Roger Corman: The Age of the Indie

Is this the dawning of the Age of the Indie? Distributors say they've run out of money. Studios say they've run out of money. Studios that don't even call themselves studios (´ independents´) say they've run out of money. And of course true indies, who were always broke in the first place, have run out of all the pennies left in their piggy-bank. The only people who have money must surely have been drawn by someone at Pixar, because they just don't seem to exist anymore. So it seems the only way to make films any more is to get together a few actor friends on the weekend, and shoot like you need to rob a bank. FAST.

Enter stage left, at the LA Film Festival - Roger “King of the B's” Corman, who is the only person in Hollywood who can boast (as the title of his book) “I made 100 movies in Hollywood and never lost a dime”. Producing over 500 films, directing 50, his kitsch exploitation flicks not only launched the careers of Peter Fonda, Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Sylvester Stallone, Ron Howard, and countless more, but also introduced the international masters to the American market, launching Francois Truffout, Kurosawa and Berman in the US after finding them at Cannes.

He was described by Festival Director Rebecca Yeldham as “a renaissance man, spanning all genres, from hot rods to vampires. Twilight Eclipse might have been something of a homage to Corman.”

Who could forget such titles as Little Shop of Horrors, Grand Theft Auto, Vampirella, or even the lesser known 'Attack of the Giant Leeches'?

So how did he do it? The School of Corman' way. A power packed panel of Corman alum let us in on the little secrets of low budget movie magic, Roger Corman style, in a not-to-miss masterclass on how to make indie films in these miserly economic times.

Roger Corman, quizzed about his “crooked path to filmmaking” first set the scene:
“I was an Engineering student at Stanford. To get a free pass at The Stanford review they took me on as a film critic. I had to start analysing them to write good reviews. After 4 years I thought "No I'm about to get an engineering degree". But instead for 22 dollars per week, I got a job at Fox. I was the greatest failure at the Stanford Engineering School!

I knew nothing about acting so I enrolled in a method acting class, and Bob Towne and Jack Nicholson were in that class, and we all became friends and worked together. It was always part of the deal 'and you will play a small role!´. I said to Bob Towne, I don't have the money to send you AND an actor to Puerto Rico. I will send you to Peurto Rico and you will act in it.”

Corman hired Curtis Hanson, (Director of LA Confidential) by telling him “I will back you in a motorcycle movie, a women in prison movie, or candy striped nurses.” Hanson asked “anything else?” Corman gave him a horror movie, released as The Arousers because it “seemed like a slightly more commercial title. There needed to be some skin in this sequence which is the other prerequisite. Roger Corman said if you do as well as I think you're going to on this movie, your next movie won´t be for me, you'll have more money.”

Peter Fonda recalls his famous beginnings, riding a motorbike for a Roger Corman picture in ´The Wild Angels' which became the inspiration for Fonda's 'Easy Rider': “Roger said we want to make a film about the Hells Angels but we don't want to make a statement. I said how do you make one without making a statement? It was explained to me that I would play the part of the loser and I would get killed at the front of the movie. I thought this is pretty cool, I get killed for 10 grand, what the heck, its a start, it will get me away from Disney. I got a call, I knew it was Roger. I just knew it was Roger. He said we have a problem here, George can´t ride. I said I can. He said would you be willing to take the part. I said I´d love to but I don't want to be called Jack Black. I want to be called heavenly blues. Heavenly Blues Morning Glory is on the tank of my motorcycle. Roger said OK. So I got to be called Heavenly blues and work with Peter Bogdonavitch who directed me.”

In choosing who to work with, Corman looked for 3 qualities: “First, is intelligence. You might luck out with one successful film if you are not that bright but everybody who has had a full career is intelligent. Second is to work hard. It´s a glamourous biz but also a hard thing to do. The third thing is the creativity.” (And Peter Fonda offered one added advantage. He could also ride a bike).

Corman was smart enough to convince his future wife, Julie Corman, to work with him as a producer by not mentioning she´d be actually producing. “Why don´t you handle the money on this one?” he said. By her 9th film, she realised she was producing, and could finish a film. Though after the first, she'd vowed never to work on his films again. “It was a baptism of fire. Initially I just made deals with people saying you had better tell me the truth because I don't know anything about this. I said at the end of the picture I will never do this again. It was total chaos. You could get hit by anything. It was only by a total miracle you could get to the end of each day.”

