Roger Corman, the king of low budget, between independent films and Hollywood

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Roger Corman is one of the most important examples of a way of doing independent cinema, one of the few cases in which the filmography of an indie director has achieved worldwide fame. But Roger Corman has long collaborated with big studios as well, continually moving in and out of the mainstream. Many of his films are based on works that already have an established reputation, such as his cycle of low-budget cult films adapted from the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Member of the British Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in his career he has been the talent scout of some of the most important directors and actors in world cinema: the famous Corman school.

Roger Corman’s Beginnings

Roger-Corman

Corman begins working in film at 20th Century Fox Post Office. It is difficult to imagine a humbler and more conflictual beginning for an independent spirit like yours. Indeed, including the nature of anonymous and mechanized work within a studio, he leaves Fox and stubbornly chooses to work in film alone. He writes a script at Allied Artists for $ 2,000 and works free on the film set to gain experience. He collects $ 12,000 to produce his first film, Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954).

The film was successful and Corman produced another film, the racing thriller The Fast and the Furious (1955), directed by John Ireland, and starring Dorothy Malone. He manages to distribute the film with a new independent company, the American Releasing Company. ARC also advances him the money to allow him to make other films: Five Guns West (1955), a western, made in color for about $ 60,000, with Malone and John Lund. He then shoots High Steel, Cobra, Fortress Beneath the Sea, Day the World Ended (1955), a post-apocalyptic science fiction film.

He later shoots Corman’s Swamp Women (1956), a story of girls on the run, and then The Oklahoma Woman (1956) and Gunslinger (1956); Gunslinger was co-written by Griffith, who ended up being an essential partner of Corman for many projects. American International Pictures and Allied Artists hire Roger Corman as their main director. They finance It Conquered the World (1956), The Undead (1957), Not of this Earth (1957).

In August 1956 he made a film in Hawaii, Naked Paradise (1957). Corman shot the film simultaneously with a film made with his own money, She Gods of Shark Reef (1958). Most of the films are written with Griffith. The two also collaborate on Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), one of the most popular films. As an independent producer Corman made two rock music films: Carnival Rock (1957) and Rock All Night (1957).

In April 1957, Corman made two films one after the other to save expenses: Teenage Doll (1957) and Sorority Girl (1957). Then follows The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), shot in August 1957.

Roger Corman got his first real success for Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), a gangster movie with Charles Bronson in his first starring role.follows Teenage Caveman (1958), with Robert Vaughn,. He then went on to produce 2 films for Allied Artists: Hot Car Girl (1958), directed by Bernard Kowalski and produced by his brother Gene, with Jack Nicholson in his first starring role.

The biggest budget available comes with The Mobster (1958), a gangster story for 20th Century Fox. War of the Satellites (1958) was developed and shot in record time to make the most of the Sputnik launch event.

Corman also produced, but not directed, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), directed by Irvin Kershner; Night of the Blood Beast (1958), directed by Kowalski, using the remaining outfits from Teenage Caveman; and Crime and Punishment USA (1959), directed by Dennis Sanders with George Hamilton in his first starring role.

Roger Corman independent producer

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In 1959, Corman founded The Filmgroup with his brother Gene, a company that produced or launched low-budget black and white films. Their very first films were High School Big Shot (1959) and T-Bird Gang (1959) produced by Stanley Bickman.

In the meantime he continues to work on commission for AIP: Corman and Griffith make A Bucket of Blood (1959). Corman and screenwriter Griffith recycled the exact same narrative structure and many actors from the same cast in The little shop of horrors (1960).

With his Filmgroup, Corman directed The Wasp Woman (1959). With his brother he made 2 films in South Dakota: Ski Troop Attack (1960), a war film, and Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), the first film directed by Monte Hellman.

Corman went to Puerto Rico and produced 2 other films in a row: Battle of Blood Island (1960), directed by Joel Rapp, and Last Woman in the world (1960), directed by Corman from a screenplay by Robert Towne. The shooting of these 2 films was so fast that Corman commissioned Griffith to write a third film: the result was Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).

