The 91-year-old filmmaker remembers Coppola, Nicholson and Scorsese — and the time his life was threatened by the biker gang.
Roger Corman just celebrated his 91st birthday — but he might not have made it if the Hells Angels had had their way.
The famed producer-director had decided to hire real members of the motorcycle gang for his 1966 drama The Wild Angels. After approaching them in a Venice bar, the shoot went relatively smoothly — though not without a hiccup when Frank Sinatra showed up on-set, terrified that his daughter Nancy, one of the movie’s stars, was in danger. After the picture was released and became a huge hit, however, the bikers decided they hated the way they were presented.
“They announced that they were suing me for $1 million for defamation of character, on the basis [that] I had portrayed them as an outlaw motorcycle gang, whereas they were actually a social organization, dedicated to the spreading of technical information about motorcycles,” said Corman. “Then they announced that they were going to kill me.”
Corman picked up his phone to find the head of the Angels, Otto Friedli, on the line. “He said, ‘Hey man, we’re going to snuff you out,’ ” Corman recalled. “And I said, ‘Otto, think about this. You have announced publicly that you’re going to kill me. If I slip and fall in the bathtub, the police are going to come after you. Plus, you’re suing me for $1 million. How do you expect to collect $1 million from me if you kill me? My advice to you is, forget the momentary pleasure of snuffing me out, and go for the $1 million.’ He thought a minute and he said, ‘Yeah, man, that’s what we’ll do. We’re going to go for the $1 million.’ So, I’m still living.”
Corman, speaking late April at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and TV, where he took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, also remembered working as an actor for his protégé Francis Ford Coppola, who had cast him as a U.S. senator in 1974’s The Godfather Part II.
“Everybody on the Senate crime committee was either a writer, a director or a producer — except one guy who was a running character in it, who was a friend of Francis,” noted Corman. “And Francis took us to lunch the first day, and Bill Bowers, who was a good comedy writer, asked the question: ‘Francis, how did you pick us? None of us are actors.’ And he said he had been watching a Senate committee on television, and he noticed several things about the Senators. One, they spoke very intelligently; we all sort of sat up. And he said, ‘And they all looked good, they looked like Senators.’ And we sat up a little straighter. And then he said, ‘And they were all a little awkward on camera.’ I thought, that is brilliant casting.”
Corman hesitated somewhat just as shooting began. “There were just lights everywhere — it was blinding,” he explained. “And on the first take, the assistant director said, ‘Roll ’em.’ Francis said, ‘Action!’ and as soon as Francis said ‘Action!’ a voice boomed out of all this light and said, ‘Don’t get nervous, Rog, but your entire career in Hollywood depends on how you say these lines!’ And it was Jack Nicholson, who, by prearrangement with Francis, had come up from another soundstage to throw me off.”
A full transcript follows.
GALLOWAY: You’re on a desert island, and you can take one film with you as the quintessential Roger Corman movie. Which of the following would it be: Little Shop of Horrors, Godfather Part II or Cries and Whispers?
CORMAN: Well, I made Little Shop of Horrors, and I acted in Godfather, and distributed and somewhat financed Cries and Whispers. I would take Cries and Whispers, because I think it’s such a beautiful, beautiful and a very sensitive film.
GALLOWAY: When you started out, how did you imagine yourself as a filmmaker?
CORMAN: I had no knowledge of films whatsoever. I was an engineering major at Stanford. And I found out as a senior that they had two film critics on the Stanford Daily, and they got free passes to all the theaters in Palo Alto. So I thought, I’ll do that, and I became a film critic. And then I became interested in films. But I had no time to study anything in that area because I was a senior, just finishing up as engineering. So it was sort of a late decision, to become a filmmaker.
GALLOWAY: What films really influenced you?
CORMAN: I remember the first film I reviewed for the Daily was a John Ford western. I think it was My Darling Clementine, but I am not certain. And I was just impressed by, first, the story itself. I didn’t know that much about films. But the acting, the director. And particularly, the cinematography, the black and white use of exteriors, I noted particularly.
GALLOWAY: Your father was an engineer.
GALLOWAY: When you decided not to become an engineer yourself, how did he react?
CORMAN: He said, “Whatever you want to do.” He never pushed me in any way.
GALLOWAY: You grew up first in Detroit, and then moved to Beverly Hills. How different were they and how did they shape you?
CORMAN: Well, there was a fairly big difference between Detroit and Beverly Hills. I remember this. Detroit actually was a prosperous bustling city when we moved here in 1941. But the first day in Detroit, you always wore a shirt and a tie to school. And I wore a shirt and a tie to Beverly [Hills High School], and a girl came up to me and said, “Where are you from?” And I said, “Detroit.” And she said, “And you won’t be wearing a tie tomorrow, will you?” And I said, “You’re absolutely correct.” So that was my first adjustment to a slightly more casual environment.
GALLOWAY: This is a school full of names that were legends in the business. What did they teach you about the business?
CORMAN: I knew a number of kids who were sons and daughters of various executives, and Beverly wasn’t that totally motion-picture-oriented. One Saturday, a bunch of friends and I were just playing around, and we decided to break into the back lot, at 20th Century Fox, which was adjacent. Century City is the former Fox lot. And we decided to break into the lot. And so we climbed over this fence, and some guard was chasing us. And we got away. And one of the guys said, “What are we doing all this for? My father’s a vice president here.”
GALLOWAY: You go to Stanford as an engineer. You are extraordinarily gentlemanly. And yet there is this anti-authoritarianism that made you take a course that nobody else had ever taken in the film business. Where does it come from?
CORMAN: I think anybody who’s working in a creative medium is working partially with their conscious mind, partially with their unconscious mind. So, my unconscious mind may be a little more distorted and violent than I am aware of.
GALLOWAY: You’ve written about the influence of going into psychoanalysis. What surprised you about that experience?
CORMAN: I was only in analysis for a short period of time, because I began to lose a little bit of faith in it. I wasn’t certain just sitting there talking was going to do me that much good. But I think it did, in fact, that I opened up a little bit. But I think it helped me professionally more than personally, because I read the works of Freud and followers and so forth, and started to integrate some of their thoughts into my films.
