B-Movie King Roger Corman Wades Into Marvel Debate: "The Stories Are Simplistic"

PHOTOGRAPHED BY Austin Hargrave
Roger Corman

Now 93 and as productive as ever, the brilliant mind behind low-budget genre classics like 'Death Race 2000' and 'The Unborn' and discoverer of unknown talent like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese has his own thoughts on the controversy that has all of film fandom talking.

Arguably the most prolific filmmaker in history, Roger Corman has produced and/or directed over 400 features in the course of his remarkable seven-decade career. His nimbleness (he specializes in films that shoot in a matter of days on a shoestring budget) and unapologetic grindhouse aesthetic — Corman has helmed everything from sci-fi shlock like 1956's It Conquered the World to his early-1960s Edgar Allan Poe series starring Vincent Price — have made him a god among genre fans and a regular on the festival circuit.

Corman also has proven to have an unmatched golden eye for talent, having given first breaks to a murderer's row of directors — Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron among them. Now 93, he's still very much in action, readying yet another sequel to Death Race 2000, the 1975 film he produced that inspired George Miller to make Mad Max.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Corman from his Los Angeles office about his philosophies on moviemaking, the Little Shop of Horrors renaissance and his own thoughts on the recent Marvel movie debate.

What are you up to these days? 

I’ve a couple bigger projects that are taking some time — particularly a picture called Death Race 2084. Death Race 2000, which I made in the 1970s, won some poll as the greatest B-picture of all time. It's been remade four times by Universal, one of which I made myself. I’m also going to remake my old picture, The Unborn, in Brazil — primarily because of the tremendous subsidies in Brazil. They're so good you’d have to essentially make the worst picture of the decade in order to lose money.

Meanwhile, I was scheduled to go to the Nassau Film Festival in September and, of course, the hurricane wiped out everything in the Bahamas. I saw some footage of the devastation that took place there and I’m putting together a very fast, low-budget picture. We’re going to shoot in the devastated portion of the Bahamas for a post-apocalyptic picture.

That’s amazing that you’re so productive at 93. 

I have no intention of slowing down. John Davidson, who was my assistant who went on to produce Robocop and Starship Troopers and Airplane!, told me recently he’s decided to retire. I said, “John, I always thought of you as the kid in the office. Now you’re retiring. Maybe it’s time for me to retire.” And he said, “You’re too old to retire.”

You mentioned B-pictures earlier. Has that concept gone by the wayside? Is that an archaic way of talking about movies?

It is. B-movies were really pictures primarily made in the 1930s during the Depression. The major studios would develop the idea of "two pictures for the price of one" to bring people into the theaters. They would announce their "A list," which would be the pictures with the big stars, and the "B list," which would be secondary pictures that ran as second features. The name has continued loosely to describe low-budget films. 

What is your philosophy on making movies?

Motion pictures encompass many different styles. They are all motion pictures. I don’t differentiate one from another and the main thing is that no matter how low the budget, you try your best on the picture.

I remember when I was starting, some friends of mine in the business would say, "It’s just a little picture — I’m going to toss it off and take the money."

On the other hand, I remember when Jonathan Demme, Academy Award winner, did his first picture, which was a low-budget women-in-prison picture. He said, "I’m going to make the best low-budget women-in-prison picture ever made." [The film was 1974's Caged Heat, considered a classic of the genre.] The guys who said, "I will just take the money and run from this little picture" no longer have any careers. But the ones who have had the same opinion that Jonathan had, that I had — which was no matter what the project, you do the best job you can — they went on to win Oscars.

There are no small movies, just small directors.

Yeah, that’s a good way to phrase it. 

One of the famous things about you is your great eye for talent. How did you spot so many great directors and actors so early?

I was making a fair amount of money and I didn't know how to invest it. I don’t know stocks or bonds or real estate or so forth, but I knew motion pictures. I thought, I’m better off just to invest in a business I know — and I know who I think the best young guys are. The first person I invested with as a director was [future Empire Strikes Back director] Irv Kershner and then Francis Coppola, and then it just kept on going.

What did you see in the young Coppola and others?

There were three things I was looking for: One, everyone was intelligent. You might have one success, but to have continued success, every one of these people were intelligent. Number two, they recognized that it’s hard work and they were willing to do it. People think of directing as glamorous, which to a certain extent it is, but it is also very hard, tough work and you have to be able to do that. The third is creativity — and that is the most difficult to judge. Most of them, for instance, Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, a number of others, had worked with me as my assistant and I was able to judge from that. Others, like Marty Scorsese, I simply had seen an underground picture he’d made at NYU. I talked with him and I thought, "This is an intelligent, creative man." So I chose Marty. Essentially, it’s try to judge the creativity.

