Legendary “King of the B’s” Roger Corman is, at 86, Hollywood’s oldest rebel. Shooting micro-budget and on the fly, even the grindhouse auteur himself isn’t sure how many films he’s made since the 1950s – he puts the number close to 400, spanning every conceivable genre: from sexploitation and nursesploitation, biker movies and monster movies to sci-fi flicks with genitalia-shaped aliens. Starting in the mailroom of 20th century Fox, Corman was the first to give a voice to 60s counterculture on the screen and he has discovered some of the biggest names in Hollywood: Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, James Cameron and Peter Bogdanovich– to name a few – all got their break working with Corman.
Alex Stapleton’s new documentary Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel celebrates his legacy, gathering protégées and partners in crime: “By mistake Roger actually made a good picture once in a while,” Jack Nicholson remembers, “but I was never in it.” In 2009 Corman received a long-overdue Oscar for lifetime achievement; the next day, he was back on the set of Sharktopus, overseeing gallons of fake blood and a handful of screaming, bikini-clad teenagers in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dazed & Confused: Tell us about your first film…
Roger Corman: Monster from the Ocean Floor was the first film I produced about a giant octopus, under the title It Stalked the Ocean Floor – when I sold it to a distributor he changed the title on the basis that mine was “too arty”. I don’t know what attracted me to the horror genre exactly… I would assume the answer to that is buried somewhere in my unconscious mind. I’ve made films in just about every genre you can think of, but I keep coming back to horror and science fiction.
D&C: What’s the secret to a good monster movie?
Roger Corman: The secret is not the monster itself. It’s the anticipation of the monster, the growing sense of fear. It doesn’t really matter what the monster is. I was at a sneak preview of one of my films, and it was simply Vincent Price walking down a corridor towards a door and a child’s rocking horse falls out into his face. The audience screamed, and I thought, I got them with that shot! And then, they all laughed. And I thought, what did I do wrong?? And then I realized I didn’t do anything wrong. They laughed in relief, and an understanding of what had taken place. So from that I did Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors – comedy horror films, and I felt the same about sex in movies. You build tension to the peak and then you snap it. In horror, you scream, in comedy you laugh at the punchline, in sex you simply reach a climax. I have no scientific proof of this, but that’s my theory.
D&C: Would you ever remake any of your films with the technology available to you now?
Roger Corman: That’s an interesting question. There’s one film I made called X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes starring Ray Milland, about a scientist who gives himself X-ray vision with chemical drops, he can see through people’s clothing and eventually their skin. I shot it in 15 days around 1960, with very limited special effects because of the budget. I’ve thought several times of remaking that film, because the script and idea was good and I could really take advantage of the technology available now.
D&C: During that time you were making nine films a year, when did you sleep?
Roger Corman: As a matter of fact, at one time I was shooting a picture during the day, casting the next film during lunchtime and editing the previous film in the evening. I went to bed one night and said to myself, “I have to sleep fast”. At that point I realized I was totally out of control.
D&C: Was that your reason for giving up directing in the 70s?
Roger Corman: I was burned out. I’d directed somewhere between 65 and 70 films in about 15 years, and I just felt I couldn’t do it anymore. I never intended to stop directing forever, I thought I’d take a year off, rest and come back. But I got bored during that year, so I started my own production and direction company, New World Pictures, and it was a startling success. It was sort of like having a tiger by the tail, I just never got back to directing.
D&C: Of all your films, which are you most proud of?
Roger Corman: It varies from day to day. Today I’ll pick The Intruder , a picture I made about racial integration in the American South which is different from anything else I’ve made. It was the 17th or 18th film I’d made, and until then I’d never had a failure. I developed the script and every company turned me down, I couldn’t believe it! I realized I was in dangerous waters and this was possibly too radical a project. So I determined to make it myself, my brother came along, we hired a very young William Shatner as the lead, put up the money and shot it in the south with local people. We lost the money. It took 40 years to make it back – in 2000 we finally did, off DVD sales.
D&C: What lead you to start addressing the 60s counterculture in The Wild Angels and The Trip?
Roger Corman: I’d been making a series of Edgar Allan Poe pictures for AIP, and I had theories about Poe working with the unconscious mind, so I was creating an artificial environment inside a studio. AIP wanted me to make more Poe pictures but I said, no, I want to go into the streets and deal with contemporary themes. The first picture was The Wild Angels, the first Hells Angels biker film really, with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. I contacted the Hells Angels, and cast them in the picture, this sub-working class counterculture. I used to go to Hells Angels parties with Chuck Griffith the writer – we were always welcome because we made a point of bringing the marijuana. It was occasionally problematic. Because you walk into a room, see the best looking girl, and start talking to her, right? So I was talking to this one girl for some length of time and Chuck drew me aside and said, that girl is the president of the Angels’ old lady and he’s not too happy. You’ve never seen any guy drop a girl as fast as I dropped her!
D&C: The Trip with Peter Fonda was the first to discuss LSD…
Roger Corman: I wanted to do another film about the Hollywood counterculture, as a metaphor for what was going on across the country in the 60s. LSD was the most discussed, most controversial drug.
D&C: you took LSD in order to prepare?
