Director, producer and B-Movie king with well over 400 credits to his name, Roger Corman remains a force to be reckoned with in independent cinema. With another of his Poe cycle pictures, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) released as an exquisite Blu-ray next week by Arrow Video, I sat down with the legendary filmmaker to talk about his remarkable career in cinema.
What was so exciting about the times in which you came to prominence as a filmmaker?
What was most exciting was that low-budget films and medium-budget films, which are more or less my specialty, had full theatrical releases throughout the world. We could open a small film and know that we were going to play major circuits in the United States and most foreign countries. Today, low-budget films are, not completely but almost completely, frozen out of theatrical distribution in the major countries. That has taken a great deal of both the excitement and the profits away.
So do you think it’s still possible for a young filmmaker today to make films the way you did?
Yes. I would divide it into two areas : the making of the film and the distribution of the film. The making of the film is easier, because with the current equipment – the digital cameras, the lightweight sound recording units, lighting and so forth – you can work with a smaller crew and make a picture faster, more efficiently and frankly cheaper than you could previously. On the other hand, while production has become easier, distribution has become more difficult. We’ve lost 90% or so of our opportunities for theatrical distribution, which means we’re dependent upon television – both over the air and cable – as well as DVD and now internet streaming. But DVD sales are declining, and you can already see a potential endgame for physical media. That said, online distribution is growing, so these things balance out.
You were a real champion of arthouse cinema in the 70s. What made you take a risk distributing such films when others wouldn’t?
I distributed them simply because I wanted to distribute those particular pictures. Up until 1970 I was primarily an independent producer-director, but then I formed my own distribution company, New World. We grew very rapidly, to the point that we were quickly one of the strongest independent distributors in the United States. I loved those films and I felt that they weren’t being released properly. They were often distributed by small companies who were really more aficionados than anything else, and they didn’t have the strength to book the pictures properly. Or, they were released by the major studios, who were great distributors, but great distributors for major studio films. They didn’t quite understand how to distribute these particular types of films. I felt that we were small enough to give them individual attention, but strong enough that we could forge good terms and distribution patterns for those films. I didn’t do it particularly to make money, but then I wasn’t a charity – I didn’t want to lose money – I did it because I thought I could help these films get distributed properly, and if I made a dollar or two, that was fine too.
You’ve made a lot of cameos in your films over the years. Did you enjoy acting?
I’m not sure that I’d call it acting, but finally the Screen Actors Guild called me and told me I had to join. I told them that was a joke, but they said the joke had gone far enough as I was worth more than half their members, so I had to join. Invariably it’s just directors, or sometimes producers, who started with me and invited me back to have a little fun.
You’ve been credited, as a result of The Trip and The Wild Angels, with putting Dennis Hopper on the path towards Easy Rider. What did you make of the whole New Hollywood movement?
I was one of the elements of the New Hollywood movement, and The Wild Angels and The Trip were among the first films of that contemporary counter-culture movement of the 60s. I enjoyed it. I was somewhat older than some of the others making those films because I’d already been working for a while, but it was an exciting time.
The Intruder was a socially trailblazing picture. What kind of problems did you face with that film?
We had tremendous problems during production because we were shooting in the South, specifically because I wanted the accents to be authentic. I only took a few actors from Hollywood, the rest were local. I chose the northern portion of the South, feeling that I would have a little more protection from the law, but the law was against me all the way. We surmounted the problems and went to the Venice Film Festival, where it didn’t win but got great reviews. One of the New York newspapers said ‘The Intruder is a credit to the entire American film industry’. It was the first film I ever made that lost money.
What made you decide to make that move into more politically conscious storytelling?
It was a conscious decision to make what you might call a socially relevant picture. I was very much against the Southern segregation laws, so I picked a subject I believed in and made it accordingly. I came to the conclusion however, despite the good reviews, and considering the financial loss, that it was too much of a serious film. It was almost as if I was lecturing to the public. I’d forgotten momentarily that films are partially, or perhaps primarily, an entertainment.
How was working with Shatner on the film?
Bill was delighted to be in it as it was his first picture. He’d been a Broadway actor before coming to Hollywood. I’d talked to a number of young actors, but decided on him. I remember one Saturday night after shooting, Bill and I went into this bar in the town we were shooting in and picked up these two pretty girls. We got word the next day, ‘You guys had better drop those girls. They’re not what you think. Their husbands are in prison and they’re due to get out real soon. You guys are gonna be in trouble!’ You’ve never seen two guys drop two girls so fast in your life.
