Movie Maverick

Hollywood's favorite schlockmeister is also the godfather of independent film.

July/August 1997

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Movie Maverick

Photo: Eduardo Citrinblum

The paradoxes of movie producer Roger Corman, '47, hit you as soon as you enter his Los Angeles office. In typical Hollywood fashion, the foyer is decorated with the posters of films he has produced. But only at Corman's company will you find the garish poster for the straight-to- video Stepmonster ("She's Mean, She's Green, She's Your New Mom") facing a poster for the austere Cries and Whispers (the Ingmar Bergman classic that was distributed by Corman in the United States).

Or consider this: Corman, who is in the midst of selling his company, Concorde-New Horizons, for $100 million, is widely considered to be one of the most gentlemanly and honest executives in Hollywood. Yet he churns out an astonishing amount of forgettable low-budget movies that sell (and sell . . . and sell) on their reliable delivery of violence, female nudity, and the frequent interaction of the two.

Or this: In a town that tends to publicly turn a cold shoulder to schlockmeisters, reserving its awards for "quality" middlebrow fare such as The English Patient, Corman is not only genuinely respected, but genuinely loved. As a producer and director of nearly 300 films, from The Little Shop of Horrors to Stripped to Kill 2, he has not only managed to continue making films over a period of 40 years, but he has also nurtured many of Hollywood's best talents--and secured himself a place in the heart of this fickle town.

Tall, trim and fit at 71, Corman's gracious and refined manner seems a little out of place in his own office, which shows evidence of his fabled skinflint ways--carpeting so black with dirt that it should have been replaced years ago, sofa cushions pockmarked with the aftereffects of bubblegum and who knows what else. It's an apt metaphor for the tight budgets that have made Corman's name legendary in the world of independent movie production.

"He's the most" says writer and director Quentin Tarantino, whose edgy, blood-soaked crime films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are eminent examples of the Corman aesthetic: adrenaline-rush violence spiced with black comedy, aggressive camera style, impatience with inner emotions and a solidly "male" world-view--all done up with postmodern arty irony and cutting edge craftsmanship. "That's all there is to say. I've been a fan of his films since I was a kid," Tarantino adds.

However film historians finally judge Corman's work, he has secured for himself an unshakable position as one of cinema's best talent scouts. Among the scores whose careers he helped launch are directors Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard and James Cameron; actors Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda and William Shatner; and screenwriter Robert Towne. Countless top Hollywood executives got their start with Corman, too.

At a recent tribute to Corman sponsored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Carl Franklin, who made two Corman films before directing One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, explained another side of Corman: "It's one thing for someone to say, 'I like your short film, I'll recommend you to someone.' It's quite another for someone to actually pull the trigger and put up the couple of hundred grand to make the movie. He's the best friend that a new filmmaker in this town has."

Perhaps the greatest honor Hollywood has unwittingly bestowed on Corman is the phrase "Corman film." It's something that is heard constantly in the low-budget circles of Los Angeles, where the febrile desire to direct a film, any film, hangs in the air as palpably as the burnt sienna smog of August. So what is a Corman film? A cheap, fast, exploitation movie that will be hell to make and sure doesn't pay anything, but could well be a ticket out of desperation. As Corman said to fledgling director Ron Howard, then trying to shed his Opie and Happy Days television image and move behind the camera: "If you do a good job for me on this picture, you will never work for me again."

Moreover, what makes Corman special, even to those independent filmmakers who have no interest in making the type of films Corman produces, is that he has survived in a terribly brutal, hugely risky business. And he shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. While other early independents have fallen by the wayside, overwhelmed by the vastly more powerful production and marketing behemoths of Hollywood, Corman has proved that by nimbly exploiting the niches left available by the lumbering major studios, one can work outside the studio system and still prosper.

Of course, independent filmmakers have struggled to establish themselves since the beginning of Hollywood. In 1919, Charlie Chaplin banded together with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to form United Artists. Other greats such as Preston Sturges and Orson Welles worked extensively outside the Hollywood studio system. But those examples are instructive-- comedy great Sturges's attempts to make movies with backing from Howard Hughes flopped, and Orson Welles wound up as a Gallo wine pitchman.

Corman has prospered by always keeping up with the latest trends--or staying just ahead of them. In the late '50s and early '60s, his staple was super-cheap science fiction and horror pictures such as The Little Shop of Horrors, shot in two-and-a-half days for $35,000. In the '60s, he turned to a string of motorcycle movies such as Peter Fonda's The Wild Angels, which, as the trailer luridly promised, depicted bikers "Getting Their Kicks From Violence And Torture . . . Their Every Enjoyment A Parody Of Pleasure." And, showing his versatility, in the '70s Corman made a name for himself distributing foreign art films from heralded directors such as Bergman, François Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa.

This unpredictable career had an unusual genesis, beginning at Stanford where Corman studied industrial engineering. After graduation, Corman did do a stint at a Los Angeles engineering firm. He started one Monday at U.S. Electrical Motors--and three days later, his scientific career ended. "I went in to the personnel department and said: This is a major mistake, I have to leave," Corman says. He found work as a messenger at 20th Century Fox, worked his way up to be a reader in the story department and, after detours to Oxford to study literature and Paris to indulge in Left Bank life, he sold a script for $3,500. When this drama about an outlaw being chased across the desert was being shot as a low-budget quickie called Highway Dragnet, Corman convinced the producer to let him work for free on the set, securing himself an associate producer credit. He was on his way.

