Roger Corman: A Low-Budget Film Legend

Film legend Roger Corman helped launch a new era in filmmaking in the 1950’s and early 1960s, cranking out hundreds of low-budget Drive-In movie classics like Wild Angels, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Little Shop of Horrors. In the 1990s he helped reinvent the low-budget horror genre again with Dinocroc, ushering in the era of the hybrid animal mash-up, and this week the 88-year-old Corman will release his 407th film (according to IMDB), Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda (pictured) on the Syfy Network. Along the way Corman, who received an honorary Oscar in 2009, has influenced countless major movie stars and directors, including Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Steven Spielberg. Recently, Corman took the time to speak with Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell about his career and the low-budget horror genre. An edited transcript follows


MCN: You practically invented this genre back in the 50s. What are your thoughts on where it’s going now? Are you flattered that so many producers are basically copying a format you developed 50 years ago?

Roger Corman: I wouldn’t say I invented it [the B-Movie concept] but I was one of the people who did develop it. The concept of the B-movie of course has been with us since the 1930s when B-Movies were invented really to be the second half of a double feature. The low-budget pictures came in and to a large extent they were exploitation pictures – a word that some people don’t like but that I embrace. They were exploitation pictures. The very first picture I ever produced was Monster From the Ocean Floor, and that was in the 1950s. Here we are again with that same concept.

What happened was about nine or 10 years ago I made a picture called Dinocroc, which I made for home video. Tom Vitale [EVP of original movies] at the Sci-Fi Channel heard about it and called me and asked if he could see it, so I said ‘Sure.’  I sent him a DVD and he bought it. It got the highest rating for Sci-Fi Channel of the year.

I remember I was having lunch with Tom and the executives [at Sci-Fi] in New York and they said they’d like to have another one and I said ‘Sure, Dinocroc 2.’ And they said, ‘No’ – this is where even at my age you can learn something – they said ‘You can have Rambo 2 or Rocky 2 or whatever theatrically but we find when we put 2 on something it doesn’t work; it’s better if it’s a similar title.’ And I said “Did I say Dinocroc 2? I meant of course Supergator." They said ‘Right, we’ll make Supergator.’

Well, we went from Supergator to Dinoshark, which got us into the shark business, and then there was Piranhaconda  and a number of these films. Then The Asylum came in and they had some shark pictures too.

MCN:  So now you’re back in the shark business with Sharktopus.  How did you get into that franchise?

RC: They called me and said "Roger, you come up with every title; we’ve come up with a title." I said, what is it? They said "Sharktopus. Do you want to make it?” And I said no.

I believe you can go up to a certain level of insanity with these titles and the audience is with you, but if you go over what I might call the acceptable level of insanity, the audience says "What is that?" and they turn on you. And I think Sharktopus is above the acceptable level of insanity.

One thing led to another, we were all friendly and made so many pictures together over the years that I made Sharktopus – the  biggest rating of the year. Clearly the acceptable level of insanity is higher than I thought would be.

In late July there is going to be Sharknado2 – they decided to put the 2 on that one. And on Saturday night (Aug 2) there is going to be Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, half pterodactyl, half-barracuda.

MCN: You have a third Sharktopus, correct? Is that in post production?

RC: Actually I was shooting Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda in the Dominican Republic, partially because it is a beautiful place and the locations fit and partially because they have a subsidy there. I found out my budget wasn’t big enough to qualify for the subsidy, so I wrote Sharktopus vs. Mermantula (half merman/half tarantula), and I shot part of that. The picture is partially shot, we will finish shooting it this summer. We put it aside in order to finish Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda.

MCN: And you qualified for the subsidy?

RC: Yes.

MCN: With the big studios focusing on big-budget super-hero movies and sequels, are cable television networks like Syfy the last outlet for independent filmmakers like you?

RC: I think they are. If you look at the ads in the newspapers on Friday night, you will see 95% big-budget major studios. There will be an occasional low-budget picture that breaks in, but it’s very unusual and generally it will be a horror film. But pretty much we are frozen out. In fact you can stem it all back to Jaws. When Jaws came out, Vincent Canby the late critic for The New York Times wrote “What is Jaws but a big-budget Roger Corman film?” He was right but he missed something. It was a big-budget Roger Corman film but it was also better. That was the key word. It was a bigger and better film and I realized the major studios understood what I and my compatriots had been doing.

When Star Wars came out, I had done a picture before called Battle Beyond the Sun and various pictures like that and I thought "We are in a lot of trouble." I talked to Steven Spielberg and to George Lucas about it and they said "We saw these pictures when we were kids and now we have a chance to make them bigger and better for the major studios." That is part of what drove us out of theatrical and into home video DVD, which was very lucrative up until just a couple of years ago. It’s almost as if some new technology saves us from extinction. First it was DVD and now it’s Syfy and other channels who are picking up the slack for this type of film.

MCN: Computer graphics has helped keep costs down, but do you still have to keep a close eye on the budget?

