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Roger Corman has spent over five decades making movies -- and during that span, he's earned the title The King of the B's. During the course of his career, Corman has done the seemingly impossible: made movies that make money while promoting the art of filmmaking at the same time. The producer's ability to find new talent and give them their first big break is the stuff of legend. Scorsese, Cameron, Ron Howard, and countless other filmmakers who went on to become Hollywood players all worked under Corman's tutelage.
Through the years, his films have lived on -- finding new audiences to delight in their camp charm and entertaining social commentary. With the release of Shout! Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics Collection, many of his best films are appearing on Blu-ray, where another generation can discover them for themselves.
I recently had a chance to chat with Roger Corman, and I found him to be gracious, charming, and an absolute delight. We discussed a lot of things -- and if you ever wondered who the producer wishes he'd had a chance to work with, what he thought of Vincent Price, or who he'd bet on in a fight between Dinoshark and Sharktopus -- hit the jump and find the answers you've been seeking.
Cinematical: I love the new Shout Factory DVDs. Have you seen the Blu-ray versions yet? What was your initial reaction to them?
Corman: I have seen them, and I'm really delighted with them. They bring a clarity to the films that hasn't been since the original 35 mm prints. All the various VHS, DVD and so forth dropped a little bit in quality, and Blu-ray brings us right back to the original quality of a brand new print.
Cinematical: Are you at all surprised to see that your films are so popular with younger audiences? What is it that you think resonates with this new generation of viewers?
Corman: I am a little bit surprised, because we didn't think when we were making these films that we were making them for the ages. We thought we were making them for the moment, and that they would last a few years for the various means of distribution and then fade away. I'm surprised that they just keep going and going. I'm not certain exactly what the reasoning is ... It may have something to do with the universality of the themes in the pictures. For instance, Death Race 2000, which has been one of the more successful ones, had themes that still work in today's society. Piranha, which is about to come out, is just a universal, good, science-fiction/horror film.
Cinematical: Your films, despite being what many would call "B-movies", have certainly had an impact on mainstream Hollywood cinema. What film of yours do you feel has had the biggest impact, in terms of Hollywood emulating it for their own ends?
Corman: I've never been asked that question ...
Cinematical: I'm excited that I asked you something you've never been asked before (both laugh).
Corman: Since we're talking about Piranha at the moment, let me pick that one -- because Piranha showed that you could do this type of creature feature as it were, on a medium budget. It wasn't a low budget film, and it wasn't high budget -- it was a medium-budget film and still reached the audience. It was a big success when it came out, and it's continued to sell on DVD and continued to play on cable television. We get money every year from around the world, and I think that has led to many other films of this type including the Syfy Saturday night creature features, which owe something to Piranha.
Cinematical: When someone says "Roger Corman film", people think of countless titles from your massive body of work. What film or films would you personally choose as the ones you feel define you as a filmmaker?
Corman: Well again, I think when I was directing, I'd say possibly the Edgar Allan Poe picture Masque of the Red Death, and then a science fiction picture, X: the Man with X-Ray Eyes. And then a picture I did with Bill Shatner in his first Hollywood picture called, The Intruder, about racial integration in the American South. Then if you come to the films I've produced, I would say Piranha is one of them, and Death Race 2000 ... I would probably pick those two.
Cinematical: You really are an inspiration and a lesson to others that if you do what you love, you'll find ways to make things happen. Aside from the things you talk about in How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, what else would you suggest new hopefuls do to create their own success? And what do you think makes a good mentor?
Corman: I think you have to have some knowledge to impart (laughs). So you have to start with the fact that you know something about what you're talking about, and also that you have empathy with the students or the young filmmaker. You have to remember what it was like when you, yourself, were starting out and put yourself in that person's position to imagine what information they're looking for and what info they need – even if they're not looking for it.
Cinematical: I read recently that someone said at least part of the reasoning behind your Oscar was for your work in distributing films by directors like Herzog, Fellini, and Bergman. Can you tell us a bit about how you wound up distributing those filmmakers' movies?
Corman: ... I had started New World Pictures in 1970 as a production and distribution company of low budget American films. It was immediately successful -- the first five films we distributed in the first 18 months ... every one was successful. So, we got off to sort of a roaring start. Very quickly, we were the leading independent production and distribution company in the United States. I had always loved the works of the auteur directors, and I felt that they were not really being well represented in the United States. They were being distributed by little companies who were more aficionados than really professional distribution companies, or they were sometimes being distributed by the majors who of course are great distributors, but it was outside their area of expertise and they were not distributing them well. I thought, I simply wanted to broaden New World -- to bring in a different type of film to distribute, and frankly I just wanted to help these filmmakers who I admired. I wanted to bring their work to a wider audience. Though it wasn't charity, I didn't plan on losing money on the thing. On the other hand, I had no illusions that there were going to be any great profits. I just wanted to break even, or make a little bit of money. I said, "This is something I want to do, and as long as I don't lose I will do it," and that's what happened. We made a moderate amount of money on those films.
Cinematical: It's been roughly 20 years since you last directed (Frankenstein Unbound). Do you ever get the urge to get behind the camera again? I think we'd all love to see it.
Corman: I sometimes do, and then when I get up my bones start to feel sore and I say, "Maybe it's better to be a producer now." (both laugh)
Cinematical: I love the Poe cycle of films, and I think my favorite is Haunted Palace (tough call between that and Masque of the Red Death ... ). How did that film -- which is actually based on Lovecraft's Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward -- wind up billed as a Poe film?
