Interview: Roger Corman

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Roger Corman was a special guest at this year’s Grossmann Festival of Film and Wine in Ljutomer, Slovenia, where he was given the Vicious Cat award for life achievement. Still vital at 82 and enthusiastic about his films and the fresh DEATH RACE remake (which he co-produced), Corman talked to the festival audience and also devoted some time to answer the questions of his most devoted fans from this part of Europe. Other than DEATH RACE (which, according to him, goes “straight for the throat” eschewing the social commentary and satire), he also announced several creature films that he’s working on (like CYCLOPS for Sci-Fi channel).

ROGER CORMAN INTERVIEW BY DEJAN OGNJANOVIC

My questions had mostly to do with his gothic horror films. Here is that part of the discussion:

DO: What was it like to work with Vincent Price?

RC: Vincent Price was a great gentleman and a joy to work with. All I had to do was give him a brief idea of what I wanted with the character, and he understood immediately. It was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever had.

DO: So, he did not require a lot of directing, right?

RC: No. I do not believe in over-directing actors. I’ve always believed in discussing the motivation of the character with the actors, what they were looking for, and then a minimum of direction on the set. I trust the actor.

DO: Some reviewers called him a bit of a ham. Was that approach of slight exaggeration and tongue in cheek his own, or did you ask him to play his Poe roles in that vein?

RC: No, I did not want it exaggerated. If there was any exaggeration, and there was a little bit, it came later on. On our very first picture, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, he was very serious. Then, after we have done three or four of them, he started pushing a little bit, but not much. THE RAVEN, of course, we played for laughs. It was a great fun having him together with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson.

DO: How did they collaborate on that film, having in mind that they are very different in terms of their background, acting style, personalities etc.

RC: There was a little bit of friction, but not a great deal. Peter Lorre was a method actor, Stanislavskian actor who played Bertold Brecht’s plays in Berlin and when Hitler came to power, Peter came to the United States. He would improvise, make up lines, and this threw Boris off a little bit. Vincent was OK with it, but Boris was the kind of actor who came, read the script, memorized the lines, and gave the exact performance that was on the page. Peter had a vague idea of what the script was, and he would make up all kinds of things. Vincent could work with both of them. He was classically trained enough to do it exactly as written with Boris, and then he improvised with Peter. But Boris had trouble with Peter, and I believe on the second or third day of shooting he came to me and said that it was difficult for him to work with Peter, and I said to Peter: “You have to stay closer to the script, since Boris is having difficulties following you,” and I said to Boris: “You could loosen up a little bit, understand that Peter is going to improvise a little bit,” and after that they got along very well.

DO: And wasn’t Peter also drinking a little bit in those days?

RC: No, not on the set. If he was in real life, I do not know of it. But that’s an interesting point. I’ve worked with a couple of actors who were known for drinking, and they took their work very seriously: they were not alcoholics. They would get through the day of shooting – one of them, I won’t give you his name, he said to me: “I have a martini at 5 o’clock in the afternoon of every day, and I want you to know this before we make this picture. After that I may have a second and third martini. So I suggest you do all the close-ups on me before 5 o’clock. I will still be able to act, I’ll be in shape to play the scene with others, but the close-up should not be on me during the evening.” And he stayed true to his word: he would remain sober until 5 o’clock, but around 4.30 you could see that he was already looking forward to this (laughter). But in general, those guys took pride in their work, even if they were heavy drinkers, they didn’t do it on the set.

DO: What about Ray Milland?

RC: Ray Milland was very much like Vincent in that he was educated, very carefully and classically trained. The slight difference was that Ray Milland was a very handsome man, he used to be a romantic lead, while Vincent was more like a character actor leading man. So, Ray brought a little bit more of a smoothness, whereas Vincent brough more of an edge in the character.