Corman was a pioneer in putting women into roles behind the camera, while his films were famous for always putting “a bit of skin” in front of the camera too. “I just said I am going to hire the best person and many times that was a woman. I wasn't doing it to help these women, I was doing it because they were very talented.”

Julie Corman laughs at a classic example of Corman's attitude of hiring the best person for the job, no matter who they are. She told him that she'd discovered a guy on set, (John Mounier, who went on to produce Airplane) who'd put himself through college by pirating Corman's films and distributing them. “What do you think I should do?” she asked Corman. His answer "send him around, I think I´ve got a job for him in advertising".

John Mounier quickly proved his nous for advertising, when Julie Corman asked him to find a way to promote their new star Janie Bell. He asked Corman to come into the office the next day with a suit and tie, all dressed up, to present Janie Bell with “the first annual 'Ebony Fist Award'. The greatest black Kung Fu fighter in the world. It was amazing. He got publicity all over the world!”.

Corman was just as creative, when he faced the quest for financing: “I went to some of the most successful members of the Stanford engineering class and raised 12000 dollars. I got a lab deferment, so with that and a few more deferments the final cost of the picture was about 30,000. The title was 'It stalked the Ocean Floor'. It was changed to ´Monster from the Ocean Floor´, the distributor thought it was too arty a title. I got an advance from the distributor straight away”.

Corman started his own distribution company, 'New World', because he'd read that the two most powerful words in advertising were “new” and “free”. He says “I thought free has nothing to do with how I want to sell my pictures but I thought new is very good so it became ´New World'. He convinced drive-ins to play art house films in the off season, and brought the best of European cinema to the US. One drive-in even played 'Cries with Whispers´and ´Women in Cages´ as a double bill, and Corman got a letter from Bergman thanking him for bringing his films to a new audience. He hit upon a secret to success: always play the big cities and the college towns.

Distribution was easier if the trailers had two elements- Hot slogans, and helicopters. Editor Joe Dante (who went on to direct Twilight Zone), explains “the movie Cover Girl had an exploding helicopter, a model but it was exploding. We hit on a formula that if you had somebody shoot a gun then cut to the exploding helicopter it would work.. So we thought oh if it worked in that, it doesn´t mean we can´t use that in another movie. By the time people saw the movie they usually didn't remember there had been an exploding helicopter.. So this footage got a lot of use. And a lot of the pics that didn't have an exploding helicopter, who is to say they wouldn't have been better?!

So it was a lot of fun. In the 70s you can´t imagine how crazy the exploitation movies were, it was an anything goes time. Roger came up with a catch line "wet dreams in open jeans"! One person said do you think we can get away with this? Roger said why not! The trailers were fun to watch, some say more than the pics. But you learned so much, it´s cinematic haiku, to take a 90 minute film down to 2 minutes. It was an invaluable way to start.

On set, Corman trained his directors to shoot first, ask questions later. Peter Fonda relates “They don't call it Roger Corman film school for nothing. You learn every day because the basics of making movies are denied you. There is a certain amount you have to cover every day, so you learn new ways. How many different scenes can you shoot of this same track. Try to not do reversals because reversals are difficult to light. You learned that in anything complicated u wanted to do, do it in the morning because you didn't have time later in the day. In big movies there is always the same amount of time between action and cut, when you work with roger you learn how to maximize that time and cut out the other time in between. Everybody who worked for Roger learned the basics of learning film and made them more qualified to work for other people.”
Roger said “Hitchcock is prepared, he is prepared for anything. Hawks isn't prepared. I want you to be Hitchcock. Don't ever say now let me think because everybody falls asleep. Don't ever think just know what to do”. And also we didn't bother with things like... permits. Roger just said shoot it. You are not allowed to shoot at the freeway, on the freeway, anywhere near the freeway. We shot at the freeway, on the freeway, in the freeway! “There is a cop car!” “Shoot it!” It was guerrilla filmmaking. Steal it. Shoot it. Whatever you have to do, get the shot.”

Corman was famous for 4-5 day shot gun shoots, so fast the paint must have barely dried on the set before it was all dismantled. Or even better – on Little Shop of Horrors ´(starring Jack Nicholson) he simply borrowed another set.

