Roger Corman's Flicks May Be 'B' Shlock, but No One in Hollywood Has Nurtured More 'A' Talent
Over the past 27 years he has used his keen commercial instincts not merely to follow trends but to explore entire genres of movies—sci-fi, psychedelic, plus, of course, biker, gangster and horror. Or perhaps exploit them. But in the process, he has single-handedly nurtured more future artists of film than probably the whole television industry. Corman is to Hollywood what the farm system is to major league baseball. He hired novice directors like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Irvin (The Empire Strikes Back) Kershner. As for actors, he put Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Charles Bronson, Peter Fonda and Diane Ladd in their first major roles. "They all would have found a way," Roger says modestly. "Big talent emerges in time."
Corman's latest film, Battle Beyond the Stars, is somewhat out of the mold. It stars a hodgepodge cast (Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn) and brings along unknowns—in this case screenwriter John Sayles, whose The Return of the Secaucus 7 is a reviewers' rage. But there are two departures. It is derivative—a kind of "The Seven Samurai Meet Star Wars"—and, even more surprising, it cost $5 million. That's modest compared to the now median $8 million for a major studio film, but it's Corman's most expensive movie ever by several million. He is not, however, recanting his view that today's damn-the-expense, $30 million films are positively sinful. "With that money," he says, "you could reconstruct the slums of a major city. It's morally offensive."
More characteristic of the Corman modus operandi is The Raven, a horror satire he shot because an appropriately moody old set was still standing and he hated to see it go to waste. On a Sunday too rainy for tennis, he sat down, scribbled a screen treatment and nabbed Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, who were just finishing up another picture for him, for two days' work. At lunchtime the next day, he threw in Nicholson. Coppola, then an assistant to Roger, shot some scenes; Nicholson ended up directing a few more; and the picture was finally completed on yet another discarded set.
Corman's 1960 cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors was filmed on an existing set in two days and a night. Such shoot-and-run tactics once prompted another Corman discovery, screenwriter Robert (Chinatown) Towne, to complain: "Making films is not a track meet, you know." After that, Roger cracks, "I never made a film in less than 10 days." Ron (Happy Days) Howard, whom Corman initiated into directing with Grand Theft Auto in 1977, remembers the time he asked for just one extra half day to reshoot a scene: "Roger told me, 'Ron, you can come back if you want, but nobody else will be there.' " As for producer intrusion, Corman says: "If everything is going well, they won't see me on the set. If it isn't, they'll see a lot of me." Bogdanovich, who directed his first movie (Targets) for Roger, remembered it well: "If you don't finish the picture on schedule, he snatches it away and finishes it himself in an afternoon, and if you run over budget, he takes it out of your pay." Yet, almost alone in his cruel business, Corman has never fired a director from a film—"I wouldn't want to inflict that humiliation." In an industry where half of all films wind up in the red, Corman claims he has had only two or three losers in those 27 years, including Bogdanovich's arty 1979 gangster film Saint Jack, starring Ben Gazzara.
That incredible record continues despite the fact that in recent years Corman betrays a steady slippage toward quality. In 1973 his company took over U.S. distribution of Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, and it has since been responsible for the import of some of the most distinguished foreign films of the decade: François Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. and Small Change, Federico Fellini's Amarcord and this year's Academy Award-winning The Tin Drum. The unexpected box office from such artistic works emboldened Corman in 1977 to put up $1 million, for the first time, to produce I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a sensitive study of a young girl in a mental institution, starring then unknown Kathleen Quinlan. "We're at the real growing-pain stage," Corman says, "in between the shift from a one-man operation to a major corporation."
The man, Roger William Corman, was born in Detroit. The elder of two sons of a prosperous civil engineer and a legal secretary, he grew up in a comfortable, middle-class, Roman Catholic family. When Roger's father, William, was 43, he decided to retire, and moved them all to California. At 14, Roger found his classmates at Beverly Hills High "glamorous. I got a different look at life when I got here." He was a bookish boy, which disturbed his father ("He told me to go out and play more instead of reading"), and was drawn to creative writing. Instead, he pursued an engineering career at Stanford. After graduation he signed on with an L.A. engineering firm and lasted through Thursday of his first week ("Four years of education for four days of work," he shrugs). He drifted into a job as a messenger at 20th Century-Fox; and later spent a term at Oxford studying English lit and the rest of the year in Paris writing short stories and screen treatments.
In 1951 he was back in Hollywood, first as a TV stagehand, then a literary agent. Two years later Roger sold a film script of his own to Allied Artists, which was released as Highway Dragnet, with Corman billed as associate producer. His next was Monster from the Ocean Floor, which cost $18,000 and more than doubled his investment. With his following 12-day wonder, The Fast and the Furious, Roger teamed up with producers Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson, the founders of American International Pictures, to distribute Corman's quickies. After that he was off and filming with the likes of Jack Nicholson ("I was the only person in town who would use him") and sometimes with his brother Gene as co-producer. He churned out movies for AIP for 15 years before forming his own company, New World Pictures.
As a handsome movie entrepreneur, Roger was eligible for Hollywood's A-list but had little time for the social whirl. "I moved with a fast crowd, but I was always the squarest one," he remembers. He dated actresses like Talia Shire, Dorothy Malone and Gayle Hunnicutt. Finally, in 1964, he met Julie Halloran, a pretty UCLA graduate applying for a job. "I hired another girl," says Roger, "and asked Julie for a date." In 1970, the year New World was launched (and Corman turned 44), they were married. Julie took an active role in the company, scouting for stories, co-producing and finally producing eight films—with the same parsimonious attention to schedules and budgets as her husband. "I have no backing at all," Roger observes. "If we lose, it's my money."
Fortunately, Corman leaves his skinflint practices in the office. "I pay no attention to the budget at home," he says. "I have no idea what we spend on anything for the family." The Cormans and the children—Catherine, 5, Roger, 4, and Brian, 3—live comfortably in a spacious eyrie in Pacific Palisades. Roger is a dedicated family man who tries to get home every night by 6:30. "Working late," he says, "is self-defeating." Julie, 36, is the political activist Corman, serving as a citizen adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown's Air Resources Board, the state agency dealing with air pollution problems.
His corporate family now totals 150, many of them women whose careers Roger has encouraged, including his executive VP, Barbara Boyle, his story editor, Frances Kimbrough, and director Stephanie Rothman. As Talia Shire puts it: "The beauty of working for Roger is that you start out answering the telephone and two weeks later you're reading scripts and scouting for locations. It beats the hell out of going to Yale Drama School."
If there is anything imperfect in Corman's carefully organized life, it is the sense of regret some of his friends feel about his potential. "My greatest disappointment for Roger," says Bruce Dern, "is that he didn't use on a $3 million film the same expertise he showed me on a $300,000 film. I wonder why he never chose to go after the big ones. What happened to that director?" Corman answers that he hopes to return to directing in the next couple of years but that he'd only reluctantly forsake the B art form that gave him and Hollywood so much. "You can't build a company around low-budget films any more," he reckons. "But there is still some profit in it, and I'll always have one foot in that door."