GALLOWAY: On a conscious level?
GALLOWAY: When you came out of Stanford, you had actually been in the naval program, and emerged with the lowest rank possible. Is that true?
CORMAN: Yes. It was the tail end of World War II and the Navy was worried that they didn’t have enough junior officers. Because everybody was being drafted at the age of 18. And they decide to take a certain number of universities and give the Navy personnel. If you could pass a test, which wasn’t really that tough, you could get into this program, and you took exactly the same courses that were given at Annapolis. And when you graduated, you graduated from the university and at Annapolis it’s the same thing: you start as an apprentice seaman, and you are still an apprentice seaman until you graduate, and then you become an ensign, the lowest commissioned officer. I joined the Navy from Stanford, and they always sent you back for your discharge where you came from. And I was on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, getting my discharge. And the guy who was looking at my record said, “You’ve been in the Navy two years, and you’re still an apprentice seaman?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “That’s the worst record I have ever seen. I’ll tell you what: you will never get a job with a record that bad. Nobody’s ever going to know the difference. I’m going to put you down as Seaman Second Class, so you at least got one promotion in two years.” And I said, “No, I want to be totally honest. I started as an apprentice seaman and I have to admit I finished as an apprentice seaman.”
GALLOWAY: You then went to Oxford and Paris for a while. What did you do in Paris?
CORMAN: In Paris, I hung around on the Left Bank and St. Germaine Des Pres talking existentialism to young American girls. That was the main thing.
GALLOWAY: Did it work?
GALLOWAY: Well I heard you also spoke to a couple of French girls who picked you up. And wanted you to be their pimp.
CORMAN: Oh! Where do you get all this information?
GALLOWAY: From your book.
CORMAN: What happened: I was running out of money, and I knew two French girls. One of them, evidently, had these strange connections. I had a little MG sports car and she and I traveled around Europe in it, and at that time, they stopped you at every border. And they just passed me through. And she said she had never seen this before. And when I said I needed money, she said, “You know, I could arrange to have gold put into the chassis of your MG and if you’ll deliver it to a certain point, you can make quite a bit of money. Because I can see that they just let you through.” The other girl knew I played a little bit of basketball, and said, “You could make money as a professional basketball player.” I wasn’t that good, but the French weren’t that good anyway. [LAUGHTER] So, I thought I could be a basketball player, and I was coming home for a practice one day, and these two girls in a Hudson convertible, I still remember, drove by and stopped and asked me if I would like to go to the Lido [nightclub] with them. And these were two great-looking girls. I said, “Sure, I’ll go to the Lido with you.” And so we sat there, and ordered a cognac and water, brandy and water, and guys would come up to the table and they would talk, and one girl would drift away and come back in a little while. And I saw the damn show three times, and towards the end of the evening I realized what was going on. And they said, “You know, the reason we asked you is, the Lido and all the clubs, because of what we do, are barring unaccompanied girls from coming in. If you’d like to come to the club with us each night, we can cut you in for a share of the profits.” And I said, “Well, this wasn’t exactly what I planned to do.”
GALLOWAY: As a career, right.
CORMAN: But weirdly enough there was a Thanksgiving Day party with a bunch of Americans and one guy was saying that he hired a hooker who was driving a Hudson convertible. And I thought, “I could have had part of that!” [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: When you came back to America, you were a script reader at Fox. You were an engineer for literally two days and then quit. Why didn’t you stay at Fox as a reader?
CORMAN: I started as at Fox as a messenger, and worked my way up to the story department. And it was a fairly good job, being — they called it a story analyst, but what you really did was, you read scripts, novels, short stories that were submitted, and synopsized them, and then gave some sort of a critique. So I came back to do that. But I really was starting to write. And so I got a job with a literary agency, and then wrote a script and put a different name on it, and as a literary agent, I sold the script.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow.
CORMAN: And I said to the head of the agency, “You know this script I just sold, I wrote myself. But I certainly want to pay you the commission.” But I had said to the producer, because I knew nothing about films, I said, when I sold it, “If I could work for you for nothing during the production I won’t take any salary. But I can learn production from what you’re doing, and I’d like to get an associate producer credit.” Because I understood even then that credits were important. So at the end of that picture I had a credit as an associate producer, and a writer, and I was able to set myself up in a little one room office over the Cock and Bull, which was an English pub on the Sunset Strip —
GALLOWAY: I remember.
CORMAN: — as a writer-producer, because I had that credit. And then I raised some money, a total of $12,000, and made my first picture, as a producer. It was called It Stalked the Ocean Floor. And I sold it to an independent distribution company. They thought the title was too arty, and they changed it to Monster from the Ocean Floor.
CORMAN: The picture did extremely well. It kind of tripled its money. And with that I was able to continue. And again, knowing very little about film, I envy everybody who goes to film school, because you come out of it knowing more about films than [me]. It took me several years of working to do. So I was a writer/producer for two pictures, and I saw what the directors were doing, and I thought, “Why should I be paying these guys? I can do that.” And on the third picture, called Five Guns West, needless to say, a Western, I started directing. And everything grew from that.
GALLOWAY: That’s a pretty risky thing. You got your $3,500 from that script, asked your parents to invest — they said no, nice guys — and then you went to your friends. Were you scared, were you nervous?
CORMAN: Yeah. I didn’t realize it, but on the first day of shooting I had to stop the car —we were shooting on location — and just sit and calm myself down. I realized that I didn’t really know anything about directing at all. On the other hand, I have always, then and now, I have always been a great believer in preproduction planning. And I had sketched my shots. So even though I was very nervous — as a matter of fact I couldn’t eat lunch, the first couple of days, I just laid down during lunch — I had sketched my shots, so no matter how nervous I was, I was able to say, “The camera goes here, the actors go there, the actors move this way, the camera dollies that way with them.” I don’t know if I was really hiding the nervousness, but I was able to get the job done.