“The Little Shop of Horrors picture was almost a joke”, Corman laughs. “I was having lunch with a producer, he had made a nice set, and I said well as long as that set is up I could make a film in 2 days. He said you cant do that, so I made a bet. I hired the actors, we shot it as if it was a play. We then added one night for exterior shooting.

You have very little money, you are going to be shooting rapidly but when you are writing you have all the time in the world, so go through as many drafts as needed to get the best script. And I am a great believer in preparation. Sketch each shot so during the shooting you are shooting, you are not trying to figure out what shot to do. And third, know that you are not going to follow those plans. If you have it completely planned out you should be able to shoot 80 to 90 percent as planned and the other 10 percent you can vary on the set. It all starts with the script. We talk about the director being the auteur, but it all starts there. So I'm always happy to look at a script. I do believe directors may be best at one genre or theme but in reality a good director can do anything. And Marty (Scorcese) proved it when he shot a film.”

Peter Bogdanovitch (director of 'Piranha' for Corman, and later 'The Mask) was writing for Esquire when Roger asked “would you like to write a movie”. Peter said "ahh yeahhhh!". So Corman said “I'm looking for something like Lawrence of Arabia on bridge of the river Kwan - only CHEAP".

On the set Bogdanovitch heard Corman keep saying “we don't have time, leave it for the second unit” so he asked who was directing the second unit. Bogdanovitch recalls “He said it doesn't matter who directs the second unit. My secretary could direct the second unit! I said oh I could direct the 2nd unit. "Alright!" And that is how I got to be a director.

So he called me and said would you like to direct your own film. And he said well I tell you Boris Karloff owes me 2 days of work. I want you to shoot 20 minutes of him in 2 days, you can do that, I have shot whole pictures in two days. Then I want you to take 20 minutes of footage from another Karloff picture. That´s 40 minutes. Then get 20 minutes with other actors and now I have a new Karloff picture - are you interested? I said yeah I am very interested. He said good we will pay you 6000 and your wife can work on it too.”

Above all Corman´s tricks of the trade, the one thing that shines through is his can-do attitude, enabling Corman to make successful films, where all others would have failed.
Peter Fonda points to Roger Corman sitting on the LA Film Festival stage, listening to the legends unfold and letting his A-team speak for him, all the while with a beaming godfatherly smile. “Roger has this wonderful smile, this essence on his face, at all times”, Fonda says. “I have known him for many years and he still has this, Rogers famous positive smiling face. You are in the middle of the shit storm. Oh it´s hell and it's cold and we are going to shoot it anyway. "Hurry up and wait" is not the quote on Roger´s films. It´s ´"hurry up and shoot". I love that. My energy never got to settle down, I was up for it. These days they want you to be lazy, they want you to settle down.
Once the studio system died, the new Hollywood really began with Roger Corman. In 1963. Ford said to me "I made a picture that is pretty good why don't you show him mine and say you did it". I always regret I didn't do it because it´s the perfect way to start in pictures, with a touch of larceny. That epitomizes the Roger Corman story.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS of THE SCHOOL OF CORMAN:

. 1. learn about films by reviewing them.

2.Make friends with Jack Nicholson, Bob Towne, and any other actor- writer -director- editor- hyphenates you can meet. Multi-task – with the most talented unknowns in the biz.

3.Finance films by begging, borrowing and deferring.

4.Hire smart, hard working, creative people – including the women! And promote them.

5.Don't think, just shoot.

6.Be prepared with everything, except permits.

7.No matter the hell storm around you, keep smiling.

8.Recycle footage, and keep the trailers exciting – with exploding helicopters.

9.Start with a good script. With a little skin.

10. Publicise & distribute creatively too.

So there it is - the bible of independent filmmaking, as spoken by Corman. Follow those 10 commandments, and maybe you too could be an Oscar winning movie mogul god (albeit with a lesser budget). Though there is one thing the A-list panel didn't address- Corman made his money by making cheap B-grade films in the 70s. But the age of the drive-through is over. Kitsch films are now also called cliched. Films are judged for their quality, not quantity. And the distribution channels have changed. Make an exploitation film , try to sell it to agents and buyers, and a young filmmaker might find their career dead in the water faster than they can say Ed Wood. Could anyone other than Roger “King of the B's” Corman get away with making B grade films?

Wendy Dent

1 July, 2010