The House of Usher

Roger-Corman-Vincent-Price

AIP wanted Corman to make 2 horror films for them, in black and white, for less than $ 100,000 each on a 10-day shooting schedule. Corman, however, was tired of making low-budget films, and the market was down. Corman proposed an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and the AIP went along with it.

He worked with Richard Matheson for writing and Vincent Price was called up for the lead role. The film is House of Usher, shot in the early 1960s, which became the biggest hit of his career.

Corman later directed a peplum in Greece, Atlas (1961). The Usher house had actually been so effective that AIP wanted a sequel, and Corman, Haller, Matheson and Price got together to make The Pendulum and the Pit (1961). It was another significant success and the “Poe cycle” of films was in development.

The Intruder

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After The Pendulum and the Pit, Corman directed William Shatner in one of his first starring films with The Intruder. Corman was dissatisfied with his percentage of Poe’s first 2 films, so he made a third film for producers other than AIP, The Premature Burial (1962), written by Charles Beaumont and starring Ray Milland. The film was co-financed by the Pathé laboratories.

For producer Edward Small, Corman made a historical horror film about Richard III, Tower of London (1962), starring Vincent Price. It was supposed to be the first of three low-budget films, but Corman can’t get along with the producer.

For Filmgroup, he also bought the rights to a Soviet science fiction film, Nebo Zovyot (1959) and had some extra scenes shot by his then assistant, Francis Ford Coppola; the result was Battle Beyond the Sun (1962). In the same way he made The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1962), also inspired by a Soviet film.

Later, Corman used the sets from that film for The terror (1963), made for Filmgroup but launched by AIP, and starring Boris Karloff (whose scenes were all shot in 2 days) and Jack Nicholson. Corman did not direct all of this film; extra scenes were shot by Monte Hellman, Coppola and Jack Hill, among others.

The Young Racers (1963) was produced and directed by Corman in Europe for AIP, starring and written by Campbell. The film was handled by Francis Ford Coppola, whom Corman financed to make his directorial launch, Dementia 13 (1963).

Back in the United States, Corman made X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes (1963), a modern science fiction film for AIP starring Ray Milland.follows The Haunted Palace (1963). Apparently part of the Poe cycle, it included Price’s interpretation and was AIP product, but was actually based on a story by HP Lovecraft.

Corman directed a war film in Yugoslavia with his brother, The Secret Invasion (1964), starring Stewart Granger and Mickey Rooney, from a screenplay by Campbell. Corman made 2 other films inspired by Poe’s tales in England with Price, The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965), from a screenplay by Robert Towne. 

Corman convinced Towne to write a script called The Red Baron. He bought the rights to another Soviet science fiction film, Planeta Bur (1962), and included some extra scenes from Curtis Harrington. Harrington used footage of Planeta Bur in another Corman-funded film, Queen of Blood (1966).

Similarly, he bought the rights to a Yugoslavian film, Operation Titan (1963), and financed the extra filming of Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman. The result was Blood Bath (1966). He also participated in the financial investment in the beach celebration films Beach Ball (1965) and It’s a Bikini World (1967).

Roger Corman and the Studios

In August 1965, Corman, fed up with low budgets, signs an agreement with United Artists to make 2 films in 3 years. He also signs a contract with Columbia to make a western, The Long ride Home, based on a screenplay by Robert Towne.

After a year without directing, Corman took a hiatus while under contract with Columbia to make a film for AIP, the very first cycling film, TheWild Angels. He was portrayed by Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, from a screenplay by Griffith; Peter Bogdanovich worked as Corman’s assistant.

He also wanted to make a movie about the Red Baron, but Columbia refused. Corman began directing Long Ride Home with Glenn Ford at Columbia, but he left production a couple of weeks after filming began and was replaced by Phil Karlson.

Corman is awarded a contract to direct The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), for 20th Century Fox, with Jason Robards and George Segal. As an independent director he was very comfortable with productions like this one, with small spending plans and shooting schedules determined in days rather than weeks. It is considered one of his best films.

