Roger Corman: Scorsese, Stallone, Sayles, and other A-listers talk about the B-movie king
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 honorary Academy Award. 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, Sylvester Stallone, and Ron Howard.
We spoke to a slew of Corman’s famous grads to reminisce about their mentor on the eve of his big Oscar and printed a feature in the Nov. 20 issue of Entertainment Weekly. And in case you read it and were hungry for more, you’re in luck. Read on for bonus quotes about the B-movie legend from his A-list proteges.
Photo Credit: Shelley Gazin/Corbis
Martin Scorsese (Before he would make his name with 1973’s Mean Streets, Scorsese worked as an editor on Corman’s films and directed 1972’s Boxcar Bertha for him) “I was aware as a filmgoer of his low-budget movies whether it was Teenage Caveman or Little Shop of Horrors or She Gods of Shark Reef or Attack of the Crab Monsters. They were different from other B- or C-movies at the time. They may not have all been great films, but we knew that there was something happening behind the camera. They got our attention. So when the Poe films hit we saw something even more unique — a personality emerging from the Corman factory. Going from The House of Usher to Pit and the Pendulum to The Tomb of Ligea, which is my favorite, and Mask of the Red Death, this really set him up as a major filmmaker and a great voice. He was a great stylist. Around that time I went to work for him, I was trying to finish my film, Who’s that Knocking at My Door? — not a great title — I never liked that title. My agent got me to meet Roger when I went out to LA to edit a film called Medicine Ball Caravan. I got that job by being an editor on Woodstock. So I met Roger and he asked if I would like to do a sequel to Bloody Mama. And I said I would like to very much. I think we shot it in the fall of 71. Yeah. I think I got paid scale, but it didn’t matter because basically you were getting the chance to learn how to make a film. And later, I brought Mean Streets to him. And his brother had just had a big hit with Cool Breeze which was set in Harlem. And he said if you could swing and make the characters black, I’ll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars and you can shoot it in New York. And I said I would think about it. But it would have changed the whole thing. So I was disappointed because I knew that I couldn’t make the change. Some of the films he made, he made them in three days. Now whether you like the films or not, a film can get made in three days. I think his legacy is the films which hold up beautifully — especially from The House of Usher and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which I looked at again on the big screen and it’s really quite good. When you think about everyone who went through that University of Corman — it’s a remarkable impact he’s had on American cinema.”
Richard Matheson (writer on TV’s The Twilight Zone and the seminal sci-fi bestseller I Am Legend; wrote screenplays for four Corman/Edgar Allan Poe adaptations — 1960’s The House of Usher, 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum, 1962’s Tales of Terror, and 1963’s The Raven, starring a young Jack Nicholson). “I was working for Twilight Zone when I hooked up with Roger. He hired me to write four Poe films beginning with The House of Usher. I didn’t know anything about Roger at the time. The script I think turned out quite well and I got the chance to meet Vincent Price—he was the nicest man I ever met in the business. Roger would always tell me my scripts were too long and that I had to cut them down. I’d cut them down. And then when they were shooting they’d call and say it was too short. That was frustrating. He gave me five percent of the profits in my contract, which I thought was generous. Of course, I never saw a penny from them. Eventually, I sold my percentage back for a low sum of money. And I found out recently that with all of the times they showed them on TV I could have made a lot of money, especially since House of Usher ran on double-bills with Psycho all summer long. At the time, Jack Nicholson was one of those inexpensive American International kid actors. There were a lot of low grade actors that weren’t that good. It was interesting that he went on to have such a career. Roger made independent film into a work of art. I’ve never known him to do anything that wasn’t honorable. And a very smart man. He knew how to econonomize when he made his films. I think he’s made close to 400 successful films and the only one that didn’t make money was probably his best one — The Intruder.”
William Shatner (The Star Trek actor starred in Corman’s 1962 classic The Intruder and 1974’s Big Bad Mama.) “The Intruder was Roger Corman’s best movie and his only loss. Roger had to make sure that no one killed us because the film was about integration and we were in a part of the country that emphatically did not want to integrate. He never told me why he wanted me for the part, but I’m sure it was because I was handsome, brilliant, and didn’t need the money — because he didn’t pay me! The script was so good I would have paid him…and I think he accepted that! One or two takes, which is all you ever get on a Roger Corman set, doesn’t bother me. I’m happier that way. When they start to fiddle with it, I start getting morose. I loved what Roger did with the movie even though I thought I could have done my part better. But I think that all the time. The critics loved it. I carried Roger on my shoulders (laughs). Roger combined business with pleasure. The pleasure of making a film and the business of making a film — he combined it better than anyone I can think of.”
