Supernal Dreams: Roger Corman reflects on becoming an Academy Award Winning Filmmaker

At the age of 83, Roger Corman will finally receive his long overdue reward from Hollywood: A golden Oscar statuette. Here are some of Corman’s thoughts about finally receiving an Oscar, as well as his comments on the many Oscar winning people he first discovered.

Roger Corman acceptance Speech

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When we talked a few years ago you said you never thought you would get an honorary Oscar.

ROGER CORMAN: Yes, exactly, which is why I was very surprised when they called me and said I was getting the award. I was truly amazed! I had heard they were considering me and I thought, “they aren’t going to give an Oscar to me, because I’m a producer and director of low-budget pictures.” So when they called and told me, I was quite surprised! I really thought I had no chance of ever winning an Oscar.

Roger Corman
Roger Corman

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In 1979 when the Museum of Modern Art held a 25th anniversary retrospective of American International Pictures, Vincent Price quoted something Sam Arkoff said: “If you wait long enough, everything becomes good taste.“

ROGER CORMAN: That’s right, I think you really have to live a very long time. However, there are probably also a number of other reasons to account for why they decided to give me the award. Partially, I think it’s because of the films I have directed myself. Partially, I think it’s for the many directors, producers, writers and actors who started out with me and who then went on to great success in their careers.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: That list is quite long and most of those people are now Academy members, so that probably helped you out, as well.

ROGER CORMAN: Yes, and there’s also the fact that I brought a great number of foreign films to America for distribution through New World Pictures. In one period during the seventies New World handled more pictures nominated for the best foreign film Academy Award than all the other studios combined. We distributed films by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Akira Kurosawa and Werner Herzog. At the time, we were distributing films from all of the world great directors.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you meet Ingmar Bergman when you picked up Cries and Whispers for American distribution in 1971?

ROGER CORMAN: Yes, I did meet Ingmar Bergman and he was rather formal, but a very intelligent and quite an intense man. He was a little bit quiet, but that’s probably because English is not his first language. If we had been speaking in Swedish, maybe he would not have been quite as quiet. I told him the first film of his that I had ever seen was The Seventh Seal and that I admired it greatly. I think it is a wonderful picture. We mostly talked in general though, and I liked him very much.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: You discovered many young people who went on to win Academy Awards, starting with Jack Nicholson in 1957, followed by Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne Jonathan Demme and James Cameron. After this pattern of discovering top talent became apparent to you, did you ever attempt to tie anyone down with a two-picture deal, or perhaps a long-term contract?

ROGER CORMAN: No, because I’ve never had that much money. I always backed my films with my own money. I had some outside investors, but not that many. I couldn’t put up the millions of dollars out of my personal savings for someone to make a film. I simply didn’t have that much money. So I assumed that people would make their first low budget film for me, and then would go off and make their next film at a major studio for a much bigger budget.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of the directors you started on his career in 1968 was Peter Bogdanovich with Targets. He was also the only director who returned to make a film for you at New World Pictures, when he directed St. Jack in 1979. Did you ever try to lure anyone else you had discovered back to work for you?

ROGER CORMAN: No, because once directors move on and start doing big budget films, it becomes very difficult to get back into the swing of making a low-budget movie. You have to work very quickly, with a great deal of preparation and you have to be willing to make certain compromises or you’re not going to get the picture made. Once you’ve done a big-budget film, it is really very difficult to go back again.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In 1981, at a party for the opening night of the San Francisco Film Festival I met Vincent Price at Francis Ford Coppola’s house in San Francisco and when I wandered into Coppola’s projection room in the basement, I was amazed to see a 16mm print of The Young Racers! Wasn’t Coppola the sound man on that film?

ROGER CORMAN: Yes, that’s right. Francis was my assistant on a number of films. He worked as a sound man on The Young Racers, a Grand Prix racing film I did in Europe, but where Francis worked more specifically on a horror film for me was on The Terror with Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. He actually shot a lot of it, because after I had shot two days with Boris on the sets leftover from The Raven, there was great deal of additional work that needed to be done and since I didn’t have very much money, I couldn’t afford a union crew. I was signed with the unions, so I couldn’t shoot with a non-union crew. As a result, Francis took a small crew up to Big Sur and shot for a week with Jack Nicholson and Dick Miller in northern California. Afterwards, Francis did some editing for me as well.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Didn’t Gary Kurtz who produced Star Wars work on The Terror, as well?