Both Scorsese and Coppola have been in the news recently for criticizing Marvel superhero movies, which they deem as not quite cinema. But they started their careers with you, in this B-movie world. Who is to say what is cinema and what is not cinema so long as some care has been put into it is what I’m getting from you. Where do you stand on this controversy?

Well, I feel motion pictures are really the quintessential modern art form. They are the art of movement. Secondarily, they are a combination of business and art — and I think, except for the exceptional pure art film, all motion pictures are combinations of business and art. I’ve read what they said, and I think I agree with them to a certain extent. As pure cinema, as a pure art form, these films don’t qualify. But, if you say it is a combination of an art form and a business, then they do qualify. Even if the stories may be simplistic, the productions may be standard, they’re standard on a high professional level and particularly the special effects are wonderful. So I think you have to recognize there are various aspects to this.

One additional thing is, you might think of them as modern fairy tales — so don’t think of them as a pure art form of cinema. Think of them as a combination of art and business showing a high level of craftsmanship with wonderful special effects and, to a certain extent, today’s version of fairy tales.

You feel beyond the commercial aspects and the effects and the technology that somehow the stories in Marvel superhero films are lacking or fall short of the definition of true cinema?

Yes. I think the stories are simplistic.

What are your favorite movies that you’ve made, the ones that are closest to your heart?

I’d probably pick two. I did a picture in 1960 called The Intruder, with a new young actor, William Shatner, playing the lead about racial integration in the South. I would say that, and then one of my Edgar Allan Poe pictures, probably The Masque of the Red Death.

I went to the Huntington Library and Gardens for a Halloween event featuring performances of the original Poe texts by actors. It was very compelling. I thought, why is Hollywood not remaking these Poe stories? You had a lot of success with them.

To a certain extent, my films stand on their own. But eventually they will be done again, I’m certain.

What was Vincent Price like?

He was a highly intelligent man. He’d gone to Yale and then to, I think, the University of London. He was very cultured, he was an art collector and an art critic and he used to give lectures on art. To work with he was wonderful because he was an excellent actor, very adaptable and he understood the nuances of the characters, particularly the Poe characters, all of whom were — well, today you would use the word "neurotic." I don’t think you’d go as far as to say "psychotic," but just a little offbeat.

Little Shop of Horrors, the musical, has two new productions going — one in L.A. and one in New York. It all started with your 1960 film, The Little Shop of Horrors. Did you discover Jack Nicholson making that?

Jack wasn’t the lead. Jack played one of the featured roles in it. There happened to be a standing set at a studio that was available and I had a little bit of money — like $30,000. And I thought, I can come in and I shoot the picture in two days. The SAG rules at the time let me have the actors for the week, so we were able to rehearse for several days in front of the sets. 

None of us took it seriously. We were just fooling around. For instance, we started at 8 o'clock in on Thursday morning. At 8:30 a.m., the assistant director announced we were hopelessly behind schedule. Everybody was sort of fooling around and laughing and joking and there was a certain amount of improvisation and it carried over to the crew. I do believe that for some pictures, particularly a comedy, if the atmosphere of everybody including the crew is "we’re just here having fun," it carries over to the picture. And this was a comedy-horror film. 

Where did the story come from?

At the sneak preview for one of the Poe films, I had set up an intense suspense sequence ending in a shock. The scene played perfectly and the audience screamed and right after they laughed a little bit. I thought, "What did I do wrong?" And then I realized I didn’t do anything wrong — I got the shock I was looking for and the laughter was an appreciation that they had been taken in.

It occurred to me that there was a connection between comedy and horror. So I tried it out on another little picture in 1959, A Bucket of Blood, which turned out to be very good. Then I did this again on Little Shop. Little Shop was sort of a wilder, more far-out picture than Bucket of Blood. But they both were very successful showing that comedy and horror do go together.  

Was Little Shop a hit out of the gate?

The picture turned out to be a moderate success. But then the picture continued to play. Then we sold it to television, and it did very well. The picture, as you say, "had legs" and became sort of famous — at which point these two composers, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, called me and asked if they could license it. I got a piece of the profits for the off-Broadway show. It played off-Broadway for a long time.

As a matter of fact, the writers invited me to come to see the play and I did. At intermission, I was talking with Steven Spielberg, who happened to be there seeing the play also. My young daughter, Katherine, was about 8 or 9 years old, had just seen E.T. and loved it and kept talking about it. I said, "Katherine, tell Mr. Spielberg your favorite picture." And she said, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

He should have remade that one.

Yes, that could be a musical, too.