The Mastermind
by Chris Nashawaty
Sep 04, 2012 | 1028 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Roger Corman with Nancy Sinatra on the set of Wild Angels, (1966)
Roger Corman with Nancy Sinatra on the set of Wild Angels, (1966)
1972 boxcar bertha
1972 boxcar bertha
1967 the trip
1967 the trip
He gave life to teenage cavemen and candy stripe nurses. Crab monsters and humanoids from the deep. T-Bird gangs and towns that dreaded sundown. His name is Roger Corman. And, after nearly 400 films as a director and producer, he is both an Oscar-winning filmmaker (having received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010) and a tributee at the Telluride Film Festival. From the start, Corman was a magnet for hungry young actors, writers and directors who would work for slave wages for the chance to make their first film. They called it the “University of Corman,” and the alumni include Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and Ron Howard. We spoke to a slew of Corman’s famous grads, who reminisced about their mentor.

Martin Scorsese

Editor on Corman’s films and

director of Boxcar Bertha (1972)

I was aware as a filmgoer of his low-budget movies, whether it was Teenage Caveman or Little Shop of Horrors or She Gods of Shark Reef or Attack of the Crab Monsters. They were different from other B- or C-movies at the time. They may not have all been great films, but we knew that there was something happening behind the camera. They got our attention. So when the Poe films hit we saw something even more unique—a personality emerging from the Corman factory. Going from The House of Usher to Pit and the Pendulum to The Tomb of Ligea, which is my favorite, and Mask of the Red Death, this really set him up as a major filmmaker and a great voice. He was a great stylist. … I met Roger, and he asked if I would like to do a sequel to Bloody Mama. And I said I would like to very much. … I think I got paid scale, but it didn’t matter, because basically you were getting the chance to learn how to make a film. Later, I brought Mean Streets to him. … He said if you could swing and make the characters black, I’ll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars, and you can shoot it in New York. And I said I would think about it. But it would have changed the whole thing. I was disappointed, because I knew that I couldn’t make the change.

Ron Howard

Starred in Corman’s Eat My Dust and directed Grand Theft Auto

Roger wanted me to star in Eat My Dust—a movie I didn’t particularly want to be in. But at that time, he was the only person who would have a serious conversation about the possibility of directing with someone my age. I was 21. All of my energies away from Happy Days were focused on trying to direct. So I went in and told him: “Frankly, I’m not that crazy about Eat My Dust, but I will do it if you would co-finance this script Tis the Season that my father and I had written.” He wanted more of a genre movie. So he said, “Here’s the deal: I won’t promise you that you’ll direct the movie, but I promise you that you can write an outline for another script if you act in Eat My Dust, and if I like it, I’ll develop it. And if I like it enough, and you’re willing to be in it, you can direct it. If all that fails, I’ll let you direct second unit on one of my action movies.” Well, it was hardly my dream come true. But I took the deal. And Eat My Dust wound up being a big hit. So Roger said, come on in and pitch ideas. I pitched sci-fi ideas, a noir film, all kinds of genre movies. And he said, “Ron, if you fashion another car-crash comedy starring yourself that we can call Grand Theft Auto, I believe I would make that picture.” So my dad and I cooked up a story within 24 hours. It was the fastest green light I’ve ever gotten to this day! I got $150 a week for directing Grand Theft Auto. Joe Dante edited it, by the way.

William Shatner

Starred in Corman’s The Intruder and Big Bad Mama

The Intruder was Roger Corman’s best movie, and his only loss. Roger had to make sure that no one killed us because the film was about integration, and we were in a part of the country that emphatically did not want to integrate. He never told me why he wanted me for the part, but I’m sure it was because I was handsome, brilliant and didn’t need the money—because he didn’t pay me! The script was so good I would have paid him … and I think he accepted that! One or two takes, which is all you ever get on a Roger Corman set, doesn’t bother me. I’m happier that way. When they start to fiddle with it, I start getting morose … Roger combined business with pleasure. The pleasure of making a film and the business of making a film—he combined it better than anyone I can think of.