Dennis Hopper (Before going on to star and direct in the generation-defining hit Easy Rider, Hopper and Peter Fonda costarred in 1967’s LSD flick The Trip for Corman. Jack Nicholson wrote the script.) “Jack Nicholson had written a script for The Trip and Peter was starring in it and Bruce Dern and I had parts. Nicholson’s screenplay had a lot of description of acid trips and we figured that Roger wasn’t really clued into that, so we did it on the weekend. He said go ahead and do it — try your hand at it. He didn’t pay us, though! He watched every penny. He was such an intelligent man he was like a professor at a university. And very cheap. But he put his finger on the right thing. He pointed his finger and said that’s going to be commercial. And it was! From the LSD movies, to motorcycle movies, to horror movies, he just hit it right on. He had a great feel for the times and the audience and what they would want to see. Jack absolutely got his start with Roger. And Francis Coppola came out of there. We didn’t have access to the other studios. We couldn’t go into Paramount or MGM and play around. Those were closed shops to guys like us. But everyone could have access to Roger. He would give you advice, he would help you get financing. Roger was very sympathetic to young filmmakers. And talent had a way of finding him very often. You had to find a way into this maze and that was the way.”
Ron Howard (starred in Corman’s 1976 cheapie Eat My Dust and got his first directing gig on Corman’s Grand Theft Auto the next year) “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 about the possibility of directing with someone my age. I was 21. Happy Days was a hit. I was having success, but I wasn’t becoming some big leading man. There weren’t great roles coming my way. But all of my energies away from Happy Days were focused on trying to direct. I knew about Corman because of people who had come through like Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. So I went in and told him: ‘Frankly, I’m not that crazy about Eat My Dust, but I will do it if you would co-finance this script Tis the Season that my father and I had written’. He wanted more of a genre movie. So he said, ‘Here’s the deal: I won’t promise you that you’ll direct the movie, but I promise you that you can write an outline for another script if you act in Eat My Dust and if I like it, I’ll develop it. And if I like it enough and you’re willing to be in it, you can direct it. If all that fails, I’ll let you direct second unit on one of my action movies. And that will be great experience’. Well, it was hardly my dream come true. But I took the deal. And Eat My Dust wound up being a big hit. So Roger said come on in and pitch ideas. I pitched sci-fi ideas, a noir film, all kinds of genre movies. And he said, ‘Ron, when were testing titles for Eat My Dust, there was another title that came in a close second: Grand Theft Auto. If you fashion another car-crash comedy starring yourself that we can call Grand Theft Auto, I believe I would make that picture’. So my dad and I cooked up a story within 24 hours. It was the fastest greenlight I’ve ever gotten to this day! I never did direct again for him, but I did cast him in Apollo 13. We love him. We all do. I got $75,000 to be in Eat My Dust. Which was a little more than my weekly rate on Happy Days. That said, I think I got $150 a week for directing Grand Theft Auto. Joe Dante edited it, by the way.”
