In his nearly half century in the movie business,
Roger Corman has been many things to many people. Making his debut
as a movie director in 1955, he graduated from campy monster movies
to elegant adaptations of horror tales by Edgar Allan Poe. As the
1960s wore on, he captured the rebellious spirit of the youth revolution
with such trendsetting films as The Wild Angels and The Trip. Beginning
in 1970, his New World Pictures became a popular alternative to
the Hollywood studio system, blending action, sex, humor and"message"
into hip entertainments like Death Race 2000. Film buffs may also
remember that over a 10-year period, Corman was North America's
premier distributor of foreign language classics by Ingmar Bergman,
Federico Fellini and other European masters. A letter from Bergman,
expressing delight that his Cries and Whispers had found its way
onto the screens of American drive-ins, is still displayed prominently
on Corman's office wall.
Over the decades, thousands of young moviemakers have found a home
at Corman's production companies, New World Pictures and Concorde-New
Horizons. (The most recent name change to New Concorde
suggests that Corman, who turned 75 on April 5, has not yet finished
reinventing himself.) The list of major directors mentored by Corman
is legendary: it includes Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich,
Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, John Sayles
and James Cameron. Corman's freewheeling low-budget operation has
also spawned important actors (Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda), writers
(Robert Towne) and producers (Gale Anne Hurd). And there are also
scores of Corman veterans who have made their mark as editors, cinematographers,
line producers, makeup artists, distribution specialists and marketing
mavens. This writer is proud to number herself among the Roger Corman
alumni who now populate every corner of the film industry. As actor
David Carradine once said,"It's almost as though you can't
have a career in this business without having passed through Roger's
hands for at least a moment."
Roger Corman is perhaps chiefly famous for having opened the door
to so many moviemaking talents. But what is sometimes overlooked
is the fact that he offered far more than opportunity.
At his best, he was a moviemaking teacher par excellence, which
is why I own a leather jacket emblazoned with the words"Roger
Corman School of Film." The late writer-director Howard R.
Cohen reflected:"Roger's the only person I've met in this business
who will tell you everything he knows, all his secrets, and hold
nothing back. He'll let you know his tricks." This generosity
of spirit is a far cry from the cheapness that is (quite justifiably)
part and parcel of the Corman image. Gale Anne Hurd, who went on
to produce such blockbusters as The Terminator and Armageddon, paid
tribute to her former boss in saying,"He's the only person
I've known in the industry who wanted his protégés to succeed,
and perhaps have even more impressive credentials than his own."
When he started out, Corman was hardly known as a master teacher.
Totally unschooled in the craft of film, he soaked up techniques
from experienced crew members like Floyd Crosby, an Oscar-winning
cinematographer who made Corman's Monster from the Ocean Floor only
two years after shooting High Noon.
The actors in Corman's early stock company were as green as he was.
Jonathan Haze, whose 30 Corman films included the leading role in
Little Shop of Horrors, said that"we all learned together."
What Haze remembers from those days is the fact that Roger was always"open
to advice from everyone, even those who knew less than he did."
But other performers came away with lessons that have stayed with
them. Beverly Garland, who on Corman's orders was pumped full of
painkillers after badly spraining her ankle during an action sequence,
learned that the show must go on. And because of Corman's habitual
impatience on the set, Dick Miller developed a valuable knack for
being a one-take actor.
Perhaps the first director to benefit from Corman's
tutelage was Monte Hellman, who in later years became known for
the distinctively austere Two-Lane Blacktop. Hellman's directorial
debut was Beast from Haunted Cave, a 1959 quickie made under Corman's
Filmgroup banner. It was Corman's idea to save money by shooting
two films (the other was Ski Troop Attack) back-to-back in the Black
Hills of South Dakota, using essentially the same cast and crew.
Hellman quickly learned that Corman's penny-pinching ways could
backfire:"[Corman] told everyone in town that we were UCLA
film students doing a student film, so we got hotel rooms for, I
think, a dollar a night, but we had two people in a room so it was
fifty cents a night per person. We were shooting in 10 below zero
and he served salami sandwiches on plain white bread for lunch.
