The legendary Hollywood producer-director discusses the new documentary about his life, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, and explains why he feels the state of independent filmmaking is “not good.”
Film producer Roger Corman
Tavis: Delighted to welcome Roger Corman to this program. The legendary Hollywood producer and director is responsible for more than 500 films – that’s 5-0-0 – during his long and iconic career, a career that has crossed paths with so many of the biggest names in Hollywood.
A new documentary about his life is out now. It’s called “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.” The film opened earlier today in select cities. Here now some scenes from “Corman’s World.”
Tavis: [Laugh] I went back to do the research on this just to make sure that what I had read was correct and indeed it is. In 1957, you did nine, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, films in one year. How is that possible?
Roger Corman: I must have been insane. But I remember one day during the week, I was shooting a picture during the day. I was casting another picture during lunch and the evening I was cutting the previous film. When I got into bed, I said to myself, “I have to sleep fast.” At that point, I realized it was out of control.
Tavis: Why the need – is it a need? Was there an expectation? Was there pressure? Why so much?
Corman: I just love the process of making motion pictures from every standpoint, particularly the original idea, starting with the original idea, developing the script, shooting, editing, working on the campaigns as well. To me, it’s fascinating. It’s a wonderful way to work.
Tavis: I don’t know that one could do it today. We’ll take them one at a time. Then we’ll come to a contemporary setting. How could you back in the day be so prolific with comparatively so little money?
Corman: It may be the fact that I had so little money. I was shooting these pictures on ten-day schedules. Now if I’d been shooting big pictures on six-month schedules, clearly I couldn’t have made as many films.
Also, you could be a little bit more casual or a little more experimental on a low-budget $60,000 or $70,000 ten-day picture. You could take chances that you couldn’t take on a bigger film.
Tavis: With all due respect to Hollywood and the way the process works these days, does it really take all of that to do a great film? All that, I mean, all the money, all the months. Does it take all that to make a great film?
Corman: I don’t think so. I’m certain, if there were a major studio executive sitting here, he would say yes, we need all the money. But I think there are various ways to do it.
For instance, Jim Cameron, one of our graduates, spent something like two hundred and some million dollars on “Avatar.” But you look at “Avatar,” you say “Yes, I can see where the money went. He did not waste money.”
On the other hand, see somebody else’s $80 or $90 million dollar picture, it’s two people walking around a room and you say where did the money go? It depends on how you spend it.
Tavis: When you see a film – I assume now, obviously, filmmaking is as subjective as any art form, but I suspect when Roger Corman sees a film, he can look at it and say a lot of money was wasted on that film.
So when you’re looking at something and you can clearly identify that money, in your mind at least, was wasted, what are you looking at? What are you seeing?
Corman: Primarily, production value. You know if they’re big stars, they’re going to be getting $10, $15 million dollars or something. That’s a given. Things go along with that. They demand certain things. Their whole entourage comes with them, so you assume that’s a fixed.
It went back to my minor in mathematics in college. It would be the Y factor in an equation rather than an X. X is what you’re looking for; Y is what you start with [laugh].
Tavis: I’m sure your professor is very pleased that you still recall that [laugh] all these years later. You lost me for a second. I caught back up, though. I was not a good math student, but I’m with you on that. There’s so many things I want to ask you. Let me just jump into this right quick.
I’m trying to find another word for prolific. I don’t want to use the same word over and over again, but you are so iconic, so prolific. Those words are often overused in this town, but they really do fit you. So a few years ago, you received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement which you obviously richly and well deserved.
But as you’re going through this process and you’re making these films and you’re loving the process and you’re spinning off all these people that we’re gonna talk about here in just a moment – I’m gonna throw some names at you and get your assessment. We saw many of them in the trailer.
But when you’re going through this process and you’re not receiving Academy Awards or a bunch of other accolades of that ilk, how do you process that? I mean, you finally got the lifetime achievement, but how do you process not getting that as you go along?
Corman: I didn’t expect it. Most of my films have been either medium budget or low budget. Frankly, most of them have been low budget, so I didn’t anticipate that. I was and am, however, the winner of more minor awards from film festivals you have never heard of than anybody else [laugh].
Tavis: And was that enough for you?