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
Joe Dante (started in the film business cutting trailers for Corman films. Went on to direct such films as 1984’s Gremlins) “My career was nowhere when I started working for Roger Corman. I’d just come out from Philadalphia. And my friend John Davidson was working for Roger at New World Pictures and he asked me to come out to California to cut a trailer for a movie called The Student Teachers. And for whatever reason that picture made some money and I was called up again to work in the trailer department permanently. It was like a little factory. This was at the New World offices on Sunset. It was a penthouse. It was actually pretty cool. It had see-through elevators. And Roger had the whole top floor. I then did a trailer for a movie called Caged Heat, which was Jonathan Demme’s first picture. I was just guessing at everything. Before I went to work for Roger, I was unusual because I was a fan of his work. I had seen all the Poe pictures and the science fiction pictures and the Wild Angels and all that stuff. I was excited to work for Roger Corman. At the time, he was a very creative force in independent film. I was the only one in my college group who wore a Roger Corman button. Everyone else had Godard buttons. I had them printed up and passed them around and prosthelytized and screened his pictures. Eventually I wanted to make a picture. And he said, ‘Okay, as long as it was the cheapest picture ever made at New World’. So we got $60,000 to make Hollywood Boulevard, which was the last in a series of girl movies. First there was nurses, then there was teachers, this was going to be about starlets who take their clothes off and get in trouble and say left-wing things. We had ten days to make it. After Hollywood Boulevard, I made Piranha, which was written by John Sayles. It was pretty clear that this was going to be a Jaws rip-off and my concern was that it was going to be a little late for a Jaws rip-off. I got paid $500 for Hollywood Boulevard and $7,000 for Piranha. That was a huge step up. How Roger would negotiate was, he’d sit across the desk and write down a number on a piece of paper, fold it, and slide it across the desk and then you would nod your head yes, because what were you going to do? Ask for money? You were lucky to be making a movie. But whatever you agreed on, he would pay. And he wasn’t a chase-the-girls-around-the-desk kind of producer. He was very business-like about what he was doing. He thinks like an engineer because that’s what he was. Over the years you would develop a different relationship with Roger than when you were working for him. Once you were out from under him, and he couldn’t tell you anymore that you couldn’t have a generator for your scene, you had to shoot it with the headlights of your car, then you found you had a great deal of affection for him. Because all of the people that you work for after him at the studios, very few of them know as much about movies as Roger.”
Jonathan Demme (directed several films for Corman, including 1974’s Caged Heat, before going to an Oscar-winning career behind the camera, most notably in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs) “I was living in London in the late ’60s and I was producing TV commercials and I had a background as a film publicist and I received a phone call from United Artists, who were financing a Roger Corman movie which was going to be shot in Ireland called Von Richthofen and Brown. They were calling to see if I was interested in being unit publicist on that film and I was, of course. I was a huge Roger Corman fan with no filmmaking aspirations whatsoever. I loved movies, but I was fine being a publicist. He looked at some of the publicity materials I had written and asked if I thought I could write a screenplay. And I said yes. And he said he was starting a new company back in Los Angeles — New World Pictures. And he needed to generate scripts so he could get some movies in production. So he asked if I liked motorcycle movies. And I said yes. And he said, ‘Okay, fine, well, why don’t you write a motorcycle script for me?’ I was like 24 years old! It sounded thrilling to me. I teamed up with a friend, Joe Viola, who directed the TV commercials that I produced. So I told Roger the idea: we were going to do a motorcycle version of Rashomon. But with scenes of sex and violence, of course! So we wrote it and we sat there and watched him read our 80-page screenplay. He finishes and says, ‘Hmm, this is pretty good. I think we can make it. Joe, you direct commercials and Jonathan you produce them. Why don’t you fellas come out and make the movie?’ So we went out to LA to attend, what we called it was the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. I think Joe and I shared $3,000 for our combined writing, directing, and producing chores. The movie was called Angels Hard as They Come. Our follow-up was The Hot Box, a women-in-cages movie we shot in the Philippines. We became much better filmmakers on that one. After that one, I asked Roger if there was any chance of directing and he said, ‘Ok, write a women’s prison movie’. At New World in those days, the titles and play dates were set before there was even a script. Roger made sure that he could book a women’s prison movie in thousands of theaters and then he’d say ok, we better make this. It was always important to work fast. When I say it’s the Roger Corman School of Film Technique, you really are conducting your education in public. And I guess that with Angels Hard as They Come, the education aspect is more on display than the others. Roger is a great American. We all want to be independent filmmakers. But no one’s ever been as remotely independent as Roger.”