DO: What about the rumor that there was a line at the very end of X – THE MAN WITH X RAY EYES that was cut from the film? Stephen King, for example, claims in DANSE MACABRE that he’d heard there was a line, after Milland’s character plucks out his own eyes, where he screams: “I can still see!”

RC: No. I’ve heard that story, but what we have in the film is the ending we’ve always planned.

DO: And as for the visual effects, did they come off exactly as you wanted them, considering the budgetary restrains and technical limitations at that time? Did you, perhaps, want him to see something more specific, like some strange places or creatures behind our reality?

RC: I wouldn’t have him see creatures. I wanted him to see deeper and deeper and at the end to see through to the center of the universe. I wanted it to be a very mystical film, so I never thought that he would see creatures.

DO: What I meant by this question is that I’ve always felt that plot was vaguely Lovecraftian, about a man who sees through reality and discovers a darker reality behind, and in Lovecraft’s mythology there is this blind idiot god Azathoth at the center of the universe – not exactly a creature, but an amorphous deity…

RC: I wanted to leave that in the open, not stating what it was. I’ve always believed that every person in the audience sees a different picture. What they see is half of what the filmmaker put on the screen, and half of what’s in their own mind. So, what might be there in the end of the film, I leave to the audience.

DO: In other words, if you were to remake it, or at least produce the remake, you wouldn’t go with today’s technology and special effects and show more than you did in 1963?

RC: As a matter of fact, I’ve thought of that. Of all the films I’ve made if I were to remake one, that’s the one that could be better now, with modern special effects. It was a small film shot in three weeks for a small amount of money, and we didn’t have very much money for special effects. I think the film would be very much improved with the special effects we have today. But still I wouldn’t be specific at the end of the film.

DO: But perhaps now you could include a bit more of nudity than what was allowed back then?

RC: (Laughter) Yes, that could be done.

DO: What do you think about today’s directors working in the low budget arena? I have a feeling that they’re playing too safe just as their mainstream counterparts, although they are not risking huge amounts of money like them.

RC: Yes, I think that the new directors coming up today are technically better than the new directors rising back in my days, and they mostly went to film schools, while I never went to film school, I learned what I know on the set. So, they have more technical knowledge, but sometimes their vision is a little bit limited. They understand special effects, they work very well with computer graphics, but with some of them there is a certain self-limiting quality. Also, with big pictures, you cant’t really gamble with hundred million dollar pictures. You’re forced to play it safe. And even some independents, with lower budgets, tend to play it safe – I know it myself, I’ve played it safe, too, a couple of times – but I prefer to gamble, which is of course easier when your budget is a few hundred thousands of dollars.

DO: Did you have any kind of restrictions back in those days when you were shooting a film in a few days? I mean, physically, in terms of exhausting yourself and your crew when you made a whole film in a couple of days and nights of shooting.

RC: Yes, the Screen Actors Guild has a rule that a screen actor has to have a 12 hours off between calls. If they don’t get 12 hours off, then you pay them double on the next day. So what I would do is use a reasonable working day, which for me is around 10 or 11 working hours and then go home and sleep and come back the next day. But if I am forced to work 12 or 13 hours I arrange my schedule so that the actors who work first in the morning finish earlier, so that they get their 12 hours between calls.

DO: I know directors hate questions about influence, but still I must ask about the possible inspiration from the Hammer’s gothic horrors from the late 50ies and Mario Bava’s from early 60ies. Did they influence your Poe films in any way?

RC: Not really. The first of my gothic films was THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960), and when I made it I hadn’t seen any Hammer or Mario Bava’s film. Later on I did see a couple of Hammer films and Mario Bava’s films, and I was not particularly impressed with Hammer films, but was impressed with what Mario Bava was doing. He really was a brilliant director.

DO: Can you please elaborate on that, as I’m a great fan of Bava’s work. What was it that appealed to you in his work?