ROGER CORMAN: Yes. He and all those people from UCLA and USC were floating in and out. Francis was specifically my assistant and he worked for me a year or two. Gary was a production assistant and later on an assistant director. Then, even later a production manager on several films. I can barely remember which ones they were, though.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Strangely enough, two of your discoveries, Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner ended up working together on George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back. That same year you made your own big budget science-fiction film, Battle Beyond the Stars, which started James Cameron on his movie career.

ROGER CORMAN: That’s right! Jim Cameron was building model spaceships for Battle Beyond the Stars. And a long time before that I had backed the first film Irvin Kershner directed, Stakeout On Dope Street. Early on, I generally would have ideas and give them to people who wanted to make movies. For Stakeout on Dope Street it was kind of a mutual thing. Andy Fernady was the producer and Irvin Kershner was the director. They wanted to make a film and I said I would put up the money. They raised a little bit of money themselves, along with Haskell Wexler, who was going to be the cameraman. So we discussed various ideas and then we mutually decided on that particular story.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: You will be receiving your Oscar alongside the noted cinematographer Gordon Willis, who worked with Francis Coppola on his three Godfather movies and photographed you as a Senator in The Godfather, Part II. What I find fascinating is how you also discovered so many important cinematographers early in their careers, such as Haskell Wexler, Lazlo Kovacs, Nestor Almendros and John Alonzo, who shot Bloody Mama. How did you pick your cameraman?

ROGER CORMAN: I usually would chose a cameraman by listening to other people who had worked with them, looking at their previous work and then talking with them in person. It was also partially due to luck, because in the case of Johnny Alonzo, I didn’t even see any of his previous work. I simply had gotten good recommendations from the people he had worked with before and when I talked to him, I felt he would work out well, so I hired him to shoot Bloody Mama.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you come to hire Nicholas Roeg to photograph The Masque of the Red Death?

ROGER CORMAN: The reason I hired Nic Roeg was due to English labor laws, which wouldn’t allow me to use Floyd Crosby, my regular director of photography at the time. Nic was a young English cameraman, who had been a 2nd unit cameraman on Lawrence of Arabia, and I think he may have done a couple of other pictures. After I’d seen some of his work and I talked with him, I felt he would be able to bring the kind of chiaroscuro lighting quality I was looking for to capture Poe’s world in The Masque of the Red Death. I think he did a truly brilliant job on the film and he even won an award at some European film festival for the picture.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: After you worked with Martin Scorsese on Boxcar Bertha, he used a clip from Tomb of Ligeia in his next film Mean Streets for the scene where Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel go to the movies.

ROGER CORMAN: That’s right. Marty called me to ask if he could use that clip, because of certain legal rights and I said, “sure, go ahead.” I thought that was fine.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: It was a very nice homage to you, because Scorsese establishes this re-occurring flame motif in Mean Streets, and of course you used fire symbolically in Ligeia, as a sort of eternal love theme. You have the characters walking by Stonehenge and the ocean, representing some of the oldest things on the planet. Was that a theme you consciously worked out with Robert Towne while you were working on the script?

ROGER CORMAN: Yes, most of those things were conscious decisions. I particularly wanted to shoot at Stonehenge, but because I couldn’t afford to take a full crew there, I had my assistant Paul Mayersberg shoot those scenes as a second unit, using doubles for Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepard. But there was always a great deal of thought put into the Poe films. They were planned and conceived very carefully and meant to be experienced on multiple levels. At the same time, I think that anybody working in a creative medium is working partially out of the conscious mind and partially out of the unconscious mind. So I’m sure some things did creep in there unconsciously. It’s inevitable.

Horror film legend Roger Corman to receive an honorary Academy Award!

Roger CormanLast February, I suggested on this site that Roger Corman was a director and a producer who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should consider honoring with a special Oscar. Today, the Academy’s Board of Governors (to my great surprise and delight) have decided to heed that advice, and voted an Honorary Oscar that will be awarded to genre legend Roger Corman.

