At 96, “Semi-Retired” Film Legend Roger Corman’s Passion Still Burns BrightPhotos courtesy Shout! Factory Movies Features Roger Corman
For roughly 70 years at this point, there has never been a moment when Roger William Corman didn’t have at least a handful of irons in the Hollywood fire.
In fact, for much of that period, the Hollywood legend was so incredibly busy and uniquely prolific that he surely would have struggled at times to even name all the projects floating across his desk. In the years since he wrote his first script, 1953’s Hollywood Dragnet, the legendary B-movie director and producer has gone on to produce more than 500 projects in Hollywood, personally directing more than 50 of them. Renowned for his efficiency, business savvy and seemingly innate understanding of what audiences wanted to see, Corman’s filmography is a jaw-dropping menagerie of vintage westerns, monster movies, science fiction stories, dramas and more, a showcase for the way he managed to reinvent himself time and time again as the consummate Hollywood survivalist. Even now, at 96, he can’t bring himself to simply sit back and rest on his laurels—he refers to himself as “semi-retired,” but his eyes light up as he describes his ambitions for future projects. This is not a man with an ounce of quit in him.
Still, Corman does appreciate all the tributes and honorariums that have come his way in the last few decades, as the industry has increasingly recognized the profound impact of the man whose films gave first Hollywood opportunities to the likes of Marin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, James Cameron, and so many more. A latest tribute arrives from the team at Shout! Factory, who in May launched a new streaming channel called Shout! Cult, which plays host to dozens of the films that Corman directed and produced between the 1950s and 2010s. From Attack of the Crab Monsters to Chopping Mall, Galaxy of Terror, Rock ‘n Roll High School and StarCrash, it’s a rich resource of vintage Corman classics, waiting for a new generation to discover them for the first time.
In honor of the launch of Shout! Cult—and in order to net an interview I’ve been wishing for all my life, if I’m being honest—I recently had an opportunity to chat with Corman, reflecting on some of the specific moments of one of Hollywood’s most monumental careers. The “semi-retired” legend shared thoughts on a few of his best films, while also offering some perspective on the challenges of producing vs. directing, and opinions on the blockbuster stagnation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Paste: It would be hard for me to claim I’d watched everything you’ve ever produced—probably not even you have watched everything you produced—but I did get around to watching one recently that was on my list for a long time, which is 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound. That must have been a treat, working with John Hurt and Raul Julia on that one?
Roger Corman: That was a very interesting picture. It had the biggest budget I’d ever had for a film I directed, but there were problems within the production. So I felt at the time that although it was interesting, it was a slightly flawed picture. But when it came out, surprisingly enough the reviews were pretty good. And then to my great surprise, there was a European science fiction awards show, and Frankenstein Unbound won the award for the best European sci-fi movie of the year, because we shot it in Italy. That was maybe the most unexpected award I ever got!
It should have gotten an award for the poster! I love that wicked poster, with the eyeball stitched together with different colors?
Corman: Oh yes! That was not actually in the original script, but just before shooting I thought of that, so we used special contact lenses that looked right for the part.
That film was your return to directing after a 20 year absence. Was it difficult to balance the desire to direct with the demands of your production companies?
Corman: I did intend to direct more. What happened there, began with when I made The Wild Angels and The Trip for American International Pictures in the ‘60s. They were giant successes. My relationship with AIP had always been good, but these were the two biggest grossing pictures AIP ever had, and when I looked at the distribution report I realized that they had succumbed to greed and were cheating me on my profit participation. After a lot of anger, it ended up in a settlement, and I thought “the only way to avoid this is to make my own production/distribution company, because I don’t plan on cheating myself.”
I had been directing so many pictures so fast, so I thought “I’ll take a sabbatical, a year off.” So I formed a company, and thought I’d have my brother (Gene Corman) be the producer, but he then ended up signing a contract at Fox to be head of television production for a great deal of money. So he thought, quite correctly, that he was better off signing with Fox. So then there was nobody to run it. So I ended up running it, which I never intended to do! And we had to, as we’d say, “feed the dinosaur” by making enough pictures for the distribution company to function. And I figured the best way for the company to function as a distributor would be to have 12 pictures a year—one picture every month. And if I had to produce 12 pictures a year—we ended up producing a little more than that—then I couldn’t direct. So inadvertently, I stopped directing.
