The Roger Corman Way

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Considered an outlaw, a rebel in the film industry Roger Corman saw himself as an uncompromising artist/entrepreneur who got his own movies made outside the Establishment. 

His interest in films was purely for the creative satisfaction and the excitement. Always the sprinter rather than the long distance runner, Roger wanted to do things quickly and not drag things longer than they needed. 

Stepping into the industry, at first, Roger asked to work on Saturdays for nothing so he could soak up what it was like to be on a film set. He worked as a script reader for production houses and familiarised himself with how a script should work. 

Roger liked reading science fiction as a kid and most low budget films of the day were Westerns and mysteries and therefore he thought doing science fiction would add some excitement and novelty. 

With his first several films he would multi task and fill in various crew roles including the grip, the driver, the producer just so that he could avoid having to pay overtime on the union rates. 

When he’d finish a film Roger would get an advance against the distribution income and this enabled him to cover his negative costs, the lab costs, the prints, the composer fees and still have enough profit to go right into production on his next picture. 

In the mid 50’s Rogers aim was to tell interesting and visually entreating stories that would draw young people to the drive-ins and hardtop cinemas and to create stories that don’t take themselves to seriously along the way. 

In other words exploitations films was the way to go. He tried mixing humour with horror and found that the audiences were receptive. Roger also began studying acting to sharpen his work with actors. 

During his participation in the acting experience he met and worked with some fine talents including Jack Nicholson who he used in his subsequent films and Robert Towne before he became an established writer and director. These weekly acting classes proved to be invaluable training for him.

When he started directing his own films it was almost with no training or preparation whatsoever. Roger was literally learning how to direct films on the job. It took him four or five of these training films to learn what a film school student knows when they graduate. 

But while the mistakes they make in student films are usually lost forever, his were immortalised. 

He quickly realised that a director is in charge of the artistic aspects of a project and therefore had to prepare carefully and was quick to see the importance of sketching each shot. 

He also learned to react decisively when circumstances like weather imposed script or schedule changes. He tended to move the camera quite a lot right from the beginning and always tried to frame shots with an interesting depth of field. 

Roger’s physical aspect of his directing was to get the shot and move on immediately to the next shot. As a director he was always looking, listening and unless he heard something from sound or camera, he knew he got the shot. 

He always kept the momentum going that’s allowed him to make films efficiently.

He did many of his movies in one or two weeks of shooting for well below budget and even directed the original ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ starring Jack Nicholson, in two days and a night for a measly budget of $35k. 

His first seventeen films in a row were profitable and he was offered a job to run a major studio but turned it down due to not having control and remained faithful to his maverick sensibilities. 

As the head of his own company Roger favours small, loosely stratified office environment that rewards dedication and competence and resists excessive bureaucratisation. Titles and job descriptions means nothing to him. There is no room for prima donnas or political power plays.

The challenge he found was finding new markets and recouping costs for his films while the studios dominated the genres with budgets ten times higher than his. Plus with a tenth of the budget he was unavoidably getting far less production value. 

Roger quickly learned the tricks of the film trade in being creative and saving money. One of his favourite devices when a film made no sense was to add narration. Suddenly all the disconnected, incoherent scenes began to fit. 

Another of his favourites was to find out what studios are wrapping on what production and to see if he could make use of their film sets for a few days before they disassembled them. This allowed him to save money on art department costs and add value to his films.

When it came to delegating, on the creative side Roger would give tremendous responsibility to young people who basically had no idea what they were doing. And they would learn. But in terms  of running the company, he found it very difficult to delegate decision making authority. 

Most of his graduates in filmmaking are directors, actors and producers with many credits to their names including Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Dennis Hopper and Francis Ford Copolla to name but a few. 

Roger was attracted to stories about outcasts, misfits and antiheroes on the run or on the fringes of society. These themes would recur time and again throughout his directing career. 

Exploitation films were so named because they made a film about something wild with a great deal of action, a little sex, and possibly some sort of strange gimmick and they often came out of the day’s headlines. 

It’s interesting how nowadays, when the studios see they can have enormous commercial success with big budget exploitation films, they give them loftier terms – genre films or high concept films. 

One of Rogers strengths was that he never said ‘this can’t be done.’ Pouring rain, trudging through the mud and heat, getting food poisoning, sick as a dog – didn’t matter. Never say die, never say can’t, never say quit was his Moto.

Also, with Roger you never felt you could’t do good work. You sensed there was a high energy, restless, mad genius at work when he was making his films. 

He never thought of himself as doing great Art. He felt he was working as a craftsman, and if, out of such good, solid craftsmanship, something transcended, some portion of art emerged, that would be fine with him. 

