It Came from New World Pictures!
In 1977, when John Sayles arrived in Hollywood with his script of Eight Men Out, his only point of penetration into the film industry, despite his publications and writing awards, was through the exploitation doorway. He accepted Roger Corman‘s offer to rewrite Piranha, and then more genre assignments for Corman’s New World Pictures (The Lady In Red and Battle Beyond the Stars), and related non-Corman titles (Alligator, The Howling). Sayles clearly enjoyed his apprenticeship, pumping fresh blood into these narratives of werewolves, mutant reptiles, and tommygun shootouts with his trademark literate dialogue, bemused humor, and attention to social bearings, all clearly apparent in these genre products.
In this meeting of sensibilities, where does Sayles — the indie champion of political community who rejects regressive fantasies and glorification of individualism — intersect with Corman, the maestro of bottom-dwelling fantasies of motorcycle gangs and student nurses? Or with the complex Corman of mandarin tastes (whose U.S. distribution arm imported such rarified fare as Jeanne Moreau’s Lumière, Resnais’ Mon Oncle d’Amérique, and Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo)?
How to reconcile their contradictions? Corman shows a social liberal face, while describing himself as a “rock-ribbed Republican.” one who dragged productions as far as Lithuania and Bulgaria to escape costly union regulations. In the opposite corner sits Sayles the grassroots radical, the committed union champion of Matewan, the lunch-pail populist who directed Bruce Springsteen’s music videos. Whatever the disparity, Corman and Sayles undeniably found enough common ground for three features together; perhaps they shared a language because both learned film on the job, not at film school.
In fact, both confronted social reality in America in films centered around outsiders. Corman introduced beatniks, hippies, and druggies as suitable cases for cinematic treatment, and consciously challenged Hollywood’s reigning myth of a classless society. The bikers of The Wild Angels (1966), says Corman, “represented the darker side of our society … They’re part of a growing group of people who have no place in our technological society. At one time they might have been janitors or something like that but even those jobs are being automated now. Naturally, the Angels claimed that they didn’t want to be part of our society but that’s because they’re not really capable of it. They’re frozen out.”1
Sayles’ social panoramas also watch how various fault lines in communities — class, gender, generation, race, culture — create outsiders. If Corman sensationalized them as outlaws, Sayles’ characters live on the cultural fringe: in Sunshine State, for example, the threadbare Civil War reenactor could have stumbled out of a Corman film (and would certainly recognize his spiritual brothers and sisters in John Huston’s Fat City, Wise Blood, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
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The Sistine Chapel view of cinema, focused heavenwards toward weighty themes and formal innovation, looks down on the world of exploitation film for its genre stereotypes and comic book certainties. However, in the context of 1960s America, when Sayles was growing up and Corman was already directing, the public spent its box-office dollars to see low-budget specimens of undemanding genres like horror, science-fiction, and westerns.
As fodder for double bills at drive-in theaters, exploitation was a market of reduced expectations, considering that the images were distorted on an oversized screen, viewed in insufficient darkness and through a car’s windshield, while sound squeaked through a single tinny speaker. Under such conditions, including spectators busy with offscreen activities, these films evoked few complaints despite production values seemingly funded from the spare change under the sofa cushions, and all the consequent problems of haphazard framing, perfunctory acting, and scripts full of naked exposition.
Among the colorful Kings of Exploitation, personalities like Ed Wood, William Castle, and Russ Meyer, Corman stands out for his unmatched success but also his conscious strategy to challenge the big studio system at every turn. So prolific that his filmographies almost instantly fall out of date, Corman has produced, as of this writing, well over 300 films and directed some 50. When he started New World Pictures in 1971, Corman turned from his growing stature as a director (notably of stylish and profitable Edgar Allen Poe adaptations) to concentrate on producing a “wild bunch” of rowdy films full of vulgar energy and generous helpings of nudity and pulp controversy.
It takes a special nerve to pass off a sock puppet as The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (1956), but Corman thought nothing of such bargain-basement effects. At a time when indie pioneers like Lionel Rogosin and Kenneth Anger and John Cassavetes were laboring on virtually homemade films, Corman was busy shooting on the scruffy brown hills above the Hollywood sign, staging cowboy gunfights and attacks by papier-mâché aliens. Young Corman was standing astride two eras, one foot in the paradigm of the modest B-movie programmer of “Old Hollywood,” the other in the auteur-driven indies of “New Hollywood.”
Executives at the blue-chip studios could scoff at his string of gory, sexually explicit, and predictably disreputable hits as a kind of lowbrow McCinema. Yet he won grudging respect for his financial acumen as he unleashed hit after hit, never hiding his strategy of pirate recycling, exploiting their big-budget successes (Jaws) with exploitation copies (Piranha). Even now, the multimillionaire Corman still seems driven by a compulsion to outwit the “suits,” although what seems important to him is being smarter, not richer.
