Roger Corman has been a seminal force in modern filmmaking since he began making profitable low budget indie movies in the 1950s. Alex Stapleton’s tantalizing documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, chronicles how Hollywood’s most prolific writer-director-producer created his cult film empire, one low-budget success at a time, capitalizing on undiscovered talent, and pushing the boundaries of independent filmmaking. The film features interviews with numerous Hollywood icons, many of whom launched their careers within Corman’s unforgettable world of filmmaking, including Paul W.S. Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Ron Howard, Eli Roth, Martin Scorsese, William Shatner and Jack Nicholson.
We sat down at a roundtable interview with Corman to talk about how it felt after so many years of being behind the camera to switch roles and be in front of the camera as the subject of this entertaining documentary. He told us what his reaction was when he saw the completed film for the first time, how he felt about the outpouring of emotion from industry colleagues like Jack Nicholson, and why he thinks James Cameron‘s Avatar and Christopher Nolan’s Inception exemplify great imagination and originality. He also discussed why his 1963 film, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, might be ready for a remake and revealed his latest project, The Undead, which he will begin shooting on location in Guangzhou, China in January.
CORMAN: There’s no official number. It’s around 350, but the reason there’s no official number [is because] I don’t work that much on each individual film, and some of the films I have somebody younger in the company who’s really doing more of the work than I am. And, being aware of the importance of credits, it isn’t going to do me any good to have a credit as the 360th film I’ve produced, but it can really help that young guy or young girl to have their first credit as a producer. So, I can say well I vaguely produced this one, but I don’t know if I should count it or not.
What is it about camp that appeals to so many people and has enabled you to keep making the kind of films you’ve been making all these years?
CORMAN: First, I never set out to make a camp film and I think — this is my own theory, I could easily be wrong — there’s no such thing as a camp film when it’s made. It becomes a camp film 10 or 20 years later when what was acceptable at one time becomes anachronistic 10 or 20 years later and people think of it as camp. For instance, in the 1950s, you could make a monster film with a paper mache monster that would be acceptable to the audience at that time because it was the state of the art for low budget films. Twenty years later that film is a camp film because they look at the monster and they laugh, or an attitude that you have at one time which then 20 years later becomes camp.
What is it about that element that you think people gravitate towards?
CORMAN: I think excitement, particularly when you’re making a low budget film. It will take me a moment to think of this because I’m not certain. People gravitate occasionally to the brilliantly made art low budget films, which is maybe one out of every five hundred low budget films made. Other than that, they gravitate to the excitement, the interest of the subject matter, or the way in which the subject matter is treated.
Where in film today – whether genre or market or medium — do you see the most provocative uses of imagination and creativity?
CORMAN: I see it in two areas. One, surprisingly enough, in an area I’m not familiar with and I’m not that much in love with, which is these giant tent pole $100-$200 million films. One of the guys who started with us was Jim Cameron, and when I look at Avatar, I thought this is a masterpiece. He was using this imagination. He was using just that. And there’s another big budget film, Christopher Nolan’s film, Inception. Again, he’s using great originality. Now most of those big films are not. They’re just re-using special effects. But Avatar and Inception would be examples of that. On low budget films, I’m not certain. I can’t name anything in particular at the moment, but it’s there. I’ve seen them, but I just don’t remember anything offhand.
With all the remakes that are out there today, which ones of your numerous films are ideal for being remade?
CORMAN: Well Death Race 2000 was remade and Piranha was remade. Actually, weirdly enough, I’m about to sign a contract with Ron Howard to remake Eat My Dust, a car chase film which he made for us. And there’s a film that I made around 1960 and I’ve always thought [about remaking it], because I liked the film. But again, the special effects were primitive because that was the state of the art and also that was all the money we had. I’ve always thought X was computer graphics and what can be done today could probably be done of all the films probably with more improvement over the original just for those reasons.
What kind of advice do you have for filmmakers today trying to break into the independent film market to have their voices heard?
CORMAN: The first thing I would tell them is to be aware of the market and be aware that these are very difficult times for low budget independent filmmakers. When I started, every film got a full theatrical distribution. Today, almost no low budget films, maybe two or three a year, will get a full theatrical distribution. We’ve been frozen out of that, which means they must be aware that for a full theatrical distribution it either has to be something like Saw or some exploitation film of today or an extremely well made personal film. I can go back to when I mentioned Inception. I think it was the first film Christopher Nolan made about the guy who lost his short term memory, Memento. That, to me, would be an example. I think you can look towards the Saw type film or the Memento type film, but be aware that it is really difficult. And also, the fact that either way you go, you’re probably not going to get a full theatrical release. Those were exceptions, the two I’ve mentioned. Then, you’ll be dependent upon DVD, cable and foreign sales. Also, be aware that DVD is dropping. It’s still there and there’s still money to be made but it is clearly drifting down. On the other hand, VOD and the internet in the future may pick up the slack. But I would say just be aware of all of that.