Corman: That was enough. That’s all I was looking for.
Tavis: You mentioned the big budget versus the little budget. It’s not small by your standards, but certainly the Weinsteins have turned independent filmmaking movies that don’t always have big budgets into Academy Award-winning stuff.
Corman: The Weinsteins and Bob Shea, Weinsteins at Miramax, Bob Shea at New Line, they both took foreign films and did very well with those buying them. Then they started making medium and low budget films and then they did move up to somewhat bigger films. Actually, they’ve been two of the top companies and top groups that have succeeded with independent films.
Tavis: What do you think of the state of indie films these days?
Corman: It’s not good. When I first started in the late 1950s, every film I made got a full theatrical release. Today you can just look at the Friday newspaper advertising section, which is where you have your biggest newspaper ads other than Sunday. You’ll see almost no independent films.
Everything is a major release. Sometimes it’ll be a big budget co-production, but it’s still a major release. The independents have been frozen out of theatrical distribution and that’s taken a great deal of our market away.
Tavis: You were born in 1926 in Detroit, Michigan. I love Detroit. It is a town, obviously, certainly, with music and beyond that’s delivered us so many creative people down through the years. Was there anything uniquely or specifically about growing up in Detroit that in any way impacted this career?
Corman: It probably did because I am, to a certain extent, a child of the Depression. My father always had a job during the Depression, but it was not big. In other words, he just barely made a living, so we were all okay. We were probably not even aware of how bad things were.
But the unemployment rate in general in Detroit was very, very high and the city was very badly affected. The only thing that really kept me going at that time was the fact that the automobile industry was still functioning fairly well.
Tavis: Out of Detroit, you spent a couple years in the Navy which struck me as interesting. We’re just meeting for the first time, but it struck me as fascinating because here’s a guy who clearly likes to break all the rules and the military ain’t so fond of that [laugh]. My father was in the Air Force for 37, 38 years. How did you survive in the Navy as a guy who is a rebel and likes to break the rules?
Corman: Barely [laugh]. If they set down a rule, I decided I would break it. I was in a training program where you had a certain number of demerits and, if you went over this number of demerits, you were in real trouble.
I came closer than anybody else in the unit to that thing. I never went over the limit, but I sure approached it [laugh].
Tavis: You didn’t step across the line, but you had chalk on your shoes.
Tavis: I get it [laugh]. You’ve been doing this for so long now and so well for so long. How did all of this start, the moviemaking? You grow up in Detroit; you go into the Navy for a short stint. How did this part of the epicenter of your life, how did this kick off?
Corman: My father was an engineer and I went to the university as an engineering major. I was writing for the Stanford Daily and I found out that the film critics for the Daily got free passes to all the theaters in Palo Alto.
I thought I’d like to get free passes, so I wrote a couple of sample reviews and was taken on as a film critic. Then I started to analyze the films that I had to write about. I became more and more fascinated with films.
I took the degree. I just wanted to get the degree and get out of there. I took the degree in engineering and I was a failure of the engineering class. I got a job as a messenger at Twentieth Century Fox at $32.50 a week.
Tavis: We all have to start somewhere, I guess. So you start there making that small change. How did you get into the creative part of your career? How did you move into producing and directing?
Corman: I started writing and I sold a script to Allied Artists. The studio we are in, weirdly enough, is the former Allied Artists studio. It’s now a television studio.
I offered to go along and to work for nothing as associate producer if I could get the associate producer credit because, if you know how Hollywood functions, credits are important. So off this one picture, I was able to say I am a writer-producer and I have the credit on the screen.
Then I took the money from the sale of the script and went to some of my more successful college graduate friends and raised a total of $12,000 and made my first picture. It was called “It Stalked the Ocean Floor.”
The distributor who distributed it thought it was too arty a title and he changed it to “Monster from the Ocean Floor.”
Tavis: [Laugh] And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s all about the title, Roger, it’s all about the title. You said a couple of things and I want to go back and have you unpack for me. I want to pick up a couple of things because there’s something rich here that I don’t want to leave on the cutting room floor, as they say.
Speaking of the Weinsteins, I was in the theater the other night to see their movie, “My Week with Marilyn,” the Marilyn Monroe project. So I went to see this the other night. The story, as you may know, revolves around a guy who had a chance to spend a week with Marilyn Monroe.
