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Roger Corman, filmmaker, producer, distributor, exhibitor

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Roger Corman

One same man launched the careers and gave their first shot to many film directors, producers and actors who changed the game in the film industry.  The list could go on and on, but, to name a few:

Paul Bartel, Peter Bogdanovich, Charles Bronson, James Cameron, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Peter Fonda, Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus (Cannon Group/Films), Curtis Hanson, Jack Hill, Ron Howard, Gale Ann Hurd, Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne, and the youngest of them all probably being Timur Bekmambetov.

This is not only a name-dropping thing, but just to show you that the film industry and history as we know it today would be very very different if that man had not existed.

That same man is Roger Corman, who simply said to me: “Call me Roger!”.

 

– Stéphane Lam: What is your relation to France ?
– Roger Corman: My relation to France started when I was going to Oxford to do post-graduate work and in 1951. I left Oxford and moved to Paris and I lived around the corner of Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots and I was there for a few months and I loved it. I had a great time there and I come back to France as much as possible.  I’ve shot parts of several pictures in France.

– How were you received…?
– (Chuckles) Oh, I can tell you because sometimes people think that the French are…, if you try to speak French badly, they are rude to you, but I remember in 1951, I had a little English sports car – an MG – and I was travelling from Paris to Cannes as a matter of fact and I found myself misjudging the time and I came to a little town around 1 or 2 in the morning and the beginning of whatever mountains were there and I realized I didn’t want to try get all the way through in the middle of the night so I drove around the town and I found a little hotel by the railroad station which was the only place that was open and I came into the thing and the owner of the hotel was sitting having drinks with some friends and I said “Parler anglais?” and he said “No.” and I had no real knowledge of France and I said very badly “Je désire…” – I still remember the exact words – “Je désire une chambre pour la nuit.”  Guy jumps up, claps me on the back and says “Il parle français!” and they bought me a drink and I sat drinking with them for a little while before I went to the room and I thought “Well, this guy doesn’t mind that I speak French badly!”.
– (Chuckles) That’s true.  I know, I have a lot of  friends who think Parisian people are very rude and they always say “Oh, no English, no English” and they don’t want to speak English to them and I try to explain to them that it’s not that, they do speak a little English but they are embarrassed…
– Oh yeah…
– …of their English.
– Yeah.
– So they prefer to say “No English” than having that strong accent “O be-cozz, soh you aav tchou goh strayte and teurn rite…”
– Yeah.
– So that’s one of the things too.
I’m surprised.  So you never learnt really the French language?
– Not really.  I studied Spanish when I was in school because Spain, you know, Mexico, you know, so many Mexicans in America, so I never learnt.  I picked up a few words when I was there but I never really learnt it.
– O.K.  Well, you could get by, so it was not a problem.

– Can you tell us how you were received at the Cinémathèque Française for your first retrospective, by the officials and by the audience?
– I was received very well, I really thought. It was a wonderful experience, and generally, there is a question and answer, I talk for a little bit, give a short speech, and then there’s a question & answer session and I was impressed by the depth of knowledge both of cinema in general and of my films by the audience.  I’ve done this a number of times, a few times before that, that was early in my career and many times since, and I still remember really the knowledge and the intelligence of the questions.  They were very very interesting and made me realize how much that audience understood.
– That’s interesting. ‘Cos I’m trying to launch a project of oral history on cinema but I have a hard time just finding the partners and money for it even in the institutions but in the U.S., you have the Emmy Legends, the Smithsonian Institute that does that, with contemporary art artists and I think the Oscars – the Academy Awards also does that, just film people quite randomly on all their career long, very long interviews…
– Yeah.
– …and I think it’s very precious but some reason, although the French people are supposed to be very into movies and all that, so far I have contacted the Academy Awards and everything and all the institutions, but so far I haven’t found any one interested yet for some reason, so that’s, I don’t know, that’s one of the… it’s just very antithetic, you know what I mean?  They have so much knowledge on African, Egyptian, Indian, American cinema, but nobody’s doing the interviews.
– No, a lot of this is done in the U.S. by universities that has film departments and I would think they might be a possibility.
– Yes, I’ve thought about that too. That’s one of the institutions I have to contact.

