To his eternal credit, Roger Corman started small and stayed that way. As a director and producer, he has been responsible for more than 400 films, almost all of them low-budget and many of them produced at breakneck speed using meager resources. While Corman's sheer productivity would be notable in itself, it's the films that really matter, and he's assembled a consistently smart, entertaining body of work that stands apart in the ranks of exploitation films. As a director, Corman made, among many others, Bucket Of Blood and the original Little Shop Of Horrors (the latter famous for having been shot in two days), two uniquely funny horror films. Other notable titles: 1962's The Intruder, a racial-integration melodrama; eight movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe; The Trip, in which Peter Fonda takes acid and changes his life; The Wild Angels, a biker film also starring Fonda which anticipated Easy Rider; and a number of gangster movies including Bloody Mama (starring Robert De Niro). As if that weren't enough, Corman helped launch the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, and others. Which is saying nothing of Corman's commitment to releasing worthwhile foreign movies and his consistent hiring of female filmmakers; his studios have been among the few places women can get in on the ground floor. In the early '70s, Corman retired from directing (he would return for one film in 1990) and began concentrating on producing for New World, a studio that made some of the 1970s' most enjoyable B-movies, including Death Race 2000, Rock 'n' Roll High School, Caged Heat, Big Bad Mama, Piranha, TNT Jackson, and a number of films involving oversexed nursing staffs. Corman, who sold New World in the early '80s and then founded the still-very-busy Concorde/New Horizons, recently took time out from his challenging schedule to speak with The Onion.
The Onion: It's daunting to figure out where to start talking about your career, but your work does break down into distinct periods by decade. Is there a period of your directing and producing work of which you're most proud?
Roger Corman: Probably the '60s. I started in the mid-'50s or late '50s, and I figure [I'm most proud of] the beginning of all that, when I was just sort of learning the process. I directed my last film in 1970, so I'd say for about 10 years from '60 to '70.
O: You've spoken before of making sure your films had a certain amount of political content. Do you feel that's also the period when you were the most political?
RC: Probably, because at the beginning of that decade, I did a picture called The Intruder with a young actor, Bill Shatner, about racial integration in the American South. It won a couple of film festivals, got great reviews, and was the first film I made that lost money. I closed the decade doing pictures such as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967) and a couple of other pictures which represented to a certain extent the counterculture and the changes that were going on in the late '60s.
O: What do you think was the most radical political statement that found its way into your movies?
RC: I would say probably either The Intruder, which had to do with racial integration, or The Trip, which had to do with freedom and individuality and, quite frankly, a certain amount of the drug and counterculture movement.
O: What went into deciding to make The Trip?
RC: Two reasons: One was that The Wild Angels with Peter [Fonda], the first of the Hell's Angels/biker films, was the biggest success AIP ever had. I'd done it about a year earlier, and it went to the Venice Film Festival and so forth. [AIP] asked me to do something else with Peter that was contemporary, and both Peter and I were involved—he more than I—in the counterculture movement at that time. I had the idea of using the LSD experience and the counterculture movement within Hollywood as a metaphor, as it were, for what was going on in the '60s throughout the country.
O: If you could single out a few films that you would want to stand as your legacy, which would you choose?
RC: I'd probably pick The Intruder, The Trip, a couple of the Edgar Allan Poe pictures, maybe The Pit And The Pendulum and Masque Of The Red Death. Maybe Bloody Mama, a gangster film I did.
O: Is there a tagline you're especially proud of?
RC: Let me see… Oh, in Bloody Mama we used the line, "The family that slays together, stays together," which was a take-off on the religious slogan, "The family that prays together…"
O: By the same token, is there anything from the 400+ movies you produced that you would not do now—or that you'd want to take back?
RC: Not really. Some of them I'm less pleased with than others. But essentially, I think you have to stand by what you did. One thing I will say: Some turned out better than others, but I believe I did try my best on all of them. I never sloughed a picture.
O: You've worked in just about every genre as either a producer or director. Is there a genre you feel you or your studios are responsible for originating?
RC: Well, probably the biker films in the 1960s. The Wild Angels was clearly the first about the Hell's Angels, and it led to many other things. I would say probably the Edgar Allan Poe pictures… Horror films have been with us forever, so you can't say I originated that in any way, but it sort of brought back a classical way to make a horror film. Horror films had been done that way many years earlier, but they'd not been done that way in a number of years.
O: You mean how, in the '50s, things shifted toward giant monsters and science-fiction elements—some of which you were responsible for, of course.
RC: I was in on that, too. I was not responsible for it, but I was part of it.
O: I was thinking you've at least dramatically changed the face of a genre with Death Race 2000 [directed by Paul Bartel]. I can't think of another post-apocalyptic movie that was like that.
RC: Yes, come to think of it, I had forgotten that. George Miller stated publicly that he saw Death Race 2000, which led to Mad Max, which led to a number of films in that area.