John Sayles (before become an acclaimed screenwriter and director on his own, Sayles wrote his earliest film scripts for Corman — 1978’s Piranha, 1979’s The Lady in Red, and 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars) “I had only written a couple screenplays on spec. I had been a novelist. And was interested in screenplays. One of the first ones I wrote was Eight Men Out, which got me out to LA. The nice thing about working with Roger is that nothing was decided by committee, so our meetings would be me and him and that’s it. Roger had made so many movies as a director and a producer — literally hundreds — that the instructions you got were very specific. So I did a rewrite of this screenplay called Piranha. Roger had assigned the picture to Joe Dante, who had been editing trailers at New World and had graduated to director. He was good about moving people up. Ron Howard started at the same time. He was always happy to get talent for cheap. So I did the rewrite once Joe was involved in it. And the next thing I heard was Joe Dante gave me a call, saying help, do you know how little money I have to make this thing? I did a little revision to make the movie less expensive without ruining anything in it. So he started shooting and he wanted me to play a small part, but it was also because they wanted me to do some free on-set rewrites. So I play the uncredited army sentry in the film. I got $10,000 to write Piranha. The movie did really well — one of the more successful New World releases. On the Piranha script, Roger told me he wanted some of the piranha to make it out to the ocean in the end. Which is where James Cameron picked up when he directed Piranha 2. After Piranha I wrote Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s basically Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven in Space. He liked those kinds of ideas. It was a good way to re-stage movies like Magnificent Seven with $1.99 cardboard sets. I think I wrote that one as well in three or four weeks. They shot that in the lumber outlet he bought in Venice. Cameron was the art director on that one. He started in the art department. There’s not a lot of panning in that movie because if you pan too far, the lumber was still stacked up. I think a lot of the fun that came from working on these movies was due to the fact that Roger was so good at the business part of it that he was generally in profit before he started. I think Piranha got Siskel & Ebert’s very first ‘Dog of the Week’. Roger’s often said that he wasn’t sure about anybody who worked for him more than twice. If they were any good they would have moved on.”
Sylvester Stallone (before Rocky, the future Italian Stallion costarred in two 1975 Corman productions, Capone and Death Race 2000, pictured) “In ’72, Lords of Flatbush came out and I thought that was going to be my entrée into movies. But nothing happened. Henry Winkler got the role of the Fonz on Happy Days. I told him I really needed a break and I could be his mentally challenged cousin on the show. So I swung out into obscurity living way way out in the Valley. It was bad. I had to sell my dog. I hadn’t written Rocky yet. So I would read these trade papers and there was a casting ad for Capone. And I got this tiny part. What happened on that set is I finally got an idea of what it was like to be on a serious movie set. Everything was such clock-like precision. When we did Death Race 2000 in 2 1/2 weeks, it shows you it could be done. It was the only unofficial college of the arts where you got to learn filmmaking for free by a master. I guess after Capone, I must have become a part of the Roger Corman family because when Death Race came up, I got the part automatically. The director of Capone said, ‘You did this classy film, you showed that a dramatic side of yourself, Death Race is gonna kill your career, it’s a step backward!’ And I thinking, ‘Excuse me, Capone was a rip-off of The Godather.’ If anything, Death Race was a lot more original than Capone! I was very happy to do it. Roger’s a very sophisticated man. He looked like a senator and yet his films were done in such an assembly-line way. I really enjoyed it because it was the first time I felt like I was really in the big time. If I hadn’t done those parts I probably wouldn’t be here today. That he was a launching pad who allowed a lot of unguided missiles to be launched into space. He provided a forum for a lot of us to grow. We were the seeds and he owned the farm. If you look at those early movies with Jack Nicholson, you can see it — that he was building his rhythm back then. You can see that he had it. He would allow out-of-the-box people like Scorsese and De Niro to flourish. He didn’t go with the status quo. He was a master at spotting talent.”
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
Penelope Spheeris (one of the Wayne’s World director’s first films was 1984’s Suburbia, which Corman produced) “Suburbia was my second brush with Roger. The first was in 1968 when I was cast in a movie he was doing called The Naked Angels. I played Shirley, Animal’s friend. It was a biker movie. And we went and shot out in the desert. My goal has always been to just make a living. And at that point, I was like 20 years old and it was a gig. Roger had legendary status back then. He did well with The Wild Angels and Roger always knew how to keep spinning a successful formula. Then in 1982 when I was trying to put Suburbia together, I found a guy in the Midwest–a furniture mogul actually–who had $250,000 he was looking to put into a movie. And he said if I could match it, he’d invest it in the movie. So Roger came on as a producer. He didn’t remember me from Naked Angels, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was that I had a quarter of a million dollars sitting there. He’s a businessman. I walked out of his office thinking I can’t believe I’m going to get this movie made! I had done the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, but this was my first movie with a script. And I was scared. I didn’t know how to do it. He sat me down and talked me through it and gave me these notes that I still have. He had this fatherly stance — I’m going to teach you how to do this. Plus, he got a good deal out of us. We all wanted to break into the business and we were willing to pay him! Or work for free! And he took us up on that! We shot it in ’83 for $500,000. I was never privy to the books and found out what he made on the film, but I don’t think he complained. I didn’t care about my end. There were so few ways to get movies made back then. You couldn’t just pick up a digital camera in 1983.”