The most shocking moment in “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” isn’t a clip from a film by the documentary’s subject, director and producer Roger Corman, best known for such B-movie classics as “Bloody Mama,” “Piranha” and “Death Race 2000.” It comes when Jack Nicholson breaks down in tears recalling Corman’s influence on his own life and career.
As Nicholson recalls in the film, Corman “was the only guy who’d hire me for about 10 years” when he began acting in the 1950s. Corman, who had met Nicholson in an acting class, first cast him in “The Cry Baby Killer,” then went on to hire him for “The Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Broken Land” and “The Raven,” among others. Reached at his office in Los Angeles, the 85-year-old Corman vividly recalled watching Nicholson as a young artist.
“What impressed me most was the fact that he could play a dramatic scene from the beginning, but yet find some way to bring an element of humor to it,” Corman said. But he demurs when asked whether he knew Nicholson would become a superstar. “I was convinced that he would be a star and that others would become major writers and directors and filmmakers in their own right, but there was no predicting how high they would go.”
Those “others” to which Corman refers are the countless people who began their careers working for Corman, whose low budgets, resourceful production ethos and eye for talent have made him a legend in Hollywood. Some of those early collaborators appear in “Corman’s World”: Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Peter Fonda, Ron Howard, Pam Grier.
The cumulative effect of watching “Corman’s World,” which was directed by newcomer Alex Stapleton, suggests that what we’ve come to understand as contemporary American film culture would not have been the same without him. (This observation led many fans and colleagues over the years to suggest that Corman was overdue for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, an honor he finally received in 2009.)
The man who emerges in the documentary might surprise viewers familiar with such past works as “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Caged Heat,” “Night of the Cobra Woman” and “Slumber Party Massacre II.” A genteel, soft-spoken figure as patrician as he is parsimonious, Corman graduated from Stanford with a degree in engineering before following his yen to make movies in Hollywood.
After cutting his teeth as a script reader, he eventually struck out on his own, and with such early productions as “Highway Dragnet” and “The Fast and the Furious,” he evinced a knack for working quickly, getting high production value on the cheap and giving audiences the exploitative thrills that they craved.
In 1961, after making a string of well-regarded adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, Corman made his first “serious” film, “The Intruder,” a drama about a white supremacist visiting a Southern town, starring William Shatner. It received enthusiastic reviews and a few prizes on the festival circuit, but for the first time in his career, Corman lost money on a movie. “The audience did not accept this picture, and I tried to analyze why,” he recalled. “I came up with two answers. One, I was somewhat ahead of my time in dealing with a subject people just did not want to see. The other was that I was too earnest. I was lecturing the audience, not giving them entertainment.”
More than 400 productions later, Corman has followed one rule in filmmaking: “The audience is not wrong.”
One Corman acolyte who appears in “Corman’s World” who never worked with Corman is Eli Roth, whose “Hostel” films have helped define the graphically sadistic genre dubbed “torture porn,” a sub-stratum of filmmaking Corman himself has little use for. “I feel it’s a cheap way to get a shock effect,” he said. “And it’s self-defeating, because if one director cuts somebody’s wrist off, the next guy has to cut someone’s elbow off, and the next one cuts off someone’s shoulder. It just gets grosser and grosser.”
What does Corman make of filmmaking today? He liked “The Tree of Life” last year, and “Rango,” the animated film featuring Johnny Depp. He thought “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” came close to being great. But “the novels from which both were based were very intricately plotted, which meant to start both pictures off you had to have people telling the plot. And both, I felt, were dull at the beginning, because we had people in rooms talking. Another film I felt the same way about was ‘Drive.’ Once we got into it, it was a very good picture, but it got off to a slow start.
“Then again, Martin Scorsese always said, ‘Roger never saw a picture he couldn’t cut 10 minutes out of,’ ” Corman added. “So maybe I’m demonstrating that principle here.”
Corman is now on his way to China, to film “The Ghost of the Imperial Palace,” a mystery that he wrote to utilize a fabulous set he’d seen a picture of and negotiated to use — another tried-and-true Corman strategy for shrewd husbanding of resources. “It’s one of the greatest sets I’ve ever seen,” he enthused before hanging up. “It looks like it would have cost a million dollars just to make the set alone.”
is now playing at the West End Cinema.