Roger Corman

It’s hard to overstate the contributions that independent-film icon Roger Corman has made to movies and youth culture. As a producer and budget-minded studio head, he gave crucial breaks to a who’s who of directors, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, James Cameron, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson, and Ron Howard. He’s directed a number of classic films himself, including a series of acclaimed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations with Vincent Price, the pitch-black comedies A Bucket Of Blood and The Little Shop Of Horrors, the socially conscious 1962 drama The Intruder, and X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes. After 1971’s Von Richthofen And Brown, Corman concentrated on producing, though he returned to the director’s chair for 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound. 

Lately, Corman’s profile has risen again. Last year, he received an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to film and signed a deal with Shout! Factory to release many of his signature films on DVD and Blu-ray. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Corman in connection with the Blu-ray/DVD releases of Rock ’N’ Roll High School and Suburbia about dropping acid in preparation for directing The Trip, making Little Shop Of Horrors in less than three days, why you can’t blow up a high school to disco, and whether he’s finally become part of the Hollywood establishment. 

The A.V. Club: What was the making of Rock ’N’ Roll High School like?

Roger Corman: Actually, it didn’t start as Rock ’N’ Roll High School. During the early days of rock ’n’ roll, I made several films about rock ’n’ roll, and they were very successful. And when the disco movement came up, I came up with the title Disco High, playing on the multiple uses of the word “high.” And I called in Allan Arkush, who was a young guy who had co-directed a picture for me, and I felt was the right person to do it. He came up with the storyline; I contributed very little to it. And at the end, the students blow up their own high school, and he said “Roger, you cannot blow up your high school to disco music. It’s got to be Rock ’N’ Roll High.” I said “You’re right, Allan. We dump my title. It’s Rock ’N’ Roll High.” So this was really a personal effort of Allan’s. He spent more time than we normally spend on a screenplay, which was fine, because he was really not doing research as such. He was doing a little research—he was going back to his memories of high school, what had happened and what his fantasies were. And he was calling some of his classmates and talking to them about it, and he put together his ideal of a rock ’n’ roll picture set in a high school, and of course it was one of our biggest successes.

AVC: Is it true that the Ramones weren’t the first choice for the band at the center of the film?

RC: Well, we talked about several bands at the beginning, and there was somebody else we were considering before the Ramones, but thinking it over, the Ramones became the universal choice. They seemed to have the rebellious attitude we were looking for, without getting into really vicious rebellion, because it was a light-hearted picture.

AVC: The Ramones had a 1950s rock ’n’ roll aesthetic, which was around the time you were making your first rock ’n’ roll movies.

RC: Yes. I made Rock All Night and a couple of others at that time.

AVC: What was your first exposure to rock ’n’ roll music?

RC: My earliest exposure was actually before there was such a thing. It was rhythm and blues. I used to listen to these late-night black programs and listen to rhythm and blues, which I assume everyone knows, simply morphed into rock ’n’ roll. So, I was there right at the beginning, with the first rock ’n’ roll hits.

AVC: You have worked with a good number of young directors. Have you ever encountered a generation gap in these collaborations? How have you stayed so in tune with youth culture?

RC: Well, at the beginning, I was young, so I was part of youth culture. The years went by, I became older and no longer part of youth culture, and I became more dependent upon the young people in the office and my own children. I have four children. So as they grew up, I talked to them about the things they were interested in. And I continually have a young staff. We have a policy of bringing in young people just out of college who work here for a couple of years and then move on, hopefully to executive positions at studios or producers or directors in their own right. So now I’m a little bit aware of youth culture, but I’m heavily dependent on the staff.

AVC: You’re famous for being able to identify young talent. What do you look for in a young writer or director?

RC: It’s three things. Two of them are easy. First, you have to be intelligent. I have never met a successful director who isn’t intelligent. A director who is not intelligent might have one hit picture, but he won’t be able to follow it up. So I look for intelligence.

Then I look for the ability to work. Directing is hard work. They don’t teach you that in film school. Critics are not aware of it, but it is hard, physical work. For instance, on Rock ’N’ Roll High School, I gave my usual lecture or series of lectures to Allan, and he was dutifully taking notes on everything I was saying about camera position and editing, and one thing and another. And the final thing I said was “Allan, get a chair with your name on it, and sit down as much as you can.” He did not take a note on that, figuring “Well, that’s because Roger’s old. He has to sit down. I don’t have to sit down.”

The last day of shooting, Allan was almost unable to complete the picture, he was so worn out. He was working at a tremendously hard pace. So intelligence, the ability to work hard, and the third, which is intangible, is creativity. Now, with most of the directors who start with us, they start in some other position and they move up and I can judge, particularly with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante. They were in our trailer department, and I could see they had potential, so they became second-unit directors. Jonathan Demme started as a writer, then became a producer and a second-unit director. So I was able to at least get a rough judgment of their creativity before I gave them a film to direct.