The Academy’s official statement notes:

The Honorary Award, an Oscar statuette, is given to an individual for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.
Roger Corman is the director and producer of such notable low-budget films as “It Conquered the World,” “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960), “The Intruder,” “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Wild Angels,” and “The Trip.” He has directed more than 50 films and produced more than 300 during his five-decade career. In addition to his own credits, Corman is widely known for the opportunities he provided as a producer to a number of filmmakers as they embarked on their careers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard.

In the genre, Roger Corman is well-known for the science-fiction and horror films he directed in the ’50s and ’60s, which reached a zenith with his stylish series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, featuring Vincent Price and many other great horror stars. The films included The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia.
During his long career as a director and a producer, which began in 1954, Corman has never won – or even been nominated for – an Academy Award.
However, as a producer, Corman has given many major directors, actors and writers their first job at making movies. As Corman liked to note, the people who started their careers with him won a nearly clean sweep of the top Oscars that were awarded during the 1974 ceremony. They included Francis Ford Coppola as best director, Ellen Burstyn as best actress, Robert De Niro as best supporting actor and Robert Towne for best screenplay. Corman joked that only Jack Nicholson (losing to Art Carney as best actor), and Ingrid Bergman (winning over Talia Shire and Diane Ladd) prevented the Corman alumni from winning all of the top Oscars that were awarded in 1974.
Now Roger Corman will have his own Oscar… and it’s a safe bet some of his famous alumni will also be nominated at next years awards.

Nevermore: Artwork from Roger Corman's Poe Films – Video

Starting in 1960 with THE HOUSE OF USHER, producer-director Roger Corman crafted a series of stylish horror films inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the screenplays (usually by Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont) had to embellish the short stories in order to fill out the feature length running time, the production design and cinematography captured a wonderful, often highly artificial and stylized look that was perfect for rendering Poe on screen. The films also benefited from the commanding presence of Vincent Price, who starred in all but one of the series, which totalled eight in all, including TALES OF TERROR and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.
This video was taken at an exhibition of posters, stills, and lobby cards at the drkrm gallery in Los Angeles. Titled “Nevermore,” the gallery showing was an attempt to take the pop art of the movies and transform it into a form of fine art worthy of collecting. Our own David Del Valle acts as curator, taking you on a guided tour in chronological order of the films’ release. Fans of the Corman-Price-Poe films should get a kick out of the visuals and commentary, and non-fans will get a glimpse at what makes these films interesting.
The Nevermore exhibit took place back in October of 2006; unfortunately, I was busy covering the Screamfest festival in Hollywood at that time, so I was not able to get the video edited and posted while the exhibition was still running. Since then it’s sat on limbo, but there is now talk of a similar gallery showing in San Francisco, and David has a book coming out in the U.K. on the subject of the Poe films, so the timing seems right again to post this now.

Hooper, Corman receive Eyegores

On Friday, October 3, Universal Studios in Hollywood kicked off this year’s Halloween Horror Nights with the Eyegore Awards. As I noted last year, the Eyegores pretty much define “press event”: they’re given away in order to get celebrities to show up, who will in turn attract the press, thus generating a little publicity.
The Eyegore Awards can be a little bit trendy, but at least a couple of this year’s recipients have attained a genuinely legendary status: Roger Corman and Tobe Hooper. Corman produced and directed many horror classics, including THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH; Hooper directed the seminal 1974 shocker, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
Technically, Corman was a recipient last year, but he didn’t show up to accept his award. This year, he was invited back as a presenter but also took the opportunity to finally pick up his Eyegore statuette.
Other recipients included Gunnar Hansen (who played Leatherface in CHAINSAW MASSACRE), Bill Mosely (who played Chop-Top in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II), and Julie Benza (DEXTER, ANGEL, SAW V).
The ceremonies were moderated by Corey Feldman (THE LOST BOYS), and at times, it felt like a game of six degrees of separation. Feldman had worked in a movie produced by Corman, whose work inspired Hooper, who cast Hansen and Mosely in his films. Only Julie Benz seemed not to be part of this twisted family tree, her credits of more recent vintage.
In any case, it was nice to see the awards acknowledge some artists work truly has had a measurable impact. Hooper and Corman may not be household names to today’s typical horror fans, but the history of the horror genre would be quite different without them. Trends come and go, but their work has stood the test of time.