RC: It was more than 40 years ago, I’m trying to remember what I saw back then. I was particularly impressed by his direction of the actors, the way he got complex characterization in a type of horror film where characters are sometimes very simple. Also, I thought he was really wonderful with the camera, I liked his kind of hard dark lighting, and then the light against the dark, the chiaroscuro that he used.

DO: You also worked with his star, Barbara Steele, in THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. I heard that she was not too happy to be in gothic horror films. What was she like to work with?

RC: I heard that she did not want to be stereotyped as an actress in horror films, but when I worked with her, there was none of that. I got along with her very well. She took her part very seriously and I was pleased with her. She was a very nice person.

DO: I have a question about MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which is my favorite film of yours and probably the best script you’ve ever had, at least among the gothic horrors you made. It has some memorable lines, and I heard that Vincent Price contributed to many of them, that he re-wrote his dialogue etc. Is that true?

RC: Vincent always did that, not a great deal, but a little bit, and I always encourage actors to do that, to modify dialogue a little bit to fit their persona, so that the speech becomes natural to them. It’s interesting that you mention the script for that, because scripts for most of my Poe films were done by Richard Matheson, who was a very good writer, and in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH I went with Charles Beaumont, a good friend of mine. I finished shooting SECRET INVASION in Dubrovnik on Saturday, and on Monday I was in London, doing pre-production for MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. Bob Campbell, who wrote SECRET INVASION, came along with me and a lot of my crew from Hollywood came with me. I think that the original script as written by Chuck Beaumont needed a little bit of complexity, and I talked one evening with Bob Campbell, and he came up with the idea to include Poe’s story HOP-FROG as a subplot. We had two weeks of pre-production in London, and during these two weeks he added more subtext, and I think it worked very well.

DO: What can you say about Nicholas Roeg who shot that film?

RC: Nick Roeg was one of the best camera men I’ve ever worked with, he gave me a very rich lighting style. Again, my way of working with the camera men is to discuss the look, the style and mood of the film. And again, like I said about Mario Bava, I always liked those deep, rich colors against light colors, and in Englad in those days they didn’t use the term “camera men”, they called them “lighting directors”, and that’s what Nicholas Roeg was, and his use of lights I like the most.

DO: Would you say that there is such a thing as “the Roger Corman world-view”? You’ve made so many different films in so many different genres, and yet the auteur theory claims that a great director is present in each and every one of his films, whether it is an action film, horror, teenage comedy, SF, etc. Is there something that you might say connects them into a whole?

RC: There might be. Sometime I was referred to as “Hollywood’s oldest established rebel”. I’m a little bit anti-establishment, a little bit in favor of the outsider, the person who is not quite inside, and I’m politically a little bit to the left off center.

DO: So the breakdown of those mansions and castles in your films is not just a gothic cliche but a metaphor for the breakdown of established order?

RC: As a matter of fact, the best ending we’ve had along those lines was done by a young director Alan Arkush who did for me THE ROCK’N’ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, which was a comedy rock’n’roll picture, and at the end the students blow-up their high school (laughter).

DO: Were you embittered by the experience on FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND (re-cut by the producers), and was that the cause that you did not want to direct any more?

RC: Not really. I’ve been around long enough to know that these things happen. Not everything goes smoothly, and that film was not being done for my company, so I didn’t have the complete control nor the director’s cut.

DO: So how come that you did not direct after that?

RC: I just felt I was getting too old. I’m supposed to get up at 8 o’clock and go to the set to shoot, but instead it’s much easier to go there at 10 o’clock (as a producer) and say to the director: “What did you shoot that for? What was in your mind to put your camera there?” (laughter) Of course, I do not really do that, but… you understand.

DO: Do you ever feel the need to direct at least one last picture?

RC: Sometimes I do think about it, but for that I’d need a project that I’m really passionate about, and right now I do not have a script like that.

Roger Corman

Author: Dejan Ognjanovic

Visit Dejan's site The Cult of Ghoul for more horror movie news and reviews.