With young cinephiles banging on the doors of the studios for entry, Corman developed another profit-spinning strategy by exploiting the first waves of film-school graduates, some of whom would become key players in the American film renaissance of the 1970s. Actress Mary Woronov has suggested that Corman’s New World operation resembled Andy Warhol‘s “Factory,” and indeed it shares the same reputation as an incubator for talent (though Warhol’s helpers tended to burn out fast). Corman set neophytes to work off their baby fat on projects like Battle Beyond the Sun (Coppola) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (Bogdanovich). Every assignment and every production was a screen test for the likes of Monte Hellman, Jonathan Demme, Brian DePalma, Jonathan Kaplan, and Carl Franklin.
At New World’s boot camp, natural selection ruled, with little room for fragile feelings. If any of Corman’s “name” directors sustained scars from their experience, they don’t show them in public. Of course, no one is bothering to interview the Corman troops who did not emerge into the big-time. To some, New World was a gulag of financial exploitation, yet Sayles believed Corman offered a fair exchange: “I wrote three screenplays for Roger and all three got made into movies. That’s why he is really so incredible. You get the learning, the writing, the story conferencing, and all that. But you also see the whole thing translated into a movie.”2
Market research on titles and poster art drove Corman’s decisions on what properties to produce and how (especially important when no big star names can be exploited). “Basically, if you could get a good trailer out of the script, Roger had absolutely no objection to you making a really good movie…He liked it if you did. He liked the more cleverness and ingenuity you could bring to it…He just wasn’t going to give you any more money.”3
Corman’s reputation for stepping on each penny till it screams shows in the toolbox of production tricks that he and his directors evolved. Scorsese says, “I had expected in Roger a Harry Cohn type, a rough, very crude person who was a genius at knowing what people wanted and how to market it. Instead I found him a very courteous and gentlemanly guy, but a very stern and tough customer who was quite polite as he explained these outrageous tactics of exploitation in cold, calm terms.”4
On the principle that time is money, Corman rooted his shoestring productions in fine-tuned scheduling of resources, hiring a good actor for only a day or two but wringing every drop of his or her talents efficiently. In his autobiography, Corman recounts a pointed early lesson in the discipline he expected: while shooting a western called Gunslinger, actress Allison Hayes fell off her horse and broke her arm. Before transportation arrived to take her to the hospital, Corman rushed forward with his camera. “I shot a reel of close-ups of Allison looking left, looking right, and so on… I’d figure out later how to cut them in”5
Penny-pinching also meant using thrift-shop wardrobes, renting standing sets of other films, and widespread multitasking (with crew members acting, actors writing, writers recording sound, and so on. In fact, Sayles’ longtime composer Mason Daring was first hired as the production lawyer for Return of the Secaucus Seven).6
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With no time for aesthetic precision, Corman’s cinema substitutes energy, resourcefulness, and impudence. Among the pleasures that Sayles supplied are playful disrespect for genre boundaries and disregard for the laws of plausibility, predating by decades the self-reflexive irony of Scream. If the werewolf figure served as a metaphor for the alienated individual, Sayles pushed the social anxiety up from the subconscious level and into the spotlight. While dressing up the timeworn formulas with cohesive logic and literate dialogue, Sayles added flesh and blood to the genre characters.
Blood flowed like water in Piranha, his first assignment, a targeted knockoff of Jaws, with matching poster art and several scenes of direct homage. In place of a posturing virile hero, Sayles presents a boozy social recluse (Bradford Dillman), the first in his lowlife parade of outsiders. This one quit smoking because “it interfered with my drinking.” Adding good-humored quips and imaginative jabs, Sayles hit all the traditional genre notes (such as teens making unwise decisions and suffering fatal consequences) and dutifully crafted several scenes in a girls’ summer camp as an occasion for topless displays, de rigeur for any New World production.
Science twisted in service to war is the environmental theme Sayles introduces, blaming the infestation of piranhas on Operation Razor Teeth, a military tactic to destroy river life in the Mekong Delta. One camp counselor dooms himself when he scoffs, “People eat fish. Fish don’t eat people,” while an excitable lab scientist cries, “They’ll kill all of us! They breed like flies! There’s no way to stop them!” The ironic solution is to flood the fish with a tide of industrial waste (“We’ll pollute the bastards to death!”).
In preproduction, Sayles found that Corman’s “comments were always very, very specific…”On Page 67, we think this is a little quick to have another attack of piranhas, so could you put it off until Page 69?'”.7 But who was responsible — Sayles or director Joe Dante — for the unexplained grace note in one lab scene where gentle dinosaur-like creatures peek out behind the cages, like Ray Harryhausen’s most benign pets?
