an interview with Roger Corman
I N T E R V I E W   B Y   A N D R E W   J.   R A U S C H

Roger Corman is easily one of the most prolific auteurs in the history of the film industry. Corman has produced or directed nearly 300 films to date. He began directing in 1955, sometimes churning out as many as eight films a year. He is best remembered for the cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors, which he shot in only two days, as well as a string of impressive Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that starred the late Vincent Price.

In 1971 Corman retired from directing (although he would return to direct Frankenstein Unbound in 1990) to focus on producing and distributing films. Corman has produced over 250 films including Dementia 13, The Big Doll House, Ride In the Whirlwind, and Humanoids From the Deep. Corman has appeared as an actor in over 20 films including Apollo 13, Philadelphia, The Silence Of The Lambs, and The Godfather, Part II. Besides being the undisputed king of the exploitation market, Corman will be remembered for having an eye for talent, discovering many talented young filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and James Cameron.

It’s 10:10 as film critic Michael Dequina and I arrive at Roger Corman’s Brentwood office. After making a mad dash across the city, we’re 10 minutes late. Anywhere else in the world this would be considered a bad thing, but in Los Angeles, being late is considered fashionable. Walking through the plush office building, we are surrounded by scores of posters for oddball B-movies such as the aforementioned Humanoids From the Deep, assuring us that we’re in the right place. An assistant asks us to have a seat. Soon, Mr. Corman makes his entrance and leads us to his office, which has sort of a minimalist look.

Corman is a well-dressed man who shows no signs of aging. I find him to be sharp as a tack, throwing out names and dates with the greatest of ease. (Of course these are his films, but there are nearly 300 of them!) With each question, he pauses a moment and carefully formulates his thoughts. Despite the fact he’s probably been asked these same questions countless times before by other journalists, Corman obviously enjoys talking about his work. With the mention of each film or star he’s been involved with, his smile grows wider.

ANDREW RAUSCH: As a filmmaker/producer who has made a career out of making primarily low-budget independent films, what are your thoughts on the recent film The Blair Witch Project?

ROGER CORMAN: I think The Blair Witch Project is an exceptionally well-conceived and well-made film. It's well-conceived for this reason: they understood what their budget was and they wrote the script and made their picture to do the best possible job they could on that budget. One of the worst things you can do is have a limited budget and try to do some big looking film. That's when you end up with very bad work. They accepted their limitations and tailored their film to those limitations, which was the conception. Then with the execution, they did very well.

A still from The Blair Witch Project.
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AR: Does the film signal the arrival of a new trend in the film industry?

RC: Yes. It will not affect the major pictures in any way, but it will and, in fact, is already affecting the very lowest budget films.

AR: You've been a part of the film industry for nearly five decades. What are some of the most significant changes you've seen over that time?

RC: Probably the biggest change I've seen has been the ever-growing dominance over theatrical exhibition by the major studios. When I started in the late 1950s, every film I made--no matter how low the budget--got a theatrical release. Today, less that 20-percent of our films get a theatrical release. The major studios have dominated the theatrical market. It started about 10 or 15 years ago and has rapidly increased over the past five years to the point where we are dependent primarily on home video, pay TV, and syndicated TV for our income.

AR: I'm going to read a quote by Quentin Tarantino to you and I'd like you to comment on it: "Roger Corman would find a young Jonathan Demme or Jonathan Kaplan or Joe Dante or Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese and because they were hungry to make a movie, they'd make the best women-in-prison film ever."

RC: [Laughs.] In regards to that particular quote, Jonathan Demme is the only one who made actually made a women-in-prison picture. But the statement is correct. We did a number of women-in-prison features in the 1970s. We did four or five of them I think. Jonathan took that assignment [Caged Heat, 1971] and said exactly that: "This is gonna be the best one ever made." I think it indicated his enthusiasm and determination to make a good picture. The others did well, but they just took it as an assignment and said, "We'll just make this a prison feature," and just did it. Jonathan took the genre, worked with it, and made something exceptionally good. That indicated from the beginning that he had an extraordinary talent. I think the distinguishing characteristic of all of them, no matter what films they did--Francis Coppola did a horror film, Joe Dante did a satire of a horror film called Hollywood Boulevard and then went on to do a science fiction horror film called Pirahna--is that they were all determined to do the best possible work they could do.

A publicity still for Caged Heat (directed by Jonathan Demme).
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AR: I'd like to name some of the filmmakers you've discovered and get you to comment on each of them.

RC: All right.

AR: Francis Ford Coppola.

RC: Francis Coppola came to me as a film editor out of UCLA film school and then advanced rapidly to eventually writing and directing his first film for me [Dementia 13, 1963]. He is one of the most brilliant all-around filmmakers I have ever met. When I say all-around, I mean that not only can he write and direct, but he can also edit, function as camera man, and do almost every job connected with filmmaking.

Luana Anders in a still from Dementia 13 (directed by Francis Ford Coppola).
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AR: Jonathan Kaplan.

RC: Jonathan Kaplan came to me to do a very low-budget film about student nurses on the recommendation of Martin Scorsese, who had been a teacher of his at the NYU film school. Jonathan is a very good director who is particularly good at blending comedy with a drama and action.

AR: Monte Hellman.

RC: Monte Hellman started as a stage director and editor before becoming a film director. He's one of the best directors I know at working with actors.

A shower scene from The Big Doll House (directed by Jack Hill).
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AR: Jack Hill.

