Give us another naked nurse and some more explosions!
Roger Corman, who turned 81 in April 2007, has assured his place in the history books several times over. As fast and furious director he established the new land-speed record for no-budget feature film-making across the 1950s, outdoing even himself with 1960sLittle Shop of Horrors (shooting schedule: two days). Meanwhile, as producer of almost 400 exploitation movies since 1955, he remains the most successful independent filmmaker Hollywood has ever known.
If he’d done nothing but direct the startling X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) or his 1960s cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, films that found the perfect balance between doomy, haunted elegance and bright, trippy Pop hallucination, he would be remembered. But as that turbulent decade wore on, Corman uniquely divined and responded to currents in the air — and the money burning holes in the pockets of a restless new youth audience — and started making films that reflected the times in ways major studios couldn’t comprehend. Nihilistic biker flicks such as The Wild Angels (1966) and head movies like The Trip (1967) led directly to Easy Rider (which, of course, he was instrumental in getting made) and the subsequent revolution in ’70s Hollywood.
His greatest legacy, however, might just be the incredible roster of directing and acting talent he has nurtured. From Jack Nicholson to Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper to Martin Scorsese, almost all of the “Easy Riders Raging Bulls” generation started out working for him in the 1960s. After they had graduated Corman University and moved on to their own careers, he was instrumental in kick-starting another entire generation again in the 1970s: names such as Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and James Cameron.
Save for his one-off return with Frankenstein Unbound in 1990, Corman retired from directing in 1971. But he remains tirelessly active. In the past six years alone his company Concorde-New Horizons has produced over 25 movies for the straight-to-video market — the modern equivalent of the drive-ins he used to feed during the 1950s and ’60s — and he continues to be called upon by former employees and fans to play cameos in their movies. Most recently, he was in Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Demme’s Manchurian Candidate remake. He will soon be seen again as a totemic presence in Searchers 2.0, the first result of Alex Cox’s new experiment in ultra low-budget “micro-features”
Here, though, Corman takes time out from his busy schedule to discuss some of his most illustrious alumni; and, following the interview with the man himself, a few more notable graduates of Corman University offer their memories of working for him: Bruce Dern, Monte Hellman, and David Carradine.
As we sit down,1 the King of American Independent Cinema is suffering from a bad cold, and his office diary is filled with appointments stacked up and waiting to land. Time is tight, resources momentarily depleted: the perfect set-up for a Roger Corman shoot, really.
DAMIEN LOVE: The idea here is to go through some of the most famous “Corman alumni,” and find out who they were back then. I thought we could start off with Jack Nicholson. I think I’m right in saying you first encountered him through the acting classes Jeff Corey2was running?
ROGER CORMAN: That’s right. As a director, I had no experience or training, I had a degree in engineering. And with the engineering degree, I was able to learn about the use of the camera and editing, all the technical aspects of filmmaking, but I didn’t know enough about acting, so I joined Jeff’s acting class to learn.
Were you also on the look out for young, unsigned acting talent you could maybe pick up cheap?
Yes, that’s right. My main purpose was to learn about acting — but of course I was always looking for good young actors.
How did Nicholson strike you? Did he stand out then?
Jeff was teaching The Method, which is based to a large extent on improvisation, and Jack was exceptionally good, really the best in the class with improvisation — with written work as well — but in improvisations he had a unique ability to play a dramatic scene with great intensity and at the same time bring humour to it, without undercutting the drama. That’s very difficult, and very unusual, to be able to do that well, and particularly when you consider that Jack was only about 19 or 20 at the time. And I think it’s one of the things that have served him well throughout his entire career. The things I saw then are still there. That inherent ability he had, combined with the training he got in acting school, now combined with many years of work and experience, he’s just grown and developed all the time. He’s always been a fine actor, and is simply getting better as he goes along.
You produced his first starring film, Cry Baby Killer (1958), but it was a while before you directed him yourself. He always did other jobs for you behind the camera, though, didn’t he?
That’s right. I did a picture called The Terror (1963), with Boris Karloff and Jack, which I shot two days of on some standing sets from The Raven, with only part of the script written. Boris worked those two days, and Jack knew that he was going to be the lead in the rest of the picture, when the rest of the script was written. And I had various people directing, Francis Coppola directed part of it, Monte Hellman directed part of it, Jack Hill did part of it, and the last day of shooting, there was nobody available, and so Jack said, “Roger, every idiot in town has directed part of this film; lemme direct the last day.” So I said, “Fine, Jack, go ahead.” And the work he did was good.3
His depraved performance in Little Shop of Horrors has become legendary.
That was a pure comedy role. It was a comedy horror film with the emphasis more on the comedy than the horror, and Jack played a masochist in a dentist’s office who wanted to have his teeth drilled. And he was very, very funny; the only problem with the scene was, it was supposed to end up as a duel between Jack and the dentist, using a scalpel and a dentist’s drill and — I shot this picture in two days — and on the first take, at the start of the duel, they knocked over the dentist’s chair, and so I said, “Alright, this scene ends right here.” Because we had no time to repair the dentist’s chair, which was broken apart.
I heard somewhere that he improvised on that film, which struck me as odd on a film with such a notoriously tight schedule.
Well, the script was followed 90 percent, but there was a little improvisation in and around the dialogue, particularly with the movement, the attitude and so forth. But although I only shot for two days, all the actors were actually signed for five, and I rehearsed them for three days, and during rehearsals we did a certain amount of improvisation which was incorporated into the shooting, so it was more during the rehearsal.
On The Raven (1963), you had Nicholson working alongside Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price. He was always a film fan; did he relish the opportunity to pick their brains?
Yes, Jack got along well with Vincent, Boris, and Peter, and it was particularly good, because he recognised and was rather deferential to them because of their great careers and talent and experience. And they could see very quickly that he was a talented young actor, so they helped him as much as they could. The relationship was very good. But Jack has always gotten along very well with his fellow actors.
Do you stay in touch with people like Nicholson?
I stay vaguely in contact with them, I see them at parties and so forth. Jack, when he directed the sequel to Chinatown (1974), The Two Jakes (1990), he offered me a role in it, but I had to be in Europe at that time, and so I was unable to play it, unfortunately.
Francis Ford Coppola was the first of your “graduates” to direct you in a movie, in Godfather Part II (1974). How was he to be directed by?
It was fine. For the members of the Senate crime investigating committee, of which I was one, he had cast writers, directors, and producers as the various senators, which was an interesting choice. He talked to all of us, explained the scene as to what we were doing, ran through the rehearsals, and then left us totally to our own devices during the takes, which I think is a very nice thing for a director to do, to work out the motivations and everything during the rehearsal period, and then really say nothing during the takes, unless there’s something specific he wants changed.
When you have a young director working for you, are you happy to stand back and let them develop their own style, or do you prefer to mould how they go about shooting — or is it case by case?
It changes from director to director, but in general, I have seen something of his or her work, a student film, or he has directed second unit for me, or shot a little feature or done commercials or something like that, so I know something of their style. I talk mostly about the technical aspects of directing. If I’m producing, I will talk about the style of the film, the meaning of the film and so forth, but the actual directorial style, I leave to the director. I feel I’ve made the choice of director, I have faith in that choice, so I must leave him free to develop his own style and do the film in the way he sees it, providing he stays true to the thoughts he and I have discussed.
How did Coppola come to your attention?
He came straight out of UCLA film school. This was in the 1960s, and I had bought the American rights to some Russian science fiction films, which were very well made technically, but they had really outrageous anti-American propaganda in them. So Francis’ job was to recut the films, dub them into English, and then cut out the anti-American propaganda. Then he became my assistant after that, and went on to direct Dementia 13(1963) for me.
I think the film you are talking about became known as Battle Beyond the Sun (1959/ 1963). Is that the film on which Coppola came up with those outrageous “male” and “female” monsters?
Ah, yes. I wanted an additional battle scene between some monsters put in, and when I said this to Francis, I suggested there could be some erotic quality to this. He went beyond anything kind of vaguely symbolic, and made it pretty blatant. We actually had to cut it back a little bit.
Was Coppola someone who could turn his hand to anything when he came to work for you?
Yes. For instance, when we went to Europe to do The Young Racers (1963) with a very small crew — we followed the Grand Prix Formula One circuit, working with the English racing team, Lotus — Francis was first assistant director, he handled some of the sound, and he handled second unit camera on some of the racing days. He was capable of doing just about any job there is on a film, and doing it well.
Can you sense when someone is going to go on and make their mark? Did you get that sense from him?
Both with Jack and Francis, and with some others, I could recognise early on that they had great abilities, and I expected them to do well. But I had no way of knowing they would do as well as they did.
How did you meet Peter Bogdanovich? Was he still working as a critic at that time?
Yes, I met him in a screening somewhere, and we began talking after the screening and grew very friendly. He came to work for me as my assistant and then wrote and directed Targets (1968). I had a couple of days with Boris Karloff, as a result of a contractual obligation from a previous picture, and so Peter wrote Targets around Boris’ brief sequence.
It’s a remarkable job of work. Did you have any idea what he was going to come up with for that film?
Yes, he had given me a number of ideas, which I had rejected, but then when he came up with the idea of juxtaposing the artificial horror of the motion picture screen, which Boris of course epitomised, with the actual horror of a sniper in a drive-in theatre, I approved that idea. He worked out an outline for the treatment of the script, which I then approved, then he wrote the script from that. In the actual shooting, as before, I left him totally alone. He developed his own style and shot without anything other than those discussions with me before shooting.
The kind of drive-in that features in that film has all but disappeared; but other than that, Targets still feels like a film that could have been made yesterday. It’s eerily relevant, in a way that perhaps many other films made at your stable at that time aren’t anymore.
Yes, I think that’s true. The concept of random violence in society is actually more pertinent today, unfortunately, than when the film was made.
Bogdanovich first worked on your biker movie, The Wild Angels. How did he get along with the real Hells Angels?
Yes, he was my assistant, and he directed some second unit on that as well. He didn’t get along, frankly, with them that well. But he got along well enough that they were able to work together. But, yes, they clearly came from two totally different worlds.
Has he been the most in love with film of all the people you’ve worked with?
I think almost all of the good directors I’ve worked with have been very much in love with film. He and Marty Scorsese may have the greatest knowledge of film history — well, actually, they all do, Francis Coppola has a great knowledge, as does Joe Dante, almost all of the others.
As a kind of two-for-one deal, I wanted to ask you about Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda together. Were they very much together as people when you first knew them?
I met Peter first, and through Peter met Dennis, they were friends. Then after The Wild Angels, when I did The Trip, Peter suggested Dennis for the role in that. And I think their friendship developed with them working together as actors on that, and that eventually led to Easy Rider. So it was a friendship that then also became a business and artistic partnership.
Was Peter Fonda at that period still carrying the weight of his family’s name? Did he have something to prove, do you think?
I think he was aware of the great fame and stature of his father and, to some extent, as any son would do, was trying to establish his own persona.
In The Wild Angels, you had a Fonda and a Sinatra4in there. How much of that was to do with having those names on the poster?
Well, it was the two things; it was partially the names, and partially that they were good actors and could play the roles.
Was Fonda more keen to get on with the Hells Angels?
Peter Fonda probably got on a little bit better with them than Peter Bogdanovich, certainly, because he was able to ride a motorcycle and ride it well, and as a result could relate with them. As an actor he worked with them and tried to help them in their performances, so he got on a little bit better.
During that period, Dennis Hopper was still trying to come back into movies following his famous bust-up with Henry Hathaway. How was he to direct?
No problems whatsoever. I had been told that he had given problems to several directors and he might be difficult to work with. He was never difficult to work with, in any way. I got along well with him, and have nothing but admiration both for his ability as well as his work ethic.
Is it true that he directed some of The Trip?
He shot some second unit, and his footage was very good, and led eventually to Easy Rider, because I was the original executive producer ofEasy Rider, but then that film moved for a variety of reasons from AIP to Columbia. But the good work he had done as a director of second unit onThe Trip was one of the reasons I was confident and went along with the combination of Peter to produce and Dennis to direct.
On The Trip, Dennis Hopper has that amazing scene where practically every second word he says is “man.” Was that scripted, or was that him?
That was scripted, but as he played the scene, “man” came in more and more. And more. And, well, I thought it was fine.
Were you surprised at how successful Easy Rider became? Were you aware of the shockwaves it seemed to send around the industry?
Yes. I mean I thought it was a good picture, and caught the spirit of youthful rebellion in the United States. I anticipated it being a success, but I didn’t realise how big a success it would be. You can almost chart a line from The Wild Angels to The Trip toEasy Rider, following the counterculture of the day. The Wild Angels and The Tripwere both extremely successful, and then Easy Rider was far more successful and became a very significant picture. The major studios were beginning to be aware of the power of the independent movement, and the great success of Easy Rider really shook them up, and caused them to bring in a number of the independent filmmakers.
Now, unfortunately, I’ve only got about 10 more minutes here, but let us continue and see how much we can get.
Okay. Let’s go to Martin Scorsese. I think he was working with John Cassavetes as an assistant when you got in touch with him to do Boxcar Bertha.
Yes, I had seen a picture he had done, an underground picture in black and white that he had done in New York, I don’t even remember the title of it,5 and it was clear that he was a very brilliant young filmmaker. He had never done a film in Hollywood. And I met him, I don’t remember exactly how I first met him, but we got along well. I had done Bloody Mama (1970), with Shelley Winters, about a rural woman gangster in the 1930s, and AIP wanted me to do a second one. And I had just started New World, my own company, so I said I would produce it, but I didn’t want to direct it because I didn’t have the time. And so I chose Marty to direct it, and he did an exceptionally good job. It was very successful, and it was a good film.
And that was Boxcar Bertha (1972). Is it true that you came under pressure to remove Scorsese from that movie?
Yes. AIP did not like his work, and they wanted me to step in and replace him. I said I didn’t have the time, and also that they were wrong: the work was good. It was simply some junior executive or someone, I don’t know who it was, had seen the dailies and didn’t think the work was good. I said I’d seen the dailies and considered this work to be exceptional. I didn’t think there was any reason at all to replace him, and eventually they agreed with me.
Scorsese has said that when it came time for him to do Mean Streets (1973), you had offered to provide backing for the film, but only if it was done as a kind of blaxploitation movie.
I dunno if it was black exploitation, but the idea was that the black films were doing very well, and I felt this type of film as a black film would be very successful. Weirdly enough, he shot a lot of Mean Streets in Los Angeles — although everyone tends to assume it was all shot in New York — and he took a crew and a staff who had worked with me, that he could shoot interiors with very inexpensively in L.A., then he went to New York, where it was more expensive to shoot, to shoot the exteriors.
Looking back, are you glad he didn’t follow your advice?
Well, yes. In the long run, he was totally correct with Mean Streets. He being Italian, made them young Italians, and was able to bring his own perspective through his own culture.
What do you remember about the 26-year-old Robert De Niro on Bloody Mama? Was there anything of his famous methods of getting into character back then?
Well, it has become a cliché to say it, but he was and is one of the most dedicated, most intense actors I have ever seen. We were shooting in Arkansas, and he went to Arkansas on his own a week or so before shooting, and just hung around, wandering through small towns, picking up accents, learning how people moved, what their opinions were. He was a very, very intense actor; it was clear, from the beginning, that he was brilliant.
Shelley Winters said that he almost starved himself to get into the weight loss of his glue-sniffing addict character for your film.
Yes, that’s right. I dunno how much weight he lost. But he definitely lost weight for that portion of the film.
Were you surprised by his level of commitment — I know you were aware of Method, as Shelley Winters was, but did it strike you as out of the norm?
It was somewhat out of the norm. But it was completely understandable — I understood what he was doing, and I approved of it, provided he didn’t damage his health, which he didn’t. But it was an intensity that you will see in very few actors.
Time for another?
Yes, one last session, okay.
Jumping forward an era, then, to James Cameron, how did he come to your attention?
He was simply hired as a model maker on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). In our main production, shooting was going well, but in special effects, model making and special effects photography and everything was not going well. So I had my offices in Brentwood and our studio was in Venice, so I had my assistant, Gale Hurd, go down to the studio and spend a few days to find out what was going on in the special effects department. So she came back and said that the people running it, while they were good, were maybe not that experienced and maybe not that talented, but one of the model makers, Jim Cameron, really knew what he was doing, and was a very good worker. So we immediately promoted Jim, and this was an example of simple ability. He was simply a model maker who was doing better work than anybody else in the department, and one of the things I take some pride in is the fact that, when we recognise somebody as good, we’ve always been able to promote them. And he moved up very quickly, and eventually became the head of the department and a second unit director as well.
What was his character like back then?
He was intensely devoted to the job, he worked very hard, was very creative, but he had humour about it, and was very good to work with.
You have always been synonymous with incredible economy — not for nothing did you call your autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. Did the irony ever strike you that one of your protégés would go on to set the new benchmark for the most expensive film ever made with Titanic (1997)?
I thought it was fine. And what I thought was particularly good was, even though he spent this vast amount of money, and people said, “Well, this is wasted money, you can’t spend that much money,” I disagreed, and I still disagree. Because, with Jim, the money he spent was up there on the screen. You can see in Titanic and his other pictures why he spent so much money to get the effects he wants. So I have no objection; in fact, I admire Jim for spending $150 or $180 million, precisely because you can see it. What I object to is somebody else who spends $80 million, and it’s two people walking around a room. What happened to the money on that film?
Are you still as enthused by the young people you have working for you now? Do you see another generation in the making, or is the whole industry different now?
I’m still as enthused. I have two young directors who have just finished two low-budget films for us. We have Brian Clyde, out of the New York University film school, who’s done a picture about black amateur boxers for us in New York, called Rage and Discipline (2004), which has played at several film festivals and done very well; and Henry Crum, who has done a street-racing picture with a Hispanic background, here in California, called Asphalt Wars (2004). And these two are two of the best young directors I’ve ever worked with.
We should watch that space then?
I think that would be a good idea.
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Born in 1936 into a distinguished Illinois family of politicians and businessmen, Dern started working in the late 1950s and served his apprenticeship with giants — including Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock, before joining Corman’s unit as part of the stock troupe who would subsequently carve out the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s. Corman directed him in The Wild Angels, The Trip, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and Bloody Mama. Dern got something else from his Corman years, too: his daughter, Laura, conceived with ex-wife Diane Ladd on the set of The Wild Angels.
DAMIEN LOVE: When you went to work with Roger Corman, was that a turning point in your career?
BRUCE DERN: Well, it was definitely a turning point. Because Roger allowed us to star in movies, instead of being the fifth cowboy from the left or the guy who dies early in a Ben Casey TV episode. He was making movies, they weren’t mainstream, big-budget movies, they were $300,000 movies made in ten days, and yeah, they were drive-in kind of movies and they were biker films and acid films and all of that — but that’s what was going on then in the mid-’60s! I tell you, I quit college after my sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957, but I finished college with Roger Corman. That’s what he did. He didn’t know it. He didn’t mean to do it that way, but that’s what it was for those of us who paid attention. He was just The Best. He encouraged us to improvise, he encouraged us to make a script better, he encouraged us to do two jobs instead of one — meaning you’d act, and you’d also do a job behind the camera, like you’d help with the grips, or this or that — and he was very interested in the Actors Studio and its effect on actors. He loved Actors Studio actors. So he was really quite extraordinary in the growth of a lot of people. And his movies were fun. Hectic, maddening, but fun — the only director I ever worked with who shot faster than Roger Corman was Michael Ritchie. On movies like Smile (1975) and Diggstown(1992), both of which Michael directed, we averaged 56 set-ups a day on one camera. Now Roger didn’t have enough film to do 56 set-ups a day, but there were no Take Twos with Roger. So you better be pretty fuckin’ entertaining when he flicked the switch. You better be a really good actor and get it down, because there were no Take Twos.
On The Wild Angels, infamously, you had a Hells Angels chapter as extras. How did that work?
Well, Roger didn’t know what he was getting into when he hired real Hells Angels. But, for some reason, they took to me a little bit, I think because I was a runner and I used to run long distances then, they used to say, “Jesus, he’s gotta be nuts to do that.” And they liked a nutty person. I was kind of a one percenter to them, which is what they think they are, the one percent of society that doesn’t fit. That’s why they wear the one percent on their jackets. And I got along with them pretty well. They would ask me questions, about what they were supposed to be doing, and what was this and that, because Roger, because he’s so bright and glib and quick, he doesn’t thoroughly let you know, because he expects everybody to get it on the first level, on the top level, immediately. And they don’t. So these guys and these girls didn’t, but he was fabulous to them. And eventually they became incorporated because of Roger. You know, you wanna make a movie with Hells Angels in it today, then you’re gonna pay them to wear the Hells Angels logo and everything. So they incorporated and it became a successful venture for them. Of course, this was after they’d already done two movies for Roger and he didn’t have to pay them any extra for it at all.
He knew how to spend a dollar and make it count?
Oh yeah. But Roger was like that in everything. I mean — there were no permits.There were no rules. One night, we were doing The Trip, Peter Fonda runs away from me on this acid trip he’s on, and he runs into the Whisky-a-Go-Go, and I run in after him about 20 seconds later. This is, like, 1967, and the Whisky is just packed with people every night. Well, uh we didn’t tell anybody we were gonna do that. We didn’t tell anybody we were gonna be filming there. There were no police involved or anything: Roger went up on the corner and he said, “Look” — he had a walkie-talkie, and Peter and I had a walkie-talkie in our cars — and he says “Now, Peter, you drive up, get out of your car, go inside. Bruce, when Peter hits the door, you come up behind his car, get outta your car and go inside after him. Wait one minute. Then Peter, you come out, then Bruce’ll come out, and we’ll be up here on the stick recording it. And remember there’s no Take Two here. ‘Cause soon as they see the camera on the street, they’re gonna come get us, and the Whisky is gonna want to know what you guys are doing and somebody will want to be paid. So you guys are on your own, but take care of it, because this shot helps make this a much better movie.” We’d do that three or four times a day, every day. We’d put ourselves at risk — as Roger did too — but y’know, no one ever stopped us. No one ever screwed with us. You know what the key word to Roger is? Courage. He had enormous courage. Enormous courage. And I’ll always be — and so will Jack Nicholson and so will Peter Fonda and so will Francis Coppola and so many other people — always be indebted to Roger. We came from there.
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Born in 1932, the future Two-Lane Blacktop director had studied film at UCLA, worked as a TV editor, and founded a theatre company before, in 1959, he started making monster movies for Corman. For Corman, as well as working as editor and assistant on various films, he directed The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), parts ofThe Terror, and Cockfighter (1974). In 1966, with a little of Corman’s money, he went into the desert with Jack Nicholson, and emerged with the world’s first existential westerns, The Shooting andRide in the Whirlwind.
How did you first encounter Corman?
MONTE HELLMAN: I had a theatre company in Los Angeles in the 1950s. And Roger was one of the backers of my theatre company. He invested in four of our productions, including the first production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in LA. And when the theatre company was disbanded because we lost our theatre, he suggested that I start working as a director in film. The theatre was sold, and we were leasing it, and we were evicted because they had decided to turn the theatre into a movie theatre. And Corman said, y’know, “Take that as a sign. Move on!”
Corman, famously, made movies for hardly any money and in hardly any time. Did that training stand you in good stead?
Yes, I think that I continue to appreciate that. Because every so often we go through a stage where making movies inexpensively proves to be a tremendous advantage — I think we’re going through one of those periods now. They either want to make very, very expensive movies or they want to make them so cheaply it’s almost impossible. When you work with Corman, you learn that anything is possible. If someone tells you “Well, a picture can’t be made for such and such a price,” you learn that that’s not true, that you can make any picture for any amount of money. It was prophetic then, and now it’s absolutely true because of the digital revolution.
The other famous thing about that period, of course, is the people who passed through the doors of Corman University. I think your time working with him coincided with the time Francis Ford Coppola was there.
Yes. I worked alongside Francis, and actually, I think I contributed to one of his films. He made a film in Ireland for Roger, a horror film, and I was doing some added scenes for The Terror, and we finished our last day of shooting on The Terror, and it was a long day, and I got back, to bring the equipment back, and Roger asked me to go and shoot a prologue to Francis’ movie, Dementia 13. What I had to do was shoot a prologue with a hypnotist who basically warned the audience of the dangers of watching this movie if they had a weak heart!
One of the first things you worked on with Roger Corman was The Last Woman on Earth, wasn’t that Robert Towne’s acting debut?
Yes, I worked with Robert, but I’d known Robert quite a bit before that actually. In fact, the first script that I tried to — I’d already made a film for Roger, but there was a script that Robert Towne had written called Fraternity Hell Week, which I was trying to get on and direct. So I knew Robert even before I worked with him on The Last Woman on Earth and The Creature from the Haunted Sea.
Your own directorial debut, The Beast from Haunted Cave, was in the same kind of area. You’re quite a long way from Samuel Beckett here.
Ha. Well, Samuel Beckett, at least in Waiting for Godot, is a kind of a slapstick comedian. And that’s the kind of thing that I was dong in these little pieces for Corman. Not so much in The Beast from Haunted Cave but in The Creature from the Haunted Sea, it’s total slapstick. So I just continued with the kind of comic creativity that I’d used in Waiting for Godot.
