Interview: Roger Corman, The Early Movies

Roger Corman at a screening of the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Roger Corman at a screening of the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

(As part of On Demand from Comcast‘s celebration of filmmaker Roger Corman, who’s being honored with a lifetime achievement award at this year’s 82nd Academy Awards, Fancast interviewed the “King of the B-movies. Read the first part of film critic F.X. Feeney’s three-part interview. Part two is below.)

Born in Chicago in 1926, Roger Corman, some of whose movies you can watch online for free, seemed destined at first for more of a career in the sciences than in the arts. He studied at Stanford University and Oxford with the aim of becoming an engineer. Even so, the movie-bug had bit him in early childhood, and upon his return to the US in 1948 he pocketed his degrees to risk taking a lowly job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox. He studied the basics of the movie business with a scientific determination – trying his hand at everything from screenwriting to working as a talent-agent.

By 1955 he directed his first film, ‘Five Guns West‘. Mastering cameras and production tactics came fairly easily, given his technical background – acting was something else again. Looking back, he smiles: “I had no background in acting whatsoever. So for a couple of years I studied with Jeff Corey. My goal was not to become an actor, but to learn to work with actors.” (That said, Corman, who has a tall quiet gravitas in person, has acted briefly and well in ‘Godfather II‘ for Francis Coppola and in ‘Silence of the Lambs‘ for Jonathan Demme – cast both times as a high-ranking politician.) “I met Jack Nicholson in that class. He was just an outstanding talent, right from the beginning.”

One of the most pleasurable shocks for anyone new to ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ is the discovery of a skinny, high-voiced young Nicholson (then in his early 20s) as the madcap masochist who repeatedly pesters his local dentist to drill his teeth because he enjoys the pain. “No Novocain,” he cackles: “It dulls the senses!”
“If I pride myself on any one thing,” Corman once told this critic, “It’s that I have an eye for talent.” In Nicholson’s case, what was striking was not just his acting – he has a charismatic presence even in this nutty little cameo – but his overall intellect.

Although he appears in a wide variety of Corman’s films throughout the 1960s, Nicholson (uncertain of his future as an actor until ‘Easy Rider’ made him a star) served primarily behind the scenes as a writer, apprentice director and all-round journeyman problem-solver. “Jack was just an outstanding talent, right from the beginning,” recalls Corman. “He wrote several scripts for me. Among them were two westerns I financed that Monte Hellmann directed. Then he wrote ‘The Trip‘ for me, which was the American entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967.”

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When Fancast sat down with Corman recently to celebrate his Academy Award win this year (for Career Achievement), as well as to discuss this month’s On Demand showcase of his films, he recalled a particular conversation with Nicholson that has bearing on one of our highlights, ‘The Wild Angels‘ (1966): “Immediately after ‘Wild Angels‘, which was an exploration of the biker-gang counter-culture that was then just beginning to gather the public’s attention, we did another picture in the same vein – ‘The Trip’. Jack Nicholson wrote it. We were talking about the dialogue, and Jack said, ‘If we use the way people are actually talking right now, it will date the picture. Maybe we should just use a sort of straight-English so it’ll be timeless.’ I said, ‘No, Jack: we want the picture to be dated. I want the characters to talk the way the counter-culture talks, so when this picture is looked at ten or fifteen years from now, people will say, ‘That’s the way it was.’”

After years of dealing with period costumes and dreamy sets on studio soundstages to create his Poe films, Corman was eager for something fresh: “I wanted to go into the streets and photograph – starting with The Wild Angels – this counter-culture which was just beginning to explode. ‘The Wild Angels’ was inspired by the motorcycle gang the Hell’s Angels, who were then in the headlines. The counter-culture wasn’t as widely known when we started, but two years later, by the time we did The Trip, the whole country was in the full flower of ‘Flower Power.’”

Roger Corman and crew on the set of Pit and the Pendulem. (Photo: American International Pictures)

Roger Corman and crew on the set of Pit and the Pendulem. (Photo: American International Pictures)

In addition to the new and unknown talents of those times, like Nicholson, or Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (who light up their corners of Wild Angels), or Dick Miller (who is particularly memorable as the doomed nebbish-artist in ‘Bucket of Blood‘, but is everywhere in these films, even if he’s just the third outlaw from the left), Corman offered steady work to great talents Hollywood was neglecting back then: Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and (above all) Vincent Price, whose face and voice are now virtually synonymous with the mood and atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe, thanks to his work here.

“Vincent was a drily funny, intelligent gentleman,” says Corman, when asked for his recollections. “He and Peter Lorre got along particularly well when we were making ‘The Black Cat’ [which is a chapter in ‘Terror Tales’, showing online for free on Fancast]. As we got into the wine-tasting sequence, they started improvising. Mind you, they were still working within Dick Matheson’s script, but they kept finding spontaneous, funny, unexpected touches between the lines. I had to stop the crew from laughing – but Peter and Vincent were so instinctive in their chemistry that they couldn’t help themselves.”

End of part two.

To see On Demand’s celebration of Roger Corman’s films, go to the ‘Oscar Films & More’ folder and look for ‘B Movies.’

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

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