Interview: Roger Corman remains unflinching in the face of an evolving industry
"Every year at the Academy Awards they give out a lifetime achievement award," actor Bruce Dern says in the new documentary "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel." "How they can not have gotten to Roger Corman by now is disgusting. And I don't know that they ever will because they say, 'Well, what are the great movies that he made?'"
That, of course, was an interview from a few years ago. Since then, the Academy has indeed toasted the life and times of Roger Corman, tapping him in 2009 for an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards, a designation many in the industry would agree was a long time coming.
Corman has produced nearly 400 films since 1954. Indeed, they might not register on the objective scale of "great movies," as Dern notes, but his legacy is undeniable. Corman has had a definitive hand in shaping the modern Hollywood landscape. He gave breaks to Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard among countless others. He broke the greats of today into the business, and yet he has remained on the fringe, borderline obscure.
He might actually wear that as a badge of honor, though. The veteran filmmaker has made a living defining that fringe and remaining true to his independent, rebel perspective. But he was of course delighted to get that Academy recognition last year.
"I knew they were considering me and I said, 'I have no chance,'" Corman recalls. "'I make low-budget pictures; they will never give an Oscar to somebody who makes low-budget pictures.' And when Tom Sherak called me after a Board of Governors meeting one evening and said, 'Congratulations, you've won,' I was really speechless for a little while. I couldn't believe it had happened."
Regarding the ceremony itself, Corman says, "I was particularly touched by the number of friends and people I had worked with over the years who came to the ceremony and sort of and talked and gave little speeches about me." Those faces included the aforementioned Howard and Nicholson, etc. And again, Corman's impact on their lives can't be discounted. At one point in the new film, Nicholson (who rarely participates in interviews like this) breaks into tears recollecting his love and appreciation for the man.
And yet, Corman, the gentlemanly, reserved, soft-spoken sort you wouldn't expect to crank out films like "Dinoshark" and "Bloodfist 2050" (to name a few recent examples), takes that kind of praise with a healthy dose of modesty.
"My influence may be slightly overrated," he says. "There were a number of us who influenced independent filmmaking and made independent production more important."
Over the years he has maintained the same attitude toward his work, though his perspective has certainly shifted. The role of the independent film, he says, has been diminished.
A portion of the film details the rise of the blockbuster, first with "Jaws" in 1975 and then with "Star Wars" in 1977. The film school generation had taken hold. And there is a current of bitterness toward that in the film. Says Nicholson at one point, "What has the wonderful revolution done for independents of filmmaking? Well, we make 12 circuses a year. Very few movies."
Meanwhile, an excerpt from an old Tom Snyder interview with Corman has the filmmaker noting of the then astronomical $35 million average price tag for a movie, "The artist should be able to express himself for less money than that and the businessman should be able to invest his money better. I think both from an artistic and a commercial stand-point, it's wrong to spend that much money. In addition, I think there are better things to do with the money in our society."
But Corman is invigorated by the prospect of DIY distribution via the internet and streaming, like any true rebel against the status quo would. He recently spoke on the issue to a group of producers. "I acknowledged the fact, which they all knew, that these are poor times for the independents," he says. "But I said good times are coming. What did they say in the Depression? 'Prosperity is just around the corner.' Good times are just around the corner and it's going to be the internet."
With that in mind, he says there are plans to transfer his massive catalogue of films to the web for instant access. It's a wise move to tap that revenue stream, particularly seeing as theatrical is no longer a viable option for his works. Much of them have seen success in the home video market, but Corman says, somewhat paradoxically (given his feelings on web distribution), that one unmet goal of his vast career is to reconnect with those roots.
"I would like to make some films that get back into theatrical distribution," he says. "I recognize that it's difficult, but I miss the satisfaction of having the film shown in theaters and frankly the money to be made from theatrical distribution. So if I have any particular goal it's probably to make slightly bigger films, which are required today to get back into theatrical."
Corman may think his influence on today's industry is overrated, but he's in the minority there. And there is a lesson in his perspective on spending, on independence, on eschewing the binds of conglomerated Hollywood: Creativity is dead without risk. It's really all there in his Honorary Oscar acceptance speech from the Governors Awards two years:
"I think to succeed in this world, you have to take chances. I believe the finest films being done today are done by the original, innovative filmmakers who have the courage to take a chance and to gamble. So I say to you, keep gambling, keep taking chances."
"Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" will be screening tonight at LACMA with Corman in attendance for a Q&A. The film is set for release by Anchor Bay Films on December 16.