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Reading: The Art of the Gross

The story of movie legend Roger Corman--blood and sex, satire and speed, young talent and consistent profits.

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You probably have a favorite Roger Corman movie even if you've never actually seen one. Who can resist a filmography with titles as juicy as She Gods of Shark Reef, The Last Woman on Earth, Teenage Caveman, and Gas-s-s-s?

My pick is 1959's A Bucket of Blood, which Corman points to with pride in his autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, as the first of a new genre of black comedies that were made for peanuts and opened up fresh horizons for low-budget screen entertainment. Like The Little Shop of Horrors and Creature From the Haunted Sea, Bucket combined satire and gore, hinting at a wry comic intelligence to go with the shrewd "exploitation" marketing. The ineffable Roger Corman style, according to Corman, comprised "quirky plots built on somewhat gruesome premises; fast cutting and fluid camera moves; composition in depth; unconventional, well-sketched characters; and solid performances from the ensemble of 'Corman players.'" That style made Corman a cult figure as a director and producer while he racked up respectable grosses for almost 30 years.

Bucket is the story of a schnook waiter (played by Dick Miller) in a beatnik coffeehouse who becomes the accidental darling of the art crowd by killing a succession of victims, beginning with a cat, then covering them with plaster to create sculptures; it epitomizes Corman's approach to independent filmmaking. First as a director/producer, then as head of his own distribution/production company, New World Pictures, Corman became famous for doing it on the cheap. By his own reckoning he was one of the first indies in a business notoriously hard on upstarts--and his number-one theme was the outsider. A typical workday was fast, inventive, and brimming over with makeshift techniques and story ideas scribbled on scraps of paper.

The book, ghosted by Jim Jerome, breezes through Corman's Beverly Hills upbringing, Stanford engineering degree, and bohemian wanderings to zero in on his chief claim to fame: those amazing work methods. Nothing was ever wasted on a Corman project, especially not time. He shot a dozen films in two years (1956-57), at least a couple of which, Rock All Night and Not of This Earth, still look good. He made Bucket in five days for $50,000. He topped that by writing and shooting Little Shop in two days, on a bet, using a set left over from another film. On the first day of production, his assistant director announced at 9 AM, after one hour of breakneck setups: "Let's get going. We're falling hopelessly behind schedule." Crew members could expect to be tapped for every duty up to and including getting inside a foam-rubber monster suit. Grips acted. Editors did stunts. Workaholic Corman vacationed at his locations, many times utilizing Hawaii or Puerto Rico to brainstorm a second shoestring movie after putting the first in the can, just to save travel expenses.

The result was the legendary Corman "twofer," in which writers got calls in the middle of the night to whip up a story to take advantage of a cast and crew with a few days to kill. Corman sold the films, and evidently his regulars learned to handle any contingency. This director chewed up production schedules the way his monsters chewed victims.

Meanwhile, his films consistently made money, first for American International Pictures and later for other indies and majors, including his own Filmgroup and New World. A Corman pic typically played the drive-ins on a twin bill. He was there at the dawn of the youth market, a phenomenon Hollywood and Corman still count on. He had flops every now and then (The Intruder, for instance, a relatively serious racial drama starring William Shatner), but Corman developed a reputation for showing a profit and rewarding his backers. Unlike the majors, with their huge built-in promotional and production expenses (which led to the accountants' remedy of never showing a profit no matter what), Corman ran lean and hungry. He eventually tired of deal making and bowed out of distribution in the early 1980s, but he understands the business the way sometimes only a true maverick can. He insists he would rather use his savvy on production, a strategy he's clung to since he taught himself to direct on a western called Five Guns West in 1955.

Throughout this fast-moving, anecdotal story of his career, Corman leavens the rough-and-tumble of budget moviemaking with matter-of-fact, almost apologetic statements of purpose. For him, the ideal film combines action, sex, and a liberal political viewpoint. Certainly the best films of his directorial period (it ended after Von Richthofen and Brown, in 1970) and almost all of the Corman New World releases adhere to this plan. Early on, with the release of Machine Gun Kelly (starring Charles Bronson) in 1958, French critics began admiring his work in direct defiance of their American counterparts, who mostly disdained tiny-budget pictures of the unfashionable action and horror varieties. The Americans would come around eventually; Corman delights in pointing out that what establishment critics and major studio execs once called cheapo flicks became "genre" and "high concept" when the majors did them. The only differences were a bloated expense ledger and the usual hypocrisy.

Corman eventually parlayed his European popularity into a unique arrangement, after forming New World in 1970. In addition to his typical slate of actioners, comedies, and horror flicks, Corman picked up a number of foreign films by respected directors for U.S. distribution. The combination proved beneficial to both sides. Corman gained prestige and a healthy share of the art-house trade; the "classics" auteurs received Yankee-style marketing expertise, breaking them into situations in the States they'd never dreamed of. An Ingmar Bergman picture played drive-ins for the first time ever, an event that led the Swedish master to thank Corman for helping him finally reach the wide audience he had always sought. Business was good because Corman understood both hard sell and art product, giving him an advantage over the majors, who looked down on smaller grosses. As he put it: "Who else could release Cries and Whispers in the same year as Night Call Nurses, or Amarcord with Caged Heat two years later, or 1980's The Tin Drum and Humanoids From the Deep?"

