Producer/director and Santa Monica resident Roger Corman is largely looked at as one of the foremost fathers of independent filmmaking. Notorious for his thrift, kitschy showmanship and lightning speed in filmmaking, Corman forged the business and production model that was to be swiped by legions of aspiring independent filmmakers that have sprouted up in the decades since the 1950s.
And his unlikely magic of continuously turning a profit in the risky independent film endeavors was perhaps what gave aspiring filmmakers the chutzpah to make their own attempts.
Corman’s name echoes through the big-budget film world, as many of Hollywood’s biggest actors, directors and executives began their careers working on one of Corman’s films. The early careers of Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro and a slew of others included work with Corman.
Now Corman’s former story editor, development executive and publicist Beverly Gray, who spent about nine years working for Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, has completed an unauthorized Corman biography, titled Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches and Driller Killers, which examines Corman’s life and accomplishments.
Gray is scheduled to give a book talk at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9th, at Bergamot Books, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Admission is free.
Asked about the difference between working on a Corman production and working on a big-budget Hollywood film, Gray replied, “On a big, dignified project, you could be working on the same film for two or three years.” On the contrary, Corman’s films were oftentimes completed at breakneck speed, in as little as two or three weeks, she says.
“The casts didn’t aim for perfection because there was literally no time to do so,” says Gray.
Yet the films were profitable, and some even became classics.
Little Shop of Horrors, produced by Corman in 1960, was meant to be a low-budget quickie that would net a few bucks on the television and drive-in circuits. It was later resurrected as a smash hit off-Broadway musical and community theater mainstay, with lyrics written by Howard Ashman. Still not at its height of popularity, Warner Bros. later made it into a big-budget motion picture in 1986 starring Rick Moranis. This led to a resurgence of interest in the Corman film, not to mention a windfall of royalty checks to Corman for the rights to the material.
Corman was a master at finding niches and trends of the day that Hollywood had avoided to exploit for surefire sellers.
His 1966 film, The Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda, was to spawn the sub-genre of biker films of the late ’60s, which led to Fonda and other Wild Angels cast members making the hit Easy Rider in 1969.
The Trip (1967) explored the psychedelic counterculture and was at the cusp of a flood of psychedelic films geared towards youths that came out in the late ’60s.
“Intellectually, he was attracting a somewhat hipper audience at this time because people saw Roger’s work as somewhat bold,” says Gray.
Corman gained wide respect for putting many of Edgar Allen Poe’s works on film, including The Raven (1963) and The House of Usher (1960).
He took a stab at controversial civil rights and race issues with The Intruder in 1962, starring a young William Shatner, who plays a bigot firebrand who incites townspeople to riot against the court ordered desegregation of schools.
Filmed in a heavily racist Southern town, Gray calls it “a gutsy political movie.”
Ironically, The Intruder is one of the few Corman films that failed to reap a profit, which is why Gray speculates Corman did not continue on the path of making politically controversial films.
A favorite Corman tactic was to rip story plots straight from the news headlines of the day.
When the Russians launched the first space satellite Sputnik, Corman pounced on the space race theme and the impending youth fascination with outer space by completing War of the Satellites (1958) within months. Gray notes that Corman’s film response came faster than NASA’s own satellite launch.
His early exploitation films banked on outrageous science fiction concepts, as in Attack of the Crab Monsters, which he directed in 1957.
By the time the straight-to-video market came in the 1980s, Corman had already mastered the formula of the dynamics of making a cheap thriller.
“Roger knew that all you had to do was package a cheap film in a sexy video box and it would sell,” says Gray.
Corman also adapted his quick-buck-on-a-low-budget tactic to making knockoffs of the big hit films of the day, almost like generic brand foods available cheaper in a supermarket. Jaws was transformed into Corman’s Piranha (1978). Jurassic Park became Carnosaur (1993).
“These were more of an engineering challenge than the intellectual challenge of his 1960s films,” says Gray.
Corman jumped on the martial arts film craze with a series of eight Bloodfist movies, even attempting to cultivate his own martial arts superstar in Don “The Dragon” Wilson, rather than paying to hire one of the established martial arts film stars.