I think if we'd had just a cup of soupÉ those kind of economies
don't pay off in the long run.
A lot of bad will [is] generated."
But Hellman also received an education in
practical moviemaking from Corman. In the mid-1960s, Corman backed
two westerns, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind, on which Hellman
collaborated with Jack Nicholson. The deal was that any overage
would come out of the moviemakers' pockets, and Hellman learned
from the experience"how to make a movie whatever the budget
was. I've never gone over budget."
In 1962 a young UCLA film school graduate named Francis Ford Coppola
was hired by Corman to add horror footage to a clumsy Russian-made
science fiction film. Corman then staked Coppola $22,000 to direct
his first feature, Dementia 13. Thirty years later, just prior to
the release of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Coppola told the Chicago Tribune
that"I learned from Roger the low-budget approach to producing
gothic effects. Dracula is like a Roger Corman movie." (He
neglected to mention that his Dracula was like a Roger Corman movie
on a $42 million budget.)
Coppola's UCLA classmate, Jack Hill, would gain notoriety as the
director of such blaxploitation classics as Coffy and Foxy Brown.
Part of what Hill got from Corman was a lesson in tailoring scripts
to the situation at hand. Take the case of Pit Stop (1969), which
was the last film made by the respected Irish actor Brian Donlevy.
Because Donlevy was having tax problems and needed cash, Corman
offered him $3,000 for three days' work. Hill explained"you
had to write the script in such a way that you felt [Donlevy] appeared
all the way through the movie. People were talking about him, and
he was in and out, but actually you crammed all his work into three
days." Corman also taught Hill how to use attractive sets to
make a low-budget picture like The Terror look bigger and more expensive.
Says Hill,"If you have a good set, you really want to use it.
So instead of putting his actors up against a wall, [Roger] would
bring them way out so you would get a lot of depth behind them and
see a lot of the set, as much as possible."
By the time Jonathan Demme directed his first Corman film, Caged
Heat (1974), Roger had codified his moviemaking philosophy into
what has become known as"the director's speech." Generations
of young moviemakers have heard Corman go through his list of common
sense fundamentals: prioritize your shots; rehearse while the crew
is lighting the set; chase the sun; use foreground objects to enliven
a dialogue scene; bring in movement to stimulate the eye; wear comfortable
shoes; and sit down a lot.
In the 1977 documentary, Roger Corman: Hollywood's Wild Angel, Demme
described the impact that Corman's aesthetic credo had on him:"It
was stuff I believed in [and] felt, but never really articulated
to myself. And it became, certainly, my style of filmmaking. I think
it's one that works." Demme also credits Corman with teaching
him that a director must always be both artist and businessman,
with an emphasis on the latter.
A representative Corman career was that of Peter
Bogdanovich. A stage director and film historian, he became Corman's
all-purpose assistant on The Wild Angels (1966), then found himself
directing second unit."I went from getting the laundry to directing
the picture in three weeks. Altogether, I worked 22 weeks
preproduction, shooting, second unit, cutting, dubbing I
haven't learned as much since." Over the years, Bogdanovich
made his share of major studio releases, including The Last Picture,
Paper Moon and the ill-fated At Long Last Love. But in his 1998
book, Who the Devil Made It, he claims to have returned full circle
to"Roger Corman's guerrilla school of picture-making,"
with a strong sense of"how indolent, spoiled and wasteful most
feature productions have become."
Actor Peter Fonda was another early champion of Corman's guerrilla
moviemaking tactics. After starring in The Wild Angels and its psychedelic
follow-up, The Trip (1967), Fonda was inspired to launch his own
A publicity photo of himself and Bruce Dern riding their choppers
in The Wild Angels gave Fonda the notion that became Easy Rider.
From the outset he planned to make his movie Corman-style, going
on the road and taking advantage of local production values wherever
possible. For the Canadian film journal, Take One, he described
how he envisioned his movie:"Let's get to Mardi Gras in the
film; we'll have a lot of free costumes and shit like that, a real
Roger Corman number where we don't have to pay."
