roger corman

Roger Corman’s Life of Fright

There are only a handful of names from the annals of Fango-dom – King, Barker, Romero and Savini among them – who, as the cliché goes, “need no introduction”. One of these is certainly the “King of the Bs” himself, Roger Corman.

The producer/director whose work runs the gamut from “The Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1957) to “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961) to “The Wild Angels” (1966) is a legend unto himself. But Corman also furnished many of the most powerful actors and directors in Hollywood with their first big breaks, among them Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Charles Bronson, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante, to name just a few. And Corman himself is still going strong as a prolific exploitation producer. Last year, his cheapie “Carnosaur” beat Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” into theaters, and among Corman-produced genre titles to grace the screen (or, more likely, the video shelf and cable TV) in 1994 are “The Unborn II”, “The Haunted Symphony” and “Bram Stoker’s Burial of the Rats”.

roger corman

Born in Detroit in 1926, Corman was 28 when he directed the first of his 49 films, the bulk of which were distributed by American International Pictures. Corman broke off with AIP in 1969 to form New World Pictures, and now chairs Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. In person, Corman exudes quiet class. This walking movie studio is relaxed, gentlemanly and smiles often as he speaks of his AIP days, future releases and his old friend and frequent leading man, the late Vincent Price.

FANGORIA: Beverly Garland, who stars with Ben Cross in “The Haunted Symphony”, says that you had the script written around magnificent sets standing in Russia, where the film was made. How did you learn of these sets?

Roger Corman: Actually, I picked them from Los Angeles. The head of Moscow Film came to see me in LA, and told me that they had these very big, impressive sets they were building for a Russian film of a French Provincial town in the 19th century. And he said that if I could come up with an idea, they would go into a partnership with me in which they would provide the sets and the Russian crew, and I’d provide an American director, actors and a certain amount of money. So we ended up doing two films. The first was “The Haunted Symphony”, and the second was “Bram Stoker’s Burial of the Rats” (with Adrienne Barbeau, Kevin Alber and Maria Ford), which just finished shooting.

FANGORIA: “Carnosaur” stars Diane Ladd (mother of “Jurassic Park” star Laura Dern), which made many of us flash back to your film “The Wild Angels”, in which she played a biker chick. Did you get a chance to reminisce with Ladd at all?

Roger Corman: Yes, as a matter of fact, we did. I’ve known Diane for many years – since “The Wild Angels”. If anything, her career is moving better now than when she was a young leading lady.

FANGORIA: You made a cameo appearance in “Silence of the Lambs” as the director of the FBI; a portrait of you hangs in the lobby of an FBI campus building in one scene. You even received billing.

Roger Corman: Actually, I’ve done this a few times. I started when Francis Coppola asked me to be a senator in “The Godfather Part II”, and I’ve done it in several films since. As a matter of fact, this time the Screen Actors Guild said that I had to join the guild. I said, “Wait a minute. This is just a joke. I play one role a year, or every two years.” They said, “The joke has gone far enough.”

roger corman

FANGORIA: Coppola made you a senator, and Jonathan Demme made you the head of the FBI. Why do these powerful directors – who you just happened to have discovered – cast you as such important people?

Roger Corman: Well, they all did except Joe Dante, and I like Joe for that. I played a district attorney for Paul Bartel, the head of an aircraft factory for Jonathan Demme in a previous film (“Swing Shift”), and I play a business executive in “Philadelphia”. So I’ve played all of these high-powered executives or politicians. But I played a drunk in Joe Dante’s picture “The Howling”. I said, “Joe – now we’re starting to get into some interesting casting.”

FANGORIA: Critics first began to take you seriously as a director after you kicked off your Edgar Allan Poe series in 1960 with “House of Usher”. Which Poe film is your favorite?

Roger Corman: I change my mind from time to time. It might be “House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, maybe “Masque of the Red Death”. Probably one of those three.

FANGORIA: “Masque of the Red Death” was probably your best-looking film up to that point. The English sets were positively opulent, and Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography was brilliant. At the time, were you thinking: “I’m making my masterpiece!”?

Roger Corman: Not necessarily. I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I feel that I’m simply doing the best I can each time out. On the ones in England, we were able to take advantage of some sets that had been built for bigger films, so we were able to get a bigger look. We rebuilt some standing flats they had left over from either “Becket” or “A Man for All Seasons”. We took those and were able to get a bigger look.

FANGORIA: And you were also using bigger names. Ray Milland made “Premature Burial” for you, as well as “X – The Man With the X-Ray Eyes”. Milland comes across – especially in his later films – as a bit on the crotchety side. Did he ever act like he thought he was slumming?

roger corman

Roger Corman: No. He did not have any attitude like that at all. He was a very urbane man, as you probably would guess. A very sophisticated man. And he was fairly funny. As a matter of fact, most of the time when we weren’t talking about films, we just sat around talking about sport cars. We both drove them. Occasionally, he liked to talk about some of the old stars that he had dated, or should I say, essentially, that he had screwed. He liked to reminisce. It was great listening to him. He was a great raconteur.

FANGORIA: You also hired the old horror stars – Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone – for your Poe films. What are your memories of Rathbone? He looked a bit ill at the time.

