A Conversation With Roger Corman
By Rob Levy - posted 05.12.11 @ 1:04 am
Roger Corman is one of the few people who can truly be called an icon of cinema without any debate, argument or hesitation.
In a town full of crazy, Corman is one of the smartest and shrewdest minds in the industry. His work as a director and producer is unparalled while his films are loved by millions of fans all over the world.
For over five decades he has mentored almost every American director that matters. That list of other directors he has mentored reads like a who's who of Hollywood: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Irvin Kershner, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles and Penelope Spheeris. He also has worked with several film legends including Vincent Prince, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. He also gave huge career breaks to Robert DeNiro, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and some guy named William Shatner.
Corman's prolific career has been brought to life in rich detail in a new documentary, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year.
Need Coffee's Rob Levy spoke with Corman over the phone, ahead of his appearance at the Vincentennial in St. Louis later this month. Corman candidly discussed his working relationship with Vincent Price, what he looks for in a story and brings down the house with the tale of how he made a film version of The Fantastic Four on the cheap.
Roger Corman: The first time I meant Vincent was when I was planning to make The Fall of The House of Usher and I needed a leading man to play Roderick Usher and my first choice was Vincent. He seemed to fit the role perfectly. I sent the script to Vincent. He read it and said he was interested and suggested we have lunch. We had lunch and discussed the picture and the character of Roderick Usher. Roderick Usher was a highly intelligent and educated and cultivated man who was extremely sensitive and a little quirky. I told Vincent he had all of those characteristics. We then discussed the character at length as well as the picture itself. We were in agreement as to how the character should be interpreted. We got along very well. Vincent was a very witty man. Many people don't know that he was very funny when you were talking with him. We had a nice lunch and he agreed to make the picture.
RL: Which of the seven films you made with Vincent Price do you hold in your heart as your favorite?
RL: What was his working method on the set?
RC: He was extremely professional. He came in; he knew his lines. We had agreed upon the interpretation so he required very little direction, just a few thoughts on the set because we had worked all that out in advance. He was particularly considerate to all the other actors, particularly the younger actors--to help them. He was as good on the set as any actor could possibly be.
RL: Where we you in casting with that film when you contact him? Was he the linchpin that shaped the rest of the film?
RC: He was the first. Once I had Vincent then I cast around Vincent.
RL: Did you have any apprehension about meeting him? Were you excited?
RC: I was excited. I was not overwhelmed with excitement. But I was excited and looking forward to it because I was familiar with his career that he started on Broadway, come to Hollywood been a young leading man that played in a number of pictures, that he was under contract for Fox and then as he got older he was starting to go into character leads.
RL: Did you stay in touch with him after you made the seven films with him?
RC: Yes I did. He would occasionally have a dinner party or something and I would be invited. Particularly when we were both working in England we would get together for dinner several times.
RL: What was a Vincent Price party like? I imagine it was pretty fun.
RC: Yes he was a very sophisticated, very urbane, very witty man. He had a great interest in art. His house was filled with paintings and sculpture. I remember he had a giant Alaskan Indian totem pole in the garden outside his house.
RL: Did he ever cook for you?
RC: A couple of times at a dinner party. He would for a small dinner party.
RL: How does it feel for you to have had so many great directors begin their career working with you?
RC: I am very pleased. As a matter of fact I am more than pleased--I am delighted. Starting at the beginning, the first two were Irvin Kershner and Francis Ford Coppola and then moving on the most recent was Jim Cameron, so it has extended a number of years. I take great pride in what they've done.
RL: Which of those directors did you know the minute you saw their work was going to make it?
RC: Every one of them. It was clear from their very first picture that they were brilliant directors. Jonathan Demme took a little longer to develop. His first picture was very good, but it wasn't up to the level [of] Scorsese or Coppola, but he got better with each picture eventually to the part where he became an Academy Award winner and one of the great American directors.
RL: Are there any up and coming directors now that you'd like to work with?
RC: There probably are but I don't know who they are. There are always good directors coming up.
RL: What was it like working with Russell Johnson on Attack of the Crab Monsters?
RC: He was a good young actor and a good guy. We got along together very well. He was a promising young actor who I thought would do well and he did do well.
RL: You produced a punk movie called Suburbia. What are your thoughts about making that film?
RC: This was primarily Penelope's [Spheeris] project. She had the script when she came in to see me and I liked the script. I probably gave her greater autonomy then most of the other directors because she had everything prepared. She had the script. She had the locations. I drove down with her to find a location. The one key thing was one house where they lived--sort of a blighted area of southeast Los Angeles which had been a suburb but had gone to seed, thus the title. As I said I probably turned over more total control to Penelope then just about anyone else.
RL: What happened with The Fantastic Four film?