I don’t want to give the movie away, but the guy gets in position to even get on the stage with Marilyn Monroe because he wanted to be in filmmaking so bad. He came from a very well-to-do family. He was ostracized by his family because all he wanted to do was be in Hollywood instead of the business of the family. So he makes his way into filmmaking begging for a job, he starts out working for free.
Just wants to be on the set, kind of like you. You agree to work for free to get in. How important is that lesson even today for people who want to be in this business or any other to realize that you got to find a creative and unique way just to get in. Sometimes that means?
Corman: Sometimes it means working as an intern, very often as an intern, for nothing or working – I tell people because a lot of people come to me and ask how do you get started.
I like the idea of going to film school. There was no film school or very few film schools when I started. Now there are many of them. You can get a good education in films in a film school and then you can get a job on independent films and it doesn’t make any difference.
You might start at craft service just handing out donuts or something. But the idea is, as you say, to be on the set. You do two things when you’re on the set. First, you do your job and you do your job well and, if you do your job well, you’ll be promoted.
But also, you’re looking around and you’re seeing how it works, you’re seeing what the director is doing, what the director of photography is doing, how everything is functioning. You can get an education just by being on the set and, as I say, the job you have is important, but not of great importance.
Tavis: Let me shift gears now to the people who have sat at your feet and learned so much from you. Again, that trailer at the top gives some sense of this.
But I just want to kind of play word association or name association. I’ll throw the names at you and you tell me whatever you want to tell me about the person. I was fascinated by this piece.
I’ll start with Jack Nicholson, or as we say in L.A., Jack, because it’s not often that you see Jack Nicholson moved to tears. When one sees this documentary about your life and your legacy, Nicholson is choked up. He actually gets moved talking about you. Tell me about your relationship with Jack Nicholson.
Corman: I first met Jack in an acting class. When I started to direct, maybe my engineering background, I felt I learned to work with a camera, with editing, all the technical aspects of directing fairly fast, but I didn’t know enough about acting and I thought I should simply work with actors. So I enrolled in this class and I met Jack there and he was the best actor in the class.
As a matter of fact, as I got to know him, I thought he is really brilliant. So he and I worked together in a number of films and the surprising thing to me is not that he became a star, but it took him so long to become a star. He should have become a star faster.
Tavis: Well, he has said, though, that there was a time in his career that you were the only one that was putting him to work.
Corman: Almost. It really was. As a matter of fact, few people know this, but he’s multi-talented. He’s a very good writer. He wrote three or four scripts for me, including “The Trip,” a picture that went to the Cannes Film Festival.
Tavis: A good friend of mine, I love him, Jonathan Demme.
Corman: Jonathan, I first met when he was doing publicity for United Artists when I was doing a picture for UA. Then he wrote a screenplay and I liked the screenplay. I bought the screenplay and then I had the possibility of a director for a specific film.
I said, “Well, Jonathan, you’ve done everything well. Try directing.” He wasn’t certain he wanted to do it at first, but he said, “Okay, I’ll give it a try,” and he was good from the beginning.
Tavis: So you’re the one that talks Jonathan Demme into trying out directing, so it must have felt pretty good when you’re sitting at home watching him walk on stage to accept the Academy Award for Best Director for “Silence of the Lambs.”
Corman: Yes, it was indeed. Oh, I forgot one thing, one little thing about Jonathan. He was in the Philippines. I did a number of pictures in the Philippines. He became a writer-producer before he became a writer-producer-director.
He called me one night and he said, “We need to go one day over schedule for the big battle scene.” It was the middle of the night. I was half asleep and I said, “Are you sure it’s only one day?” and he said, “One day” and I said okay.
I hung up and then I thought, “There’s no battle scene in that script. What is he doing?” He had written a battle scene and deliberately called me knowing the time change when he knew I would be groggy I wouldn’t know what was happening.
Tavis: [Laugh] Got that publicist background coming to work for him.
Tavis: Speaking of great directors, Ron Howard. All these people, again, coming out of your school, the Roger Corman school. Ron Howard?
Corman: Ron starred in a comedy car chase picture for me called “Eat My Dust” and he had a percentage of the profits. It was a big success.