Return to independent cinema

He went on to finance films for his Filmgroup company: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), buying a Soviet film, Planeta Bur, and dubbing it in English with some extra footage shot by Curtis Harrington; Queen of Blood (1966), which uses material shot for Soviet films to make a new film, directed by Harrington; Blood Bath (1966), a Yugoslavian film adapted with extra footage shot by Stephanie Rothman and Jack Hill; Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1967), another variant of Planeta Bur with some extra scenes shot by Corman’s then assistant, Peter Bogdanovich.

He financed 2 westerns shot simultaneously in Utah directed by Monte Hellman and written and co-produced by Jack Nicholson, The Shooting (1967) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1967) which ended up being cult hits. He also financed 2 films directed by Dan Haller, Devil’s Angels (1967), a sequel to Wild Angels written by Griffith; and a car racing film shot in Europe, The Wild Racers (1968). 

Corman directed The Trip for AIP, written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern. AIP made some changes to the film in post-production that made Corman dissatisfied with the final result. Corman made a film for American television: Harry (1968), shot in Europe with his brother as a producer. He produced The Dunwich Horror (1970) for AIP, directed by Haller and co-written with Curtis Hanson.

Latest directorial films

For AIP, Corman returned to the director’s chair for a gangster film, Bloody Mama (1970), starring Shelley Winters and a young Robert de Niro. It was a success. He also directed a funny film noir, Gas-sss (1970), written by George Armitage; the film was cut for editing without his consent from the AIP and was a box office failure.

Then he made the film Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), inspired by the events of the Red Baron, in Ireland in July 1970. There were numerous plane crashes during the filming and one of the crew died.

“Directing is extremely distressing and extremely hard,” says Corman in 1971. “Producing is simple. I can do it without thinking too much.” Corman financed Curtis Hanson’s directorial launch, Sweet Kill (1971). Then another AIP film, Boxcar Bertha (1972), the second feature film directed by Martin Scorsese, with David Carradine.

Distribution of foreign films

The production of Corman New World became the US distributor of great foreign films such as Whispering and Crying (1972), directed by Ingmar Bergman. Corman bought it for $ 75,000 and made over $ 2 million in the United States. New World launched Fantastic Planet (1974).

Over a 10-year run, New World Pictures has won more Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film than any other studio combined. Meanwhile, he executive produced four 20th Century Fox films, making Capone (1975), Fighting Mad (1976) (by Jonathan Demme), Moving Violation (1976) and Thunder and Lightning (1977).

The hit New World

Death Race 2000 (1975), written by Robert Thom and directed by Paul Bartel, was a huge hit, earning $ 4 million. This helped launch a series of car chase films: Cannonball (1976), directed by Bartel; Eat my dust! (1976), directed by Griffith with Ron Howard, which led to a sequel, Grand Theft Auto (1978), Howard’s directorial debut.

The New World trailers were edited by aspiring young directors Joe Dante and Alan Arkush. Corman gave them the opportunity to jointly direct Hollywood Boulevard (1976). The film was successful enough to offer both boys a directorial debut: Dante with Piranha (1978) and Arkush with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979).

Piranha was written by John Sayles, who was actually found by Corman’s story editor Frances Doel. Sayles later wrote The Lady in Red (1979) for Corman, directed by Lewis Teague.

Other popular films during this period were Tidal Wave (1975), a Japanese film in which Corman inserted additional scenes, and Jackson County Jail (1976). Less popular was Avalanche (1979), a disaster film directed by Corey Allen. For Universal he made Fast Charlie … the Moonbeam Rider (1979), directed by Carver. He financed Saint Jack Bogdanovich’s(1979).

The success of Star Wars influenced the New World’s most expensive film, Battle Beyond the Stars (1981). Corman offered New World Pictures in January 1983 to a consortium of 3 attorneys for $ 16.9 million. He later created a brand new production business, Millennium, the title of which was taken from the name of a 1981 retrospective of Corman’s work at the National Film Theater in London.