Corman quickly saw he could make his own films efficiently and cheaply. He pounded out a story about a deep-sea monster, pooled $12,000 from friends and his own savings, and produced The Monster from the Ocean Floor, shooting the film in six days around Malibu and saving cash by driving the equipment truck himself.

Monster from the Ocean Floor took in $120,000 at the box office, netting a huge profit on the investment. More important, Corman had discovered the key business strategy that would allow him to become his own mini-mogul, rolling out pictures like so many widgets: He insisted on money up front from distributors before the film was released. Typically an independent filmmaker would not see any return from a film until many months after it was distributed to theaters. By demanding an advance, Corman had the funds to make films continuously. Today, having established a reputation for making reliable exploitation films on minuscule budgets, Corman is often able to make a profit by selling distribution rights even before the movie is made.

Soon, Corman was directing films himself. But he was no David Lean, who pondered epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago for years before shooting. After forging an alliance with producers Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson at American International Pictures, Corman directed a staggering 48 films between 1955 and 1971--at times seven in a single year. The pace was brutal, as he himself notes in his self-effacing autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. When an actress on one of his early Westerns broke her arm falling from a horse, Corman didn't waste any time. While waiting for a car to run her to the hospital, he shot her close-ups. (Frustrated by working conditions on a Corman picture, she asked: "Tell me, Roger, who do I have to f--- to get off this picture?")

As Corman admits in his book, much of his output as a director is eminently forgettable, often made with "weak scripts and actors who weren't very good." And Corman's work, while unpretentious and good-natured, is too often slapdash and over-obvious. Still, some of his black comedies, such as Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1961) have become camp classics. And his adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, made in the mid-1960s and often starring Vincent Price, are favorites of many horror-movie fans.

Interestingly, Corman's own favorite among the films he directed was also his biggest box-office failure--the little-known The Intruder (1961). This courageous film, starring William Shatner as a provocateur agitating against integration in a small Southern town, lacks the usual Corman monsters or bikini-clad sorority girls. It is simply one of the toughest films ever made about white racism--so tough that the Motion Picture Association of America initially refused to give the film its crucial seal of approval because of the use of the word "nigger." Corman took the box-office rejection hard, resolving never again to take a risk on serious, controversial material.

In the 1970s, big-studio Hollywood discovered the fortunes to be made in films like Star Wars and Jaws--pictures that were, essentially, big-budget Corman movies. (Remember that the name of his first production was Monster from the Ocean Floor.) With the expensive and convincing special effects that the studios could afford to create for these movies, audience expectations were raised to a completely new level. While George Lucas launched a whole new movie technology with the demands of his Star Wars trilogy, Corman's pinched budgets required that the giant man-eating plant in The Little Shop of Horrors be operated with all-too-obvious fishing line. Faced with these changes, Corman had to find new markets.

The bread and butter of his production since the '70s has been dramas and thrillers in which the exploitation draw is R-rated female nudity and violence. Cineastes celebrate him for his backing of the likes of Scorsese, but Corman is worshipped just as passionately by B-film fanatics as the Svengali of performers such as the so-called "direct-to-video diva" Maria Ford, who is the star of a series of films about strippers being murdered.

Corman is nothing if not a man who knows his audience, says Steve Rabiner, a Harvard Law School grad who escaped from his boredom as an entertainment attorney to do casting for Corman and eventually rose to run the company as executive vice president. Rabiner recalls casting one of these "Who's Killing All the Strippers?" films entitled Dance with Death. "One part had most of the dialogue," Rabiner says. "I asked Roger if we could please make that part not have any nudity so that I could hire a better actress."

"No, we can't," Corman replied with his usual grace and decorum, "If she doesn't strip, the audience will feel cheated." The audience wasn't cheated, and Rabiner later moved on to his current position as president of production for Di Novi Pictures at Warner Brothers.

Corman had just begun to raise a family at the time his company started to make these exploitation movies. He had married his assistant, Julie Halloran (now an active producer with him), and had three children, including two daughters. Did the marketplace really force Corman into making movies that he wouldn't want his children to see? When asked about these movies, Corman responds without a moment's hesitation.

"You have to move with the times," Corman says. "The best thing is to be a little bit ahead of the times and be a leader in changing times. But at the very least, you had better be a follower and move with the times, even if you're not first. I therefore have moved with the times."

In recent years, Corman, always keeping his eye out for trends in the industry, has produced a wide variety of films. These have ranged from comic book adaptations like The Fantastic Four to knock-offs of big-studio productions such as Carnosaur (timed to capitalize on the marketing bonanza surrounding Jurassic Park). He has also produced adventure films aimed at families, such as White Wolves II starring Elizabeth Berkeley of Showgirls fame, with her clothes very much on.

Corman continues to turn out movies for the Showtime cable network and other outlets. He says that he hopes to cut back his annual production of the last few years of about 30 films to something closer to 25, giving him what he hopes will be a bit more time--but not much--to concentrate on quality.

With his backstop of distribution deals, he can't possibly strike out financially. But artistically, he says, "I might get a couple of doubles or triples or maybe even a home run in there. I think I can do as well or better economically and have more creative satisfaction and more fun making a smaller number of films."

Outside, in the foyer, the poster of the Stepmonster with her scaly green legs and Bergman's stern Cries and Whispers still face one another. Money and art. Perhaps with his new schedule, Corman will finally solve the paradox.

Paul Francis Duke, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is a producer and writer living in Los Angeles.

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