– Which producers did and do you look up to when you were younger, and now?
– When I was younger, I didn’t know…  Uh, my degree from University is in engineering so I had no specific education in films.  I learnt as I went along.
– So you were not a film buff?
– I was, starting in University, I became a film critic of one of two film critics as a Stanford Daily – Stanford was my University – and I really became something of a film buff but that would start around the age of 18, so it was a little later than most of the producers I thought of that time, probably the ones I would’ve looked up to would have been the David Selznick and Sam Goldwyn more than any of the others.
– O.K.  Did you ever meet them?
– I met Sam Goldwyn, once, I never met David Selznick.
– Was that very random, or were introduced to him?
– Uh, I used to play tennis at his house…
– Ah, wow!
– …with a group of people and we’ve talked with some time to a few times.
– ‘Cos I know you had as ex-classmates in Beverly High the Zukors, the Laemmles, and the Goldwyns,…
– Yeah…
-…so maybe that’s how this happened.
– No, because I just knew them as classmates.  Also, two of my best friends were the Sherman brothers who wrote all those songs for Disney…
– Richard and Robert?
– Yeah, they were in my class at Beverly High.
– Ah, O.K.  Uh, did you ever run into these sons of Goldwyn, and Zukor, and Laemmle, sons and daughters later in your career when you were an established producer?
– I uh, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., I know slightly.  The other, I think, I know one of the sons of Selznick, I’ve forgotten his name, but I just knew them slightly.
– OK, so no real interaction whatsoever?
– No.

– I know that you met at least once two of the Shaw Brothers.
– Yes, I met them both, I met Runme and Run Run.  I met Run Run in Hong Kong and Runme in Singapore.
– Did you have the time to learn anything from them at all, or…?
– I learnt a little bit on the basis they were theatre owners as well as producers.  Run Run, I saw his studios, I met with him and one of his assistants showed me around the studio and they were making a huge number of films there.  I was very impressed by the productivity of the studio. Runme in Singapore was more of a theatre owner and a distributor although he made a few films independently but he didn’t have a studio as such the way Run Run did in HK.
– So I guess you stayed at least for two days.
– Yes, I stayed a few days in each city and then I made a picture in Singapore Peter Bogdanovich directed [“Saint Jack, made in 1979″, ed.]
– What do you think of the films that they made as producers?  The quality and their system?
– I didn’t see enough of their films to know but I thought of them as very commercially-oriented.  Producers who were doing action films, local comedies, things like that, most of which were well-crafted commercial films, which would occasionally rise above the level of craft and … a greater merit to them.

– New World, New Horizons: do you consider yourself an optimistic man?
– Uh – I was an optimistic man – uh – I, what should I say?  An older and wiser and only partially optimistic man now.
– (laughter)
– Take away the word “wiser”, just an older – uh – partially optimistic man.
– I see.  You are known as quite a “workaholic”.  Has it ever been difficult
to deal with your professional and love life, especially in your early
years?
– Uh…
– Let me know if it’s too personal…
– No, it’s alright, they ran together because I knew various actresses (laughter).
– Beautiful actresses too.
– So the two merged.

– You have worked on every movie genre…
– Not really.  I never made a pornographic film.  I consider it to be a separate part of motion pictures, a part I don’t prefer to work in, I’ve done films that are R-rated that have a small amount of nudity in them but I’ve never gone beyond an R-rated film.  Now in Hollywood, here, you may be aware of this, the pornographic industry is sometimes referred to as the over the mountain industry…
– In the valley?
– Yes, in the valley!  Because the Santa Monica mountain is right here and they’re on the other side of the Santa Monica mountains.  It only takes you half an hour to get there but for some reason, their headquarter is in the San Fernando Valley and I’ve never known why.