AVC: There’s a good deal of mythology surrounding The Little Shop Of Horrors. Is it true you bet you could make a film in less than three days?

RC: Yes. I made it actually in two days and a night of exterior shooting. It was done just for the fun of it, to see if I could do it. There were some standing sets at this rental studio where I had my office, and it was a good-looking major set and a couple of minor sets, and I was having lunch with the studio manager, and I said “If you could leave those sets up for a couple of weeks, I’d like to come in and see what I could shoot in a couple of days.” And he kind of laughed, and I laughed, and he said “Nobody’s coming in to rent them. We’ll just leave them up and you can do it.”

Then I was working with Chuck Griffith, one of the regular writers I worked with, and we made up the whole storyline going to coffeehouses around west Los Angeles and the Sunset Strip. We finished up at a place called Chez Paulette as they were closing. And, let me see, there was an actress whose name I’ve forgotten. She became a well-known actress, but she was working as a waitress at Chez Paulette, and she sat down with us after hours and worked with us as we all put together this sort of insane script.

It was based a little bit on A Bucket Of Blood, a picture I shot in five days the year before. It’s a funny picture. I don’t know why Little Shop has gotten more fame than A Bucket Of Blood, because in some respects, Bucket Of Blood is a more polished picture, and in some respects funnier. But I think maybe just the appealing quality of [Horrors’ nebbishy protagonist] Seymour and the increased insanity of Little Shop Of Horrors over Bucket Of Blood is what’s made it stand the test of time.

AVC: How grueling was the shooting schedule?

RC: It wasn’t grueling, because it was fun. Nobody took it seriously, and I think that’s one of the reasons it turned out to be so funny. We had a funny script, but the actors were throwing in lines as we were doing it. How I was able to do it in two and a half days, two days really… The night sequences were something totally separate on another night. According to Screen Actors Guild rules, the minimum scale wage for an actor for five days is just a little bit more than two days on a daily rate, because a daily rate is higher pro rated, if you see what I mean. So I hired the actors for five days, and we rehearsed on the set Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then we came in Thursday and Friday with the picture thoroughly rehearsed—the most rehearsed picture I ever made. It was the kind of thing where we started at 8 in the morning and at 8:30, the assistant director called out “We are hopelessly behind schedule.”

AVC: When making a film like Rock ’N’ Roll High School, do you insist on particular elements being in the film, perhaps for commercial reasons?

RC: I do on some films. On some films, I’m looking for a certain amount of action, a certain amount of horror sometimes, sometimes R-rated nudity on some films, but we never go beyond R-rated, and they’re generally very soft Rs. I had no such restrictions on Rock ’N’ Roll High School. It was Allan’s vision, and I don’t think I did anything else than give him minor script notes on each draft. On some scripts, I’m working with the writer and saying “We’ve got to rip this out,” and “This has got to be changed here.” On Rock ’N’ Roll High School, I was laughing as I read the script, and I gave just very, very minor notes. The first draft was very close to the final draft.

AVC: On that note, what kind of things do you need if you’re going to make say, a biker movie or a student-nurse film?

RC: Okay, those are two different genres. I did The Wild Angels, which was the first of the Hells Angels pictures, in the 1960s, and what I was looking for there was a tough film, with a certain amount of action and violence. There was no nudity in it. I wasn’t interested in that—I was primarily interested in telling the story of the Hells Angels from the standpoint of the Angels. There had been one previous biker film, The Wild One, about 10 years earlier with Marlon Brando, which was an excellent film, but it was told from the standpoint of the townspeople, when a biker gang came in. The Hells Angels didn’t exist at that time.

When I did my film, in the 1960s, The Hells Angels had become famous, and I said “To really do this right, it can’t be like The Wild One, which is the town’s reaction to these bad guys. It’s got to be from the story of the bad guys, and they can’t be 100 percent bad, because nobody is 100 percent bad, at least nobody short of extreme psychosis. So I didn’t want to portray them sympathetically. It was a job simply of honestly portraying The Hells Angels and their position in society. I saw them as the beginning of the rebelliousness of the 1960s. The hippies came a little bit later, and the movement into the streets from the college kids, but it really started, I think, with the working-class kids who didn’t fit into high society, and knew it.

AVC: As a producer, do you ever have conflicts between your artist side and your businessman side?

RC: Yes. I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.

AVC: Having recently won a lifetime achievement award from the Academy, do you feel like you’ve become a part of the Hollywood establishment?