RC: You have to control it. The producer, the director and the special-effects company really have to be working together before the film is made. You have to do everything before you shoot so you know exactly where you’re putting the shots. Sometimes in the old days, you could wing it and make it up as you went along. You can’t do that today. You have to plan exactly how the shots are going to be composed so you know where the monster comes in and the pretty girl in the bikini.

There is something I never understood, but it is a fact of life that whenever there is a ferocious sea monster, pretty girls in bikinis always run into the water. They just seem to be driven to do that. The pretty girl in the bikini should be on the left of the frame so the sea monster can come up on the right of the frame.

MCN: Obviously so your eye is drawn to the monster.

RC: [Laughs] Right.

MCN: I saw a quote from you a while back, “You make the poster first, then you make the film. And sometimes you don’t make the film.”

RC: That is a slight overstatement. Very often we start with a concept and the concept will very often lead to the title. For instance, Sharktopus started with the title and then Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda started with the idea that we were going to have Sharktopus, but we were going to have a new monster and a combination of monsters. Now you can do a fair amount of audience research over the Internet. We tested over the Internet a number of titles and Pteracuda won the contest, which then gave us two problems: What is a Pteracuda and why in hell would anybody make a Pteracuda?

In that area I do believe this – the audience wants to see this type of picture. My technique if you want to call it that, is to give some reasonably plausible excuse for the existence of the monster, knowing that the audience, if it [the concept] isn’t too insane, will accept it. If you say this was an atomic mutation or a scientist was trying to do this, or the government was trying to create a new living method of warfare and give some vaguely believable excuse for the existence of the creature, the audience will accept that because they want to see the creature and they just want to have some reason for it to exist. But then you must be completely logical as to everything the creature does. You can’t say the creature does this, this and this and then at the climax say "Oh, it’s got wings."

MCN: There was one notable scene in the first Sharktopus that almost broke the Internet – the scene with the bungee jumper…

RC: My daughter played the bungee jumper. It went out as a clip and it had something like 11 million viewers. Jay Leno put the clip on his talk show and the whole thing went viral. That clip also helped to drive the reruns of Sharktopus. Some of those things are unexpected. To us it was one of a number of what we considered to be the key special-effects shots. You can never predict which one [will resonate with the audience]; that was the one that went viral.

MCN: I re-watched one of your earlier movies from the 1950s about crab monsters…

RC: Oh, yes, Attack of the Crab Monsters.

MCN: One thing that struck me from that picture was you saw the monster early on. I always thought the idea was to keep the creature hidden until much later in the film.

RC: What you just said is actually a key point. It was so long ago I barely remember, but we did show the crab monster earlier. But generally for a film we used to show bits and pieces and sometimes behind foliage or underwater or something. You didn’t see the creature fully right at the beginning, but you gave hints of it and built it up, built it up, built it up to the point where you finally saw the full creature. I felt and I think a lot of other people who were making that type of film thought that was the way to do it, give hints, build suspense, build the tension until finally you hit with the creature. But with television you go the other way. This came from Tom Vitale. Tom said their experience has been that if you don’t have a shock scene within the first 5 or 10 minutes of the picture, the audience flips the channel. So the theory that worked for theatrical, you turn it 180 degrees for television.

MCN: Is that good or bad?

RC: It’s simply reacting to the medium. For motion pictures it works one way, for television it works another. I slightly prefer the more traditional way of motion pictures of building to finally showing the creature. Very often now what we’ll do, however, is that we will show a shock scene very quickly, but we won’t show the creature fully. We’ll show the shock scene in order to get the audience’s attention, but hold the full shot until later. On the other hand, I’ll have to admit sometimes we just show the thing right off the bat.

MCN: When you do show the creature right off the bat you have to keep raising the bar in subsequent showings. Is that getting harder and harder to do?

RC: We calculate it that way. We do plan that within the script. We try to hit something hard very quickly to get the audience’s attention; then, the next scene can be a little less. But then the next scene must be bigger. So you are sort of climbing a cliff but it’s a jagged cliff. You’ll hit them hard, then a little softer, then a little bigger, then a little softer, but always escalating toward the climax.

MCN: We talked a little about your process. Do you generally come up with a name for a movie first and then get a bunch of people together to brainstorm?

RC: Sometimes. Very often I will write the original treatment. I started as a writer. I don’t write scripts anymore but I will write a five- or 10-page treatment and work with the writer on that. With Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, that was a matter of, to a certain extent, brainstorming because we were putting together these two elements and we were trying to figure out how to do it.

MCN: How long is it from concept to finished product for you today?

RC: It’s longer today than it used to be because of computer graphics. While they’re far better in quality than anything we previously did, they take longer to do. We would do a film like this in the 80s from start to finish in maybe four or five months. Now, that’s expanded to six to seven months and sometimes longer.

MCN: Syfy seems to be the biggest buyer of these movies now, but are other cable channels stepping up?