GALLOWAY: Did you keep being nervous or did the nerves go away?
CORMAN: About the third or fourth day, it went away. Because the work was so hard, you just couldn’t afford to be nervous.
GALLOWAY: And have you ever felt nervous since then?
CORMAN: I felt worried. I might have felt that this is a catastrophe. But I was never nervous about it.
GALLOWAY: When did you think, “This is a catastrophe?”
CORMAN: Just about every film, at one point or another. [LAUGHTER] No matter how much you prepare, something always goes wrong. Matter of fact, this is one of the things a number of directors who started with me, they sort of joke about — I have a little lecture with them, some even come in with a paper and pencil. Because they have heard about this, and one of the things I say is, because we work with limited budgets, and therefore limited schedules, you cannot go to the set and say, “Where does the camera go?” You have to go to the set and say, “The camera goes here.” You have to plan as much as you can, in advance, but then be aware that you will never follow that plan 100 percent. Sometimes your plan doesn’t work and you’ve got to change it. Other times, you just get a better idea on the set. If you have planned everything or close to everything, you are then able to sort of roll with the punches and modify it, and you’ll end up generally shooting maybe 80 percent according to your plan, with 20 or 30 percent modifications of your plan.
GALLOWAY: What makes a great director?
CORMAN: A great director, first, is highly intelligent. And he is also a dedicated and willing to work hard. Now those are easy things to identify. The third is the creativity, and that is very difficult to identify in advance. This is why so many of the directors who have started with me were my assistant — the first one was Francis Coppola, who was my assistant — and then second unit director, and so forth. Somebody who moved up very fast was Jim Cameron, who was a young guy out of — I think he came from Arizona, [from] some community college there, and he was building model spaceships, on a picture called Battle Beyond the Stars. And we were falling behind in special effects. And I send down Gale Anne Hurd, my assistant who’s gone on to be a very successful producer, and said, “What is happening?” And she said, “The guy you hired as head of special effects is good, but he’s not quite as good and doesn’t really have the background that he said he did. But Jim really knows what he’s doing.” And I went down and talked with him and saw what he was doing, and it was clear that the creativity was there. And he got a promotion. He is the only guy I think I ever gave a promotion and a raise to on his first picture. And he became a director, when he was now a head of all special effects and shooting second unit, and I was looking at his picture and I thought, “The second unit is better than the first unit.”
GALLOWAY: Could you tell immediately with these guys, Cameron, Coppola, Gale Anne Hurd, that they had something special, or did you only slowly recognize that?
CORMAN: Some of them you could tell right away. With most of them, they would work for me, as Francis and Jim did, in a lesser capacity, and I could see that they were really good in that capacity and I promoted them on that basis.
GALLOWAY: Who was the one where you could just tell immediately?
CORMAN: Probably Marty Scorsese. He was one of the few who had not been an assistant. Most of the guys had been an assistant and worked their way up. But I had seen an underground picture he had made in New York, a black and white film. I had done a picture for American International, about a southern woman bandit, the Ma Barker story, and it was very successful, and I had left to start my own company, and they wanted me to make another one. And I said, “I’ve got my own company. I’m not going to direct for you, but I’ll produce it.” And I just met Marty and talked with him and had seen that one film and was impressed just from the conversation. Now, it was interesting, after the first couple of days of shooting, they wanted me to fire Marty and take over myself, and I said, “No, this guy is really good.” And they said, “The dailies looked terrible.” And I said, “The dailies look good to me, I don’t know what you guys are talking about.” And the picture was called Boxcar Bertha and again was very successful, and started Marty’s career.
GALLOWAY: Why did they want to fire him?
CORMAN: He wasn’t covering enough in a traditional way. And they themselves didn’t know that much about film. So all they could see was, they weren’t getting, let us say, a long shot of the two of us, two over shoulders, and two close-ups. They would get instead a moving camera, something like that, and I could look at this and see, this is very good, and this will cut together very well. It’s a little bit away, it wasn’t that radical, but it was a little bit away from the normal way of shooting, but it was clear to me that there was no problem in editing this at all. And they felt that there wasn’t enough coverage and it couldn’t be edited.
GALLOWAY: I want to talk about another person you discovered. You gave him a role in one of your most famous films, The Little Shop of Horrors. So we are going to take a look at a clip with an actor that you will all recognize.
[CLIP WITH JACK NICHOLSON] [APPLAUSE]
CORMAN: That’s an example of having everything. That was Little Shop of Horrors, which I shot, the whole thing, in two days.
GALLOWAY: How is it possible to shoot that in two days?
CORMAN: You have to understand the Screen Actors Guild rules. If you hire an actor on a daily rate, three daily rates are equal to a week. So I hired the actors for a week, and rehearsed them Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then shot the picture on Thursday and Friday. That’s why the photography is not brilliant. It’s a little flat. For instance, if I were shooting here I would have a camera here, say on you, and a camera there, on me. So I would be covering the scene with one shot but with two cameras.
GALLOWAY: I’m so glad you said it, because our producer did that.
CORMAN: Now this is an example of having everything planned out and then something goes wrong. When Jack Nicholson was in the chair and Johnson Hayes was pulling the tooth, the scene was supposed to end up with one of them having a drill, one of them having a scalpel, and they are dueling. But, when Jonathan pulled back, you saw the dental chair collapse, the whole thing collapsed. And I asked the prop man how long it would take to fix it. He says, “Well, I can do that in a couple of hours.” And I said, “The scene ends with the collapse of the dentist’s chair.” Because it was clear I did not have time to shoot the rest of the scene.
GALLOWAY: Were you exhausted, making that film?
