“If you do a good job on this film, you'll never have to work for me again.” is the last thing you’d expect a well-meaning producer to tell a director working for him.
But filmmaker Roger Corman was one of a kind. How could the man who gave first breaks to directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard, and screenwriters like Robert Towne be run of the mill? He also helped launch the careers of actors such as Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Sandra Bullock to name a few.
Although his credentials as a horror/ slasher specialist were firmly enshrined in just a few years after he started making films in the mid-1950s, it was Corman’s decision to give the counterculture of the 1960s a platform that transformed his reputation and gave the world some of the best loved films and most respected talent.
Roger Corman had always been interested in cinema but, like many in his generation, he came to discover it in a round about manner. Corman was studying industrial engineering at Stanford University and enlisted in the V-12 Navy College Training Program during WWII. Once the War was over he finished his course and joined U.S. Electrical Motors in 1947 but quit in less than a week.
Corman started at the same place where young men usually began their life in cinema – the mailroom – and in a few years as a story reader, he began earmarking scripts that showed potential. By the time Corman started directing he was making up to nine films in a single year and cemented his reputation as one who could ‘make ‘em fast and cheap.’
It wasn’t as if Corman didn’t attempt something artistic even while doing assembly line productions. His Edgar Allen Poe screen adaptations, a series of eight films, were his greatest acclaim in his short career and these productions also ended up being the training ground for then cinematographer and later film director Nicolas Roeg.
It was also during the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations phase that Roger Corman became famous as a filmmaker who could make multiple films at the same time with the same speed became known. After completing Raven (1963) he realized that he still had two shooting days to spare and so, he made another film, The Terror (1963) with the same cast and crew.
In the 1960s, Corman often boasted that he could complete any film in three days and when he shot The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in just two days and one night, or The Terror, everyone knew that he wasn’t joking. This was the style that Corman was comfortable with and even when studios such as Fox offered him huge budgets he ended up making films the only way he knew – lower budgets and smaller schedules.
The fact that Corman hailed from a different world, a more real world that the studio heads preferred to be insulated from, also influenced his productions. Corman knew how to get the audience in and perhaps it was a combination of these that prompted to him to not only invest in new themes but also new talent. It was Corman who made the first of the biker films The Wild Angels (1966) with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra and also initiated the ticket paying public into the psychedelic films of the 1960s with The Trip (1967) which was written by Jack Nicholson.
What separated Corman from the rest was his faith in the people he hired. He rarely interfered as long as they followed the rules, which, depending on where you viewed them from could be blasé or filmmaking 101. When Corman gave Scorsese Boxcar Bertha (1972) to direct he told him, “Rewrite as much as you want, but remember Marty, you must have some nudity every 15 pages.”
Unlike other indie producers, Corman understood the need to be different from the studios while making films. After all if he wanted to make studio films why wouldn’t he? He placed a great deal of value on being different, looking different and sounding different from the mainstream. It is this trait that rubbed off on the talent he spotted and New Hollywood (Coppola, Bogdonovich, Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Towne, George Lucas, etc.) never forgot it.
Closer home one could see an affinity between Corman and Ram Gopal Varma, someone who nurtured a vast pool of talent but along the way fostered filmmakers whose independent voice echoed his own. Varma was one of the first filmmakers that bridged the gap between the Hindi and Telugu film industry at a basic level. Even though there was an exchange of talent between the two cinemas, the character actors from the south never got the same exposure as the leads and it was RGV who changed this.
But while working for Varma, directors and writers couldn’t get the freedom that a Corman would offer and the best example can be seen in the form of writer Jaideep Sahni or director Shimit Amin. The inability to make something beyond a Jungle (2000) or a Company (2002) at RGV’s for a writer who had a Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and a Bunty Aur Babli (2005) to offer, saw Sahni move on.
Similarly it’s implausible to think RGV would put his money on something like a Chak De India! (2007) or a Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) the films that Amin made after Ab Tak Chappan (2004).
There’s more to Roger Corman than being the iconic B-Movie producer. Besides giving some of the biggest names in Hollywood their first break, six of whom have won the Academy Award for Best Director, Corman was not only the moving force behind some of the greatest cult classics of the 1970s – Death Race 2000, Children of the Corn – but he's also single-handedly responsible for bringing the works of Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini to mass audiences in the US.
He enjoyed art-house films and knew that there would be an audience for them amongst the masses and his company distributed them across American drive-ins. Like the filmmakers he inspired, Corman’s art-house distribution blazed the path for Miramax and other independent companies in the 1980s and 1990s.