Interview: Roger Corman, King Of The B-Movies

In November.  (Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

In November. (Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

(In November 2009, filmmaker Roger Corman was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his 60 years of making movies, films that have launched numerous careers behind and in front of the camera, and become noteworthy on their own. In his honor, On Demand from Comcast is showcasing a collection of his films. To compliment that special collection, Fancast asked notable screenwriter and film critic F.X. Feeney to interview Corman. This is the first of a three-part interview with the director and includes several full-length movies you can watch.)

“I’ve always liked fast pace in films,” says Roger Corman, “I find that when I’m working rapidly, I generate within myself a kind of nervous energy that may well influence the cast – though I always hope that primarily it will influence the crew.”

He smiles at this last, but means business. In a writing-producing-directing career that has now spanned 55 years, the legendary Corman has directed over a hundred films, and produced more than four hundred others. In the process, he has launched thousands of talented careers. To name just the Oscar winners, these include: Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron. Because he has always worked cheaply and efficiently, he has been free to make his own rules – and therefore championed the hiring of women as directors and producers, long before it was widely fashionable.

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Gale Anne Hurd, producer of ‘Terminator’, ‘Aliens’ and ‘The Abyss’, put it this way: “I never realized sexism existed in Hollywood until I stopped working for Roger.” Jonathan Demme began his directing career with the Corman-produced ‘Caged Heat’ (that lusty women-behind bars thriller of 1974 which spawned a legion of imitators and positioned Demme for the heights later since climbed with ‘Silence of the Lambs‘ and ‘Philadelphia‘, and it was he who once summed up Corman’s lifelong accomplishment most neatly: “He is the greatest independent filmmaker the American film industry has ever seen and probably ever will see.”

After nearly 60 years of nourishing such talents, Corman at long last has been given the Academy Award himself, for his own unique career achievement. The statuette itself was handed over in a special ceremony this past November, but will be reiterated as part of the gala on March 7th. To amplify these honors, On Demand from Comcast is offering 12 vintage Roger Corman films from now through March 15th.

These include five adaptations from Edgar Allen Poe, a series of hits which won Corman the favor of critics around the world in addition to expanding his fan base: ‘The Pit and the Pendulum‘ (1961), ‘Tales of Terror‘ (1962), ‘The Raven‘ (1963), ‘The Masque of the Red Death‘ (1964), and ‘Tomb of Ligea’ (1964); all of them star Vincent Price, as does ‘The Haunted Palace’ (1963), which seems like a Poe film but is instead from a story Corman adapted from that other master of terror, H.P. Lovecraft.

Corman in 1967.  (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

Corman in 1967. (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

Finally, there are the series of “historical action” films – high energy war and crime pictures which evoke a particular place and time – such as ‘The Secret Invasion‘ (1964); ‘The Wild Angels’ (1966), ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre‘ (1967), and ‘Von Richthofen and Brown‘ (1970), after which Corman stepped away from directing for the next two decades, to concentrate on producing.

These films are still alive, after half a century. They are also very much of their times – signified by a more measured pace when it comes to setting up the story and introducing the characters, not to mention far more basic fantasy effects. Corman lacked the advantage of digital computer wizardry developed 30 years later by one of his “graduates,” Avatar’s James Cameron – so he must rely on a magician’s tricks, using cuts and point-of-view shots to immerse you in his scarier illusions. The Pit and the Pendulum is a case in point: that big blade is not just swooping at the hero’s nose, but yours; we’re not only bound up at the bottom of the pit watching it descend from its great height, but the camera has been lashed aboard the swinging razor-edge as well, as it hurtles down toward its potential victim. Corman enhanced this effect in the cutting room by removing every other frame of film, to make the thing swoop two times as fast.

Effects like this so frightened and tickled his original audience that it confirmed Corman’s experiments with comedy in ‘Bucket of Blood‘ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’: “When that pendulum came down, straight into the camera, the whole audience leaped. I thought to myself, ‘I really pulled that off,’ but then there was a little laughter. ‘What did I do wrong,’ I wondered – until I realized: Nothing was wrong at all. It was a laugh of appreciation. The audience and I were complicit in the shock. They enjoyed doing their part in surviving it, just as I’d enjoyed mine in creating it.”

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To find the Roger Corman collection, go to the folder ‘Oscar Films & More’ and click on the category, ‘B Movies.’

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.


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