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Roger Corman and his prolific career as a producer, director, actor and talent-spotter was celebrated Friday night at the Telluride Film Festival with a special tribute. Director Ken Burns presented Corman with one of the festival’s Silver Medallions, the applause was so prolonged that Corman had to motion to the crowd to stop applauding. As he later explained at a party hosted by The Hollywood Reporter at Arroyo Art Gallery and Wine Bar, “The applause builds to a peak and then dwindles. You gotta cut it off. Go out on top, I figure.”
At the tribute, which included a screening of Alex Stapleton‘s 2011 documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Corman was interviewed onstage at the Sheridan Opera House by THR film critic Todd McCarthy, who worked for Corman’s New World Pictures when, he said, “I was a wee lad.”
McCarthy noted that indie legend Corman actually started out at 20th Century Fox, and asked, “Did you ever envision a career as a big studio guy?”
“I was a failure of the Stanford engineering class of 1947,” Corman said. “I got the worst job at $32.50 a week, as a messenger at Fox. I worked my way up to being a story analyst. I had vague thoughts, primarily as a writer and possibly also some kind of future in directing and production. I was a little disillusioned when I gave some notes that helped make a picture [The Gunfighter] a success, and the story editor got a bonus for my notes…I was lucky enough to come along right when the independent field really began to grow.”
“I sold a script and I got $5,000 and made a picture I called It Stalked the Ocean Floor. The distribution company felt my title was too arty and changed it to The Monster from the Ocean Floor. With the money from that I made The Fast and Furious. A number of years later I sold the title to Universal, and they did very well.”
“Do you remember the way you felt the very first day you went out to direct a picture?” McCarthy asked.
“I pulled the car over to the side of the road because I felt that I might hit another car,” Corman said. “Most of the good directors I know have also said they were nervous their first time out. The only person who wasn’t was Ron Howard. He came in totally cool and prepared.”
“I’ll never forget Ron and his father on the floor of your New World offices playing with toy cars like five-year-olds inventing chases and car wrecks [for Grand Theft Auto],” McCarthy recalled.
Corman also was briefly nervous when the Hell’s Angels threatened to kill him for his hit The Wild Angels. “They sued me for defamation of character on the basis that I’d portrayed them as an outlaw motorcycle gang whereas they were actually a social group dedicated to spreading technical information about motorcycles. The head of the Hell’s Angels said, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna snuff you out.’ I said, think about this logically. You’ve announced publicly that you’re gonna kill me. If anything happens to me, the police are going to come after you first. Plus, you’re suing me for a million dollars. How are you going to collect if you kill me? My advice to you is forget the momentary pleasure of snuffing me out and go for the million dollars.”
McCarthy recalled when Corman, the distributor of art films by Truffaut, Kurosawa, and Fellini, got Ingmar Bergman to record the voiceover for the Cries and Whispers trailer — but he got the title wrong: “Come see my movie, Whispers and Cries.”
“It seemed like ‘cries’ was a short and sharp, better way to title it,” replied Corman.
“You got him his Oscar with that,” said McCarthy.
Corman brought his filmmaker wife Julie Corman onstage, and she noted that Cries and Whispers played at drive-ins “on a double bill with Jonathan Demme‘s women in prison movie [Caged Heat].” Mrs. Corman also delivered a good analysis of her husband’s gift: “An engineer is someone who’s given a problem to solve and he solves it. And I think that’s what Roger has been doing all along.”
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