RC: They are. For instance, Tom [Vitale] is now with Chiller. I’ve been meaning to call him to see if we could do something with Chiller but I’ve been so involved in other films, as well as these films. We have a fairly heavy production schedule. We just finished Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda a week ago. We sent a semi-final cut so they knew what they were getting, but the actual finished version just went out 10 days ago and for an August air date, that’s fairly tight.

MCN: Aside from Chiller are you seeing any other networks take interest? It seems like there are a lot of male-oriented networks that would be perfect vehicles for your movies.

RC: We’ve had contact with a number of other channels. We have not made any specific deals but I’m expecting that within the next 90 days or so I will be announcing something. I still hope to stay with Syfy as much as I can, but of course I’ll be branching out as I’ve always done.

MCN: With TV you have the benefit of multiple showings and there is VOD ad DVRs. Has that been a benefit to independent filmmakers? You don’t have to sweat out weekend box office, and does it allow you to get paid more than once?

RC: It does except if you have a big hit theatrically you can do better. On the average you’re probably a little bit better taking a reasonable profit with a combination of cable, DVD and video on demand, but you give up to a large extent the possibility [of a big hit].When we made the first Piranha years ago we were astonished at how much money the picture did at the box office. We can’t hit for that kind of money without a theatrical release. That’s one thing that I do regret about what’s happened.

MCN: How well did Piranha do?

RC: We made Piranha for $700,000 or $800,000 and we did over $10 million at the box office. You just can’t hit that way anymore.

MCN: The 50s was the time of giant radioactive creatures, the 60s was hippie bikers, the 80s and 90s were slasher movies and now we have sharks falling out of the sky. What’s the next big thing for this genre?

RC: I don’t know exactly. I’ve seen these cycles come and go. I think we’re at the peak of the cycle of these mutant creatures. I think it will continue for maybe another year or so and I will predict we will be on to something a little bit different. I myself would like to move back to a little more pure science fiction. There is a picture I am looking forward to called Snowpiercer, which is a type of science fiction that I like very much. It’s going to be opening in a couple of weeks. (Ed. Note: it had a limited U.S. release in late June) I would like to move a little bit in that direction. I think we’ve got another year on this cycle. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen cycles come and go. Sometimes they last longer than you think.

MCN: What’s Snowpiercer about?

RC: I haven’t seen it but it is a South Korean film – the world is frozen and as I understand there is a train that must keep moving to generate heat. The train is divided into different classes, much like The Hunger Games – the rich people and the poor people. And it becomes a conflict between the rich people and the poor people on this science fiction train in a future frozen world.

MCN: You’ve made a ton of movies but you haven’t stuck to just one genre for long. Just checking your IMDB and aside from Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, you have Fist of the Dragon, Operation Rogue, Art School of Horrors and others in the pipeline. Do you like to mix things up? 

RC: I’ve always done that. I had done the Edgar Allen Poe horror films, [The Raven, House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace and The Tomb of Ligeia] and when I felt I had done enough I did the first Hell’s Angels picture, The Wild Angels; made a complete switch from the classic Poe horror films to out in the streets with the bikers. I’ve always liked to work that way. I don’t want to stay in any one particular genre.

MCN: In the 2011 documentary, Corman’s World – Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,Jack Nicholson said that a movie producer who doesn’t understand money is like an artist that doesn’t understand paint. And he said you understand paint, but you mix it with a little turpentine so you can get your pictures made.

RC: [Laughs] I’ve always thought of this as a combination of an art and a business. You have to understand the business end of it and the creative end of it as well. You can’t separate the two. They must go together.

MCN: Speaking of saving money, is it true that you shot Little Shop of Horrors in two days?

RC: And one night. [Laughs]

MCN: And you did it because you had finished another film, A Bucket of Blood, early and wanted to use the sets because you’d already paid for them? 

RC: Yes, right after A Bucket of Blood – I did it almost as a joke, just to see if I could do it. It was really just fun. One of the reasons I think that [Little Shop of Horrors] became sort of a cult film and led to a Broadway musical and the bigger picture with Steve Martin, is that nobody took it seriously. We were all having fun while we made it and I think that atmosphere carried over into the film itself. And the fact that it was a funny script – it was a comedy horror film –but it grew funnier because all of the actors, even the crew, were laughing and just having a good time. That permeated the film, I think.

MCN: I think a lot of people have a picture in their mind when they think about the type of movie making that you do. I keep thinking of a scene in Ed Wood, when they are shooting on a street and as the police start to approach them – they don’t have a proper permit – Johnny Depp just grabs the camera and says to the actors and crew, “Run.” Is that how it was in the early days for you?

RC: [Laughs] To a certain extent. We did not bother with permits. If the police came by, we used to say we were a student film. Then we used to say it was a student film and I was the professor, because I was getting a little old to be a student. The funny thing is, we never had trouble with the police. They were always friendly. Today it’s different. I do think we do now pay more attention and we will go out and get permits.

MCN: Is it still fun to make movies?

RC: It is still fun. It’s getting a little harder, I’m getting a little older and a little slower, but it’s still fun.