RC: That was a funny and strange event. I had a studio in Venice California and Bernd Eichinger, a German producer who I knew, came to me in September and said he had this script for The Fantastic Four and he had to start shooting before December 31st of that year or would lose the option for the project. He had it budgeted at thirty million dollars but he didn't have the thirty million dollars so he gave me a very interesting proposal. He said, "I've got a million dollars. Can you make this thirty million dollar picture for a million dollars?" I said, well, there would be a few changes but let me talk to the guys at the studio. We worked it out and I had to cut a few things but we did not have to cut that much and we said yes we could make it. He said, "Fine here's what I want to do: I want to start shooting before the end of the year. I'll put up the money and I'll put up another million dollars in advertising to publicize the film but I want ninety days after you finish the film to see if I can sell it to a major studio." Which he did. It was interesting because I said "Let's start shooting on December 30th, we need every day we can have." He said, "No, let's start shooting on December 26th: it'll be obvious if I start shooting on December 30th that I am just trying to beat the deadline." I said, "Bernd, it's going to be obvious anyway, whichever of those dates." I think we finally started on the 28th or something like that. He sold the picture to Fox. This was what his plan was all along. If he were to sell it to a studio and I didn't get a chance to distribute I would get a bonus for my troubles in addition to the fee on a one million dollar picture. He sold it to Fox and what Fox did was to make a sixty or seventy million dollar picture and they just fold the million dollars into the budget of the sixty or seventy million dollar picture so the million dollar picture was really a sort of holding pattern for Bernd while he tried to raise bigger money. It was the strangest deal I ever made in my life.
RL: You made The Terror with Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. What was it like having them on the same set?
RC: They got along very well, though it was a very unusual situation in which I hired Boris just for two days--so Jack and Boris only worked together two days and then Jack took over as the lead in the picture for the rest of the picture. But during the two days they got along very well. Boris was somewhat ill at the time and very frail so I had to be very careful in how I worked with him.
RL: Was there a rivalry between Karloff, Price and guys like Lugosi who did a lot of horror films?
RC: The only ones I worked with were Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. They all got along very well together. They were all friendly. There was no rivalry. There were no problems. There was a slight problem between Peter and Boris because Boris came in knowing his lines and prepared to give the exact performance that was written in the script and Peter liked to improvise and it threw Boris off the first day or two. But after that, Boris became accustomed to the way Peter was working and Peter started working a little closer to the script. That was The Raven, which we played for a little bit of humor and the picture turned out well and they all worked together very well.
RL: With such a diverse resume of films, what do you look for in a story?
RC: Something that interests me. I feel my taste is not that much different from the audience. It may differ in some respects but if it interests me then I would hope interest the audience. It would something I would like to do for whatever creative reason.
RL: Where do you keep your Oscar?
RC: It's in a place in my living room that is somewhat discreet. It's visible. As a matter of fact I spent a little time trying to find a place where people can see it but where it looked like I wasn't pushing it to the center of the room on a pedestal or something like that.
RL: What was it like receiving an Academy Award?
RC: I knew that I was being considered for a Lifetime Achievement Award, which are given by the Board of Governors and awarded at the Governors Ball. So you know in advance (that you won) unlike the ones that are voted on for the telecast. I knew was being considered. I said to someone that there was no chance that I will actually get an Oscar. I make low budget films and they're not going to give an Oscar to somebody who makes low budget films but when the President of the Academy called me I was truly dumbfounded. I did not expect it in any way.
RL: You are the subject of Corman's World, a documentary that played at Sundance this year. How awesome was it for you to have someone else make a film about you?
RC: It was very interesting and gratifying. I was interviewed a couple of times for it. My wife was interviewed and a number of people who've worked with me were interviewed and then the interviews were intercut with scenes form the pictures. It went to Sundance and it's been invited to Cannes.
RL: Are you going to write another book anytime soon?
RC: No I wrote the one book and it took longer then I thought. I didn't anticipate that it would take so long and I just feel like I don't want to spend so much time writing another one.
RL: Getting back to Vincent Price for a minute, did he ever talk about growing up in St. Louis?
RC: No, he didn't. When we weren't talking about films we were talking about things in general and particularly about his interest in art. He was very much interested in art and a great collector.
RL: What would you like to do with your career that you have not gotten to do yet?
RC: I probably would like to make some films that are more meaningful in relationship to today's society. When I did The Intruder in 1960 about racial integration in the American South. I liked the idea of doing a contemporary--and what I thought--meaningful little film. The Wild Angels and The Trip in the 1960s was again a reflection of the culture of the times. I would like to move probably in that direction but it is very difficult to do that today on a low budget and get adequate distribution.
Roger Corman is a fascinating icon in American popular culture. This humble, Academy Award winning director/producer has a degree in engineering, is a WWII veteran and happens to be one of the nicest guys in film--an industry filled with lots of ego and conceit. Of course being known as a legend that has made some of the most entertaining and fun movies ever filmed isn't too shabby either. Many thanks to Mr. Corman for taking the time to speak with us.