RC: I may or may not be. I’m getting a little bit of recognition here, but I was also called recently in some article “Hollywood’s Oldest Established Rebel.” So I’m sort of working from the inside now, with still a little bit of a rebellious spirit.

AVC: How much input did you have on the remake of Death Race 2000?

RC: I had very little. They asked me to contribute my notes to the script, which is about the only thing I did. I read the first draft and I knew they were going in a direction substantially different from the original. So I had my story editor from then on read the script and give notes, because I knew they weren’t going to pay any attention to the notes anyway. It was just a way to justify the fact that they had given me an executive-producer credit. I thought it was a very good action film as it stood. However, the whole point of the first Death Race was the fact that it was a race from New York to the new Los Angeles in the year 2000. We made it in the ’70s, and the drivers were scored on two points: how fast they drove, and how many pedestrians they could kill. And it was very important to me that the concept of killing pedestrians as a sport be in there, because I was thinking of stock-car racing today. They’re really looking for the crashes and the flames and explosions as much as they are for the races, and I was simply carrying that over to include the spectators into the sport. But they dropped that element from the Death Race remake. And it may be that they were right for the kind of picture they were doing, but when I realized they were going in that direction, I felt “I see what they’re doing. There’s not going to be any notes I can give to bring back the kind of social commentary I had. This is a straight action picture, and I leave it to them.” And as a straight action picture, they were successful. I thought it was a good job.

AVC: You took LSD to prepare for directing The Trip. What do you remember about that experience?

RC: I had nothing but a wonderful experience. I went up to Big Sur—I remember Timothy Leary saying “Go someplace beautiful with people you know and try to drop the acid,” as we used to say “in such a setting”—so I went up to Big Sur, and I was the straightest guy in a fairly wild crowd, so when people heard I was taking it, so many other people evidently felt that “If Rog can do this, it’s okay. We’ll try it, too.” We had a caravan of cars going up to Big Sur, and we actually had to work out a schedule as to who would be under the influence of acid while one person would be watching them, who would be the straight person to make sure that nothing went wrong. We actually worked out the equivalent of a production schedule. 

AVC: Sort of the acid equivalent of having a designated driver?

RC: Exactly, except we were one-for-one. A designated driver for every person, not necessarily the driver, or assuming that if you were under, everybody who was under was the driver.

AVC: What led you to stop directing after 1970?

RC: I was directing a picture called Von Richthofen And Brown in 1970, which was a World War I flying picture, and I just became tired. I had directed almost 60 pictures in 12 or 13 years. I remember we were shooting at a private airport outside of Dublin, and I would drive to the airport each morning, and I still remember a fork in the road: You went left to the airport, and there was a sign that said “Right To Galway Bay.” Every morning, I thought “I just want to drive to Galway Bay and sit on the beach and look at the ocean.” Each morning, dutifully, I drove to the airport and I did my job, but I knew that I was going to stop directing when I finished the picture. I did finish the picture.

I didn’t plan to stop directing forever; I thought I would take the traditional sabbatical, take one year off to recharge the batteries, and then come back to directing. When I told a couple of companies I was working with that I was going to do that, two companies gave me offers a year in advance for pictures to do when I came back. But I got bored during the year, so I started New World Pictures, which was a production/distribution company, and the company took off amazingly. Our first three pictures were all big successes, and I just never got around to directing again. I stayed running New World Pictures. I later sold New World, and I have my new company, New Horizons.

AVC: Do you miss directing?

RC: I did for a while. I kept thinking “Maybe I’ll take time off from New World and go back to directing,” but I never had anything that really drove me. If I’d had an idea that I was passionate about, I would have done it. But I just had some interesting ideas, and I thought “Well, I’m established now producing. I’ve got my own distribution company. We have a fair amount of organization here. I think I’ll just be a producer.” 

AVC: You’ve said “I’ve never made the film I wanted to make. No matter what happens, it never turns out exactly as I hoped.” Have you ever come close?

RC: Yes, a number of times. There’s always something that draws you away from the original script. I did a picture about racial integration in the South called The Intruder, with Bill Shatner playing his first Hollywood role, which came close to what I wanted. I think one of the Poe pictures, maybe The Masque Of The Red Death, came fairly close as well. There were a number of other films, but I would think those two probably came closest to the original concept. 

AVC: How did it feel to return to directing with Frankenstein Unbound?

RC: I wasn’t particularly eager to do it. I turned it down three times. Each time, they came back and offered me more money. It finally got to the point where the amount of money they were offering me was ridiculous not to take. I had said “If I make a picture about Frankenstein, it’s just the 50th Frankenstein picture. Who will care?” So when they finally got to this amount of money, I said “All right, I will do it if I can find a new take on the Frankenstein story.” There was a novel, Frankenstein Unbound, by a British author, Brian Aldiss, that I thought did have a new version of the Frankenstein story, so I based the picture on Frankenstein Unbound.