When a film was completed Roger would set up a screening for him team to view the film and everybody had to write a review and nothing was allowed to be held back. Roger had a thick skin for this but he used the notes he was given to both make changes in the current picture and to learn for the next. 

Roger always kept his ear to the ground to see what events or occurrences have happened and to make good use of that information for his upcoming filming. On one occasion he heard on the news that a forest fire broke out in the Hollywood hills and the next day, after the fire was put out he showed up with a skeleton crew and filmed some scenes with his cast that suited the scenes he was after. 

This was a great instance showing him fast on his feet and how he can utilise opportunities as they came by. On another occasion he heard that a barn was going to be demolished and managed to convince the owner to burn it down instead for one of his films – Fall of the House of Usher. 

Roger never felt part of the ‘in group.’ He built a reputation as a sort of Hollywood rebel or maverick because he was outside the studio system. 

He perhaps steered clear of the mainstream because of his fear of getting lost as an artist. He was successful, comfortable, and in total control as an outlaw producer/director. 

Perhaps he equated the risk of entering the mainstream with losing his artistic or financial autonomy. Worse, it may have exposed him to failure, critical or commercial. 

By the age of 40 he had produced/directed forty odd features and financed and produced another fifteen or so for other directors. He attempted to work with the studios which led to disillusionment, some bitterness and anger. Perhaps this is why his films convey stories of defiance, outlaws and exploitation, capturing his essence of also living on the fringes with his artistic expression. 

Showing films that spoke about alternative lifestyles that challenged the establishment norms and values, Roger felt morally, politically that his films should be on the counterculture side and was eventually dropped by his long term collaborators and distributors, AIP, who eventually felt that his irreverent films had greater financial risk for their company and would impact their stock. 

He always moved with the tides and times and had his pulse on the zeitgeist discovering what the youth of the ages between fifteen and thirty liked to watch. Each of his films had an element that could be advertised or exploited. Certainly action and sex sold yet he also made the point of putting some social point of views which was a third element that was worth exploiting. 

It improved his films because it added a coherence usually lacking on low budget films. 

Roger is, despite himself, the most remarkable type of artist because while not taking himself too seriously, he was able to inspire and nurture other talent in a way that was never envious or difficult – but always generous. 

He influenced an array of filmmakers and actors and showed the minors a path to make it to the majors. 

Sitting with first time filmmakers, viewing the rushes, he would write very specific notes and then read them out to the novice director, suggesting places where he could speed up the film and also places where he could cut further frames. 

A lot of these filmmakers were seduced by the nurturing, noncompetitive family atmosphere Roger created with his film company. He became a filmmaking Mecca for untested, ambitious talent. 

He was an iconoclast, the classic father/son or councillor/mentor relationships he fostered with his young directors: on the one hand he needed to be pleased and on the other hand he was a wonderful figure to rebel against. 

He would machine gun the rules of directing to the young up and comers and would say things like: find legitimate, motivated excuses for moving the camera but always look for ways to move it. The eyeball is the organ most utilised in moviegoing. If one doesn’t keep the eyeball entertained, no way it will get the brain involved. 

He went on to tell the young impressionable directors to use as many interesting angles as they could. And not repeat composition in close ups. Not to remind the eye it’s already seen the same thing. 

To make the villain as fascinating as the hero. A one dimensional villain won’t be as scary as a complicated, interesting one. 

To Ron Howard, who was going to direct his first feature, Roger said ‘conditions are rough, not much money. But if you do a really good job on this picture, you will never work for me again.’ 

This clearly showed Roger’s interest in getting his younglings to fly the nest and to go and do bigger and better films which was and still is very rare to find from big time directors or producers these days.

He was there to install the virtues and tactics of quick, efficient low budget filmmaking. 

The Corman school had an unusually high enrolment of promising women writers, producers, editors and directors in part because historically the industry had been and still was very difficult to crack for untested women. But he always felt inclined to give women an equal shot, even though not many women were eager to work in exploitation in those days. 

Roger believes that being an artist, a filmmaker shows tangible proof of ones existence. 

When someone makes a film, at least there is tangible proof. It’s a creation of something. At the beginning there is nothing. One gets an idea. At the end is a finished product – a film – a story with a beginning, middle and end. 

Let’s face it, Roger is arguably the greatest independent filmmaker the film industry has ever seen and will probably ever see. He has been the presence behind a massive, endless outpouring of product with a fairly consistent high level of imagination from essentially new people in virtually all areas. 

He’s a humongous filmmaker for which hundreds of people gained careers in the movie business as a result of being given an opportunity by him. 

Well done Mr. Corman.

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