Roger Corman Reflects On His Long, Legendary Career — But He Isn’t Finished Yet

05.05.17 2 Comments

Getty Image / AIP / New World Pictures

Roger Corman should need no introduction, but he does need a little bit of an explanation. Since the 1950s, Corman’s name has been synonymous with low-budget filmmaking, and both the “low-budget” and “filmmaking” halves of that description matter. Corman, now 91, has long been a savvy businessman, anticipating and drafting off filmmaking trends and delivering product that fits the public’s desires at a cost that makes it unlikely he or anyone around him will lose money. (There’s a reason he wrote a book titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.) But he’s also very much a filmmaker and, as a director and producer, his taste helped change the direction of American film several times over.

Early in his career, Corman directed everything from Westerns to monster movies, but he started to come into his own as an artist in as the ’50s turned into the ’60s. Working, quickly, from inspired scripts by Charles B. Griffith, Corman made the dark horror comedies A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors. He also embarked on a lush cycle of horror films (mostly) inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and frequently starring Vincent Price that included The Hall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and other classics. In the back half of the decade, he delivered the counterculture touchstones The Wild Angels, which helped usher in a run of biker films that would later include Easy Rider, and The Trip, which, speaking of Easy Rider, was written by Jack Nicholson and starred both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.

At the turn of the ’70s, Corman switched his focus to producing, turning his New World Pictures into a kind of hands-on film school for a new generation of filmmakers. Having already helped directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich get started, Corman would now work with names like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Joe Dante, John Sayles and more. As the market changed, so did Corman’s focus, but he remains active and keeps an eye on what people want. If you watched movies involving a giant hybrid of sea creatures in the last decade, chances are you saw a Corman production. Most recently, he revisited a ’70s classic via Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050.

The first annual Overlook Film Festival, an intimate horror movie fest staged at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, honored Corman with its Master of Horror award, a ceremony accompanied by a screening of one of Corman’s best film’s, the sci-fi horror classic X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes. The evening before the screening, the gentlemanly and self-efficng Corman spoke to Uproxx about his long career.

We’re at a horror festival, so I wanted to start with a big question. Where do you see your enduring contributions to the horror genre?

I don’t think it’s going to be a major contribution. It’ll be a footnote.

I find that hard to believe.

In horror and science fiction, but in films in general, I’ve been at various times a writer, a director, a producer, and even for a little while, a distributor of films. I think of myself as somebody who’s worked in just about every aspect of film. Matter of fact, I was the only producer/truck driver I know. On my first film, I drove the truck.

A representative of the Teamsters came out and said, “Who’s driving the truck on this film?” And I said, “I am.” You know their reputation is that they’re very tough. He laughed. He said, “All right.” I was in my mid-twenties, on my first film. He said, “All right, Roger, we’ll make you an honorary Teamster for this film, but you will be using a Teamster on your next film, won’t you?” I said, “Absolutely.”

That was not It Conquered the World. It was …

Actually, I called it, It Stalked the Ocean Floor, and I sold it to this little distribution company. They thought the title was too arty. They changed it to Monster From the Ocean Floor.

It Conquered the World was shortly after. I was looking at the credits for that. It was your first collaboration with both Charles Griffith and Dick Miller, right? Did you have any idea you’d be working with these guys so much going forward when you made that movie?

Even starting on the first film, It Stalked the Ocean Floor, when the film was over, I made a list of everybody who had worked on the film, and I put them in three columns. One, the guys who did really good, and I absolutely wanted them. The others were the guys who were okay, who did an alright job, and I could hire them or try somebody different, and the other column were the ones that I knew I was not going to work with again.

And I did that over a certain number of films, and certain names kept recurring until essentially, particularly on the crew… My crew became known as the Roger Corman Crew. And they had a certain pride in working together, and normally when a producer hires a crew, he’ll hire a cameraman, he’ll hire a key grip, hire a sound man, and so forth. People would just hire this whole crew, who would be like a football team. You take the whole team. That worked that way with actors, and with writers, and so forth. And they stayed with me, simply because they were good, and we were all friends. We were all young guys getting started.

Horror enters your career pretty early. With Bucket of Blood, I was thinking that’s a movie that could play here, because it’s something that’s trying entirely new things with horror, and working on a limited budget, but doing something really creative.

It has actually played sort of as a retrospective in some festivals, and the audience likes it, because… It was not original with me, but I don’t think it had been done for a while, the idea with combining horror with comedy. I shot it in five days for a very low budget, because I wasn’t certain the combination would work. It was really just, to a large extent, an experiment.

And you followed it shortly thereafter with Little Shop of Horrors, another horror comedy, and certainly one that’s had a tremendous afterlife. It was famously shot in, what was it, two days?

Two days and a night.

Did its long life surprise you?

Yes, because actually I like Bucket of Blood better than Little Shop of Horrors, but Little Shop of Horrors had a spirit, an open, almost naïve spirit to it that caught on a little bit more. Both films did well and they were successful, but Little Shop had this, as I say, sort of naïve, charming quality to it, a little more than Bucket of Blood.