RC: Jack Hill again is one of the better all-around filmmakers. He excels in three or four categories. He's a good writer, director, producer, editor, and camera man.

AR: Peter Bogdanovich.

RC: Peter Bogdanovich has demonstrated brilliance both as a writer and as a director. His first film for me was Targets, which was one of the best debut films of any of the directors I've worked with.

Boris Karloff and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of Targets.
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AR: Jonathan Demme.

RC: Jonathan Demme has grown continually as a director. His first work was good and with each additional film he's gotten better, so he's gone from being merely a good director to a great director.

AR: James Cameron.

RC: Jim Cameron is proof that if you are good, you'll get promoted. He started with me as a modelmaker on Battle Beyond the Stars. We were having trouble with the special-effects and I sent my ace assistant Gale Ann Hurd down to the set to find out what was going wrong. She came back after a couple of days and said the staff is not as competent as they should be, but there's a young modelmaker at the bottom of the list who knows more than anyone else. I went down to the set that day and promoted Jim Cameron and he was head of special-effects and second director on the next picture, showing that if you have the ability, it will be recognized quickly.

AR: Joe Dante.

RC: Joe Dante started as a trailer editor and then moved up the traditional way from trailer editor to feature film editor to second unit director and then to director. I think he's one of the best directors in the country. While I have great admiration for Joe and everything he's done, I regret a little bit the fact that I've never, ever been able to find a trailer editor as good since he left! [Laughs.]

AR: Richard Matheson wrote the script for The Pit and the Pendulum. What was he like to work with?

RC: Richard Matheson is one of the best science fiction writers with his short stories, novels, and screenplays in the world, I believe. The beauty of working with Dick was that his first draft was almost a final draft. I spent so much time working with writers who would go through a first draft, a second draft, a third draft and you're still not there. You could have just one discussion with Dick about what the film was going to be about and he would then, by himself, come up with a first draft that was almost ready to shoot. With the possible exception of John Sayles, I don't think I've ever seen that in another writer.

Poster artwork for The Pit and the Pendulum.
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AR: Martin Scorsese.

RC: Martin Scorsese is one of the few directors I gave an opportunity to direct without having worked for me as an assistant. I saw an underground film he'd made in New York, which I liked very much, and gave him the opportunity to do Boxcar Bertha. Once more, he tackled a subject he had no personal knowledge of, but he had the great intelligence and creativity to make it a great film.

AR: In Scorsese on Scorsese, Martin Scorsese remembers of Boxcar Bertha, "Roger just told me to read the script: 'Rewrite as much as you want, but remember Marty, you must have some nudity every 15 pages'." Would you like to comment on that?

RC: [Laughs.] That's close, I think. The statement is almost correct. Needless to say we talked a little bit more than that and I didn't say every 15 pages. I think I said two or three times in the picture. [Laughs again.] He, possibly on his own decided to do it every 15 pages, but I don't particularly remember saying that. He may be remembering the film being a little racier than it was. I think there was only nudity in there two or three times.

AR: Something else interesting I remember reading was that you had expressed interest in financing Mean Streets as a black exploitation film. Is that right?

RC: Yes. He came to me with the idea and I liked it, but at that time the black films were really very successful. I'd been thinking that I wanted to make a black film and I thought, this film would really work well as a black film. He then took most of my crew and what most people don't know about Mean Streets--even the New York critics commented on how much of a New York picture it was--he shot most of that picture in Los Angeles, utilizing my crew. It was a great Italian film, but it would have been just as great a black film!

AR: You directed Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop Of Horrors and then produced a few films that he starred in. What was he like to work with?

RC: Jack was great to work with. He was a very focused, very dedicated, very intense actor who could bring a humanity and a humor to the most dramatic situations.

Seymour, Mushnik, and Audrey with Audrey Jr. in The Little Shop of Horrors.
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AR: And you shot The Little Shop Of Horrors in just two days?

RC: [Grins broadly.] Two days and a night.

AR: That is almost unheard of. Especially by today's standards.

RC: I did it almost as a joke simply to see if I could do it. When I finished, Bob Towne, who is a good friend of mine, said, "You should remember, Roger, making films is not like a track meet. It's not how fast you go." [Laughs.] And I said, "You're right, Bob. I'll never make a two-day picture again."

AR: What did you think of the musical remake of The Little Shop Of Horrors?

RC: I thought technically it was a good, big, well-made film. I liked it very much, but I thought maybe because of its budget, it lacked a little bit of the spontanaety and the humor that was in the original.

AR: You had a cameo in The Godfather, Part II, which is one of my favorite films. How did you become involved with that?

RC: Francis cast all members of the Senate investigations committee with writers, producers, and directors. He took us all to lunch on the first day we worked and I remember Bill Bowers, a comedy writer, asked him how he chose us. Francis said he had watched a Senate crime investigation committee on television and he said he noticed that all the Senators looked good and spoke intelligently. We all thought, Wow! That's pretty good! [Laughs.] And then he said, "And they all looked a little bit awkward on camera. So I thought people who were writers, directors, and producers would know what was going on and be able to look good and talk intelligently but because they weren't actors, they'd be a little awkward." Everybody was a little deflated but I thought, That's brilliant casting! That's exactly what we were.

This conversation is culled from a longer interview that will appear in Andrew J. Rausch’s forthcoming collection The Love of Film: Directors on Movies.