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Roger Corman: The B-movie king

The director/producer helped launch the careers of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and more

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He gave life to teenage cavemen and candy-stripe nurses. Crab monsters and humanoids from the deep. T-Bird gangs and towns that dreaded sundown. His name is Roger Corman. And on Nov. 14, he will receive an honor that no one would have predicted: an Academy Award. (Four honorary trophies will be given out in a ceremony next week.) The 83-year-old B-movie titan has made nearly 400 films as a director and producer. From the start, Corman was a magnet for hungry young actors, writers, and directors who would work for slave wages for the chance to make their first film. They called it the ”University of Corman,” and the alumni include Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Sylvester Stallone. Ron Howard, another magna cum laude student, says, ”When you’re among the graduates of the University of Corman, the war stories fly. And they’re all true, and offered up with real respect and affection.” We asked some of Corman’s most famous protégés to reminisce.

Corman started directing films at American International Pictures in the ’50s. By the early ’60s, he had hit on two winning formulas — youth-rebellion movies (usually involving motorcycle gangs) and Edgar Allan Poe adaptations such as The Raven, which costarred a young Jack Nicholson.
MARTIN SCORSESE (director, 1972’s Boxcar Bertha) Before I became a filmmaker, I was aware of Roger’s low-budget movies like Little Shop of Horrors and She Gods of Shark Reef. They were different from other B or C movies. They seemed to be made by someone who was enjoying himself.
PETER FONDA (actor, 1966’s The Wild Angels, 1967’s The Trip) When Roger first said he wanted to make a movie about the Hells Angels, he said he didn’t want to make a statement with it. And I thought, ”Oh, wow. Any time you make a movie about the Hells Angels, you’re making a statement.” I ended up playing the lead, and it was my breakout. Then we did The Trip.
DENNIS HOPPER (actor, 1967’s The Trip) Jack Nicholson had written the script for The Trip. Peter was starring in it, and Bruce Dern and I had parts. Nicholson’s screenplay had a lot of descriptions of acid trips, and we figured Roger wasn’t really clued in to that. So he let Peter and me borrow some cameras and film on the weekends. He made me believe I could direct.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (director, 1963’s Dementia 13) Roger gave me $20,000 to make Dementia 13. Later on, when I went to Ireland, I met an English producer who gave me another $20,000 [for the U.K. rights]. When I called Roger to tell him, thinking he’d be pleased, he wanted me to send back the $20,000 he’d given me, so he would get the film for zero. I kept the money and made the film for $40,000.