Millenium’s films were Space Raiders (1983), an impressive science fiction film that used images and music from Battle Beyond Destiny; Love Letters (1984), a play by Amy Holden Jones; Screwballs (1984), a hilarious sex movie following Porky’s; Suburbia (1984), directed by Penelope Spheeris, and The Warrior and the Sorceress.

New Horizons

Corman claims that some people had problems with the name “Millennium” – “no one could write it, no one understood what it suggested” – so he changed it to New Horizons in early 1984. Corman and the brand new owners of New World ended up undertaking a lawsuit against each other in March 1985. New World in exchange took legal action against Corman, claiming he was trying to get back into circulation, and discrediting New World to possible financiers. They claimed that Corman bypassed New World for some of his films, such as Hardbodies (1984).

Concorde Pictures

In March 1985, Corman revealed that he would be developing a brand new “cooperative”, Concorde Pictures, in which producers could obtain reasonably low-cost distribution from Concorde in exchange for a contribution to the company’s overheads. Their very first releases were the productions of Corman School Spirit, Wheels of Fire and Barbarian Queen. Concorde later joined a low-cost film production company, Cinema Group, and made 15-20 films a year.

Corman faced the decline of the drive-in market and studio competition in the 1990s. In 1995, Corman executive produced Roger Corman Presents, a unique series of 13 films for Showtime with spending plans of approximately $ 1.5 million each. “I think the name Corman suggests action, humor and a little bit of excitement,” says Mike Elliott, producer of the series. Corman ended up doing a second season of 11 films.

Concorde started operations in Ireland, building studios in Connemara, County Galway. He got help from the Irish federal government, a choice that ended up being counterproductive when material from some of Corman’s productions such as Criminal Affairs was criticized in the press. Corman also ran a comic book publication in 1995/1996 called Cosmic Comics with which he produced comics based on his films. 

In 2006 Corman claimed to have made 60% of his films overseas. “These foreign nations are providing such extraordinary aid that not only me, but also numerous independent producers are moving abroad,” he said. He offered the remake rights of Death Race 2000 to Universal, which made Death Race (2008) with Jason Statham, with Corman credited as executive producer.

In 2009, Corman co-directed and produced theweb serieswith director Joe Dante Splatter for Netflix. In 2011 Corman cited James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) as examples of “exceptional creativity”.

Private life

Roger-Corman

Corman married Julie Halloran in 1970. His autobiography, entitled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, documents his experiences in the film market. In 1964, Corman was the youngest producer / director to have received a retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française, as well as retrospectives at the British Film Institute and the Museum of Modern Art.

Corman won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Stockholm International Film Festival in 1990. He was the star of the 1978 documentary Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel, produced and directed by Christian Blackwood. In 1998 he won the very first Producer’s Award ever awarded by the Cannes Film Festival.

In 2006, Corman received the David O. Selznick Award from the Producers Guild of America. In 2006, his film Fall of the House of Usher was among the twenty-five films chosen for the National Film Registry, a collection of notable films managed by the Library of Congress.

In 2010, author and star Mark Gatiss spoke to Corman for his BBC documentary series A History of Horror, of which the second half of the second episode focuses on Corman. In 2010, Corman was inducted into the Beverly Hills High School Hall of Fame.

The Corman Film School

Many directors have claimed that Corman’s impact taught them some of the secrets of cinema. Cameron, Coppola, Demme, Hanson, Howard and Scorsese all won the Academy Awards. Howard would have been cast by Corman: “If you do a great job on this movie, you’ll never have to work for me again.”

The stars who have achieved professional success working for Corman are Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Charles Bronson, Todd Field, Michael McDonald, Dennis Hopper, Talia Shire, Sandra Bullock, Robert De Niro and David Carradine, who have obtained the their very first starring film roles in Corman’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) and went on to star in Death Race 2000 (alongside Sylvester Stallone).

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