'B' man: Roger Corman reflects on 60 years of resourceful filmmaking

Some call Roger Corman a schlockmeister, others say he’s an auteur of the first rank. The French have placed him on the altar of pop art raised high (along with Jerry Lewis) for decades; the alternate view is that he’s a money-hungry hack purposefully toiling in grindhouse obscurity with over 400 completed films (so far), albeit in various capacities: writer, director, producer. “When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself,” said Oscar Wilde.

Now we must make up our own minds. Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a documentary about him, his films, and the people he jumpstarted to superstardom, opens on Dec. 16 in New York, Los Angeles and eight other major markets. During a recent interview at the New York Film Festival, Corman, an elegant, well-mannered gentleman—but still an incredible hustler—declared, “It was well-received at Sundance, got a standing ovation at Cannes, and did well here at the Festival.”

What does he care? At 85, he’s made his bones many times over (highlights: A Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors [the first one], The Big Doll House, Teenage Caveman, Machine Gun Kelly, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Caged Heat), hired then-unknowns Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Pam Grier, Francis Coppola, James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd; created (or exploited, if you will), the genres of the nurse film, dark comedy, blaxploitation, the horror film and women-in-prison movies, with a few westerns and apocalyptic tales along the way. He caught the mood of unrest and teen angst in the ’50s, and also wittily nailed that era’s seldom-seen-on-screen hipster sensibility, at odds with the prevailing view of a complacent America.

Corman was also one of the first American independent filmmakers to work on his own terms, alongside an entrenched Hollywood studio system so scared by television it countered with extravaganzas such as The Ten Commandments. Corman showed another way: smaller, cheaper, even iconoclastic. And always faster.

“Yes, I was a bit surprised when Alex got in touch with me,” he observes in his measured manner, each word carefully chosen. He doesn’t waste energy, which may be one reason he has been described as a manic worker, most famously shooting Little Shop in two-and-a-half days, his own idea. “But I found her intelligent, my first criterion for a director. And I’m pleased with the film: It’s fair, with some time spent on my early films, when I was just learning, as well as my later movies in which I had learned a bit more. I hope it will cause people to see my movies again and re-evaluate them.”

Alex is director Alex Stapleton, former Brooklynite and self-described college dropout, who decided she was a kindred spirit after seeing Corman’s films as a teen. “My parents were quirky, artsy-fartsy types” she says appreciatively. “Then I read How I Made 100 Pictures in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” [Corman’s autobiography] and that settled it.” Lying about her age (upwards) to get an unpaid film internship in New York, she then made her way to California and the film business, where she has worked for 12 years. “I made it happen for myself. That’s what I like about Roger too.”

While they may both have a “can do” attitude, Corman is a college graduate with an engineering degree from Stanford University and a little graduate work in English literature at Oxford University. His Midwestern family had moved to Southern California when Corman was a teen, and ultimately he couldn’t resist the movie business, landing a studio job as a messenger, becoming a reader who wrote the notes for The Gunslinger, and a script for Highway Dragnet so successful he had enough left over to produce his first film, Monster from the Ocean Floor, in 1954. He was off and hasn’t stopped running since.

The arc of his career, which Corman’s World follows, provided a fortuitous happy ending for her film, Stapleton says. Corman was given an Honorary Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2010 while the documentary was in process. Stapleton also used film clips and interviews. “Not too many,” she says, “More in-depth. I didn’t want to make a talking-heads kind of doc.”

Auteurist critics praise Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe, a favorite Corman writer, particularly citing The Masque of the Red Death, with its mood-appropriate color coding, “lit”—the term then—by Nicolas Roeg, another Corman find. The Poe films, Corman says, coincided with another indoor activity, his own psychoanalysis. "Though AIP [American International Pictures, under whose aegis he functioned autonomously] wanted more Poe, I didn’t want to repeat myself. And I wanted to work outdoors.”

The result? More trend-spotting via the scandal-causing Wild Angels, with Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern. Corman used cinéma-vérité, shot on the streets of Venice, Calif., and in the nearby mountains and desert, and functioned as a sort of embedded director: “I gained the Angels’ trust by bringing a bag of dope to their parties,” and by using Angels as extras. For this film, and The Trip, “I was at one with the counterculture. But by the end of the ’60s I was beginning to sense things had gotten out of hand.”

