Roger Corman: interview

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Tom Huddleston talks to Roger Corman about the actors and directors who’ve come a long way since working with the legendary B-movie producer

Roger Corman is a legend, the producer of almost 400 low-budget films and a director whose energy and artistry have enlivened a string of drive-in classics. But Corman is perhaps best known as the man who discovered and nurtured talents as diverse as Scorsese and Stallone, inadvertently kicking off American cinema’s ’70s rebirth and laying the foundations for the rise of independent film. For this interview, Corman kindly agreed to share his memories of some notable discoveries.

Jack Nicholson (actor, ‘The Raven’; writer, ‘The Trip’)

‘I have a degree in engineering, so when I started in movies I learned very quickly about the camera, editing, the technical aspects. But I knew nothing about acting. So after a couple of pictures I enrolled in a method acting class. Jack was a member, and I was immediately impressed by him. He’d never made a picture, he was only 18 or 19 years old, but I was convinced that he was an outstanding talent. I would say the series of pictures I made with Jack, both as an actor and as a writer, were some of my most successful.'

Francis Ford Coppola (director, ‘Dementia 13’)

‘I bought a couple of Russian sci-fi films, which had great effects, but the most outrageous anti-American propaganda. I called UCLA and asked for a young person to come in and re-edit the films. They suggested a couple of their best senior students. Francis was the most talented. He started as my assistant, and eventually I gave him the opportunity to direct ‘Dementia 13’. I was positive his talent would emerge, but I didn’t know it would emerge in quite the larger-than-life style that it did.‘Many people who started with me have gone on to direct, but I never know if they were inspired by me. They probably thought: “If Roger can do it, I can too.” But all these young directors understood that I was backing these films with my own money, and that I didn’t have much.’

Peter Fonda (actor, ‘The Wild Angels’, ‘The Trip’)

‘I had made a series of pictures on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and I was tired of working in a studio. I wanted to get out into the streets. The fact that Peter had a famous name was a factor in his casting in “The Wild Angels”, but more important was the fact that he had appeared on Broadway and had gotten extremely good reviews. And he could ride a motorcycle. I insisted that every actor could actually ride a motorcycle.‘Peter was heavily involved in the counterculture. The success of “Wild Angels” prompted me to do “The Trip”, about LSD. And “The Trip” was closer to Peter’s real interests. He was involved in the counterculture, but slightly upper class, a more educated group.’

Martin Scorsese (director, ‘Boxcar Bertha’)

‘I chose Marty to direct “Boxcar Bertha” after seeing a black-and-white underground film he had made in New York (“It’s Not Just You, Murray”). With all these young directors there were problems with inexperience, but I’d been through the same problems myself.‘ “Boxcar Bertha” had to do with train robberies in the 1930s. We found this old train that was being used as a scenic attraction in Arkansas. It took about half an hour every time you wanted it to move. I said to Marty: "We’ll never make this picture in three weeks if you have to sit and wait every time this train moves. The only thing to do is to put in a second unit." He said, “I really want to do the whole picture”. And I told him, “This is the way we do it. You sketch every shot you want. The second unit director is simply a craftsman, fulfilling your wishes.” And he understood exactly.’

Sylvester Stallone (star, ‘Death Race 2000’)

‘I knew he was a good actor, I didn’t know he would become as big as he is. I said to my wife: “Sly is really one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, he is an absolutely perfect heavy. He could have a great career as the bad guy.” And my wife said, “Yes, but he also can play the lead.” I said: “I’m not so certain.”’

James Cameron (visual effects, ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’)

‘Jim started as a model maker on “Battle Beyond the Stars”. We had finished the picture and were falling behind schedule for the sfx, so I sent my ace assistant Gale Hurd to the studio. She came back and said, “The guy you hired is good, but he’s not brilliant. But there’s a young model maker who really is brilliant. His name’s Jim Cameron.” I went down to the studio and promoted him immediately.’I end by asking Corman if he believes that the landscape of modern cinema would be different without his input? ‘Not particularly. I think I may have had some influence bringing up some people, bringing some ideas from low-budget pictures to big-budget pictures. But that would have happened anyway. I might have had some small influence, but things take their own course.’The Roger Corman box set is released by Optimum on Sept 15.

Author: Tom Huddleston


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