Laserblast: Thief of Bagdad, The Invaders, Another Corman Collection, & More

As far as cinefantastiquegoes, this week seems to be filled with home video releases of classic and cult titles: there is no new theatrical blockbuster hitting store shelves, but there are lots of familiar titles showing up. Chief among these is Alexander Korda’s classic 1941 film THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, which is commonly regarded as one of the great classics of fantasy cinema. The story follows a prince (John Justin) exiled by an evil wizard (Conrad Veidt, of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI), who joins forces with a thief (Sabu) and eventually uncorks a geni from a bottle (Rex Ingram). The Criterion Collection Double-Disc DVD set features a newly restored digital transfer and numerous bonus features: two audio commentaries (one by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, one by film historian Bruce Eder); new interviews with special effects experts Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron, Continue reading “Laserblast: Thief of Bagdad, The Invaders, Another Corman Collection, & More”

Supernal Dreams: Should Roger Corman and Christopher Lee recieve Honorary Oscars?

At next Sundays Academy Awards show, art director Robert Boyle will be awarded with an honorary Oscar. While he certainly deserves such an honor, it’s rather amazing to consider how many living genre artists have been overlooked in this area. Today, in an article in The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday argues that Roger Corman is long overdue for such an honorary Oscar. It’s a sentiment I hardily agree with, and maybe it actually could happen at next years awards show.

Roger Corman (center) directs Jane Asher and Vincent Price.

Besides Mr. Corman, I’d also say Christopher Lee should be added to the list. In fact, given the role both Roger Corman and Christopher Lee have played in the film industry over the past 40 years, that these two living masters have never even been nominated for an Oscar has to be considered nothing less than, to quote Mr. Lee, “a disgrace!” Of course, genre legends like Boris Karloff were never nominated, either. But, in reality, none of this is very surprising, especially if you look at the long list of directors who have never won Oscars. Just a glance, and you’ll see it’s actually much more of an honor to be on the list of non-winners!  Here are just a few of the great directors who have never won an Oscar as best director – a list which includes some of the greatest name in the history of the cinema:  Orson WELLES, Alfred HITCHCOCK, Howard HAWKS, Stanley KUBRICK, Jean RENOIR, Fritz LANG, Otto PREMINGER, Nicholas RAY, Arthur PENN, Ingmar BERGMAN, Douglas SIRK, Robert ALTMAN, George LUCAS, Sidney LUMET, John BOORMAN, Alain RESNAIS, Jules DASSIN, Jean Luc-GODARD, Joseph LOSEY, Michelangelo ANTONIONI, Anthony MANN, Federico FELLINI, Roger CORMAN, Roberto ROSSELLINI, Sergio LEONE, Francois TRUFFAUT and many, many others.
Continue reading “Supernal Dreams: Should Roger Corman and Christopher Lee recieve Honorary Oscars?”

Supernal Dreams: Richard Matheson's Poe scripts published by Gauntlet

By a strange coincidence, I have just re-joined the staff of  CFQonline,  only a few days after receiving the first copies of the new book I edited, Visions of Death, which contains two of Richard Matheson’s original shooting scripts for House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.  
For years I’ve wanted to publish Mr. Matheson’s Poe scripts, and I’m happy to say I think the long wait has been well worth it, as over the years I’ve been able to extensively interview not only Richard Matheson, but Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Sam Arkoff and Danny Haller.  The results of these interviews are contained in two “Making of” essays that preface the Matheson scripts.  So without further ado, here is an exclusive look at my “editor’s introduction” from the book for CFQ readers, as well a link to the Gauntlet Press website where you can get more information about the book.

By Lawrence French  
The publication of Richard Matheson’s screenplays for The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum marks a long overdue tribute to the man who is, without a doubt, one of the all time great screenwriters of terror films. But back in 1959 when Matheson was just beginning his career in Hollywood, film critics were in general, very dismissive of fantasy, horror and science-fiction movies. Luckily, filmgoers were not. As a result, both The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum became solid box-office smashes for American–International Pictures, and Matheson’s career as successful screenwriter was launched. 