This view is reflected in Gas-s-s-s!, which AIP edited in a way Corman didn’t like, and which occasioned his departure in 1970. He set up New World Pictures, producing more than directing. “In the beginning of the film business,” he says, “the producer was all-important. Then the director became preeminent, which I still believe in, but I now see a swing back toward the producer.”

One of his New World decisions was to bring highbrow foreign films, personal favorites, to the U.S. “As the weather started to turn in the fall, drive-in distributors weren’t as eager to place pictures and were ready to close. I saw an open niche. They took some foreign films highly dubiously. The result was only average business; ultimately they were delighted.” Films by Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut were seen by mainstream American audiences for the first time. But you just can’t categorize the guy: The Harder They Come was another Corman pick.

His association with New World ended in 1983, and he formed Concorde-New Horizons, again producing more than directing. Today he says he’s down to three or four movies a year.

Corman has often been labeled sexist, woman-exploiting if not degrading. A Corman dictum to screenwriters was that a female sex scene should turn up every 15 pages. Corman trailers and their erotic tease-appeal were notorious. Today he says, “Though women may start a movie in a bad place, I specifically instructed [quoting himself], ‘The girls must solve their own problems.’ I always believed that though films featured men, what people really wanted to see were women, especially since the great female stars of the 1930s and ’40s were gone.” Corman chuckles, “A woman critic was going to write a piece about my sexism, then after she saw my films, decided that though I did use sex, my films actually empowered women.”

How could we have thought otherwise? In Swamp Women, women prison escapees alternately caress and pummel their male captive; Teenage Doll’s on-the-loose girl gang, the Black Widows, is led by the even meaner Hel; Sorority Girl, critical of campus life for women, also has a complicated mother-daughter relationship worthy of any feminist melodrama. Amazons, awesome Viking women and rifle-aiming female sheriffs run the show in other Corman movies.

Perhaps he was intuitively practicing something he forgot in his idealistic film about racism, The Intruder, starring William Shatner as a white interloper stirring up trouble in the segregated South. Critically well-received, it was the first (and last) Roger Corman movie to lose money. “My message was too overt. Better to go back to the entertainment-oriented or exploitation film, with my own ideas beneath the surface, on a subtextual level,” he muses. When reminded that The Intruder was recently screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he shrugs modestly.

Today he deems Bloody Mama a favorite. His 1970 film about the criminal Barker Gang stars Shelley Winters as a bullying marauder mother of four grown-up “boys” (including a very young Robert De Niro) and the then unprecedented use of incest, rape (men of young girls, Ma Barker of a man while her sons watch), heroin, prison-instigated homosexuality, and a harrowing close-up of a drowning. Yet Corman won’t take any smarmy compliments: “You can say I was first with a lot of things, but you can always find a prior use in some early expressionist film or other.” He does acknowledge that Bloody Mama, once deemed a Bonnie and Clyde rip-off, has other original Corman touches: kidnapped middle-aged ladies used as human shields for the Barker getaway car (“visually funny, and something Ma Barker would have done”) and, yes, it was he who insisted that actual townsfolk were used in a dance scene. (“Warners wanted me to use their backlot. I said no, I want a naturalistic backdrop and insisted on filming in the South.”)

So, if Corman can spot the new zeitgeist on the horizon, and knows what audiences want before they do…what is the Next Big Thing? “I think that the era of the huge tentpole films with their large budgets may be peaking, or just past. When producers and money people realize this—and I think they are starting to see profits are down a bit—there will be a place once more for the well-made independent film.

“I’ve nothing against special effects, or spending money when you can see where the money has gone. I liked Avatar. But I know Jim [Cameron, the film’s director, another Corman early hire] only used 3D artfully. He didn’t use it just to throw a spear at the audience.”

Corman’s greatest legacy may be igniting the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s by bringing along talent such as Robert Towne, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles and Ron Howard. Along with a huge mutant crab chomping on a headless human in Attack of the Crab Monsters.