Many of your films have been reincarnated years later, often with your involvement. What are your views on the idea of remakes in general?
I’m not particularly in favour of remakes, because I tend to think that almost every one has not been as good as the original. Sometimes you can take the same script and the same budget, but the chemistry of how it all came together cannot be repeated. Nobody’s attempted to remake Casablanca, and I think with reason. The cast were so perfect and all the elements came together, and I think people recognise that. You couldn’t put that team together again, both below the line and above the line.
You famously shot a film in two days and a night, which is pretty tough! What’s the closest a film has ever come to complete disaster?
I’ve never had a complete disaster, but I’ve come close a couple of times. I’ve shot a number of films over the years in the Philippines with my partner Cirio Santiago, who died a few years ago only for his son Chris to take over. I knew Chris, he’d been Cirio’s assistant and I’d worked with him in the past on a couple of action pictures for Sony. They asked me to make another one, so I contacted Chris. We had incredible problems during shooting. Chris was intelligent and efficient, but it turned out that one of the reasons we had been able to make these large action pictures was because Cirio had connections in the Philippine military. We were able to get Philippine troops out on the field for the action sequences. Now, Chris didn’t quite have those connections, especially when it came to orchestrating one helicopter attack in particular. Every day we scheduled for the helicopters they’d not be available, and it was always because of ‘The war in the South’. I told him, ‘There’s no war in the South! What kind of an excuse is that?’ Chris hadn’t understood that you had to pay off the military, so we never got the helicopter shots. We put it together in the end with helicopter sequences from other pictures.
What did you make of the Little Shop of Horrors musical?
I liked it. I thought it was a very good, funny adaptation. I had a small percentage of it, so that worked out very nicely.
You stopped directing for a time in 1970. What made you give it up?
I never intended to stop entirely. I was shooting a WW1 flying picture in Ireland and I was just so tired I barely made it to the set. I still went, conscientiously every day and finished the picture, but I’d directed something like 59 films in 15 years and I was just tired. So I thought I’d take a sabbatical, take a year off and then come back, but I got bored during that year and started New World, which got off to an incredibly successful start and I just never got back to directing til much later.
How do you feel about the auteur label?
It can be somewhat over-used. I don’t know if auteur’s the right word, but if they say it, I can accept it. If they say I’m not, I can accept that too.
Is there a big gulf between producing and directing for you?
There is a gulf, but not as big as you would think. It may be a big gulf to some producers who are just financiers, but essentially, when I produce, just as when I produced and directed, it’s almost invariably my idea. I’ll write a 3 or 4 page treatment and work with the writer on the development of that treatment into a screenplay, then work very closely with the director in pre-production. So I’m very much involved in the creative process. However, where I differ from some other producers is that once production starts, I step back. I turn up for coffee in the morning, to say hello to everybody and make sure that the picture more or less starts on time, but by noon I’m gone and I don’t go back to the set generally unless there’s a problem. Having been a director myself, I understand that at that point I need to turn things over to the director.
And once shooting is finished? How hands-on are you then?
Generally speaking, the director is given what’s known as the first cut. I do more than that. I give the director the first cut and then he’s always surprised that I’m very busy and unable to see the first cut, so I say ‘Go ahead, do the second cut without me’, which is my standard practice. I’ll then come in after the director has had two cuts, but just with notes, I’m very seldom in the cutting room. I’ll discuss my cutting notes with the director and editor, but always letting them know that they’re not orders, and that anything which they strongly disagree with they can forget that I said.
You’ve been credited with kick-starting the careers of many a notable filmmaker. How much credit do you take for helping them on their way?
A little bit of credit. I may have taught them a little bit, but it’s their own inherent talent that brought them to where they are. If they’d never met me, they’d probably be in the same position, it just may have taken them a little longer.
What was it you saw in Francis Coppola that made you pack him off to Ireland to direct a horror movie for you?
What I look for in any filmmaker is three things. Firstly, intelligence. I’ve never met a producer, director or screenwriter who’s been successful in the long run who isn’t intelligent. Second, the ability to work hard. Motion picture making is sometimes considered to be a glamorous business, and it is, but it’s also very, very hard work. You have to have the willingness and the ability to work hard. Those are not that difficult to pick, but the third is creative talent. With most of the directors who’ve worked with me, they’ve started as an assistant or a film editor. Francis started cutting anti-American propaganda out of Russian science fiction films before moving on to become my assistant and second unit director, so I was able to see over a year or two just how talented he was. Others, like Marty Scorsese, I saw an underground film he’d made in New York that I thought was very good, so went with him on his first Hollywood picture.