Sayles’ other two ventures into horror were non-Corman assignments, but both Alligator and The Howling presented opportunities for creative freedom because no pre-existing scripts were involved. “Those are fun, especially if they’re going to shoot them in four weeks, because you know they’re not going to mess with anything you do, so it can be very imaginative…you know, ‘Keep the title’…”8
When Alligator fell into his lap, Sayles cleverly fleshed out the urban legend of the baby gator flushed down the toilet, that subsequently grows to monstrous proportions in the sewers under Chicago, nourished on a diet of puppy dogs discarded from an animal laboratory’s growth hormone experiments. As in Piranha, Sayles concocts more green revenge and more Jaws references, this time in league with fellow Corman veteran Lewis Teague. A mischievous scene of children playing pirate games wracks nerves as the audience holds its breath, anticipating the body count as the unsuspecting kids walk the plank over the gator-infested water. In the course of this sewer opera, complete with reference to The Third Man, Sayles has the reptile star respect no political authority: he chases the mayor into a limo and then devours the limo.
Taking on another beloved horror archetype, Sayles and Joe Dante moved to Avco-Embassy for The Howling, where they subverted genre boundaries with a tight and clever structure. A serial killer formula hooks the audience, with a blonde TV reporter (Dee Wallace) lured into the back room of a sex shop as bait, but Sayles suddenly pulls a switch, shapeshifting his criminals into werewolves. In a witty conceit, he posits an Esalen-like institute in Big Sur as a cover for a colony of lycanthropes. Wielding comedy as his weapon, Sayles mercilessly attacks the pretensions of New Age authors and vacuous TV producers, adding additional elements of cattle mutilation and body snatching, plus an amusingly grisly motif of smiley-face stickers as signs that the murderer is near.
Until the elaborate special effects transforming man to wolf eventually unbalance the film, Dante’s exuberant direction keeps the action clear, while Sayles himself appears as a laconic morgue attendant, and even Corman shows up as a guy waiting for a phone booth. Sayles sets nuns shopping in an occult bookstore, makes room for some full frontal wolf sex, but with a keen awareness of film history, leaves the last word to the iconic Maria Ouspenskaya in a clip from Siodmak’s The Wolf Man, the ur-text of the genre.
Sayles crossed science-fiction with western elements for Battle Beyond the Stars, a project Corman designed to ride the jet stream of Star Wars. Allotted a relatively lavish two million dollar budget with a luxurious five weeks of shooting, Sayles repositioned Kurosawa‘s The Seven Samurai onto an interplanetary scale, with space mercenaries assembled to save the planet Akira. With each defender representing a different species, Sayles explores inventive concepts such as one race who share a language where changes in temperature take the place of words, while another is actually a collective of five individuals (all in whiteface) who form a single consciousness.
Meanwhile, the villain (John Saxon) is conceived as a corporeal work-in-progress, whose limbs and organs must constantly be replaced, while Sam Jaffe appears as a disembodied head. With George Peppard basically playing Toshiro Mifune as an astrocowboy, and Robert Vaughn reprising his tortured philosopher from The Magnificent Seven, director Jimmy Murakami just shouted “action” and “cut” and left the actors to themselves. Sayles, however, practiced his knack for fitting numerous central characters into one narrative, and even managed a John Ford campfire moment with “Red River Valley” swelling on the soundtrack.
Sayles would later export the sci-fi template to the mean streets of contemporary Harlem in Brother From Another Planet, creating an original and uncondescending comedy of race. His simple metaphor asserts blacks as literal aliens in American society (adding the witty detail that urban graffiti contains concealed messages from aliens). As an alternative to the sensationalized violence of the contemporary blaxploitation thrillers, the film also served to illustrate that African-Americans do not exist to provide opportunities for white people to self-actualize.
Corman’s taste for backwoods Americana of the Depression era, already lucratively indulged in Bloody Mama and Big Bad Mama, turned to the hayseed Cinderella that tabloid newspapers dubbed The Lady In Red. Working backward from the memorable snapshots of Dillinger’s assassination in an alley outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Sayles’ script constructs a backstory of barnyards and brothels for the crime boss’s female companion. As if in tribute to William Wellman, Sayles combines the Scarface cycle (led by Wellman’s Dillinger fiction Public Enemy), the hard-luck Depression struggles of a tough woman (The Purchase Price), and the working-class girl’s aspirations to film stardom (A Star Is Born), yet bending the masculine outlook so that a woman’s story takes center stage of a gangster film.
