texas shootings — I instantly thought of Targets, the film Peter Bogdanavich made for you, which was a fictionalized version of that tragedy.
I’m very proud of Targets. It was Peter’s first film, and I think it’s a semi-forgotten film. After we made it, I sold it to Paramount and they got worried about the connection to the Tower shootings and postponed the release, before only giving it a limited release. I’ve always thought that was a mistake on their part. They had a brilliant little picture and it should have gotten more of a release.
In general, distribution appears to be one of the bigger challenges facing films today. In the ’60s and ’70s, your movies always seemed to find a theatrical release.
When I started, every film that was decently made got full theatrical distribution. Today, they’ve frozen the lower budgeted films out. Death Race 2050 is a big budget film for me, but for Universal it’s low budget. With a few exceptions, all of these lower-budgeted films are released on DVD or Netflix now. It’s unfortunate, because I like to primarily see films in theaters, but that’s the way the industry is — it’s an art and a business.
It’s worth noting that you are associated with the one of the most famous unreleased films of all time: the 1994 version of The Fantastic Four.
That was the weirdest production I was ever involved in! A German producer [Bernd Eichinger] came to me saying he had an option on a Fantastic Four movie and a $30 million budget, but his option expired on December 31. This was in October! He said, “Can you take this script and make it for less money?” I said, “How much money do you have?” and he replied, “A million dollars.” Cutting $29 million out of a $30 million budget is a pretty big cut! We actually did start the film on schedule, and I always thought it was a good little picture. But my deal with Bernd stipulated that he had a certain amount of time before its release to sell it to a major studio. He did sell it, but part of the condition [of the sale] was that they didn’t want a $1 million picture to go out there and contaminate the marketplace. So, years later, it ended up being a $100 million film!
Watch a trailer for ‘Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four’: