Fun in the New World
Corman founded New World in 1970; it was his second attempt to control production and distribution (after the ill-fated Film Group, which lasted a couple of years in the early ‘60s). It was also highly successful, adding to Corman’s millions and firmly establishing his place as the godfather of the “New Hollywood” of the ‘70s with its alumni including Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Jonathan Kaplan, Monte Hellman, Stephanie Rothman, et al. Aficionados know it as the studio that gave us definitive versions of the tits n’ ass women-in-prison and nurse films, but it was also schizoid in the Corman manner, with feminist overtones, a comic anticapitalist bent, and a playlist that put The Big Doll House and Stacey and Her Gangbusters! alongside prestige pickups like Fellini’s Amarcord and Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Corman sold the company in 1983, but New World continues to hold a place in the hearts of trashmeisters and anyone interested in the byways of independent cinema.
This interview was conducted in 1974 when New World was going full-tilt. It’s resurrected from the print edition of Bright Lights, issue 2 (Spring 1975). I’ve reprinted the introduction as a quickie intro to the company still remembered throughout the industry as the most successful low-budget company ever.
New World Pictures is a Los Angeles-based production/distribution company started by Roger Corman in 1970. To date, New World has released 22 of its own features and distributed 15 other foreign and domestic pickups. The films are low budget ($200,000-$300,000), in color, and many are shot in such foreign locales as Rome and, more often, the Philippines, where Corman is building a multimillion dollar New World office.
New World pictures fall into several prominent genres, one of which, the “nurse film” (a subgenre of the “women’s picture”), New World practically created. There are motorcycle films (Angels Die Hard, Bury Me an Angel, Angels Hard as They Come); nurse, teacher, or stewardess films (The Student Nurses, Private Duty Nurses, Night Call Nurses, The Young Nurses, Candy Stripe Nurses, Fly Me, The Student Teachers); women-in-prison films (The Big Doll House, Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage, The Hot Box, Caged Heat!); historical tits n’ ass (The Arena); horror films (The Velvet Vampire, Night of the Cobra Woman, Sweet Kill); blaxploitation (TNT Jackson, Savage); rural subculture dramas (Cockfighter, Big Bad Mama); and some well-known pickups (The Final Comedown, Fantastic Planet, Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, Cries and Whispers, Amarcord).
Many of the New World films are distinguished by the same sense of parody and such leitmotifs as sex role reversal that are found in many of Corman’s films. A few of them are excellent B-pictures (a term Corman disavows): The Big Doll House, Bury Me an Angel, The Hot Box, The Big Bird Cage, Caged Heat!).
While none of them is distinguished visually or thematically as Corman’s own directorial efforts, New World is worthy of study for several reasons. It is one of the few financially successful low-budget production/distribution companies operating today. It is the only company producing films with a decided and consistent feminist bent, however exploitative the packaging seems. And through New World, Corman continues to give opportunities to many young filmmakers, as he once did for Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Curtis Harrington, and other, now famous, film people.
In this interview, Corman clarifies his role in the company.
GARY MORRIS: Why did you decide to form New World Pictures?
ROGER CORMAN: For several reasons. The first was, I was growing increasingly disenchanted with the treatment of my pictures by the studios that I was working for. In preproduction I was subject to other people’s advice, which I did not particularly want when the advice sometimes became orders about how to make a picture, how to cast it. I was sometimes in a position where I had to take certain people in certain roles and I thought this would hurt the film. And afterwards, in the cutting. My films several times were recut after I finished them, and, needless to say, I thought, for the worse. And the last couple of films I made before I formed New World Pictures were hurt rather badly. Specifically, a picture I made called Gas-s-s-s for AIP, which was completely recut. It was a very controversial kind of a comedy, and AIP cut all the funny stuff right out of the film, including the entire ending. The film was never shown anywhere as I shot it, and I felt, frankly, they emasculated the picture and destroyed any possibility of success.
Did they destroy the negative, the parts they didn’t use?
It isn’t so much that they’d deliberately destroy it. They would simply cut it and throw it away. Throw away the sections they cut out.
God was a very important character. He was down to a bit part when the picture came out.
So that, the concept of hurting the films I had made; and the second aspect was within the distribution. I, like all producers and directors, felt the distributors were taking a disproportionate share of the money. The standard distribution charges are, frankly, outrageous. And so by having my own company, I can do two things: I can make my films the way I want to, without interference; and I can control the way they’re sold, and the financing, myself.
Do you consider the New World pictures [none of which Corman has directed] your films?
That’s an interesting point, because when I started New World, I became so involved in simply running the company that I have not been able to direct. I’ve been producing primarily. As a producer, I probably am a little stronger than most, since I was a director originally. So I exercise quite a bit of control over the story, the preparation, and some of the cutting. I generally leave the directors to themselves during the actual shooting. I don’t go on the location or on the set more than a few times. I’ll do it at the beginning to see that it’s all rolling well and if it is going well during production and the rushes seem good to me, I try to stay away from the set.
But my earlier theories of the director as auteur are undergoing some revision [laughs] and I’m beginning to think the producer is more important than the director.
Would you say he’s more important than the director?
No, I wouldn’t say that. In some films he is.
In the New World films, I would say.
Very possibly. I think it’s a matter of the personalities of the producer and the director and the project. For instance, in Europe, where the director is the auteur, he is really a director-producer. He generally comes up with the subject matter, works on the screenplay and supervises the cutting and casting as well as the directing. Most American pictures are not conceived by the director. The producer works with the writer, casts the film, and supervises the editing. The director comes in simply to direct as such, and often his one – if the picture takes, say, six months from inception to completion – the director is on only for a month or two in the middle.