Dennis Hopper

Co-starred in 1967’s

LSD flick The Trip

Jack Nicholson had written a script for The Trip, and Peter was starring in it, and Bruce Dern and I had parts. Nicholson’s screenplay had a lot of description of acid trips, and we figured that Roger wasn’t really clued into that, so we did it on the weekend. He said go ahead and do it—try your hand at it. He didn’t pay us, though! He watched every penny. He was such an intelligent man; he was like a professor at a university. And very cheap. But he put his finger on the right thing. He pointed his finger and said that’s going to be commercial. And it was! From the LSD movies to motorcycle movies to horror movies, he just hit it right on. He had a great feel for the times and the audience and what they would want to see.  We didn’t have access to the other studios. We couldn’t go into Paramount or MGM and play around. Those were closed shops to guys like us. But everyone could have access to Roger. He would give you advice; he would help you get financing. Roger was very sympathetic to young filmmakers. And talent had a way of finding him very often.

Joe Dante

Started by cutting trailers for Corman films

I was the only one in my college group who wore a Roger Corman button. Everyone else had Godard buttons. I had them printed up and passed them around and proselytized and screened his pictures. Eventually I wanted to make a picture. And he said, “OK, as long as it was the cheapest picture ever made at New World.” So we got $60,000 to make Hollywood Boulevard, which was the last in a series of girl movies. First there were nurses, then there were teachers; this was going to be about starlets who take their clothes off and get in trouble and say leftwing things. We had ten days to make it. … How Roger would negotiate was, he’d sit across the desk and write down a number on a piece of paper, fold it and slide it across the desk, and then you would nod your head yes, because what were you going to do? Ask for money? You were lucky to be making a movie. But whatever you agreed on, he would pay. And he wasn’t a chase-the-girls-around-the-desk kind of producer. He was very businesslike about what he was doing. He thinks like an engineer because that’s what he was.

Jonathan Demme

Directed Corman’s Caged Heat

(Roger) looked at some of the publicity materials I had written and asked if I thought I could write a screenplay. And I said yes. ... So he asked if I liked motorcycle movies. And I said yes. And he said, “OK, fine, well, why don’t you write a motorcycle script for me?” I was like 24 years old! It sounded thrilling to me. I teamed up with a friend, Joe Viola, who directed the TV commercials that I produced.  So I told Roger the idea: we were going to do a motorcycle version of Rashomon. But with scenes of sex and violence, of course! So we wrote it, and we sat there and watched him read our 80-page screenplay. He finishes and says, “Hmm, this is pretty good. I think we can make it.” So we went out to L.A. to attend what we called the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. Joe and I shared $3,000 for our combined writing, directing and producing chores. The movie was called Angels Hard as They Come. Our followup was The Hot Box, a women-in-cages movie we shot in the Philippines. We became much better filmmakers on that one. .... Roger is a great American. We all want to be independent filmmakers. But no one’s ever been as remotely independent as Roger.

John Sayles

Wrote Corman’s Piranha, The Lady in Red and Battle Beyond the Stars

I had been a novelist. And was interested in screenplays. … So I did a rewrite of this screenplay called Piranha. Roger had assigned the picture to Joe Dante, who had been editing trailers at New World and had graduated to director. And the next thing I heard was Joe Dante gave me a call, saying, “Help! Do you know how little money I have to make this thing?” I did a little revision to make the movie less expensive without ruining anything in it. So he started shooting, and he wanted me to play a small part, but it was also because they wanted me to do some free on-set rewrites. So I play the un-credited army sentry in the film. I got $10,000 to write Piranha. After Piranha I wrote Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s basically Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven in Space. He liked those kinds of ideas. It was a good way to re-stage movies like The Magnificent Seven with $1.99 cardboard sets. I think I wrote that one, as well, in three or four weeks. They shot that in the lumber outlet he bought in Venice. James Cameron was the art director. There’s not a lot of panning in that movie because if you pan too far, the lumber was still stacked up.