O: Do you object to the terms "exploitation films" and "B-movies"?
RC: I don't object to the term "exploitation" in any way. That's what they were called, and I accept the word. B-movies, classically, meant the second half of a double-bill of pictures that were made in the '30s to bring the audiences in during the Depression and give them two pictures for the price of one. So, from a technical standpoint, I never made a B-movie in my life. However, today the term "B-movie" is applied to low-budget films, so, on that basis, I guess I did make B-movies.
O: Exploitation it is, then. In the '70s, exploitation films had more freedom in terms of the amount of sex and violence they could show. Do you feel that ultimately hurt exploitation films?
RC: I think ours did not. I think some of the slasher films really got overly bloody, and they really pushed beyond… I don't want to use the words "good taste." As a matter of fact, I once had a story conference where I said, "I don't want anybody to use the words 'good taste' around here." So I definitely don't want to use that. But I'd say they definitely pushed beyond reasonable bounds in a number of the slasher films. And I think there was an audience reaction where at first it was welcomed, and then I think the audiences were turned off by them.
O: I think by around the mid-'70s, exploitation films generally stop being as fun. When it just becomes overwhelmingly about violence, the cleverness goes out and it just becomes one-upmanship. Would you agree with that?
RC: Yes. If someone cuts off an arm, someone later has to cut off a leg, and you just have to do more and more and more. You have to top the previous one until you just have a screen that's essentially red with blood.
O: How do you feel about the state of exploitation films today? It seems as though most of them come out on video now. Do you think they'll eventually find the same audience, just in a different form?
RC: They will find somewhat the same audience. I think it's unfortunate that most of these films no longer play in theaters. Occasionally, we will play one in theaters. What's happened is simply the domination of the market by the major studios, with a tremendous amount of money put into the films and an equally tremendous amount of money into advertising. We really can't compete.
O: What's the last movie you did that had a wide release?
RC: We didn't have a wide release, but we came out the week before Jurassic Park with Carnosaur. And then we had an English semi-science-fiction film called Shopping a couple of years ago that had a reasonably wide release.
O: I loved the fact that Carnosaur came out the week before Jurassic Park. It was like something that would have been done in the '60s, and I liked that it was still being done.
RC: We were playing the old game. We deliberately wanted to be in there one week ahead.
O: Is there a story behind Diane Ladd [Jurassic Park star Laura Dern's mother] appearing in Carnosaur?
RC: Nothing other than the fact that Diane had done her first picture for me, which was The Wild Angels. I wanted a scientist. The part was not originally written for a woman, but I wasn't able, really, to cast it with anybody I thought was right. I wanted someone with a great deal of strength and at the same time an intelligent person. When I didn't find that person available, I thought of Diane and switching the role from a man to a woman. So I did that and offered it to Diane and she accepted.
O: Do you see a connection between the decline of theatrical release for exploitation films and the decline of theatrical release for foreign and arthouse films in general?
RC: Yes, I think. They're two completely different genres—although we participated in both ends of it—but they're both being hurt by the tremendous power of the majors.
O: Do you see that changing at all?
RC: I don't see it changing in a broad way. However, I do see it changing a little bit in the opening up of niche areas. I think the art film, or the auteur-driven film—and not only foreign, but domestic films following that path—can get a small share of the box office. And I think that small share may open up a little bit. Other than that, I don't see any great change.
O: Does the current indie scene excite you, or do you feel that the ease of availability of making films has hurt things? The reason I ask is that your studios used to, and still do, function as an unofficial grad school for filmmakers.
RC: I think [what we do] is good and we still do it. We very seldom will take someone directly out of film school and say, "You are a director." Generally, that person will work for us as an editor, sometimes a cameraman, and sometimes a second-unit director, so they get at least some practical professional experience before they move on to directing.
O: What about the crop of filmmakers who just jump right into making their own films independently?
RC: I think it's very good. If you have the ability to do it, it's a wonderful thing to do. I think very few people, however, are really capable of coming straight out of film school and directing a feature. I think it's desirable to have at least a year or so—or, if you're really good, at least six months of playing in the minor leagues in one way or another—before moving to the majors.
O: What made you decide to come out of retirement and direct Frankenstein Unbound in 1990?
RC: Money. Universal had done some sort of market research, and they determined that a feature called Roger Corman's Frankenstein could be very successful, so they asked me if I wanted to do it. And I said, "As a matter of fact, I don't want to do it. There are so many Frankenstein pictures out there. This would be the 50th Frankenstein picture or whatever; nobody will care." And they kept calling me every six months or so. And then they kept coming up with serious offers of money, which were really higher than I'd ever dreamed of, and I started thinking about it. So I said if I could find a new way to do a Frankenstein picture, I would. And then I remembered Brian Aldiss' novel Frankenstein Unbound, which was a new way to do a Frankenstein picture. Based upon the fact that it would at least have something new or original to say, I agreed to do it.
