We’re pleased to announce Roger Corman as the recipient of the TCFF Michigan Filmmaker Award.
A Detroit native, B-movie legend Roger Corman is one of Hollywood’s most prolific talents, with well over 400 credits to his name as a writer, actor, producer, and director. He is the winner of the Honorary Academy Award for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers.
Our own Katy Gwizdala was able to speak with Mr. Corman about how he got his start, growing up in Michigan, and mentoring today’s film industry giants.
First of all, congratulations on adding the Michigan Filmmaker Award to your long list of accolades.
Why choose cult classics and B-movies as the genre you’ve worked the most with? Is it your passion, or did you find out you’re very, very good at it and stick with it?
I started making low-budget films simply because that’s all the money I had. I had written a screenplay and sold it, and I took that money and made a very low-budget picture “Monster from the Ocean Floor” for $12,000. I primarily finance my pictures myself and since I don’t have that much money, I’m not about to make “Jurassic World” or anything like that. So I stay in the area in which I’m comfortable financing my own films.
When you think about all of the incredible talent you’ve worked with, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert DeNiro – what’s your secret for discovering them? How do you look at Jack Nicholson and see that eventually, he’s going to become the Jack Nicholson we know today?
…There are three things I look for. One is intelligence. I’ve never met anybody, and I’m thinking more as writer, producer, director, who’s had a long successful career that hasn’t had intelligence. There have been a few who’ve had one or two winners but haven’t maintained it that haven’t been so intelligent. But I look for that particularly.
The second is the ability to work long, hard hours. Making films is to a certain extent glamorous, but it’s also a very hard job.
And the third is the intangible, and that’s creativity. One of the ways that you can judge it a little bit is just by talking to a person, and how their mind works — what they say and how they analyze certain things. And to a large extent, I try to work with people who start – such as Francis Coppola, started as my assistant and did second unit directing, editing, one thing or another. He even did carpentry on building some racks for storage equipment on a Volkswagen MiniBus we used for locations shooting. So I’m able to judge the creativity that way, with Francis or with other people like Jim Cameron or Jonathan Demme, or whoever who started with us that way. Other times, somebody like Marty Scorsese, I resisted talking to him and saw an underground black & white film he did in New York. Just judging from that, I thought Marty had the required creativity.
Another widely known fact about you is your cameo career – do you have a favorite story from a film you’ve acted in?
Yes, as a matter of fact. One of the first times I did, in “Godfather Part II,” Francis Coppola had me play one of the Senators on the Senate Crime Investigating Committee and I remember there were so many lights — I’d always been behind the camera, and of course this is a big-budget film, and… I couldn’t see anything at all out there. And when the assistant director said “roll ‘em” and the camera was running, but before Francis could say “action,” somebody yelled out of the dark “don’t get nervous Rog, but your entire career in Hollywood depends on how you say these lines!” It was Jack Nicholson, who by prearrangement with Francis had come over from another sound stage where he was working to throw me off. And make me triple nervous on the first take.
You’ve mentored so many inspiring people, so I have to ask – who inspires you?
Nobody in particular. I have a degree in engineering from Stanford. I became the film critic of the Stanford Daily and became more interested in film… I was the failure of the class. I got the worst job of anybody who graduated that year — I got a job at 20th Century Fox as a messenger for $32.50 a week and just sort of worked my way up. And there wasn’t any person, but what I did is look at the films of other people who I thought were good and learned simply by studying those films. On the job training. I started as a writer then became a producer. After I produced my first two films, I saw what the directors were doing and I thought “I can do that!” and became a director.
Making the movies is easier today, particularly the movement from film to digital. We had these Mitchell cameras when I started which were built for studio work but also used on location and they were very big, very heavy, very difficult, and the lights were the same way – huge lighting and grip equipment and everything. Today, all the equipment is lighter, more affordable, easier to use and particularly from film to digital is less expensive so the making of the film is easier today than it used to be.
On the other hand getting distribution is more difficult today. When I started, even the little picture I started with got a full theatrical release. Today, we’re seeing “Jurassic World” setting all of these records and similar pictures. Just a little while ago, “The Fast and the Furious 7”. Incidentally, the second picture I made was “The Fast and the Furious.” I sold that title to Universal and they’ve done very well! You see these giant films and there’s no way you can compete in theaters with low-budget films. Every now and then, an occasional low-budget film will get a theatrical release but primarily, we’re going to DVD, cable, and so forth.
For someone that’s worked as a screenwriter, actor, producer, and director — seemingly everything under the sun — how do you decided what project you’re going to be working on any given time?
It’s a combination of two things. It’s a picture that I want to make, so I’m working with one eye inward looking to what I would like to make, and one eye outward, recognizing the state of the market today and what I think can be successful. Because I’m making my films with my own money and I can’t afford to have too many losses.
I think I left when I was in Jr. High School, so my early formative years were in Detroit and I think that sort of basic Midwestern value system has stood me well in Hollywood, which has a slightly different value system. Detroit, and Michigan in general, is very different from what I remember. What I remember about Detroit, first it was a beautiful city… we were in the suburbs and there were woods all around. Detroit was a very prosperous city, the automobile companies were functioning, my father… had a good job, and it was just a wonderful time even though it was a depression. What I remember really was coming out of the depression so I didn’t remember the worst of it and my father was able to have a job all the way through so I wasn’t even aware as a little kid the extent of the Depression. I just remember it as a great place and my father being an engineer, and Detroit being so heavily dependent upon the automobile companies. I grew up with sort of an admiration for technology, American Industry, things like that and moved straight from Detroit to Beverly Hills. And Beverly was a slightly different culture.
Having your roots in Michigan, what advice would you give to aspiring young Michigan filmmakers?
Well, my advice would be, if you can, go to a film school. I never had the opportunity to go to a film school, and when I was young there were only a couple of film schools in the country. You get the best possible training there. If you can’t go to a film school, there’s now digital work and so forth, there’s work being done all over the country on low-budget independent films that are always looking for people for little or no money. I wouldn’t pay much attention to the money. I would try to get a job on some independent low-budget picture, and particularly a job on the set where you will do two things: one, you will do your job and if you’re good you’ll be promoted. Two, you’re looking around and seeing what everybody else is doing and you’re learning while you’re working.
Well it was a statement. The publisher contacted me and asked me to write the book and I did. When it was finished, the editor called me and said “we’ve got a title” and the title is “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” and I said “I’ve made more than a hundred films, and I’ve lost occasionally” and he said “has every title of every picture you’ve made said exactly what was in the picture?” and I said “call the book anything you want.”
Between all of the work you’re doing and having the horror genre on your mind pretty much constantly, do you ever sleep?
Yes, I do! In the late 50’s and early 60’s when I was first starting and I was working, my day went something like this – I would be shooting during the day, during lunch hour I would be casting the next picture, in the evening I’d be editing the previous film. I remember I got into bed one night, and I realized I’m overdoing it. And I thought, “I have to sleep fast.”
Katy Gwizdala is a Michigan native who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her arguing with friends, colleagues, and her cat about all things pop culture. Follow on Twitter @katygwizdala.