Corman's reputation as an influential stylist came largely from his work in the 60s, with an eight-film gothic horror cycle combining Edgar Allan Poe, Freudian riffs, point-of-view shots, and Vincent Price, and an equally lurid string of red-hot (at the time) biker and hippie exploitationers, led by The Wild Angels and The Trip. The Poe series was a step up in class for Corman. He admired the relative subtlety of Price's acting, and also worked with such veterans as Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Ray Milland, and with up-and-coming actors like Jack Nicholson, who enjoyed clowning on the set of The Raven and The Terror.

Indeed, much of the Corman mystique is based on his fame as a "professor of filmmaking" for dozens of actors, writers, editors, and directors who got their feet wet with him and went on to fame and fortune. In a number of mini-interviews sprinkled throughout the book, we learn what Corman's "students" think of him. Nicholson evidently still feels a little hurt that Corman had doubts about his acting, at one point brooding that he was always Roger's second choice for key parts. Nevertheless, Corman and Nicholson share the revolutionary nimbus of the anything-goes 60s and 70s, when Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, and a host of other actors honed their craft in Corman movies.

Corman also specialized in grabbing technical talent right out of film school. They worked cheaper that way. Francis Coppola got one of his first jobs on AIP's Young Racers in 1962, as assistant director, grip mechanic, and sound man. Menachem Golan, long before Cannon Films, was second assistant on the same film. Writer Robert Towne was an early collaborator, although he worked too slowly for Corman's taste. Peter Bogdanovich got Corman's help with some spare Karloff footage to make his first feature, Targets. The only misfire Corman mentions is a big one--through a series of disagreements with AIP, he lost the chance to produce Easy Rider.

Future cutting-edge directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, and Jonathan Kaplan took crew jobs under the New World banner for little money--to get into the business and attend the "school," as it came to be known. Ron Howard moved from acting to directing in Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto (a title Corman tested by handing out surveys in movie-ticket lines). James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens) got started similarly, as did Allan Arkush (Hollywood Boulevard) and Amy Jones (Slumber Party Massacre). George Armitage, whose Miami Blues was one of the genuine sleepers of 1990, was also a Corman alum. And Paul Bartel, maker of Eating Raoul, made Death Race 2000 for Corman first. It was one of New World's biggest hits. With talent like this hanging around, it's no wonder Corman generated most of his projects in-house.

Corman is at his most engagingly candid in describing the nuts and bolts of his brand of moviemaking. His production philosophy would turn a Jon Peters's hair gray. Basically it's "rework, recut, reshoot." Don't waste a foot of film or a minute of time. Don't hire an expensive writer when there are hundreds of eager young writers desperate to get a break who are just as good. Don't send out 1,500 prints of a film with a massive advertising budget. Try to come up with the ad art and title of a film first, then write a film to fit. Explosions are good; when in doubt, blow it up. But don't overpay for special effects. For Battle Beyond the Stars, Corman balked at plunking down $2 million for space FX, formed his own FX unit, and eventually made the whole film for the price of a hired-out battle scene alone.

A typically zany bit of Cormania involved the recutting of director Monte Hellman's eerie Cockfighter, a Warren Oates starrer about a southerner who raises fighting cocks. Audiences were turned off by the movie, so trailer cutter Joe Dante (who would later go on to direct Gremlins) was brought in to reedit the thing and make a new trailer. As Dante describes it, Corman dictated instructions over the telephone from Europe: take a chase scene from one film, a sex scene from another, create a montage, then overdub some of the original dialogue with added "weird music." "We're going to make a new trailer," Corman said, "and we're going to put all these new scenes into the trailer and make it look like a picture with trucks and girls and tits and guns and all these things that aren't really in the movie. And we'll try to save the picture." They ended up retitling it Born to Kill. On another occasion, Corman supervised the reshaping of an action film by editor Allan Arkush using cut-ins of chase scenes and explosions. "I want it to look like Ivan the Terrible," cracked Corman. "Part one or two?" "Part two. It's in color."

The changing nature of the business, rather than of the paying public, caught up with Corman, and he sold New World in 1983. As he explains it: "The market for low-budget exploitation films was shrinking because the majors were making the same kind of films--science fiction, sword and sorcery, action/adventure, youth comedy, horror films--at an average cost of $15 to $20 million and getting much bigger production value on the screen." Since then, the man who dropped LSD and spent the day hugging the earth in order to research The Trip, the man who strapped himself onto a runaway Model A with Shelley Winters and Robert De Niro (at the wheel--a nondriver faking it) for Bloody Mama, the man who warned Francis Coppola not to go to the Philippines in the May-November rainy season to shoot Apocalypse Now ("Nobody shoots there that time of year") has made a new film, Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, and written this book. The memoir--very much in the spirit of what Corman calls "art and commerce, compromised"--is a hilariously good read.

How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, Random House, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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