– Yeah, I don’t know either (…).
What do you think of the sociological function drive-in theatres had in the time? 
– The sociological function of drive-in theaters has been somewhat misstated.  People talk about a place where teenage kids went to have some sort of mild sex or sometimes real sex while watching the movies and that’s partially true, but it was also family entertainment because they were very inexpensive and working class people who couldn’t afford a babysitter would go to the drive-ins and just put the children to sleep in the back seat of the car and they would watch the movies in the front seat, and people don’t remember that.  But that was a big part of the drive-in audience.

– It seems like more and more movie viewers (and not movie goers) tend to enjoy their films individually now.  They’d pay more attention to the film, since they’re not making out?
– (laughter)
– (laughter) In theory?
– In theory, yes.  In actuality, I don’t think at that time that many were more making out.  (laughter) The boys may have wanted to, but they were less successful.
 Yes, well I wish I… I think I had to go to Riverside to find a drive-in theater to have a double-feature screening but unfortunately, it’s not like I dreamt of it, I mean  I was with a guy (laughter).
– (laughter)
– I was very disappointed but it was a great experience still.

Many of your collaborators turned out to be influential directors.
Two became producers: Gale Ann Hurd and Menahem Golan. Can you tell more about them?
– Well, Gale had gone to my school Stanford and I had a number of assistants coming from Stanford and I remember she came with great academic awards, she was near the top of her class that year and she was one of the most brilliant and hard-working assistants I ever had.  I’ll give you an example of how we function: I had a studio, a small studio in Venice, which you know is South of Santa Monica here and our headquarters were in this building.  Her office was just the next office over and right next to mine, and I was doing a picture called Battle beyond the stars – you may have heard the story, I don’t know –
– Hmm, maybe, maybe…
– Okay, anyway, I was doing a picture, a science-fiction picture called Battle beyond the stars, we were finished shooting and we were working on the special effects…
– James Cameron!
– 
Yes, and I told Gale to go out to the studio and find out why we were behind schedule on special effects, and she said the guy you hired to be the head of the department is pretty good but like many people, he overstated whether to get the job what his knowledge was but there’s this young model maker making model spaceships who really knows and it was Jim Cameron and she was the one who convinced me to promote Jim.
– Right away.
– Yeah.
– What about Menahem Golan?
– Menachem Golan, I was doing a picture called The Young racers, which is a Grand Prix – Formula 1…
– Oh yeah, in France by the way...
– I had the best staff I ever had.  I had a three men staff on that picture: my number one assistant which was Francis Coppola, my number two was Bob Towne – became an Academy Award winning screenwriter, wrote Chinatown, Shampoo and so forth – , and number three was Menachem.  And Menachem may not have had the creative spark that Francis and Bob had but he was the hardest working guy on the company.  Wherever we had an emergency or a problem, I would give it to Menachem because I knew he would stay up all night if necessary to solve the problem.
– And the problem would be taken care of…  So I know Menachem was disappointed when you chose Francis…
– Menachem and I were always friends.  There was no real problem.  For one thing, we were finishing  The Young racers at the British Grand Prix that year which was in Liverpool and I had the idea that Francis could take the crew.  We had everything built into a Volkswagen microbus, all our equipment, with Francis worked on the micro bus and fitting it and just take it across the Irish sea and shoot pictures in Dublin because there were certain labor restrictions and we couldn’t shoot in England and Menachem had the idea of shipping the micro bus to Israel and it just seemed to me it was easier to go from Liverpool to Dublin than Liverpool to Tel Aviv.
– Do you still see each other?
– Yes, Francis on my last birthday.  Francis invited us up to his place in the Napa Valley.  He has a big vineyard, he’s very successful.  And as a hotel owner, he owns several hotels in Central and South America.  As a winemaker, he’s a tremendous success.  He told me he’s making more money off the vineyards and the hotels than he ever made of from films!
– That’s why he can afford to make those small movies…
– Yes, those little films, those personal films.  He has a private jet and two pilots on salary and he was telling me he was gonna sell a private jet and get a bigger one.
– (laughter)  There you go, that means everything.
– Yes.
– What about Menachem Golan?
– Mena… We were in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago and we had dinner with Menachem and his wife Rachel, and Menachem owns some theaters in Tel Aviv, and he’s doing well, and he’s not as active in production as he was.