Sylvester Stallone

Co-starred in Capone and Death Race 2000

In 72, Lords of Flatbush came out and I thought that was going to be my entrée into movies. But nothing happened. … It was bad. I had to sell my dog. I hadn’t written Rocky yet. So I would read these trade papers and there was a casting ad for Capone. And I got this tiny part. What happened on that set is I finally got an idea of what it was like to be on a serious movie set. Everything was such clocklike precision. When we did Death Race 2000 in two-and-a-half weeks, it shows you it could be done. It was the only unofficial college of the arts where you got to learn filmmaking for free by a master. … Roger’s a very sophisticated man. He looked like a senator, and yet his films were done in such an assembly-line way. I really enjoyed it, because it was the first time I felt like I was really in the big time. If I hadn’t done those parts I probably wouldn’t be here today.  He was a launching pad who allowed a lot of unguided missiles to be launched into space. … If you look at those early movies with Jack Nicholson, you can see it—that he was building his rhythm back then. You can see that he had it. He would allow out-of-the-box people like Scorsese and De Niro to flourish. He didn’t go with the status quo. He was a master at spotting talent.  

© Time Inc. Excerpted with permission.

Chris Nashawaty is senior writer for Entertainment Weekly and author of the forthcoming Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B-Movie, to be published in 2013 by Abrams.

A Tribute to Roger Corman

Featuring onstage interviews with Todd McCarthy and Peter Bogdanovich



U.S., 2011, 90m

Director: Alex Stapleton

Roger Corman

b. April 5, 1926 in Detroit, Mich.


With more than 550 credits, Roger Corman is one of the most prolific filmmakers in history. In lieu of a traditional filmography, we present:

Six Ways of Looking at Roger Corman

01. Director and Producer of Low-cost Genre Films

Between 1957 and 1990, Corman directed and produced more than 500 films, including the cult and critical favorites: Day the World Ended (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), The Young Racers (1963), Gas!—Or—It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970), and Death Race 2000 (1975), ranking  among his best genre work.

02. Nurturer of Talent

Corman gave early breaks to writers, directors, editors and actors including:

Robert Towne, writer, Last Woman on Earth (1960)

Jack Nicholson, actor, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), co-director of The Terror (1963)

Francis Ford Coppola, director, Dementia 13 (1963)

Peter Fonda, actor, The Wild Angels (1966) with Dennis Hopper and Nancy Sinatra

Peter Bogdanovich, director, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)

Robert De Niro, actor, Bloody Mama (1970)

Martin Scorsese, director, Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Jonathan Demme, director, Caged Heat (1974)

Ron Howard, director, Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Joe Dante, director, Piranha (1978; written by John Sayles)

James Cameron, art director and visual effects, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Other graduates of the Corman School include Gale Ann Hurd, Pam Grier, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Talia Shire, Sally Kirkland, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Robards, George Segal, and David Carradine.

03. A Poe Aficionado

In the early 60s, Corman directed eight Edgar Allen Poe movies featuring Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson.

House of Usher (1960)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

The Premature Burial (1962)

Tales of Terror (1962)

The Haunted Palace (1963)

The Raven (1963)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

04. Zeitgeist Surfer

Corman beat the trends with films including:

Bucket of Blood (1960), spoof of beat culture

The Intruder (1962), exposé of Deep South racism

The Wild Angels (1966), a celebration of counterculture

The Trip (1967), early LSD film

05. Arthouse Lover

Corman acquired and distributed classics including:

Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)

Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)

Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosowa, 1975)

Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

The Green Room (Francois Truffaut, 1978)

The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979)

06. Cultural Icon

Corman is the patron saint of the DIY film movement, immortalized in documentaries and playing roles in films including Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Rachel Getting Married, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and Martin Scorsese’s Godfather II.

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