As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The season also includes Corman’s lurid and unforgettable film The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the penultimate movie in his sequence of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.
In the first part of his interview with Roger Corman, Alex Fitch talks to the legendary director and producer about his early career, the differences between shooting in monochrome and colour, and his art of remixing other people’s movies.
Alex Fitch: You produced your first film at the age of 28 and directed your first film a year later. In terms of the start of your career, you trained as an industrial engineer before having a moment of clarity and realising that you’d made a terrible mistake. You worked as a mail boy at Twentieth Century Fox, then a script reader. Working at the fringes of the film industry at that point, was it a challenge to work your way up the ladder?
Roger Corman: It was very hard. At that time there were very few independents – there were some but not very many – almost everything was done within studios. The studios were 100% unionised, and you couldn’t get in to the union without all kinds of things happening. The only position in the studio that was not unionised was the messengers.
I suppose it’s quite similar today, that you get loads of people breaking into the British film industry by working as runners to get their foot in the door.
The genres that you mainly worked in during the 1950s were Westerns, Horror, Gangster movies. Were they genres you were already interested in as a cinemagoer, or did you see a gap in the market?
A combination of both. Then, and to this day, the films I make are partially things I’m interested in, and partially things I believe will work in the market place. It’s the old statement: motion pictures are part art and part business.
You’ve gone back and forth between being a producer and being a director. Are they both roles you love equally?
I liked it best when I was producer and director, because as a producer/director, you truly are this overused word ‘auteur’; you are responsible specifically for what is going on. When I was a director only, I chafed a little bit at some of things suggested or sometimes ordered by the producer. When I’m a producer only, I’m sometimes amazed at some of the choices the directors make.
How hands on are you as a producer? Do you generally – when you’ve chosen someone – trust in their vision, or occasionally do you have to give them a prod?
As a producer I’m probably less hands on than just about any other producer I know; that is, I’m less hands on during the shooting. I’m very much there during preproduction and postproduction. The pictures are almost always ideas I’ve come up with: I’ll write a three-to-five page treatment, then hire a writer to do the screenplay, then bring in the director. Generally, I’ll bring in the director before the final draft of the screenplay, so that he gets his input into the screenplay, so it’s something he understands and can work with. Then I’ll collaborate or work with the director a great deal before shooting, particularly on the themes, how he plans to shoot, what his emphases are, what his interpretations of the characters are. So, I’m really there, all through preproduction, but once production starts, I just totally step away. I know some producers who are sitting there all day long, every day during shooting. To me there’s nothing duller than sitting on the set watching somebody else direct the picture. I’ll be there the first morning, and – if it’s all going well – by noon, I’ve left the set and probably will never come back.
Also, I suppose it’s unnerving for the director if the producer is always looking over their shoulder…
…and particularly, the first pictures on which I was a producer only, I found that the crews were coming to me, asking me questions that they should have been asking the director, and that was one of my reasons for stepping away. I know that having been a director, the director wants to be in charge, and should be, on the set.
Conversely, with the very first films you worked on in the 1950s, you were sitting in on the sets, to learn the craft by watching other people?
Yes. The first two films I produced, I was on the set every day. On the first film I was partially a grip, and I was the only producer/truck driver! I drove the truck as well… We shot the picture in a week. I would drive to the location, unload as much of the equipment as I could by myself, before the crew arrived, in order to save the amount of time they had to spend, and I’d be there all day. At the end of the day, the grips would load the heavy equipment onto the truck, everybody would leave, I would load the rest of the equipment and drive home, and repeat it the next day.
…and I suppose when you’re making low-budget movies, it garners you respect if you’re one of the gang…
They knew that I was working as hard, or harder than they were!
A series of films that you worked on, possibly your most renowned period of work, were the Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s. Having worked on low budget black and white films in the 1950s, moving to colour must have created all sorts of new challenges – not as prevalent in monochrome – set dressing, lighting, costume design and so on. How did you find that experience? Was it at all terrifying or did you find it a natural progression?
It was a natural progression. There was very little change in the way I worked. I used the camera a little bit differently, and after talking to the cameraman, I was lighting a little bit differently. Danny Haller – a great friend of mine – was our art director, and he and I would discuss the sets. We worked with different colour schemes and patterns on the sets.
Watch the trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum:
You probably brought Poe to an entirely new audience. Did you feel at that time that he was a writer being under represented in the cinema?
Yes, I felt that Poe was under represented and was really not getting the attention he deserved in the American canon. He was thought of as an interesting writer, but not really one of the great writers, and I always felt he was one of the greats.
Presumably he still had a good reputation, so did that make it easier to choose him as the subject of your first colour movies?
Actually my first colour movie was a Western, but after that, with my next colour films, I chose Poe because I wanted to do an Edgar Allan Poe picture. I’d been making these ten-day, black-and-white films, two of them would go together as a double bill, and I convinced American International Pictures that they should let me go shoot for three weeks and make a picture in colour, and that was The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).
Towards the end of your Poe cycle, you had a young Nicholas Roeg as your cinematographer, shooting The Masque of the Red Death (1964). What was he like?
He was one of the best cinematographers I ever worked with. He was very inventive and his use of colour… We had discussed it before shooting started, and he went beyond what I anticipated. I thought the film was beautifully shot.
Watch the trailer for The Masque of the Red Death:
At the same time you were making those Poe films, you helped young directors remix various Russian sci-fi films that you’d bought the rights to. The art of remixing foreign films already existed, started with films like Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), Invasion of the Animal People (1959), and later in the 60s, Woody Allen would do What’s up, Tiger Lily? (1966), but it felt that you were almost nurturing a new art form.
Well, it was a new form, I’m not certain it was a new art form! What I was doing with the Russian science fiction films… I’d seen one of them and American science fiction films were very popular – I made a number of them myself – but we were making them on very low budgets and I’d seen this Russian film, which was clearly made on a big budget, a giant budget. It had wonderful sets and wonderful special effects, far superior to what we were doing. They only problem was the anti-American propaganda, so I wasn’t so much recutting the films as such, I was removing the anti-American sentiment. That was Francis Ford Coppola’s first job – cutting the propaganda out of Russian science fiction films.
It was pretty wild. I remember I went to Moscow to buy those films and they had incredible anti-American propaganda in them. We of course had anti-Russian propaganda, but our propaganda was one tenth of theirs. Theirs was really outrageous, and I said to this guy in Moscow: ‘You know I’m going to have to cut this anti-American feeling, I’m going have to cut it all out.’ He laughed and said: ’I know that!’
By the time you got to Queen of Blood (1966), Curtis Harrington used about three different Russian films, so it really does feel like a remix of found footage.
At that time, it was our found footage! The only time I really did that was on these science fiction films.
Although, a film you produced in the late 1970s – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – you did reuse that later on in your career, with bits of special effects here and there, and I believe the score reappeared in a number of your films. Was it a project you were so proud of, you thought: ‘Let’s keep getting it out there?’
I was proud of it and also there was an economic factor. It was one of James Horner’s first scores, a brilliant score and really better than what I was getting from other composers. So, it just seemed illogical not to use his score again. We always used it in science fiction films. With the special effects, I was reusing primarily space ships that were designed by James Cameron. His first time in Hollywood was designing those model spaceships.
Watch the trailer for Battle Beyond the Stars:
Interview by Alex Fitch