Continue reading “Supernal Dreams: Richard Matheson's Poe scripts published by Gauntlet”

Masque of the Red Death (1964) – A Retrospective

This film features Vincent Price (the Merchant of Menace) in one of his finest roles—as Prince Prospero. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, producer-director Roger Corman’s film mostly eschews shock tactics and formulaic suspense, instead emphasizing the moral aspect of horror, as the Devil-worshipping Prince tries to win over an innocent Christian (Jane Asher) to his satanic beliefs. Prospero’s efforts are interrupted, however, by the intrusion of a titular plague, embodied in the form of a red-cloaked reaper who intones philosophic aphorisms like “Each man creates his own Gods from within himself—his own Heaven, and his own Hell.” In one of his best villainous performances, Price displays admirable restraint, avoiding the over-the-top ham that typified his horror roles at this time, instead putting his tongue-in-cheek style in the service of his bemused character (instead of using it as a sarcastic comment on the character), and the script is sophisticated in a way that few horror films are. Corman does the best work of his career, aided by the wonderful cinematography of Nicolas Roeg. Continue reading “Masque of the Red Death (1964) – A Retrospective”

Charles Griffith, Roger Corman's favorite screenwriter, dies

Roger Corman and Charles GriffithCharles Griffith, the prolific writer of dozens of scripts for low-budget movies, including the original version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, has died at the age of 77, from unknown causes.
Griffith is most well known for his long association with producer-director Roger Corman, who churned out numerous black-and-white sci-fi flicks back in the 1950s. Their credits together include IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, and NOT OF THIS EARTH. One of their best efforts was THE UNDEAD (1957), a Bridie Murphy-inspired tale of past-life regression to the witch-burning era, but they really hit their stride when Griffith planted his tongue firmly in his cheek. Continue reading “Charles Griffith, Roger Corman's favorite screenwriter, dies”

Scaredy Cats: Tales of Terror – "The Black Cat" (1962)

The titular black cat makes its first appearance atop a sign.

Friday Cat Blogging is an Internet tradition not much associated with cinefantastique, but we are doing our best to change that. Not so long ago, we did an installment dedicated to Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” This week, we’re taking a look at producer-director Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR, a 1962 anthology film that includes an episode inspired by the very same story.
In Corman’s triptych of tales inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” shows up in the middle episode (which includes elements of “The Cask of Amontillado”). Rotund Peter Lorre plays Montresor Herringbone, a jovial alcoholic who introduces his wife to a handsome wine-taster (Vincent Price). When he discovers they are having an affair, he kills them and walls the ir bodies in the cellar but inadvertently entombs the cat as well, its mournful wail alerting the police to the corpses.
To provide a change of pace from the first and third episodes in this anthology film, screenwriter Richard Matheson turned “The Black Cat” into a black comedy and left out the more gruesome elements (in the story, the demented narrator plucks out the cat’s eye and later hangs it to death, only to be horrified when an exact duplicate – down to the rope mark on its neck – arrives to haunt him). The actors do a fine job of playing the horror for laughs, and Lorre is particularly adept at being both funny and menacing, but the title character (first scene atop a sign as Herringbone walks home) is not one of the most memorable screen felines – more innocuous than ominous, it is an object of Herringbone’s hatred more than a symbol of his guilty conscience. Fortunately, the nameless pet (known as Pluto in Poe’s story) does provide a memorable final close-up when discovered on the head of its dead mistress, wailing with rage.

The Black Cat atop the head of its dead mistress (Joyce Jameson)

Despite the comedic liberties, the adaptation is closer to Poe than either of the two films that Universal Pictures named after the story (in 1934 and 1941 respectively). One might gripe that Lorre’s Herringbone is a drunken lout from the moment we meet him, so we never see his descent from normalcy, but Corman does capture the essential element: driven by drink, a man brings about his own self-destruction, aided by a cat that – deliberately or accidentally – exacts vengeance for being mistreated. Also noteworthy: scenes of Lorre carousing in bars – and being tossed out for not paying – seem to have inspired similar footage in Stuart Gordon’s more faithful 2006 version.