Does it strike you odd that people go and dig up these obscure, almost throwaway films that people made in two weeks and have since tried to forget about, and almost fetishise them?
Ah, well, I’ve gotten used to it. It may have struck me odd at one time, but now I just accept it as one of the idiosyncrasies of this film world. But going back to the previous question, I will say that doing the added scenes — well, in actual fact, they weren’t added scenes, but helping to finish The Terror, the work that I did on that, I have to say that that was the first time that I really created my own unit. I hired the crew, I wrote the scenes with Jack Hill, and I had that feeling of freedom, that really for the first time I was really directing on The Terror.
I have to confess an affection for The Terror; partly because of the conditions of its making. It looks so striking, visually, haunting in some areas, but it’s almost like freeform, tag-team filmmaking.
Well, yeah. It was an amazing thing, and it’s just amazing that we got a film out of it. Particularly shooting the sequence where the hawk comes down and claws the man’s eyes out, and he stumbles and falls over the cliff, and Jack goes racing down to hear his dying words. It was so difficult to achieve those things in the time that we had, and with all the lack of production facilities. It was really thrilling, just as an experience.
Corman was also instrumental in you making The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind — I understand those films came about as a result of your not making another film for him, Epitaph.
That’s correct. Jack Nicholson and I had written this film Epitaph together, about an actor in Los Angeles, and Corman had agreed to finance it for us. And then, well, we had lunch with Corman, and he said that he’d changed his mind about Epitaph and he no longer wanted to finance it. He felt it was “too European” a film, but he said that he didn’t want to disappoint us completely, so he offered to back us to make a western. And by the time we had finished lunch, that had become two westerns.
Well, you might as well make two, while you’re out there.
When you did Cockfighter, it failed commercially on release, and so Corman tried reediting it — in fact he got Joe Dante in to cut in some exploding cars and naked nurses. Did you ever see that version?
I did and I was … appalled by it! Archetypal Roger. But, all’s well that ends well, and the film is now preserved as we intended it, there’s a good DVD version available in the States. That’s all I can ask for, happy endings.
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Born in Hollywood in 1936, John Carradine’s eldest boy is still associated primarily with his TV role as Kung Fu‘s ass-kicking Buddhist, Grasshopper, or, more recently as Kill Bill‘s Bill. But it pays to remember that, under Corman’s aegis in 1972, Carradine was actually Martin Scorsese’s first leading man, in Boxcar Bertha, and that entire cults have formed around his role in Corman’s 1975 splatter-fest Death Race 2000. In addition to those two movies, Carradine has racked up another 13 Corman productions, including Death Sport (1978), Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989) and, most recently Dangerous Curves (2000).
I think the first time you worked with Corman was Boxcar Bertha, which he produced. Was Corman around a lot?
No. Roger’s never around during a picture. He gives a director his head. And as long as a director shoots the script — and very often with Roger, it’s the director’s own script — as long as he shoots the script, Roger will leave him alone. He will come around once or twice during a picture, mainly just to compliment people. Just to say, “I’ve seen the dailies and you’re wonderful.” And then he’ll just leave the director alone, until he’s finished with his first cut. Then he’ll step in, and start, I guess what he would call “fixing a picture.” Which sometimes consists of ruining it. Y’know, that’s Roger. But, you know, he puts his stamp on it.
Yeah, it often used to seem to consist of editing in some naked ladies and exploding cars.
Uh, yeah. Y’know, Roger believes in a certain percentage of certain ingredients in every picture, and if there’s not enough nudity or enough sex or enough violence or enough comedy, then he’ll arrange to add some. Y’know, in Death Race 2000, he basically added comedy: not because there wasn’t enough comedy in the film, but because it had originally been conceived as an Action-Message-Comedy. And he told me: “What the man9 has given me is a “Comedy-Action-Message” And so he said, “Okay if it’s gonna be a comedy, it needs more comedy.” Then, sometimes, y’know, he’ll come in and he’ll say, “Okay, I need a lot of explosions. Give me a whole lot of explosions,” right? He’s a very smart guy, Roger. I always thought, if he ever got off the idea that the main priority of a movie is that it dare not lose money, then he coulda made some truly great pictures, because he’s a philosopher, he has great taste on his own, but he never did. And then he stopped directing, because the last two pictures he directed were not so successful, so he didn’t take that chance again.