Those who've worked closely with Corman know that as a moviemaker,
he has great faith in the post-production process. He tends to feel
there's no movie that can't be fixed by some creative editing and
a new ad campaign. Director Joe Dante, who began as a Corman editor
and trailer-cutter, recalled that when an ambitious New World film
called Cockfighter (1974) flopped at the box office, Roger was quick
to devise a plan of action. He told Dante,"We're going to take
the truck chase from Night Call Nurses, and we're going to take
the dynamite scene from Dynamite Women, and we're gonna cut 'em
all together in a one-minute montage. And I want you to cut it into
the movie right when Warren Oates goes to bed and turns the lights
out. And that will be a dream sequenceÉ put all this stuff
in the trailer, and now we're going call it Born to Kill."
Ron Howard learned a different lesson about the power of editing.
When Howard made his directorial debut with Grand Theft Auto (1977),
Corman insisted on screening the finished film at a preview house
that registered viewers' enthusiasm by means of a graph. Says Howard,"We'd
look at those graphs, Roger would spread them out on the floor,
and he just kept trying to cut out the stuff between the peaks
which would be a little ludicrous at times. But I have used a similarly
ruthless philosophy on every film I've done since then. It really
taught me a lot. As a result of that honing and shaping, there is
no question that the movie becomes more enjoyable to the audience."
While today, as a major Hollywood mogul, Howard enjoys final cut,"I
still rely very heavily on those preview audiences, because sometimes
you're surprised [to find that] certain things are just not communicating
as you'd hoped."
Like Ron Howard, a number of Corman alumni have gone on to direct
megabudget studio films. But one who has stayed committed to indie
moviemaking is John Sayles, known for charting his own course on
projects like City of Hope and Lone Star. Sayles came to New World
as a published fiction writer without screenplay experience. In
the course of crafting the scripts for Piranha (1978), The Lady
in Red (1979) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), he got priceless
storytelling tips from Corman and his longtime development executive,
Frances Doel:"When do you need suspense rather than action?
When do you need some action? When do you need some comedy to give
people a break from the suspense? That's what
I found that Roger and Frances were very good at."
Sayles also learned how to write for a Corman budget, and how to
approach a script in terms of its marketability. Such practical
experience served him well in 1980, when he wrote and directed his
own $40,000 feature, Return of the Secaucus 7."I started with
very little money and said, ÔWhat can I do well?,'" says
Sayles, whose tenacious hold on his artistic independence has always
been the key to his career. He turned down Corman's offer to invest
in Secaucus 7 because he didn't want the obligation connected with
using somebody else's money. In choosing to go it alone, forging
his own path free of outside interference, Sayles in some ways has
shown himself to be Roger Corman's truest heir.
More recent Corman alumni have not always had the same opportunities
to learn from the master. As the years have gone by, Corman has
increasingly distanced himself from the day-to-day business of moviemaking.
Nor has he always been the supportive father figure that earlier
generations remember. The Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski
best recalls from his Concorde-New Horizons stint (1988-1991) the
energy that went into evading some of Corman's imperious dictates.
Because Roger disapproved of dolly tracks as overly time-consuming,
they had to be quickly hidden every time he set foot on the Concorde
Although the newest Corman graduates haven't had the benefit of
working under Roger's direct tutelage, learning to fend for themselves
has been its own lesson. When Rodman Flender was tapped to make
his directorial debut on The Unborn, he looked forward to the ritual
of the director's speech. When at last the great day arrived, Corman
merely told him,"Rodman, you know most of this stuff. Frankly,
I'm just tired of the sound of my own voice." So Flender was
left to rely on his own bag of tricks which is, in fact,
exactly what Corman wanted. In ending a meeting with young moviemakers,
Roger often says,"Use your own best judgment." His alumni
have learned that the most important thing they can do to uphold
the Roger Corman spirit is to simply trust themselves. MM