What do you remember about working with Monte Hellman?
He worked for me both as an editor and a director. I financed and produced several films that he directed, before financing two Westerns that he directed with Jack Nicholson. I consider Monte to be one of the most talented directors I’ve ever worked with. He hasn’t achieved the commercial success that I think he might, but I think he’s immensely talented.
You worked with Hellman – and Coppola, and Nicholson, and Jack Hill – on The Terror…
Talk about near disaster!
So who directed what on that film? How did it come to have so many directors?
The Terror is one of the weirdest films I’ve ever been connected with. It was made only because it rained on the Sunday. I was supposed to play tennis every Sunday, and with one week to go shooting The Raven, it rained and I had nothing to do. So I called a friend of mine, Leo Gordon, told him to come over as I had an idea for a picture. I told him I didn’t have a whole lot of money, but I’ll finish shooting The Raven on Friday and my plan is this: We’ll work out today a storyline for the film, and I’ve got enough money to hire a crew for two days to use The Raven sets before we strike them. I told him he had to write 25 or 26 pages of the script before the weekend so I could give it to the actors to prepare and shoot on Monday. Then I was going to close down because I had no more money, and start again when found some. I told Jack Nicholson, ‘I’ve signed Boris Karloff for the two days, and you’ll essentially be the second star after Boris before he goes back to London. Then we’ll shoot the rest of the picture and you’ll emerge as the lead’. He said, ‘Who’s the leading lady?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t picked anybody’. He said, ‘What about Sandy?’ meaning Sandra Knight, his wife. ‘We need the money! Can Sandy play the lead?’ so I said sure. We shot for two days, closed down, and because I’m a member of the Directors Guild, I couldn’t shoot the rest of the picture. So Francis came in for a few days before being signed to a major studio. The picture took 7 or 8 months, shooting a few days at a time with different directors, and on the final day of shooting I’d run out of directors. Jack Nicholson came in and said, ‘Rog, every idiot in town has directed part of this picture, let me direct the last day!’ so I said ‘Go ahead, Jack’. We cut it together, but it didn’t make a great deal of sense, every director modified it a little bit. I was then shooting another Poe picture, so I paid the crew a little bit of money to stay late one night to shoot a scene with Jack Nicholson and Dick Miller, in which Jack throws Dick against the wall and screams, ‘I’ve been lied to every day since I came to this castle, now tell me, what is going on!’ giving Dick the chance to explain the whole story so the audience could understand. It still makes almost no sense whatsoever.
Did Nicholson and Karloff get on?
Oh yes. Boris was a very nice guy. He was a little rigid, but Jack gets along with everybody.
Something like 90% of your films were financial successes. Have you been surprised by any particular successes or failures?
With Little Shop of Horrors, I thought the idea – of a man-eating plant in a florist’s shop, shot for $30,000 in two and a half days – I figured the whole thing was so outrageous it would either prove a big profit or a complete failure. It went and made a pleasant little profit like any other film, and I was a little disappointed to have made only a little bit of money. But then it started playing on college campuses on Friday nights and kept going year after year, still bringing in money today, particularly with my percentage on the play.
Did you really tell Scorsese that he had to add nudity to Boxcar Bertha every fifteen pages?
These are myths that are believed by the people that say them. I did say that there had to be a certain amount of nudity because it was an R-rated film, but never quite like that.
Joe Dante is apparently making a biopic of your life now. Didn’t he make a movie on a bet for you once? Do you think this film might be some form of revenge?
Well, Joe and I are good friends, so I hope it’s not revenge! It’s the story of me making The Trip, and I understand that Quentin Tarantino may play Chuck Griffith, one of the writers that worked on the picture with me.
When did you first meet Nicholson?
I met him in an acting class. My degree from university was in engineering, and I felt that when I started directing I learnt the technical aspects fairly quickly, maybe because of the way my mind works or maybe because of the engineering background, but I really didn’t know how to work with actors. So I joined a Method Acting class run by Jeff Corey, one of the top acting teachers in Hollywood at the time, and that’s where I met Jack. He was clearly the best actor in the class. I also met Bob Towne there, who became an Academy Award winning screenwriter, but he started writing with me.
How often is the reason for making any given film motivated by the personal as opposed to the commercial?
