Director and Producer Roger Corman

The director and producer discusses his film Death Race 2050.

Roger Corman is a prolific American film director and producer, responsible for more than 400 films including The Little Shop of Horrors (1950) and The Intruder (1962), featuring then-unknown actors Jack Nicholson and William Shatner. Corman has mentored some of the film industry's heavyweights including Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese to name a few. In 2009, he was awarded an Academy Award for Lifetime of Achievement.

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TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight first, a conversation with Roger Corman. The legendary Hollywood producer and director is responsible for more than 400 films during his long and iconic career. He joins us to discuss his political satire action film, “Death Race 2050”.

Then two blues giants, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, join us to talk about their historic collaboration called “TajMo”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that in just a moment.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Pleased to welcome legendary film producer and director, Roger Corman, back to this program. His latest release is “Death Race 2050” which is now available on Netflix and DVD. Before we start our conversation, here now a trailer from “Death Race 2050”.

[Clip]

Tavis: The leader, the chairman, the president, does have a sort of interesting hairdo. Were you trying to make a particular statement, Mr. Corman?

Roger Corman: Well, it was sort of inside joke. We shot the picture early in the primaries. We had no idea that Trump would be president, so we thought it was just a little bit of a joke. But we ended up with the first picture in which Donald Trump is featured [laugh].

Tavis: Tell me about “Death Race 2050”.

Corman: Well, “Death Race 2050” is the follow-up to my old picture, “Death Race 2000”. It’s a transcontinental road race from New York to New Los Angeles in 2050 and the drivers are rated on how fast they can drive and how many can pedestrians they can kill.

Tavis: Wow [laugh]! Only from the mind of Roger Corman. You are now, what, 91?

Corman: 91.

Tavis: As I mentioned, over 400 films. Are you like not going to stop?

Corman: I have no intention of stopping. I think as the hearse takes me to the cemetery, I’ll be dictating a script [laugh].

Tavis: What is it about the artistic work that you love so much, first of all?

Corman: Well, I would say it is both an art and a business, which is one of the reasons that makes it so fascinating. But what I love is simply the creativity that each picture is a new project. You’re coming up with new ideas and it’s exciting.

Tavis: Yeah. The business, though, to your point, ha changed. I was kind of reflecting on this myself preparing for our conversation today that this project is now on Netflix. When you started decades ago, there was no Netflix, so this is an interesting and sort of new way to release projects. What do you make of the way the business has changed, given again that this project is a Netflix project?

Corman: Well, it’s divided a little bit between the $100 million and $200 million dollar pictures and the medium budget pictures like “Death Race 2050”. “Death Race 2050” went out on DVD and I remember I was giving an interview and I was saying, “It’s going out on DVD through Universal and then it’ll be on Netflix.

And there was a very nice publicity woman from Universal who said, “Roger, it’s going out on Netflix the same day it’s going out on Universal.” And that showed me — I hadn’t even thought of that — it showed me the change in the distribution of films today and the power of companies like Netflix.

Tavis: And what do you make of that? What do you make of the fact that a project can come out on Netflix and on DVD the same day? What do you make of the way the business has changed?

Corman: Well, it’s very, very strange because, to me, I love to see motion pictures on the big screen. For instance, “Death Race 2000”, the first one, played a full theatrical release. Now “Death Race 2050” is DVD and Netflix.

The whole business is changing and I was talking to somebody, an executive in a major studio, and I said, “What do you think?” He says, “I don’t know what’s happening.” I don’t know either. I don’t think anybody knows other than the fact it’s changing faster than anybody anticipated.

Tavis: How do you think the art, just the pure notion of the art, how is the art being served or not served by these kinds of changes?

Corman: The art is still there. From the director’s standpoint, you’re shooting a little bit differently. You’re not looking so much for the long shot because a long shot, a “Lawrence of Arabia” shot, as I call it, belongs on the big screen.