Roger Corman: Yes. He was very old, but all of these guys were great to work with. They were all professionals. But Basil, actually, sometimes had a little trouble with his lines back then. And of course, everybody – and I, particularly – had to be extremely solicitous and patient. But he gave a good performance. He was a very strong actor.

FANGORIA: How about Karloff, who you cast as an evil wizard in “The Raven”?

Roger Corman: Boris was not in good health when I worked with him. He was a very, very good actor. He was a far better actor than most people realized, because he was identified so much with horror films. I got along with him very well. It is just that he – maybe having to do with his age or his classical training – came in knowing his lines perfectly, and it was difficult for him to make an adjustment when Peter would start to ad-lib or improvise. And I loved some of the things Peter was doing. But Boris tried, and it worked well. I have nothing but good things to say about him.

FANGORIA: “The Terror” – your quickie “Raven” follow-up with Karloff and Jack Nicholson – to a year to complete, despite the legend that you made it in two days. Given your insistence on tight schedules, one imagines you must have been getting anxious that this project was taking so long to wrap up.

Roger Corman: Well, I was starting to get a little bit concerned. What it amounted to was this: We had these sets left over from “The Raven”. So I shot two days on the sets with Boris before he had to go back to England. And I brought in a young, unknown actor friend of mine, Jack Nicholson, and his wife at that time, Sandra Knight, and said to them, “You’re going to end up as the leads in this picture. I don’t have the rest of it written,” – because we put the whole thing together in a couple of days – “so just come in. We’ll play these two days with Boris, then I’ll write the rest of the picture, and we’ll come back and shoot the rest.” However, I could not shoot the other sections, because we were going non-union, and I was signed with all the unions and everything, so my ace assistant at the time, Francis Coppola, shot a portion, and then he signed a contract with Warner Bros. And it just kept going from director to director; there was no big rush. It finally finished up with, I think, Jack actually directing the last day. He said, “Roger, every idiot in town has directed part of this picture, you might as well let me finish the thing up!” I said, “OK, Jack!”

FANGORIA: You produced Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, “Targets”. Bogdanovich wrote and directed film, which starred Karloff as an aging horror film star. It is said that you originally ordered Bogdanovich to use 20 minutes of “The Terror”, plus two days that Karloff owed you, to make a kind of “Terror II”. Is that story true? If so, were you annoyed with Bogdanovich for disregarding your orders?

Roger Corman: He did not disregard my orders. The script was exactly what I approved. What it amounted to was that I wanted to reuse footage of Boris, and I had a deal to shoot Boris for a few more days. I told Peter to make an entirely new film. There was never any intention to do a sequel. Peter gave me several ideas, and the one I liked best was the one that we eventually shot. So we were in perfect sync all the way. In fact, he wanted me to play the director in the film. Moreover, from the treatment, I said I would. However, when I saw the script, I said, “Wait a minute, Peter. This guy is emerging as one of the stars in the film! I thought it was a small role. You play it yourself. I know you’re a good actor.” And so he did.

FANGORIA: Of all your films, two of your very best were made without big names. “A Bucket of Blood” and “Little Shop of Horrors” are almost a genre unto themselves. Did you feel you were saying something as an artist, whereas earlier films like “Beast with a Million Eyes” or “Attack of the Crab Monsters” were just knock-offs?

Roger Corman: No. I was just thinking of the fact that in each one I had a very small budget, so I could not make a very big film. I had various theories at that time, including one – which I still hold – that humor and horror are, in a strange way, opposite ends of a similar emotion. I wanted to make a comedy/horror film. I was just trying to do the best I could at the time. Although “Little Shop of Horrors” has gone on to be the better known of the two, I particularly like “A Bucket of Blood”. I haven’t seen it for years. People have pretty much forgotten the beatniks; they remember the hippies but not the beatniks, But I really think “A Bucket of Blood” would stand now as almost a documentary of the beatnik age.

roger corman

FANGORIA: Your most frequent leading man was Vincent Price, who died in October of last year. How do you remember Price?

Roger Corman: He was as wonderful a man as he was an actor. He got along well with his co-stars, I got along well with him and I don’t know anybody who ever had a bad word to say about Vincent. It was interesting and stimulating to bring his ideas and my ideas together.

FANGORIA: How would you categorize Price’s acting style?

Roger Corman: Vincent was a very interesting blend of the English classical approach – where he’d been trained originally – with some traces of the American Actors Studio “Method” technique. He was one of the few actors I knew who was able to work on both styles. At his best, he took the best from each style.

FANGORIA: Do you have a favorite Price performance that you directed?

Roger Corman: I always felt his performance in “House of Usher” was one of his best. Next, I might pick “The Raven”, because we started to move toward comedy. Frankly – because we had done so many Poe pictures – we were trying to bury the formula. I was amazed at how good he was with humor.

FANGORIA: When was the last time you saw him?

Roger Corman: About a year before he died. He was already a little ill, and walked with a cane. We were at some sort of an awards dinner, and we shared a table. I realized that he was much weaker than I thought he was going to be. But he maintained interest and enthusiasm throughout the evening.

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