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Roger Corman Recalls Death Threats, LSD Trips at Provincetown Film Festival

John Waters and Roger Corman at Provincetown - H 2012
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
John Waters, left, and Roger Corman

During an onstage conversation with John Waters, who presented him with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Corman talked about his run-in with the Hell's Angels and revealed why he tried acid only once.

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. – Trashmeister John Waters and King of the B's Roger Corman were a match made in cult-movie heaven at the 14th annual Provincetown International Film Festival, which wrapped Sunday.

Prior to presenting Corman with the festival’s Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Waters conducted an entertaining onstage Q&A with the pioneering independent producer-director-distributor, gleefully throwing in a plug for Piranhaconda. That latest Corman-produced monster opus premiered over the weekend on SyFy.

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Also accepting an honorary award at Provincetown was Parker Posey, who won this year’s Excellence in Acting prize. She was represented at the festival with a screening of her 1995 comedy Party Girl and with this year’s Sundance entry Price Check. Posey got cozy in an onstage chat with her friend and frequent collaborator, actor-director Craig Chester.

Documentary maker Kirby Dick, whose latest film, The Invisible War, about rape in the U.S. military, was screened at the festival, won the Faith Hubley Career Achievement Award. He was interviewed by the director Mary Harron. The Invisible War also won the HBO Audience Award for best documentary at Provincetown.

But the highlight of the combined Conversations program was the Corman encounter, not least because Waters is clearly such an unabashed fan. He confessed that his Johnny Depp vehicle, Cry Baby, was inspired by Corman’s rock ‘n’ roll movies, its title paying homage to Corman’s 1958 teen rebel drama, The Cry Baby Killer, which starred a young Jack Nicholson.

“He created a whole new cliff, then dove off it and climbed back up many, many times,” said Waters, summing up Corman’s singular career. “He was the first to really mix art and exploitation films and make money. We need you back in the marketplace today, Roger.”

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Grilled by Waters about his rare failures, Corman pointed to The Intruder, a 1968 drama about racial unrest in a small Southern town that starred William Shatner. It broke a string of some 17 consecutive commercial hits. The film was later retitled I Hate Your Guts! for drive-in release, and Waters said that he still has that poster on his wall. (Even with the new title, the film lost money.)

Waters reiterated Corman’s early key to success with the famous declaration that it was best to avoid comedy or drama because they actually had to be good.

“Horror is the safest bet,” added Corman with his customary modesty. “I always just tried to make a film that was entertaining on the surface with some statement of my own underneath.”

The wide-ranging interview covered working with everyone from Vincent Price to John Cassavetes to Nancy Sinatra; helping to kickstart the careers of such directors as Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese; the Method madness of Shelley Winters; playing mediator between the classically trained Boris Karloff and the more Brechtian, improvisational Peter Lorre; and Dennis Hopper’s professionalism on set, defying his bad-boy reputation.

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Corman also recalled incorporating the LSD experiences of Nicholson, Hopper and Peter Fonda on 1967’s acid bender, The Trip. Now a spry 86, Corman confessed that he only tried LSD once himself, and that the result was pleasantly uneventful.

“That was the problem,” he explained. “My trip was wonderful. If it had followed my own experience, the movie could have been considered a promotional film for LSD.”

Corman also recounted getting around the Teamsters on his first production by driving the truck and unloading the lighter equipment himself to save on crew wages.

Waters touched on Corman’s history as a distributor of European art films through his New World Pictures banner, including Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning Amarcord and Volker Schlondorff’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.

“I really loved the work,” said Corman. “The major studios are great at distributing studio pictures, but not art films. And the little aficionado companies didn’t always have the power to do much. We were quite established by that time so we could get behind the movies. I’m proud to have distributed them.”

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While Corman’s company was producing 10-12 features per year back when low-budget films still received full theatrical distribution, he is now down to four or five productions annually, still an impressive quota by most counts.

Pushed by Waters to share a horror story about bad star behavior, the famously good-natured Corman would say only that he caved in to Stewart Granger’s insistence on dominating every scene in 1964’s The Secret Invasion, writing extra dialogue for him.

“But this is something actors don’t understand,” he added. “Once you finish the film you can go into the editing room and cut all those lines, which is what I did.”

Corman also recounted the experience of being slapped simultaneously with a lawsuit and a death threat by the Hell’s Angels over the biker gang’s depiction in The Wild Angels as outlaws instead of educators dedicated to spreading information on motorcycle culture.

“They sued me but at the same time said they were going to snuff me out,” he recalled. “I met with one of the leaders and said, ‘How are you going to collect the $10 million if you kill me?’ We finally did settle and give them $2,000 to get rid of it.”

Accepting the Filmmaker on the Edge Award (the first of which, 14 years ago, went to P-town regular Waters), Corman said, “I don’t know what it means. I’ve tried to figure it out and I guess it must mean the edge of catastrophe. John was talking about falling off the edge, so I hope I don’t.”

In other Provincetown Film Festival prizes, the HBO Audience Award went for narrative feature to Travis Fine’s Any Day Now, which stars Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt as a gay couple in 1970s Los Angeles embroiled in a battle over adoption rights. The John Schlesinger Award for a first-time director went to David France for his emotionally charged documentary about the breakthrough in AIDS treatment, How to Survive a Plague.