AVC: In the early 1950s, you worked at Fox. What was it like working within the studio system?

RC: Well, I worked at Fox as a messenger. I drove a bicycle around a lot getting $30.50 a week delivering messages. So you could say that I was within the studio system, but I was not high on the executive list.

AVC: Did you move up? Did you get promoted?

RC: Yes, I did get a promotion. I got promoted to being a reader. Actually, it’s called a story analyst in the story department, reading scripts and giving comments on them. I had a reputation for being the toughest reader. I knocked every single script or novel or treatment given to me. Finally, the story editor said “Roger, you’ve been here now almost a year, and you’ve never praised one project.” I said “It isn’t me, it’s the projects. I’m the youngest guy in the department, so you’re giving me all the worst stuff. Anybody would turn these things down.” So they gave me a Western called The Big Gun, which was good. It was the first thing they’d ever given me that was a good project. I wrote a long, detailed analysis of it, they bought the script, and it became The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, which is now considered to be one of the classic Westerns.

AVC: Was being a story analyst good preparation for running a studio or becoming a filmmaker?

RC: I think it was good preparation. You learn, of course, when you’re working with something good, but you also can learn when you’re working with things that are not good. You can see the reasons they’re not good. I would sometimes suggest what could be done, but essentially say “It isn’t worth the bother.” So I learned from that process. 

AVC: Piranha has been remade in 3-D. How do you feel about the current 3-D mania?

RC: I think it’s very important. It’s not a fad the way it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when a few 3-D pictures came out. Substantial, real motion pictures are being made now in 3-D. For various reasons, I own a theater in Puerto Rico. My sales manager is Puerto Rican, and he persuaded me to buy this theater; we have six screens, and he came to me about a month ago and said “We’ve got to convert two screens to 3-D. There’s a theater in the area that’s showing 3-D, and they’re taking all the business away.” This time, 3-D is here to stay.

AVC: How was Suburbia developed?

RC: The development of Suburbia was really Penelope Spheeris’ idea. She came to me with nothing written, but she told me the storyline, and I said “Yes, I will back that picture. I think it’s a good picture.” And again, just as Allan Arkush was the auteur—I think the word “auteur” is much overused, because most films, frankly, are made by committees, but nobody wants to say it that way. But on Rock ’N’ Roll High School, Allan really functioned as an auteur. Penelope did the same thing on Suburbia. She told me the storyline. I gave her a few minor notes, but essentially that was Penelope’s job from start to finish. I thought she did an excellent job. 

AVC: You’ve worked in a lot of different genres. Are there any particular favorites? You’re certainly associated with horror a great deal.

RC: We’re doing some science-fiction pictures for the SyFy Channel, which are interesting. We just finished a picture called Dinoshark about a prehistoric shark that terrorizes a Mexican village. I’m doing something now with the University Of Nevada At Las Vegas, which I think is very interesting. I was at the Las Vegas Film Festival a year ago, and I met the head of the film school at the University Of Nevada, who had done a semi-documentary about Mexican immigrants, whose name is Francisco Menendez. Although he’s American, he’s of Mexican descent. I liked what he had done, and I came up with an idea, and I said “Francisco, if I gave you a couple of hundred thousand dollars”—because he said he’d done it for almost nothing—“could you use your students and the university’s equipment and make a picture?” 

The university agreed, and we worked it out that I would put up the money, and Francisco and his students would get one-third of the profits; the university, for putting up all the equipment and everything, would get one-third; and I would get one-third. We’re shooting that picture now. The only problem is, we couldn’t come up with an idea that really seemed right. Finally, I came up with the idea of saying “All right, let’s do the caper picture. They rob a casino, but it cannot be like Ocean’s Eleven where it’s all the sophisticated criminals and very slick and so forth. Let’s go the other way.” Las Vegas is experiencing hard times, as you probably know, and some casinos are closing. I said “What if we have a middle-bracket casino that is probably going to close, and the workers know they’re not going to get paid. They’re just going to close the casino. So the workers all hatch a plan for something like this: The plumber stops up all the toilets in the casino at exactly the moment the electrician blows the fuses at exactly the moment the drinks girl, flirting with the head of security, spills a drink in his lap, and the parking-lot attendant parks a car in the wrong position, locks it, and throws away the key, so for a short period of time, no one can get in or out of the casino. While that is all going on, to the minute, the janitors are robbing the casino. That’s the picture we made. It’s called Stealing Las Vegas.

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