So he came in to meet me and he said, “Roger, I have a proposal. When an actor normally has a success, he wants more money or a bigger percentage. I’ll do the next picture for the same money and the same percentage and I’ll even do one other job for nothing.”
I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I’ll direct it.” I said, “Ron, you’ve always looked like a director to me.”
Tavis: And that’s how it started.
Corman: That was “Grand Theft Auto” which was a giant success for us.
Tavis: Martin Scorsese.
Corman: Marty is one of the few directors who made his first feature film for me who had not worked with me. Almost everybody, Francis Coppola, Jim Cameron, Jonathon, the people we discussed, worked with me in various ways. But I saw an underground picture Marty had done in New York and I thought it was wonderful.
I didn’t have anybody at that time who would work with me that I thought really was ready to direct. I talked to Marty, clearly an intelligent and creative guy, and he did a picture called “Boxcar Bertha” which, again, started his career and was a very good film.
Tavis: Francis Ford Coppola, who you just mentioned.
Corman: I had bought some Russian science fiction films. This was around 1960, something like that. The Russians made big budget science fiction films because they were very popular there with far better special effects than we had. So I bought them and decided to re-cut them and dub them into English.
I called UCLA and I said, “Who are your stop students about to graduate?” They sent me several people and I felt Francis was the brightest. So Francis’s first job was re-cutting Russian science fiction films.
Tavis: The history on this is just mind-boggling, all the people that have come through you. From a director’s point of view, what are you trying to get through to them about how to become a good director or what it takes to be a good director?
Corman: One of the first things I talk to the young directors about is pre-production planning. Normally, the films we were making at that time and still to a large extent, I go about a 15-day schedule. Now you can’t walk onto the set of a 15-day picture and say where shall I put the camera? You better have that figured out in advance.
So I talk to them primarily about working out your whole shooting schedule, your shot list, your sketches and so forth before you shoot, knowing, however, you’re not going to shoot the picture 100% that way.
Something always comes up on the set and you have to change something, but at least you start with a skeleton and, if you have to change, you’re changing from something you already know is okay.
Tavis: You’re still doing this. You haven’t retired as yet.
Corman: Yes, I’m still doing it. I have a picture starting January 6 in China. It’ll be my first Chinese picture, although it’ll be American language. But it’s a co-production with a Chinese studio.
Tavis: Why China? I think I get it. I just got back from Hong Kong a couple days ago. Been to China a number of times. But why China and why now?
Corman: I had heard that the Chinese government had built for the National Television Association, whatever it was, a series of replicas of Chinese palaces. I saw them and I thought these were the greatest sets I have ever seen. So I designed a picture around those sets.
Also, as we all know, there’s a low wage scale in China and the Chinese producers want to do co-productions with Americans, so everything came together.
Tavis: So you’re shooting on location.
Corman: We’re going to shoot in a city called Guangzhou which nobody ever heard of, but is a city of 13 million people. You know, having been there, how many huge cities are in China.
Tavis: They have like a dozen cities that have over like 10 or 15 million people in each city.
Corman: That’s almost exactly correct. Henry Luk, my Chinese co-producer, told me that there was around 12 or 13 cities all of which have populations of over 10 million, most of which people in the West have never even heard of.
Tavis: On top of that, there are millions of people every year, literally millions every year, who are moving from the outlying areas, the farmlands, the hinterlands, into these cities, so they’re growing by leaps and bounds.
Earlier this year, we did a week-long special. We went to China and did a week-long special on this show about our trip to China, so it was a fascinating experience. You’ll have a great time.
Corman: Of course, I love Chinese food and they’ve got a lot of it.
Tavis: You have a whole lot of it there. Yeah, you’ll have a lot of fun there. They are honored to have Roger Corman come visit them. I hope they understand the blessing that they have upon them to be partnered with you on a project.
Corman: I hope so.
Tavis: I’m sure they do. He’s a legend in this town. There’s a wonderful documentary out, “Corman’s World,” about his life and legacy ongoing, as you can tell. You’ll want to check it out in a movie theater near you if not now, awfully soon. An honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Corman: Tavis, very happy to be here.
Tavis: My delight. Thank you, sir.
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