B-movie king Roger Corman tells LMU students about breaking Scorsese, Coppola, Cameron and the Venice chapter of Hell’s Angels into the movie business

By Michael Aushenker

Roger Corman tells LMU students he’s still in love with making movies
Photo by Juan Tallo / LMU

Loyola Marymount University has invited dozens of movie legends to address School of Film and Television students though its ongoing Hollywood Masters conversation series, but none exemplify the term “industry maverick” more than B-movie king Roger Corman.

Corman closed out the seventh Hollywood masters season on April 19, telling students that all great film directors possess three traits: intelligence, work ethic, and — perhaps most elusive — creativity.

Those qualities convinced Corman to launch the careers of three young directors who went on to become household names: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron.

Most aspiring filmmakers that Corman employed started out as assistants before graduating to directing, but Corman hired Scorsese for 1972’s “Boxcar Bertha” after viewing a film Scorsese made in college.

“They wanted to fire Marty based on his dailies,” Corman, who recently turned 91, recalled of criticism that the future “Taxi Driver” director’s footage contained too much camera movement and not enough basic coverage. Corman, of course, went with his gut and protected Scorsese.

Cameron started in special effects at Corman’s Venice studio New World Pictures, where Cameron met future ex-wife, producer and “Aliens and “The Terminator” collaborator Gale Anne Hurd.

Coppola was hired by Corman to direct the low-budget 1963 suspense flick “Dementia 13.” After Coppola broke big with “The Godfather,” he returned the favor by casting Corman as a senator in “The Godfather Part II” and surprised the nervous non-actor by inviting Jack Nicholson on set to prank Corman by booming through a loudspeaker that Corman had better not blow his lines or he’d be through in Hollywood.

The director of such fare as “It Conquered the World,” “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” and “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent,” Corman has also been on the money about discovering acting talent. His slew of schlocky low-rent classics includes “Deathrace 2000” (featuring David Carradine and then-unknown Sylvester Stallone) and “The Wild Angeles” (starring Peter Fonda).

Corman mined the Edgar Allan Poe catalogue for several adaptations, including “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” with Vincent Price and “The Raven” with Nicholson, who made 10 movies with Corman (and wrote three of them). Nicholson gave a memorable performance as a pain-mongering dental patient in “Little Shop of Horrors,” which Corman shot in two days and recalled that “everyone took it as a joke.”

Conversing on stage with interviewer Stephen Galloway (senior editor for The Hollywood Reporter, which co-produces the school’s Hollywood Masters series), Corman also discussed his own unlikely rise from producer to director/producer to independent movie mogul and film distributor.

Following graduation from Stanford University, where he worked as a film critic for the school paper to get access to local movie theaters, the engineering major did a stint with the U.S. Navy before returning to California as a script reader for a literary agency. That’s where he slapped a fake name into one of his own scripts and sold it for $3,500, which he parlayed into producing his first film, 1954’s “Monster from the Ocean Floor.” Corman had originally titled the Wyott Ordung-directed flick “It Stalked the Ocean Floor” but “they thought the title was too arty,” he said.

In 1966, Corman directed “The Wild Angels” featuring Fonda, Nancy Sinatra and actual members from the Venice chapter of Hell’s Angels as rowdy extras. Believing itself a “social organization” rather than a biker gang, the Hell’s Angels tried to sue Corman for $1 million in a defamation lawsuit. A group leader also threatened to kill Corman, he said.

“Forget the momentary pleasure of snuffing me out,” Corman recounted telling the angry biker, “and go for the million dollars.” (Corman survived and didn’t lose the million, either.)

Of all his films, Corman said he was proudest of distributing the anomalous arthouse feature in his oeuvre: Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers.”

He told LMU students that technology has made it easier than ever to make a low-budget movie but, conversely, attaining theatrical distribution has become more arduous.

“There’s still a little bit of money in DVDs,” he said, relating the wisdom of a friend that streaming amounts to making 20 nickels instead of a dollar.

Despite diminishing returns, Corman is still fascinated by and infatuated with making movies.

“The love of it remains,” he said. “That’ll never fade.”