I’ve always personally been a big fan of the Edgar Allan Poe Cycle movies; they were probably the first Roger Corman films I watched. Is there one of them that stands out to you as your favorite?
Corman: Well, the very first one, House of Usher, was my first experience working with Vincent Price, and I’ve always liked it. But I think probably the best was Masque of the Red Death, which I shot in England. My pictures were doing very well in England, and the distributors suggested that I come to England and make a Poe picture there to take advantage of the English subsidy.
Now whenever we went to a new studio, Dan Haller, my art director and I, would go to what’s called the scene dock, which contains flats [backgrounds on a film set] from previous films, which can be reused to make a picture look better. And in the scene dock, we found the flats from, I believe it was A Man For All Seasons, and it was like we struck gold! They had these phenomenal flats, and then Dan created some additional flats of our own to match, and that helped to give Masque of the Red Death the biggest and most expensive look we ever had.
It is a beautiful movie. I always liked The Haunted Palace, but that’s because I’m an H.P. Lovecraft fan, and always got a kick out of it being an adaptation of a Lovecraft story, under the guise of a Poe story.
Corman: That was AIP’s idea! I said that I had done so many Poe films, I wanted to do a Lovecraft story. And they said yes to that. But then while I was shooting it they decided to call it a Poe film, because the Poe movies had been so successful. If Lovecraft was still alive, I thought he would really be unhappy!
Do you care to watch a lot of modern film? Does that hold a lot of attraction to you at this point, watching new movies?
Corman: I don’t watch that many, I should say, because I’m semi-retired. Although I do have a deal to remake Little Shop of Horrors for Paramount. The original picture had a budget of about $35,000. The new one would be about $8 million!
That project is still active, then?
Corman: Yes, we’re still developing it. I’m doing it with a friend of mine, Brad Krevoy, who’s a good producer. We’re co-producing. The script is still being worked on, we’ve gone through two or three writers and the third writer has finally hit the mark I think.
I’m sort of curious, when you look at the last 10 to 15 years and the dominance of a blockbuster property like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, do you have a gut reaction to those films? Have you ever watched them?
Corman: I have a somewhat bad reaction, to be honest, because I had an option with Marvel to do one of their films, with Orion …
Corman: No, this is another one actually, Fantastic Four is a different story. I remember with this one, we had to pick up the option by December 31 to retain it. And I remember reminding them, “don’t forget to pick up the option!” And of course, they forgot to pick up the option. And Menahem Golan, a friend of mine, knew what was happening and immediately after December 31 of that year he made a deal to get that option, and he eventually sold the rights.
So basically, you could have had a hand in all of these modern Marvel movies!
Corman: Maybe. I do think, actually, that they are extremely well made, and the special effects are just phenomenal. I think they’re good pictures. But if I have any quibble with them, it’s that … Jim Cameron, who started with me, when you see a big-budget effects film from Jim, you always recognize that the story comes first, and the special effects are only there to help the story. Whereas with Marvel, it sometimes feels like the special effects are the stars, and the story frankly can be filler between the special effects. It could be improved if they followed the lead of Jim and worked more on their stories.
I love how you just casually mention a guy like Cameron, who “started with me,” because you could say that about so many great actors and directors who all got their first opportunity on Roger Corman movies. How does it make you feel to know that your films are responsible for giving a start to so many icons?
Corman: I’m delighted to see that so many of the men and women who started with me have gone on to such big successes. I’m on friendly terms with all of them, and I frankly just think it’s wonderful.
If there’s one Roger Corman movie, whether directed or produced, that you feel people should go out of their way to see if they’ve never seen it, what would it be?
Corman: It would probably be The Intruder, a picture I made in 1960 starring William Shatner, about discrimination against African Americans in southern schools. The picture got wonderful reviews and won a few minor film festivals, but it was the first film I ever made that lost money! Although I take that back, because around 2005, Bill and I did narration for a DVD, and I think we finally got our money back on that one.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.