The Many Sides of Roger Corman

By Michelle Donnelly · November 10, 2015

Perhaps most famously, Roger Corman is known for giving an extraordinary list of talent their earliest opportunities in filmmaking. Vividly recalling his struggles while breaking into the business, it was a charge he fully embraced. During their first meeting for his directorial debut in the Corman produced film Grand Theft Auto, Corman told Ron Howard, “I like to think that I churn out directors for Hollywood the way USC turns out running backs for the NFL.” The list of actors and directors that have graduated from the ‘University of Corman’ is expansive and impressive, and includes: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, John Sayles, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Robert Towne, Curtis Hanson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, and Diane Ladd. On a larger scale, Corman alumni can be found in all areas of the industry, including editors, casting directors, cinematographers and makeup artists just to name a few.

Corman has written 9 films, directed 56, produced over 400 and at 89 years old, his career spans just about every genre. A pioneer of independent filmmaking, he crafted exploitation films like no one before him. His steadfast aim to create films that would make a profit were a result of his desire to continue to make more films. Through it all, his reputation for hard work and ingenuity was well known. Directors who have worked with him praise his genius and pundits revere his business acumen. There have been an abundance of theories offered about what makes him tick, with friends, former employees and colleagues all eager to weigh in. One consensus throughout seems to be that no one truly knows Roger Corman and after time spent in therapy maybe least of all, Corman himself.

Born to William and Anne Corman, Roger grew up in Detroit. By all accounts, his father, an engineer, was a practical man not prone to overarching displays of emotion. When Roger was 3 years old, the Great Depression shook the nation. While his family was luckier than most (his father experienced a pay cut, but was able to keep his job), Corman has said of  the experience, he “always assumed that somehow shaped my attitude toward money.”  Years later when his penchant for stinginess was common knowledge, it was easy to agree.

When Corman was 14 years old, his family moved to Beverly Hills in the hopes of finding a more hospitable climate for his father who suffered from a heart condition. After high school he attended Stanford University, interrupting his studies to do a three-year stint in a Naval training program. When the war ended and he was discharged from the Naval program, Corman returned to Stanford and like his father, graduated with a degree in engineering.

After concluding that engineering was not his life’s ambition, he returned to Los Angeles intent on breaking into the film industry. In these early years, Corman held a variety of jobs. He was a messenger at Twentieth-Century Fox, a literary agent, and a story analyst at Fox before selling a script to Allied Artists and then working on the production of the film eventually entitled Highway Dragnet. His first independent production was 1954’s The Monster from the Ocean Floor. Shot over 6 days for $12,000, the movie faired well, even earning some respectable reviews. Quite fortuitously, his career began in earnest in the years after the 1948 United States Supreme Court ruling U.S. v. Paramount Pictures that declared the studios in violation of anti-trust laws. In effect, the decision dismantled the studio system that had dominated the film industry, thus allowing the rise of independent productions.

Following his first film, Corman would write and direct films such as Attack of the Crab Monsters, She Gods of Shark Reef, The Fast and the Furious and The Little Shop of Horrors. Having never gone to film school, it was these early productions that afforded him an opportunity to learn his craft. Having shot The Little Shop of Horrors over 3 days for $22,000 and 1959’s The Wasp Woman in 6 days for $50,000, it was clear Corman was a master at working within budgetary limitations. More importantly, Corman had found an audience for his films and it was an audience that appreciated gore, violence, sex and above all, campiness. Increasingly confidant in his filmmaking capabilities, he would go on to do 8 widely received films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe including House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.

One of his only films not to make a profit was 1961’s The Intruder. After several studios passed on the film, Corman provided most of the funding himself. The story of a man from New York who arrives in a southern town intent on stirring up racial hated, it was a movie with a message. Roger’s brother Gene notes that it was, “the first film that Roger could actually make a statement about his personal feelings.” Receiving stellar reviews but failing at the box office, Corman was bruised by its lack of success. Confused over his artistic desires and financial success, he found himself rethinking his priorities. Moving forward, it was clear that his art would never again take precedence over his audience’s expectations.

Due to the typical difficulties of a limited budget and a short shooting schedule on top of using actual bikers from the Hells Angels, the 1966 movie The Wild Angels proved to be one of Corman’s most challenging, yet most rewarding film. In it, Peter Fonda is the leader of a chapter of Hells Angels who searches for his friend’s stolen motorcycle. A precursor to Easy Rider, it transformed Corman’s image from B movie, monster filmmaker to that of a hip, edgy and timely purveyor of culture. Peter Bogdanovich credits the film, saying its success, “galvanized the underground culture.”

The 1970’s would result in yet another of many shifts in Corman’s career, when the major studios invaded the previously independent B movie market, throwing big budgets behind the genre that had previously thrived on quick productions, small budgets and fantastical storytelling. Films like Jaws and Star Wars can easily been envisioned as Corman creations. After a similar trend in the television market, Corman successfully set his sights on the home video.

Known for his do-it-yourself, guerilla style filmmaking, Corman has perfected making films with a limited crew, quick set-ups, few takes and where obtaining permits is optional. Given his pragmatic approach to filmmaking, it’s ironic that Corman actually has an art house sensibility and he lists films by Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa as some of his favorites. His production company, New World Pictures, became a U.S. distributor of foreign films at a time when no one else was willing to take such risk. Of this business decision, Corman said, “the money is secondary…because I feel that these films should get to a larger audience than they do.”

His desire to bring classic cinema to the United States, is just one of the many contradictory facets that makes up Roger Corman. At once cheap, he is also known for overtly generous acts of kindness bestowed on friends. For a man who has made a career bucking the establishment, he and his publicity machine have had a tendency to overinflate his credentials and scholastic accomplishments. Former employees have claimed that while at times he could be “gracious,” at other times he could be “cold” and that a day in the life of working for him could be both “elating and horrible.” And maybe most interestingly, of the man who has built an empire out of tapping into that seedy side of society, many have described him as mild-mannered, polite, and even eloquent.

Screenwriter and long time associate, Charles B. Griffith (Little Shop of Horrors), has said that Corman has an “engineer’s brain” that is “torturing the artist’s impulses.” Much has been said about the inner turmoil of Roger Corman and he himself has spoken openly about his time in therapy and his seeming desire for a greater understanding of his motivations. Is he the practical engineer or the creative genius? The frugal moviemaker or the benevolent employer? The charming personality or the cold and reserved enigma? Or is he simply, as most often reported, the Hollywood luminary who has helped the careers of countless filmmaking legends? 

For all his success, Corman claims he has yet to make the film he truly has wanted to make. Often his films are considered second rate while at other times they are considered cult classics. Regardless, its clear Corman productions have inspired legions of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and his independent style of filmmaking has spawned an industry that has flourished outside the studio system. Both Roger Corman and his career are anti-establishment in every way, and in the end, that may be the highest compliment one can pay to any filmmaker.