CORMAN: Actually it was fun, because everybody took it as a joke. It really was a joke. It came from something that had happened when I made a horror film, and at the sneak preview, everything worked exactly the way I planned it, and at the key moment the audience screamed. I like, boy, I really got them, this really worked. Right after they screamed, there was a little laughter. And I thought, “What did I do wrong?” And I thought, “I didn’t do anything wrong, the audience was sort of laughing, understanding, partially in appreciation and partially knowing that they had been manipulated.” So that led to a couple of these low budget films, Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, which were comedy horror. But I wasn’t certain that the idea would work, so that’s why I shot them with very little money. But on this one, it gained because everybody was sort of laughing around. For instance, we started shooting at eight o’clock in the morning. The assistant director said at 8:10, “We are hopelessly behind schedule.” [LAUGHTER] And so, and I do think the atmosphere on the set affects the performance to a certain extent, and I think one of the reasons this little picture became sort of famous and did so well is the fact that nobody, including me, was taking it seriously. On the other hand, we — particularly the cameraman and I — were working very hard, because we were getting an incredible number of shots in two days.
GALLOWAY: When you did it, did you want it to appear like not a real plant?
CORMAN: It was a long time ago. It was around 1958 or 1959. Not particularly, I just thought, that we’ve got a little bit of money, let’s go with what we want. And I said to the prop man who was making it, “Let’s try and make it a little funny.” It wasn’t that I wanted it to look fake, but I wanted the plant itself to be funny.
GALLOWAY: Jack Nicholson, did you imagine he was going to be a big star?
CORMAN: I always thought he was an excellent actor, and what surprised me was that it took him so long to be recognized. He and I must have made, oh, well over ten pictures together. And I thought he was a brilliant actor. As a matter of fact, he was a very good writer. He wrote several scripts for me. And if he had not been eventually recognized as an actor, I think he would have had a career as a writer.
GALLOWAY: What was he like as a writer?
CORMAN: Jack was a very funny guy, but he was very serious about acting and I think that’s one of the things that carried over into his career, that he has been able to play very serious roles, but fine some moments of humor within it, to sort of as a release. And I think that dichotomy, that difference, has been a key part of his success.
GALLOWAY: And was his writing the same mix?
CORMAN: Yes, there was always a little humor in it, but the three scripts, two westerns and then The Trip, a picture about an LSD experience. Were serious, but there was a little bit of humor in all of them.
GALLOWAY: You took LSD.
GALLOWAY: Great research. We do not recommend it for students.
CORMAN: I had been doing the Edgar Allen Poe pictures, and they were successful, and AIP wanted me to do more. But I felt I was beginning to repeat myself. And everything, again, certain theories, going back to Freud, I felt Poe was working to a certain extent with the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind does not see the world, therefore I want to shoot everything on a sound stage. So I created an artificial environment, and on the occasional shots where we see the world, I would find some way to distort it. For instance, in The Fall of the House of Usher, Mark Damon, the young leading man, rides up to a house through a forest. And I was trying to figure out, what can I do to make this unusual, when there was a big forest fire in the Hollywood Hills. And everything was burned out. And I quickly in one day got Mark a horse and a cameraman and we went up to the burned-out area, of the Hollywood Hills, and shot that, for the exterior. Anyway, I wanted to move away from the interiors and start to shoot on exteriors, and it was also the ’60s, the time of the counterculture.
CORMAN: My first picture was The Wild Angels, about the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, which was quite successful, and AIP wanted me to do another counterculture picture, and I was interested in LSD, and decided to do The Trip, based on that. And as a conscientious director, I felt I certainly better take LSD to find out what this is all about. [LAUGHTER] And what happened — Tim Leary had written about the set and the setting: “You should be with friends and you should be in a beautiful place, that you can relate to.” I’ve always liked Big Sur, and when I said I was going up there with a couple of people, suddenly a lot of people said, “Well, if Roger’s going to try it, we’ll do it too,” and we had a caravan of cars going up to Big Sur, and we had to schedule it, almost the way you schedule a picture, as to who was going to take LSD, at what time, and always there would be one person who was straight. Just in case something went wrong. And so from that, I integrated my experience into the film. The only problem was, I had a wonderful, wonderful trip, and I thought if I follow this exact, this is going to be an advertisement for LSD. So I talked to a number of people, including Jack, and we inserted some dark sequences into to. To sort of balance it out.
GALLOWAY: You mentioned a film and I want to talk about it a bit more. Let’s look at a dream sequence from The Fall of the House of Usher.
GALLOWAY: It’s a beautifully done scene. It’s hard to imagine that you made that with almost no money. When you went into that sequence, how did you create it?
CORMAN: It was a combination of things. The picture cost about $250,000 and was shot in three weeks. It was Mark Damon, the young leading man; of course, Vincent Price; and Myrna Fahey. I went at it in a number of ways. First the construction of the set. Then with the camera, I used diffusion on the lens, and on some shots I used a little oil in addition to the diffusion, then on other shots, I softened the focus and put it fractionally out of focus. At the same time, I was slanting the camera so that, in some shots, instead of a horizontal shot, you are getting a slight effect like that [shows], and then, I speeded up the camera in some areas and slowed down the camera in others. And then I used a lot of smoke, combined with that. And then in postproduction, you have to remember this was in the late 1950s where everything there could be done by hitting a button on a computer today, it’s incredible how hard we worked to get that sort of effect and how easy it is today. So it was a combination of all of those things. And then the editing as well.
GALLOWAY: Did you storyboard it first?
CORMAN: I storyboarded. You know, I keep telling the directors: you have to storyboard everything. The fact of the matter is, the best I ever got was maybe three-quarters of the way through. And then on the set, I started improvising a little bit around. So the basic shots were planned in advance, and then as I say, modifications were done on the set. And then in the editing— I noticed there — I repeated a shot with Vincent that I liked, smiling. It was the same shot but I cut it in in a different way and treated it.
GALLOWAY: Did you know him well?
CORMAN: Yes. Well, not that well, but I got along very well with Vincent. He was my first choice to play Roderick Usher and I sent him the script, and he liked it. And we met, we discussed it. And he agreed to do it because he had been, what should I say? He had been a star, but sort of a character star, rather than somebody like Tyrone Power or Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, a handsome leading man. He was a very good actor and he took this very, very seriously. Later on, we started to introduce humor into it, and he became very funny. He was just a very good actor.
GALLOWAY: You did a comic version of one Poe story.
GALLOWAY: Was he easy to work with?