Corman was also one of the first to take a chance on bringing renowned European art films into American drive-in theater distribution.
He acquired films by Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog and Federico Fellini.
Film moguls Harvey and Bob Weinstein later jumped on Corman’s bandwagon, deciding that there was a market for European art films in the United States.
Few ever expect to see Corman himself on-stage at the Academy Awards, but a large number of people who started their careers working for Corman have been nominated for Oscars, including Paul Haggis, who was nominated for best adapted film script for Million Dollar Baby at the 77th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, February 27th.
Gray worked for Corman during the time he had a sound stage facility on Main Street in Venice, next to the Rose CafÈ. The site was the Hammond Lumber Company before Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures moved in. It’s now the site of condominiums.
One anecdote Gray tells about Corman’s budgeting tactics is that occasionally people would walk into the location to buy lumber. Removal of the Hammond Lumber Company sign was an expense that Corman was simply not willing to absorb.
And one time after a would-be wood buyer had come and gone, Corman quipped, “Hey, maybe we could have sold him something,” Gray remembers.
Shortly before it was torn down, the Venice studio site became the subject of the low-budget slasher film Slaughter Studios, of which Corman was executive producer. The film was about an abandoned film studio and the horrors that had occurred there, hinting of a tongue-in-cheek spoof on the Concorde-New Horizons operation.
Big-budget science fiction films like Independence Day, with millions spent on special effects and sensationalism, and seemingly much less spent on quality scriptwriting, may be the norm now, and many blame Corman. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, Corman-style B-movies began to switch places with Hollywood big budget A-movies.
“At a certain point, with the release of movies like Jaws, it became fashionable for Hollywood directors to make Corman-style B-movies, just with big budgets for stunts and special effects,” says Gray.
With the closure of drive-in theaters, the flooding of the video and DVD market and the major studios’ ventures into big-budget camp and science fiction, Corman began to lose the niche that he helped create.
“When the Blair Witch Project came out, he was mashing his teeth, upset that he hadn’t come up with an idea like that first, and trying to find a way to capitalize on the Internet,” Gray says.
Always at the forefront of what’s current, Corman has found more success in recent years issuing special collectors edition DVDs featuring bonus footage and commentary from the actors and filmmakers who worked with him and were later to become big stars.
“He was able to recognize people with a talent and an appetite for success,” says Gray, who adds that the sheer volume of aspiring actors he dealt with also played a role in so many future stars passing through Corman’s studios.
At best, working on low-budget Corman films was a stepping stone to bigger careers for many in Hollywood and it was also a refuge for fading stars making last-ditch efforts to keep their careers afloat.
In 1990, long before the release of Gray’s book, Corman had already written an autobiography with Jim Jerome called How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, which featured numerous interviews with former Cormanites who had gone on to superstardom, but Gray alleges that the book “didn’t get the facts right” — or at least the way she saw them.
“Roger never really stepped back to figure himself out,” she says. “He’s very self-conscious about his image and not very analytical about himself.”
Once she got her publishing deal, Gray says that she at first attempted to get Corman’s blessing on her book project and to include him in the research process.
“[Corman] told me, ‘Beverly, I would be happy to cooperate with you in every possible way as long as you can assure me that this book will be largely favorable,'” says Gray.
She says Corman then asked for permission to remove anything considered derogatory from the manuscript of the book.
Gray replied that “artistic independence” is a value that she learned from Corman and that she could not let him do that.
Gray says she believes Corman may have asked his friends and associates not to talk to her.
But Corman’s scope in the film world was so vast that there were still scores of former Cormanites from the past five decades who were more than happy to share their experiences.
“There were so many people from so many eras who worked closely with Roger that were able to put their finger on who the man really is and what he’s trying to prove,” says Gray.
They include Frank Moreno, scriptwriter Howard R. Cohen, who wrote about 40 Corman films, and director Joe Dante, all quoted in the Gray book.
Gray says what she calls Corman’s fear of bad publicity in her book was unwarranted.
“I think I’ve written an affectionate portrait but an honest one,” she says.
Information on the reading, (310) 306-7330.