Motion pictures are the most important contemporary art form because they are the modern art form. For two reasons. One, they deal with movement – the motion picture camera opened up the possibilities of capturing movement, and I think it is the art form of modern times because of that. But also for another reason. A writer can sit down and write a novel or a play and a painter can buy the materials and paint, but a filmmaker needs a crew, and he needs to pay that crew, so it’s really part art form, part business. It’s a compromised art form, which is another symbol of our time.
What do you think you’d have done if you hadn’t forged a career in cinema?
Well, my degree was in engineering, so I would probably have become an engineer.
Did you pursue that career at all at first?
For four days. I could not get a start in motion pictures in any way, so I finally bit the bullet and got a job with US Electrical Motors. I started on Monday, then went to the personnel office on Thursday and said, ‘This is all a mistake, I have to leave’. The personnel manager said, ‘Roger, it’s only been four days! Why don’t you work Friday then think about it over the weekend?’ I told him I really had to leave immediately.
Is filmmaking all-consuming for you now? How else do you spend your time?
It’s almost all-consuming. I used to play a lot of tennis and I’m a little bit involved politically. I do a little bit of painting.
How did you first meet Vincent Price?
When I decided to make The Fall of the House of Usher, I was thinking of actors to play Roderick Usher and Vincent came to mind immediately. Roderick Usher was a highly intelligent, educated, sensitive and slightly neurotic character. I felt, without pushing the element of neurosis, Vincent was the best actor that I would be able to afford. So, through his agent I sent him the script and we had lunch. We discussed the character and got along very well, we were in agreement as to the interpretation of the character, so he played the lead. He went on to play the lead in all the Poe pictures up to The Premature Burial, where I had Ray Milland.
When were you first introduced to Poe?
I read, as a school assignment when I was about twelve years old, The Fall of the House of Usher and really loved it. So I asked my parents for the complete works for Christmas, and they were delighted to get it for me - I mean, I could have asked for a shotgun. I immediately read everything he’d ever written, but it was only when I started making films, when I was making some low budget horror films, that I thought that if I ever got the chance to make a slightly bigger one I’d make The Fall of the House of Usher.
Is there one you’re particularly fond of?
They’re part of the same cycle to me. Maybe Masque of the Red Death, maybe The Pit and the Pendulum or The Tomb of Ligeia.
What is it that makes you remember a film most fondly? Is it the experience making it, or its success?
Generally it’s the final result, but the memories of making it do have some influence.
Do you find it easy to keep up with technological advances in filmmaking? Are you quite technically minded?
I am, but I’ve not kept up with it totally. I’ve worked with film for most of my life, and felt that I knew a great deal about it without being a cameraman or technician. I welcomed the digital age and do work with digital cameras, the problem is that I assumed that a digital camera would be like a motion picture camera – you captured the digital image, you took it and you started editing. Instead it turns out, and I was surprised by this, that you have to go through certain steps between the camera and the editing room, and that I hadn’t counted on. I’m really not totally up to speed on that technical process, the steps between the shooting and editing, and the creation of what you used to call the answer print.
Sandra Bullock could well be up for another Oscar this year. Didn’t you have a hand in her early career?
She did her first picture for me, Fire on the Amazon. I’m always surprised that major studios will spend $100 or $200 million on a movie, then wait six months before releasing it. Which means they’re eating interest on $200 million! I go the opposite way and get my picture out as fast as I can, so I get my money back as quickly as possible instead of throwing it away on interest. Her first picture was the only one I deliberately held back for a year and a half because I was convinced she was going to be a star and the picture would become more valuable. It worked out that way.
You’ve worked with some fantastic cinematographers too. Would you consider them as something of a secret weapon in the Corman films?
Absolutely. Floyd Crosby was cinematographer on many of my films, including most of the Poe pictures. He had a very strange career. He won the very first Academy Award ever given for Tabu, which he shot with Murnau in the South Pacific. He was partially blacklisted, not entirely, but his associations with certain people meant that some studios wouldn’t work with him. He was cameraman on Fred Zinneman’s High Noon for instance, but would then go through periods where he couldn’t get a job. I was fortunate enough to be able to offer him some work when he wasn’t working with a major studio, so I managed to get one of the great cinematographers, who under different circumstances wouldn’t have been available. When I came to England, the first cinematographer I had here was Nic Roeg on Masque of the Red Death, who was a brilliant cameraman and went on to be a very successful director.
The Pit and the Pendulum is released by Arrow Video on May 19th