CORMAN: Yes. Because, shooting in three weeks, there’s not a lot of time to work with the actors during the shooting. The way I worked was to meet with the actor before shooting, discuss the character, make certain of the old thing, Stanislavski’s red thread, and so forth, that we had all agreed on the basic arc and interpretation of the character. Then I do a little bit of rehearsing, and a little bit of improvisation, so the broad strokes of the character are laid down before shooting. During shooting, I don’t have time to have an argument with an actor. Everything is decided before and then it’s just little adjustments during the scenes, when I am shooting.
GALLOWAY: You did an acting class yourself at one point.
GALLOWAY: Did you like acting?
CORMAN: Yes, but I wasn’t taking it seriously. What it was, maybe because of the engineering background, when I became a director, it seemed to me that I learned to work with the camera, with editing, very quickly and very easily. But I had no experience in acting, so I thought I would take an acting class, not to become an actor, but so that I could relate to actors. It was in the acting class where I met Jack Nicholson, as a matter of fact.
GALLOWAY: When you did Godfather Part II, Nicholson was shooting in the same place and bumped into you and said, “Hey, don’t get nervous, but your whole career rests on this moment.”
CORMAN: What happened was this. We were all on the Senate crime committee, and on my sets, you don’t have many lights. But Francis had this huge budget, and there were just lights everywhere. It was blinding. And on the first take, the assistant director said, “Roll ’em.” Francis said, “Action,” and as soon as Francis said “Action,” a voice boomed out of all this light, and it said, “Don’t get nervous, Rog, but your entire career in Hollywood depends on how you say these lines!” And it was Jack Nicholson, who by prearrangement with Francis, had come up from another sound stage to throw me off, on the first take. I didn’t recognize [him]. I realized later it was Jack. And I thought, “OK, they’re trying to get me here. I’m going to say these lines. Forget any attempt to act,” not that I was capable of any great acting anyway. But I’m going to make certain I say the line. So I said the lines, then Francis said, “Great, Roger, OK. Now we’ll really try,” and we went from there.
GALLOWAY: Did you talk to Coppola about those Godfather films, before he made the first one? Did you have the kind of relationship where he would call you and say, “Hey, what do you think?”
CORMAN: Not so much. But on the second one, where I was playing this part, we only worked two days — I was on the Senate crime committee, and I had a dressing room. And I was in my dressing room having coffee and Francis came in, and he started alibiing. He said, “Roger, you will see that there’s a lot of waste on this set, and the set is moving slowly. I could move this set faster, and I could eliminate the waste, but that’s not my job. My job is to direct this picture, and if Paramount wants to waste money, that’s their responsibility.” So, as I said, Francis is here on the set alibiing for the fact that I’m going to see waste on the set.
GALLOWAY: Luckily he wasn’t working for you as producer at that point.
CORMAN: Well actually, what happened after, it was very strange. Everybody on the Senate crime committee was either a writer, a director, or a producer, except one guy who was a running character in it, who was a friend of Francis, and Francis took us to lunch, the first day, and Bill Bowers, who was a good comedy writer, asked the question, “Francis, how did you pick us? None of us are actors.” And he said he had been watching a Senate committee on television, and he noticed several things about the Senators. One, they spoke very intelligently, we all sort of sat up. And he said, “And they all looked good, they looked like Senators.” And we sat up a little straighter. And then he said, “And they were all a little awkward on camera.” [LAUGHTER] And I thought, that is brilliant casting. First, it’s a joke, but it’s good casting: he cast guys who were writers, directors, and producers.
GALLOWAY: Do you remember who the others were?
CORMAN: I just remember Bill Bowers. Phil Feldman was a producer, Bill Bowers was a comedy director, a comedy writer/director. And I just remember those two, anyway. What he had done, he had picked guys who kind of looked okay. We all knew our way around the set. But we had all been behind the camera. So we were going to be a little bit awkward. And so, as I said, I thought that’s genius casting.
GALLOWAY: When did you first see that film? Did you see it before it opened? Did he show it to you privately?
CORMAN: Yes, he had a private screening and, you know, I think I had two or three lines. All I can say is, I could see [Al] Pacino was a bad guy when he came in the room.
GALLOWAY: When you did see it, did you think, “Oh my God, this is a masterpiece?” Or, did that feeling come later?
CORMAN: No, I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was better than the first one. I thought the first one was very good, the second one was brilliant, and the third one fell off a little bit. But I thought the first two were two classic films.
GALLOWAY: You made a classic, The Wild Angels. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about the Hells Angels. Let’s watch a clip from late in this movie, when one of the Hells Angels has died. I really wished I could have shown an earlier moment, because your sense of the camera moving with the bikers is just wonderful.
CORMAN: That was crucial. I had said, that I wanted, I did not want to do what you do in so many Westerns, the leading man jumps on the horse in a close-up, and then you cut to a long shot, and the stuntman rides away on the horse. I said, “Everybody must ride the bike. I’m going to put you on the bike and hold with you.” George Chakiris was supposed to be the lead.
GALLOWAY: Who, by the way, was in West Side Story and won an Oscar.
CORMAN: And first he said he would ride the bike, and then I had everybody just sort of practice. He practiced once and he said, “Roger, I’m not going to ride that bike.” And I thought to myself, I didn’t say it to him, he is out of the picture. And Peter Fonda replaced him. And if you see it, you will see that all of the actors except for only one or two difficult shots in the pictures, every actor is actually riding the bike.
GALLOWAY: I mean, those sequences are so filmic, just that sense of sheer motion and life. How did you do that? Did you have multiple cameras? Did you have a truck moving with them?
CORMAN: We had a truck moving with them, this was actually very simple. We had a pickup truck and the camera was mounted in the flatbed of the truck, and the truck was going here, and the bikes were just going there. It was a little bit difficult particularly we had some scenes on mountains, and on winding roads. And again, it was a three-week picture. Matter of fact I remember, it was so difficult, I said to my friend Jack Boyer, who was assistant director, who was saying that that was incredible that we did all that in three weeks. And I said, “Jack, I swear I will never shoot a picture like this in three weeks again.” It was really so difficult.