By no means the tawdriest or most salacious specimen of Corman’s output, it still allows for some topless dramatics, along with sensational women-in-prison excitement (a rubber-gloved matron gets electrocuted in a hair dryer). Alongside a full catalogue of the casual epithets of race and ethnicity, Sayles fashions a stirring revolt of seamstresses against their boss in a Chicago sweatshop. Yet despite the energy of Lewis Teague’s staging, Sayles seems most like a hired gun here. Tolerating extremes of violence that he rejects for his own films, Sayles’ screenplay insists on too convenient recurrences of lesser characters, yet pays unnaturally brief attention to the heroine’s liaison with Dillinger. (With the relatively high-salaried Robert Conrad in this role, the Corman strategy meant limiting scenes that demanded his costly participation).
Although New World produced The Lady in Red, the producer of record was not Roger but Julie Corman, his wife. Perhaps she was responsible for the feminine angle, although her husband and Sayles have been leaders in creating stories that address the relationships between strong women. If Corman’s most outwardly crass ventures into hot nurses and incarcerated babes suggest a fake feminism, these always positioned women front and center in the story, no less than Sayles’ Lianna and Passion Fish (or the Sayles-produced Girlfight).
With John Frankenheimer in the director’s seat, Sayles accepted The Challenge to try his hand at the kung fu genre, this time with Toshiro Mifune himself. Pitting an uncomprehending American against the traditional values of Asia, global capitalist versus samurai, in a culture clash drama that attains a high quotient of violence, from swordplay across Kyoto to the memorable scene of forehead stapling.
Sayles has continued to earn his living through genre screenwriting (scripting prehistoric women for Clan of the Cave Bear and mutant cockroaches for Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic). With great caution, Sayles stuck his head in Hollywood’s oven for Baby, It’s You, but Paramount plagued every step, from casting (they wanted an Australian male lead) to story (the female should not be smarter than the male) to editing (the studio attempted to chisel a high school comedy out of his footage). “But the new version tested even worse than mine, so they gave it back to me. When it was released, Baby, It’s You got mixed reaction, and Paramount practically dumped it. It failed, of course.”9 The lesson was clear: keep control of the money.
To preserve his independence, Sayles’ mistrust of corporate control reportedly led him to turn down even Corman’s offer to invest in Secaucus Seven.10 In the face of the corporations’ lockhold on distribution, Sayles has fiercely guarded the independence of his films, pounding the pavement to raise his own funds and using all of Corman’s production tricks to keep his budgets spartan, while accepting the resulting aesthetic compromises (Sayles remarked, “I think we made a couple of Dogma movies without knowing it!”)11
Since 1983, Corman has increasingly delegated production to others, while he played with exploiting opportunities in new technologies. True to form, he has continued to produce mirrors of big hits (flooding theaters with his Carnosaur a week before its mega-budget model Jurassic Park). He now promises an anti-Harry Potter movie, but typically flipping the focus to a girl with magical powers who “goes to a school run by the government which is the exact opposite of Harry Potter: the object is to take away these powers, to make children into conformists.”12
As Sayles gains increasing success, perhaps he will reflect on his time in the underbelly of Hollywood. In Passion Fish, he crafted one funny yet poignant monologue that crystallizes the humiliations of the acting profession: an actress recounts the absurdity of how, to succeed at an audition, she summoned all her professional expertise to produce four variant readings of the preposterous line, “I never asked for the anal probe.” Think of the other self-betrayals Corman and Sayles have witnessed in Hollywood. Then imagine them collaborating again on their own version of The Player: it could be a silver bullet in the heart of all those Armani-clad werewolves.
- Mark Thomas McGee, Roger Corman: The Best of the Cheap Acts (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988), 56. [↩]
- Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), x. [↩]
- Leonard Maltin, “John Sayles Interview,” Writers Guild of America, 13 February, 1998. Online. http://www.wga.org/pr/0298/sayles.html [↩]
- Martin Scorsese, quoted in Corman with Jerome, 185. [↩]
- Corman with Jerome, 35. [↩]
- The director’s commentaries on the Region 1 DVDs of Secret of Roan Inish and Sunshine State almost constitute a course in independent production tips, from troubleshooting creaky floorboards in real locations to exploiting public gatherings for free extra players. (Hence the zydeco festival in Passion Fish, and outdoor musicales in Limbo and Sunshine State). Equally instructive, though less specific, is the commentary Corman and Sayles recorded together for Battle Beyond the Stars. [↩]
- Maltin, “John Sayles Interview.” [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Eliot Asinof, “John Sayles,” ,DGA magazine, Volume 22-5 December/January 1998. Online. http://www.dga.org/news/mag_archives/v22-5/john_sayles.htm [↩]
- Beverly Gray, “What They Learned from Roger Corman,” Moviemaker Magazine, Issue 42. Online. http://www.moviemaker.com/issues/42/corman-learned.html [↩]
- David Michael, “Independents in Limbo? The John Sayles Interview,” Online. http://www.efilmcritic.com/hbs.cgi?feature=96 [↩]
- Gerald Peary, “Roger Corman”, March 2002, Online. http://www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/abc/corman.html [↩]