Do you work closely with your directors in preproduction?
I kind of work the story idea out in my mind and I talk it over with the writer. I like to work whenever possible with a writer-director because I find that the idea becomes diffused through too many minds if I come up with the idea, then give it to the writer, then the writer’s working with the director. I like to work with a writer-director, and I’ll tell him the basic line and he can work it out. We’ll discuss it, and he’ll do the script.
You created a new genre with the “nurse film.” How did this come about?
It was simply a thought of moving toward women as leads. For a variety of reasons I wanted to move in that direction. Talking it over with theater owners and specifically with Larry Woolner, who was my first sales manager. He was a theater owner from New Orleans, and he came in as the first sales manager for New World, and he and I discussed various types of pictures to make. The first two pictures we had were a motorcycle picture [Angels Die Hard] and a nurse picture [The Student Nurses]. So we tried to go for the masculine film – the motorcycle film – and then the nurse picture. Both films were successful, but the nurse film was more successful than the motorcycle film. It was a very simple decision at that point to make another nurse film.
The original idea was to do a picture about women, and we found as we went along that we were tapping a field that nobody else was working in. Now at the moment there are a lot of films of this type being made, but when we first started, in 1970, 1971, it was a new thing. I think it’s a response to the fact that most of the major films have male stars. The days of the thirties, of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Vivien Leigh, all of the great female stars, have passed. Now you have films where Steve McQueen is playing opposite Paul Newman. And the films are so heavily male dominated that in our own way we are really going back to the thirties and saying we’re making women’s movies, and it seems to work for us. And, as we got into it, we found that the films that did best for us were when the women leads were truly the leads, when they solved their own problems. If you were to study it – and I don’t think it’s really worth anybody’s bother – you would find that at the beginning the women were not so much in charge of their own destinies. Often they would be the leads in name, while the actual dominant characters in the plots would be their boyfriends.
Women in Cages was like that.
Very much so. The ones where the women really determined their own destinies did better than the other ones. And so to a large extent, the use of assertive and independent women was simply reacting to the market. It appears that this is a type of film that audiences want to see.
Caged Heat is the ultimate expression of the women-in-prison genre, where the males just progressively drop out of sight, even the criminal males. And the idea is offered of a Los Angeles female criminal underground!
Yes. Now we may have gone a little bit too far in that one [laughs], and we may have to bring back the importance of the man.
You favor a very mobile camera in your own films, but the New World films usually have a stable camera.
That’s a matter of the technique of the director. I try not to dictate too much to the director because I worry – I don’t worry too much, but I worry that these pictures are becoming too much the producer’s films and that some of the director’s work is being taken away from them. So I try to leave the actual camera steps, the specific work that a director does, to the director. I will talk to them in front about certain looks of the film, and I do believe this, that I like the idea of a moving camera. And I had a long discussion with Jonathan Demme before doing Caged Heat because it was his first film as a director. We discussed the fact that because the women were confined to the cells within the prison, he was going to be in a very static position, and I simply advised him to go one of two ways: if he used more camera movement than normal and found ways to move actors in conjunction with the camera, he could get more of a fluid look to it. Or, in places, if he didn’t want to do that, he should “over-cover” and give himself a lot of angles, so that he could get more movement by cutting. I said just from my standpoint, I like the idea of a moving camera. He chose to go along with the moving camera; other directors have chosen a stable camera but with a great deal of cutting. I think, particularly in a low-budget film, unless you go for enough angles so that you have control over the cutting, or a moving camera, you end up with a very static film.
Which of the New World films have been most successful?
The two most successful were The Big Doll House, which was our first women-in-prison film, and Big Bad Mama, which was our film with Angie Dickinson last summer. Both have done roughly $3 million domestic in film rental. The next most successful, surprisingly, is Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. We have tried to work on several levels here [laughs]. His film has done a little over $2 million. It appears that Fellini’s picture Amarcord may break all of the records, however. We may go between $3 and $4 million on that. It’s just gone into release and it’s hard to say, but it’s definitely running well ahead of Cries and Whispers at this time and it appears that we’re going to be nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film and will probably win the award.
Are those figures the gross ticket sales?
That’s gross film rental, not theater gross. It’s very misleading. A lot of people will say, my picture grossed $5 million, and you find out that’s theater admissions. Theater gross doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just somebody trying to impress somebody. What is important is the film rental, what was actually taken in by the distribution company from the theaters. That’s really the traditional use of the word “gross.”
Why have you stopped directing? Is it just a consideration of time?
It was really the starting of New World Pictures. The fact that I wanted to get my own production and distribution company started and established and it took more time than I anticipated, so there was no time left really to direct. Coupled with the fact that I was not completely satisfied with my last couple of films. And it may have been kind of half-rationalization as I saw how time-consuming New World was and I would say to myself, maybe it’s good that I take a brief vacation from directing, that I maybe have done too many films over a period of time and it’s best to come back fresh after a year or so. Well, the year has now extended to four years. I would hope that I’ll start directing again, but at the moment, running New World is still a full-time operation.
When you go back to directing, will you work for New World or AIP?
Probably for New World. I’m still working on an old commitment to Twentieth Century-Fox as a producer. But more and more my thoughts are for my own company, because the company has grown faster than we thought, to the point where we can afford slightly bigger budgets. And I would prefer to work for myself.