GALLOWAY: Was it?
CORMAN: So we had to take time for the riding of the bikes. But I think the fact that you saw the actors themselves on the bikes, added authenticity to the film.
GALLOWAY: Frank Sinatra turned up on the set. Did you notice at the time?
CORMAN: I never met him.
GALLOWAY: Oh you didn’t?
CORMAN: I met him later on.
GALLOWAY: Because his daughter is one of the leads.
CORMAN: He was very worried that his daughter was in a film with the Hells Angels. And for some reason he didn’t want to bring it up to me, so he arranged to meet with my second assistant director, Paul Rapp, and said, “Is Nancy going to be all right?” And Paul, we had never even thought about it, but Paul made up a whole lot of nonsense, just, “Well we’ve got people there, we’re going to be protecting her all the time.” It was all just talk, but Frank accepted it, and Nancy was great. She did everything that she had to do and she was on the bike with Peter.
GALLOWAY: But there was also some story that the cops had actually infiltrated the set.
CORMAN: Well the police were there, because there were warrants out for a number of the Angels. And I think the state police and some local police were there. And they wanted to arrest some of the Angels. And I just said, “Look, these guys may be bad guys. But they’re working. You know, they’re working, they’re doing a job, I’m paying them. Why don’t you let them finish the picture, and don’t do anything,” and they actually agreed to that. And they never moved in on anybody, but they were there, for a few days. And then, left.
GALLOWAY: So this is a clip from late in the movie, The Wild Angels.
GALLOWAY: I truly urge everybody to read Roger’s book, and the chapter about making film. There’s so many details that are just amazing. You recruited real life Hells Angels.
GALLOWAY: How on earth did you do that?
CORMAN: Well, again, just as in taking the LSD for The Trip, I wanted to be as authentic as possible. So I cast the four or five lead Angels with actors who I thought were very good. I included Peter, Bruce Dern, and a number of others. And for the rest of them, I wanted the Hells Angels, themselves. I made a deal with the Venice, California chapter of the Angels. It was interesting, I paid them each a certain amount of money, for themselves to be in the picture. Another amount of money for their bikes, because their bikes were very important, they were always Harleys. It was very important to the Angels. They would ride nothing but Harleys. And another amount of money for their old ladies.
GALLOWAY: Right, which was less than the bikes.
CORMAN: Yes, the amount of money they demanded for the bikes was more than what they asked for their old ladies.
GALLOWAY: So in this scene, are those real Hells Angels?
CORMAN: They are. A couple of them are actors. Most of them were Hells Angels.
GALLOWAY: What did you learn about them from working with them? What interested you about them?
CORMAN: Well, they were something of a phenomenon, at that time. And I felt they really did, this was the early ’60s, so it was the beginning of the counterculture. And I felt that they represented a group that were left out, speaking of it today you might say, they might have been Trump voters, to a certain extent, if they even bothered to vote, which is probably unlikely. But these were working class kids, who knew there was nothing for them in society. The best they were ever going to do might be a gas station attendant. And they had forged their own society, in total opposition to mainstream society, thus the fact that they identified with the Nazis and used Nazi symbols and so forth, as part of what they were doing. And I had to figure out how to work with them. And I thought, I can’t order these guys around, they are tougher than I am. But I can’t be weak and let them push me around, or I’ll lose control during shooting. So I determined what I would do. (I) would speak to them in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. For instance, I would say, “All right. You’re bringing the bikes in when we’re shooting in Mecca, in another scene, early in the picture. Or, you come in with the bikes at the end of the street here, you’re coming in here, you’re swinging around here. You drop the bikes here, and you run over to there.” Now I would speak that way so it was simply a definitive statement as to what was to be done. And that was the one way to work with them, matter of fact, that was the way I worked with them. And it worked out all right. A couple of them actually gave fairly good performances, I gave them a few extra lines.
GALLOWAY: They’re so good in the background, because you really feel that authenticity. But when the film was done, it did very well. It played at the Venice Film Festival.
CORMAN: Uh-huh. I was told, and I think this is correct, it was the biggest-grossing low-budget picture ever made. My record was broken a few years later by my own graduates. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. And they broke the record.
GALLOWAY: But that was almost your own film. Why did you not make Easy Rider?
CORMAN: I was supposed to, but it’s a long story. It was Peter’s idea, and Peter and Dennis. And they wanted to produce it. They wrote the script together. They were going to play the leads, and Dennis was to direct it. But they didn’t have anybody to really organize it, and they wanted me to be the executive producer. And everything was set, we were ready to go, until one executive at American International, knowing that Dennis had a slightly edgy reputation, said in a meeting, “We want one additional thing. We want the right to replace Dennis, if he, as director, falls behind by more than one day.” And after the meeting they all left and I said to this guy, “That was a really wrong thing to say. Dennis has worked well for me, he was in The Trip. And I know his reputation. But he was totally professional. He showed up every day. There were no problems. I will guarantee to you, and I’ve seen his still photography. This guy’s a good cameraman. I guarantee to you that he will, that everything will be all right.” But meanwhile, a couple of guys at Columbia had heard of this, and they offered more money. And the picture went over to Columbia.
GALLOWAY: And all that money too. So you did Wild Angels, and then the Hells Angels came after you.
CORMAN: Oh yes. Nobody, including me, had any idea it was going to do the kind of business it did. It was really incredible. It was breaking, well for a picture that cost, I think, $250,000, it was actually breaking house records, in theaters, particularly in drive-ins. And when they heard, first they, I’m trying to remember it exactly, because this was around 1962 or something like that. They announced that they were suing me for $1 million for defamation of character, on the basis I had played them as a, portrayed them as an outlaw motorcycle gang. whereas they were actually a social organization, dedicated to the spreading of technical information about motorcycles. [LAUGHTER] Then, they announced that they were going to kill me.