O: And nothing has tempted you back to directing since then?
RC: No. I would go back now, at my age [Corman turns 73 on April 5], only with something I really wanted passionately to do. And, at this moment, I don't have any such project. However, I could have one tomorrow morning—or just after I hang up the phone.
O: I can't pass up the opportunity to simply name a few films and talk about the making of them or the stories behind them. Bucket Of Blood.
RC: Bucket Of Blood was my first attempt to combine comedy with horror. I had noticed that, in sneak previews and screenings, audiences would very often… I remember one film in particular, where they screamed at exactly the point I wanted them to scream. I thought, "That's perfect." It really worked. And then after they screamed, there was a little bit of laughter, and I thought, "That's not bad laughter. That's appreciative laughter. They understand what is happening and they're sort of laughing and going along with it." And from that I got the idea that horror is connected in some way with laughter, and I eventually worked out a theory, or whatever it may be, that horror, sex, and laughter are all connected in strange ways.
O: And how does that apply to some of your other films?
RC: I thought that the way they're connected is in sort of a graph. In all three of them, you start building a little bit of tension, and you build tension higher and higher and higher, and then you smash that tension. In a horror film, the audience screams; in a comedy, they laugh; and in the sexual act, obviously they reach a climax. I thought this curve applies in all three, and there are some connections. So, first with Bucket Of Blood and then with Little Shop Of Horrors, and then with a third picture that wasn't seen that much called Creature From The Haunted Sea, I deliberately went for both comedy and horror. And also with The Raven, one of the Edgar Allan Poe pictures.
O: That's a favorite of mine, if only for the great cast.
RC: That was very interesting, because I had three actors who were entirely different. Boris Karloff had been trained on the stage, for the stage, in a classical English way of acting. Peter Lorre had come out of the Bertolt Brecht/modified Stanislavsky improvisational school in Berlin. And Vincent Price had a little bit of both. It was really amazing working with all three of them. Vincent could modify and work with Peter, but it drove Boris crazy. Boris was a good guy. He tried his best and he did a good job, but it was a major problem for him.
O: What you were talking about with comedy and horror would seem to make Vincent Price an ideal star for you. He can be very scary, but there's a sort of over-the-top quality to his acting and his presence that makes him comic, as well. You did eight films with him, so he must have been someone you enjoyed working with.
RC: I enjoyed working with Vincent on every film. He was my first choice for The Fall Of The House Of Usher of everyone I could have. Obviously, I wasn't going to get the greatest stars. We didn't have that. But of everybody in the category we could look to, he was the clear and obvious first choice. I was delighted when he accepted. We worked together well on all of them because he was a very good actor, he was very intelligent, and he had that touch of humor that he could bring to it.
O: One of my favorite films that you produced, that kind of gets overlooked, is Jackson County Jail (1976), directed by Michael Miller.
RC: Jackson County Jail had a different title at the beginning; I don't remember the title. Most of these films were my idea, but Jackson County Jail wasn't. It was a screenplay that was brought to me that I liked very much. It wasn't exactly the way I wanted it, and we worked with the writer [Donald Stewart] on a rewrite. I was very pleased with that film. Yvette [Mimieux] and Tommy Lee Jones, in his first film, really did a great job on that. It may not have had quite the political statement of The Intruder or films like that, but I thought it was a good, psychological action-suspense film with a little bit of a social statement in there.
O: Rock 'n' Roll High School was originally supposed to be Disco High School, right?
RC: Right. That was my idea, and, luckily, Allan Arkush came to me and said… I made a deal with Allan to do it, and, after he'd been working on it a few days, he came to me and said, "Roger, you can't blow up a high school to disco music. I want Rock 'n' Roll High." And I said, well, okay. And then it occurred to me that disco might be, and it turned out it was, a momentary phenomenon, whereas rock 'n' roll went on—not necessarily forever, but so far forever. The idea of the picture was mine, but it was Allan's idea to switch it. That idea I think was important.
O: Of all the people who have passed through your offices over the years, did anyone strike you immediately as having a tremendous amount of talent—someone who was definitely going to be the next big director?
RC: I don't know. I would say that on some of them, right from the beginning they did have it. On others, it was clear that they might and they grew as they went along.
O: What's coming up that you're excited about?
RC: We're doing a picture in two weeks in Ireland: Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club with Jonathan Pryce. Rachel Samuels, who started as my assistant, is directing. It's her second film. I think she's one of our best young directors, and I'm very pleased with that.
O: You've been doing a lot of films in Ireland lately, haven't you?
RC: Yes. I established a studio there about three years ago with the help of the Irish government, which gave me a grant to build the studio. We make about four to six films there a year.
O: There's no retirement in sight for you, right?
RC: No. I have no plans. I would like to slow down a little bit, and I'm trying to give more authority to the people working with me and get less involved in the detailed work. But I have no intention of quitting.