– How close were you to Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson [Roger Corman was produced by their company, American International Pictures, in his early years, ed.]?
– They came to my wedding and they came to our house for dinner a few times and then I knew them well before I got married as well.
– Okay, but you didn’t go, see each other or hang out together…?
– No, but I knew them, we would have dinner occasionally and lunches and things like that.  We were friends but not close friends.

– Okay, I see.  Who are your favorite directors…?
– Well, going all the way back, I would say Eisenstein, starting with him, then the American directors at the time: Ford, Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, European directors: Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, the usual names.  Of course, recently, I like a number of directors like Christopher Nolan who I think is very good, Quentin Tarantino as well, plus others, you know, these are not unknown names.

 Talking of Truffaut and Bergman, and Fellini, as a producer, how could you find the time to review new foreign films for a U.S. release?
– Simply, films are my life, so as a writer, as a director, as a producer, as a distributor, I even owned theaters for a while…
– Oh, you did?
– … yeah, I owned a circuit in which I was a major partner in a partnership in a theatre chain in Florida…
– What was it called?
– It was called “Rometco” but we sold it a few years ago.
– Only in Florida?
– We were in Florida and in the Caribbean.  We were in Puerto Rico and a couple of other islands as well but we got an offer from a bigger chain to sell out.  I didn’t particularly want to sell out but my partners did, and although I had the biggest share, I thought “Well, if they want to sell, I’ll go along with it.” so we sold out.
– ‘Cos you didn’t know what kind of partners would come up after, I guess…
– Right, yeah.  And we were all friends and I thought it didn’t make that much difference to me; I’m not really a theater owner anyway.  A friend invited me to come into the thing and a couple of people didn’t put up their share of the money so I took their share and it ends up I was the biggest shareholder, almost by accident.
– And I guess it just made okay money?
– Yeah, it was profitable, it did well.

– What was the reaction when they heard that someone labeled the king of B movies was making deals with Ingmar Bergman?
– They were surprised!  But I would have support of people, all my friends congratulate me and say “this is a great thing to be doing” and other people I didn’t even know, well, I’d meet in parties or something and a couple of people would be writing letters and called me so I got a great deal of support in that.
– Okay, so most people would be thankful they could see these movies thanks to you.
– Ya, we did get them a considerably greater theater dates than they’ve been getting.  I even put a Bergman picture in a drive-in, in a couple of drive-ins once.  He wrote me a letter thanking me for introducing his films to an audience he had never anticipated having. (laughter)
– (laughter)   Was that double features?
– I don’t remember. (laughter)
– I wonder what would be the second movie though… (laughters)

 If you would start today what would you do the same way and what differently?
– I would do the production pretty much the same way.  The first film I produced, I wrote several films, took the money that I made as a writer and got several friends of mine to put up some money and then put together a little company in which I couldn’t pay much money but I gave everybody a little of money, and a percentage of the profits.  And the two films made money, and under the third film, I started directing and on that one, I just financed myself from my profits from the previous films so I would probably do the same thing.  From a production standpoint, it would be easier today because with digital equipment and with a lighter equipment in general, you can shoot for less money and more efficiently on natural locations.  The distribution would be difficult though; it would be different I should say.  Would be different and difficult.  Because then, you could take these little films and get a full theatrical distribution and do very well, and that’s why I was able to build up very rapidly so I could finance my own films…
– But now, the majors are taking over.
– … today, the majors are taking over theatrical distribution in such an extent that only occasionally will a low budget film get a theatrical release.  They do, but very seldom.  Today, they’re more dependent on DVD and cable, video-on-demand, the foreign market which is bigger than it used to be for independent films, you’re dependent on different markets and much less on theatrical.

