Roger Corman makes movies the way other men make sandwiches. In 20-plus years he estimates he's produced 170 to 180 films, and directed 60 or 70 of those. Called the Orson Welles of Z pictures, he makes good-bad movies, drive-in specials that have been twice honored with restropective at the dignified British Film Institute.
When days turn steamy, movie minds inevitably turn to Corman and jhis New World Pictures, responsible for the best in summer madness, films like this year's "Death Race 2020," "Grand Theft Auto," and "Black Oak Conspiracy," promoted with lines like "Leaving town was easy. Coming home was murder!"
Tall and casually elegant, Corman is a real-life Last Tycoon who can do everything with a film from writing the screenplay to booking it into a theater. He's been involved with almost every conceivable kind of movies from his own "She GOds of Shark Reef" and "Attack of the Crab Monsters" to Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" and Fellini's "Armacord" and he feels, at age 50, that the best is yet to come.
Corman's name may sound familiar, but everyone remembers the work he's done, and the wonder is not that he's simply succeeded but that he's done so in so many areas. Among the more identifiable hate he's worn are:
Horror Impresario - Corman was responsible as producer/director for the hugely succesful Edgar Allen Poe/Vincent Price series of fright films of the early 1960s, films like "The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Tales of Terror" and "The House of Usher." They remain among his favorites, and as he talks about the intelligence that make them succesful.
"A child is alone in a dark house at night," Corman explains, his voice cool, persuasive. "He's afraid. There are strange noises, maybe thunder. He's in his room, he feels frightened, his parents tell him everything's all right but his unconscious doesn't believe it. Those fears are with us all our lives, and when you make horror films, uou try to break through to that unconscious level, to reach those basic fears people have."
Trend Setter - Corman's "Wild Angels" of 1966, with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, was the first of a wave of motorcycle pictures, his "The Trip" of 1967 was a druculture picture almost before is a movement that can be capitalized on film, Corman will surely so capitalize, and, again, he makes it sound easy. "I read newspapers," Corman says, smiling. "I'm aware of what's going on in the world."
Art House Innovator - when Corman founded his own company, New World Pictures, in 1969, he didn't want it associated exclusively with exploitation films. He also had the very definite feeling that "art films were being mishandled by tired men with too much respect, bloodless men who put works of art in somber museums. It was a sultifying operation, but these directors were vital men who wanted their films to be seen."
So Corman decided to "put on some razzle-dazzle, slightly wilder campaigns." After screenings of "Amarcord," for instance, he had pretty women in long dresses hand out long-stemmed yellow roses. A whole series of small touches like this made the film Fellini's biggest American money-maker except for "La Dolce Vita."
For Bergman's "Cries & Whispers," Corman engineered the highest grosses the Swedish director ever had domestically, at least partly because he booked the film into the theoretically declasse world of drive-ins. "The owners were delighted, even if they only did average business, and Bergman was really pleased. He laughed and joke and said it should have been done before."
And then, most imposing of all, is what has come to be known as the Corman Connection, the almost legendary number of quality people who got their start and/or their biggest break in a Roger Corman production.
A Corman-directed film like the 1963 "The Terror" for instance, starred Jack Nicholson," whose first acting role was in Corman's "Cry Baby Killer." The assistant directors were Monte Hellman, soon to become a full-scale cult figure, Francis Ford Coppola, whose first directing Project was the Corman-produced "Demetia 13," and Peter Bogdanovich, who later used footage from "The Terror" in his own, Corman-backed debut, "Targets."
The list grows longer, Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne ("Shampoo," "Chinatoen") got his start Dern. Directors like Martin Scorecese, John Milius and Bob Rafelson did early work for him, as he dis cinematographer Laslzo Kovacs. The list grows so long, in fact, that most film people credit Corman with having unearthed more talent than anyone else in the business, a fact of which he is aware and understandably quite proud.
Of course, Corman did not exactly pay these people princely sums, but, as he cheerfully says, "They knew what they were getting into. No one else was going to give them a chance to write or direct. It was a tradeoff. They would have done it for nothing."
If making things cheaply is one of Corman's main trademarks - so much so that he likes to negotiate contracts with a French student uprising poster translating as "Small salaries, Big loads" behind him on the wall - making them fast is an ever greater one.
It is with a touch of wry remembrance that Corman tells you the figures on some of his quickest films, how "Bucket of Blood" was conceived and executed in five days in 1959, how he still has this vague dream of shooting a 90-minute TV movie in exactly 90 minutes.
And though that period ended around the time Robert Towne was telling him, "You have to remember, Roger, this is not a track meet, it's not how fast you go," he still thinks more than fondly of the old days. Now, his films tend to have bigger budgets - "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," due for release this summer, has a Corman record $1.2-million tag - but still misses the fun of the early madness. "You're harried, pressure's on you all the time; but its very exciting, very exhilarating. When it's going well, it's an experience that's almost unmatched."
There was a lot of that kind of experience when Corman, a Stanford graduate, began in films as a $32.50 a week messenger boy at 20th Century-Fox in 1948. He was attracted to film, then as now, because "it really is the art form of the 20the century: newer, more primitive, more exciting. And it's a slightly corrupted art form, it fits our culture at this time.
After moving on to script reader, tiring of that, spending a year at Oxford, of all places, studying English on the GI Bill, Corman returned to make his first film in 1953. It cost $12,000 and yhough he preferred the title "It Stalked the Ocean Floor," the distributor thought that was much, much too arty and the end result was "The Monster From the Ocean Floor."
"We shot it in six days on the beach at Malibu." Corman remembers, laughing. "It began with the narrator saying, 'Deep in the jungles of the Yucatan Coast, where the white man is never seen,' and as the camera panned you could see a whole line of cars going up the Coast highway."
The great virtue of making these El Cheapos, Corman found, was that the studios left him alone to do as he wished, not even objecting when he put in the social messages he feels characterize his work. He never worked for the majors supply because it took too long to get things rolling. "The meetings would to go on forever, it would take six months to decide," he says. "With American International I'd make a deal with Sam Arkoff over lunch and just go out and make it."
For Roger Corman, a producer who really produces, who involves himself "extremely heavily" in the films that come out under his aegis, it is quite obviously the making, the doing of it all that is the kick. And as he talks, a cultured man with a resonant, take-charged voice, a man who lists reading and ballet as high among his interests, the reason for his success becomes clearer and clearer, and all that remains is to form it into a questions, the only question that takes him at all offguard: Roger Corman, are you just smarter than everyone else in the independent film field?
He blushes, "I'd rather not answer that," he says at first, then adds, "I will say this, there are a lot of dummies making films." He reconsiders, seems to feel this an unseemly statement and tries to take it back, but it's too late. Even in the movie business, the truth eventually comes out.