CORMAN: And I remember I got a call from Big Otto Friedli, the head of the Angels. One day and he said, “Hey man, we’re going to snuff you out.” And I said, “Otto, think about this. You have announced publicly that you’re going to kill me. If I slip and fall in the bathtub, the police are going to come after you. Plus, you’re suing me for $1 million. How do you expect to collect $1 million from me if you kill me? My advice to you is, forget the momentary pleasure of snuffing me out, and go for the million dollars.” He thought a minute and he said, “Yeah, man, that’s what we’ll do. We’re going to go for the $1 million.” So, I’m still living.
GALLOWAY: Were you scared?
CORMAN: They didn’t kill me, and they didn’t get the million dollars. Bruce Dern played a character called Loser; that may affect their position.
GALLOWAY: I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about one thing before we wrap, which is, one of the things that makes you so interesting, you know, here you’ve made films by riding the drive-in culture. And then you put an Ingmar Bergman film at a drive-in to, Cries and Whispers. And it opens a whole other avenue of your work, and you have become this extraordinary champion of some of the greatest living filmmakers. [To the audience:] And, just so you understand how different these films are, I’m actually going to show you now a clip from Cries and Whispers, and you’re going to see it’s pretty different from The Little Shop of Horrors, so, right, you know that.
CORMAN: It’s also pretty different from The Wild Angels.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, it is. Bergman directing The Wild Angels would’ve been very interesting. OK, here we go.
GALLOWAY: It’s almost unimaginable that anybody else in the film business could make the films you did, exist in your world as an outlaw in the business, and then embrace these filmmakers. How did that come about?
CORMAN: Well, after The Wild Angels, and The Trip, both of them did extremely well, and AIP had been a very honest company. But these films were so huge that they couldn’t resist breaking into my share of the profits. And, after I settled with them, I said, “I’m going to start my own company. So that nobody can do this to me again.” And we got off to an immediate, I thought I would just take a year off, from directing, and start this company and turn it over to somebody, and then go back to directing. But the first films, every film was a success, and I didn’t go back to directing. Suddenly I was running a production and distribution company. And we grew to the point where we were maybe the strongest independent. Both Bob Shaye at New Line and Harvey Weinstein at the Weinstein Brothers said that they knew what I had done and they started New Line and Miramax. And we were distributing these frankly exploitation pictures. The first one was The Student Nurses, the second was The Big Doll House, which sort of Orange Is the New Black but 50 years earlier. And we had grown to, we were really so powerful, we could get bookings like a major studio. And I always liked the works of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, and so forth. And I felt that they were not getting proper distribution in the United States. Either they were being distributed by major studios, who are very good in distributing the type of film they make, but didn’t quite know how to handle this type of film. Or they were handled by little distribution companies who were more aficionados, and didn’t really know how to book or negotiate to get the right terms and so forth. And it was very interesting, because what happened to me, happened to Bergman. He found out that Spence Film Industry was not giving him a proper count on the profits of his film.
CORMAN: So he decided to, but this is very good, to show how great artists can also be a practical business man. He backed Cries and Whispers with his own money. And then he divided up as if it’s a pie chart, the countries in the world with each country’s proportion of the world box office. And he offered to distribution companies in each country, if they would pay him an advance, equal proportionally to their share of the world’s box office. So he got his negative costs back, immediately, and he would then split 50-50 on the profits, with everybody. When I heard about it, I just said the word, “I will take it, sight unseen.” He sent back he accepted it but he insisted that I look at it, which I was going to look at anyway, and that I have the right to pull out. And that led to where we were distributing, actually the ones I wanted, we were able to give it individual distribution. For instance, we opened in New York and LA, which is what you normally do, with an art film. And at the premiere here, yellow roses were important here. I had a couple of girls in the office and a couple of actresses I knew, at the premier, wearing long gowns and handing out yellow roses, out to the women as they came in. We were doing things like that. And Cries and Whispers was the biggest grossing picture Bergman had ever had in the United States. He couldn’t believe. He wrote me a letter, he couldn’t believe how much money. And after that, we were distributing Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Volker Schlondorff, Alain Resnais. And at one period of seven or eight years or longer, our pictures won more Academy Award best foreign films than all the other companies in Hollywood combined.
CORMAN: And we got, and so we finally got a reputation, so that the representatives of these films were coming to us.
GALLOWAY: Did you meet Bergman?
CORMAN: Yes, I did. And he thanked me and then, more interesting, anyway, I met Fellini, because we do the distributing again, Academy Award winner, Amarcord.
CORMAN: And he said, “Roger, I’ve never met you, but I thought you were a director. Now you’re a distributor. Take my advice. Go back to directing.”
GALLOWAY: Well, did you like him?
CORMAN: Yeah. Bergman was a little bit shy and a little bit reserved, but really a nice guy. Fellini was a more open [guy].
GALLOWAY: Did they speak English?
CORMAN: Yes. They both spoke some English. With accents and so forth.
GALLOWAY: Just before we turn to everybody, of their films, do you have a particular favorite, or a film that you mentioned when we began, Cries and Whispers, are there one or two films that stand out as the greatest films for you, that you’ve seen?
CORMAN: You mean of this group?
GALLOWAY: Any, ever.
GALLOWAY: I wonder what your taste is, in films.
CORMAN: Actually, Sight and Sound, the British film magazine, sent out to a number of directors, to try to find out what their favorite films are.
GALLOWAY: Right, the top 100 poll, yeah.
CORMAN: And of course, Citizen Kane won. But I said, Battleship Potemkin. And Penelope Huston, the editor, wrote me a letter and saying, “You’re the only one who chose Battleship Potemkin. Would you like to write an essay for us?” Which I did. And somewhere, somebody showed me, I don’t even remember this, I was giving a lecture somewhere on Battleship Potemkin and they were intercutting the, and I was talking about the Odessa steps sequence.
GALLOWAY: Yes. [To the audience:] You all know that.
CORMAN: They were intercutting shots from the Odessa steps sequence, with my sort of, if you want to call it analysis, of it.
GALLOWAY: I would love to read that sometime.
CORMAN: I didn’t even remember that I ever gave that lecture. I have no idea where.