– How do you see a filmmaker going forward to a career nowadays
since getting industry people watch things is more and more
difficult…everyone expects you to put your film for free on YouTube
and gain a crowd before any other distribution…Meaning, that hardly
anyone is for nurturing career development the way Corman himself was
with giving chances to everyone from Menachem Golan to Coppola..Where can a young filmmaker find someone who would nurture his career in today’s world with more and more straight to YouTube for free kind of films?

– Well, as I say, it’s easier to make a film than it was but it’s definitely difficult…
– … to have it seen.
– … to have it seen.  YouTube I don’t watch that much, but YouTube primarily is showing short films, they’re not showing feature films to any great extent, so for feature films, you pretty much go the route I’ve said.  YouTube is not a good way to go at the moment, although all forms of seeing films are changing so rapidly what I say today in 90 days could be outdated.
– Yeah, that’s terrible.  And there’s so much competition too, I mean there’s so many movies done everywhere, because it’s made everywhere, because it’s so easy to make them.
– Yes.
– So then you’re like “Okay, so what am I gonna watch tonight?  I have 150 channels, I have the internet, I have this friend who said ‘Oh, I just made a movie, you wanna see it? – Well, yes, but no…’,.”   We have so many solicitations, it’s just very difficult to have your film seen today…

– A lot of companies now don’t want any unsolicited scripts…Was the industry as closed when you started as it seems to be now?  
– It has always been difficult for a young writer.  That has not really changed; it’s always been that way.
– That was a question from a young filmmaker, friend of mine, from Finland.
– Oh…

– On the day to day operation, how involved was Gene Corman?
– Gene had his own company.  We worked together very closely at the beginning and we made films together, we made films individually, then he became vice-president of television production at 20th Century – Fox and he won an Emmy, he did The Story of Golda Meir, and he worked primarily in television although he continued to make some films: he did the last film of Sam Fuller, produced The Big red one, so we worked together a great deal when we were younger but then our careers went in different directions.
– I see.  Is he still working now?  What is he doing?
– No, he’s retired.
– Doesn’t he miss…?
– Uh, yes, he says he does, but he doesn’t want to get back. (laughters)

– What about Julie Corman, your wife?
– Julie, weirdly enough, we’re working closer together now than we did.  She’s always been with the company and she started as a simple assistant and learning and then she started producing on some films of her own and for the last year or two, we’ve been working together, on our films.
– So you mean in the first ten years or so, she was more of an assistant?
– Not even ten, first two or three years.

– I ask this question to most producers I meet: what would be your definition of a film producer, if any?
(18 seconds total silence while I watch Roger Corman think… until a telephone rings)
– A film producer is someone who understands that motion pictures are both an art and a business and can function in both areas.
(4 seconds silence)

– Okay, what do you think of current executives and so-called producers in the major companies in Hollywood today?
– I think the name “producer” has been debased recently because there used to be a Sam Goldwyn, a David Selznick.  Today, you look at a picture and you’ll see ten producers up there, and you’re wondering which one of these was actually the producer.  For instance, somebody puts up some money and says “I want a ‘producer’ credit” so he gets a “producer” credit but all he’s done is put up some money.  Somebody else is the manager of the star and he says “I want a ‘producer’ credit or you don’t get my star” so to look at a picture today, you have no idea who is the producer and who actually has produced the film, this is a prob… I’m a member of both the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild.  Now, the Directors Guild has been smarter than the Producers Guild and they have always safeguarded the position of the director.  The Producers Guild was formed after the Directors Guild because in the thirties and the forties, the producers ran Hollywood and they didn’t think they had to have a guild.  The directors and the writers and the actors, because the producers were running everything, formed guilds to get power for themselves and particularly the directors and the writers who were able to take some power away from the producers and the Producers Guild has never been as strong as a writers’ or a directors’ or an actors’ because they thought they didn’t have to have a guild.  And the Producers Guild today is very much aware of that, and they’re trying to bring back the position of the producer but it’s difficult in today’s world.

 

Discussion held in Brentwood, California, spring 2014.
Stéphane Lam

Special thanks to Pierre Rissient.

 

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