On television, computers or your wristwatch or whatever, you don’t need that shot, so you’re directing in a little tighter. More close-ups, more medium shots, and so forth, but the basic art of cinema remains.

Tavis: Speaking of directing, you have mentored so many people who’ve gone on to become great directors themselves. There’s a long list of them, but one of them was a personal friend of both of ours. The last time I saw you, I saw you at a private screening he was doing for the “Ricki and the Flash” movie, the Meryl Streep film.

You and I sat and talked a bit privately at that event that Jonathan Demme was hosting. I know you must have been just troubled and saddened by the loss of your student, Jonathan Demme.

Corman: Yes. Jonathan and I were friends and worked together, I’d say, for around 40 years. He was a wonderful man. He was very progressive in his thinking and in his private life, just a wonderful, wonderful human being.

Tavis: He loved you. Always spoke highly of you and I recall that night how honored he was just to know that you were in the audience that night and took the time to acknowledge you sitting there that night. So it meant a great deal to him to have you there that night at that screening.

Corman: Well, it was an honor for me to be there.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Because you’ve done so many films, how have you decided what genres — that is to say, genre of film — how have you decided what sandbox you wanted to play in over the course of those 400 years — 400 films. Feels like 400 years [laugh].

Corman: Well, it’s like Mel Brooks, the “2000 Year Old Man”.

Tavis: Exactly [laugh]. How have you decided what sandbox you wanted to play in?

Corman: I want to play in all the sandboxes.

Tavis: I knew you were going to say that, yeah, yeah.

Corman: I’ve done science fiction, I’ve done horror, I’ve done teenage pictures, I’ve even done a couple of musicals and some comedies. But I keep coming back to science fiction such as in “Death Race” where you can do an entertaining picture and, at the same time, you do science fiction, it becomes entertainment. And in “Death Race”, it becomes a comedy as well as an action film.

Tavis: What are those messages — if I can use that word — those issues that you’re trying to get us to wrestle with through watching “Death Race 2050”?

Corman: Well, on “Death Race 2050”, I’m very much of a progressive on all of my films. I was thinking about the role of violence in society and the way it is used to manipulate the audience. I went all the way back to the Roman Coliseum of the Roman gladiators and everything up to football, martial arts and everything today.

So I started with the idea of just futuristic racing in which cars tried to knock each other off the road. And I thought about the audience and I thought, “How can I integrate the audience into this?” That’s when I came up with the idea of killing pedestrians. Now you can’t take killing pedestrians seriously unless you’re a pedestrian [laugh], if you’re in the way of the car.

So at that point, it turned into a comedy picture. So this is a comedy-action picture with a little bit of a message, but I always make a point of — the message is possibly an overused word. I’d rather say a theme, a concept, that’s important to me, but that’s always secondary to the entertainment.

Tavis: What’s the trick to balancing out — if I can put it this way — empowering the audience since you’re a progressive with entertaining the audience? What’s the trick to balancing those things?

Corman: I think you have a subject matter particularly when you make medium and low-budget pictures, such as I do, where you can’t depend upon a star to bring in the audience. So it’s a subject matter that is interesting to the audience and then you deliver the subject matter.

If it’s an action picture, a science fiction picture, you deliver the action, you deliver the science fiction, and underneath it is your theme. So the audience gets the theme, but it’s really a kind of a bonus. They get primarily the entertainment they came to see.

Tavis: What do you hope your legacy on film will be? What do you hope that will be?

Corman: Well, my legacy is probably going to be a footnote somewhere, but I would say simply a filmmaker. I make films, I’ve written, I’ve directed, produced. I’ve introduced a number of young writers, directors, actors and so forth. So it’s all around working in motion pictures.

Tavis: We owe you a debt of gratitude for that too. Thank you for that.

Corman: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you for that legacy ongoing. The project is “Death Race 2050” by the amazing 91-year-young Roger Corman. Good to have you on, sir.

Corman: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you. Up next, musicians Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 22, 2017 at 3:06 pm