Roger Corman: I did, I was a very conscientious director! What happened of course, fortunately or unfortunately, was I had a wonderful trip. But I didn’t want to make a film that was totally pro-LSD, so Jack Nicholson, who wrote the script, and I talked to people who had bad trips too. Dennis Hopper shot second unit, and that eventually lead to Easy Rider – I was originally executive producer on Easy Rider, but it ended up moving to Columbia Pictures.
D&C: How did you meet Jack Nicholson?
Roger Corman: I met him in an acting class. My degree is in engineering and I didn’t know how to deal with actors so I took acting classes to learn how to relate to actors.
D&C: Did he stand out then as someone who had potential for great things?
Roger Corman: Oh yes, immediately from the first day in class it was clear to me he was an outstanding actor, although he was only 19 years old. He’d never made a film but it was clear he had the ability. They were teaching method acting and Jack had a unique ability with improvisation.
D&C: For many years you were the only director to cast him in anything. In the new documentary, Nicholson is moved to tears talking about you.
Roger Corman: Well you know, I think Jack and I, and others, we were all the young rebels at that time, we were all good friends, we hung out together and made pictures together and I think Jack’s emotion was partially remembering his relationship with me, but also remembering his relationship with all of us, the way it was at that time. We were the young rebels then… now we’re the old establishment.
D&C: You also discovered Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and so many others – is there any common spark they shared?
Roger Corman: Intelligence, the ability to work hard and the third is the intangible. The creativity. Most of the directors who started with me have started as an assistant, or a writer, or in the case of Ron Howard as an actor – and I’ve had the chance to judge that last element.
D&C: How did you begin working with Coppola?
Roger Corman: I had bought two Russian science fiction films and needed them edited, because the sci-fi special effects were far better than anything we were doing, but they were filled with the most outrageous anti-American propaganda. I called the head of the UCLA film school, and asked who were the best two students about to graduate. She recommended two, I interviewed them and chose Francis. He worked with me on Premature Burial, The Young Racers and The Terror and went on to make Dementia 13, his first film, with me. The Young Racers was about Formula 1 racing, and we had built all of our equipment into a Volkswagen micro-bus – Francis was my first assistant director, he handled the sound, the second unit camera and he even built the shelves in the bus, he was a good carpenter. We followed the Grand Prix around Europe and the last race was in Liverpool. We had a small crew – just four people – and it occurred to me it would be very easy to just make another picture. I had to go back to the US and direct another picture myself, so I said to Francis, if you can come up with a horror film, I’ll put up the money and you take the ferry across the Irish Channel and shoot it. Later I acted in the Godfather II, as a member of the Senate crime investigations committee – I’ve played a number of little roles with directors who have started with me, as a friendly gesture.
D&C: You once said at a story meeting once that you didn’t want anybody using the words “good taste”. Is there a line you wouldn’t cross?
Roger Corman: Yes, I don’t like knocking anybody, but it seems to me horror films have gone beyond the psychological horror into torture. They’re cutting off people’s hands, their limbs. But if they want to do it, and if the audience want to see it, they can do it.
D&C: Is it true you made Little Shop of Horror in two days?
Roger Corman: No, no, it was two days and a night.
D&C: That’s still pretty fast!
Roger Corman: I did it almost as a joke. There was a set that had been built for another picture, and nobody was using it. I said to the manager, if you leave that set up, I’ll invent something. I wrote LSOH and Jack played a masochist in a dentist’s office who wanted to have his teeth drilled. I remember Bob Towne, a friend of mine who went on to become an Academy Award winning screenwriter for Chinatown, he said, “Roger, you have to remember one thing. Making a motion picture is not a horse race. It’s not how fast you go.” I said, you’re right Bob, I will never shoot a picture in two days again!
D&C: You cast a young De Niro in Bloody Mama…
Roger Corman: That had a good tagline: “The family that slays together, stays together.” I was interested in making a woman’s gangster film, I’m not certain that one had been made before. I based it on the story of Ma Baker and her sons, rural bandits during the Depression and Shelley Winters played the female gangster. De Niro was a very intense actor, he played her glue-sniffing son and lost a lot of weight for the role. The picture did so well we invented a sequel called Boxcar Bertha, about train robberies in the 1930s. I hired a young director Marty Scorsese, after I’d seen a black and white underground film he had made in New York. You probably know he’s nominated for the Academy Award again this year.
D&C: You were originally going to back Mean Streets weren’t you?
Roger Corman: He and I discussed it. I talked about it possibly being a picture about black gangsters. But Marty said no, it is really specific for Italians.
D&C: What are you working on now?
Roger Corman: I’m finishing a picture in China called Ghost of the Imperial Palace: it turns out there’s a censor in China and they turned down the picture on the basis that ghosts are a primitive superstition. So we changed the title to Mystery of the Imperial Palace and we’re shooting the film. I think we’re a day behind schedule actually. And we’re just finishing the strangest war picture I know of.
D&C: Are you happy with your outsider status?
Roger Corman: I’ve grown to accept it. I started on the outside, I simply prefer to be independent. I’ve financed my own films and since I don’t have much money I’ve made low budget films. That’s the only disadvantage to being fully independent. But it means I’m free to do anything I want.
D&C: What’s kept you so passionate about this business?
Roger Corman: I simply love the process of making films. I will make them as long as I’m able to. I have no intention of quitting!
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is out on DVD March 26
This interview appears in the April issue of Dazed & Confused, out now
Text by Hannah Lack