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SUNDANCE Q&A: Roger Corman Discusses Being a Rebel and Making the Most Out of a Small Budget

Roger Corman has been an industry to himself for more than five decades. Filmmaker Alex Stapleton has attempted to capture the man and the myth in Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a Park City at Midnight offering that will have its world premiere Friday night at the Egyptian Theatre. A&E IndieFilms just picked up TV rights to the doc, which features interviews with Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers given their firsts shot in the Corman factory. Corman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about what makes a rebel, how Adam Smith predicted the current studio system and the key to success on a miniscule budget.

The Hollywood Reporter: Does it feel strange having a retrospective made of you or does it feel earned?

Roger Corman: There have been a number of retrospectives. As a matter of fact, if I can go back to my early days, I, at my old age, am still the youngest director ever to have retrospectives at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, the British Film Institute in London and the Museum of Modern Art in N.Y. So the retrospectives started early.

THR: So you are used to it by now -- and you're also still making movies so there's always an update.

Corman: That's true.

THR: The subtitle of this doc describes you as a rebel. What makes you a rebel in your mind?

Corman: I don't know. I've been called a rebel and I've been called many things, both plus and minus. I think the fact that I maintained my independence. I've made, I think, three films for major studios, but primarily out of something like 350 movies I've either produced or directed or executive produced, all the rest have been independent. I've been both a writer/producer/director and I've had my own independent distribution company, New World, starting in 1970, a continuation of which is New Horizons, which I'm still operating today. It's basically that. Also the fact that my films very often have been -- I don't know how to describe it -- I would just say anti-establishment to a large extent. Particularly in the 1960s and '70s.

THR: Do you see any like-minded spirits in the filmmaking world today? Any similar rebels? Is what makes a rebel in today's film world different than in the '60s and '70s?

Corman: It's difficult to have the same position today for this reason-and this is a major comment on the whole independent movement: When I started in the late 1950s, every film I made had a full theatrical release. Today, almost none of my films have a theatrical release in the United States. They still have theatrical releases in many countries overseas. Only the occasional film I have made in the last few years has had a token release in the United States. That is simply capitalism. I'm not complaining about capitalism, but you can go back to Adam Smith, the first theoretician of capitalism. He simply stated, “That is inevitable in Capitalism, that other things being equal” -- and of course they are never quite equal -- “the entity, generally the corporation, with the greatest amount of capital will grow and absorb, take over or drive out of business the companies with the lesser amount of capital.”

What has happened in the motion picture business is a perfect illustration of Adam Smith's theory. The major studios have become bigger. Most of them are even part of bigger corporations themselves. They, themselves, have been victims or beneficiaries, however you want to describe it, of this process. So the major studios have gotten bigger, stronger and have more access to more capital, freezing out the independents and the lower-budget distributors. Up until the mid-'90s -- this started really almost 20 years ago around 1990, give or take a few years -- if you were to open a Friday issue when the big ads are in for the weekend for the L.A. Times, and you were to open one in the '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s, you would have seen a full amount of independent, low- and medium-budget films competing against the majors. Starting around 20 years ago that started to fade. If you look at it now, you'll see almost no independent, medium- or low-budget films.

THR: It sounds like you are saying today just to even try to make a film outside of the studio system is rebellious.

Corman: Yes. It is easy to make the film, but it's much more difficult to get any reasonable distribution. Therefore what I did is, I would say, almost impossible today. I wouldn't say fully impossible, because somebody might be able to do it, but it's very difficult.


THR: Is there anybody you see that is prepared to carry on the Corman mission if -- God forbid -- you are no longer making films?

Corman: I don't know exactly. There are a number of independent production and distribution companies, but nobody had been originally a writer/director/producer and then had his own distribution company. I don't think anybody is doing that today.

THR: We reported a story recently about Guillermo del Toro starting what he's describing as sort of a writer's workshop to breed ideas and cross-platform stuff. But I guess he's not really independent the way you have been.

Corman: It's my understanding that they intend to take those scripts to the majors.

THR: Was there anyone in particular who participated in the doc that you thought was interesting?

Corman: Jack Nicholson. He was somebody who gave a longer interview than expected. I do remember one story. Ron Howard was directing his first picture for me. He was acting in it, and he had written it with his father. It was Grand Theft Auto. He wanted more extras for one sequence than was called for in the budget. I said to him, “Ron, I can't give you more extras because I don't have the money. But if you do a good job on this picture you will never work for me again.”

THR: I guess that turned out to be true.

Corman: Yes. Actually, I worked for him; I played a senator in Apollo 13.

THR: Back in the '70s you worked with so many directors and gave them their first early opportunity, and many of them went on to successful careers in Hollywood. But back then were there any of them that you gave a shot to that you had doubts about? Where you weren't sure they had a big career in front of them?

Corman: No, everybody I gave a first opportunity to I believed had the talent to be successful. Otherwise, I wouldn't have given them the opportunity. I had no way of knowing how successful they would be. Some of them became incredible stars as either writer/directors or actors. I believed in all of them, but I didn't realize so many of them would go as far as they did.

THR: In your view what makes a Roger Corman movie a Roger Corman movie?

Corman: It is the understanding that I'm working with a limited budget but the determination to make the best picture I could possibly make for that budget. I can remember back in the early days when I was just one of a number of independent directors making low-budget films. Friends of mine would take assignment on a script that wasn't that good and say, “I know this isn't going to be any good, but I need the money. I'm just going to grab the money and run and wait for the big opportunity.” Every person that has said that no longer works in the motion picture business. On the other hand, the ones who said, “I can take this, I can work with it and I will do the best job I can,” those are the ones that succeeded. As a matter of fact, there is Jonathan Demme, an Academy Award-winning director. The first picture he directed for me was a woman-in-prison picture, which was a genre we were working with. He knew what it was and he said to me, “I'm going to make the best woman-in-prison picture anybody has ever made.” He knew the limitations on the subject matter, the requirements of the subject matter and he knew the limitations of the budget, but he determined not only to do his best, but the best that was ever made, and he went on to win an Academy Award. Every one of the people that started with me and went on to success had that attitude.