There are some figures in film history who fade away along with the era in which they produce the bulk of their work. And then there’s veteran B-movie producer and director Roger Corman, still chipper than ever at 90. As a filmmaker, Corman was responsible for a string of vibrant Edgar Allen Poe adaptations in the early sixties (most of which starred Vincent Price). He also directed William Shatner in his best pre-“Star Trek” performance as a race-baiting lunatic in 1962’s “The Intruder.” But Corman more or less stopped directing movies in 1970 (with the exception of 1990’s “Frankenstein Unbound”) and shifted focus to producing a string of low budget genre efforts — several of which introduced some of the great American filmmakers still working today, including Martin Scorsese, Frances Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, and many others.
Corman’s understandably not as prolific as he was a few decades ago, but he’s still active in the film world, taking meetings about new projects and meeting with new talent. This past week, he attended the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland to receive a lifetime achievement award and discuss his work. In a conversation with IndieWire, he reflected on the current state of the film industry and shared some thoughts on why he thinks it’s in better shape than a lot of people might think.
The Kids Are Alright
Corman acknowledged that much of the quality associated with big-budget productions has shifted to television, expressing his appreciation for “Game of Thrones” in particular. However, he sees no shortage of quality productions being produced in a smaller scale. “There are a number of young independent filmmakers making films that are challenging to the establishment,” he said, singling out some of the films produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse — including “The Purge” franchise — as falling in line with the kind of efforts that Corman used to support. But other films don’t have it so easy.
“The problem isn’t their production, it’s their distribution, particularly theatrical distribution, which they’re struggling to get,” Corman said. “Major studios dominate theatrical so much that they’re crowding out low budget films.” But that’s a battle Corman knows all too well, having directed 55 low budget films by 1970 when he called it quits. “I was simply tired,” he said of the decision to call it quits.
Power Players Aren’t So Bad
Corman is still producing new projects, including a remake of the 1975 post-apocalyptic racing film “Death Race 2000,” which is currently being developed by Universal. He spoke optimistically about the people he has encountered there. “I’m amazed by the youth of the studio executives I meet with today,” he said. “They’re all bright people. I get along with them well.”
However, Corman did note one potentially problematic trend. “They seem to get involved in production today more than they used to,” he said. “They have more comments now, on scripting and casting, but that hasn’t been a problem for me.” When advising with aspiring filmmakers, Corman has been encouraging them to prepare as much as possible for a situation in which they need to be prepared for studios looking over their shoulders. “I tell filmmakers today they need to be familiar with all aspects of production, particularly pre-production, because that allows you to solve as many problems as you can before it gets made,” he said.
His Mentors Are Doing Well
Corman expressed enthusiasm for many of the filmmakers who got their start working for him, but he was especially happy about the success of one big Hollywood name. “I think what they’re doing is wonderful, particularly Jim Cameron,” Corman said. The “Titanic” and “Avatar” director developed the props for the Corman-produced 1980 effort “Battle Beyond the Stars,” and Corman believes Cameron’s innovation has carried over into his big studio efforts.
“He was able to do special effects for me with flying spaceships and the like for almost no money,” Corman said. “Then much later made ‘Titanic,’ which at the time was the most expensive picture ever made. Then he topped that record with ‘Avatar.’ He spends that money efficiently, with the same talent that led him to do certain things in science fiction for me. You can see the films how the money is spent. It’s spent for intelligent reasons.”
Blockbusters Can Be Positive Things
Nevertheless, Corman has often been critical of the Hollywood establishment for its massive budgets even when the final product turns out well. In the 2011 documentary “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” the filmmaker expressed his disdain for multi-million dollar budgets, saying it was irresponsible in light of other societal needs in desperate need of funds. “That was my feeling at the time,” Corman said. ” I still feel that all that money could be spent for better purposes. On the other hand, we live in a capitalist system. If you’re going to spend that kind of money, at least it should come back and give employment to a certain amount of people so you have advanced the economy.”
Corman doesn’t see a ton of new movies these days, but he has been watching some of the recent superhero tentpoles. He expressed admiration for James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “I thought it was very good,” he said. “It had a sense of humor about its subject.”
A Few of His Movies Hold Up
At Locarno, a pair of highlights from Corman’s directing career were screened — “The Intruder” and “The Masque of the Red Death” — but the filmmaker himself didn’t sit through them. “Very seldom do I do that,” he said. “Every now and then I’ll go back and look at some of them. Many are dated, but a few still hold up.” He was especially keen on revisiting his Poe adaptations because they’re period films. “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is set in 1850, so it can’t be dated,” he said. “It just reflects the time.”
As far as his producing credits, he’s still high on “Death Race 2000,” which is why he’s taking an active role in the remake, currently titled “Death Race 2050.” He acknowledged that the near-future setting might have some political dimension, like George Miller’s “Mad Max” movies, but that wasn’t a priority. “It’s primarily a fast, action-driven science fiction film with some humor,” he said. ‘It has bigger ideas, but that’s always secondary to the entertainment.”