Corman grew frustrated at AIP and decided to break out on his own, creating New World Pictures in 1970. There, he hit on all cylinders while a new generation of film brats, eager to break into Hollywood, flocked to him, willing to work for next to nothing.
BRUCE DERN (actor, 1967’s The Trip, 1970’s Bloody Mama) Roger was Hollywood’s Princeton or Yale. He spawned more people than anyone. On The Wild Angels, Peter Bogdanovich was riding in a sidecar shooting second unit and Francis Coppola was also behind the camera. Just look at Bobby De Niro in Bloody Mama — he was a whiz kid. You could tell he was it.
ROBERT DE NIRO (actor, 1970’s Bloody Mama) I was starting at the Actors Studio, and I came in and met Roger. You would hear stories about how fast his movies were made, but it didn’t seem that fast to me. I don’t remember what I got paid on Bloody Mama. Maybe $3,500. I didn’t care, because it felt like I was finally making a Hollywood movie.
SYLVESTER STALLONE (actor, 1975’s Capone, 1975’s Death Race 2000) I got a tiny part in Capone. It felt like the big time. We did Death Race 2000 in two and a half weeks. It shows it can be done. It’s one thing to talk a game. Roger let you play the game.
SCORSESE In 1971, I’d just worked as an editor on Woodstock. My agent set up a meeting with Roger, and he asked if I would like to do Boxcar Bertha, a sequel to Bloody Mama. That changed everything for me. From him, I learned how to put a picture together. He was like a great professor. He also taught you about the realities of the marketplace. There has to be a chase scene here, there has to be a touch of nudity there. He didn’t apologize for that. This is what we do.
CURTIS HANSON (writer, 1970’s The Dunwich Horror) Rosemary’s Baby came out, and they wanted to change my Dunwich Horror screenplay to imitate that. Later, I wrote and directed Sweet Kill for Roger. When it came out, he changed the name to The Arousers and had me add more nudity. Roger’s term was ”hard R.” It needed to be R-rated, not X, but it had to struggle to get the R.
JONATHAN DEMME (writer, 1971’s Angels Hard as They Come; director, 1974’s Caged Heat) You were literally learning how to make a movie while making a movie. I asked Roger if there was any chance of my directing, and he said, ”Okay, write a women’s-prison movie.”
JOE DANTE (director, 1978’s Piranha) Roger hired me to cut trailers. I did one for a women-in-prison movie called Caged Heat, which was Jonathan Demme’s first picture. Roger would basically trap you in a room with a print of the film. The theory was, if you came out with a decent trailer, then you were probably going to make it in the movie business, and if you didn’t, you weren’t. My favorite was a trailer I did for TNT Jackson. The tagline was: ”TNT Jackson, She’ll Put You in Traction!” I was a pig in s—.
JOHN SAYLES (writer, 1978’s Piranha) One of the things that I think was really intelligent that Roger did was that he test-marketed titles. And after Jaws came out, Piranha was one of the highest-testing titles.
RON HOWARD (director, 1977’s Grand Theft Auto) Happy Days was a hit, and Roger wanted me to star in Eat My Dust — a movie I didn’t particularly want to be in. But at that time, he was the only person who would have a serious conversation with a 21-year-old about the possibility of directing. So I went in and told him I’d do it if he’d let me direct a movie afterward. And he said, ”Oh, you’re interested in directing? I like to think I turn out directors for Hollywood the way USC turns out running backs for the NFL.” What a great line!
All of Corman’s films had tiny budgets. He was a brilliant businessman, partly because he was notoriously cheap.
DANTE We shot Piranha‘s killer-fish scenes in the USC swimming pool. Unfortunately, we put so much Karo syrup and weeds in it that it formed a fungus. They had to have experts from Sacramento come down to kill it. Roger had a motto: Figure out how long it takes to make it great, how long it takes to make it good, and how long it takes to get any image at all. And print the image!
STALLONE You never got more than one or two takes on a Roger Corman production. Maybe a third if someone had a heart attack. The sets were cheese-o-rama. My car in Death Race was a Volkswagen with a giant switchblade on the front. I got $260 a week, and lunch was like, you put a sandwich in front of four people and said, ”May the best man win!”
WILLIAM SHATNER (actor, 1962’s The Intruder, 1974’s Big Bad Mama) I did Big Bad Mama with Roger and Angie Dickinson. It was a fast shoot. There was hardly time to get an erection.
HOWARD The budget for Grand Theft Auto was $602,000, and I think I got $150 a week to direct it. But he also gave me a small profit participation — 7½ percent. I stopped by New World one day to see Joe Dante, and Roger said, ”Ron, great news! We just sold Grand Theft Auto to CBS for $1.1 million. It makes your 7½ percent look pretty good. And it makes my 92½ percent look goddamn fabulous!”

Corman was an equal-opportunity employer. He hired women in positions of power when few majors did. And if you were any good, Corman never expected you to stick around for long.
PENELOPE SPHEERIS (director, 1984’s Suburbia) In 1982, when I was trying to put Suburbia together, I found a guy in the Midwest — a furniture mogul — who had $250,000 he was looking to put into a movie. He said if I could match it, he’d invest it. So I went to Roger, and he matched it and came on as the producer. I was scared, but he talked me through everything and gave me notes that I still have to this day. I never really had a father, but I felt like Roger was a father figure.
HOWARD I remember I was fighting with Roger at one point, trying to get a few more extras in our climactic destruction-derby scene in Grand Theft Auto. I kept begging for more. And he just put his hand on my shoulder in a very paternal sort of way and smiled and said, ”Ron, I’m not going to give you any more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.”
DEMME Roger doesn’t want you around for too long. You get a little too expensive. My memory was that he was like, ”Why don’t you go on and have a career now?”
SPHEERIS The film industry is like a fort with all of these guys holding guns saying, ”You can’t come in!” But Roger opened the door to that fort for us. It was self-serving to a degree because he didn’t really pay us, but he always instinctively knew the right people to open the door to.


ROGER CORMAN ALUMNI
SIX ACTORS WHO BECAME STARS

ROBERT DE NIRO
Bloody Mama (1970)
The future Oscar winner (with Shelley Winters) earned a mere $3,500 for the role

WILLIAM SHATNER
The Intruder (1962)
The Man Who Would Be Kirk toplined Corman’s best (and rare unprofitable) film

JACK NICHOLSON
Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Shot in two days, the black comedy starred Nicholson as a dental patient who loved pain

RON HOWARD
Eat My Dust (1976)
The fresh-faced actor (with Kathy O’Dare) agreed to star only so that he could direct a film later

DENNIS HOPPER & PETER FONDA
The Trip (1967)
Two years before Easy Rider, they were feeling groovy with Salli Sachse