Corman: Simply a decision of American International. I assumed I was making a Lovecraft story and after the film was finished, the Edgar Allan Poe pictures had been so successful they decided to put -- I think it was from a poem of Poe's -- a Poe title on it and call it an Edgar Allan Poe picture. I always felt this was sort of cheating to do that, but they were the distributors -- they had the right to call it what they wanted and to sell it the way they wanted, and the picture was successful so probably they were right. Although I thought it was wrong.
Cinematical: Are you a Lovecraft fan?
Corman: Yes, I think he's very good. I think Poe was a more sophisticated writer than Lovecraft, but I think Lovecraft next to Poe is probably the most important writer in the genre -- until you get up to current writers like Stephen King and so forth.
Cinematical: As a huge horror fan, I'm dying to know what it was like to work with Vincent Price?
Corman: Actually he was great. When I did House of Usher I had Vincent in mind from the beginning to play Roderick Usher. He was a highly intelligent, educated, cultivated, sensitive man. I found that Vincent embodied all those qualities -- he was my first choice right from the beginning while we were working from the idea through to the script. When it was finished, I contacted him through his agent, sent the script over with an offer -- he read the script and liked it, and suggested we have lunch. We had lunch and discussed it -- we got along very well, and it led to five or six pictures I did with Vincent.
Cinematical: Death Race 2000 was remade a few years ago as Death Race -- with Jason Statham in the lead role. It was quite different from your version with Paul Bartel. It appears as though the upcoming Piranha remake will be fairly different as well. Does this bother you at all, or do you enjoy seeing a new generation of creative people re-imagine your work?
Corman: Death Race was a very good picture, but it was a straight action picture. The original Death Race 2000 won a poll as the greatest B-movie ever made. I think it won that poll because of the complexity of the story -- it had a little bit of political commentary and humor, but combined with the action. I think they took that political commentary and humor out of the remake, and concentrated on a straight action picture -- which is probably from a commercial standpoint a good decision, because they spent so much more money on it that they could do what they wanted. I always felt that the original version with the thoughts that I had in it made for a more complex and satisfying film.
Cinematical: So, you're sort of taking the Dario Argento approach. They're remaking Suspiria. He basically said, "Go ahead and make it, but mine is what it is and everybody knows it." (both laugh)
Corman: Yes, I agree with him.
Cinematical: I've heard that Universal attempted to sue New World Pictures for spoofing Jaws with Piranha, but they backed down because Spielberg liked the film. Was that like the ultimate vindication for you?
Corman: I've heard that -- I have no idea whether it's true or not. I would doubt it, but if it's true I'm happy to hear it.
Cinematical: I've always been fascinated by Boxcar Bertha -- particularly the story about how your wife Julie tracked down the real Bertha Thompson in a San Francisco hotel in order to get the rights. Can you tell us more about this?
Corman: I had done a picture called Bloody Mama -- I had produced and directed it -- about the Ma Barker gang (Ma Barker and her sons were Southern outlaws in the 1930's) and it was very successful. They wanted me to do a similar picture. Between the time I had done Bloody Mama and their idea to do a follow up picture, I started my own company. So I said, "I'll produce it for you, but I won't direct it because I have my own company and I don't want to direct for another company." My wife Julie did some research, and she came up with the book Boxcar Bertha, and I went for a new, unknown director, Marty Scorsese, who had done an underground picture in black and white, but he had never done a Hollywood picture before. I think the picture turned out very well. Marty did an excellent job.
Cinematical: Did they really want to fire Scorsese after the first day of filming? What happened? How did you keep him on the job?
Corman: I simply told them I thought he was doing good work, and that they were wrong. I think what they really wanted to do -- they wanted to fire Marty and wanted me to take over as director. I had no intention of taking over as director, and I genuinely -- which is later proved correct -- thought that Marty was doing an excellent job.
Cinematical: Do you still watch a lot of movies? What directors or films do you have your eye on? Is there someone you didn't get to work with, who you wish you had?
Corman: Quentin Tarantino told me that he had hung around my studio in Venice before he got started hoping that he'd see me somewhere around the studio and apply for a job. So I wish I had worked with Quentin. As to what movies -- I recently saw just a few weeks ago, Inception, which I thought was a very good picture. I had some quibbles with the storyline, but the way in which the picture was made -- technically, I .... have you seen the film?
Cinematical: Yes, it was definitely entertaining.
Corman: I thought it was brilliant technically.
Cinematical: I saved the most important question for last. Who wins a fight to the death: Dinoshark or Sharktopus?
Corman: We anticipate that there will be a Dinoshark vs. Sharktopus. I've just been told that somebody has started a website, petitioning SyFy to make Dinoshark vs. Sharktopus. Sharktopus wont come out until September 25 and Syfy has already told me that assuming it does well we will be doing Dinoshark vs. Sharktopus and as to who wins -- I don't know. I think it would most likely be Sharktopus, because he has more weapons than Dinoshark. Or, it could be mutual destruction.
Good news Piranha fans -- FilmBuff is releasing the original Piranha, on demand, starting August 10. It will be available nationwide via cable Movies On Demand channels.
Check out my Shout! Factory reviews for Humanoids from the Deep, Forbidden World, Death Race 2000, and Galaxy of Terror. More Roger Corman title reviews coming soon on Horror Squad and Scifi Squad.