How do you feel about the new platforms of VOD and the internet?
CORMAN: I’m a great champion of them for the simple reason that if they don’t work, low budget independent films will be… I don’t think they’ll ever be extinct, but I think there’ll be almost nothing left. We have to have those because of the fact that we’re out of theatrical and DVD is fading.
What do you look back on with the most pleasure? Is it the films that you’ve made or the people you’ve worked with that have gone on to careers in Hollywood?
CORMAN: Both. I think of it as sort of a bifurcated career, if you want to use the word ‘career.’ I enjoy both basically.
What is the greatest gift that producing and directing has given you?
CORMAN: I think creative satisfaction. Not every film has turned out as well as I would have hoped, but some have. And, it’s the satisfaction of just working, just of making films. I love the process of making films and an incidental satisfaction is the fact that most of them made money.
CORMAN: I’ve been asked that a couple of times. It varies from day to day. Today it might be The Intruder, the first film I ever made that lost money. Although I made it in 1960, weirdly enough around the year 2000, we finally got our money back. Bill Shatner and I did a narration for the commentary for the DVD and we finally got our money back forty years later. So, The Intruder. Of the Poe films, maybe Masque of the Red Death. And maybe The Wild Angels and The Trip, films I made in the 60s. Then, of the films I’ve produced, Battle Beyond the Stars, Piranha and Death Race 2000. Death Race 2000 I really like very much, the theme in it which became a joke and it was deliberately put in as a joke. I bought the short story and the short story was called The Racer and it was a story in which the racers tried to knock the other cars off the road. I had a screenplay written and I didn’t like it. I added one thing and I said we’re going to make it a black comedy, and what I added was, they try to knock each other off the road. There’s a race from New York to New Los Angeles in the future in 2000 — we made it in the 70s — in which the drivers are scored on three bases: how fast they could drive, how many cars they could knock off the road, and how many pedestrians they could kill. It won some award or some polls for being the greatest B picture ever made. I think it was how many pedestrians they could kill that made it good.
What was it like having a film made about you and collaborating with Alex on the project?
CORMAN: I didn’t collaborate that much. I discussed a few things with Alex, but essentially this is Alex’s film. She made it. And, to me, it was very nice. I think she made an excellent film and what I got out of it and what I liked was the fact that all the guys and women I had worked with spoke and everybody remembered the good times. We had good times together.
CORMAN: I was surprised and it made me emotional too because we’ve known each other since the 1950s when I was just getting started and Jack wasn’t getting much work. I thought from the beginning that he was a brilliant actor. I was not surprised when he became a star. I was surprised that it took him so long to become a star because I thought he had it from the beginning. As a matter of fact, he made a fair amount of money. He wrote a number of scripts for me. He was a very good writer. He wrote The Trip which was a big success for us.
What are you working on next?
CORMAN: We’re doing a picture in January in China, my first Chinese-American co-production in a city called Guangzhou. It’s the old Canton just about two hours outside of Canton. I’d never heard of this city, but I met this producer, this guy who owns a studio there, and he approached me, so we went there. I just got back a couple of weeks ago. It’s a city of 13 million people. He told me there are eleven or twelve or thirteen cities in China with populations of over 10 million people and most people in the West have never even heard of these cities.
How does your outlaw style of filmmaking work overseas?
CORMAN: I’m conservative in their terms. Henry Luk, the guy who owns the studio, told me the way he functions and the way most of the companies function is they put their crews on 52 weeks a year even though they know they will not be using them at that particular time. One of the reasons he made the deal with me he said [is because] he pays them even if they’re not working, so if I can have a film that fits in at that period, we can make a very good deal which we did. He then said we shoot seven days a week. I said I’m not going to shoot seven days a week. I think it’s counterproductive. I think you’re going to have people stumbling around after a couple of weeks. So we’re shooting six days a week. I’m more conservative than they are.
We’ve seen a lot of trends where the monster sees the public unconscious with vampires and zombies being two examples. What do you think the next one is going to be?
CORMAN: If I knew, I would make one. As a matter of fact, the picture I’m shooting in China originally was called The Ghost of the Imperial Palace. I’m shooting it partially because it’s a good deal in China but also because they’ve got a phenomenal set of the Imperial Palace a few hundred years ago. And, surprisingly enough, and this is really in answer to your question, the Chinese censor turned down the word “ghost” because he said ghost is a primitive superstition and China is a modern country. The new title is The Undead.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel opens in theaters on December 16th.