You made over a dozen films with him as producer, but am I right in thinking that you always wanted to be directed by him?
Yes, absolutely, I did. I was always trying to talk him into it. Remember when, after years of not directing, he came back and directed Frankenstein Unbound? When he was making the picture, I called him up and I said, “Roger, lemme play the monster.” Right? And he said, “No, no, no, you don’t wanna do that. Not the way I’m going to do the monster.” Actually, I would have loved to. But he didn’t think it was up my alley. I think he thought it was gonna be “beneath me.” Roger was always trying to protect me from myself. I loved that film, actually. I mean, it had some funny things about it, but what picture doesn’t? But one of the paramount things I could not understand about that picture was casting John Hurt as an American. I mean, that was a very odd thing to do.
The other thing he has, and he has made some great films himself, but he has this uncanny eye for talent.
Oh, yeah. It’s just amazing, really. The way he is able to see it when it comes. But he doesn’t exactly have to see it. Because, what he does is: almost anybody can go to Roger’s studio in Santa Monica and ask for a job. And it’s unlikely they won’t get one. What’ll happen is, say, he’ll hire somebody as a production assistant, which mainly consists of running errands. And he’ll give them $50 a day, if they have their own car, right, and the gas. And, y’know, if they show some spunk, he’ll give them a better job. It’s really simple. And almost anybody can get that first job. So, in other words, he doesn’t have to actually — I’m not saying that he didn’t a lot — but he doesn’t have to discover talent, because the talent gets discovered while they’re working for him, and he goes, “Hmmm … okay.” And the result is you can start out as a production assistant there, and it’s very common to become a producer for Roger, or a director. And, the other thing he does is, a director will wanna get a job with him, and will show him a piece of film they did at USC or someplace like that. And Roger’ll say, “This picture shows great promise. I’m gonna give this guy a break.” And then he does. He’s a very generous guy. And he’s also honest. I mean, I had a piece of Death Race 2000, and, if you had a piece of a major studio picture, they’d do everything they could to cheat you out of it. You’d have to audit them and, y’know, all that. But Roger just paid right on schedule, every time. Now, don’t get me wrong: he didn’t like it. He hated giving me those checks. And he never made another deal like that with an actor, because, y’know, that was the largest-grossing picture he ever made, so he had to give me a lot of money. But, y’know, when he’d write me this check, he’d be so unhappy, I’d say, “Roger, don’t you realise that when you’re writing me a cheque for $30,000, you’re still making $300,000 of your own?” But it didn’t matter. He still just didn’t like it.
- This interview with Corman took place in 2004. [↩]
- Between 1951 and 1963, the American character actor Jeff Corey (1914-2002) was unable to work in movies as a victim of the anti-Communist blacklist. He worked as a labourer, until friends encouraged him to start teaching acting, in the garage behind his house. Across the 1950s, he became Hollywood’s most sought-after acting coach, with such disparate legends as Gary Cooper and James Dean among his students, and exerted profound influence on the generation spearheaded by Jack Nicholson. Word of mouth about his insightful technique — stressing improvisation and an oblique approach to character — swiftly spread. Soon the studios that refused to employ him were secretly sending contract players to study under him. Even while tutoring stars like Cooper, though, Corey still worked digging ditches. His connection with Dean, and his reputation for standing up to the system enamoured him to a generation of younger actors, including Nicholson, James Coburn, Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, and Jane and Peter Fonda, as well as the writer Robert Towne. [↩]
- Having finished The Raven (1963) early, and still having Boris Karloff under contract for two more days, the legendarily economical Corman shot most of this in forty-eight hours, then completed it by sending various crews out whenever he could to film exteriors. The resulting, supremely unclear story has Napoleonic officer Nicholson searching Karloff’s grim, coastal castle for a mysterious (dead) girl who saved his life. [↩]
- Nancy. [↩]
- Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968). [↩]
- The Bruce Dern interview took place in 2003. [↩]
- The Monte Hellman interview took place in 2002. [↩]
- The David Carradine interview took place in 2003; some parts of the Dern, Carradine and Hellman interviews originally appeared in Uncut magazine. [↩]
- Director Paul Bartel. [↩]