GALLOWAY: Somewhere in a drawer, we’ll find it. OK, questions, please.
QUESTION: I love Cries and Whispers. My question for you is, you’ve given a couple of anecdotes about times that you were on a tight schedule. What is the biggest or craziest change you had to make in a production to be on time?
CORMAN: OK, let me just see. Well of course, Little Shop there where the dentist’s chair fell down was one. I was shooting a picture called The Secret Invasion in the Adriatic Sea, and I was shooting at night. And if you shoot on, if you’ve done it, shooting on water is very difficult, because you’ve got the camera boat, you’ve got the boat you’re photographing, and on the highway or on land everything is fine. But on water, the current is drifting one boat this way, another way, it was extremely difficult, it was the middle of the night. And Stewart Granger, Jimmy Stewart is actually his name, but for obvious reasons, he changed it, in the middle of shooting, Jimmy said, he was playing the older guy, and Edd Byrnes, who was coming off of 77 Sunset Strip, was playing the young guy on the boat. He said, “I want Edd’s lines.” And I said, “Jimmy, the script, it’s Edd’s lines.” Edd immediately said, “There’s no way you’re going to take my line.” And suddenly everything stopped. And I had no idea what to do, and I remember, Raf Vallone, a good Italian actor, this was part of a group of people who went in on a secret mission to Yugoslavia. I was standing at the front of the boat, and I’m thinking, “The night is going by, everything has stopped,” and I was smiling, and Raf came up to me and said, “Why are you smiling? This is a real mess.” And I said, “What else can I do?” And then what I thought, I wrote a whole additional section of the scene, on the boat, starring Stewart Granger, and gave all the lines to him. He accepted that. Of course, in the cutting room, I threw all that out. [LAUGHTER] It got us through the night.
QUESTION: One of my favorite films when I was a kid was, It Conquered the World. I’ve always wondered, what inspired that wonderfully imaginative design of that monster? And also, are you ever going to do a sequel to it?
CORMAN: Well, what happened with the monster, since my background was in engineering and a minor in physics, I tried to be as logical as I can. And in It Conquered the World, the monster came from one of the giant planets like Jupiter or Saturn or something like that. Now, on one of those planets, simply because of its mass, it would obviously have greater gravity. Therefore, a giraffe could not exist on a planet like that, but a turtle could, against the gravity. So I designed this monster that was like this (flat), and very low to the ground. Now, therefore keeping with physics. Beverly Garland was the leading lady, was very hip. I was having coffee while we were setting up the first shot. And she went over to the monster, and she looked down at the monster, and she sort of glanced over and saw that I was watching her, and she kicked the monster, and she said, “So. You’ve come to conquer the world, eh? Take that!” And she kicked it. I immediately called the prop man in and said, “We were going to start shooting with the monster, but I’m going to shoot something else, but I want that monster 10 feet tall after lunch.” [APPLAUSE] And so it’s the weirdest monster you’ve ever seen, because it was designed this way, and they built a sort of a pyramid thing on top, and therefore, came my rule, “The monster must always be taller than the leading lady, and to hell with physics.”
QUESTION: There’s a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I know you may not have been a fan of Mystery Science Theater in the past, but have you changed your opinion of them at all?
CORMAN: I think it’s just a joke. It’s easy to make fun of films that were shot 50, 60, 70 years on very low budgets with effects that are not comparable to today’s effects. And I would assume, 50, 60, 70 years from now, people will be making fun of the films that are made today. There is nothing you can do about it. I’m not exactly a fan. But I understand what they’re doing. And they’re making a living with it. If not that then they might be robbing banks. [LAUGHTER] Who knows.
QUESTION: Do you have any suggestions for how low-budget independent filmmakers can make a statement and stay competitive in this expanding world of lots of streaming options and the world is just so full of indie film right now, is there like a way you would suggest?
CORMAN: I would divide that into two parts. One, the actual making of the film. It has never been easier to make a low-budget film than it is today. When I started, we were working with the big Mitchell cameras, heavy equipment, the lighting equipment, even the sound equipment, the grip equipment. It was very difficult and very expensive and needed a fairly big crew. Today you are working with very lightweight digital equipment, tiny lights, sound equipment that’s almost invisible. So you can put together a crew, which is what I did to a certain extent in my first film but you can do it more today, in which it becomes sort of a co-op. Everybody comes in, maybe gets paid a couple of bucks or maybe isn’t. And everybody chips in and makes the film. And you can make that type of film today, more easily than ever before. I’m not certain this is an exact answer to your question. So the making of the film has become much easier. The distribution of the film has become much, much more difficult. When I started, every film that was at least decent got a full theatrical release. Today, a low-budget film almost never gets a full theatrical release. Every now and then, an occasional auteur as a word driven film will, or more likely, a low-budget horror film that has something unusual will break through. But the majority will not get a theatrical release. This left a number of people, including me, because my films, I disbanded my theatrical distribution company in the late ’90s when this was starting, and moved to DVD and had a distribution company for DVDs, but I dropped that a couple of years ago, as the DVD market decreased. So, the market is very difficult. The only thing I can think of is, there is still a little bit of money in DVDs, and there are small DVD companies who will take this type of film. Also, it’s possible, if the film is of a little bit higher quality, to make a deal with one of the streaming services. But, there’s a friend of mine in distribution who said, who once said, a year or so ago, “I used to sell a film for a dollar. Now I sell it for 20 nickels.” What he meant was, “I make a deal for theatrical, that’s it, that’s my money. Now, you sell something to DVD, you sell something to Netflix. You sell something to eBay or Amazon or whatever. And you are picking up tiny amounts of money, from many different sources. And it is the easiest time I’ve ever seen to make a low-budget picture, and the most difficult time I’ve ever seen to get a distribution on it.
GALLOWAY: Do you still love film as much as you did?
CORMAN: Always. I keep using the word film, but I haven’t shot on film in years, and you use the word film also. I haven’t shot on film for a number of years, digital, yes. The love of it still remains. That’ll never fade.